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BLM Marches/George Floyd Memorials 2020

Photograph by Gary Leonard.

Not long after the Civic Memory Working Group completed its second full meeting in City Hall in February of 2020 and broke into subcommittees, the world changed. First, in March and April, came the rise of the COVID-19 pandemic and citywide lockdowns. Then, after George Floyd was killed by police officer Derek Chauvin in Minneapolis on May 25, protests led by Black Lives Matter and other groups began filling the streets of Los Angeles. In both cases, it became impossible to ignore the extent to which present-day suffering was exacerbated by failures to adequately understand and confront historic patterns of inequity. As a result, these events underscored the urgency of our work on this report. Here, marchers in support of the Black Lives Matter movement gather on La Cienega Boulevard on May 30, 2020, less than a week after Floyd’s death.

 

Mexican Repatriation

This 1932 photograph depicts ethnic Mexican Southern California residents preparing to board trains headed to Mexico from Central Station at 5th Street and Central Avenue in downtown Los Angeles. The “Mexican repatriation,” which aimed to remove Mexicans from social welfare and indigent care during the Depression, deported anywhere from 400,000 to 2,000,000 Mexicans and Mexican Americans between 1929 and 1936. Los Angeles was the effort’s epicenter. According to the 2006 book Decade of Betrayal: Mexican Repatriation in the 1930s by Francisco Balderrama and Raymond Rodríguez, as many as 60 percent of the deportees were birthright citizens of the United States. This mass deportation presaged the forceable removal and internment of more than 100,000 ethnic Japanese (most of them U.S. citizens) on the West Coast a decade later. Because both forced movements were based on ethnicity and blatantly disregarded citizenship, scholars persuasively argue that they meet legal definition of ethnic cleansing. 

Herald Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

Monument Lab

Members of this Roundtable:
Christopher Hawthorne (facilitator) is the chief design officer for the City of Los Angeles, the former architecture critic for the Los Angeles Times, and a member of the Civic Memory Working Group.
Alliyah Allen is assistant curator for Monument Lab.
Laurie Allen is director of research for Monument Lab.
Paul M. Farber is director of Monument Lab.
Leila Hamidi (facilitator) is an arts organizer and writer and a member of the Civic Memory Working Group.
Ken Lum is senior curatorial advisor for Monument Lab.
Rosten Woo (facilitator) is an artist and designer and a member of the Civic Memory Working Group.
Show Footnotes

Monument Lab is a public art and history studio based in Philadelphia. Founded by Paul M. Farber and Ken Lum in 2012, it has been a leading voice in cultivating and facilitating critical conversations related to the past, present, and future of monuments. In October 2020, Monument Lab announced that it had been awarded a $4 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The grant, titled “Beyond the Pedestal: Tracing and Transforming America’s Monuments,” will support the production of a definitive audit of the nation’s monuments; the opening of 10 Monument Lab field research offices through subgrants totaling $1 million in 2021; and the hiring of Monument Lab’s first full-time staff, which will develop significant art and justice initiatives. The grant is the first from the Mellon Foundation’s new $250 million Monuments Project, created to “transform the way our country’s histories are told in public spaces.”01 “Monument Lab Awarded $4M Grant from the Mellon Foundation to Develop Art and Justice Initiatives Across the Nation,” Monument Lab Bulletin, Oct. 5, 2020; “The Monuments Project: Our Commemorative Landscape,” Mellon Foundation website, undated, https://mellon.org/initiatives/monuments.

 

Christopher Hawthorne: Maybe we could start with a question about Monument Lab’s origins, particularly for those readers who may not be familiar with the organization—how it began and how it’s evolved since then? 

Paul M. Farber: Monument Lab is a public art and history studio. We started as a series of classroom conversations. I was teaching in urban studies at the University of Pennsylvania—a class on memory, monuments, and urban space. I was really inspired by some questions left over from my dissertation. I’d moved home to Philadelphia after being away for the better part of a decade and [in 2013] met Ken. I didn’t know it at the time, but Ken was a new Philadelphian, having moved from Vancouver, and was teaching classes in fine arts. When we connected that academic year, we realized that we were asking very similar questions in our classes: about the monuments that we’ve inherited, about gaps in representation, and about the ways that artists, activists, students, and educators could engage public spaces in ways that are transformative. From that point, we began to talk about how we could spill outward as an experiment. We utilized our backgrounds in contemporary art and public history, but we really wanted to have this work live outside. We thought that it might lead to a scholarly or museum-based project, but we wanted it to be organic—to theorize public space in public space. And so we applied for a grant from a local funder in Philadelphia, the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage, to do an exhibition in the courtyard of City Hall, which occurred in the spring of 2015. [It consisted of an outdoor classroom and public sessions asking the question, “What is an appropriate monument for the current city of Philadelphia?”] Working in that particular space made a lot of the projects that we did after that possible, because it was very clear even at that point, in 2015, that a conversation about monuments was a conversation about the past, present, and future together. It was a conversation about civic identity, how people find belonging, and also the moments of trauma that have not been resolved in the city’s past.

Leila Hamidi: I saw in a recent talk, Paul, that you said you thought you started that work on monuments late. Now that it’s a red-hot urgent subject, it seems that you actually had a head start when it comes to the national conversation about monuments and memorials. But as far back as 2012, you already felt that it was a late start. Was it 200 years late? Was it five years late? 

PMF: I think it is important to register that any time you see a monument takedown in the headlines, there are always years of organizing, of activism, of art-making that have made that moment possible. And long after the cameras leave, those groups and those people continue to be the stewards of memory. So I think back to a few things. One, and Ken can speak to this in his own body of work, is the way that contemporary artists and activists for more than a generation had been pushing this connection between symbols and systems. I think about Occupy Wall Street as really important to this conversation. And, later, the Black Lives Matter movement and other ecological, critical feminist and queer protests, which pointed out not just the monuments that existed as points of struggle, but also used the spaces around them as places to organize and amplify. 

I think of one moment in particular. This was after we decided to do this project. We got the [Pew] grant, but we were kind of walking around the city in Philadelphia, and this was right after the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. And there was a group of recent Philadelphia artist-activists—Lee Edward Colston and Keith Wallace, among others—who performed “die-ins” next to the LOVE statue.02 The BBC reported on “die-ins” as a form of protest in 2014. See Micah Luxen, “When Did ‘Die-ins’ Become a Form of Protest?,” BBC News Magazine, Dec. 9, 2014. The LOVE statue refers to the iconic installation just northwest of Philadelphia City Hall. Robert Indiana, LOVE, 1976, sculpture, painted aluminum on stainless steel base, city of Philadelphia.

And while tourists came to pose with them, one of the members of this group held up a sign that said “CALL US BY OUR NAMES.” It just really struck us, watching young people, especially young Black organizers in Philadelphia, go to the monumental core of the city to point out systemic racism and other systems of violence. It was another reminder that the conversation we were having, it would not break new ground. It had to respond to the tensions, the pressures, and the points of view that were already happening. 

Ken Lum: We didn’t feel that we were prescient or gifted with some preternatural ability to see things in advance. We tried to see things from the neighborhood level of the poor and disenfranchised. They have long recognized the truth about their relationship to the systems of representation that subjugate them. From that perspective, we were the opposite of prescient, but late in recognizing the relationship between monuments and subjugation. Where we were not late, as it turned out, was in our formalizing of an entity called Monument Lab, whose central purpose is to address these issues of monuments, memory, and social justice. We put it into a kind of discursive regime, if you will, that was very open-ended and allowed for the projection of these concerns. But certainly, in terms of the kind of observations that were at play in the urban environment, we thought we were late. 

Rosten Woo: Obviously, Monument Lab has a topic, a thing that you’re focused on. But would you say that there’s a kind of a working method or perspective that is specific to this organization—as opposed to, say, how Dolores Hayden might do this kind of work? Is there a Monument Lab way of working?

Alliyah Allen: The first thing that comes to mind is something that Paul always says when we do a project: you can’t hide in public. What distinguishes Monument Lab is the engagement process, the activation of these spaces through something as simple as a research form on a clipboard and a Sharpie marker to ask people what they think. Just thinking about my positionality as a young Black girl from an urban area—Newark, New Jersey—and then doing a project like Monument Lab, I was like, “OK, hold on, I can’t hide. I can’t hide. I am here. I’m not from Philly, but I can look like I can be from certain parts of Philly. And people are going to come up to me and ask me what’s going on, because we are in public.” But the rewards from that are really beautiful because we’re able to continue the conversation. It’s building relationships with strangers. 

LH: Ken, you were saying that you’ve developed this discursive regime. And our working group has also been very interested in questions of process. I know that Monument Lab has developed a five-step process, so maybe you can share some details of that process. The deeper question is, what was the trial and error—how did you decide that step number two wasn’t step number four? 

PMF: We have now come to language that we utilize to move across our projects. This process includes five steps. Number one is to question: to start by digging into research about a statue, site, or public space. Two is connect: to organize and exchange ideas with stakeholders invested in places of memory. Three is unfix: to redefine the conversation about the past, present, and future of monuments. Four is to prototype: to build experimental platforms for contemporary art and participatory research. And number five is to report: to share findings, reflections, and new directions. So that’s where we are now. But the process of getting there, of course, was trial and error. We wanted to occupy the space of being a connector, to have one foot inside institutions and one foot out, to have our process matter as much as outcome, and to be very clear about what we could and could not accomplish. Part of what we are ultimately trying to do is to recognize that the questions that we ask each other may hold more value than coming up with a so-called single fix or best practice. Those are concepts that don’t really work for us.

KL: We see ourselves fundamentally as a democracy project, a democracy-generating project. We’re very much invested in expanding public space and how we define public spaces, and in fomenting dialogue about space. We are very difficult to define. For example, I write quite a bit, including in scholarly journals, and yet I’m also an artist. Whereas Paul is an academic who thinks like an artist. That fluidity, I think, is our strength.

Laurie Allen: There is a certain kind of social science research methodology that Monument Lab is both drawing from and resisting. There are ways in which that methodology is extractive. It is good at asking questions and not always good at reimagining where the decisions are made. As Alliyah and Ken have said, we aren’t forcing ourselves on anyone, but we’re also being open. We’re not hiding. The idea is that this is an exchange and not an extraction. I think that our work is always trying to help our communities imagine ways of making decisions that can operate radically differently. It’s trying to reimagine decision-making, but in a way that recognizes the tremendous brilliance that exists in communities in all kinds of ways. Just hearing what people keep saying and being like, “Well, maybe that’s the thing. Maybe we don’t need a new thing. We just need to do the thing people say.” This approach—I think monuments require it because they make such a claim about objectivity.

CH: Do you think of the projects you’re working on as having specific lifespans? How do you know how many projects you can take on at any given point? How do you think about that in terms of your capacity? 

PMF: The words “Monument” and “Lab” are very heavy and sound official, but as of October 1, 2020, we just hired our first full-time employee. Thanks to generous support from the Mellon Foundation, we’ve been able to add capacity. In our very early stages, Monument Lab went quickly from being a classroom experiment to being a passion project to being a studio. What that’s meant over time is that we’ve gone from project to project with a group of people who were bonded together by a shared set of values and questions before there was ever an official organization. And so those things happened organically. There are a number of ways that people have tried to tackle the monument question, and a lot of times I think it comes down to, “Let’s fix this one monument. Let’s find this one monument that is a problem and we’ll get rid of it.” I almost think of it as like the Where’s Waldo? approach: “Let’s look in the crowd and find that racist, sexist monument, and let’s get rid of it.” It’s like, “No, no, no. It’s the whole crowd, actually, that we have to address—the whole picture, the whole scene.” What we believe is that relationships—especially with people who have been doing the work before there was a spotlight, before there was a formal structure—build an ecosystem. Cities, museums, universities can be part of that ecosystem, but they have to be careful and be wary of the role that they play, because they can gaslight the very people who have been pushing for change. For us, by having a relationship model and coming up with elements like our fellows program, we’re looking for ways to balance local knowledge and expertise with strategy and tactic that can be built across locations to create coalitions.

RW: I would love to get into some details. Could you lay out some concrete details of two or three specific projects, initiatives, or places you’ve worked? 

PMF: I can share two: St. Louis and Newark. In St. Louis, we were asked by the Pulitzer Arts Foundation to do a research residency. They had an exhibition up about iconoclasm in monuments,03 Striking Power: Iconoclasm in Ancient Egypt, Pew Arts Foundation exhibition, Mar. 22–Aug. 11, 2019, https://pulitzerarts.org/exhibition/striking-power.

and they wanted a public engagement project. So we would not be for that phase of the work producing a public artwork; instead, we were meant to do the thing that we really like to do, which is meet people where they are, theorize public space while in public space, and enter into official and unofficial conversations about civic memory. We went to 46 locations around the city to collect forms that asked a question: How would you map the monuments of St. Louis? And that project was framed as a research discovery phase that would end with a publication of a map and a data set.04 Monument Lab: Public Iconographies, 2019–2020, series, joint collaboration between Monument Lab and Pew Arts Foundation, https://pulitzerarts.org/program/monument-lab.
That led to a conversation with the Missouri History Museum to initiate a new historic marker program that was inspired by conversations our team was having. It was really a collaborative effort, but it lent itself to a number of outcomes that didn’t have to be simply, “Are we building a monument or not?” It instead responded to and helped build on a set of relationships and networks that Monument Lab and our collaborators will continue to utilize for years.

Similarly, in the city of Newark, with New Arts Justice, where Alliyah is based and our colleague Salamishah Tillet is the director, we co-curated a project in Newark’s Military Park. It featured four prototype artworks by Chakaia Booker, Jamel Shabazz, Manuel Acevedo, and Sonya Clark. Half of the members of that artist’s cohort were from Newark and half were invited from outside to give fresh eyes and perspectives. And it was centered around a monument [“Wars of America”] that’s part of a long-standing conversation.05 Gutzon Borglum, Wars of America, 1924, bronze on granite base, city of Newark.
It’s by Gutzon Borglum, who is best known for Mount Rushmore and Stone Mountain [and was associated with the Ku Klux Klan]. He braids together white supremacy and Americana. We staged conversations around it. After that exhibition, titled “A Call to Peace,” the conversation has continued. A member of our curatorial team, fayemi shakur, is now the head of public art in Newark, and I’m going to sit on a committee that she’s convening. There’s this ongoing dynamic. The exhibition itself is done, but it’s constantly referenced as if it’s active. And I think that that is where that kind of art and research come together. We’ve seen it in Philadelphia, we’ve seen it in Newark, and we’ve seen it occasionally in other cities that we work in, where even though it’s a “temporary” installation, it’s an ongoing reference point for organizing and pushing the local status quo. 

