Housing, Homeless, and Freeways: Kicking Off SACRPH 2015 with a History of L.A. Social Justice

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When you look up the word “plenary,” the dictionary provides the following definition: “(of a meeting) to be attended by all participants at a conference or assembly, who otherwise meet in smaller groups.” Plenaries when scheduled at the beginning of a conference are meant to set the tone, and the opening session at this year’s Society of American City and Regional Planning History (SACRPH), “Social Justice through a Historical Lens,” did just that. In a nation that has just witnessed protests at the University of Missouri that led to the resignation of the school’s president and the Ferguson uprising of 2014 that helped spark the #BlackLivesMatter movement, the plenary provided a loose framework for understanding the various ways Los Angeles might play a role academically, culturally, and politically in not only grasping the notion of “social justice” today, but also the city’s relationship to such ideals historically.

University of Nevada Las Vegas (UNLV) professor Gregory Hise started things off with a call for a synthesis of L.A. history that would place it at the center of housing history. For Hise, when talking about the history of housing discrimination, the L.A. story belongs in a national context, ultimately making it the standard in planning and development history rather than some West Coast anomaly.

Downtown L.A., November 2015

Downtown L.A., November 2015

Hise laid out six reasons, loosely summarized here, as to why L.A. deserved such a designation. They included L.A.’s place as a global metropolis and its long history of racial diversity; meaning that nearly all racial groups (Asians and Latinos notably) encountered housing discrimination, providing observers with a fuller account rather than simple black-white binaries of the eastern U.S. At one time, the metropolis’s international status and multiracial population might have made the city seem exceptional, but with demographic change occurring nationally (particularly in relation to Asian and Latino American populations) L.A. belongs in the center rather than the periphery. Moreover, the emphasis on homeownership in the region, the prevalence of both restrictive housing covenants and their “metropolitan dispersion,” the numerous legal theorists battling them, and the activity of NAACP Legal Defense Fund (LDF) in Southern California, all before the famous Shelly v. Kraemer (1948) case furthers the city’s claim to national prominence. To paraphrase one prominent civil rights advocate: Los Angeles was the proving ground on which the theories used to fight housing discrimination were worked out, arguments tested, and ammunition loaded for future Supreme Court cases.

University of California at Riverside (UCR) professor Catherine Gudis came last with her discussion of “Walk the Talk,” a New Orleans second line parade enacted through a Los Angeles prism on L.A.’s famed Skid Row, but unlike the Big Easy variant, it functioned to commemorate the “not dead yet” denizens of the city’s homeless neighborhood. Rather than a community without residents, stories, or histories, “Walk the Talk” functions to “serve witness” to the origin stories that defined Skid Row. Gudis’s larger presentation sought to demonstrate how state solutions to homelessness on Skid Row often exacerbated the problem rather than solved it, but that more organic, resident and activist-led actions, like the Los Angeles Poverty Department (yes, the other LAPD) and the Hippie Kitchen had done a great deal more to excavate the community’s history and bring a sense of “comfort and culture” to residents.

Brass Band, Walk the Talk

Brass Band, Walk the Talk

Amazingly, due to both circumstance and the role of activists, Skid Row (unlike say the Bowery in New York) persists to this day and remains a part of the city. In her own work, Gudis has endeavored to “to render visible a set of hegemonic forces” that have sought to make homelessness invisible. Today’s urban citizenship, defined in large part by capital investment, leaves Skid Row residents without basic constitutional rights such as that of assembly. Those living in the famous enclave might be seen in public “but are not counted as part of the public,” she noted. The work of Mike Neely (founder of the Homeless Outreach Program and today, Commissioner of the Los Angeles Homeless Board) and Tanya Tull (founder of the Skid Row non-profit Para Los Ninos and co-founder of Los Angeles Housing Corp, another non profit created to help the homeless) seeks to “reorient and complicate” and restore citizens of Skid Row to three dimensional figures in the eyes of both the state and public.

Both Hise and Gudis delivered engaging and valuable presentations; however, University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) professor Eric Avila provided the most visually and intellectually stimulating talk of the three. For those familiar with Avila’s work, much of this will come as no surprise as the UCLA professor delved into the intersection of Chicano protest and highway construction across the Los Angeles area, an academic medley of “greatest hits of social injustice in postwar L.A.” With references to his most recent work, The Folklore of the Freeway: Race and Revolt in the Modernist City (cited as Folklore hereafter), ToM offers a brief overview his talk and hopefully the general thrust of the plenary.

