Introductory Considerations

This subcommittee was chaired by William Deverell, professor of history at the University of Southern California, director of the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West, and author of numerous books, including Whitewashed Adobe: The Rise of Los Angeles and the Remaking of Its Mexican Past (University of California Press, 2004); and Sharon Johnston, partner and cofounder of Johnston Marklee & Associates, an architecture firm based in Los Angeles. Its other members were Eric Avila, professor of history, Chicana/o studies, and urban planning at UCLA and author, among other books, of The Folklore of the Freeway: Race and Revolt in the Modernist City (University of Minnesota Press, 2014); Christopher Hawthorne, chief design officer for the City of Los Angeles; Marissa López, professor of English and Chicana/o studies at UCLA; Kelly Lytle Hernández, professor of history, African American studies, and urban planning at UCLA and author of City of Inmates: Conquest, Rebellion, and the Rise of Human Caging in Los Angeles, 1771–1965 (University of North Carolina Press, 2017); and Richard White, emeritus professor of history at Stanford University and author, most recently, of California Exposures: Envisioning Myth and History (W. W. Norton, 2020).
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Los Angeles has long been celebrated—and caricatured—as a “city of the future.” Does it follow that this sensibility invites or even requires minimal attention to the past? Given recent and ongoing upheavals across the United States regarding commemorative monuments, statues, and the like—underpinned by increasingly widespread and resonant cries for social justice—the conclusions of the Civic Memory Working Group and its subcommittees collected in this report may act as a corrective to metropolitan amnesia and a guide for public memorialization efforts moving forward. This report is a mere starting point in what the Mayor’s Office genuinely hopes will be a deeper, wider, and ongoing public conversation.

It begins with a simple provocation in the form of a question: What might it mean if the city of the future could simultaneously be lauded for its regard for the past? The many stages of a regionwide growth juggernaut of industrial, metropolitan, and suburban development in Southern California, from the 1880s forward, were accompanied at every step by campaigns and reflexes to elide and even destroy signs of the past. Relatively recent initiatives, including the SurveyLA work produced by the Department of City Planning’s Office of Historic Resources,01SurveyLA, the most comprehensive survey ever completed by an American city, identifies and evaluates L.A.’s rich historic resources. According to the Los Angeles Conservancy, before SurveyLA, only 15 percent of the city had been surveyed to identify historic resources. Starting in 2009 under the auspices of the Department of City Planning in cooperation with the J. Paul Getty Trust, SurveyLA took eight years to complete its work, which covered 880,000 land parcels and 500 square miles. See “SurveyLA: The Los Angeles Historic Resources Survey,” Los Angeles Conservancy website, undated,; and “SurveyLA: Los Angeles Historic Resources Survey—Field Survey Results Master Report,” Office of Historic Resources, Department of City Planning, Aug. 2016, suggest an encouraging turn toward cataloging and protecting architectural and cultural heritage. Nonetheless, it is fair to say that the City of Los Angeles has traditionally given insufficient thought to the protection of older buildings and neighborhoods and the memories they embody.02 A material case in point: brick versus adobe buildings. The urban growth machine in the 50 years between 1880 and 1930 remade Los Angeles by way of brick. This recasting supplanted (and assured the destruction of) adobe, seen by the ascendant elite Protestant culture as backward, Catholic, primitive, and Mexican. Only when the 1933 Long Beach earthquake knocked the brick industry to its knees did the fervent attachment to brick dissipate. What has been lost in the top-down drive toward progress and modernity that accelerated in the middle decades of the last century? To begin with, a long list of sites and places and all that they meant to the people who knew and loved them. Interstate 10 bulldozed the historic Sugar Hill neighborhood. Dodger Stadium rises above what used to be the neighborhoods of Chavez Ravine. The Bunker Hill of novelists John Fante and Raymond Chandler is now a banking, residential, and high-culture enclave of elite Angelenos and formidable institutions.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Civic memory is a slippery construction; it is tricky enough to define each word fully on its own before we expect “civic” to modify “memory.”03 Political theorist Richard Dagger defines civic memory as “a shared recollection of a city’s past, of its accomplishments and failures, which both reflects and generates a sense of civic identity.” Richard Dagger, “Metropolis, Memory, and Citizenship,” American Journal of Political Science 25, no. 4 (1981): 729. Essayist Margaret Renkl offers a concise observation on at least some of the inherent challenges: “The problem with civic memory is that it is both true and deeply false. Some layer of reality inevitably undergirds a public fairy tale. A myth always contains enough truth to make it seem like the final word. But there is no such thing as the final word—any history is a narrative construction, one that files off the roughest edges of the story. The past itself is shaggy, troubled, unruly.” Margaret Renkl, “Looking Our Racist History in the Eye,” New York Times, Sept. 10, 2018. Our aim in this report is to encourage the public installation of structures, performances, or other creative or material works that address this region’s past in ways and forms that actively challenge not just myths and languid triumphalism but also the mere comfort of forgetting. The moment is now. Los Angeles has an opportunity to broaden and enrich a national discussion by confronting its own peculiar and fraught relationship with civic memory. Our city finds itself with both significant anniversaries at hand (150 years since the Anti-Chinese Massacre of 1871, 30 since the civil unrest of 1992) and major civic events (the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics) on the horizon. The process of marking these milestones will be more equitable, more inclusive, and ultimately more productive if it is part of broader, unified efforts to grapple forthrightly with the city’s forgotten or erased histories.

