Inventories of Sites and History

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

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

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

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

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

Existing Inventories

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

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

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

Review of Previous Memorial Programs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Past Controversies

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

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

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

Inventory of Opportunities

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