The River, the Freeway, and the Garden

Christopher Hawthorne

+ See this subject on our map of Los Angeles

Dr. Bartlett handed me a paper to-day, desiring me to subscribe for a statue to Horace Mann. I declined, and said that I thought a man ought not any more to take up room in the world after he was dead. We shall lose one advantage of a man’s dying if we are to have a statue of him forthwith.
—Henry David Thoreau

Most of the messages sent west to east get jumbled at the Rockies.
—Esther McCoy

This is not a report about monuments and memorials.

Not strictly speaking, anyway. It is true that the Mayor’s Office Civic Memory Working Group, which gathered for the first time at City Hall in November of 2019 and then, in person as well on Zoom, across most of 2020, was inspired by debates happening around the country about Confederate statues and other fraught examples of American commemoration. Yet the goals of this Working Group were always distinct from those conversations in at least two important ways.

First, we set out to ground the larger debate firmly and unmistakably in Los Angeles, a city whose relationship with the past and the broader notion of civic memory has long been particular, even peculiar. As the headquarters of the Hollywood dream factory, as a city long in thrall to its reputation as a city of the future, and as a place heavily reliant on boosterism and mythmaking in building its civic identity, Los Angeles has never been particularly interested in pursuing a thorough, warts-and-all investigation of its evolution. As other sections of this report point out, L.A. has been more aggressive in its campaigns of erasure or strategic amnesia than other big American cities. In a city that, as historian and Working Group member David Torres-Rouff puts it, was “born global,” we also have perhaps had more layers of non-white history to erase.

Second, the chief lesson offered by other cities that have re-examined their approach to the production of monuments and memorials over the last five years or so is that careful attention to process and equity is paramount. It pays more dividends to focus on the how and why instead of the what or where, at least to begin with. Proposals to create, remove, or rename statues, buildings, or streets have a greater chance of success if they are preceded by broad-based discussions about memorialization and commemoration. We have been guided by the idea that Los Angeles has not yet engaged in that conversation to the degree it needs to, especially when it comes to initiatives launched from City Hall.

So you will not find, in the pages that follow, a definitive list of ten statues that should be removed from the public realm in Los Angeles, twenty Angelenos who deserve to be memorialized over the coming decade, or fifty library branches soon to be renamed. Instead the focus has been more on raising the questions and thematic concerns that should guide any effort to reconsider civic memory, whether the topic is monuments, fraught anniversaries, or historic preservation.

Take the uprising and unrest that roiled Los Angeles in 1992 as an example. The events that followed the acquittal by a Simi Valley jury of the police officers who beat Rodney King will mark their 30th anniversary next year. We hope this report will be a useful guide in helping shape any commemoration of those events the City decides to take on—but not, importantly, in terms of what material any monument should be made of or where events marking the milestone should be held. Instead we offer this report to suggest strategies to help any City-led commemorations of 1992 or similar anniversaries—whatever form they take—feel authentic, equitable, and productive to the citizens of Los Angeles, while also ceding pride of place to community-directed events and remembrances.

This report begins by listing 18 key policy recommendations. Other recommendations pop up throughout the rest of the report. These are meant to begin, not end, the conversation: The next step will be to discuss these ideas with a broad-based set of communities in Los Angeles. We also felt it was important to complement those recommendations in a range of ways meant to reflect the full complexity of Los Angeles and its formal and informal histories. And so alongside (and in between) reports from the Working Group’s various subcommittees, whose members were asked to focus on specific topics including labor, process, and historic preservation, among others, you will find in the pages that follow a number of other editorial features. These include roundtable discussions on topics including the complex legacy of Junípero Serra and constructions of whiteness across Los Angeles history; case studies of effective and creative means of supporting civic memory in public and institutional spaces; excerpts from longer essays as well as newly commissioned pieces of writing; and photographs and photo essays on related topics, including ad hoc memorials and what might be charitably called unresolved episodes in the civic history of Los Angeles.

Our central aim has been to support and explore ways of telling the story of Los Angeles history on its own terms while connecting this effort to the broader national conversation on reckoning and commemoration, drawing from it the most useful and relevant lessons we can. We have leaned heavily on historians—the Working Group from its first meeting has included many of the leading scholars on Los Angeles, Southern California, and the American West—and engaged Indigenous leaders and community members, visual and performing artists, architects, designers, curators, musicians, journalists, and others.

A Moment to Ask Ourselves Key Questions

We decided early on that our report shouldn’t aim for a kind of illusory consensus. If you read the various subcommittee reports carefully, for example, you’ll find that they sometimes disagree with one another or take issue with policies crafted by the City or that other members of the group have developed or worked on. We feel that this diversity of opinion reflects not division or weakness but strength.

