Introductory Subcommittee

Sharon, Bill, Marisa, Kelly, Chris, Richard, Eric

Los Angeles has long been celebrated as well as caricatured as the “city of the future.” Perhaps it follows that this sensibility invites or even requires minimal attention to the past. Given contemporary upheavals across the nation regarding commemorative monuments, statues, and the like, the work of the Civic Memory Working Committee may perhaps act as a corrective to metropolitan amnesia, as well as a guide to contemplating public memorialization endeavors moving forward.  

The work of the committee and its sub-committees has proceeded with shared awareness of these opportunities and obligations. This report is but a starting point in what is fervently hoped will be a deeper, wider, and on-going public conversation about the past in our city and region.  What might it mean to community, history, and memory if the city of the future could simultaneously be lauded for its regard for the past?

The many stages of a region-wide growth juggernaut of industrial, metropolitan, and suburban development, ca. 1880-forward, arrived with concomitant campaigns and reflexes to elide and destroy signs of the past. Though relatively recent initiatives – including the Getty Foundation-funded Survey L.A. – suggest an encouraging turn toward cataloging and protecting architectural and cultural heritage, it is fair to say that in Los Angeles there has traditionally been insufficient thought given to the protection of older buildings and neighborhoods and the memories they contain. What has been lost in the top-down drive towards progress and modernity that accelerated in the middle decades of the last century is a long list of sites and places and all that they meant to the people who knew them well. The 10 freeway bulldozed the historic Sugar Hill neighborhood. A rush to the future seems, as well, 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, as well as attempts at atonement, as dozens of galvanizing nationwide actions in the past months clearly demonstrate, have roles to play in how the present shares views of the past. 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, Latino and other communities but successive periods of Spanish and Mexican rule. Los Angeles has been more stalwart in successive erasures – and perhaps had more historical layers of non-Anglo history to erase – than is the case in other major cities. 

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 including Hollywood but also architecture, literature, music and art. One unifying strand of Los Angeles history – perhaps even central to the city’s sense of itself – is the degree to which it has been an attractive destination exactly because, for many, it represents the idea of leaving behind, forgetting and creating anew. This has been as true for the aspiring actor or architect as for many generations of immigrants from across the country and the world.

We sense an opportunity to recognize some essential qualities that make Los Angeles what it is and to, in turn, distinguish its history and culture from other metropoles.

National upheavals and conversations over the last five years or so about the fate of Confederate monuments and memorials, and increasingly about others (the Fr. Junipero 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 what stories have been rendered invisible or buried in the process.  

When viewed alongside such protests as those launched by Black Lives Matter activism, for instance, it is clear that history – and various attempts to bury or distort it – lies at the heart of much that is happening. What voices of protest and anger often say is that this is not new; instead it is systematic and how we have had to live (and die) for far too long. So whether rage is focused on the name of a U.S. military base or patterns of racialized killings, our moment looks to be linked organically to the past. Any attempt at energizing civic memory must listen to those voices that have been repeating the same finding for years: 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, as the definition of each of the two words is already difficult before we expect civic to serve as adjective to memory.  Our aim is to encourage the public installation of structures, performances, or other creative works which address this region’s past in ways and forms that challenge myths, languid triumphalism, or the mere comfort of forgetting. Our hope is that civic memory installations in Los Angeles– of whatever form they take – address history and memory fearlessly, in public, and without suggestion or taint of authoritative origin or impulse. 

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 (30 years since the civil unrest of 1992) and major civic events (the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics) on the horizon – milestones that will be more equitable, more inclusive and ultimately more productive if they are grounded in efforts to grapple forthrightly with the forgotten or erased histories of this city and its tendency toward civic amnesia.

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.

Pitfalls and obstacles are many.  

To begin with, any commemorative effort can pose a trap. The danger of memory is its seductive and false clarity. It pretends to be only about the past, but memory in civic or personal form is undoubtedly also – and 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 particularly commemoration took or takes place.  

Our city must guard against hubris and 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 have lacked. There are many reasons to be wary of any act of memorialization that “foreverizes” any one perspective or one that cloaks any given memorial with the figurative amber of permanence. The future deserves to find our era’s monuments – if they find them at all — as malleable or elastic, able to be re-imagined and re-thought as perspectives upon the past inevitably evolve.

Might we embrace or invite or encourage ephemeral commemorations which do not have the “fixed” problem built in and which do not unduly fetishize permanence or suggest that our time has, by way of fixity, bronze, concrete, or iron, answered the questions of what parts of the past belong in public prominence in our present and future? Or can our design of new commemorative installations engage across multiple and dynamic scales and meanings – functioning beyond any singular and didactic narrative? 

We think 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.

