This subcommittee was chaired by Danielle Brazell, general manager of the Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs, and Rosten Woo, an artist and cofounder and former executive director of the Center for Urban Pedagogy in Brooklyn, New York. Its other members were Nora Chin, deputy chief design officer in the Office of Mayor Eric Garcetti; A. P Diaz, executive officer and chief of staff for the Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks; Laura Dominguez, a doctoral candidate in history at USC; Taj Frazier, professor of communication and director of the Institute for Diversity and Empowerment at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism; Catherine Gudis, director of the Public History Program at UC Riverside; Leslie Ito, executive director of the Armory Center for the Arts in Pasadena; Shannon Ryan, senior planner with the Los Angeles Department of City Planning; and David Torres-Rouff, chair of history in the Department of History and Critical Race and Ethnic Studies at UC Merced.
Throughout the United States and Europe, historical landmarks and monuments are being torn down; defaced and remade with graffiti, street art, and public performance; and identified as vestiges and public reminders of state violence, white supremacy, and Euro-American empire. These monuments were shaped to reflect the achievements of predominantly white, middle- to upper-class, landholding men. Through such places, landmarks, and symbols, the state and segments of the public perpetuate a very particular relationship to the past, present, and future.
We are currently living through a worldwide movement, or collection of movements, seeking to confront such legacies of power and historical erasure. Popular demands for change and a massive redistribution of power represents a powerful inflection point—a radical shift in collective mood and expression, a significant modulation in the pitch of calls and demands for sweeping changes to the existing economic, racial, political, and cultural status quo.
Reconstituting civic memory and civic imagination is an integral part of this growing effort. The collective demand for structural transformation will not be fully answered without a process of revisiting and reimagining city, state, and national histories, objects, narratives, and places. None of these should be perceived as fixed, static sites of history and memorial. Instead, they represent an opportunity to understand and reveal the dynamics and multifaceted strategies of power, as well as strategies of resistance, survival, and resilience. An effort to embrace civic memory will be most effective if it grows carefully from processes with the capacity to activate serious and frank discussion, truth-telling, and reconciliation.
The process of reconstituting civic memory should begin with an acknowledgement that there is no singular or agreed-upon past. We can accomplish this by bringing people together and facilitating practices and encounters where they are able to freely express their stories, as well as listen to and learn from the stories and memories of other groups—especially those whose experiences and stories have been systematically ignored, erased, and marginalized. Doing so means rethinking and troubling dominant histories, landmarks, names, events, and more.
Activating people’s civic imaginations—that is, their ideas, perspectives, and practices of civic engagement, action, and hope—is key. Sites, practices, and activations of civic memory should not be premised merely on offering a succinct, top-down narrative of what has transpired, but on new spaces to position different historical people, groups, and events alongside (that is to say, in relation to) one another, in order to critically consider differences as well as intersections and ways forward.Reframing the City’s Role from Gatekeeper to Resource
To better serve residents, the City should consider a change in perspective and approach in identifying and officializing monuments. The process governing Historic-Cultural Monument designation (hereafter HCMD, covered by 22.171, Article 1, Chapter 9, Division 22 and amended most recently under Ordinance 185472) is one example. Currently, the City operates as a gatekeeper: private citizens, community groups, or City Council members must first invest considerable time, expertise, and financial resources to make an HCMD application, which then faces a gauntlet of four different municipal bodies (the Office of Historic Resources, the Cultural Heritage Commission, the Planning and Use Management Committee, and finally the full City Council) over a period of several months. To the average citizen, this process may seem at the very least not worth the effort, and at worst adversarial; it may discourage individuals and communities from working to commemorate their histories, their struggles, and their successes. Moreover, these barriers are especially acute for communities that are underrepresented, either in existing monuments to civic memory or by way of contemporary political, economic, or social status. Communities are usually underrepresented because they lack financial resources, political capital, and, frankly, time. The current process, in our view, requires an excess of all three.