It is also true that the timing of the Working Group’s investigations, which continued across one of the most tumultuous years in Los Angeles, American, and world history, hardly lent itself to a genial consistency of purpose. In our first meeting at City Hall, Mayor Garcetti referred to the sense that a groundswell was building as cities around the country began to critically examine their approach to commemoration, memorialization, and civic memory. “This is a moment for us to ask ourselves what we want to say, who we want to be, and whose histories we want to tell,” he told the group. But we had no idea how much, and in how many different ways, the world was about to change.

When we reconvened for our second full meeting at City Hall in early February of 2020, stories about an opportunistic and deadly virus stalking the Chinese city of Wuhan were already beginning to appear in the American press. Within a few weeks, as we began to make plans for the first meetings of our various subcommittees, the mayor who had spoken to us about the potential of the moment was issuing a lockdown order for the residents of Los Angeles, requiring that they stay home save for the most necessary trips. By May, the press room where our group had twice gathered was becoming the familiar backdrop for that same mayor’s daily coronavirus briefings. Our Civic Memory subcommittees, for their part, proceeded to gather virtually, as the world was learning to do.

It was in this fragile context, hearing daily updates about the spread of the virus and trying nonetheless to keep to our regular daily family and professional tasks, that we learned about and then, horrified, watched the video of the Minneapolis police officer Derek Shauvin kneeling on one shoulder and the neck of George Floyd as he lay in the parking lane along Chicago Avenue for more than eight minutes. The marches of protest that followed, reacting not only to Floyd’s death but those of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and others, filled the streets of Los Angeles for several weeks. Many of us joined them. I can’t speak for the other members of this group, but for me our discussions on L.A.’s relationship to the most fraught aspects of our past began to seem inchoate compared to the highly focused energy pulsing down the city’s boulevards.

Three Unifying Themes

And yet when the chairs of those subcommittees began sending me summaries of their discussions, in late summer of 2020, certain patterns were almost instantly recognizable, as were paths toward progress. This was less true of specific policy ideas, sites or historical figures—although commonalities emerged there too—than of guiding metaphors and themes. Three stood out, emerging, disappearing, and reappearing in several of those emailed summaries like buoys. It is to those three that I would like to turn for the rest of this essay, for they seem equally capable of marking the ways in which Los Angeles has systematically obliterated difficult aspects of its history and suggesting a productive, if tentative, way forward.

The first is the Los Angeles River. It is fair to say that our city owes its existence and much of its physical shape to the river that shares its name. Downtown Los Angeles is located in the somewhat odd spot it occupies in the larger geography of Southern California, a full 15 miles in from the ocean, because of the river: because Indigenous communities organized themselves near it and, in the late 18th century, Spanish colonists established their central plaza a short walk from its banks. The river then served as the primary source of drinking water in the growing city until 1913, when the Los Angeles Aqueduct was completed. Life in Los Angeles until that year was organized in nearly every way around proximity to the river.

But the river in this period—in addition to being seasonal, going largely dry in the summer and into the fall—was also mobile, even fickle. The built form and scale of Los Angeles developed in response to the river and existed at the river’s mercy. When heavy rains caused it to overflow its banks or even drastically change its course, the young city around it was forced to rebuild or otherwise adapt. As those floods became deadlier and more destructive across the 1920s and 1930s, the city responded in a way typical of the era: by relying on the expertise of engineers and on a kind of technocratic optimism about the ability of giant public-works projects to tame, or at least bring under some kind of control, the natural world. The result was a channelized river from the upper reaches of the northwestern San Fernando Valley to the ocean in Long Beach: 51 miles of concrete wrestling the unpredictable river into something like submission.

There have been encouraging efforts to revitalize or even “re-green” that engineered river organized at the community, city, and county levels, and with the help of the state and federal governments. These are ongoing, and several members of our Working Group have contributed to them in one way or another. And yet when the river came up in the discussions of the larger group and its subcommittees, the focus was not for the most part on these contemporary projects. It was instead on what the concretized river has to say about this city’s relationship to buried truths or unruly histories. For too long we have responded to that kind of uncertainty or fraught material in the civic conversation by keeping it fully and sometimes aggressively contained and out of sight, in much the same way we shoehorned miles of river into a form that is frequently compared to a concrete straitjacket, leaving many Angelenos unaware of its existence. It is no coincidence that the river came up in this regard in so many disparate conversations conducted as part of the Civic Memory effort. It is a kind of infrastructural map, written at macro scale across the city’s landscape, of the ways in which the efficient march of growth and progress has manhandled the more nuanced or unpredictable elements of civic culture in Los Angeles.

Something similar might be said of another network of concretized ambition—the Los Angeles freeway system—that emerged as the second major theme in the subcommittee reports.

