Sunday, January 22, 2012

A New Project: SurveyLA

Source: SurveyLA Blog

Something very interesting has happened to me. Because of this thing, I've decided to put this blog on hold, and start writing for another one.

I've been hired to work part-time for SurveyLA, the City of Los Angeles Historic Resources Survey. The concept is, for the first time ever, to go out to all of the buildings (and some things that aren't best described as buildings) in the City of Los Angeles to document what is there. This will give community stakeholders a sense of the historic assets in an area when they are evaluating development projects or making land-use and historic preservation plans. Buildings are being assessed both for architectural significance as well as for their associations with significant people and events.

A lot of the job will focus on maintaining SurveyLA's social media presence. There is the SurveyLA blog, a Facebook page, a Twitter account (@surveyla), and a MindMixer site. The idea here is to reach out to people who are interested in historic preservation (or don't yet know that they are interested) but who might not be willing or able to attend one of SurveyLA's in-person meetings.

SurveyLA strikes me as very exciting to write about. You don't have to spend much time in Los Angeles, or be an architect, to get a gut feeling that it is brimming with distinctive buildings. When I lived in Koreatown I wondered at the brick tenements from the Roaring Twenties, gothic cathedrals like Immanuel Presbetyrian Church, the newest mixed-use buildings at Metro stops, and art deco gems like the Bullocks Wilshire. These buildings were not just cool to look at, they made the neighborhood a more interesting place to be. They weren't just significant to me as works of architecture. They were also an impetus to reflection about the past.

Anyway, the whole topic of what is significant architecturally and historically will probably be one of the most important themes to wrestle with. Pluralistic society that we are, we will doubtless find many different reasons to want to preserve the past, and attach varying levels of significance to different buildings. At the same time, expert opinion and historic preservation law strive to create a sense of objectivity in a field that can sometimes feel quite subjective. All the more reason to involve as many people as possible in trying to figure out what is significant!

Another important theme is that Los Angeles is a dynamic place that will inevitably continue to change in the future. Indeed, I have argued here that we need to make changes to our urban form to become more sustainable. Historic preservation, at its best, provides us with physical links to our past, enhances our sense of place, and connects us to our shared social and cultural history, without attempting to choke off all change. It is a delicate and important balance to strike.

As for this blog, my new position is grant funded and lasts no longer than September 2012, so I may come back to it in the future. Putting Straight Outta Suburbia on hold will allow me to focus on SurveyLA and avoid any apparent conflict of interest (i.e. praising or criticizing Los Angeles while I work for Los Angeles). Just in case this is the end and I just can't accept it yet, let me just say that I have enjoyed immensely advocating for New Urbanism and alternatives to our car-based transportation system here. I am convinced that these ideas are important tools (though certainly not the only ones) in the effort to tackle a number of critical social challenges from climate change, to habitat loss, to the lack of affordable housing, to the obesity crisis.

In this new position I will probably have to strike a more objective tone and appreciate historic buildings of all types, including detached houses, of which Los Angeles has many fine examples. The tension between suburban and urban visions for Los Angeles' future of course is an important theme as well, not just in historic preservation, but in planning generally. Regardless of the path we choose, we should beware of an arrogance that would lead us to sweep away all of what has been built before in the name of "progress". We certainly made that mistake repeatedly during the "urban renewal" and interstate highway era of the 1950s and 60s.

Thank you for reading and PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE check out the SurveyLA blog (and leave comments!). I hope to have new SurveyLA content up by the end of next week.

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