We see an opportunity for the City to reimagine its role in granting HCMD status as part of a larger reframing of what it means to commemorate significant historical-cultural elements in the fabric of Los Angeles. Specifically, we encourage the City to transform itself from being a gatekeeper to being a proactive, resident-friendly facilitator. Rather than establishing checkpoints, the City has an opportunity to incubate communication and enable the HCMD process by serving as a clearinghouse for the different kinds of knowledge (historical, architectural, social, etc.) and a partner to help communities navigate municipal systems. A parallel shift to a workflow modeled on best practices in civic engagement and community-based research would have the City actively reaching out to communities and asking how they would like to be supported, empowering individuals and communities to take leading roles in pursuing an HCMD and opening the city more generally to be shaped by its citizens. This new approach would also de-emphasize the ultimate designation as the singular goal of the HCMD process and privilege instead dialogue, conversation, and creativity around remembering the past, commemorating place, or recognizing achievements.A Few Lessons from Here and Elsewhere
As a group, our subcommittee looked at and discussed models from Los Angeles and elsewhere, including Biddy Mason Memorial Park, the Sei Fujii Memorial Lantern, the Bracero Monument, the Pan Pacific Park, Manilatown in San Francisco, the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience, the Equal Justice Initiative, commemorations of the 1871 Anti-Chinese Massacre, and Monument Lab. Some lessons we drew from those investigations include the following:
- Most physical markers in L.A. happen because of interest or permission from a private developer (or, in earlier decades, a municipal arm like the Community Redevelopment Agency). Although this sometimes has fine results, it is not a good model for ensuring that representative or difficult stories are told.
- Truly successful civic memory projects and monuments emerge from longer processes and engagements and happen in concert with other work, like legal restitution, community development, and cultural programming.
- Considerable power over creation and naming of public markers rests with elected city officials in a way that can make the process seem capricious or unfair.
- In some cases, routine maintenance of parks (for example, after recent Black Lives Matter actions) can result in lost assets. This situation could be avoided with expanded staff training.
Los Angeles has several existing programs intended to commemorate, celebrate, and honor events, people, and places found to be of importance to the city. These programs include:
- The Historic-Cultural Monument designation program, under the City Planning Department’s Office of Historic Resources
- The Citywide Mural Program, administered by the Department of Cultural Affairs
- SurveyLA, Citywide Historic Context Statements, and HistoricPlacesLA, administered by the Office of Historic Resources
- Neighborhood identification/naming signs through the Office of the City Clerk
- Park-naming through Department of Recreation and Parks sponsorship
- Public art commissioned by the Department of Cultural Affairs as part of the Percent for Art Programs
Each of these programs evolved in a particular period of L.A.’s history and address the concept of civic memory in varying formats. Each of their processes could be more transparent: at the very least, the average citizen should be able to easily learn what each program entails and how its works are initiated. At best, these programs could all be reconfigured to be generative, inclusive, and even joyful. Programs like HCMD should explore ways to further prioritize nominations for underrepresented property types and neighborhoods, as well as properties with significant cultural or ethnic association. These programs should also create grant programs to help communities with on-site plaques, markers, or other interpretive displays at designated Historic-Cultural Monuments, prioritizing properties associated with underrepresented groups, stories, or themes. They should also create online educational resources that allow members of the general public to see the designations that do exist. And the City should better use its existing platforms to promote public participation.
Further, the designation process should be redesigned to collect and store the testimony and research that it produces so that others can easily access it. The naming of streets, squares, and parks, too, should be more transparent and broader based. The City should establish a standard accession period for public art (this subcommittee suggests 30 years), after which a work is reevaluated or deaccessioned—especially works that are “gifted” to the city.
Civic memory is also negotiated in many spaces beyond formal cultural recognition. Thoughtful recognition of history should be incorporated into staff trainings, land use permits, and legal restitution; it should not be confined to a cultural sphere or naming. The City should create cultural competency and racial bias trainings to better prepare staff to recognize significant assets when they encounter them. Civic memory work should be introduced into land use review processes and community benefits agreements (beyond archeological reports). Land acknowledgement should be added to official city title and land-use structures, not just in official events.New Modes and New Models
More significant than creating additional pathways for naming, signage, and building markers, we recommend that the City also explore alternate models of fostering civic memory. The guiding principles behind all such models should be to challenge conventional notions of monumentality; to counter dominant traditions that fortify white supremacy and condone misrepresentation and cultural erasure; and to avoid top-down interpretations that are “fixed and fearful” (a phrase used by historians to describe how national parks have often watered down interpretation and been reluctant to change narratives once in place). Among the challenges is to question what constitutes the heroic—the typical motif of monuments—in order to defy the idea that historical change is brought about by the heroics of individuals; and to recognize that quotidian as well as ephemeral cultural practices (such as music and sound, oral history, movement and performance, and parade, among others) are also significant means of recall, memory marking, and placemaking. Cultural asset mapping—identifying cultural resources that are living as well as those that are markers of the past—is one way to begin to meet the abovementioned challenges. Such studies need to be extremely localized, on the ground, and community-based in order to identify layers of memory embedded in practices and in place (from parades, rallies, and cruising to legacy businesses, ethnically specific markets, and restaurants to informal or quasi-private places of congregation like cafes, front yards, barbershops, etc.). Such places can be fixed in memory based on a cartography of pain or violence (for instance, photos and memories of the intersection of Florence and Normandie, a key site in the 1992 unrest in Los Angeles). They can even be considered means of fostering civic memory unto themselves. The Pico-Union project of the Alliance for California Traditional Arts and other asset mappings expand the definition of living treasures and living traditions. The social and cultural ethnography and critical cartography involved in such projects can contribute to planning efforts as well as public art and other means of expressing findings in other public settings, materials, and forms.