David Brodlsy, in his remarkable 1981 book L.A. Freeway: An Appreciative Essay, sums up the symbolic role of this landscape. “The freeway system supplies Los Angeles with one of its principal metaphors,” he writes. “Employed to represent the totality of metropolitan Los Angeles, it is the city’s great synecdoche, one of the few parts capable of standing for the whole.” Meanwhile it is UCLA’s Eric Avila, a member of our Working Group, who has best chronicled the impact that synecdoche has had at ground level. His 2014 book The Folklore of the Freeway: Race and Revolt in the Modernist City considers the role freeways have played in both dividing and galvanizing the L.A. communities through which they have been constructed (or, in some cases, rammed).

What the freeway means now, nearly eight decades after its debut in Los Angeles, remains ripe for examination. Is it a symbol, like the concretized river, of the ways in which the growth machine in Los Angeles has run roughshod over community history, devaluing the particular and local at the expense of the expansive and new? It is an eyesore whose external sound walls communities have remade in their own image, covering them with murals and even religious shrines, as a protest against its dehumanizing force? Is it something that we can now, realistically, begin planning to remove or reimagine, at least in certain corridors, as part of a larger effort to dismantle the overreach of 20th-century L.A. urbanism and chip away at the dominance of the car?

The material that follows in this report suggests it may well be all three of those things. The freeway has disfigured not just neighborhoods like Sugar Hill, the Black community bisected by the construction of the Santa Monica Freeway (also known as Interstate 10) in the 1960s, but many examples of community history in Los Angeles and for decades the notion of shared local culture. Any movement to recover civic memory at a fine-grained level will need to confront the freeway system—perhaps even as an occupying force, and one that gained its foothold through a kind of violence at that. If you have glided over freeway overpasses or sat in traffic on freeways but never spent significant time in communities split, fractured, or otherwise pummeled by their construction—or abused by their noise and pollution on an ongoing basis—it may come as a surprise to hear Avila and Torres-Rouff, in one of the roundtable discussions in these pages, describe the Los Angeles freeway as a monument to whiteness and the prerogatives of wealth and power. If you have spent time in those neighborhoods, it may not.

Moving Past a Top-Down Approach

So how can Los Angeles move past the ways in which its infrastructural ambition, mirroring its civic one, tended to seek the regional, macro scale at the expense of the local? How can the city that so often trampled on community memory reconnect with histories of Los Angeles that are smaller, less predictable, and less subject to top-down or official control?

One possible answer can be found in the third theme that emerged as a connecting thread in the reflections of the full Civic Memory Working Group and its subcommittees: the garden. For all of L.A.’s reputation for lushness—and even as a kind of paradise that, as the British architectural historian and critic Reyner Banham put it, “will carry almost any kind of vegetation that horticultural fantasy might conceive,” as long as it’s given enough water—the city’s most impressive and most meaningful gardens have tended to occupy private space, mostly residential enclaves of all scales, complementing and often lending privacy to residential architecture of all types.

The idea of public gardens in every corner of the city—and memorial gardens, in particular—has gained less traction here, at least in official circles. Yet several of the Civic Memory subcommittees raised it to one degree or another. There are proposals in these pages for a garden dedicated to the workers of Los Angeles and, more specifically, to the “essential workers” who have faced the gravest challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic. Elsewhere in our discussions we raised the potential of expanded or reimagined gardens ringing public library branches and public schools. As a way to reimagine the idea of a memorial or strengthen the links between civic memory and community life, these proposals strike me as having tremendous potential.

Because gardens evolve significantly over time and require thoughtful and regular upkeep—neither of which is true for a traditional statue on a pedestal—they also point to the ways, both literally and symbolically, that we might reconnect civic memory with notions of maintenance, fidelity, and care. They are the opposite of the channelized river or the freeway system, whose effectiveness and power rely on their dominance over wide swaths of the city. Those two landscapes are able to operate only at the macro level, and indeed they repel neighborhood scale as a result.

The garden is different. It is changeable. It is local. It depends on human contact. The garden might be an ideal spot, in other words, from which to watch the emergence of new forms of civic memory in Los Angeles—and watch the old ones die. When it’s time to produce a new generation of memorials and monuments appropriate to 21st-century Los Angeles and its communities, maybe we shouldn’t aim to build them at all. Maybe we should plant them instead. Something similar is true for the report as a whole. What follows is not a stack of blueprints but a packet of seeds.

In Search of New Metaphors

These are the twin questions facing us as we move to a re-conception of commemoration and civic memory in Los Angeles: how to approach the task of producing a new batch of memorials and what to do with the existing ones, especially if they remind some of us not of triumph but of pain. We should not be naive enough to think that any of our new monuments will be impervious to the flaws that always attend memorial design, beginning with a tendency to reflect our present when we think we are mining or celebrating our past. Better to seek meaning in the absence left behind when statues come down and the openness and freedom opened up by new ways of thinking about memory and civic life.

