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.
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, â€œMonument Lab,â€ 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.
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:
Gardens as Sites for Honoring Labor History
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.
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 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,  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?