This subcommittee was chaired by Frank Escher, cofounder and principal at Escher GuneWardena Architecture in Los Angeles, and Leila Hamidi, arts organizer and writer and previously assistant project director for Pacific Standard Time: Art in L.A. 1945–1980. Its other members were Fred Fisher, principal at Frederick Fisher and Partners Architects; Andrew Kovacs, architectural designer and founder of Office Kovacs in Los Angeles; Sharon Johnston, partner and cofounder of Johnston Marklee & Associates in Los Angeles; Marisa Kurtzman, partner at Frederick Fisher and Partners Architects; Kimberli Meyer, architect and curator and former director of the University Art Museum at California State University, Long Beach, and the MAK Center for Art and Architecture in L.A.; Chon Noriega, professor in the UCLA Department of Film, Television, and Digital Media and director of UCLA’s Chicano Studies Research Center; and Megan Steinman, director of the Underground Museum in Los Angeles.
Our subcommittee’s charge was to provide guidance of two types: about the most effective ways to imagine, commission, and produce monuments and memorials appropriate to contemporary Los Angeles, and about issues for artists, architects, and designers to keep in mind when taking on work of this kind. While another subcommittee focused specifically on issues of process, we view process as inexorably linked to our work as well, insofar as for many new art forms since the 1960s the process is often the greater part of the work. Likewise, we believe that certain components of projects, such as materiality and tone, should develop as part of a working process between artists, the public, and civic leaders, and are therefore beyond the specific purview of our subcommittee and its recommendations.
We typically think of the built form of civic memory in terms of statues, cannons, mausoleums, plaques, and the like, but what exists today covers a much wider set of artistic practices. The list that follows is a first pass at gesturing toward all the ways that we experience civic memory in our urban landscape, providing a more expansive definition for memory at a civic scale. The categories included are meant not as finite or conclusive but as openings to further investigation.Government and Institutional Projects
Government and institutional projects comprise a wide range of mostly familiar forms of memorialization and commemoration. The first category we considered—gestures and acts—entails actions that do not result in a physical object, such as the following: · Land acknowledgments. According to the Native American Inclusion Initiative at Northwestern University, “a Land Acknowledgement is a formal statement that recognizes and respects Indigenous Peoples as traditional stewards of this land and the enduring relationship that exists between Indigenous Peoples and their traditional territories.” The Minneapolis-based Native Governance Center frames the importance of Indigenous land acknowledgment like this: “It is important to understand the longstanding history that has brought you to reside on the land, and to seek to understand your place within that history. Land acknowledgements do not exist in a past tense, or historical context: colonialism is a current ongoing process, and we need to build our mindfulness of our present participation.”01 Northwestern University Native American and Indigenous Initiatives website, undated, https://www.northwestern.edu/native-american-and-indigenous-peoples/about/Land%20Acknowledgement.html; Native Governance Center website, undated, https://nativegov.org/a-guide-to-indigenous-land-acknowledgment. See also the summary of Civic Memory Working Group subcommittee on Indigenous Land Acknowledgement and the Work of Decolonization, as well as the Q&A with Dr. Cutcha Risling Baldy, elsewhere in this volume.
- Civic apologies. On September 8, 2000, Assistant Secretary of the Interior Kevin Gover, apologized on behalf of the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs for the agency’s policies and actions over its 175-year history—in particular “for its devastating impact on American Indian nations, whether federally recognized, unrecognized, or extinct.” Eight years later, on June 11, 2008, the prime minister of Canada made a formal statement of apology to former students of Indian Residential Schools on behalf of the Canadian government.02 Christopher Buck, “‘Never Again’: Kevin Gover’s Apology for the Bureau of Indian Affairs,” Wicazo Sa Review 21, no. 1 (Spring 2006): 97–126; “Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Statement of Apology,” CBC News, June 11, 2008, https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/prime-minister-stephen-harper-s-statement-of-apology-1.734250. At the time of this report’s writing, the Canadian parliament was considering proposed legislation to designate September 30 as a National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.