LA: I want to jump in on the research data part, for just a moment, to draw that out. In both of those cities, as we did in Philadelphia, we relied on a paper form. They were different, though, in each city. In Newark, the paper form asked, “What is a timely monument for the city of Newark?” In St. Louis, the question was, “How would you map the monuments of St. Louis?” And the reason that we switched to “map” was because of the geography of St. Louis and the importance of geography to St. Louis.

CH: Can you explain a little more what you mean by that, the importance of geography and mapping in St. Louis?

LA: Lines, in St. Louis, are overwhelming. I mean, every city is shaped by segregation and white supremacy, but in St. Louis, it just screams from the landscape. And then the confluence of the [Missouri and Mississippi] rivers, and the ways that St. Louis has a role in westward expansion, with this giant arch calling attention to that. We invited people to map St. Louis. We gathered 750 hand-drawn maps. We had conversations about how people would map the monuments. Not just the ones that do exist, but where are the places where monuments should be? And the number of people who included the arch—it was less than half. I completely agree with Paul, that absolutely the most important part is the conversations and connections, but also there is now a kind of rendering of the city landscape that includes the perspectives of people across the city—in tourist places and in places tourists would never go. It is designed to bring out the places that are underseen. So we made sure to include the places that people identified that have been erased from the landscape, the places that have been demolished. Or this is the place where there should be a monument to this thing that is gone. And then also things that should exist: there should be a monument to this important person, or there should be a monument to the riots in 1917. So we mapped a kind of imagined landscape, to help bring that landscape into being.

AA: I wanted to add something about Newark, about the engagement and the activation, and what “A Call to Peace” and having Monument Lab in that park did for the city. The conversation that it sparked in the space is beautiful to see happen. Manuel Acevedo, who also is from Newark, he did this interactive piece where he covered the monument “Wars of America” that Paul mentioned. He used all these different materials. We were outside with him in the park all day as he was trying on different materials. And you had kids running and kids trying to climb it. We were like, “Let’s be safe!” But we had all different generations of people who are from Newark, who love Newark, who have this long history with Newark, and we were bringing them into this space. And now they’re kind of reconsidering how they fit in it. And just me personally, being from Newark, I would go to Military Park all the time. But now I’m occupying this park in a different way. And that’s not just because this monument is here, but it’s because of the research practice that is activating the space. Along with the relationships that are built, we’re telling stories, we’re inviting people in, we’re listening to people. We’re showing them, “Hey, this is your space, too.”

LH: I have a question about materiality and how you deal with things that don’t have material form, let’s say like redlining. What is your experience with materiality in the constellation of cities that you work with? That might help us think about where Los Angeles fits in and where we might take this conversation. Los Angeles doesn’t have a history of Confederate monuments the way other cities do, but it still has a lot to reckon with, to reconcile.

KL: I think L.A. is unique. Its vast horizontal scale makes it unique, but also because it’s a model for all kinds of urban development all over the world. So I think it can function and serve as a kind of an exemplar for future thinking about civic spaces. Now, in terms of the question of materiality, you cited redlining, and I’d say that does take the form of materiality. The color of people’s skins is materiality. The conditions of the housing and the live experiences attached to houses is also materiality. You can go across a street and all of a sudden, the housing stock is better or worse. I note that certain L.A. narratives are changing or have changed to the point of altogether disappearing. Blue-collar L.A., for example, is minuscule compared to what it once was. There are no longer broad strata of the solidly blue-collar. Today, it is much more of a high-salary/low-wage environment. That also pertains to materiality. Brown-skinned people work the fields that deliver to high-end supermarkets. A huge section of downtown is occupied by the homeless. All that can be mapped as different tiers of social space.

AA: I also wanted to bring up movements, forms of resistance. In terms of Black Lives Matter, and before that Rodney King and the L.A. riots, L.A. is a central space for so much of Black resistance and Black life. And that plays out in sound, in music. That’s the incredible thing when you think about monuments, they’re not just limited to the physical form. Hip-hop culture and Black culture are very much grounded in L.A., that West Coast sound and how that’s resonated. The Nipsey Hussle procession—when Nipsey Hussle passed, it was monumental in the way that, nationwide, people responded to it. [For more on the Nipsey Hussle memorial procession, see the essay by Sahra Sulaiman elsewhere in this report.]

PMF: Those are all brilliant points. We just put out a publication in which we wrote that “the past is the most contested public space in America.”06 Paul M. Farber and Laurie Allen, Reflecting Authority, zine, Monument Lab in collaboration with the High Line Network Joint Art Initiative’s New Monuments for New Cities, Fall 2020.
It’s a provocation. But I think it gets to one part of your question, Leila, which is that Confederate “Lost Cause” memorials, I think, have been revealed to us as somewhat of a red herring, because they didn’t have to necessarily correspond to any local sites or histories. They were built as a propaganda campaign by the United Daughters of the Confederacy and Sons of Confederate Veterans in places honoring figures who may or may not have ever set foot there, as a part of a Gilded Age initiative to reinforce white terror against Black citizens seeking freedom and civil rights. The scholar Mabel Wilson says they’re not Confederate monuments—they’re American monuments. They were built by Americans, in American public spaces. Or in Richmond, Virginia, in Marcus-David Peters Circle, which is on Monument Avenue. This is the reclaimed space around what had been known as the circle surrounding the Robert E. Lee’s statue. It has become an intersectional, intergenerational space. It’s also an example of a landmark that was part of a white real estate development that was punctuated by monuments. The perspective to see that panoramically might be an entry point to a really powerful part of your question, which is how might we make a monument to segregation or to redlining? I think that question that you asked us, I would love for that same question to be asked in the City of L.A., both in practice, by people who are constituents of their own spaces, and by artists, scholars, thinkers in and outside formal institutions—people who’ve already been mapping new networks of knowledge about the city that don’t have to happen on a pedestal. 

LA: That’s what I was going to say: that this question—I so want you to ask it of the people of L.A. 

PMF: One thing we know is that history does not happen because some dude rolls into town on a horse and looks off into the distance. We know how complex our histories are, but we’ve settled on that approach so often. I mean, imagine if someone said to you: “Pick one photograph of your life to represent you.” That’s not what we do. We take a lot of pictures of ourselves because we know that we contain multitudes. Part of Monument Lab’s vision is that we actually need periods of prolonged questioning, experimentation, and prototyping in order to produce a next generation of monuments that won’t circle back to some of the same issues of power.

RW: It seems like when you read about monuments, often you hear about controversy—some ham-fisted controversy, something easily avoidable, some really unfortunate series of events that have unfolded. That is not what I associate with Monument Lab. How do you feel about controversy, which is so often tied up with discussion about monuments these days? Do you try to avoid it? 

PF: I’ve been thinking a lot about the word “controversy.” I think about Dr. King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,”07 Martin Luther King Jr., “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Apr. 16, 1963.
where he says the biggest hurdle, the biggest obstacle in his work is not the Ku Klux Klan or the White Citizens’ Councils. It’s the white moderate who says that peace is the “absence of tension,” versus the positive production of justice. I’m thinking about the way the word “controversy” is utilized. If controversy means scandal or problem or cause for alarm, look, these monuments have been deeply controversial from the very get-go. Forget what they even depict individually. We have more monuments to enslavers than abolitionists. We have more monuments to Confederate generals than freedom fighters in many cities. 

KL: I would only add that controversy is often exploited by those in power to maintain order. We don’t seek controversy. What we seek is to be listeners to the voices of subjugated peoples, the oppressed, the people who have been unacknowledged for so long. But even in the act of listening, we recognize that what we do might be controversial because we are giving heed to voices that, in the normal course of things, society normally never gives heed to.

CH: Our report is coming out of a mayor’s office, which makes it somewhat unusual. You’ve worked with a number of cities and city governments. What advice do you have for us? 

PMF: I think it is important to start with the internal work, even as you’re imagining the ways to make a public imprint. What is it that you want to accomplish? A lot of cities don’t have a commemorative policy for who deserves a street name, a school name, let alone the monuments you’ve inherited and you’re trying to make sense of. That’s something that you might work toward. We have found that when we are working with a municipal agency, we’re thinking really closely with them. We’re in cahoots. But the difference between us and them is also really important. We can propose ideas and processes and even model things through art, through performative measures, that the city then can decide to incorporate in other ways. For example, we’re currently working with a state arts council, a historical commission, collaboratively on a lead-up to the American Revolution commemoration in 2026. It started with a conversation between the immediate decision-makers from those entities and has turned into an artist’s residency to shape what the project will be. That’s a brain trust. That’s not an RFP. That’s not an end point. And it’s been really meaningful to have that. I do think that there are ways, especially if you’ve built platforms for experimental work, where you don’t have to worry about whether it is going to make or break a mayor’s term. Like, is failure an option? In art, failure has to be an option. In community work, you don’t have that luxury. 

The last thing I’ll say is about community engagement and exchange. Do you have a question that you would like help answering? Start there. Ask that in a public forum. You may not ask the public directly to design a monument, but you could ask the public, “What are the stories that are meaningful to you?” You don’t promise them that you’ll build on every single idea that comes in. But you say, “We’re going to share with you as we go, and this is what we’re going to do first.” I think this report is a great example of that. Because it can lead to other things. We’ve talked to some municipalities that have said, “Look, we have to do a community engagement step.” And I say, “You have to? What is it that you’re trying to find out? What do you want to know?” And at times, they don’t have an answer. That’s empty effort. Instead, think about how you meet people at a point not just where it’s good for them, but it’s actually also good for you, so it can accomplish something or answer some key questions for you. Then you can have these moments of sincere exchange, moments that build not just different outcomes but stronger relationships over time.

Preservation, Maintenance, and Care

This subcommittee was chaired by Gerdo Aquino, chief executive and principal, SWA Group landscape architecture and planning, and Kelema Lee Moses, assistant professor of Art & Art History at Occidental College. Its other members were Ken Bernstein, principal city planner, Office of Historic Resources and Urban Design Studio, Los Angeles Department of City Planning; Linda Dishman, president and chief executive, Los Angeles Conservancy; Adrian Scott Fine, director of advocacy, Los Angeles Conservancy; Brenda Levin, president and principal, Levin & Associates Architects; Christina Morris, senior field director, National Trust for Historic Preservation; and Shannon Ryan, senior city planner, Los Angeles Department of City Planning.
Show Footnotes

This subcommittee’s deliberations began with some basic questions about the phrase “historic preservation.” Is it too closely associated with architecture and built form, we asked, to complement the broad and small-c catholic scope of the larger Working Group and its recommendations? What, precisely, is meant to be preserved? By whom, for whom, and on what basis?

We also discussed some of the ways in which preservation has earned a complicated reputation—the extent to which it has been seen, fairly or not, as a force for obstruction. In what ways could the goals of preservation be brought more closely in line with a vision for Los Angeles that sees civic memory as something to be excavated, even actively confronted, rather than simply protected or cordoned off? Can the work of preservation help us ask key questions or surface difficult or buried histories in Los Angeles even as it protects individual or connected sites of importance?

It seemed fitting to seek a dynamic, evolving definition of these terms, one that the City should continually revisit and analyze anew. We talked about preservation as a platform or venue to tell stories and share histories, recognizing that those histories will not always be in harmony or alignment with one another. We imagined a structure that would allow preservation to look forward as well as back, helping us imagine a future Los Angeles where histories of many kinds, not just architectural, are given full voice.

We agreed that one way to open up these definitions and challenge old assumptions is to underscore the links between preservation and climate action. The embodied energy of existing buildings, the cost in dollars and in climate terms of new construction, the ways in which preservation might further the cause of sustainability and vice versa: these were among the subjects we touched on. Moreover, new strategies to adapt to warming temperatures in many parts of Los Angeles will be strengthened by detailed knowledge of earlier approaches, whether they are Indigenous, from the Spanish Colonial period, or more recent. This was long a city whose architecture was designed to provide extensive shade from the sun essentially as a matter of first principles. We can climate-proof Los Angeles in part by studying, debating, and adapting some of those strategies. Preservation can be as much about recovering knowledge as about keeping structures upright.

Links Between Preservation and Climate Action

It is also important to stress the links between preservation and climate action. The embedded energy of existing buildings, the cost in dollars and in climate terms of new construction, the ways in which preservation might further the cause of sustainability and vice versa: these were among the subjects we touched on. Moreover, new strategies to adapt to warming temperatures in many parts of Los Angeles will be strengthened by detailed knowledge of earlier approaches, whether they are Indigenous, from the Spanish Colonial period, or more recent. This was long a city whose architecture was designed to provide extensive shade from the sun essentially as a matter of first principles. We can climate-proof Los Angeles in part by studying, debating, and adapting some of those strategies. Preservation can be as much about recovering knowledge as about keeping structures upright.

Next we sought to define and discuss the second half of the subcommittee’s charge: the work of maintenance and care. These terms and some important recent scholarship exploring them through the lens of architecture and preservation were familiar to some of us and less so to others. A superb overview01 https://placesjournal.org/article/maintenance-and-care/?cn-reloaded=1 of the subject by Shannon Mattern, published in the online journal Places and entitled “Maintenance and Care: A working guide to the repair of rust, dust, cracks, and corrupted code in our cities, our homes, and our social relations,” was shared with the full Working Group before its initial meeting in November of 2019.

“Values like innovation and newness hold mass appeal—or at least they did until disruption became a winning campaign platform and a normalized governance strategy,” Mattern writes in that essay. “Now breakdown is our epistemic and experiential reality. What we really need to study is how the world gets put back together.”

That last phrase is key. One answer to the questions posed at the beginning of this section might be to insist on a reparative, rather than a merely protective, kind of preservation. That would allow us to avoid the more obstructionist impulses in the field’s history and to wrap together preservation, maintenance, and care within a single set of values and policy choices.