Various segments of The Great Wall of Los Angeles

Various segments of The Great Wall of Los Angeles

“The Great Wall, a half mile long mural painted on concrete retaining wall, is really a historical timeline – a linear sequence of vignettes of the history of Los Angeles and California emphasizing the perspectives of marginal social groups,” writes Avila in Folklore.[1] It was with Judith Baca’s Great Wall of Los Angeles (located in San Fernando Valley) that Avila began his talk, focusing on the wall’s depiction of race, injustice, and protest throughout Los Angeles’s history. Painted by Baca and over thirty students from the area, it serves as “a homemade monument” putting into focus the histories of marginalized groups including the colonization of the area’s indigenous people by the Spanish, Japanese internment during World War II, and the construction of freeways across the region in the 1950s and 60s, which disproportionately affected Mexican American communities across the region.

For Avila, the story of Chavez Ravine and Dodger stadium provided a useful means of entering into the discussion. As Avila and others have written, Chavez Ravine had existed for sometime as a predominantly Mexican American “poor but tightly knitted community [consisting of] family networks” going back generations. They would eventually be swept out in the name of slum clearance and urban renewal. Though Richard Neutra had devised a public housing complex for the area in the 1940s, by the early 1950s anti-communist Red Scare politics had made his plans untenable. Instead, the city used the land to lure the Brooklyn Dodgers west, promising them prime real estate in the heart of downtown Los Angeles. Government subsidies for public housing might be socialism, but when used for professional sports teams it functioned as good business, because “now we have the Dodgers,” went the city’s company line.

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Still, at least Dodger Stadium to some extent catered to numerous classes and ethnicities. What happened to Bunker Hill after the 1930s proved more elitist. Once home to characters in Raymond Chandler novels and shabby Victorian homes worthy of retrospective envy, in the 1950s redevelopment plans cleared the neighborhood of any of its past charm, replacing it with what Nathan Masters describes today as “an amalgam of commercial high rises, arts venues, other mega-projects.” This development caters to the “privileged elite,” argued Avila; the neighborhood transformed from a “habitat of many into the pastime of the few,” thereby standing as a “monument to injustice.”

Bunker Hill, November 2015

Bunker Hill, November 2015

Here Avila shifted to a discussion of the city’s famous freeways. Undoubtedly, L.A.’s highways and byways function as a critical part of the city’s transportation infrastructure. However, as a “civic body of communities, neighborhoods and people, we don’t bear” the responsibility of construction equally, noted Avila. Granted, the original 1957 master plan exhibited a relative impartiality regarding the placement of city freeways, but when the rubber hit the road (yes, we went there), the reality proved much different.

For example, the Beverly Hills Freeway never came to fruition. Having the financial means and political leverage to challenge state plans, Beverly Hills commissioned four different studies, all concluding that the freeway would “damage the historical character of the neighborhood.” Residents threatened to sue and the state retreated from its plans. Instead, “six freeways bullied their way into Boyle Heights converging on two massive highway interexchanges that consumed 10% of the local housing stock,” writes Avila.[2] These major highway arteries “soar[ed] above or slic[ed] through” the lives of the largest community of Mexican American peoples outside of Mexico City, he told the audience.

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The highways simply finished a process of bleeding out Boyle Heights diversity; this had begun with redlining of the 1930s. Once a polyglot neighborhood filled with an array of ethnicities, races, and languages, Boyle Heights became increasingly Mexican American. Redlining left the community vulnerable to accusations of blight and in turn made it a target for highway construction. Jewish residents decamped for the San Fernando Valley and towns like the newly created Lakewood, but its Mexican and Asian citizens found no purchase in such communities. True, lighter skinned Mexican Americans could circumvent these restrictions but only by claiming Spain as their nation of origin rather than Mexico. Famed L.A. scribe D.J. Waldie recounted as much in his memoir about Lakewood, remembering one such incident when a local real estate agent interviewed a Mexican American couple presenting themselves as Spanish: the agent “looked at the man and women, and signed the papers that sold them the house.”[3]

To give flesh to the idea of this white flight and how it affected visions of the city, Avila discussed the renowned Julius Shulman. Once a Boyle Heights resident living on North Cummings Street, he joined the Jewish exodus away from the enclave, relocating to the Hollywood Hills neighborhood of Laurel Canyon. He would go on to define L.A.’s modernist “sleek” postwar look through his photography, but he never returned to Boyle Heights to capture its built environment. “Perhaps Boyle Heights did not belong in his vision of new LA,” or maybe Shulman found the destruction of his community under the wheels of the city’s traffic too painful to document, Avila wondered aloud.

Julius Shulman's modern L.A>

Julius Shulman’s modern L.A.

