Bill Boyarsky
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History matters even in Los Angeles

space-to-lead-skyline.jpgFrom the Space To Lead report.

Los Angeles, both forgetful and ignorant of its past, is constantly worrying about the future. The past, however, shapes the future, and that was the theme of a report released Thursday, Space To Lead: A Century of Civic Leadership In Los Angeles.

The report was done by Future of Cities: Los Angeles," an organization founded and headed by civic and political activist Donna Bojarsky. I went to its unveiling, well attended by academics, politicians and others who worry about LA. It was held appropriately at La Plaza de Cultura Y Artes “ near where Los Angeles had been created by Spain.

The report noted the good and the bad. "If necessity is the mother of invention, the diffuse power structure of Los Angeles has necessitated an experimental aesthetic and sense of innovation often revered," the report said. "Yet there is a danger in such reverence because Los Angeles has a history of erasing or forgetting the past in pursuit of the reinvention of civic identity unmoored from historical precedents or ties. The destruction of Chavez Ravine and Bunker Hill are the best-known examples of this amnesia."

By chance--or through my own stupidity--I got a good view of the immensity of the task facing the futurists. I had made the usual male mistake of not reading directions. So I got off Metro at Seventh Street and walked to what I thought was the address, 501 Main Street. I ended up at Fifth and South Main, the gateway to Skid Row. I looked at the directions. The address was Fifth and North Main.

As I walked the 10 blocks to my destination, I saw the immense amount of work confronting those trying to build a better L.A. The revived downtown, increasingly beloved by millennials, is a few blocks south, in the Staples Center area. But I was on a neglected, uninviting portion of Main Street. The Los Angeles Theater, once one of America's great movie palaces, was gated. The single room occupancy hotels looked grim. Sad looking homeless people walked the streets.

Once I reached the "Space to Lead" event, I heard some of the speakers talk of the earlier L.A. when rich white male bosses build the old downtown but also created the conditions that led to its demise. The complex causes of homelessness--mental illness, substance abuse, racism, unaffordable rents and more--are rooted in the past of a city run by those who pretty much didn't look beyond their country clubs and mansions.

"A diverse city but not an inclusive city," Bojarsky said of today’s Los Angeles.

Hopefully, the city will blend its past with the far-different present. One of the speakers was Los Angeles City Councilman David Ryu, a Korean American, who noted he was elected by a coalition of voters. City Councilman Bob Blumenfeld said his family "is a coalition." His wife is African America and they are raising their kids as Jews.

The report is useful, as was the gathering celebrating its release. It doesn't have definite answers but gives perspective to today's problems. "History matters, " said William Deverell, director of the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West.

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