Mattern’s work is also helpful in clarifying the ways in which notions like care and maintenance can be caught up in complex understandings of class and gender. The renewed focus on these categories in the architectural academy has brought forth important critiques of earlier movements in the field, especially modernism and its various offshoots and heirs. Mattern’s Places essay is accompanied by an embedded video clip of a 2014 piece called Routine Maintenance, by the artists Nadia Hironaka and Matthew Suib. It imagines that Continuous Monument, a speculative 1969 design by the Italian firm Superstudio, has been built and, as a result of having to operate in the real world, requires upkeep by a presumably superhuman, or at least tireless, window washer.

The subcommittee spent time discussing and acknowledging the extensive work that the City, particularly its Department of City Planning, has done in recent decades to catalog, analyze, and safeguard historic resources and community assets that include, but are certainly not limited to, significant works of architecture. The SurveyLA initiative02 https://planning.lacity.org/preservation-design/historic-resources-survey from DCP is especially impressive in this regard and has become a model for other cities. Described by the department as “the first-ever comprehensive program to identify significant historic resources throughout the City of Los Angeles,” this collaboration with the J. Paul Getty Trust was a multiyear effort that covered nearly 900,000 parcels of land and 500 square miles.

Even as the City has taken significant strides to protect its historic resources and to expand the definition of preservation to include community assets of several types, there is of course more work to be done. This subcommittee identified several strategies to pursue. One was lowering barriers to entry in this civic conversation—the group suggested the City move to dismantle procedural hurdles to participating in official discussions of historic preservation. These ideas echoed suggestions elsewhere in the Working Group report that City agencies look to move from acting as gatekeepers when it comes to civic memory to thinking of themselves as facilitators giving voice more broadly to community history.

Other recommendations included looking for new ways to digitize historic resources; produce, collect, and make available oral histories; and pursue new forms of reaching audiences, such as podcasts and more sophisticated use of social media. One model project in this regard is the Los Angeles Public Library’s “Shades of L.A.: A Search for Visual Ethnic History.” Launched in 1991, this initiative involved collecting copies of thousands of family photographs. One goal, according to the Library, was “broadening the LAPL Photo Collection’s representation of ethnicities within the city.”03 https://www.lapl.org/collections-resources/photo-collection/shades-la

We considered the range of ways in which the City might strengthen protections against prohibited demolition of significant works of architecture. This is a particularly acute issue when it comes to residential architecture, given that such a high proportion of landmarks in Los Angeles, relative to other American cities, are in the form of houses tucked away in the private realm. We looked to case studies in New York City and San Antonio in particular, and discussed monetary and other penalties for this kind of unsanctioned modification and demolition. The strongest such protection would be a kind of “scorched-earth” ordinance whereby developers who illegally demolished buildings would be prohibited from constructing anything on the same parcel for a period of 5 or more years.

We also discussed the possibility of the City extending Historic-Cultural Monument status to cover the body of work of an important architect or firm—Paul R. Williams, an architect discussed elsewhere at some length in this volume, was mentioned as one example worth considering for this kind of action. There is also the potential to protect schools of architecture or a particular building type in this fashion. Could the bungalow courts of Los Angeles, for instance, be better honored and protected if they were categorized collectively in this way?

Moving Past the Clean-Slate Solution

Our group discussed the importance of finding new ways to center Indigenous histories, voices, and building traditions in discussions about preservation in Los Angeles. Not unrelatedly, we also took up the question of the City’s tendency to pursue tabula rasa design solutions—the way Los Angeles tends to prefer wiping the slate clean and building anew when faced with aging, fraught, or poorly maintained buildings and civic spaces.

Pershing Square, located in downtown Los Angeles and among the oldest and most important public spaces in the city, came up as an example of this latter habit. While many of us admire the design by the French landscape firm Agence Ter that prevailed in a 2016 design competition to reimagine the site, perhaps too little attention has been paid to the origins of the landscape scheme the new plan would replace. Completed in 1994 and designed by a team led by the Mexican architect Ricardo Legorreta and landscape architect Laurie Olin, it is undoubtedly a flawed proposal. It exacerbated the Square’s already lamentable physical and visual separation from the sidewalks around it. It has not aged especially well and it can feel deserted even on days when the rest of downtown is thrumming with energy.

But have we been too quick to write it off completely? The Legorreta design when new was a brightly colored and deeply optimistic extension of Spanish Colonial and Latin American design traditions that go back more than two centuries in Southern California. It represented the first self-conscious decision by modern Los Angeles civic leadership to cloak an important public space in the design language of what is now, in a phrase popularized by James Rojas and others, known as Latino Urbanism. What’s more, the decision to hire Legorreta came just as Los Angeles was seeing immigration from Latin America, and from Mexico in particular, reach its peak.

It is of course also worth pointing out that Pershing Square has been through many such reinventions; the design competition won by Agence Ter is only the latest. For nearly a century, in fact, Pershing Square has been symbolic of the Los Angeles tendency to avoid doing the difficult but important work of fixing public spaces and important buildings in favor of seeking an entirely new solution. We would welcome a broader public conversation on these issues, beginning with an examination of the best next steps at Pershing Square.

Blind Spots and Cycles of Taste

The discussion of Pershing Square led to a broader consideration of the ways in which the architecture and landscape architecture of the recent past can be uniquely vulnerable to the kind of inattention, disdain, or misunderstanding that can set the stage for neglect and even demolition. We were especially interested in examining this question in relation to the rich collection of landmarks in Los Angeles from the 1980s and 1990s, which (in addition to Legorreta’s designs) includes the early work of so-called L.A. School architects Frank Gehry, Craig Hodgetts and Ming Fung, Morphosis, Eric Owen Moss, Elyse Grinstein and Jeffrey Daniels, and others. Having fallen out of fashion with the broader public in recent years, this work may soon find itself in the crosshairs of demolition.[4] Already a small building at UC Irvine by Frank Gehry has been razed without any significant public debate or consternation. What would it take to bring new awareness to this architecture and what the best examples of the period meant when they were new? Could we start by working to extend SurveyLA, which now ends at 1980, through the year 2000?

This notion grew organically from the rest of the subcommittee’s deliberations. Throughout, the focus was on finding ways to broaden the definitions of preservation, maintenance, and care that guide City policymaking to make them more flexible, more dynamic, more inclusive, and more responsive to contemporary understandings of historic resources and community character. We share the sentiment expressed elsewhere in this report that our ideas and recommendations are offered as as the basis for further community engagement and civic discussion, rather than the final answer on any topic. We are aware of the ways in which preservation movements, fairly or not, have gained a reputation as vehicles for conservatism for its own sake, as opposed to conversation in a more active, creative, and thoughtful manner. We are eager to move past this assumption and find new ways for preservation, without abandoning its own protocols and forms of expertise, to act in concert with broader projects of reckoning.

Inventories of Sites and History

This subcommittee was chaired by Nathan Masters, host of Lost L.A., KCET’s public television program on Los Angeles history, and manager of public programs at the USC Libraries; and John Szabo, the City Librarian of the Los Angeles Public Library. Its other members were Ken Bernstein, principal city planner and manager of the Office of Historic Resources for the Los Angeles Department of City Planning, where he also oversees the Urban Design Studio; Wendy Cheng, associate professor of American Studies at Scripps College and author of The Changs Next Door to the Díazes: Remapping Race in Suburban California (University of Minnesota Press, 2013); Frederick Fisher, principal at Frederick Fisher and Partners architects; Michael Holland, city archivist for the Los Angeles City Archives; Gail Kennard, president of Kennard Design Group (KDG) and a commissioner on the Los Angeles Cultural Heritage Commission; and Andrew Kovacs, architectural designer and founder of Office Kovacs design studio in Los Angeles.
Show Footnotes

What follows is largely an exemplary rather than a comprehensive approach to cataloging and mapping existing memorials. For several reasons, this group thought it would be worthwhile to focus on potentially problematic memorials, or memorials that can represent the various ways memorials have been created. We also recommend reframing the concept of monuments and memorials more broadly, expanding the definition beyond mere statues and other art works to include place names beyond parks and plazas (streets, buildings, etc.) and living objects like trees.

This group spent considerable time discussing what exactly constitutes a civic memorial. Some members preferred a narrow definition that would limit the scope of our inquiry to statues, sculptures, murals, and other art works. Others favored a more expansive definition that would include place names, arguing that meaning is often embedded in the names of streets and structures, even if that meaning is not always obvious. For instance, several familiar street names (like Figueroa and Alvarado) were intended to honor Mexican-era political officials. Other place names (such as Cahuenga, Tujunga, and Topanga) are Indigenous in origin, remnants of the city’s precolonial past. In the end, we reached a consensus to adopt a more inclusive definition.

The City’s Historic-Cultural Monument (HCM) program recognizes 1,206 historic sites across Los Angeles. Two of our members are deeply involved in that program—one as a city administrator and another as a citizen commissioner—and they argued that the HCM registry would not be germane to a review of civic memorials. They contended that the word “monument” is misleading, as most of the HCMs are buildings recognized for their architectural significance, not commemorative structures or art works. Furthermore, they noted, the HCM program is built on a robust process that includes community engagement and input from stakeholders.

Others favored incorporating the HCM registry into our inventory. They argued that the concept of architectural significance might not be as politically neutral as it seems. The design of individual buildings or even entire architectural styles—Spanish colonial revival, for example—are often embedded with political meaning. Furthermore, they noted, scrutiny of the HCM recognition process could yield insights relevant to other types of memorials.

Existing Inventories

Our subcommittee identified several datasets that could inform a master inventory of memorials. SurveyLA was a systematic effort to catalog the city’s historic resources; Los Angeles has never before undertaken a wholesale review of its civic memorials (although the City has—with varying degrees of success—tried to inventory its statues, murals, and other public art works, inasmuch as they are municipal property).

Michael Holland, the city archivist, located several incomplete inventories in the City Archives, dated 1933, 1944, and 1956. In 1960, the Municipal Arts Department (now the Department of Cultural Affairs) was charged with maintaining a comprehensive inventory of statues, but work did not begin until the 1970 hiring of a curator, Virginia Kazor. Starting with the department’s existing documentation—a loose-leaf binder filled with incomplete and haphazardly collected information—Kazor pieced together an inventory from archived minutes of the Municipal Arts Department. Today, her work forms the basis of the City Art Collection inventory, which catalogs more than 1,000 works of art, including many statues and monuments. The inventory provides data on each work’s creator and location, as well as a replacement cost and fair market value. (The now-toppled Junípero Serra statue, for instance, was valued at $80,000 in 2005.)

Other datasets document other kinds of memorials. Bernice Kimball’s hand-annotated Street Names of Los Angeles, though not definitive, explains the origin of nearly every street name in the city.01 Bernice Kimball, Street Names of Los Angeles (Los Angeles: Bureau of Engineering, 1988). A reference copy is available at the Los Angeles Central Library’s History and Genealogy Department. Donald R. Hodel’s Exceptional Trees of Los Angeles maps and describes dozens of trees notable for their historical association.02 Donald R. Hodel, Exceptional Trees of Los Angeles (Arcadia, CA: California Arboretum Foundation, 1988). Subcommittee member Wendy Cheng also recommended consulting artist Ken Gonzales-Day, whose work has featured “hanging trees,” the sites of Mexican American lynchings.

Review of Previous Memorial Programs

As our group discussed previous efforts to memorialize L.A.’s past, at least one major conclusion emerged: there is no precedent for the type of civic project now being undertaken by the Civic Memory Working Group. Through piecemeal efforts and ad hoc processes, the City has accrued a large body of civic memorials, but it has yet to undertake a wholesale review of them. (Our subcommittee did not discuss the question of whether Los Angeles is under-memorialized relative to other cities, but that is a worthy topic for further study.) Furthermore, civic memorialization has usually happened within a process vacuum. Typically, statues and monuments have been offered to the City by private organizations and approved on a case-by-case basis. In the absence of a process to evaluate existing memorials and propose new ones, the City effectively cedes power to the best-funded and most ardent groups, which tend to be white, wealthy, and conservative.

The erstwhile statue of Junípero Serra, erected in 1932, offers an example. A replica of the bronze figure placed in the U.S. Capitol’s Statuary Hall in 1931 (and, incidentally, still standing there today), the statue was offered by the Los Angeles County chapter of the Knights of Columbus. That organization’s application triggered a cascade of reviews by municipal boards, including the Municipal Arts Department, the Parks Commission, the Board of Public Works, and the City Council. The City’s response was entirely reactive: it merely evaluated the merits of the specific proposal rather than surveying the existing landscape of monuments and determining that a Serra statue was lacking.

The process brought to light several objections to the proposed Serra statue, although there is no record of anyone opposing the idea of honoring Serra itself. A group named the Lincoln Heights Brotherhood objected to the design of the statue, which featured the priest holding a Christian cross aloft. The Brotherhood favored replicating the Serra statue near the San Fernando Mission, which depicts the priest in a paternalistic pose with an Indigenous child. The location was also contested. Van Griffith, the parks commissioner (and son of Griffith Park founder Griffith J. Griffith), recalled a recent trip to Mexico City, where he had seen devout worshippers crowd around religious statues in prayer. Griffith fretted that L.A.’s Latino population would gather in the same manner and block traffic.

This reactive, ad hoc approach to civic memorialization has been repeated time and again, even as Los Angeles began to adopt more inclusive memorials. Consider the relatively recent process of designating official “squares” with buff-colored signs atop street intersections. In contrast to the rigorous scrutiny that a proposed site must undergo to become an official HCM, the process for naming a square is quite simple: a City Council member proposes the designation and the full council approves. Often, citizen advocates present the proposal to a council member. John Fante Square at Fifth and Grand, for instance, was initially proposed by tour operators Kim Cooper and Richard Schave, whereas Ray Bradbury Square at Fifth and Flower was the idea of Steven Paul Leiva, a friend of the science fiction author.

