City Review: Striving to Preserve L.A.'s Power of Place

Times Urban Design Critic

Contrary to popular cliches, Los Angeles did not evolve overnight when a traffic engineer remembered to put an exit ramp off the Golden State Freeway.

Los Angeles has a rich, complex social, economic and political history that over time shaped and misshaped the landscape into a singular city that few people will confuse with San Francisco or Indianapolis.

However, much of that history has been at best buried in libraries, out of the sight and consciousness of most residents, or under the debris of landmarks being demolished to make way for the waves of new buildings that seem to wash constantly over the city.

In an effort to preserve a sense of the city's history, a group of planners, preservationists and historians has formed a nonprofit organization to commemorate places where the history occurred. The organization is called the Power of Place and is headed by Dolores Hayden, a professor of urban planning at UCLA.

"What we want to do is create a sort of museum without walls, where people can visit various historic sites in and around downtown that would highlight the social and economic development of the city, and the contributions to it by various groups of people," Hayden explained.

The project is one of the most interesting efforts locally to search out and explore the city's history, beyond saving and recycling select historic landmarks, or, worse, mimicking them.

According to Hayden, the project will attempt to use the landmarks as illustrations of sorts in a social history of the city, to be "read" on the streets where a particular event occurred. She explained that isolated landmarks would be just another landmark by the side of the road, but together they tell a fascinating story of Los Angeles.

And if there are no landmarks, then some sort of object, such as a piece of representative sculpture with an explanatory plaque, will be used to create a "place." Also planned is a guide that people or classes can use to take self-guided tours, and public workshops to call attention to the sites and the project.

Similar projects have been developed in other cities, most notably in historically rich Philadelphia and Boston, to the delight of residents, tourists and teachers in search of an instructive day trip for their students.

Following the Trail

In Boston, select landmarks are linked to form a so-called Freedom Trail, which has turned out to be one of the city's more popular and publicized attractions. In downtown Philadelphia, trails marked by painted footsteps lead to historical sites commemorating the role the city played in the formation of the nation.

And though the history of Los Angeles is of a different scale and period, the project here at least is an attempt to bring to the attention of the public the fact that the city did not grow in a vacuum and indeed has a historic context.

The projects mark an increasing awareness among those concerned with cities of the concept of place --a much-sought-after, vaguely defined quality that imbues a particular location with a vivid or unique character--and its potential to enhance civic identity and pride.

However, most efforts to date by urban designers to create a sense of place have been quite superficial. Indeed, some of the efforts have been dishonest, ignoring local history, materials and climate to come up with a vernacular style that is anything but vernacular.

These efforts have included a few architects pulling classical allusions out of dated textbooks, pasting them on their structures and, because they hint at history and look different than neighboring cookie-cutter designs, proclaiming them a place with a proper flourish of public relations.

(One such place is Piazza d'Italia in New Orleans, designed by Charles Moore. The site is fun, but it conveys about the same sense of history as a Roman bath on a Hollywood stage set.)

Cookie-Cutter Projects

More common and more simply, developers ignore what sense of history a building site might offer and instead construct a cookie-cutter project, decorate it with some theme--such as a frontier olde town, a festival market or the ever-popular Southwest style of a Taco Bell outlet--and advertise it as a distinctive place . So much for the search for meaning in architecture these days.

As for the search for the city's history by the Power of Place project, it already has held two workshops to generate public interest. The first was at the landmark Fire Station at 1401 S. Central Ave. to call attention to the strong role the city's black community has played in the history of the Fire Department. (The city was one of the first to hire blacks as firemen.)

The second workshop was held at the Japanese-American Cultural and Community Center in Little Tokyo to recognize, according to Hayden, "the importance of commercial agriculture and horticulture to the development of the Los Angeles economy, and the skills Japanese-Americans brought to that work."

The project has identified 14 sites where events of historic interest once occurred. In addition to Fire Station No. 30, the sites include wine making at Vignes Vineyards, 1st and Vignes streets; midwifery and child care at Biddy Mason's Place, 331 S. Spring St.; oil fields at 1504 Rockwood Ave.; market gardening at 1057 S. San Pedro St.; and the growth of the Chinese community in Chinatown, in part from the role the Chinese played in the construction of the railroads coming into Los Angeles.

Also identified were the sites of an orange grove on Alameda Street, a cannery and furniture workshop on South Grand Avenue, a Pacific Electric "red car" station on 2nd Street, a flower field on West Jefferson Avenue, a free-speech rostrum for migrant workers at the Plaza at Olvera Street, a model-home exhibition grounds at 14th Place and Hill Street, and a World War II defense-industry employment service office at 1110 Flower St.

The all-volunteer project so far has been supported by a modest grant from the California Council for the Humanities, matched in part by the Los Angeles Community Redevelopment Agency. It is seeking funds to continue.

In addition to Hayden, the group's directors include Sheila Levrant de Bretteville, a graphic designer at the Otis Parsons Institute; Rebecca Morales, a professor of urban planning at UCLA; Margaret Bach, a preservationist and founder of the Los Angeles Conservancy; and Arnett Hartsfield Jr., a professor of black studies at Cal State Long Beach, and a former head of the city's Civil Service Commission.

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