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La Plaza project snubbed historic preservation in digging up old burial ground in L.A.

A lot more questions should have been asked before excavation was allowed at the site of the new La Plaza de Cultura y Artes center. Bones from at least 100 bodies have been unearthed.

January 21, 2011|Hector Tobar

L.A. has flunked another history test.

Not the kind with questions about George Washington and the Constitution. This was a test of our ability to protect our local history — specifically one particular patch of land where many, if not most, of L.A.'s founders were buried.

Now the long rest of some of those early Angelenos has been disturbed. Bones from one of the city's early cemeteries were dug up by accident during the construction — ironically enough — of a history museum.

"Something went wrong. This shouldn't have been allowed to happen," said Rene Vellanoweth, an archaeologist and chairman of anthropology at Cal State Los Angeles. "What's at stake is something that belongs to the entire community."

L.A. seems to specialize in acts of historic desecration. The list of demolished city treasures is a very long one indeed. This particular construction project — of La Plaza de Cultura y Artes, near Olvera Street — is a prime example. In 2007, to make room for the future center for Mexican American culture and arts, we allowed a 19th century brick building to be knocked down.

"I know there are people who say you should preserve every single brick, just because it is old," L.A. County Supervisor Gloria Molina, one of the project's main backers, told The Times in 2004. The old building, she said, had "no historic benefit." Preservationists disagreed.

I happen to think this city badly needs such a cultural center. Among other things, it should inject some life into the town square where L.A. was founded.

But trampling over L.A. history to get it built doesn't make sense.

La Plaza's organizers have now halted excavation in the area where the bones were found. But that was after bones from as many as 100 bodies were unearthed and removed, say activists and scientists monitoring the excavations.

"We cannot go back and undo what has happened," said Miguel Angel Corzo, chief executive of the La Plaza project, who told me most of the bones are now at a storage facility at Cal State L.A.

The site where they were discovered was once the city's first Catholic cemetery — and until the bones' unearthing, church officials thought all remains had been moved to a different site a very long time ago. Now they are angry at La Plaza officials. So are Native American groups and others who believe their ancestors were buried there.

That the dig would become a big problem was entirely predictable, given what was widely known about the site.

Last spring, I walked the area with a historian who pointed out the lot and told me there was a "high probability" that it still contained bodies, perhaps even of the Native American laborers who had helped build La Placita, the church next to it.

This week, Corzo told

me he too expected to find bodies there, despite the fact that the early cemetery was closed in 1844, with the remains ostensibly transferred to other cemeteries.

It's not unusual for an old cemetery to be closed without a serious effort made to ensure that no bodies remain interred, Corzo told me. "You always expect to find some left behind," he said.

Still, in September, the digging began on the site — to make way for a new garden and fountain.

"Nobody really showed

a lot of interest," Corzo told me. "No one was calling

us."

How is it possible for a city to excavate at the spot where it was founded without lots of people asking questions? In any other city, such an excavation would be a major event. Why not in L.A.?

When I posed the question to Corzo, he said that L.A. is a place where people tend to think "about the present and the future." "So many cities around the world are proud of their past. We still need to get there."

La Plaza officials say they followed all the laws related to excavation of cemeteries and historic sites. But they didn't do something else they could have done — make a really big deal about their dig even before the first shovel hit the ground.

Among other things, they could have convened a meeting of any and all interested parties. They could have transformed the dig into a celebration of L.A.'s history.

"Regardless of what the law is, you go out and do more," Vellanoweth said. "You do the right thing.

You take out advertisements and let people know what you're doing." A dig in such a special place should proceed not just with extraordinary care, he said, but with an extraordinary level of community involvement.

"So many different kinds of folks are buried there, it's really a reflection of L.A. in that time period," said Wendy Teeter, curator of archaeology at UCLA's Fowler Museum. Some 673 people of European, African and Native American descent were interred at the cemetery, according to records. "L.A. is still that diverse city. And everyone here would feel a connection to that place."

But the La Plaza people kept the dig quiet. They issued their first news release on their findings on Jan. 7. A few days later, the hue and cry over the disinterment caused them to halt work in the area of the former cemetery.

Over the phone, Corzo told me a bit about what else the archaeologists had found, including buttons from 1830s military uniforms and the foundations of the home of Pio Pico, the last Mexican governor of California.

I asked if I might visit the site to get a closer look for Times readers. Corzo said he'd get back to me. That was a week ago. Given the quiet with which the dig was carried out and rushed to completion, I'm not expecting an answer soon.

hector.tobar@latimes.com

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