This process seems to have yielded an incoherent body of memorials. In Hollywood alone, official squares memorialize several celebrity entertainers (including comedian Bob Hope, television host Larry King, and singer Celia Cruz), the Famous Amos brand of cookies, gay rights activist Morris Kight, and slain LAPD officer Ian Campbell. “I Love Lucy Square” (at Melrose and Plymouth) honors both comedian Lucille Ball and Lucy Casado, owner of the landmark Lucy’s El Adobe Café on Melrose. Several subcommittee members described these squares as feeble gestures toward civic memorialization; in most cases, only a few descriptive words accompany the name on the sign, with nothing visible at street level to provide context.

Nevertheless, these extemporary memorials often tend toward inclusiveness. The trend started in 1980 with the designation of Edgar F. Magnin Square—a one-block stretch of Wilshire in front of the Wilshire Boulevard Temple, where Magnin was rabbi. More recently, the intersection of Slauson and Crenshaw was renamed Nipsey Hussle Square in memory of the slain rapper, who opened a clothing shop at the intersection in 2017 and was fatally shot there two years later. Other examples include Dosan Ahn Chang Ho Square, which honors the Korean American activist; Dolores Huerta Square, which honors the labor activist and civil rights leader; and Armenian Genocide Memorial Square.

In many instances, the act and process of choosing who or what to acknowledge, recognize, or preserve creates a civic memory itself. A more inclusive and rigorous process would only lend more credibility to the City’s memorializations and create greater and more likely community support. Examples might include the Clara Shortridge Foltz Criminal Justice Center, named for the first female attorney in California; the Hyde Park Miriam Matthews Branch Library, named for the first African American librarian at the Los Angeles Public Library; and the Octavia Lab makerspace at Central Library, named for Octavia Butler, a pioneer among both African American and women science fiction writers.

Past Controversies

In the past, civic memorials have generated controversy for a variety of reasons:

  • In 1925, a proposed monument to Robert E. Lee in Pershing Square apparently withered in the face of public opposition. The Daughters of the American Revolution filed an official protest with the mayor and the Parks Commission, and a letter to the editor in the Times declared it “incongruous, illogical and un-American to glorify overmuch those who sought to make us a divided nation.”
  • After Rudolph Valentino’s death in 1926, the actor’s fans raised funds for a memorial. In 1930, the City approved a monument in Hollywood’s De Longpre Park, but apparently did not consult with the local community. After the City approved the statue of Valentino, residents of De Longpre Avenue registered an official protest with the mayor and the Municipal Arts Department. “There is room for only one statue in Delongpre Park,” one protester wrote, “and that is for Mr. Delongpre, an artist and gentleman.”
  • Street name memorials have almost always generated controversy. When the City renamed Santa Barbara Avenue in 1983 to honor Martin Luther King Jr., the owner of an event ticket business complained that he would have to reprint his company’s brochures at great expense. Another opponent bemoaned in a letter to the L.A. Times that the change would insult Saint Barbara, a Christian martyr who (legend has it) was put to death by her own father. A proponent, the civil rights activist Celes King III, also described “phantom opposition” from residents of Leimert Park. “I couldn’t understand,” he told the Times in 1983. “They didn’t come out against it in a visible way, but I got no support from them.” The 1987 renaming of Weller Street to Astronaut Ellison S. Onizuka Street also provoked local opposition: citing the inconvenience of changing their addresses, Japanese American business owners along the short, diagonal street favored a statue to Onizuka rather than a name change.

Beyond the controversial examples noted, it would also be worthwhile to examine civic memorials that no longer exist. The Nelly Roth Memorial Fountains in Pershing Square, dedicated in 1954, were removed in an early 1990s renovation of the park. Another example is the Mickey Bishop bird baths installed in city parks in honor of a canary that lived with residents of the Ambassador Hotel.

Inventory of Opportunities

Our subcommittee also discussed the possibility of another kind of inventory: an inventory of memorial opportunities. Some members thought that it would be helpful to catalog parts of the urban infrastructure over which the City has authority. One example mentioned was the City’s collection of concrete bridges, most of which bear utilitarian names, like First Street Bridge, Glendale-Hyperion Bridge, and Elysian Park 110 Freeway Bridge. For a relatively modest cost, the City could rename the bridges as memorials. Some group members were not ready to embrace this idea fully, arguing that simply affixing a name to a bridge would not explain the significance of the memorial or the relevance of the honored individual to that site. Others responded that the City could always add interpretive features for pedestrians to add context to the named memorial.

Labor

Show Footnotes
This subcommittee was chaired by Catherine Gudis, director of the Public History Program at UC Riverside, cofounder of the public humanities collective Play the LA River, and senior ranger with the Los Angeles Urban Rangers; and David Torres-Rou#, chair, Department of History & Critical Race and Ethnic Studies at UC Merced and author of Before L.A.: Race, Space, and Municipal Power in Los Angeles, 1781–1894 (Yale University Press, 2013). Its other members were Wendy Cheng, associate professor of American Studies at Scripps College and author of The Changs Next Door to the Díazes: Remapping Race in Suburban California (University of Minnesota Press, 2013); Nora Chin, deputy chief design o"cer for the City of Los Angeles in the O"ce of Mayor Eric Garcetti; and Natalia Molina, professor of American Studies and Ethnicity at USC and author of How Race Is Made in America: Immigration, Citizenship, and the Historical Power of Racial Scripts (University of California Press, 2014). In addition, this subcommittee was advised by Monica M. Martinez, associate professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin, and Dolores Hayden, emerita professor of architecture and American Studies at Yale University and author of The Power of Place: Urban Landscapes as Public History (MIT Press, 1995).

Several hundred replica mission bells decorate portions of U.S. Highway 101 from San Diego to San Francisco. Inspired by the rise of automobile tourism and the coincident fervor to reimagine California’s Spanish past in the early twentieth century, Pasadena resident Anna Pitcher in 1892 first championed the “restoration” of El Camino Real, a highway that connected Alta California’s missions, presidios, and nascent pueblos (and whose name means “the royal road” in Spanish). A highly dubious act of geographical invention, Pitcher’s movement won the support of the California Federation of Women’s Clubs and other organizations. Enthusiasts founded the El Camino Real Association in 1904, and over the next 10 years set more than 400 cast iron replica mission bells on stylized shepherd’s staffs at one-to-two-mile intervals to mark the route. After that group disbanded, maintenance of the bells fell first to the Automobile Club of Southern California and more recently to the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans), which has maintained and replaced the bells since 1974.01 See Paper Monuments Final Report: Imagine New Monuments for New Orleans (New Orleans, LA: Colloqate Design/Issuu, Inc., 2019), 14.

While the markers may enliven a drive on 101 and evoke nostalgia for the region’s past, the very symbol chosen to summon such emotions had a very different meaning for thousands of California Indians. Mission bells organized daily life, from their perches embedded in the physical structures of missions where Native people were held, frequently against their will. The bells set times to wake, to sleep, to eat, to worship, and to work. For Indigenous Californians, the bells were not symbols—they were the implements by which Spanish missionaries imposed a regime of involuntary labor. These seemingly innocent El Camino Real road markers thus offer one example of the ways that civic memory and labor intersect: the events, people, and spaces we commemorate are products of physical, social, and emotional labor. They also demonstrate one way that traditional monuments can erase people’s labor—especially unfree, uncompensated, or unrecognized labor. Public monuments that erase labor and the circumstances under which people toiled risk reenacting the initial injustice that imposed unfree labor to begin with. The El Camino Real markers reenact multiple facets of the original colonial project by erasing Native peoples’ past and present from the region’s history, whitewashing the missions’ histories of violence, and transforming a tool of forced labor into a commemorative decoration. If the purpose of civic memory is to highlight the process of building relationships among different kinds of communities, then we need to develop new ways to recognize and commemorate histories of labor. These must be sensitive, site-specific, and productive of new conversations.

Questioning Monumentality

As monuments worldwide are toppled and we recognize the ways that even forgotten monuments and markers exert symbolic power and convey racial subordination, the assumptions behind these forms of commemoration must also be called into question. Accordingly, we must challenge traditional conceptions of monuments as static—permanent features of steel and stone that are fixed in meaning, assumed to express universal beliefs—and heroic in scale, often emphasizing singular individuals as drivers of historical change.02 “Mission Bells Along El Camino Real,” Los Angeles Almanac (online), undated, http://www.laalmanac.com/transport/tr32.php. In response, the Civic Memory Working Group has emphasized in our discussions a multilayered, multi-scalar approach to memorialization, grounded in research and dialogic processes of engagement, discussion, and consent, especially by community members implicated in and affected by the histories and memories represented. Instead of thinking of a monument as an end point, we see it as a continuum, marking, in the words of Monument Lab’s Paul Farber and Ken Lum, “a site of struggle but also of possibility … [and] as part of a broader reckoning with how the body politic operates and how we can live with one another.”03 Paul Farber and Ken Lum, “Monument Lab,” interview by Tausif Noor, Artforum, June 23, 2020.

If, as we have noted, the labor of working people, exploited people, and marginalized people is persistently erased or rendered invisible in the public realm and in traditional monuments, then we need to do more than recover and put in place these missing narratives. We need repair—to build relationships and community in varied ways that might not always take physical shape. How do we give back to subjects and spaces of subjugation, state violence, and racial terror, and alter traditional power relations in so doing? Memorial projects that reinvest in working-class communities and are produced from the bottom up are first steps toward reconciling and repairing past harms, including those that ostensibly “civic” markers (such as the El Camino Real bells and statuary of colonists, explorers, and missionaries) re-inflict.

Our subcommittee ranged in our spatial considerations of monuments and memorials, from the creation of gardens to using infrastructure as memorial space to recognizing individual sites—for example, Downey Block in downtown L.A., where we can parse the deep history of overlapping uses and change over time, rendering visible what is otherwise impossible to discern solely by the naked eye. (See the Histories of Free and Unfree Labor: Downey Block section below.) We have also considered how temporary interventions (such as alternative signage), educational materials (including curricula), an expanded SurveyLA historic context, digital mapping, and media can be powerful tools for strengthening the memory of labor in the city.

Place

All our discussions of labor have also been discussions of place; we see the two as inseparable and all-encompassing. The labor lens can be used to represent the vantage point of those who, over time, have constructed and maintained buildings and landscapes. We take to heart what Dolores Hayden wrote in Power of Place: “Indigenous residents as well as colonizers, ditch diggers as well as architects, migrant workers as well as mayors, housewives as well as housing inspectors, are all active in shaping the urban landscape.”04 Dolores Hayden, The Power of Place: Urban Landscapes as Public History (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1995), 15. The book represents and contextualizes the work of the nonprofit organization Hayden founded in 1984, The Power of Place, which undertook research and public art projects in Little Tokyo and downtown’s historic core to commemorate “forgotten sites” and “to situate women’s history and ethnic history in downtown, in public places, through experimental, collaborative projects by historians, designers, and artists” (xi). She highlights how “the power of ordinary urban landscapes to nurture citizens’ public memory … remains untapped for most working people’s neighborhoods,” and how even sites that have been bulldozed or retain few material connections to the past can be “marked to restore some shared public meaning” (9). Hayden included those who crafted policies of labor, land use, and immigration along with those who were coerced, made vulnerable, and otherwise affected by such policies. The Power of Place project also took care to establish an itinerary of sites to enable the telling of the city’s economic and social history in a new way through multiple locations. Each site also required multiple forms of outreach, including workers, retirees, family members, and partner organizations. This process of building community connections goes hand in hand with creating new knowledge and public art to interpret it.

We also need to pose this central issue: how might we remember and contend with these interconnected histories as we shape policy today? This is a particular challenge when we consider that landscapes and sites of labor include sites of production (agricultural and manufacturing, for example), distribution (infrastructure such as ports, harbors, and warehouses), and social reproduction (like homes, schools, and community centers). Sites of labor activism, where individuals and groups have pressed for restructuring social, economic, and political relations, also offer rich possibilities to connect past and present as contested terrain.05 Andrew Hurley, Beyond Preservation: Using Public History to Revitalize Inner Cities (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2010), 39; Rachel Donaldson, “Placing Labor History” (master’s thesis, University of Maryland, College Park, 2015), 16; and Hayden, Power of Place, 100. Sites of deindustrialized labor similarly offer fertile grounds for interpreting changing modes of production, shifts to globalization, racial segregation in the workplace, and working-class community organization. The ruins of industry are written upon the landscape. Offering opportunities through memorialization processes to read and speak back can begin an important civic discourse toward both addressing and redressing social and economic inequities. Finally, a focus on labor begs the question of how to recognize the work required to create and maintain monuments and the spaces they occupy.

One way to frame the multilayered histories and memories of labor located in place is through the metaphor of the palimpsest—akin to partially erased markings on a chalkboard that are written over with new text. Palimpsests are distinguished from static monuments in the ways that they may serve as catalysts for engagement, interaction, and recognition of change over time.06 On defining “palimpsest” for memorial practice, see for instance Andreas Huyssen, Present Pasts: Urban Palimpsests and the Politics of Memory (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003); and Kevin Healey, “Palimpsests of Memory?,” Kritik (Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory blog, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign), June 23, 2008. Signs of refusal and opposition—the graffiti that alters visible surfaces (as with the recent Black Lives Matter graffiti)—also express such shifts in meaning and deserve to be preserved. Ephemeral practices—orality, music, foodways, literary depictions, protests, and parades—can help get at these layers of time while also contributing to spaces where such practices can continue to flourish.07 Social ethnography and critical cartography are among the various means to chart these uses of space. See Annette Kim, “Critical Cartography 2.0: From ‘Participatory Mapping’ to Authored Visualizations of Power and People,” Landscape and Urban Planning 142 (Oct. 2015): 215–25. Scholars including Gaye Therese Johnson, Josh Kun, Jorge Leal, Steven Osuna, and Oliver Wang are among those who remap the city by considering music and sound. The New Orleans civic memory project, Paper Monuments, focused on working-class communities of color in considering how to create new forms of counter-monuments/counter-narratives. See Paper Monuments Final Report, 14; and the project website, https://www.papermonuments.org.

