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How to save the real L.A.? First, you find it

Times Staff Writer

WE all think we know what Los Angeles isn’t -- those tip-of-the-tongue platitudes: “Not a real city”; “Not a place with history”; “Not a place easily summed up in a sentence -- or sound bite.”

What we don’t know precisely, however, is just what Los Angeles is.

That’s the monumental task the L.A. Department of City Planning’s Office of Historic Resources is undertaking to make sense of -- and give context to -- a region that has often felt diffuse, imprecise and haphazardly imagined.

With technical assistance from the Getty Conservation Institute and funded in part by a $2.5-million, five-year matching grant from the Getty Foundation, “SurveyL.A.: Los Angeles Historical Resources Survey Project” is an ambitious effort to identify, catalog and ultimately protect not just its physical “built history” but to provide a sharper portrait of Los Angeles and how it came to be.

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Of course, L.A. has history -- a distinct if not variegated one. But its “City of the Future” moniker has, over time, done more ill than good in bolstering a civic sense of self, leaving Los Angeles ambivalent about its connection to the past and its complex evolution. “There’s been a growing sense that the city is going to change and with that a growing realization that there is importance in historic preservation,” says Ken Bernstein, manager of the city’s Office of Historic Preservation. “It’s part of a natural maturing of the city -- or coming of age of the city. And it’s become important to catalog what makes Los Angeles Los Angeles.”

In 2001 the Getty Conservation Institute published the “Los Angeles Historic Resource Survey Assessment Project: Summary Report,” a report that examined preservation in this city. “We were trying to understand if it made sense to even pursue a survey,” says Tim Whalen, the Institute’s director. “The report indicated that there was a need. What would it require? The problem is Los Angeles is the size of a small country.”

Spanning five years and, they hope, the entire city -- more than 800,000 legal parcels -- the multiphase project launches one of its key elements Aug. 15: an interactive website that will catalog L.A.'s wide-ranging treasures. Some are more evident -- historic downtown, clusters of Deco facades, whimsical bungalow courts -- others less obvious. Uncovering that “hidden L.A.,” identifying what often slips into the margins or can easily be lost to memory, is a key goal of the survey. Ultimately, that information would be available to anyone who might need it, including visiting scholars and deep-pocket developers as well as harried Hollywood location scouts.

“It’s a way to bring historic preservation into the 21st century by taking sites that may be considered by some to be nontraditional or that aren’t necessarily architectural masterpieces and ensuring that they are reviewed against accepted historic preservation criteria,” Bernstein says. Eligibility will be based not only on architectural significance, “but on historic, social or cultural associations.” The idea is not to just round up what we think of when we think about Los Angeles -- the Neutras, the Schindlers, the Neffs -- but to broaden definitions of “valuable.”

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The project renders the term “significant” more elastic, inclusive. “I think it is an important way to actually change the public’s perception about preservation,” says Janet Hansen, deputy manager of the Office of Historic Resources. “People generally think that it’s about architecture, about things that look good. But this is going to be a really important way for everyone to really understand the goals preservation is trying to reach.”

Simply put: “Without a survey, we don’t know what we have.” This attempt at cataloging, Bernstein says, will help alleviate the panic that can occur when a wrecking ball or bulldozer shows up.

“What we have, I’ve been calling a ‘triage approach,’ ” he says. “The problem is that it’s difficult for property owners as well as the developers to come in late and find out that the site is significant, protected or being contested. Everyone becomes suspect at that moment. It’s far better to be proactive.”

Decades in the making

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IT’S been 45 years since civic leaders formally recommended that the city take stock of itself. The result was the 1962 Cultural Heritage Ordinance, which allowed individual sites to be designated as historic and/or cultural monuments. One of its key proposals was a need for a comprehensive inventory. But sheer size, timing, money and competing civic concerns -- riots, fires, earthquakes -- prevented it from being a top priority.

Today, a team of 25 experts -- urban historians, academics, architectural historians among them -- selected by Jones & Stokes, an environmental and planning consultant firm, have begun preparing a comprehensive “Historic Context Statement,” a document that will help shape the survey field guide. (A pilot survey team is set for a test run this year with the formal survey to begin in 2008.) The statement will chart the historic and architectural evolution of L.A., laying out major themes that shaped the city’s identity, such as “Hollywood the Place,” “Hollywood the Idea” and “Annexation.” In addition, it will consider the property types and what makes them important.

“The challenge is really to answer the question: ‘Why is a resource significant?’ ” says Hansen, who is overseeing the project’s day-to-day progress. “What are the patterns, the trends, the forces throughout the development history of Los Angeles that made certain property types occur and why?”