I like what Paul B. Preciado wrote in the Dec. 2020 issue of Artforum, in a remarkable essay on monuments translated from the Spanish by Michele Faguet: “We do not suffer from a forgetting of normative history but from a systematic erasure of the history of oppression and resistance. We do not need any more statues. Let’s not ask for marble or metal to fill those pedestals. Let’s climb up on them and tell our own stories of survival and liberation.”

There is a book on a shelf in my home office, published in 1960 and written by the architectural historian Harold Kirker, called California’s Architectural Frontier. It opens with a quote from the Las Sergas de Esplandian, a best-selling Spanish novel from 1510 by Garci Ordóñez Rodríguez de Montalvo, describing California as a paradise, a land where “there was no metal but gold.” A couple of paragraphs later, Kirker defines the state as “the outermost edge of a more rooted culture.”

More than six decades after that book appeared, California and Los Angeles in particular are still struggling to shake off the destructive power of this trope, which has its benign forms to be sure but so often tends toward the exploitative. In my own work as the architecture critic for the Los Angeles Times, a post I held from 2004 to 2018, I did what I could, which in the scheme of things was not much, to undermine it. I wrote a kind of biography of Sunset Boulevard that began at the ocean and traveled east, back in time, across the Los Angeles River and into Boyle Heights, reversing the typical journey along Sunset Boulevard that seems so often and so automatically to recreate a Manifest Destiny trajectory, moving inexorably west toward the edge of the continent and the setting sun. I quoted Mayor Garcetti’s observation that Los Angeles, instead of solely occupying the western edge of the American continent, is “arguably the northern capital of Latin America and the eastern capital of the Pacific Rim.” Still the metaphor persists.

The truth, of course, is that Los Angeles is neither a frontier—ask any of the many Indigenous leaders who contributed to this volume how that metaphor strikes them—nor, these days, a place that could be accurately called unrooted. Population growth has fully leveled off here and even begun to reverse itself, in part because of sky-high housing prices. Immigration to Los Angeles County peaked a full three decades ago. Angelenos move less often now than they have for most of the city’s modern history, and they live in an aging housing stock. In fact, by some measures, Los Angeles and its built form are changing less quickly than at any point since the 1880s.

The second full meeting of the Civic Memory Working Group at City Hall, with William Deverell foreground left and Taj Frazier foreground right, February 3, 2020. Photograph by Gary Leonard
From left, Wendy Cheng, Julia Bogany, and Leila Hamidi, with Mark Wild seated behind, at the second full meeting of the Civic Memory Working Group at City Hall, February 3, 2020. Photograph by Gary Leonard.

That, paradoxically enough, means that the change that does come to any particular neighborhood is more noticeable and all the more deeply felt. At the same time, the impact of larger forces separate from architecture or demography threatens to make that local stability irrelevant. COVID-19 and climate change are only the two most obvious examples.

Those facts complicate the efforts of the Civic Memory Working Group in some fascinating and significant ways, none of which we should ignore or gloss over. For all the attention we pay in the following pages to the importance of reconnecting with community and neighborhood history and guarding against displacement, this volume should not be understood as an implicit endorsement of the offensive idea that Los Angeles was somehow better or more itself back then, whatever period “then” might refer to.

There remains a risk in some parts of the city of stagnation or self-satisfaction, particularly as populations in some of the city’s wealthier single-family neighborhoods stop growing or even shrink. We are also aware of the extent to which support for historic preservation or paeans to “neighborhood character” can be weaponized to protect wealth and (typically white) prerogative. We want to stress that the various efforts in these pages to reconnect with buried histories of Los Angeles and set the stage for confronting difficult episodes in the city’s past should not be understood as endorsements of the idea that Los Angeles should stop changing, or even, necessarily, that it is changing too fast.

But change and whitewashing are two different things. So are evolution and erasure. Supporting civic memory is in our view a creative act, not a conservative and certainly not a reactionary one. Commemoration should lead to conversation and even reckoning—to action, not embalming. We can encourage Los Angeles to hold on to its reputation as a place where innovation, even flux, are prized while also insisting that the skeletons in many of our closets, official and otherwise, have been left undisturbed for too long. The Los Angeles most worth celebrating will figure out how to keep both horizon and wake in view, and in some kind of symbolic balance, at the same time. It will abandon the frontier rhetoric for good and invite new conceptions of the city that build on what we have in place, what we prize, what we need to dispense with, what we need to recover, and perhaps most important of all what might allow us to treat one another with more compassion and consideration.