A How To Guide for Helping To Save Historic Buildings in Los Angeles (or at least giving them a fighting chance)
Greetings from your friendly historic Los Angeles sightseeing tour company, now offering digital programming until we can again organize groups to gather and explore the city we love.
As the world opens up again, Angelenos are returning to the familiar places that they’ve missed, and in some cases finding that they’ve changed a lot. While those who had the option may have stayed home for safety, developers and bulldozers have been busily ripping into our historic built environment and leaving holes where our memories used to be.
On the Miracle Mile, LACMA is gone. On the Sunset Strip, Lytton Savings is being wrecked as we write. And along commercial corridors and in dense historic neighborhoods, good old buildings are being torn down or sitting vacant and blighted, while multinational real estate investment trusts treat Los Angeles like a cash register.
Almost every day on our social media accounts, we get frantic messages from Angelenos seeing the places they love threatened with destruction. They don’t understand why the city lets this happen, and they don’t know if they can do anything to stop it.
The answer to the first question is a disheartening mix of corruption, incompetence, greed and debunked trickle-down economic theory. The answer to the second is, well, you can at least try.
Here are a few concrete things you can do to help preserve the past in your community. Some of these are lifestyle changes, others actions that can have immediate positive effects. We find that just trying to make a difference is better than feeling lousy and powerless, and that all of these tools are more effective when you tell a few friends.
• It’s important to understand how building permits work, because a lot of the time developers get away with breaking the rules because nobody is paying attention. For demolition of a building 45+ years old in Los Angeles to be legal, it must be preceded by posting for 30 days on the property of a visible demolition notice. No notice, a hidden notice, or a notice that has been removed are all illegal. If you see signs of demolition but no notice, check the LADBS website for permits. An approved permit is good for two years, but work must have begun within six months or it’s back to the drawing board. If anything seems screwy, file a complaint and an inspector will come out. In addition, if a building is actively being demolished and you believe it’s not permitted or being done in a safe manner, call South Coast Air Quality Management District at 1-800-CUT-SMOG and report it by phone or online.
• Sign up to receive agendas for public meetings where land use and historic preservation matters are decided, like the Cultural Heritage Commission, Planning Commission, Planning and Land Use Management (PLUM) Committee and your local Neighborhood Council. Read them, learn more about any topics that interest you, then send an email or call in and express your views during public comment. For every one person who takes the time to call or email, it’s assumed that 100 feel the same way, so your single voice matters.
• Every public meeting has a section for General Public Comment when you can bring something up that’s not on the agenda. If there’s a problem in your community, making comment during meetings and providing a way to contact you can help you find others who care and want to help.
• Support historic preservation nonprofits by purchasing memberships, making donations, volunteering or using your social network to amplify their advocacy messages. Many of these groups have newsletters or social media feeds that can let you know when community involvement can make a difference. Locally, these include the Los Angeles Conservancy, Art Deco Society of LA, Hollywood Heritage, Pasadena Heritage, Venice Historical Society, West Adams Heritage Association and Preserve Orange County.
• If you’re more interested in housing justice, which can help preserve older buildings by protecting the low-income tenants who live in them, check out Housing is a Human Right or the LA Tenants Union.
• Let your elected officials know that you care about historic places, and expect them to support landmarking efforts and good planning in their district. And since most of our elected officials are deep in the pocket of developers, vote for challengers who aren’t.
• Use your own social media accounts to share information about what you’re doing to support preservation locally, and let your friends and followers know how they can help.
• If you’re looking for a place close to you that needs saving, you might find it on our Historic Preservation hot spots map.
But before you get too personally involved with historic preservation, especially on social media, a warning: there are vast fortunes to be made in multifamily real estate development, and lobbying groups are now focusing on spinning dangerous narratives about housing, zoning and planning in California. Respected public broadcasting stations like KQED are cashing big checks and producing slick content promoting simplistic pro-development policies that sound progressive—single family zoning is “racist”—but if implemented would doom most of the older rent-stabilized buildings in Los Angeles, as well as historic single family neighborhoods.
It’s undeniable that land use and housing are deeply screwed up, and we understand why concerned citizens who are just trying to wrap their heads around why might be convinced by arguments that eliminating traditional zoning will fix all our problems. But these arguments are calculated lies, spun for profit. And many people who buy into these ideas spend a lot of time on social media arguing with people who disagree. Fun fact: a lot of them don’t even live in Los Angeles.
If one of these internet strangers wants to call you a NIMBY (“not in my backyard”), demands you provide evidence or gives you grief for advocating for the preservation of our shared historic built environment, you don’t need to engage (unless you like a fight). You probably can’t change their minds, and every minute spent responding is a minute lost enjoying your life, and potentially reaching somebody who will get involved with local preservation, too.
We give you permission to use the BLOCK or MUTE buttons on social media if anyone calls you names or tries to engage you in bad faith arguments.
But could you actually be a NIMBY? Maybe so—if you dedicate your free time to fighting land use policies that would make life easier for the homeless or very poor people in your community. But it’s not NIMBYism to care about the past and good architecture, historic businesses and lovely landscaping, landmarks and familiar places, and to speak up when things that are beautiful, unique and meaningful to you are threatened.
And the funny thing is that in working to save our cool old places, you’re actually making Los Angeles a better place for pro-development citizens, and their kids and grandkids in years to come. They can thank you later, or not.