Ideas in regard to more specific recommendations:

Public commemorations are political, and politics always change as the imagined future becomes the lived present. What we commemorate now will – sometimes quickly and sometimes gradually – grow irrelevant or even offensive, 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 honestly and understand that we cannot expect otherwise.

There is no escaping these dilemmas, but we might be able to mitigate them. Who speaks for any given community is not at all clear. We need to be careful to have the city anoint one part of a community over another. So, too: people might commemorate what is important to them or they might commemorate what they have been told should be important to them. All proposals should be open to some kind 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 or even whom they should honor but instead on thoughtful, equitable and community-based processes for developing such historically minded initiatives.

Consider the Los Angeles City Archives, a less-than-well-known trove of civic memory in documents and images. Professionally curated and archived, its vast collections ought to be better known. How can the Archives staff and holdings be assisted so as to play a bigger role in encouraging and supporting civic memory efforts and programs? How can the holdings and 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 Archives as a key site by which to enhance civic memory and pay dividends in terms of collection development for new acquisitions. This rich archive is itself a kind of monument to Los Angeles history its importance to the both scholars and a wider public could be underscored in a range of creative ways.

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 to interact with grassroots efforts which celebrate individual narratives offer some examples of this, as would weaving institutional partnerships from libraries, archive outposts, churches, and community centers. Perhaps a larger arc of a renewed commitment to civic memory could be ambitious efforts at enhancing the Los Angeles content of K-12 education in the region. To be sure, a diverse and deep network of historical engagement can encourage the region’s residents to engage civic histories beyond statues and built memorials.

Not all enhancements of civic memory need be new creations, captures of memory, or events.  Part of what this report is about is its attempt 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.) But moving beyond “this is at this location, go see it” is a fundamental obligation of this effort. It is step one to note those sites/memorials/installations extant all over the city.  

Cataloging and publicizing them might be followed efforts to understand them anew. Might we refresh some/most/all of them, and in so doing ask them to teach us about matters that are not decided, about interpretations which 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 stay out of the way and do nothing.  

As to that last point, the “get out of the way” choice: how well does 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 they understand and 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 memorials, re-visiting them, and taking them down are important. But so too is knowing that memorialization must always be encouraged with no municipal oversight. The recent and remarkable memorialization of Kobe Bryant (as well as his daughter and the others who perished in a January, 2020 helicopter crash) is a powerful case in point. It would be a grave mistake, we believe, to overly bureaucratize memorialization protocols and approvals such that the passion, spontaneity, grief, and ephemerality of a moment in history is lost, avoided, or otherwise diluted. Better yet to encourage or at least not trammel such moments and, once they have been enacted, to find ways to mark, remember, and call attention to them

Our approach to memorials – new and older – might also include a broader embrace of places – plazas, parks, open space – that 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/storytelling (or spontaneous displays of citywide grief) can also be valid markers of an historical event, person or place. The cycle of rituals could pull out different aspects of a memorialization over time. Protests, as noted above, are key moments of remembering and memorialization (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 space. For each set of acknowledged community memories in a given Los Angeles neighborhood, for example, a second set of simple memorials could note the people who lived there before the present community became established. As a palimpsest, then, it would be fairly simple to acknowledge the Native American past all across the Los Angeles Basin. (And, indeed, any Indigenous Land Acknowledgement Policy of the type being considered by one of the subcommittees of this Working Group might be strengthened by an insistence that we recognize Native histories and placemaking not merely as part of public ceremonies but in the framing of public spaces.) 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 St. Shul in Boyle Heights.  After decades of abandonment there is a 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 oblivion of amnesia. How can we acknowledge both practices of forgetting and remembering? 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; its arts and culture, in particular, have benefited directly from a refusal to be weighed down by tradition or restricted by traditional ideas about patronage, lineage, influence and the like.

All 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 creation? At municipal speeches? Might the city have a municipal officer serving as historian? Or a rotation of terms for same? Might we consider partnerships with local educational and cultural institutions (in part to sidestep possible politicization of the position) so that this position be taken up seriatim by curators, archivists, historians?  

Finally, we should create mechanisms for retiring as well as establishing sites of memory and memorialization. Creating memorials is a political act, so is taking them down. We need a way to make sure this does not become a contest of force, a competition in defacement. On a related note, when decisions are made to remove X or Y, should the city consider, for a variety of reasons, allowing for partial removal: might memorial ruins become sites for a different kind of contemplation from when this or that commemorative piece was erected or enacted? How might we retire monuments that have, for one reason or another, stood beyond their meaning, purpose, or appropriateness?

Anything done will be judged and critiqued. We should hope as much. We ought to lay ourselves bare in our ideas and obligations, though allowing for the revision of our ideas and claims to evolve. The aim should be that the report, and the commemorations which follow, will be discussed and debated widely, a new beginning to an unending dialogue.