It is also important to embed processes of community archiving into every project. By this, we mean ensuring that oral histories and community collections are both process and end product—a means of discovering a “people’s history” and also archiving it. Again, the goal should be both to foster civic memory and to activate community-based processes, not as boxes to check off in planning a project but always as a starting point. Importantly, such collecting might restore voices typically unheard or underrepresented in traditional archives. For instance, a recent L.A. Times op-ed calling out freeways as the most racist of California monuments begs the question of what to do with this and other similarly massive works of infrastructure.01 Matthew Fleischer, “Want to Tear Down Insidious Monuments to Racism and Segregation? Bulldoze L.A. Freeways,” Los Angeles Times, June 24, 2020; Steve Chiotakis, “LA Freeways: The Infrastructure of Racism,” Greater LA podcast, KCRW, June 30, 2020, https://www.kcrw.com/news/shows/greater-la/robert-fuller-freeways-urbanism-race/la-freeways. Short of literally bringing down freeways, we might be resolute in collecting stories of displacement and containment, and then create markers and memorial spaces—including the spaces beneath, alongside, or above, as with Chicano Park in San Diego and Underpass Park in Toronto—to repair rifts and seek other forms of reparation.
The truth and reconciliation model advocated by the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience might inform such measures. At the Tenement Museum in New York City, immigrant stories are tools to connect past and present. That and other Sites of Conscience suggest actionable ways to define civic memory in our city so that it is useful and equitable.
The Equal Justice Initiative’s iterative approach also offers lessons: one is to partner with nonprofit organizations that take human rights as a fundamental objective; another is to validate new data collection that enriches knowledge production, and then use it to put counter-narratives in place with otherwise traditional plaques, followed by monuments that foster a retaking of space and history—museum exhibitions, archives, and public art, to name a few. The Community Remembrance Project in Alabama, through which communities collect soil from lynching sites for display in exhibits bearing lynching victims’ names, is one of many Equal Justice Initiatives worthy of emulation.
Modeling both Monument Lab in Philadelphia and its offshoot in New Orleans, Paper Monuments, the City should look to incorporate a range of grassroots and public-private collaborations that can be intensely working-class and multiracial in focus. Such was a central goal of Paper Monuments, which in one phase collected 1,500 proposals from people of all ages, then distilled the themes and site suggestions, and finally brought artists in to create a selected few. A lesson from Monument Lab is to embrace temporary installations as a way to spur conversations and let the ideas that gain a constituency pursue permanence.Recommendations
Civic memory is more than statues and commemoration. It is most powerful when connected to other systems—mechanisms of redress and restitution, institutions of community and culture, and present-day conversations. The City should shift its role from that of gatekeeper to facilitator and focus on developing capacity and resources to serve the ends of civic engagement and civic memory. The City should look at ways to proactively engage communities in identifying assets, interpreting them, and using them as resources. A city is likely always to be risk-averse—a position that does not serve marginalized communities in their pursuit of honest stories about past injustice. The City should partner with other groups that may have a freer hand and deeper community connections. “Historic designation” should not be seen as the end goal; it leaves much of what is valuable about civic memory to the side. The process of formal recognition can feel like a series of barriers to the average person. Communities without access to power and political sway will always be under-resourced and therefore underrepresented in clearing a “standard” set of hurdles to official designation. The City should work to facilitate more civic memory, not less.
Existing processes for designation, naming, and public marking should be made more transparent. The City should shift resources, navigating them toward underrepresented communities; help underrepresented groups organize and develop nominations; and find ways to collect, preserve, and share the material generated in these processes. The naming of sites and commissioning of monuments should not fall to individual elected officials.
The city should also look for ways to partner with NGOs, educational organizations and specialists, and community-based organizations to create longer-term engagements with history, asset mapping, and education that will build genuine engagements with the past and real constituencies for monuments and markers.
Finally, this subcommittee has a recommendation for the larger Civic Memory Working Group of which it is a part: the Working Group should work to incorporate the kinds of stakeholders named above into the process of evaluating, shaping, and discussing the proposals and ideas of this initiative. Doing so will create new insights, generate greater legitimacy around the eventual findings of the work, and perhaps most importantly, generate public momentum around this work such that the report’s recommendations have a better chance of being implemented. We imagine this as a series of public discussions, talks, and listening sessions hosted by small and large institutions and community-based organizations across greater Los Angeles.