Roads, Railways, and Ports

“Want to tear down insidious monuments to racism and segregation? Bulldoze L.A. freeways,” read the headline of a June 2020 L.A. Times opinion piece,08 Matthew Fleischer, “Want to Tear Down Insidious Monuments to Racism and Segregation? Bulldoze L.A. Freeways,” Los Angeles Times, June 24, 2020. offering an idea that media sources across the country picked up. The articles joined others, including several that Christopher Hawthorne penned for the same paper in 2015 and 2016,09 Christopher Hawthorne, “Transforming the End of the 2 Freeway Could Be the Beginning of a New L.A.,” Los Angeles Times, Dec. 31, 2015; Christopher Hawthorne, “Why the Time Is Right to Re-examine the L.A. Freeway,” Los Angeles Times, Aug. 7, 2015; Christopher Hawthorne, “Imagine if the 2 Freeway Ended in a Brilliantly Colored, Eco-smart Park,” Los Angeles Times, July 16, 2016. acknowledging how freeways built with federal interstate funding served, along with redlining,10 Redlining is the name given to the practice of denying federally and privately backed mortgages to properties in neighborhoods deemed “risky” on the basis of their ethnic and racial composition, among other factors. The term originates with maps made of 239 cities by the Homeowners’ Loan Corporations (HOLC) in 1935, which graded neighborhoods according to the security of real estate investments as an aid to mortgage underwriting decisions made by the Federal Home Loan Bank Board and ultimately the Federal Housing Administation. For each surveyed city, HOLC produced a color-coded map with four grades of real estate. The lowest, “Grade D” properties, were outlined in red on the maps, and corresponded in general to older neighborhoods and those inhabited by people of color, especially Black residents, and ethnic minorities including Irish and Jews. Banks resisted backing mortgages to individual purchasers in Grade D neighborhoods, limiting Black, Mexican, and ethnic homeownership in urban centers. Private banks used these and similar maps for decades, even after they were rendered illegal by the Fair Housing Act of 1968, further complicating pathways to homeownership for people of color. See Amy E. Hillier, “Redlining and the Homeowners’ Loan Corporation,” Journal of Urban History 29, no. 4 (2003): 394–420; and Richard Rothstein, The Color of Law: A Forgottten History of How Our Govenrment Segregated America (New York: Liveright, 2017). racial covenants, “slum” clearance, and urban renewal, as tools to tear apart neighborhoods. Some examples include the bisection by Interstate 10 of the storied African American Sugar Hill neighborhood in 1963; the destruction of thousands of homes, shops, and community landmarks in the working-class, immigrant neighborhoods of East Los Angeles and Boyle Heights from the 1940s through the 1960s, culminating in the 135-acre East Los Angeles Interchange (dubbed “the Spaghetti Bowl” by planners) connecting the “biggest tangle of freeways in the country”; and the Latinx communities along what is called today the “diesel death zone” of the Interstate 710 and the eight (or so) intersecting freeways near and around the ports.11 Gilbert Estrada, “If You Build It, They Will Move: The Los Angeles Freeway System and the Displacement of Mexican East Los Angeles, 1944–1972,” Southern California Quarterly 87, no. 3 (Fall 2005): 290–91, 301–3; Hadley Meares, “The Thrill of Sugar Hill,” Curbed Los Angeles, Feb. 22, 2018; Hadley Meares, “Why L.A.’s Freeways Are Symbolic Sites of Protest,” Curbed Los Angeles, June 11, 2020; Laura J. Nelson, “710 Freeway Is a ‘Diesel Death Zone’ to Neighbors—Can Vital Commerce Route Be Fixed?,” Los Angeles Times, Mar. 1, 2018. By calling these wide swathes of concrete and steel our city’s version of the Confederate monument writ large, the L.A. Times flipped the script on places of commemoration and how they function. Importantly, it made explicit the links between commemoration and structures of power: that monuments are the physical evidence of power—in this case, of local, state, and federal political and economic power to fortify white supremacy, maintain segregation, and privatize the public space of transportation by investing in automobility rather than mass transit. The miles of concrete highways built in the mid-twentieth century not only sliced through communities of color that Caltrans might have imagined would pose the least resistance, but exaggerated, in Eric Avila’s words, “the increasingly separate and unequal geography of race in postwar America.”12 Eric Avila, The Folklore of the Freeway: Race and Revolt in the Modernist City (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014), 39.

Freeways are not the only monuments to infrastructural racism disproportionately affecting Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) and landscapes of labor. We can add to the list the L.A. River (until recently treated by the Army Corp of Engineers as a big, paved storm drain/flood control channel); City of Los Angeles holdings in Payahüünadü/Owens Valley (the now-arid source of the infamous L.A. Aqueduct); and the history of annexation forming the “Shoestring Strip” of Harbor Gateway, acquired by Los Angeles in 1906 to connect the city to the ports—all of which narrate histories of colonization and extraction of resources and labor. Railroads—including the Alameda Corridor and its metaphorical predecessor, the Alameda Wall (dividing Black Watts and South L.A. from white southeast cities to the east of the Alameda); intermodal rail yards; and the port itself, where community-based organizations and public interest groups have been agitating for several generations for environmental and economic justice—are also crucial to consider.13 Mike Davis and Jon Wiener, Set the Night on Fire: L.A. in the Sixties (Brooklyn, NY: Verso Books, 2020), 94–104; Greg Hise, “Industry and Imaginative Geographies,” Becky M. Nicolaides, “The Quest for Independence: Workers in the Suburbs,” and Mike Davis, “Sunshine and the Open Shop: Ford and Darwin in 1920s Los Angeles,” in Tom Sitton and William Deverell, eds., Metropolis in the Making: Los Angeles in the 1920s (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001), 21–45, 71–108; Laura Pulido, “Rethinking Environmental Racism: White Privilege and Urban Development in Southern California,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 90, no. 1 (March 2000): 12–40. Groups include East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice, Communities for a Better Environment, and Mothers of East L.A., among others. These infrastructural monuments to racism do not just divide and segregate, they impose life sentences on those who live along their corridors, where high rates of asthma, cancer, and stunted lung development are among the public health impacts. Importantly, they are all sites of both industry and damage to working-class communities.

Toppling these monuments may take nothing short of an act of God and the demise of capitalism. Nonetheless, they warrant acknowledgment as the city’s biggest monuments issuing disproportionate harm to historically marginalized communities, ripe for reckoning with in more than symbolic ways. If we are to take reparation seriously, strategies for doing so might include the following:

  • Converting and decommissioning freeways (especially freeway “stubs” that abruptly end) and transforming land around them, as Christopher Hawthorne has recommended, with projects that capture stormwater, create gardens, and mark histories of erasure and harm.
  • Expanding on what Eric Avila has described as “a resurgent memory culture, often built from the wreckage of the past,” including “murals, festivals, autobiographies, and oral histories, and archival efforts.”14 Avila, Folklore of the Freeway, 116–17. Examples include Inland Mexican Heritage’s Living on the Dime project oral histories, events, and films featuring predominantly Latinx families living in the shadow of Interstate 10 from Bloomington to Blythe. See the Living on the Dime project website, http://mexicanheritage.yolasite.com/living-on-the-dime, and the California Revealed online archive of documentary materials, https://californiarevealed.org. This could include archives of displacement that identify the history of place and people—from Indigenous villages buried beneath feet of concrete to multiracial working-class communities once populating Terminal Island to those removed by multiple waves of downtown urban renewal. The creation of archives of displacement could serve as commemorative acts unto themselves as well as generate other forms of public art and educational opportunities. Los Angeles Poverty Department (LAPD) and its Skid Row History Museum and Archive offer a case in point, as their community-based collections (oral histories, photographs, videos, and other materials related to redevelopment) and creative projects (performances, arts festivals, parades, and exhibitions) document efforts to remove impoverished and unhoused people.15 Founded in 1985, LAPD is comprised principally of people who live and work in Skid Row. The first performance group in the United States for unhoused people, and the first arts program of any kind in Skid Row, the group’s multidisciplinary artworks include oral histories, an annual Festival for All Skid Row Artists, performances, and biennial Walk the Talk parades. Materials related to these projects narrate how Skid Row has been encroached upon by development and market-rate housing in recent decades and how activists have vied to retain the very-low-income housing that was left standing after tenements and rooming houses in Bunker Hill, the central business district, and elsewhere throughout downtown were removed in the name of slum clearance and urban redevelopment. In this sense, LAPD’s work both documents displacement and, through public art and other creative means, resists it. See the LAPD website, http://www.lapovertydept.org, and the digital Walk the Talk archive, https://app.reduct.video/lapd/walk-the-talk/#. Such projects also serve as a bulwark against further displacement.16 John Malpede, “Opening Remarks,” Walk the Talk 2020 (Los Angeles Poverty Department and Skid Row History Museum and Archive, 2021), 9. Thinking creatively about underpasses, walls, concrete embankments, soundproofing barriers as metaphors and as physical sites to tell more inclusive histories. The displacement archives could be used to generate community-driven public art and educational efforts, perhaps borrowing concepts from Walter Hood’s Witness Walls in Nashville, Tennessee, and expanding on Judy Baca’s Great Wall and the mural projects alongside freeways from the 1970s and as part of the 1984 Olympics. The Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles has already documented and preserved numerous such murals.17 “Witness Walls,” Metro Nashville Arts Commission website, undated, https://www.metroartsnashville.com/witness-walls; “The Great Wall of Los Angeles,” Social and Public Art Resource Center (SPARC) website, undated, https://sparcinla.org/programs/the-great-wall-mural-los-angeles/#; Gina Pollack, “Metro Admits to Painting over Historic LA Mural,” LAist, April 23, 2019; Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles website, undated, https://artsandculture.google.com/partner/the-mural-conservancy-of-los-angeles.
  • Utilizing streets, medians, and sidewalks to express multilayered histories. For instance, the 1996 sidewalk installation Omoide No Shotokyo (Remembering Old Little Tokyo) includes a timeline of business occupants for historic blocks of Little Tokyo, inlaid with bronze and stainless steel text, images, and written memories.18 Sheila Levrant de Bretteville with Sonya Ishii, Nobuho Nagasawa, and Susan Sztaray, Omoide No Shotokyo (Remembering Old Little Tokyo), 1996, concrete inlaid with bronze and stainless steel, Historic Little Tokyo, Los Angeles. Omoide No Shotokyo still resonates, and offers a promising model that could be adopted elsewhere to explore histories of place and patterns of redlining or to call attention to legacy businesses (long-standing, community-serving small businesses that add to a neighborhood’s cultural vitality). Another project worthy of emulating is Kim Abeles’s Walk a Mile in My Shoes, which transformed two traffic islands with green space and art, and traces a path between them with cast bronze shoes of civil rights march participants and photographic tiles of shoes belonging to present-day L.A. artists and other social justice crusaders.19 Robert Garcia, “‘Walk a Mile in My Shoes’: Public Art Park Celebrates the Civil Rights Revolution,” KCET website, July 2, 2014.

Smaller interventions in other cities have borrowed from the Stolpersteine (or “stumbling stones”) project, which German artist Gunter Demnig initiated in 1992. The Stolpersteine are small conrete cubes with small brass plaques commemorating victims of the Nazi persecution or extermination, installed in the sidewalk in front of a person’s last known address of choice, home or work.20 Stolpersteine project website, undated, http://www.stolpersteine.eu/en/home. The notion that “a person is only forgotten when his or her name is forgotten” has also been used for witness stones in the United States (both in the Northeast and the South) to commemorate enslaved men and women. Related, but in chalk, is the annual commemoration of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Company factory fire in New York City: participants write the names and ages of the 146 workers who died on sidewalks in front of the workers’ former homes.21 Ruth Sergel, See You in the Streets: Art, Action, and Remembering the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2016).

For infrastructure and other sites of erasures and displacements, media-based projects might be another way (and less expensive than installations) to bring people now lost to history back into view. In Berlin in the 1990s, Los Angeles-born artist Shimon Attie projected images of the Jewish past onto otherwise “forgetful sites.”22 James E. Young, “Sites Unseen: Shimon Attie’s Acts of Remembrance, 1991–1996,” At Memory’s Edge: After-Images of the Holocaust in Contemporary Art and Architecture (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000), 62–89. Polish artist Krzysztof Wodiczko has done similar work with public projections onto architectural facades since the 1980s.23 “Krzysztof Wodiczko,” Art21 website, undated, https://art21.org/artist/krzysztof-wodiczko. Other models for media include the histories of displacement expressed through Walking Cinema studio’s Museum of the Hidden City story and source-based app tours, which look at urban renewal in San Francisco.24 “Walking Cinema: Museum of the Hidden City” website, undated, http://www.seehidden.city. At different stops, you can listen to audio, including primary sources, and look at augmented reality. All of these can shift the habitual ways that we navigate the city and draw attention to those who have labored to enable our mobility.

Histories of Free and Unfree Labor: Downey Block

Long histories of labor, both free and unfree, have been etched into prominent parcels of Los Angeles land. As the city grows and changes, the structures in which these stories unfold are razed, with new buildings erected in their place. But the memory and history remain—layers in a spatial palimpsest that sometimes surge anew to the surface. One need not look far beyond City Hall for an especially poignant example: just next door, at 312 N. Spring Street, sits the Los Angeles federal courthouse. Built under the auspices of the Public Works Administration during the Great Depression, the 17-story art deco edifice is a monument to labor’s central place in the New Deal, and to the ways that New Deal work transformed urban landscapes across the country. More than 100 years earlier, Jonathan Temple, an immigrant from Massachusetts who became a naturalized citizen of Mexico and married Rafaela Cota, opened the pueblo’s first store on the same piece of ground. The corral at the back became the site of a weekly Indian slave market. Of course, slavery was illegal in Alta California under the flags of both Mexico and the United States. Nevertheless, local authorities operating under Spanish, then Mexican, and then U.S. regimes passed strict vagrancy laws, and every Sunday evening for decades herded California Indians alleged to be vagrants into the corral at the back of Temple’s store. On Monday mornings, municipal officials auctioned off the incarcerated Indians to local cattle ranchers for one-week labor terms. Usually, the ranchers paid the Indians their weekly wages in strong liquor, ensuring that they would again be found vagrant the following Sunday. In the mid-1850s, Temple sold his store and corral to John G. Downey, an Irish immigrant to Los Angeles and later the governor of California, and the practice persisted. Downey built a handsome brick business block on the site but retained the corral and continued to facilitate the dubiously legal trade in Indian slaves into the 1870s.25 Mexican and U.S. laws made this “other slavery” possible. See Kelly Lytle Hernández, City of Inmates: Conquest, Rebellion, and the Rise of Human Caging in Los Angeles, 1771–1965 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017); and Stacey L. Smith, Freedom’s Frontier: California and the Struggle over Unfree Labor, Emancipation, and Reconstruction (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013). See also An Act for the Government and Protection of Indians, April 22, 1850, Chapter 133, Statutes of California, undated, http://faculty.humanities.uci.edu/tcthorne/notablecaliforniaindians/actforprotection1850.htm. Downey’s block also housed several local businesses, the post office, and meeting rooms occupied nightly by various fraternal organizations including the masons. Between 1904 and 1906, Downey’s block was razed to make way for the second federal building in Los Angeles, which housed the U.S. District Court and other federal agencies until being razed in 1937.

