The Getty and City of Los Angeles launch the Los Angeles African American Historic Places Project

Completing the Incomplete

The Getty and City of Los Angeles launch the Los Angeles African American Historic Places Project

St. Elmo Village, an artists’ enclave and urban renewal project founded in 1969 by Black painter Rozzell Sykes and his muralist nephew, Roderick Sykes, in the Mid-City neighborhood of Los Angeles. (Elizabeth Daniels, © J. Paul Getty Trust)

Los Angeles, a city founded by Mexican settlers of largely African descent, is home to numerous vibrant historically Black neighborhoods. And in some of these neighborhoods, namely Hyde Park, Leimert Park, and Baldwin Hills/Crenshaw, there are major efforts underway to preserve, protect, and celebrate the city’s considerable Black heritage. However, this legacy is not necessarily reflected in the city’s official historic designation programs as just three percent of the 1,200 city-recognized local landmarks (Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Landmarks) have links to African American heritage.

To remedy this stark discrepancy, the Getty Conservation Institute, working in close collaboration with the Office of Historic Resources (OHR) within Los Angeles’ Department of City Planning, has announced the launch of the Los Angeles African American Historic Places Project. The three-year initiative will, per a Getty news release, set out to “identify and help preserve the places that best represent these stories [of the Black experience in L.A.] and work with communities to develop creative approaches that meet their own aims for placemaking, identity, and empowerment.”

“Historic preservation is about the acknowledgment and elevation of places and stories. The point of this work is to make sure that the stories and places of African Americans in Los Angeles are more present and complete than previously,” said Tim Whalen, John E. and Louise Bryson Director at the Getty Conservation Institute, in a statement. “The work is also about making sure that preservation methods are examined for systemic bias. It’s ultimately about equity.”

The project will largely be built upon a comprehensive community engagement process that will find Getty and the OHR gleaning community input and building local partnerships while “drawing upon community-based knowledge of lesser-known histories.”

It its initial phase, project leaders will oversee a potential revamp and expansion of L.A.’s historic preservation toolkit. This work will entail examining how present-day historic preservation and planning practices reinforce systemic racism while reworking existing practices to better foster greater diversity and inclusion. The first phase will also yield a comprehensive framework for identifying and evaluating citywide sites associated with Black history. The framework builds upon and enhances an existing context statement established by the OHR in 2018 that’s centered around nine themes: Civil rights, deed restriction and segregation, religion and spirituality, social clubs and organizations, health and medicine, newspapers and publishing, commercial development, the entertainment industry, and visual arts. The new framework will include “deeper citywide community engagement” than its predecessor, according to the Getty.

Complementing the project’s rethink of the historic preservation toolkit, additional historic African American properties across the city will gain official historic designation. As the project gets underway, new roles for young preservation, history, and planning professionals will be created via paid internship positions. Public programming will also play into the initiative.

In the coming weeks, the OHR and Getty will commence a search for a consultant project leader, who will “further develop, manage, and implement the work of this project” under the guidance of a soon-to-be-formed local advisory committee comprised of stakeholders from L.A’s African American communities.

Future phases of the project will focus on how the lessons learned in L.A. can be shared and applied nationally.

A project precursor in the form of a virtual roundtable discussion was held in December 2020 and attended by local and national leaders in the realms of historic preservation, urban planning, community organizing, and Black history. As noted by the Getty, the involvement of these leaders “shed light on existing processes and practices that perpetuate biases in how places are recognized and protected, and helped expose current preservation policies that prevent the conservation of places of importance to Black communities.”

“The history of Los Angeles is incomplete without recognition of the African American individuals and institutions that shaped the economic, cultural and civic narrative of the region,” remarked Susan D. Anderson, history curator and program manager at the California African American Museum in Los Angeles and a participant in the roundtable meeting. “This important project will expand how heritage is defined and will provide an opportunity to work with local communities and residents to unearth stories that are vital to our understanding of the place we call home.”

The OHR and Getty have worked together since 2005 when they came together as part of a private-public partnership to build a framework for identifying and managing the city’s historic resources. The partnership resulted in the launch of L.A.’s first citywide survey of historic resources, SurveyLA, which was conducted from 2010 through 2017. This, in turn, led to the 2015 launch of a public inventory of historic resources dubbed HistoricPlacesLA.