Ultimately, Hansen says, the team will develop a narrative that not just details the 150 to 200 property types found around Los Angeles -- residential, commercial, industrial and institutional -- but will break them into subcategories and clearly define a particular style’s characteristics. The Historic Context’s section on “Residential Development,” for example, would include descriptions of Craftsman architecture, period revival or early public housing along with a list of key features. As well, there will be detailed “eligibility standards” that will lay out criteria for historical designation.

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To help contextualize it all, the team Jones & Stokes assembled is conversant in Southern California’s vivid, visual language and includes experts in trends including California Bungalow and Googie architecture as well as office buildings of the late 1970s. “There’s so much that’s happened here, and the traditional way has been to just start chronologically,” says the firm’s senior architectural historian Richard Starzak. “But there are so many facets of history and people. The biggest challenge is just finding a good starting place. And the city never worked in a line like that. There are just so many layers of culture -- fashion, the whole surf-pop culture. And we’re trying to think not just historically, but, ‘What’s important to the life of the city?’ What’s drawn people? And it’s hard to explain that in terms of buildings and structures.”

A populist approach

INSPIRED by a New York City-based site, Place Matters, the SurveyL.A. website, still in the works, will offer an opportunity for members of the public to identify their own out-of-plain-sight landmarks. So that could mean pinpointing a nondescript apartment complex or a long-shuttered dance hall with an explanation about why it is noteworthy -- architecturally, historically or culturally. “People will be able to talk about sites by answering a series of open-ended questions,” says Bernstein, and that information “will be fed into the more formal survey process over the next few years.”

The invitation, they realize, could be a Pandora’s box, particularly in a city such as Los Angeles where “noteworthy” has a slippery definition. “We will have to provide some cautionary notes along the way,” says Bernstein, “The ‘George Washington Slept Here’ syndrome in Los Angeles may more likely be ‘the celebrity lived here’ syndrome. That doesn’t automatically make a property rise to the level of historic significance.”

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It’s the unearthed surprises, project overseers hope, that will lead to broader implications. And it was that chance to deepen the city’s story that George Sanchez found compelling from the beginning. “It’s important to create a multiracial baseline to plug into a whole lot of histories that get put on the back burner,” says Sanchez, a professor of American studies, ethnicity and history at USC and part of the Jones & Stokes-assembled team. “This way we can start raising issues from the very beginning about how we do this so it isn’t just about famous architects and how buildings got built: It’s about how space got used,” says Sanchez, who is as interested in exploring sites of racial interaction as those that have had multiple meanings over time as neighborhoods evolve -- a jewel box of a concert hall known to one generation as a place to hear an orchestra, to another might be known as the union meeting hall.

“One of the things I passed around to the group was a brief history of racial segregation in L.A. Here you have houses that were at the front lines, and through that you can represent the people who were on the front lines. But you don’t know that driving by.”

The process provides a rare opportunity to think beyond the usual, basic data gathered -- when built, who built -- says Greg Hise, faculty member in urban history and planning at USC. “So often we are focused on structures but not their stories; not how parts of the city add up as a whole, or how a self-defined neighborhood fits into a larger mosaic.”

Trying to sum up something as elusive as L.A., says Hise, “doesn’t seem like such a great challenge. It’s what scholars do. It’s more challenging getting people to ask smart questions that lead us to new answers. How many new stories are we going to be able to bring together -- to write this really thick, rich history? Which for a project like this is a very different kind of objective.”

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lynell.george@latimes.com

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Architectural no-brainers

SurveyL.A. is Los Angeles’ grand-scale effort to take stock of itself -- literally. Organized by the city planning department’s Office of Historic Resources, the goal is to identify and catalog Los Angeles’ vast built history -- more than 800,000 legal parcels. The hope is that it will take us beyond what we think about when we think about Los Angeles -- that mishmash of telegenic landmarks, storybook architectural styles and beamed-across-the globe-icons that overtly tell the world a little about ourselves.

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More than meets the eye

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What SurveyL.A. hopes to uncover are not just “architectural gems” but the hidden histories behind buildings -- especially those not obvious to the naked eye. Beginning in mid-August, the public will be able to assist by going to SurveyL.A.'s soon-to-be-launched website to identify structures that might have played an important role in Los Angeles’ complex evolution. For the purposes of the survey, what makes a site “significant” or “valuable” isn’t just that it’s a celebrity watering hole or was the location of some infamous event. And just because the public nominates a site, survey coordinators explain, doesn’t mean it will necessarily be deemed to be “quote unquote historic.”


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