When the new federal courthouse opened in 1940, it carried potent reminders of the city’s Indigenous past and the violence of Spanish, Mexican, and U.S. colonialism. Adorning the Spring Street lobby are two murals by Lucien Labaudt. One of them—Life on the Old Spanish and American Ranchos—features an old map prominently at the center, and Indigenous Californians kneeling at the feet of Spaniards, physically humbled by the legal and religious regimes that imposed their subjugation. The painting shows two Indians holding a water vessel as two Spaniards look down on them, a male with a disparaging, impatient gaze as he holds a bull by a rope, and a female mixing disdain with pity, her head covered in a white cloth demonstrating religious piety. Another mural, Edward Biberman’s Los Angeles: Prehistorical and Spanish Colonial is starker still, with scenes of “prehistorical” wildlife on the left, a montage of Spanish colonialism on the right, and the first U.S. survey map of the city (completed in 1849 by Edward Ord) holding the middle.26 On Ord’s Survey, see “E.O.C. Ord’s first map of the city of Los Angeles, drawn in August 29, 1849,” California Historical Society Collection, 1860–1960, USC Digital Library, undated, http://digitallibrary.usc.edu/cdm/ref/collection/p15799coll65/id/12770. A single Indian, shown naked from behind, sits low just right of center at the bottom of the painting. He stares sidelong at a Spanish soldier mounted on white horse, flanked by two armed foot soldiers marching away supporting a royal Spanish standard. Facing the viewer, a Spanish friar glares down at the Indian with a mix of pity and resolve, hands posed in proselytization.

Striking in their parallels (including the central place of maps that crystallized European spatial practices, U.S. notions of private property, and the role of law in making these abstract ideas concrete), these images do just enough to summon the city’s Spanish and Indigenous past to memory, and they deal in sufficient stereotypes of Indians as naked, backwards, and defeated to silence deeper stories. But they also summon the ghosts of colonialism and spectral Native peoples, inviting them to tell tales of their struggle against those who used the law as one of many tools to control Indian labor and Indian bodies, deracinate Indigenous culture, and in so doing make way for European-style nation-states—first New Spain, then Mexico, and finally the United States. Their obeisantly positioned bodies, the artists’ slanted reckoning of a historical past, also serve as a warning to how the law too frequently serves to perpetuate the subjugation of Brown bodies to the power of the carceral state. Even as the courthouse’s black-robed denizens have sworn to uphold laws and advocate justice, they labored on grounds stained by the sweat of slave labor. No memorial to Gabrielino-Tongva labor,27 Four different names are associated with the original Native peoples of Los Angeles: Gabrieleño, Gabrielino, Tongva, and Kizh. According to the Los Angeles Almanac, “Tongva” is most often encountered (although arguably the least historic). For more details, see “What Are the Original People of Los Angeles County Called?,” Los Angeles Almanac, undated, http://www.laalmanac.com/history/hi05a.php. or the shame of the slave market, or the connections between dehumanizing laws and the space of legal decision-making invites present-day visitors to reflect on this troubled, complicated history; potentially rich conversations linking the city’s Indigenous past, labor and civic memory never commence.

To engage the site’s past and its existing function as a place of demonstration—to name a few: the July 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, the 1979 Native American protest, the 1962 protests against House Un-American Activities Committee, which met at the site starting in 1947—a number of strategies might be used to mobilize public dialogue and find means of commemorating its layered histories:

  • Engaging with contemporary Indigenous groups to consider what ceremonial practices might be appropriate in relationship to its history, bearing in mind that in 1979, Native American protestors conducting a religious ceremony were arrested at the site. Are there other suggestions that Native community members might have, or ways to add their histories?
  • Identifying artists to work in tandem with Native groups and historians to create contemporary murals on-site that address the layers of the space’s history, including the corralling and slave auctions, protests, and other actions. The existing courthouse murals offer a narrow set of historical representations from the time of the building’s opening in 1940. Commissioning artists to work with Native and activist groups who represent some of the histories of struggle embodied at the site to create alternative representations or revisions—similar to the Getty’s Pacific Standard Time mural project at the L.A. Public Library28 In 2017, the Oaxacan artist collective Tlacolulokos created eight murals for the downtown L.A. Public Library, called “For the Pride of Your Hometown, the Way of the Elders, and in Memory of the Forgotten,” as part of the Getty Foundation’s Pacific Standard Time: Latin America/Los Angeles (LA/LA) initiative. See Deborah Vankin, “Oaxacalifornia Dreaming: L.A. Library Mural Project Looks at a Visual Language that Transcends Borders,” Los Angeles Times, Sept. 20, 2017. —is a way to bring to the fore and memorialize its deeper, unrecognized history. The Pacific Standard Time murals and accompanying digital kiosks of interpretive material offered an alternative Indigenous history to that depicted in the library’s 1933 murals, which, like the courthouse’s, use the trope of kneeling Native Americans and standing European colonists as part of the Spanish Colonial frontier narrative.
  • Establishing Downey Block as part of the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience, with its goal of turning “memory into action.”29 International Coalition of Sites of Conscious website, undated, https://www.sitesofconscience.org/en/home. Adopting the coalition’s efforts to “connect past struggles to today’s movements for human rights” with strategies for public art and other modes of engaging dialogue about incarceration, subjugation, and dehumanization is another way to bring unrepresented histories into public view. There are also opportunities to connect Downey Block to other Sites of Conscience downtown: the former Parker Center police department headquarters;30 Parker Center (constructed in 1955 and razed in 2019) is an apt site of conscience based on the histories of the building’s construction, which demolished a robust block of Little Tokyo including the Olympic Hotel, a Filipino church and community center, and other properties taken through eminent domain in 1949 shortly after neighborhood residents returned from wartime incarceration. The site’s notoriety also connects to the racial violence and consolidation of police power and authority affiliated with the tenure of the building’s namesake, Chief William Parker, as well as his successor, Chief Daryl Gates, culminating in the 1992 Rodney King uprising, when Parker Center was ground zero for protests. “Rightly or Wrongly: Parker Center’s Dark History Appears to Have Paved the Way for Its Demise,” Los Angeles Times, Feb. 17, 2017; Max Felker-Kantor, Policing Los Angeles: Race, Resistance, and the Rise of the LAPD (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2018). the Chinese massacre and other lynching sites around El Pueblo and Union Station; sites of forced removal in Little Tokyo and at the Japanese American National Museum (a participant in the Sites of Conscience coalition); locations of jails, prisons, and chain gang–constructed streets that mark the historical production of L.A. as a carceral space;31 See Hernández, City of Inmates. the site of the Brother Africa murder by police in Skid Row;32 Gale Holland, Sarah Parvini, and Angel Jennings, “On Skid Row, Grief and Anger after Fatal LAPD Shooting of Homeless Man,” Los Angeles Times, Mar. 2, 2015. and others.
  • Using the site to explicitly address the ways that unfree, forced, and poorly paid labor built the city, and labor movements’ role in agitating for workers’ rights.

Gardens as Sites for Honoring Labor History

Gardens afford us an opportunity to discuss many facets of history, including settler colonialism, race, gender, migration, structural inequality, and more. Gardens express cultural values and relationships to land. They also often obfuscate the labor needed to create and maintain them.33 The work of artist Ramiro Gomez brings labor into view, especially in relationship to wealthy landscapes. Lawrence Weschler, “Ramiro Gomez’s Domestic Disturbances,” New York Times Magazine, Aug. 14, 2015. Herein lies an opportunity to highlight labor in the present as well as in the past. For example, as authors Laura Pulido, Laura R. Barraclough, and Wendy Cheng wrote in A People’s Guide to Los Angeles,

Restricted from owning property by California’s Alien Land Laws of 1913 and 1920, many Japanese immigrants in Los Angeles, even those with college degrees and skilled trades, turned to gardening. Gardening allowed immigrants to start their own businesses with relatively little capital, offered some autonomy, and paid well compared to the few other occupations open to Japanese workers at the time. … By 1934, one-third of the Japanese labor force consisted of gardeners. They performed basic lawn care but also created more elaborate garden designs for wealthy white homeowners in some of the city’s most elite areas.34 Laura Pulido, Laura R. Barraclough, and Wendy Cheng, A People’s Guide to Los Angeles (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012), 53–54.

Japanese American flower growers made up over half the total number of flower growers in the L.A. area and produced over half of the products sold per year prior to World War II. They imported and developed unique varieties of flowers, such as camellias and ranunculus, and provided vital expertise. Despite the mass dispossession and devastation they suffered during internment, many flower growers were able to reestablish themselves after the war. The Southern California Flower Market downtown, which was founded by Japanese immigrants in 1912, is still in operation today.35 See for instance Naomi Hirahara, A Scent of Flowers: The History of the Southern California Flower Market, 1912–2004 (Pasadena: Midori Books, 2004); and Naomi Hirahara, Green Makers: Japanese Gardeners of Southern California (Los Angeles: Southern California Gardeners’ Federation, 2000).

We might consider one site or a multi-sited project where the garden can serve as a window into who has access to the space (allowing discussions of redlining, for example), labor, etc. Episodes in history that gardens can illuminate include the following:

  • Indigenous relationships to land transformed by Spanish and Anglo-American settler colonialism.
  • Japanese American history (farming, flower growing, cut-flower stands, gardening, and wartime incarceration/internment). Descendants of flower growing families as well as the related organizations (Southern California Flower Growers, Southern California Gardeners’ Federation) could be involved in the creation of garden(s).
  • Latinx immigration to Los Angeles and their role in gardening and as gardeners (with and then succeeding Japanese growers and gardeners, in the Flower Mart, and as part of the South Central Community Garden, for example).36 See for instance the documentary films The Garden, directed by Scott Hamilton Kennedy (Silverlake, CA: Black Valley Films, 2008); and Can You Dig This, directed by John Legend (Los Angeles: Delirio Films, 2015), which also features the Ron Finley Project (South Los Angeles street median gardens).
  • Gardens as migration projects, through shared knowledge (Padres Pioneros in San Fernando Valley, for example), multiethnic collaborations (such as the San Pedro Community Garden, begun by Filipino seafarers 45 years ago, joined by Croatian, Indonesian, Italian, Laotian, and Mexican gardeners).37 See Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo, Paradise Transplanted: Migration and the Making of California Gardens (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014). The artwork and audio tours of Jenny Yurshansky in such projects as Blacklisted: A Planted Allegory use plants to address sociopolitical constructs of borders and belonging (for example, classification of plants as “native,” “non-native,” or “invasive”), global trade in plants and bodies, and immigration policy. See Jenny Yurchansky website, undated, http://jennyyurshansky.com/Jenny_Yurshansky/Current.html.

We might also consider a garden dedicated to farm workers, perhaps located at or near City Hall. An example of such a site is the Farm Workers Garden at Pitzer College in Claremont (so named by a carpenter and farmworker working at Pitzer), which commemorates an ongoing relationship and dedication to working together for social change between students and farmworker communities in La Paz (Keene), California, and also conveys historical and present-day recognition of farm workers and the United Farm Workers of American union (UFW). This community garden is a welcoming space with many benches to pause and rest. Pitzer College is also home to a space focused on restoring and respecting Indigenous relationships to land, the Robert Redford Conservancy for Southern California Sustainability. Its director, Brinda Sarathy, works collaboratively with Tongva educators and elders to recreate a native plant ecological landscape as well as ceremonial spaces for Tongva communities.38 Additional sources include José Z. Calderón, “Transformative Community Engagement,” in The Cambridge Handbook of Service Learning and Community Engagement, edited by Corey Dolgon, Tania D. Mitchell, and Timothy K. Eatman (Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 2017), 500–10; and William Cronon, Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England (New York: Hill and Wang, [1983] 2003). Sandra de la Loza’s current work on Sleepy Lagoon with East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice suggests another model. See Carolina A. Miranda, “Goodbye, Guy on a Horse: A New Wave of Monument Design Is Changing How We Honor History,” Los Angeles Times, July 23, 2020.

Los Angeles River

The L.A. River is central to the City of Los Angeles, and it can narrate multiple erasures and restore to understanding many forces that have shaped Los Angeles and its problems. Indeed, the invisibility of the very natural resource that sustained the region is not just a metaphor for the invisibility of so much of the city’s population of builders; it is really part of the tale of the larger erasure of peoples—especially Indigenous, working-class, and impoverished peoples—who have long lived by the river.

In 1781, El Pueblo de la Reina de Los Angeles (the Town of the Queen of Angels) was founded on the river, the main artery of the city’s major watershed—where Gabrielino-Tongva, Ventureño-Chumash, and Fernandeño-Tataviam sustained themselves for thousands of years. L.A. relied on the river and its aquifers as the sole source of water. Only after the City drained and polluted the river, in the early 1900s, did L.A. begin to import water. Then, in the 1940s and 1950s, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built a deep, 51-mile-long concrete channel to control significant floods, replacing the river’s banks and most of its bottom with 3.5 million barrels of cement. L.A. County’s storm sewer system connected to the concrete channel, funneling thousands of toxins and most of the storm water into the river and then, efficiently, to the ocean.