- Reparations. A March 2020 NPR story told the story of an 81-year-old Angeleno named John Tateishi, who was interned at the Manzanar internment camp with his family, and decades later helped form the Los Angeles chapter of the Japanese American Citizens’ League, which, in 1988—a decade after the campaign began and four decades after the internment camps closed—saw President Ronald Reagan sign the Civil Liberties Act, which paid $20,000 in reparations to each survivor and offered a formal apology.03 Isabella Rosario, “The Unlikely Story Behind Japanese Americans’ Campaign for Reparations,” NPR, Mar. 24, 2020.
- National holidays. In June of 2020, the New York Times reported on a 93-year-old Fort Worth, Texas, great-grandmother named Opal Lee on her fourth annual walk to promote Juneteenth as a national holiday.04 Julia Carmel, “Opal Lee’s Juneteenth Vision Is Becoming Reality,” New York Times, June 18, 2020; “The Historical Legacy of Juneteenth,” National Museum of African American History and Culture website, undated, https://nmaahc.si.edu/blog-post/historical-legacy-juneteenth. The name “Juneteenth” derives from “June” and “19th”—the day in 1865 that Union Army troops arrived in the westernmost Confederate state of Texas and informed the more than 250,000 enslaved people there that the Civil War was over and that slavery had been abolished.
- The Los Angeles River drew settlement throughout human history in the region. In 1986, Poet Lewis MacAdams, artist Pat Patterson, and gallerist Roger Wong started the nonprofit Friends of the L.A. River to reimagine the river from a concrete drainage channel back to a natural river.
- Our group discussed on a few occasions the problematic history of the L.A. freeway system as one that systematically divided neighborhoods of color.
- The committee was interested in expanding on the idea of the garden as a “living” memorial space, which would also address environmental issues (such as water percolation, microclimate, and phytoremediation). We also discussed gardens as food production sites to address agricultural histories; the broad range of cultural and ethnic produce in L.A.; and, most importantly, issues around food insecurity. Unused or underused parking lots could be used for this.
- What selection processes should be considered? Besides using formal requests for proposals (RFPs) and committees to select new works in the public realm, are there other selection processes that might at times be better suited to elevate new artists who might not otherwise have access to work on projects of a particular scale? For example, Maya Lin’s memorial in Washington, DC, was selected in a blind competition; she was not known at the time. Are there other times when a closed nomination process might be appropriate, or should work in the public realm always have an open selection process? Are there times when the public alone should decide?
- Does the role of a selection committee need to be rethought? In other words, rather than a panel comprised primarily of arts professionals, should committees encompass other professional backgrounds as well as other demographics to support more diverse selections?
- The proposal and selection processed can be biased against groups that have rarely taken part. Acknowledging that the work of people of color and women has historically been devalued, how can the selection process be adjusted to bolster participation from historically underrepresented groups, and also to minimize or eliminate expectations of free labor—both from the artists as they prepare proposals and from selection committees? A precedent to consider is Creative Capital’s process,27 Creative Capital Foundation website, undated, https://creative-capital.org. which provides up-front support for applicants, selection panels that compensate participants, and architecture competitions that provide honoraria to shortlisted firms for their concept design schemes.
- If we hope to build a process with more public input in the selection process, would an arts, cultural, and political education approach help to foreground discussions of aesthetics to ensure that public input does not favor by default or seek to emulate Western European art standards?
In trying to find a balance between the voice of the general public and a process with input from “experts” from the arts, the following questions should be addressed to establish a clear decision-making hierarchy for artist selection:
- When a memorial is planned for a cultural figure who has living relatives or an estate, and they are part of a selection committee, do they get a “super vote” or veto right?
- If a selection committee is used for a public memorial and the public disagrees with its selection, does the public get a veto right?
- What other stakeholders historically affect the selection process (for example, funders or elected officials)? How can those roles be made more transparent, and the hierarchy of their impact on the decision process more ethical and just?
- Are restorative justice process guidelines necessary when selections are challenged or overturned (as happened when the city of San Francisco reversed a committee’s selection of Lava Thomas’s proposed Maya Angelou memorial)?28 Heather Knight, “Artist’s Vision for Maya Angelou Statue Crushed by City Hall’s Dysfunction,” San Francisco Chronicle, Oct. 19, 2019.
- Who gets to represent whose pain? If a memorial is proposed to commemorate a particularly sensitive or fraught topic, should it be a requirement that members of the public with experience or knowledge of the events in question participate in the selection and/or working process?
