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Preserving the cultural treasures of Los Angeles, one block at a time

May 12, 2014 at 6:45 PM EST
The city of Los Angeles is constantly reinventing itself. But now, a project called “Survey L.A.” is digging beneath the city’s layers to identify, catalogue and preserve its diverse cultural history in electronic form. Jeffrey Brown reports on this effort to map the history of a relatively new and rapidly developing city.
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GWEN IFILL: And finally tonight: mapping out an American city’s history, one block at a time.

Jeffrey Brown has our story, part of his series Culture at Risk.

WOMAN: This one is another duplex.

JEFFREY BROWN: A fine walk on a beautiful morning in Los Angeles, part of a very long walk through all of this city, including some 880,000 parcels of land to survey its rich heritage.

WOMAN: This one’s 1927. Related features, on aerial, it kind of looks like it has a tennis court.

JEFFREY BROWN: On this day, Mary Ringhoff and Evanne St. Charles, contracted by the city, were in the Hancock Park neighborhood, first settled in the 1920s by immigrants from Poland and Russia.

Along the way, they took photographs, made notes, and logged information into an electronic tablet.

So, when you walk up to these houses, what are you looking at?

WOMAN: We look at what the style is. A lot of these are Spanish colonial revival. The next one is a Tudor revival. And then we look at the alterations, whether they have had any additions put on, if their windows are original.

JEFFREY BROWN: Los Angeles, of course, is constantly changing, constantly reinventing itself. But there’s an effort under way now to document its history, its neighborhoods, its buildings, its people, its cultural heritage, all that goes into making city what it is. But the story starts far away in quite a different setting.

With the U.S. invasion of Iraq, many archaeological sites and buildings were damaged by bomb blasts and gunfire. Other sites, most famously the National Museum, were looted. When international teams arrived to assess the losses, they were often stymied by a lack of basic information.

Susan Macdonald is with the Getty Conservation Institute.

SUSAN MACDONALD, Getty Conservation Institute: What we realized very quickly was that there were issues associated with the looting of the museum, but they didn’t actually have a comprehensive inventory of their extraordinary archaeological sites.

JEFFREY BROWN: You mean they just didn’t even know what they had?

SUSAN MACDONALD: They didn’t really know what they had and where they were. So there was — these issues catalyzed the idea of having an inventory that they could access and it could actually be Web-based and could be used to identify and know about their heritage, so they could manage the risks associated with it.

JEFFREY BROWN: It’s a simple, though time-consuming and expensive, idea, to identify, catalogue and map the national treasures of a country or region.

The Getty, for the record an underwriter of the NewsHour’s cultural reporting, developed a database called Arches.

ALISON DALGITY, Getty Conservation Institute: Each one represents a cluster of archaeological sites.

JEFFREY BROWN: The government of Jordan was the first to use it.

ALISON DALGITY: So this is the citadel, for example, in the middle of Amman, for example.

JEFFREY BROWN: The Getty’s Alison Dalgity gave us a demonstration.

ALISON DALGITY: You can get reports on the significance, for example, of each site.

JEFFREY BROWN: Scientific, historic, aesthetic, social, spiritual.

ALISON DALGITY: Aesthetic, social, spiritual.

JEFFREY BROWN: In addition to cataloguing each object or site, the inventory describes existing and potential threats.

So this starts as an international project, but it turns out to have applications here in Los Angeles?

SUSAN MACDONALD: Well, that’s right. It is an international issue. And it’s the same whether you’re working in Iraq or Jordan or the city of Los Angeles.

JEFFREY BROWN: It may sound counterintuitive. Preserving ancient treasures in the Middle East is one thing, but how do you apply that idea to a relatively new city like Los Angeles? In fact, this city has become the largest test case for the new computer program in a project called Survey L.A.

Iconic symbols are included, of course, the Hollywood sign, the Walk of Fame, the Capitol Records Building, historic movie theaters. But there are also many lesser-known places.

KEN BERNSTEIN, SurveyLA: This is the Sugar Hill neighborhood that was historical known as West Adams Heights.

JEFFREY BROWN: It was here in the 1940s, says Ken Bernstein, who heads the city’s Historic Resources Department, that local and national racial history was made, when several prominent African Americans bought houses in the neighborhood.

One was Hattie McDaniel, the first black actor to win an Academy Award, for her portrayal of Mammy in “Gone With the Wind.” At the time, the local homeowners association barred blacks from living here.

KEN BERNSTEIN: This was the Jim Crow era Los Angeles, an era of strict racial separation. And there were a number of high-end neighborhoods in Los Angeles that had very explicit racial covenants prohibiting African-Americans, in other cases Jews or other ethnicities, from buying into some of these prestigious neighborhoods in the city.

JEFFREY BROWN: So she and others wanted to move here, so what did they do?

KEN BERNSTEIN: Ultimately, they prevailed in court and were able to stay. And this was in an era just a few years before the U.S. Supreme Court issued its first decisions striking down racial covenants.

JEFFREY BROWN: Many neighborhoods, says Bernstein, have their own stories to tell. And Filipinotown, a park where immigrants first gathered in the city, now features a large mural that showcases the 250-year history of Filipinos in this country.

MICHELLE MAGALONG: It really covers in the middle the importance of Filipinos during the farm labor movement. And it goes all the way to Manny Pacquiao, you know?

JEFFREY BROWN: Boxer, yes.

Yes. Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes. Yes.

Michelle Magalong is a preservationist and community activist who helped organize neighborhood outreach meetings for Survey L.A.

MICHELLE MAGALONG: We have folks bring in photographs. We interview them for oral histories, any kind of material they might have.

JEFFREY BROWN: And what do you say to them? Just bring in your history or what?

MICHELLE MAGALONG: Yes. We say, bring what you have got. And sometimes people have boxes that their parents or their grandparents just kept. Survey L.A. allows us to really honor the everyday vernacular of different and diverse communities, the residents, the business owners, the community organizations, the churches here in the neighborhood. It’s great, because they feel like our story matters and it’s worth preserving.

JEFFREY BROWN: There are also important economic factors at play, of course, tourism, for one and, says ken Bernstein, effective city planning that aids both local officials and developers, who’d rather know about historic preservation sites up front, rather than be surprised well into a project.

KEN BERNSTEIN: Los Angeles always has significant development pressures, and there is heritage at risk as a result. And so we want to be able to use this survey information to make better planning decisions.

JEFFREY BROWN: There’s one other factor. We’re in California, after all. There’s the earthquake potential.

KEN BERNSTEIN: Yes. We will need to know comprehensively when you’re looking at potentially thousands or tens of thousands of buildings in the aftermath of a disaster what’s significant, and which buildings might we want to be a little bit more careful with as we make investment decisions about how to rebuild?

WOMAN: I bet that was originally a neon sign too.

WOMAN: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: Survey L.A. hopes to finish gathering its field data and make the information available to the public next year, not Iraq, then threatened by war and looting, but a great American city, filled with its own history and heritage, wanting to know itself a little better.