As Los Angeles inexorably stumbles forward into the future, it becomes more important than ever to preserve the fragments of its past.
Be the fragments landmark houses, such as the Gamble in Pasadena, or the Ennis Brown in Los Feliz; the Rococo Los Angeles theater downtown or the Moderne Alex in Glendale; streetscapes such as Boulder Road in Altadena or Alvarado Terrace in the Pico Union neighborhood; singular structures as the Watts Towers or the Tail o' the Pup hot dog stand; or simply the giant Moreton Bay Fig tree on National Boulevard, they offer a sense of time, place and pride vital to our civic identity.
Contrary to popular cliches perpetuated by aspiring tastemakers catering to east coast publications and prejudices, Los Angeles is not just some thin cartoon concoction of glitz and gossamer; a cauldron of "hot properties"; an asphalt-covered, chainlink-wrapped playground for aging adolescent and self-promoting architects, or a maxed-out mini mall.
To be sure, these little vanities and crass commercialism do exist here, thanks in part to a growing public appetite for gossip and gaucheries, fed by a starry-eyed local tradition of hucksterism and buffoonery. But as more and more persons are discovering, beyond these shallow worlds is a Los Angeles with a rich and diverse architectural and cultural history.
Celebrating that history this fall as it marks its 10th anniversary is the Los Angles Conservancy. Beginning as a small band of persons to fight the threatened demolition of the Central Library, the conservancy has grown in a decade to nearly 5,000 members to become one of the city's major and more responsible civic groups.
Its efforts combined with other public and private interests over the last decade helped save the landmark library, which after a disastrous fire more than two years ago is scheduled to undergo a major renovation and expansion as the centerpiece of a major downtown redevelopment plan.
The conservancy also has been in the forefront of the continuing battle to preserve a number of the city's marvelous movie palaces, most notably to date the Art Deco Wiltern Theater. In addition, it has lent invaluable support in the host of efforts to save a variety of notably designed residences, public buildingss, and commercial structures, and to have distinctive neighborhoods declared historic districts.
In a fractured metropolis of scattered neighborhoods aggravated by an insensitive bureaucracy and an arcane political structure that encourages duplicity, the conservancy has provided a network and a resource for an awakenng community consciousness, and dozens of other historic societies asserting themselves across Southern California. (These groups also deserve to be celebrated.)
Though frail and thin, the network and resources have proved valuable in the recurring, and increasing, battles to save Los Angeles from itself.
Less dramatic but no less important has been the quiet involvement of the conservancy in the struggle within city government by a few conscientious civic servants to develop a reasonable approach to seismic compliance, and a responsible environmental review process, one that takes into account historic structures and neighborhoods.
And, of course, there is the conservancy's engaging educational programs, including its popular architectural house and historic neighborhood tours and special events. These have included lectures, issues forums, socials, and film programs. No local educational institution has done a more effective job reaching out to the public, and at such reasonable prices, too, thanks to the conservancy's dedicated docents.
The conservancy deserves to pause, look back at its achievements of the last decade, take pride in them, and accept the thanks, of those concerned with improving the quality of life in Los Angeles.
But not for too long. While congratulating itself the conservancy also would do well to rededicate itself to the task of protecting, and improving, Los Angeles. To paraphrase a quotation of 18th century philospher John Philpot Curran, that is also attributed to Thomas Jefferson, the price for a livable city is eternal vigilance.
The battles continue. "Awareness and support for preservation has grown enormously, but at the same time development pressures are threatening more historic buildings and districts than ever before," commented conservancy executive director Jay Rounds in the organization's current newsletter. "This is a critical period for determining what Los Angeles will look like in the future."
What won't be in Los Angeles' future is the Beverly Theater. As if an example was needed of the continuing assault on our landmarks, the Art Deco-styled theater on Wilshire Boulevard in Beverly Hills is being demolished after what seems a half-hearted attempt to save it by the city and the owner, the Columbia Development Partners, a joint venture involving Columbia Savings & Loan.