- When an artist is selected for a new work, who within or alongside the City should safeguard that process and the artist from other potential pitfalls?
- What systems of accountability should be in place to ensure that the City takes on this work in good faith from beginning to end without enacting harm?
- When removing an old sculpture or memorial that is recognized as a symbol of oppression, what guidelines should be in place so that new traumas are not enacted? (For example, the city of Dallas removed a Robert E. Lee memorial, then auctioned it to the highest bidder—a golf course overlooking the U.S.-Mexico border, where the statue was installed.)29 Demond Fernandez, “Controversial Robert E. Lee Statue Removed from Dallas Has New Home in Lajitas, TX,” WFAA, Sept. 20, 2019.
- What guidelines should be developed for when a particular monument that might otherwise be slated for removal is better suited for artist intervention or contextualization?
- What are the ethics of private money used to create public space? What are the ethics of private land that functions as public space (such as Tony Tasset’s Eye sculpture in Dallas)?30 Hallock, “Dallas’ Giant Eyeball Sculpture.”
- What monuments and civic memorial projects should be designed with a multigenerational or permanent time frame in mind, and which might need shorter time frames in order to be of civic use?
- Rather than working in isolation as a city to address these questions, are there ways to tap into the collective brainpower and resources of other civic bodies, nonprofits, and foundations already engaged in this work? As the EJI did before producing the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, are there lessons to be learned from studying the history of peace and reconciliation efforts in other cities?
- City advocate for the arts. Create a new position or office within the City of Los Angeles (or alongside it) to advocate for the arts, artists, and programs designed to diversify and deepen engagements around civic memory. The position could be a “distributed model” (in other words, not subject to political hire). It could work alongside the DCA, the Department of Civil and Human Rights, and other relevant agencies, and should have a rotating, three-to-four-year appointment.
- Civic memory in Los Angeles. Identify all city agencies and 501(c)(3) organizations that could be participants in this process. The rich network of cultural, community, and educational organizations across the city—large and small—should be tapped.
- A pluralistic approach. Recognize that each project and its unique set of needs will be different. Rather than finding one approach for this process, Los Angeles could be an incubator to test out a series of working methods and become a lab for the future of civic memory–making.
- A global approach. Create a civic memory project to collaborate with other cities, nonprofits, and foundations also engaged in this work, as a means of both mutual accountability and resource-sharing. The project could start as a website and series of public dialogues and branch out from there.
- Preparatory work. Before starting any new projects, engage communities in their neighborhoods to map their current cultural assets as a way to engage the current layer of civic memory before projects are added.
- Advisory committee. A committee of relevant partners—including artists, designers, creators across disciplines, community leaders, and City representatives—should be formed to help guide the process of civic memory outreach and action.
- Civic memory archive. The work of civic memory–making has been active in L.A. in various forms before this Working Group and its subcommittees were formed. Acknowledging, researching, and archiving these contributions is an important project. We recommend forming a diverse committee of artists, curators, historians, and other leaders adjacent to and outside of the arts to work both internally and in concert with communities to develop such an archive. For the archive to reflect the diverse authorship discussed above, it should engage a similarly diverse committee and process.
- Monuments’ afterlife. The meaning of a monument is neither singular nor static. Meaning changes as social, political, and financial contexts shift. As we trust artists to strategize and envision new monuments, so too should we invite them to intervene to reimagine existing ones. A monument is by nature didactic and presents an educational and artistic opportunity throughout its lifetime, including its potential removal. Perhaps a sunset clause or reevaluation milestone should be built into new commissions. A rigorous consideration around if, when, and how monuments are removed or “retired” should be included in any civic memory monument project.
Examples of renaming streets, parks, and buildings, another category that our group discussed, include L.A.’s renaming of Rodeo Road to President Barack Obama Boulevard in 2019, with a ceremony held at the street’s intersection with Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in one of the city’s historic Black neighborhoods. Also in 2019, the state of Wisconsin declared October 14 Indigenous Peoples’ Day, and city and county leaders in Milwaukee honored the day by changing the name of the city’s Columbus Park to Indigenous Peoples’ Park.05 Alexa Díaz, “Street Officially Renamed Obama Boulevard in Baldwin Hills/Crenshaw Ceremony,” Los Angeles Times, May 4, 2019; Lauren Winfrey, “Columbus Park in Milwaukee renamed ‘Indigenous Peoples’ Park,’” WTMJ, Oct. 14, 2019.