Los Angeles forgot about its river. It became illegal even to go to this major public space. Encased in concrete, padlocked from wholesale public use, and crisscrossed with infrastructure (railroads, freeways, petroleum tanks, and refineries), when remembered at all it was from film, where it was most often cast as an abandoned, industrial, liminal space—a film noir–fueled racialized imaginary. In the 1980s, inspired by poet Lewis MacAdams—who restored the word “river” to describe what the Army Corps of Engineers insisted was a storm-control channel—artists and activists began to take the representational lead, giving words and imagery to the L.A. River, helping to make it visible again. In the last decade, grand-scale, ambitious projects have begun to revitalize L.A.’s notorious concrete river.

Although the L.A. River runs down an enormous channel through the heart of the city, and a huge cast of public, private, and nonprofit players is deploying increasingly large sums to make this revival happen, the river still remains stubbornly invisible to most Angelenos. Memorialization should achieve more than merely making what has been rendered invisible visible. Instead, the L.A. River can be a site where we highlight the ways that erasures have enabled the city’s uneven development. We ignored the river and its significance in providing water; we ignored climate and the larger ecology; we erased Indigenous presence and the ways that policies like zoning and de jure and de facto racism pushed poor people and communities of color to the flood-prone riverbanks, while whites fled the area—which, when paved, demarcated “further ethnic boundaries,” as William Deverell put it in Whitewashed Adobe.39 William Deverell, Whitewashed Adobe: The Rise of Los Angeles and the Remaking of Its Mexican Past (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004), 130, and chapter 3, “Remembering a River”; Jenny Price, “Thirteen Ways of Seeing Nature in LA, Part II,” The Believer, May 1, 2006; André Naffis-Sahely, “Shall We Gather at the River?,” Poetry Foundation, Dec. 14, 2020, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/articles/154948/shall-we-gather-at-the-river. Other sources include Karen Piper, Left in the Dust: How Race and Politics Created a Human and Environmental Tragedy in L.A. (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006); and Blake Gumprecht, The Los Angeles River: Its Life, Death, and Possible Rebirth (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999). The river offers opportunities for all these issues to be represented. Specific recommendations include the following:

  • Historians should be included in planning efforts. (This has not been the case for the County’s L.A. River Master Plan steering committee, the Lower L.A. River Revitalization Plan working group, or the Upper L.A. River and Tributaries Revitalization Plan working group.)40 Historian Catherine Gudis, this subcommittee’s chairperson, served on the Los Angeles River Master Plan Steering Committee as an alternate to Peter Sellars of UCLA’s World Arts and Cultures Department.
  • Funds related to planning and environmental reviews, among others, should be devoted to identifying tangible and intangible historic cultural resources, community-based knowledge, oral histories, asset mapping, etc., and could also go toward SurveyLA inclusion of more riverside sites.
  • An advocacy plan for an L.A. River cultural corridor for all 51 miles and 18 cities should be put into place.41 The County’s L.A. River Master Plan acknowledges the need for more research and cultural asset mapping along the length of the river. SurveyLA included the Northeast L.A. River Revitalization Area and other river-adjacent areas in the valley and downtown, but intangible, socially significant, and labor history sites remain underrepresented, in our view.

Historical themes ripe for representation include the following:

  • Water and waste. We should mark the different historical uses of the river, and those who labor(ed) on behalf of them, from zanjeros to the contemporary Tillman wastewater treatment operators and landscapers of its Van Nuys Japanese Garden, as well as the toxic industrial sites and those who work, live, and organize around them. Ed P. Reyes River Greenway in Lincoln Heights, a former brownfield site and storm drain operated by the L.A. Bureau of Sanitation, is an obvious location. Artworks that address historical water conveyance, such as Lauren Bon and Metabolic Studio’s multipart public sculpture Bending the Rizer Back into the City (2012–present), offer rich interpretive opportunities.42 Lauren Bon and Metabolic Studio’s Bending the River Back into the City “pierces the concrete straitjacket of the river” to divert water via a below-ground tunnel to a giant water wheel (mimicking nineteenth-century movement of the water around the same site) that will bring the water to bioremediation gardens before being redistributed to people in downtown L.A. See “Bending the River Back into the City,” Metabolic Studio Newsletter 1, May 2020, https://www.metabolicstudio.org/454.
  • The carceral city. Riverside thoroughfares (like Spring Street and Broadway) were built by Indigenous and other “vagrant” laborers. Forced labor cleared fields, cultivated vineyards, and built zanjas. The first jails were located next to the river. Reliance on criminalization to hide the unhoused, including police sweeps during the 1984 Olympics, for example, and the 1987 Skid Row sweeps, drove many to the river. The 4th Street Bridge, adjacent to which 2,600 unhoused people (including children) lived on City-owned property at the “Urban Campground” in 1987, and the 1927-built Lincoln Heights jail (which held people arrested in the Zoot Suit and Watts riots, and had a separate wing for queer men) are among possible sites.43 Hernández, City of Inmates; D. J. Waldie, “A River Still Runs through L.A.,” in Michael Kolster, L.A. River (Staunton, VA: George F. Thomas Publishing, 2019), 125–44; Lost Angeles: The Story of Tent City, directed by Tom Seidman (Berkeley: University of California Extension Media Center, 1988).
  • Farms and agricultural industry. Spanish colonists created an agricultural village on the banks of the L.A. River, and later settlers made it an empire, relying on the water and fertile soil for extensive vineyards, citrus orchards, and ranches. These ranged in size from large-scale commercial enterprises in the nineteenth century by William Wolfskill and vintner Jean-Luis Vignes to numerous family farms and parcels leased to Chinese and, in the twentieth century, Japanese fruit and vegetable farmers and nursery operators. Means of honoring those whose labor enabled this enterprise—Indigenous, migrant, immigrant, and (later) bracero workers—and the environmental impacts of such wholesale changes to the land and watershed could be interpreted at multiple locations, including sites where community gardens already operate and where other urban agriculture is planned.
  • The river itself. Controlling nature through technocracy is the central hallmark of how the river has been addressed since the first decades of the twentieth century. Yet how might we acknowledge that which has been beyond administrative and technological control, including the way the river changed shape (over centuries) and the impact of its concrete straitjacket? In prior centuries, the river was “unsettled” in terms of the waterway changing shape. Are there ways to mark this in the landscape or through critical cartography projects? Can indigenous uses (of tule reed, willow, medicinal plants, and food sources) serve as living memorial practices to reanimate conceptions of the river as a lifeway with ancestral spirit to be respected for the gifts it offers?44 See Native Traditions: Tongva Traditions, video, 11 min., 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ty2U3pg4jI0; and Native Traditions, video, 10 min., 2020, produced by Friends of the L.A. River; LA River Native Community Discussion, recording of an event held at the Autry Museum on June 1, 2019, sponsored by the Los Angeles City/County Native American Indian Commission as part of community outreach for the County’s revisions to the L.A. River Master Plan. Might acknowledging various cultural meanings of nature also enable creative approaches to pressing issues of watershed health and access to clean water and food?
  • Histories of displacement (people, water, ecosystem). Working-class communities of color, the impoverished, and those forced out of other neighborhoods (like Chavez Ravine) were pushed to floodplains and industrial corridors. Public discussions with community-based groups and public artists have addressed some of these connections to current land speculation and gentrification.
  • Infrastructural corridors. For nearly a century, the river has been used as infrastructure rather than a natural resource that sustains and connects communities. Clockshop’s Bowtie Project at Rio de Los Angeles State Park, including work by Rafa Esparza and Rosten Woo, is a model for activating historical and industrial sites. Ephemeral projects—performances, festivals, and temporary public art projects—have activated spaces of infrastructure to draw attention to them as elements of urban nature and to galvanize different publics in reenvisioning their potential as clean, green, public spaces. Such projects, including multiple engagements by the Los Angeles Urban Rangers, the Project 51 collective’s Play the LA River project, Sandra de la Loza’s Where the Rivers Join, and others suggest ways to shift cultural attitudes through public education and creative engagement. More investment on a regular basis in multiple modes of such forms of civic dialogue are needed.45 Examples include the Los Angeles Urban Rangers’ guided hikes, campfire talks, field kits, and other interpretive tools, http://www.laurbanrangers.org; Clockshop’s “Frogtown Futuro” series of tours and talks in 2014, https://clockshop.org/project/frogtown-futuro; projects by LA Más, a design office with deep experience in community engagement, https://www.mas.la/projects; Play the LA River’s 2014–15 events and educational workshops, https://playthelariver.com; and Sandra de la Loza’s Where the Rivers Join: Archival Hydromancy and Other Ghosts exhibition, 2017, https://www.hijadela.net/works/rivers-join-archival-hydromancy-ghosts.
  • Concrete. Where did the 3.5 million barrels it took to erase the river come from? Who made it? (Portland Cement was entirely Indigenous and Mexican labor.) How was it designed and fashioned into sewers, viaducts, and riverbeds? How have people used these sites, and how might they be repurposed for expressive means where the concrete cannot be removed?

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Understanding ‘Layers of Space’ is about understanding the ground one exists on. Every city is a palimpsest where traces of what has been erased are visible. In Los Angeles these layers include: the pre-civilization natural condition (specifically water); Indigenous civilizations, their communities and villages, their use of land and, in particular, their relation to water (e.g. ‘Sacred Springs’); 9 The ‘Historical Ecology of the Los Angeles River Watershed and Environs’ report (published June 15, 2020; William Deverell, Travis Longcore et al.): chapters 3.3. to 4 (Indigenous Landscape 9000BP-1769CE; European-American Conquest Landscape 1770s-1870s; The Urban Industrial Era: 1870s-Present) 18th century Spanish principles of city building, or land use policies—land reserved for the Crown vs.land granted to private landholders 10 'Los Angeles boulevard: eight x-rays of the body public', Douglas R. Suisman. Los Angeles Forum for Architecture and Urban Design, 1989 etc. to 20th century policies of redlining, racial or religious covenants and deed restrictions; or policies to determine the construction of freeways ;(again: one must emphasize that various other subcommittees were looking at these histories in greater detail). These factors have, and continue to, significantly shape the city’s map. The question for this subcommittee and for the larger Civic Memory work group must be: How does one make more visible these existing layers? How does one engender more awareness or sensitivity to the ground one exists on?

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Los Angeles has long been celebrated—and caricatured—as a “city of the future.” Does it follow that this sensibility invites or even requires minimal attention to the past? Given recent and ongoing upheavals across the United States regarding commemorative monuments, statues, and the like—underpinned by increasingly widespread and resonant cries for social justice—the conclusions of the Civic Memory Working Group and its subcommittees collected in this report may act as a corrective to metropolitan amnesia and a guide for public memorialization efforts moving forward. This report is a mere starting point in what the Mayor’s Office genuinely hopes will be a deeper, wider, and ongoing public conversation.

It begins with a simple provocation in the form of a question: What might it mean if the city of the future could simultaneously be lauded for its regard for the past? The many stages of a regionwide growth juggernaut of industrial, metropolitan, and suburban development in Southern California, from the 1880s forward, were accompanied at every step by campaigns and reflexes to elide and even destroy signs of the past. Relatively recent initiatives, including the SurveyLA work produced by the Department of City Planning’s Office of Historic Resources,[1]
09 The ‘Historical Ecology of the Los Angeles River Watershed and Environs’ report (published June 15, 2020; William Deverell, Travis Longcore et al.): chapters 3.3. to 4 (Indigenous Landscape 9000BP-1769CE; European-American Conquest Landscape 1770s-1870s; The Urban Industrial Era: 1870s-Present)
suggest an encouraging turn toward cataloging and protecting architectural and cultural heritage. Nonetheless, it is fair to say that the City of Los Angeles has traditionally given insufficient thought to the protection of older buildings and neighborhoods and the memories they embody.[2]

A rush to the future seems also to have narrowed possibilities for commemorative reckoning. Triumphalism, leached of any acknowledgment of history’s crimes and wounds, has been a powerful tool and motivator of commemoration. But it is a blunt, insensitive instrument of historic acknowledgment. Grief and rage, along with attempts at atonement—as dozens of galvanizing nationwide actions in 2020 clearly demonstrated—have roles to play in how views of present and past intermingle. Erasing monuments might temper triumphalism, but could the acts also erase the memory of conflicts that the monuments themselves deliberately rendered flat, simple, or fathomable? What if Los Angeles acknowledged both regret and triumph in its past and, in so doing, in its present?

Modern Los Angeles has a record of efforts, many of them violent or otherwise brutal, to establish Anglo or European-American prerogatives by directly whitewashing not just Indigenous, African American, Asian, Latinx, and other communities but also successive periods of Spanish and Mexican rule. Los Angeles has been more resolute in its successive erasures—and perhaps had more historical layers of non-Anglo history to erase—than other major cities. In confronting this fact, as many members of this working group have pointed out, “amnesia” may be too passive a word, inadequate in grappling with these intentional, systematic, and sometimes violent acts of removal and displacement.

Acts of forgetting and erasure, meanwhile, have a counterpart in the reworked past so prevalent in Southern California: that imagined past epitomized by, for instance, public understanding of the missions, Olvera Street, adobes, even the “star tours” of Hollywood and Beverly Hills. That effacing impulse might be tempered or more broadly contemplated by renewed attention to civic memory and its power, starting with honest attempts to confront what the writer and urban theorist Mike Davis, quoted elsewhere in this volume, calls “bad history” and to remember those who have resisted it.

There is an important caveat or coda that we should add to that set of observations about erasure. In certain ways, it is precisely this amnesia—or freedom from the weight of history or community expectation—that has made Los Angeles so attractive to successive waves of newcomers from around the country and the world, especially those working in creative fields like Hollywood but also architecture, literature, music, and art. One unifying strand of Los Angeles history—which is perhaps even central to the city’s sense of itself—is the degree to which it has been an attractive destination exactly because it represents, for many, the idea of leaving behind, forgetting, and creating anew.

National upheavals and conversations over the last five years or so about the fate of Confederate monuments and memorials, and increasingly about others (the Junípero Serra statues and other commemorations are fundamental regional case examples) have prompted a painful, overdue reckoning with the ways in which American cities have chosen to mark and commemorate their own histories, and with what stories have been rendered invisible or buried in the process. This working group recognizes an opportunity to articulate some essential qualities that make Los Angeles what it is, and in turn to distinguish its history and culture from those of other places.