As noted in Folklore, Shulman took few pictures of freeways, but those he did highlighted their “seductive lines and sleek form.” Shulman scrambled up embankments to “photograph the layered tiers of a new highway interchange, and he shot the freeway at night, slowing shutter speed and increasing exposure to create light trails on the freeway.”[4] Whatever his feelings about what road construction did to Boyle Heights, he would become in Avila’s words, “the freeways’ fashion stylist, making it fit into the iconography of midcentury modernism and Southern California’s suburban good life.”[5]

In contrast to the sleek modern images by Shulman or famous aerial shots by Ansel Adams, East Los Angeles’s Chicano artists lived with the freeways from the ground up and, rather than the cool modernism of figures like Adams or Shulman, their work comes infused with Chicano overtones: “up close and personal … a Chicano perspective steeped in the riotous colors of a Mexican aesthetic and in the political ferment of the Chicano movement.”[6] David Botello’s “Beneath the Shadow of the Freeway” (1982) or Frank Romero’s “Pink Landscape” (1984) reflected this ground level orientation.

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Growing up in the tumult of the 1960s, inspired by Chicano activism and the freeway construction that transformed East Los Angeles into a heavily trafficked urban throughway, their work came to fruition in the 1980s. In “Pink Landscape,” Romero traces East L.A’s history from rural orange groves to urban metropolis. Filled with images that detail postwar L.A. – smog, the twin engine airplane and even a 1950s pickup truck favored by Chicano car aficionados – City Hall bisects the painting, expressing its place as the tallest building in the city between 1928 and 1964 and holding the center between ”two symbols of Romero’s youth: a church and a home that bears some resemblance to the artist’s home in East Los Angeles.”[7]

“Some like David Hockney, discovered the freeway; for others, the freeway discovered them,” Avila writes in Folklore. Hockney, he argues, “pronounced himself a West Coast Giovanni Piranesi before the building of the L.A. freeways,” and, much like Reyner Banham, arrived in the city similar to a poet “of Britain’s Romantic Age” wandering through Greece and Turkey like an aristocrat on a long awaited binge of excess all in order to “poeticize the ruins of ancient culture.”[8] No less art, Hockney’s L.A. epistemology, one must point out, differs from his Chicano counterparts. Artists cannot divorce themselves from structural conditions; racism, class privilege, and public policy “frame the freeways portrait” but it remains up to the artist to find spark and creativity amidst these forces. In fact, it all simply affirms “the capacity of art to register the dissimilar consequences of modernization and [illustrates] how the field of human vision is as charged, politically, as the physical landscape of the city,” writes Avila.[9]

“Art is a means by which social justice is demanded and envisioned” in L.A.’s Chicano community and elsewhere, Avila told audience members. Indeed, as he notes in his book Chicano artists tell the story not of triumph but of reckoning, “coming to terms with the freeway and its monolithic presence in the landscape of daily life.”[10]   One should not look it at this as defeat but rather celebrate how this story is told and retold through art and how this process signals a continuing resistance and lifeblood in the community. In his presentation’s conclusion, Avila availed the audience of a discovery he made while taking his students on a tour of East Los Angeles, where near a highway retaining wall facing a row of fading 1920 bungalows someone had written into the landscape of Cummings Street, “Even concrete walls cannot stop the beauty of life” – evidence of a vibrant claim to living that persists despite the crushing weight of freeway construction.

Still as moderator, University of Southern California’s (USC) William Deverell, noted in his commentary, in some ways commemoration can be negative. It can lead us to believe that the negative is behind us in a sort of positivistic march into the future. “Once you walk away from that museum, social justice has been attained,” he warned the audience. Avila, Gudis, and Hise agreed and cautioned against the same. “Resist temptation to walk away with clear conscience, that everything is okay,” Avila suggested. The continuing production of culture in resistance to large structural forces is a positive but “just because culture keeps coming, doesn’t mean everything is ‘okay.’ Everything is not okay, we need change, we demand change, we need it now.” And with that advice, SACRPH 2015 began.

[1] Eric Avila, The Folklore of the Freeway: Race and Revolt in the Modernist City, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014), 77.

[2] Avila, The Folklore of Freeways, 120

[3] D.J. Waldie, Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir, (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1996), 103.

[4] Avila, The Folklore of Freeways, 129.

[5] Avila, The Folklore of Freeways, 129

[6] Avila, The Folklore of Freeways, 121.

[7] Avila, The Folklore of Freeways, 137.

[8] Avila, The Folklore of Freeways, 121, 132.

[9] Avila, The Folklore of Freeways, 121.

[10] Avila, The Folklore of Freeways, 52.

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