Civic markers and plaques are also common ways that cities and citizens partner to create and honor civic memory. The Community Remembrance Project of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) “collaborates with communities to memorialize documented victims of racial violence and foster meaningful dialogue about race and justice.” Closer to home, Los Angeles artist Sheila Levrant de Bretteville’s Omoide No Shotokyo (Remembering Old Little Tokyo) markers commemorate prewar Japanese American businesses and community on 1st Street. London’s famous blue plaques and Berlin’s Stolpersteine are among numerous other examples of this form of memorialization.06 Community Remembrance Project, Equal Justice Initiative website, undated, https://eji.org/projects/community-remembrance-project; 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; “London’s Blue Plaques,” English Heritage website, undated, https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/about-us; Stolpersteine project website, undated, http://www.stolpersteine.eu/en/home. Preserved ruins are another mode of remembrance. The Hiroshima Peace Memorial (Genbaku Dome) was the only structure left standing in the area where the first atomic bomb exploded in Hiroshima, Japan, and it is preserved exactly as it stood immediately after the blast. In Virginia, the nonprofit Menokin Foundation’s Glass House Project has engaged Boston-based architecture firm Machado Silvetti to preserve a 1769 house owned by Declaration of Independence signer Francis Lightfoot Lee. The retrofit will feature structural glass to serve “as a window for peering into the layered pasts of the people who built, worked, and lived on the property,” including Black slaves.07 Nick Kirkpatrick, “69 Years after Hiroshima, a Look at the Dome that Survived,” Washington Post, Aug. 6, 2014; Nancy Kenney, “Menokin Preservation Project Offers a Literal Window onto Layers of Virginia History,” Art Newspaper, June 22, 2020. A similar project of the Getty Conservation Institute in partnership with the City of Los Angeles, completed in 2012, preserved the previously whitewashed 1932 David Alfaro Siqueiros mural América Tropical, located in the center of El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument in downtown Los Angeles.08 Leslie Rainer, “The Conservation of América Tropical: Historical Context and Project Overview,” Getty Conservation Institute report, October 2012, http://www.getty.edu/conservation/publications_resources/pdf_publications/pdf/historical_context.pdf. Such public-private collaborations are powerful modes of restoring erased histories.The Public as Author
Governments and institutions like Getty and the City are not the only actors who recognize the power of murals to reimagine public spaces. In February of 2012, as part of Latino Heritage Month, a group of artists paid homage to Siqueiros with Siqueiros: La Voz de la Gente! in an alley off La Cienega Boulevard in Culver City. The public, too, often acts to create informal monuments, sometimes spontaneously. Take for example the impromptu Kobe Bryant Memorial at Staples Center in February of 2020, or the George Floyd signs and portraits that covered and reimagined boarded-up businesses across the country in late spring and summer of the same tumultuous year.
The public also engages in semiformal and organized action. In what has become known as the “Say Their Names” memorial, people wove strips of fabric into chain-link fences surrounding L.A.’s Silver Lake reservoirs in the summer of 2020, paying tribute to some of those who have died while in police custody or in confrontations with officers across the country.09 “Say-Their-Names Memorial Takes Shape in Silver Lake,” The Eastsider, June 6, 2020. Also in the informal, public category, temporary counter-monuments—like the Monuments and Murals of Erased and Invisible Histories series by L.A. artist Sandra de la Loza’s Pochx Research Society of Erased and Invisible History—raise challenges to official monuments and markers.10 Sandra de la Loza, The Pocho Research Society Field Guide to L.A.: Monuments and Murals of Erased and Invisible Histories (Los Angeles: UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center, 2011).New Territories of Authorship
Sometimes, city governments function as the activist in creating civic memory space. In a recent example of such a role reversal, Washington, DC, Mayor Muriel Bowser in June of 2020 commissioned a Black Lives Matter mural that spans two blocks of 16th Street, NW, leading to the White House. Bowser announced that the portion of the thoroughfare between H and K Streets would be renamed Black Lives Matter Plaza on June 5—and the DC Council voted unanimously in October to make the name change permanent.11 A. J. Willingham, “Washington, DC Paints a Giant ‘Black Lives Matter’ Message on the Road to the White House,” CNN, June 5, 2020, https://www.cnn.com/2020/06/05/us/black-lives-matter-dc-street-white-house-trnd/index.html; Sam Ford, “D.C. Council Votes to Permanently Keep Name ‘Black Lives Matter Plaza,’” WJLA, Oct. 19, 2020, https://wjla.com/news/local/dc-council-vote-tuesday-permanently-keep-name-black-lives-matter-plaza.
