A few weeks back, the Mike Kelley Foundation for the Arts announced the recipients of its inaugural Artist Project Grants. Among the winners, one project stood out: a playable miniature-golf course, to be created in the heart of Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles. The performance and activist group Los Angeles Poverty Department (LAPD) and the artist Rosten Woo were awarded $50,000 to create The Back 9: Golf and Zoning Policy in Los Angeles, an interactive work that will playfully examine the effect zoning codes have on underprivileged communities in Los Angeles, Skid Row in particular.
“Zoning is something that is both totally fundamental to the way a city works and the way it feels and who gets supported and who gets booted from the city,” Woo, who came in direct contact with LAPD through the designer Theresa Hwang, told me. “But also it’s really boring and really easy to get lost in very small details or feel like its beyond the scope of what an ordinary person is able to understand or participate in.” The project is essentially a way to make the issue more accessible to a wider swatch of Angelenos and is set to open in early 2017 inside of LAPD’s Skid Row History Museum & Archive.
Founded in 1985 by director-performer-activist John Malpede, the Los Angeles Poverty Department was the first performance group in America that consisted of mostly homeless people, as well as the first arts organization for the homeless in Los Angeles. “Skid Row Los Angeles is a really unusual area because in the ’70s, a planning decision was made to save all the low-income housing in a 50-square-block area,” Malpede explained to me. “Unlike perhaps in the Bowery, there’s no Whole Foods in Skid Row, there is no multiplex, there’s no luxury hotel. It’s a low-income community, very low income—a lot of people on the street, but a lot of people who used to be on the street living permanently” in low-income housing. “It’s a community that has a community identity.”
If the zoning laws on Skid Row were to change, the area would quickly transform to look more like some other blocks in downtown Los Angeles, which is to say there would be an influx of upscale commercial and real-estate developments and ultimately a lot displaced people. Although the potential zoning changes are only in planning stages, Malpede told me that Back 9 is an attempt to “get ahead of the curve” on the public discourse surrounding the issue.
Also in the planning stages is the project itself, which has really been kicked into high gear by the Kelley Foundation grant. “The cool thing about making art is we get to do the research then we get to figure out what we make, so its not like we have the whole thing delivered in a box,” Malpede told me. “I’m sure we will be out acquiring instruments of golf at the Goodwill as soon as possible.”
I asked Malpede if in some way doing a mini-golf course was any sort of comment on the kind of often-frivolous entertainment for monied young professionals that happens frequently in rapidly gentrifying areas. “This is a mini-golf course for thinking people, professional and otherwise, for people to engage with,” Malpede responded, “and like with real golf, deal with their frustrations in negotiating the urban environment.”