One of the many challenges we face is in finding, through collective dialogue, a balance between immediate policy recommendations and broader reflections on how to enrich and encourage a culture of civic memory in Los Angeles. That process will entail engagement with both remembering and forgetting, all the while acknowledging that the two are inextricable.

The pitfalls and obstacles are many. To begin with, any commemorative effort can pose a trap. The danger of memorialization is its seductive and false clarity: it pretends to be only about the past, but the act of fixing memory in civic or personal form is undoubtedly also—perhaps primarily—a reflection or confirmation of the present moment. That is why, as we now recognize, statues and memorials are less about the person or event they commemorate than the moment in which a particular commemoration took or takes place.

Our city must guard against hubris, against any assumption that our moment’s perspective on the past is immutable, or that we have gained clarity or wisdom about history that earlier generations lacked. There are many reasons to be wary of any act of memorialization that seeks to give any one perspective some eternal power, that surrounds any given memorial with an aura of imagined permanence. The future deserves to find our era’s monuments—if they find them at all—malleable or elastic, able to be reimagined and rethought as perspectives of the past inevitably evolve. Might we embrace or invite or encourage ephemeral commemorations that do not have the “fixed” problem built in and that do not unduly fetishize permanence? Can our design of new commemorative installations reach across multiple and dynamic scales and meanings, functioning beyond any singular and didactic narrative? We think that such an approach might be particularly well-suited to Los Angeles, a polycentric, dynamic, and unfinished city that has tended to distrust tidy narratives about its origins or its contemporary meanings.

Public commemorations are political, and politics always change as the imagined future becomes the lived present. What we commemorate now will grow irrelevant or even offensive, sometimes quickly and sometimes gradually, as we have seen so clearly in 2020. In deeply divided moments like our own, the politics are going to be fraught. We must recognize this and understand that we cannot expect otherwise.

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

From the start, this working group has been careful to focus not on conclusions about what new monuments or memorials should look like, where they should be placed, or whom they should honor, but instead on underscoring the importance of thoughtful, equitable, and community-based processes for developing a broader civic base of historically minded initiatives. If there is one idea we have tried to knit into each section of our report, it is this one.

There has been a noticeable civic price to pay for our ongoing lack of attention in Los Angeles to some of these questions and themes. Certain institutions make that toll clear even as they represent an opportunity for new approaches. Consider the Los Angeles City Archives, a less-than-well-known trove of civic memory in the form of documents and images. Professionally curated and archived, its vast collections ought to be better known. How can the archives staff and holdings play a larger role in encouraging and supporting civic memory efforts and programs, and how might we assist in this process? How can the holdings and the expertise of those who care for them be imagined in more distributive ways across neighborhoods and communities? Creative engagement with artists drawn from multiple communities, for instance, could highlight the City Archives as a locus through which to enhance civic memory while paying dividends by developing new collection acquisitions. This rich archive is itself a kind of monument to Los Angeles history. Its importance to both scholars and a wider public could be amplified in a range of creative ways.04 A regional example is the /five initiative at the Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens. Launched in 2016, /five is a contemporary art initiative through which the Huntington collaborates with a variety of arts and cultural organizations. The program engages the institution’s rich historical, botanical, and art collections in new and thought-provoking ways by supporting artists in their encounters with the materials and in subsequent installations provoked by them.