Other private monuments on a civic scale include the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, a project spearheaded by the EJI. And the University of Virginia completed construction of its Memorial to Enslaved Laborers in 2020, the culmination of a 10-year, student-conceived project honoring the estimated 4,000 enslaved people who built the campus. In the absence of an opening ceremony due to the pandemic, the memorial has served as an informal “town square” in which people gather; on June 5, 2020, a crowd came together “to honor George Floyd, calling for justice at a site remembering years of injustice.”12 Sanjay Suchak, “The Bigger Picture: Honoring George Floyd at UVA’s Memorial to Enslaved Laborers,” UVA Today, June 5, 2020. Architect and scholar Mabel O. Wilson, who presented the project to the Civic Memory Working Group at its November 2019 meeting, was (with Boston-based architecture firm Höweler + Yoon) a member of the team that produced the memorial.
Private land and private money can also go toward creating monuments and engaging civic memory. In the late 1960s, the city of Houston received a grant to help purchase a contemporary work of sculpture for the city. In 1969, philanthropists John and Dominique de Menil offered to match the grant and chose Barnett Newman’s Broken Obelisk, specifying that it be placed near city hall and dedicated to the recently slain Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The city accepted the choice of sculpture but rejected the dedication. The de Menils ultimately withdrew their offer and purchased the sculpture outright; it now resides in front of Houston’s historic Rothko Chapel.13 Barnett Newman, Broken Obelisk, 1963–67, sculpture, steel, Rothko Chapel, Houston, TX; Lisa Gray, “The MLK Tribute That Houston’s Power Brokers Couldn’t Abide,” Houston Chronicle, Apr. 4, 2018.
Another example in Texas of private space used for art in public view—which in this case was also used as an impromptu (if illegal) monument—is Tony Tasset’s Eye sculpture in Dallas, which was vandalized in May of 2020 in connection with George Floyd’s murder. Dallas artist lauren woods, who is among those who think the graffiti should be left on the sculpture, described the significance of both the giant eyeball and its defacement: [It] wasn’t just expressing protest solidarity—it acknowledges the symbolic power of the eyeball plopped down in the heart of downtown. How could a massive, larger than life, all ‘seeing’ bluest eye not be also read as symbolic of the surveillance state and white supremacy?”14 Tony Tasset, Eye, 2007, sculpture, fiberglass, steel, and resin, Joule Hotel sculpture garden, Dallas, TX; Jeremy Hallock, “Dallas’ Giant Eyeball Sculpture Was Vandalized with a Message,” Dallas Morning News, May 31, 2020.Nature and Art as Spaces for Civic Memory
Cases of public and private actors using nature as an anchor to engage civic memory abound. In Cleveland, Ohio, the Cleveland Cultural Gardens in the city’s Rockefeller Park is a 276-acre public space for individual public gardens celebrating different ethnic and cultural groups’ contributions to U.S. and local heritage. A range of foundations conceive, develop, and maintain the individual gardens.15 Cleveland Cultural Gardens website, undated, http://www.culturalgardens.org/garden. The program celebrated its centennial in 2016 and continues breaking new ground today.
In Milwaukee, Wisconsin, artist Sara Daleiden, a consultant to the Creative Placemaking Committee of the Greater Milwaukee Committee whose work focuses on “produc[ing] community,” worked with Oakland, California, landscape architect Walter Hood to restore an unused walking path between a redlined district and neighboring properties. The project, funded through grants from the Kresge Foundation and ArtPlace America, sought “to reimagine how Milwaukeeans move through their city.”16 Jacqueline White, “Milwaukee Moves: In Creational Trails, Sara Daleiden’s Role as Artist Involves Curating and Crafting Conversations,” Public Art Review, Feb. 29, 2016, 78–83. In Southern California, the Sleepy Lagoon memorial proposed for Riverfront Park in Maywood seeks to commemorate the 1942 arrest and mass trial of 22 Mexican youths on murder charges, which led to the anti-Mexican Zoot Suit Riots the following year. L.A. artists Sandra de la Loza and Arturo Ernesto Romo are working with the East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice to bring the Sleepy Lagoon project to fruition.17 Carolina A. Miranda, “Goodbye, Guy on Horse: A New Wave of Monument Design Is Changing How We Honor History,” Los Angeles Times, July 23, 2020.
