I often ponder the idea that cities are organisms. They are indeed a collective extension of ourselves. Occasionally, planners would allude to this notion with references like "this city has good bones" or when describing certain types of roads as "arterials." But comparing downtowns or city centers as "hearts" is the analogy that genuinely speaks to me about cities as organisms.
Through reflection and observation, I find that our cities and communities are not individual entities; they are massive systems of parts, with multiple hearts connected through a vast network or infrastructure powered at the core with our human energy and presence. I reached this conclusion recently after joining a group visit to one of Southern California's newest art and cultural destinations: "The Cheech" (short for the The Cheech Marin Center for Chicano Art & Culture of the Riverside Art Museum) in my hometown Riverside, California.
The event coincided with Hispanic Heritage Month in September and was co-organized between the American Planning Association (APA) Arts & Planning Division, APA Latinos and Planning Division, and APA California Chapter Inland Empire Section. Most of the 16 participants came from the San Bernardino/ Riverside areas, but some came from as far as San Francisco and Los Angeles.
Artists and planners - Members of APA at the Cheech Marin Center for Chicano Art and Culture. Photo by Riverside Art Museum Staff
The Cheech, a museum created by repurposing the City of Riverside's former library, is arguably the first venue of its kind, exclusively featuring the works of Chicano/a artists from all over the U.S. The inaugural exhibit features 120 artworks — a fraction of the 500 art pieces gifted to the Riverside Art Museum from Chech's private collection. It showcases mixed media visual artworks that explore many themes entangled with expressions of identity and belonging.
Some works are monumental in scope and scale, while others are minimalist and traditional works on canvas finely executed at various levels of skill and technique. The entire collection speaks in a unifying poetic voice narrating juxtaposed stories — fictional and real — of happiness, sorrow, order, chaos, vitality, lethargy, love, and hate.
The show also includes a De la Torre Brothers retrospective of their significant glassworks and rascuache media. Their surreal exploration of colonialism, capitalism, religion, immigration, environmental degradation, and globalization mixed with heavy mesoamerican undertones is undoubtedly a portal into polemical hard-core geopolitical conversations and debate.
After the guided tour, our group gathered in a conference room for a debriefing session to discuss reactions to the exhibit. Some participants described a sense of "seeing themselves" in the paintings, which evoke the Chicano experience in the United States. Others expressed varied feelings about identity and its fluidity regarding race, ethnicity, and nationality. The consensus was that experiencing the exhibit provided an opportunity to enter into the artists' observations about their human experience and their relationship with their environments. Inevitably, viewing the exhibition triggered our interpretation and reflection on what we saw.
The piece that mesmerized me was Joe Peña's Late Night Elote. Initially, I perceived it as a magical levitating food truck with ethereal and ghostly qualities. Peña's selection of chiaroscuro brings theatrical drama to the artwork. My interpretation of the interior's luminescence means hope, where the vendor is waiting for the source of subsistence: his next client. And the infinity of darkness surrounding the truck alludes to the uncertainty in this type of occupation that, in many communities, defies land use laws for the sake of survival.
Joe Peña, Late Night Elote, 2015. Photo by Miguel A. Vazquez.
What I found consistently throughout the exhibit was the exuberant use of color. Pure red was virtually ubiquitous in all tones, tints, and shades. A heart was the element that consistently appeared as a symbol of emotion in many artworks. These two observations tell me that the exhibit is a compendium of feelings expressed through a series of hearts created independently in different times and places but connected by color, meaning, and soul: the Chicano experience.
Excerpts from various artists, The Cheech Marin Center for Chicano Art and Culture's art collection. Photos by Miguel A. Vazquez
Art and Planning Intersection
As an urban planner, public health professional, and artist, attending this event was reinvigorating. In many respects, the exhibit unintentionally explores land use planning through the artist's spatial settings. There are paintings of urban landscapes, houses, freeways, backyards and open spaces where the artists explore complex social issues such as incarceration, police brutality, and femicide — all public health and planning issues. In other words, the Cheech is more than a museum of art; it is, in a sense, still a library in which books take the form of canvas on the wall full of stories and knowledge to help us reveal our own conclusions.
As I transition from chairing the APA Arts & Planning Division, I take this opportunity to express my gratitude for the tremendous dedication and commitment our volunteer leaders bring to realize events like this exciting visit to the Cheech. I look forward to what's to come under the leadership of the newly elected chair Dr. Annis Sengupta and the amazing and inspiring board of directors starting in 2023.
Top image: Excerpts from various artists, The Cheech Marin Center for Chicano Art and Culture's art collection. Photos by Miguel A. Vazquez .
About the Author
Miguel A. Vazquez, AICP, is the Health Equity Urban and Regional Planner for the Riverside University Health System–Public Health and the APA Arts & Planning Division immediate past chair.