On Safeguarding a Treasure: L.A.'s Past

My wife and I cringed as, one by one, they headed for the Dumpster: the 1920s cabinetry, the original wooden window frames, the classic Batchelder fireplace. We had only been renters in this house, not far from 3rd and La Brea, and had recently moved out. But it was still heartbreaking to drive by and catch what the new owner was doing to "update" the place.

It was like seeing somebody have his teeth extracted--without any novacaine--except the implement of choice was a crowbar, and we were the ones feeling the pain.

This distressing scene, which played out a couple of years ago, was brought to mind as I read Qevin Oji's short story about a youngster named Bright, who along with his sister and friends witnesses his Los Angeles home being chewed apart by heavy machines ("215 East 39th Street," page 29). "Watching the house crumble, Bright decided that earthquakes were kinder than people," Oji writes.

Although fictional, Oji's plot gets at a matter that is moving to the fore across the city. The question, says preservation advocate Jolene Snett, is whether Los Angeles will "step up to the plate" and safeguard its past or "keep fueling its image as an architectural wasteland."

She doesn't sound too optimistic. The city has designated 22 historic districts, including in Snett's neighborhood of Hancock Park, where residents must obtain municipal approval before they can change the facades of their homes. But that's a tiny fraction of Los Angeles, which unfurls over 466 square miles and includes 880,000 individual parcels. And Snett fears that a number of powerful developers are bent on thwarting the creation of additional protected zones.

She also thinks there's a larger force at work: a local culture that values hipness over history. "Other cities just seem to embrace preservation much more fervently than we do," Snett says.

Some, though, are encouraged. Ken Bernstein, who heads the city's newly formed Office of Historic Resources, points not only to the existing preservation districts but to 16 others being planned. More and more, he notes, these areas can be found all over L.A.--from the San Fernando Valley to South Los Angeles.

"There's a strong grass-roots interest" in preservation, says Bernstein, who took his post in June after an eight-year stint at the Los Angeles Conservancy.

The trick now, he says, is to get the city's laws and regulations to catch up to what's happening on the ground. To help with that, Bernstein's office just kicked off a comprehensive survey of L.A.'s historic sites--the city's first.

There's still a long way to go; the survey is set to take five years to complete. But until then, Angelenos who care about the city's heritage should take comfort in this: Preservation is an issue that increasingly will be raised. And that should make it tougher for buildings to be razed.

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