Artist-run spaces and other decentralized sites are also powerful territories of civic authorship. Project Row Houses began in Houston’s third ward in 1993 as a way to explore “how art might be an engine for social transformation.” A group of seven Black artists working and living in the ward purchased 22 historic shotgun-style row houses on two blocks in a disinvested neighborhood and began using the houses as spaces for thematic art interventions. A 2018 book, Collective Creative Actions: Project Row Houses at 25, showcases the project’s first quarter-century as a catalyst for transforming community through the celebration of art and African American history and culture.18 Sandra Jackson-Dumont, Collective Creative Actions: Project Row Houses at 25, edited by Ryan N. Dennis (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2018). The initiative continues today. Chicago’s Rebuild Foundation, founded by artist Theaster Gates in 2009, is a similar platform for art, cultural development, and neighborhood transformation. The foundation takes abandoned buildings on Gates’s native South Side and repurposes them, “using art, culture and craft to bring investment and purpose back into the buildings and into the wider community as a whole.”19 “Theaster Gates and the Rebuild Foundation,” the modernist, Aug. 14, 2020.
Artist Mark Bradford, social activist Allan DiCastro, and philanthropist Eileen Harris Norton created Art + Practice in south Los Angeles’s Leimert Park to support local foster youth and provide the community with free access to museum-curated contemporary art that celebrates artists of color.20 Paige Katherine Bradley, “The Trio Creating an L.A. Mecca for Celebrating Artists of Color,” Garage, Feb. 8, 2019. And in central L.A.’s Arlington Heights neighborhood, artist Noah Davis and sculptor Karon Davis created the Underground Museum in 2012 to “bring museum quality art to a community that had no access to it.”21 Diane Solway, “How the Family-Run Underground Museum Became One of L.A.’s Most Vital Cultural Forces,” W, Nov. 8, 2017. Also in L.A., artist and activist Lauren Halsey launched the Summaeverythang Community Center in April of 2020 as an extension of her art practice to serve south-central L.A. and the Watts neighborhood in particular, where her family has lived since the 1920s. The center, influenced by the Black Panthers’ free breakfast program, donates 600 boxes of organic produce weekly to address food insecurity.22 Catherine Wagley, “Lauren Halsey’s Summaeverythang Community Center Adds to the Social Fabric of L.A.,” ARTnews, Dec. 21, 2020.The Humanities and Civic Imagination
Film, theater, and the written word are other vehicles capable of reconciling civic memory and creating intangible monuments. The Act of Killing, a 2012 film by Joshua Oppenheimer on the 1965–66 genocide in Indonesia, and Who Killed Malcolm X?, a 2020 documentary that prompted a reopening of the murder case in New York, are two examples that our group discussed.23 The Act of Killing, directed by Joshua Oppenheimer (Copenhagen: Final Cut for Real, 2012); Who Killed Malcolm X?, directed by Phil Bertelsen and Rachel Dretzin (Doral, FL: Fusion, 2020). Isabel Wilkerson’s 2010 study The Warmth of Other Suns tells the story of three Black Americans who left the South, tracing their routes to New York, Chicago, and L.A. The book integrates information from more than 1,000 interviews conducted by the Pulitzer Prize–winning author. Zoot Suit, a play by Luis Valdez that debuted in 1979, is based on the Sleepy Lagoon murder trial and the Zoot Suit Riots that followed. It was adapted into a film in 1981.24 Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration (New York: Random House, 2010); Zoot Suit, directed by Luis Valdez, music by Daniel Valdez and Lalo Guerrero, lyrics by Lalo Guerrero, Winter Garden Theater, New York, NY, Mar. 25, 1979.
