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What Makes Historic Preservation Work?

The pitched battle over whether to preserve and rebuild or tear down and build anew St. Vibiana’s Cathedral in downtown Los Angeles has raised the profile of conservation issues. Under what circumstances does historical preservation benefit a community? How can it cause harm, economic or otherwise? How do we make wise decisions? JIM BLAIR talked to people who have been involved in preservation issues.

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RAYMOND LEIER: Co-owner, del Mano Gallery, Old Pasadena and Brentwood

Here [in Pasadena], I feel like I’m in a small town. The business community is close. We know each other by name. I was an early camper here and I took it on as my own to make sure that we followed the guidelines of this historic district.

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My business in Brentwood is successful, but for different reasons. Over there, we’re a bunch of merchants just trying to make a dollar. Over here we care about the environment we’re in, nurture it and have reaped the benefits.

I would love to see [St. Vibiana’s] preserved, but I think that it’s [the community’s] responsibility to preserve it, not necessarily the archdiocese’s.

Here [in Pasadena] the landlords can reap the benefits [of historic preservation] over time, but in other situations the owner is between a rock and a hard place. My rent has tripled from when I started here. But the quality of the area has tripled. The [Catholic Church] can’t same thing [about St. Vibiana’s].

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ANTHONY SCOTT: Executive director, Dunbar Economic Development Corporation, Los Angeles

Dunbar Economic Development Corporation was formed in 1988, specifically for the purpose of saving the Dunbar Hotel.

In our case, historic preservation and economic development are very clearly parallel issues.

[Our] goal was to continue to identify other historic properties within the Vernon-Central area--in particular Central Avenue because of its long history of being the center, the main street if you will, of black Los Angeles.

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Our effort is to say: Look, this makes this community different. It makes it unique in the scheme of Los Angeles and it’s important because it’s a history of a people that needs to be recognized. And it also can become a revitalization tool for this area.

The cost issue, though, is a big one.

The Dunbar was a very costly project to rehab because it is a brick building. We’re in earthquake territory. It’s also an historic building and therefore the seismic work had to be done in such a way that it’s not really visible from the outside, which means it’s more expensive.

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VIVIEN BONZO: President, Olvera Street Merchants Assn., owner of La Golondrina Cafe

Olvera Street has meant a lot for the City of Los Angeles as a vital place for the Latino community to congregate and socialize. My grandmother was asked to relocate [her] restaurant, then called La Mission Cafe, to Olvera Street in 1930. There my grandmother called it La Golondrina after the famous song. We’ve been there ever since, uninterrupted, for 66 years. I’m the third generation of family involved.

La Placita Church, Our Lady Queen of Angels, has been a focal point for the Latino community as a place of worship. My grandmother’s funeral was there. I was baptized there.

Considerable money was spent on seismic work on it. Again, in context, it was the first place of worship for the Mexican community. I couldn’t imagine if [it] were to ever have been torn down what might have happened in terms of people’s living memories. There’s something important about memory, because at some point that’s really all you have.

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I’m not connected with the parishionership of St. Vibiana’s. But it appears that the only people really raising hell are the L.A. Conservancy. I haven’t seen protests outside the church from parishioners or sectors of my community. And in Los Angeles when people are upset, they tend to protest.

If anybody threatened to tear Our Lady Queen of Angels down, I can assure you they’d stand up in front of it and they wouldn’t let them get through.

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PEGGY GRAHAM-HILL: Executive director, FAME Housing Corp., non-profit housing developer affiliated with First AME Church.

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People living here are fighting for their community. Then you have a person that is concerned about preservation. This is a personal opinion [but] I don’t see them here hustling and bustling every day to make the community better. It is a historical house that they are focused on. And [this] causes friction so [there’s] animosity before there’s even time to sit down at the table.

When you’re out there providing housing for persons who cannot provide it on their own and [especially] when you’re sheltering 500 to 600 homeless persons during the winter months, it gets a little tedious. I love beautiful structures, but when it comes to that structure or a roof over somebody’s head, I have the tendency to lean a little bit more toward the roof.

Historic buildings should be preserved in some cases, but when they’re a hazard and the community can be better served another way, I support letting service to the community be the priority.


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