When viewed alongside such protests as those launched by Black Lives Matter activists, it becomes clear that history—and various attempts to bury or distort it—lies at the heart of much that is happening. Voices of protest and anger are right to say that this is not new, it is systematic: how we have had to live (and die) for far too long. In other words, whether rage is focused on the name of a U.S. military base or patterns of racialized killings, this historical moment is linked organically—and inseparably—to the past. Any attempt at energizing civic memory must listen to those voices that have been repeating the same chord for years: that our shared past is grim. A city’s healthy regard for civic memory cannot assume that such memory must soothe.

Civic memory is a slippery construction; it is tricky enough to define each word fully on its own before we expect “civic” to modify “memory.”[3] Our aim in this report is to encourage the public installation of structures, performances, or other creative or material works that address this region’s past in ways and forms that actively challenge not just myths and languid triumphalism but also the mere comfort of forgetting.

The moment is now. Los Angeles has an opportunity to broaden and enrich a national discussion by confronting its own peculiar and fraught relationship with civic memory. Our city finds itself with both significant anniversaries at hand (150 years since the Anti-Chinese Massacre of 1871, 30 since the civil unrest of 1992) and major civic events (the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics) on the horizon. The process of marking these milestones will be more equitable, more inclusive, and ultimately more productive if it is part of broader, unified efforts to grapple forthrightly with the city’s forgotten or erased histories.

One of the many challenges we face is in finding, through collective dialogue, a balance between immediate policy recommendations and broader reflections on how to enrich and encourage a culture of civic memory in Los Angeles. That process will entail engagement with both remembering and forgetting, all the while acknowledging that the two are inextricable. The pitfalls and obstacles are many. To begin with, any commemorative effort can pose a trap. The danger of memorialization is its seductive and false clarity: it pretends to be only about the past, but the act of fixing memory in civic or personal form is undoubtedly also—perhaps primarily—a reflection or confirmation of the present moment. That is why, as we now recognize, statues and memorials are less about the person or event they commemorate than the moment in which a particular commemoration took or takes place.

Our city must guard against hubris, against any assumption that our moment’s perspective on the past is immutable, or that we have gained clarity or wisdom about history that earlier generations lacked. There are many reasons to be wary of any act of memorialization that seeks to give any one perspective some eternal power, that surrounds any given memorial with an aura of imagined permanence. The future deserves to find our era’s monuments—if they find them at all—malleable or elastic, able to be reimagined and rethought as perspectives of the past inevitably evolve.

Might we embrace or invite or encourage ephemeral commemorations that do not have the “fixed” problem built in and that do not unduly fetishize permanence? Can our design of new commemorative installations reach across multiple and dynamic scales and meanings, functioning beyond any singular and didactic narrative? We think that such an approach might be particularly well-suited to Los Angeles, a polycentric, dynamic, and unfinished city that has tended to distrust tidy narratives about its origins or its contemporary meanings. Public commemorations are political, and politics always change as the imagined future becomes the lived present. What we commemorate now will grow irrelevant or even offensive, sometimes quickly and sometimes gradually, as we have seen so clearly in 2020. In deeply divided moments like our own, the politics are going to be fraught. We must recognize this and understand that we cannot expect otherwise.

While there is no escaping these dilemmas, we might be able to mitigate them. Who speaks for any given community is not at all clear. We need to be careful not to have the City anoint one part of a community over another. So too, people might commemorate what is important to them or what they have been told ought to be important to them. All proposals should be open to some form of critique.

From the start, this working group has been careful to focus not on conclusions about what new monuments or memorials should look like, where they should be placed, or whom they should honor, but instead on underscoring the importance of thoughtful, equitable, and community-based processes for developing a broader civic base of historically minded initiatives. If there is one idea we have tried to knit into each section of our report, it is this one. There has been a noticeable civic price to pay for our ongoing lack of attention in Los Angeles to some of these questions and themes. Certain institutions make that toll clear even as they represent an opportunity for new approaches. Consider the Los Angeles City Archives, a less-than-well-known trove of civic memory in the form of documents and images. Professionally curated and archived, its vast collections ought to be better known. How can the archives staff and holdings play a larger role in encouraging and supporting civic memory efforts and programs, and how might we assist in this process? How can the holdings and the expertise of those who care for them be imagined in more distributive ways across neighborhoods and communities? Creative engagement with artists drawn from multiple communities, for instance, could highlight the City Archives as a locus through which to enhance civic memory while paying dividends by developing new collection acquisitions. This rich archive is itself a kind of monument to Los Angeles history. Its importance to both scholars and a wider public could be amplified in a range of creative ways.[4]

In a related fashion, Los Angeles civic memory is served by continual and widespread encouragement to archive and otherwise collect (and interpret and distribute) stories and memories. Finding ways for the City to interact with grassroots efforts that celebrate individual narratives may lead to progress here, as might weaving together institutional partnerships with libraries, archive outposts, churches, and community centers. Perhaps efforts to enhance the Los Angeles content of the region’s K–12 education could be a larger (if ambitious) arc of a renewed commitment to civic memory. To be sure, a deep and diverse network of historical engagement can encourage the region’s residents to engage civic histories beyond statues and built memorials.

Not all civic memory enhancements need be new creations. Part of what this report intends is to determine what memorials and commemorative installations are already out there, why they came to be, and where they reside—or, for that matter, when and under what circumstances they disappeared. Cataloging and publicizing them might be followed by efforts to understand them anew. Might we refresh some or most of them, and in so doing ask them to teach us about matters that are not decided, about interpretations that have changed or must be challenged? Sometimes it will be right to make something new. Sometimes it will be right to change, remove, or add to something old. Sometimes it will be right to foster partnerships between the City and community members or institutions. Sometimes it will be right for the City to do nothing, or to make a point of moving out of the way.

As to this last point, the “get out of the way” approach, this report questions in a number of ways how well the City and its structures of power and policy balance listening with action. Is the City of Los Angeles listening long and deeply enough to the needs coming from its communities, and understanding well enough the way those communities make use of civic memory? What good is accomplished if policy fights spontaneity or if centralized memorialization inhibits eruptions of grassroots emotion and power? Policies and procedures for initiating, revisiting, and taking down memorials are important. But so too is knowing that memorialization with no municipal oversight must always be encouraged. The recent and remarkable memorializations of Kobe Bryant and Nipsey Hussle offer powerful cases in point. We believe that it would be a mistake to overly bureaucratize memorialization protocols and approvals to the extent that the passion, spontaneity, grief, and ephemerality of a moment in history is lost, avoided, or otherwise diluted. Better to encourage or at least not stand in the way of such moments, and, once they have been enacted, to find ways to mark, remember, call attention to, and learn from them.[5]

Our approach to memorials, new and older, might also include a broader embrace of places (plazas, parks, and open space), which invite reflection and may more subtly acknowledge people or moments from the past. As sites of gathering, such spaces can be embraced and engaged in the present, support everyday life in an ongoing manner, and intertwine with and scaffold the future while simultaneously inviting thoughts on the past. Similarly, marches, festivals, and performances and storytelling (or spontaneous displays of citywide grief) can also be valid markers of a historical event, person, or place. The cycle of rituals can tease out different aspects of memorialization over time. Protests, as noted above, are key moments of remembering—every bit as much as parades and festivals—and deserve to be recognized as such.

One way to escape the presentist tendencies of memorialization would be to layer memorialization across time in a single space. For each set of acknowledged community memories in a given Los Angeles neighborhood, for example, a second set of simple markers or a text could note the people who lived or worked there before the present community became established, reaching back to include Indigenous communities. As a palimpsest, then, it would be fairly straightforward to acknowledge the Native American past all across the Los Angeles Basin.[6]

But the recognition can go deeper in time and demography. The diversity of community in Los Angeles invites us to consider additional layers (the east side and Boyle Heights, for example). Consider the Breed Street Shul in Boyle Heights. After decades of abandonment, there is now a movement to rehabilitate the structure to preserve the memory of the largely and mostly forgotten Boyle Heights Jewish community. What one generation seeks to forget and leave behind, another is trying to rescue from amnesia’s oblivion. How can memorials be powerful reminders of the past and interpreters of it at once? To underscore an earlier point, Los Angeles is unusual among American cities in its embrace—a civic paradox, to be sure—of a certain tradition of productive forgetting, of a refusal to be weighed down by tradition or restricted by traditional ideas about patronage, lineage, influence, and the like. All of this relates to another challenge: how do we remember events that may have no constituency in the present?

At the level of policy and staffing, could we imagine historical context and perspective being required at municipal, policy-level discussions, and factored into subsequent policy creation? What about at municipal speeches? Might the City have a municipal officer serving as historian, or some sort of term rotation for this role? Might we consider partnerships with local educational and cultural institutions (in part to sidestep possible politicization of the position) so that this position might be taken up in turn by curators, archivists, community leaders, artists, and historians?

Finally, the Civic Memory Working Group believes strongly that Los Angeles should create mechanisms for retiring as well as establishing sites of memory and memorialization. Creating memorials is a political act, as is taking them down. How might we retire monuments that have, for one reason or another, stood beyond their meaning, purpose, or appropriateness? We need a way to make sure that such decommissioning does not become a contest of force, a competition in defacement. On a related note, when decisions are made to remove a certain monument or memorial, should the City consider, for a variety of reasons, allowing for partial removal? Might memorial ruins become sites for a kind of contemplation distinct from the moment when this or that commemorative piece was erected or enacted?

Anything approved as a result or in the name of this effort will be analyzed and judged. We should hope as much. We ought to lay ourselves bare in our proposals and obligations, while at the same time giving room for our ideas and claims to evolve. The aim should be that this report, and the commemorations that follow, are discussed and debated widely: a new beginning to an ongoing dialogue in a city that has sometimes seemed to love its imagined future more than its complex present or contested past.



Understanding ‘Layers of Space’ is about understanding the ground one exists on. Every city is a palimpsest where traces of what has been erased are visible. In Los Angeles these layers include: the pre-civilization natural condition (specifically water); Indigenous civilizations, their communities and villages, their use of land and, in particular, their relation to water (e.g. ‘Sacred Springs’);
09 The ‘Historical Ecology of the Los Angeles River Watershed and Environs’ report (published June 15, 2020; William Deverell, Travis Longcore et al.): chapters 3.3. to 4 (Indigenous Landscape 9000BP-1769CE; European-American Conquest Landscape 1770s-1870s; The Urban Industrial Era: 1870s-Present)
18th century Spanish principles of city building, or land use policies—land reserved for the Crown vs.land granted to private landholders
10'Los Angeles boulevard: eight x-rays of the body public', Douglas R. Suisman. Los Angeles Forum for Architecture and Urban Design, 1989
etc. to 20th century policies of redlining, racial or religious covenants and deed restrictions; or policies to determine the construction of freeways ;(again: one must emphasize that various other subcommittees were looking at these histories in greater detail). These factors have, and continue to, significantly shape the city’s map. The question for this subcommittee and for the larger Civic Memory work group must be: How does one make more visible these existing layers? How does one engender more awareness or sensitivity to the ground one exists on?

Understanding ‘Layers of Space’ is about understanding the ground one exists on. Every city is a palimpsest where traces of what has been erased are visible. In Los Angeles these layers include: the pre-civilization natural condition (specifically water); Indigenous civilizations, their communities and villages, their use of land and, in particular, their relation to water (e.g. ‘Sacred Springs’);

09

The ‘Historical Ecology of the Los Angeles River Watershed and Environs’ report (published June 15, 2020; William Deverell, Travis Longcore et al.): chapters 3.3. to 4 (Indigenous Landscape 9000BP-1769CE; European-American Conquest Landscape 1770s-1870s; The Urban Industrial Era: 1870s-Present)

18th century Spanish principles of city building, or land use policies—land reserved for the Crown vs.land granted to private landholders

10

‘Los Angeles boulevard: eight x-rays of the body public’, Douglas R. Suisman. Los Angeles Forum for Architecture and Urban Design, 1989

etc. to 20th century policies of redlining, racial or religious covenants and deed restrictions; or policies to determine the construction of freeways ;(again: one must emphasize that various other subcommittees were looking at these histories in greater detail). These factors have, and continue to, significantly shape the city’s map. The question for this subcommittee and for the larger Civic Memory work group must be: How does one make more visible these existing layers? How does one engender more awareness or sensitivity to the ground one exists on?

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Understanding ‘Layers of Space’ is about understanding the ground one exists on. Every city is a palimpsest where traces of what has been erased are visible. In Los Angeles these layers include: the pre-civilization natural condition (specifically water); Indigenous civilizations, their communities and villages, their use of land and, in particular, their relation to water (e.g. ‘Sacred Springs’);09 The ‘Historical Ecology of the Los Angeles River Watershed and Environs’ report (published June 15, 2020; William Deverell, Travis Longcore et al.): chapters 3.3. to 4 (Indigenous Landscape 9000BP- 1769CE; European-American Conquest Landscape 1770s-1870s; The Urban Industrial Era: 1870s-Present) 18th century Spanish principles of city building, or land use policies—land reserved for the Crown vs. land granted to private landholders10 'Los Angeles boulevard: eight x-rays of the body public', Douglas R. Suisman. Los Angeles Forum for Architecture and Urban Design, 1989 hello etc. to 20th century policies of redlining, racial or religious covenants and deed restrictions; or policies to determine the construction of freeways ;(again: one must emphasize that various other subcommittees were looking at these histories in greater detail). These factors have, and continue to, significantly shape the city’s map. The question for this subcommittee and for the larger Civic Memory work group must be: How does one make more visible these existing layers? How does one engender more awareness or sensitivity to the ground one exists on?

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Understanding ‘Layers of Space’ is about understanding the ground one exists on. Every city is a palimpsest where traces of what has been erased are visible. In Los Angeles these layers include: the pre-civilization natural condition (specifically water); Indigenous civilizations, their communities and villages, their use of land and, in particular, their relation to water (e.g. ‘Sacred Springs’); 18th century Spanish principles of city building, or land use policies—land reserved for the Crown vs. land granted to private landholders10 'Los Angeles boulevard: eight x-rays of the body public', Douglas R. Suisman. Los Angeles Forum for Architecture and Urban Design, 1989 11'Los Angeles boulevard: eight x-rays of the body public', Douglas R. Suisman. Los Angeles Forum for Architecture and Urban Design, 1989