These types of commemorations present opportunities to reach large audiences and speak to civic histories in uniquely and widely accessible ways. The Los Angeles Poet Laureate Program presents another such opportunity. A partnership between the City’s Department of Cultural Affairs (DCA) and the Los Angeles Public Library, the program seeks to “bring the literary arts to people in Los Angeles who have limited access to poetry or have few opportunities for exposure to expressive writing,” and to “create a new body of literary works that commemorate the diversity and vibrancy of the L.A. region.” The City can harness this avenue to, in the program’s own words, “create a focal point for the expression of Los Angeles culture.”25 “Los Angeles Poet Laureate Program,” undated, https://culturela.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/LA-Poet-Laureate-Guidelines-2016-revised.pdf.Other Engagement Opportunities
The Getty’s Pacific Standard Time initiative is a collaborative program among Southern California museums and arts organizations that creates thematically linked exhibitions every few years. Past themes have included Pacific Standard Time: Art in L.A. 1945–1980, which “celebrate[d] the birth of the Los Angeles art scene”; Pacific Standard Time: L.A./L.A., which explored “Latin American and Latino art in dialogue with Los Angeles”; and Pacific Standard Time Presents: Modern Architecture in L.A., which “examined the built heritage of our region.” Its recently announced next theme, Pacific Standard Time: Art x Science x LA, coming in 2024, will explore “the many connections between the visual arts and science, from prehistoric times to the present day and across different cultures worldwide.” Future themes could build on and add to this rich discourse around any number of civic topics.26 Pacific Standard Time website, the Getty, undated, http://www.getty.edu/pacificstandardtime. The Los Angeles Conservancy also runs a docent-led walking tour program that allows individuals to see and learn about architectural styles, the history of downtown and its diverse communities, and preservation efforts related to Los Angeles civic history.
Los Angeles Poverty Department (LAPD) projects offer further civic engagement opportunities. Founded in 1985 as the first arts program for L.A.’s homeless population, LAPD works to create “performances and multidisciplinary artworks that connect the experiences of people living in poverty to the social forces that shape their lives and communities.” LAPD’s Walk the Talk project is a biennial performance parade to honor people who live and work on Skid Row, and its Skid Row Art History Museum and Archives document “the culture that developed on Skid Row—an activist culture, artistic culture and recovery culture—that offers a useful model for other communities navigating gentrification pressures.”Alternate Site Types for Engagement
The understanding of Los Angeles in terms of civic memory and civic engagement has tended to return repeatedly to examinations and reconsiderations of particular spaces and infrastructures. For example, Eric Avila, a member of the Civic Memory Working Group, has written two books on the L.A. freeways. Meanwhile, the L.A. River has been a site not just of historical reclamation but also of ecological and environmental activities tied to the watershed’s deep history. As we create a broadened definition for civic memory, we should also think expansively as we identify potential sites for new projects. This work, however, must be done in dialogue with communities as part of a collaborative asset mapping process, so that any potential new project becomes an integrated part of its neighborhood. The following are potential site types to consider, with community input:
Although our subcommittee is making recommendations to the City of Los Angeles on how to engage the important work of civic memory, some of this work will inherently overlap with other governmental structures as well as private activities; it also has the potential to engage with sister cities. We traditionally think of civic memory as represented by a series of big objects, but it can also be processes, partnerships, actions, networks, and other types of civic activity. In a number of important ways, the full scope of what is considered civic memory will be beyond the City’s control. Nonetheless, the City has an opportunity to reach beyond the programs and processes it does control to acknowledge, validate, and give a framework to all of these other activities that comprise the city’s civic memory.
Our subcommittee’s recommendation is that the City engage a pluralistic approach in working with artists, community-based organizations, and other city stakeholders. In lieu of using the same selection and working process for each project, Los Angeles could become a “civic memory laboratory” that tests various working methods tailored to each specific project and the context of its site. The following are questions to consider when engaging this work:
The understanding of Los Angeles civic history will continue to shift and develop over time, and efforts on the part of the City will need to adapt accordingly. It is not realistic to assume that this report will be the final word on an issue of enormous complexity. It is likely that in the next generation, very different goals and processes will be necessary. As such, it is imperative that a process be developed that allows for continual adaption to changing circumstances, and that facilitates the inclusion of voices and groups long excluded from broader participation and integration within policy discussions of this kind. We see this subcommittee’s work as the start of a discussion that must continue and broaden over time.