Craig Raines Brings ‘Arroyo Funk’ to Highland Park

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Meet the man bringing parks and ‘arroyo funk’ to LA.

Is Reyner Banham’s autopia becoming an urbanist’s utopia? You might think so on seeing this transformation of a former gas station into public open space underway in Highland Park. Located on York Boulevard and Avenue 50 and across the street from Cafe de Leche, the city recently purchased the land, went through a series of environmental mitigation processes and the land was slated to be developed as a park. 

Its design was by Craig Raines, a landscape architect for the Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks, and its form emerged after a series of community meetings. Raines has designed dozens of parks for the city since 2006 and currently spearheads LA’s skate park program. 

DnA asked Raines about whether this park was part of a larger trend of Los Angeles becoming less suburban, how he got interested in developing skate parks for the city of LA and what “Arroyo Funk” means.

DnA: Does this particular park fit nicely into a trend of retrofitting the suburbs? The idea that suburban development is becoming more urban?

CR: I don’t think that was ever in the front of anybody’s brain, but it definitely does fit into that nicely in that it’s taking what was once a very dominant cultural component, car-based development, and changing it into a much-needed type of space, at the same time retaining some of its charm. We’re planning on retrofitting the old gas station sign and making into the park sign.  That way you don’t lose track of the history.

The community didn’t want to lose touch with the past or what the space used to be and so I came up with the idea of taking the gas station sign and retrofitting it and cleaning it up and making it into the park signage. And the community loved that.

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York Boulevard Park under construction.

DnA: Where we are, Highland Park, it does have a history of car culture.

CR: It does and you can’t ignore it. And we took some of the vibrancy from that culture and overlaid it onto the park. Some call it “Arroyo Funk,” that was my term, but we kept the signage, kept some of the things that you would associate with the gas station, the vertical components of some of the play pieces look like pumps. And at the same time, we integrated some of the environmental components of the Arroyo Seco so we tried to kind of make the two meet and make it work.

DnA: Did you say “Arroyo Funk”?

CR: Yeah, Arroyo Funk. I came up with that eight coffees into the evening and I thought, “Arroyo Funk.”  This area sort of has that kind of feel.

Car Wash, Highland Park, California, 1950's  This was located at 5128 N. Figueroa at N. Ave. 52
Highland Park, 1950s; courtesy Flickr/Roadside Pictures 

DnA: There’s a bridge over a freeway that’s being slated to be a park. Is that like a sub-trend of the retrofitting of the suburbs which is literally these businesses and physical spaces that serve the car being turned into parks?

CR: It is a sub-trend and I’m hopeful it’s a growing trend. Being able to utilize the structure and the infrastructure of freeways and transit-ways and and turn them back into usable public space where people can recreate, meet, hang out or you know just chill. I think that’s very, very important and I definitely see it happening a lot.

DnA: Any other examples that you yourself are working on?

CR: Exit Park in San Pedro is another gas station that we’re turning into a park. It’s right off Gaffey right near the 110 freeway. A lot of iconic suburban imagery of San Pedro will be incorporated into the design.

DnA: Now does anybody ask, when you propose replacing a former gas station with a park, do they say “but where am I gonna get my gas?”

CR: That’s a good question. In time as car culture fades farther and farther away, I mean the current fossil fuel car culture, Angelenos always feel it will never go completely away but it’ll be replaced by something hopefully more environmentally and socially responsible. I ride motorcycles, but I still romanticize about the quaint Sunday drives that we used to take and go out and the ease of driving around. I think just by the sheer numbers, driving to me isn’t appealing. I prefer to take transit, ride my motorcycle or my bicycle or skateboard.

Peck Park Skate, one of the parks Craig Raines designed. Photo by  Chris Valle
Peck Park Skate, one of the parks Craig Raines designed. Photo by Chris Valle

DnA: Let’s just turn to skateboards and your skateboard parks and tell us about how you got into skateboarding and skateboard park design.

CR: Well, as a youth growing up in Southern California and living in the beach area, skateboarding is what you did when the surf was down. At one time it sort of was counter-culture, it aligned itself closely with the punk music scene and was pretty independent. Then I got out of college, graduated, sort of drifted away, started working, and then I came to the City of Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks and they were looking for somebody to run the skate park development program so I said, “Sure I’ll do it.” Nobody else wanted to do it. And I was always thinking, why is there no place to skate here? There was no place to skate in Los Angeles that was legal. So working with certain people in my department, we began to identify sites and at the same time I reached out to some professional skateboarders, one of them being Rob Dyrdek.

So Rob and I went out around the city and found a bunch of parks that we really thought would be great to have skate spaces in. And from there it’s been about being persistent and showing people that skaters are such an underserved portion of the community.

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Rendering of skate park at Stoner Recreation Center in West Los Angeles

DnA: How do you go about now designing a skatepark because as the sport gets more and more mature, it keeps advancing in terms of what the skaters can do and expect from their park. So give us the typical elements of a contemporary skate park.

CR: I’ll kind of break it down into two types of parks. You have a vert park which is typically like the pools and then you have street plaza parks. Street plaza parks sort of morphed into parks that are combinations of vertical skating and street skating. But street parks typically have stairs or handrails, ledges, hubbas, Mani pads, they typically have elements you would find in the urban plazas.

Vert parks typically came out of the old ‘70s Dogtown skate scene where people were skating in swimming pools and they morphed into these usually flowing, organic kind of concrete banks, walls, ledges, transition zones… designed to where you can get in and pick out a line much like a ski run or a snowboard run, pick out a line, take it and not have to do any leg pumps.

DnA: Given that you are a skater yourself, you literally get to test drive your designs. Do you?

CR: I’m getting a little old for it. But I try. We work with skaters in the community and we give them what they want. And working with skaters from the community is probably the most fun and interesting part of the process because these kids, these guys, girls, grandparents, grandmas whatever, sit down and get detailed with the design. And it’s the only time I’ve ever had a community design process where people actually give you drawing of actual real details of ledges and stairs and dimension angles, banks, etc. We get the community of skaters, wherever that park’s going to be, we send out flyers, we do all the outreach we can get all the local skaters in and we’ll have design sessions where we sit down with them and let them design the park. I kind of just oversee and make sure it works architecturally and functionally and all that kinda stuff.

DnA: As an architect, how do you feel about this direct engagement with the community process?

CR: At first I absolutely loved it, not having participated in it all that much. As I’ve been through several of them, I still love the concept, but I think it’s so dependent on the right community in there. And as a professional of over 30 years’ experience, sometimes you find it a bit off-putting to have to deal with some of the things that the community tends to focus on and would like to kind of be able to have them put their trust in you. But I understand and I’m beginning now to enjoy the process better by learning how to manage it better. And I love working with skaters; they’re the most committed, dedicated group of individuals I’ve ever had the pleasure of doing community meetings with.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

This is part of DnA’s coverage of “retrofitting the suburbs.” For more on how LA and other regions are modifying suburban or automobile-based designs into more urban or human-scale developments, tune in to DnA on this Tuesday on January 20th at 2:30 PM on 89.9 KCRW.