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

Not all civic memory enhancements need be new creations. Part of what this report intends is to determine what memorials and commemorative installations are already out there, why they came to be, and where they reside—or, for that matter, when and under what circumstances they disappeared. Cataloging and publicizing them might be followed by efforts to understand them anew. Might we refresh some or most of them, and in so doing ask them to teach us about matters that are not decided, about interpretations that have changed or must be challenged?

Sometimes it will be right to make something new. Sometimes it will be right to change, remove, or add to something old. Sometimes it will be right to foster partnerships between the City and community members or institutions. Sometimes it will be right for the City to do nothing, or to make a point of moving out of the way.

As to this last point, the “get out of the way” approach, this report questions in a number of ways how well the City and its structures of power and policy balance listening with action. Is the City of Los Angeles listening long and deeply enough to the needs coming from its communities, and understanding well enough the way those communities make use of civic memory? What good is accomplished if policy fights spontaneity or if centralized memorialization inhibits eruptions of grassroots emotion and power? Policies and procedures for initiating, revisiting, and taking down memorials are important. But so too is knowing that memorialization with no municipal oversight must always be encouraged. The recent and remarkable memorializations of Kobe Bryant and Nipsey Hussle offer powerful cases in point. We believe that it would be a mistake to overly bureaucratize memorialization protocols and approvals to the extent that the passion, spontaneity, grief, and ephemerality of a moment in history is lost, avoided, or otherwise diluted. Better to encourage or at least not stand in the way of such moments, and, once they have been enacted, to find ways to mark, remember, call attention to, and learn from them.05 The community response following rapper and activist Nipsey Hussle’s 2019 murder, which included a memorial at Staples Center and a 26-mile funeral procession through Los Angeles, and the similar memorial at the Staples Center for Kobe Bryant in 2020, where thousands of fans grieved the basketball legend’s loss for days, are both compelling examples of spontaneous, noninstitutional, and ephemeral public memorials.

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

One way to escape the presentist tendencies of memorialization would be to layer memorialization across time in a single space. For each set of acknowledged community memories in a given Los Angeles neighborhood, for example, a second set of simple markers or a text could note the people who lived or worked there before the present community became established, reaching back to include Indigenous communities. As a palimpsest, then, it would be fairly straightforward to acknowledge the Native American past all across the Los Angeles Basin.06 Indeed, any Indigenous land acknowledgement policy of the type being considered by one of this working group’s subcommittees 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 and public and private landscapes.

But the recognition can go deeper in time and demography. The diversity of community in Los Angeles invites us to consider additional layers (the east side and Boyle Heights, for example). Consider the Breed Street Shul in Boyle Heights. After decades of abandonment, there is now a movement to rehabilitate the structure to preserve the memory of the largely and mostly forgotten Boyle Heights Jewish community. What one generation seeks to forget and leave behind, another is trying to rescue from amnesia’s oblivion. How can memorials be powerful reminders of the past and interpreters of it at once? To underscore an earlier point, Los Angeles is unusual among American cities in its embrace—a civic paradox, to be sure—of a certain tradition of productive forgetting, of a refusal to be weighed down by tradition or restricted by traditional ideas about patronage, lineage, influence, and the like. All of this relates to another challenge: how do we remember events that may have no constituency in the present? At the level of policy and staffing, could we imagine historical context and perspective being required at municipal, policy-level discussions, and factored into subsequent policy creation? What about at municipal speeches? Might the City have a municipal officer serving as historian, or some sort of term rotation for this role? Might we consider partnerships with local educational and cultural institutions (in part to sidestep possible politicization of the position) so that this position might be taken up in turn by curators, archivists, community leaders, artists, and historians?

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

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