Now we can’t promise that following these suggestions will save the threatened building that you love. But by sharing the heartfelt message that preservation matters and by learning to use the tools that can make sneaky developers play by the rules, you’ll be doing something and making a difference.
And you’ll be on the side of the angels, when you speak up for Los Angeles. We’re always here to help spread the word about your preservation campaigns, and to give advice if you’re not sure what comes next.
Now on to something new in the souvenir shop, and upcoming webinar programs.
Kim’s photograph of the shadow of the Jesus Saves neon sign as the sun broke through rain clouds has a lot of fans, so we're making it available as a print you can hang on your wall. It's just one of the offbeat Los Angeles treasures available in the souvenir shop. Learn about the sign’s history in out latest webinar, A Downtown Los Angeles Lovers’ Treasure Hunt.
Saturday is May Day and the 107th anniversary of a remarkable visionary experiment. We’d hope you can join us for The Rough Road to Llano del Rio, L.A.’s Utopian Colony in the Antelope Valley. For this virtual excursion to where dreamers settled the high desert, we’ll be joined by Llano expert (and neon sign maker extraordinaire) Paul Greenstein and Los Angeles legal historian Bob Wolfe to explore a fascinating era in Los Angeles cultural history, and how the bombing of the Los Angeles Times building tilted the scales against electing a Socialist mayor, but opened up a whole world of potential on the back side of the Angeles Crest. Come discover the city that might have been, and a weird slice of paradise off the Pearblossom Highway.
Then on May 8 it’s Fourth & Main, Downtown Los Angeles’ Most Fascinating Intersection. We’re shining a spotlight on one incredible corner that’s packed with so many layers of fascinating history, we don’t expect to reach the center. But let’s see how far we can get, from Mr. Van Nuys’ grand Victorian hotel to the bank that never closed, the Follies Burlesque and the favorite table of politicians and stage stars, punch drunk boxers and theatrical pachyderms, folks singers, private detectives, killers and creeps. When we’re done, you’ll be prepared to fit in whatever year the time machine spits you out!
And just added for May 15 is A Gallery of Downtown Los Angeles Artists Celebrated and Obscure. In this webinar, we’re getting to know the visual artists who worked in the heart of the city, the buildings that inspired them and the curious tales they left behind. We’re shining a light on Bunker Hill painters Leo Politi and Kay Martin, muralists Einar Petersen and Hugo Ballin, and on some of the lesser known visionaries and street hustlers who fascinate us. Tune in and you might just find your new favorite artist.
Stay tuned as we roll out a new webinar program each Saturday. And remember if you can’t watch live or need to leave mid-stream, you can watch the recording for one full week. There’s still time to see A Downtown Los Angeles Lovers’ Treasure Hunt through Saturday night.
These webinars are now available as On-Demand recordings: Wilshire Boulevard • Sunset Boulevard • John Fante • Art Deco Leisure Suits • Paul R. Williams • Saving South L.A. Landmarks • Birth of Noir • Storybook Architecture • Dark Side of the West Side • Hotel Cecil • L.A. Historic Preservation, 1900s-1980s • Southern California’s Architecture of Death • Crawford’s Markets • John Bengtson’s Silent Film Locations • George Mann’s Vintage L.A. • Pershing Square • Cafeterias of Old L.A. • Programmatic Architecture • Angels Flight • Grand Central Market • Ohio River Valley • Bunker Hill • Charles Bukowski • Raymond Chandler • Black Dahlia • Dutch Chocolate Shop • Bradbury Building • Tunnels • L.A. Times Bombing and 13 Uncanny Crimes & Mysteries.
And we’d love to see you tomorrow at noon for The Rough Road to Llano del Rio, L.A.’s Utopian Colony in the Antelope Valley.
yours for Los Angeles,
Kim & Richard
Subscribe! In the latest subscriber's edition of this newsletter—$10/month, cheap!—Peep Inside a 1930s Movie Theater Manager's Promotional Scrapbook—we get a glimpse of a lost world of thrilling ballyhoo in Old Town Pasadena.
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If you enjoy all we do to celebrate and preserve Los Angeles history, please consider signing up for (or gifting) the subscriber’s edition of this newsletter, or putting a little something into our digital tip jar. Gift certificates are available for any webinar in our library or upcoming calendar, starting at $10. Printed matter? We’ve got a swell selection of books and maps, some written by us, others sourced from dusty warehouses. For a wider selection, Bookshop uses the power of distributor Ingram to help independent bookstores stick around. We've curated a selection of uniquely Los Angeles titles, and when you order from these links, it supports participating local shops, and us, too. You can also click here before shopping on Amazon... & if you love what we do, please tell your friends.
AND WHAT'S THE NEXT TOUR? WHO KNOWS?!
We're dark until public health officials and we determine that groups can gather safely. But in addition to weekly webinar programs, we've got 138 episodes of the podcast You Can't Eat The Sunshine free to download for armchair explorers, and videos of the Downtown L.A. LAVA walking tours, plus Cranky Preservationist videos.
AND FINALLY, LINKS
Our friend Allon Schoener, the rabble rousing curator and historian who had a great influence on Richard when he was young, has died at 95. His late wife Mary was a pioneering small batch foodie. They were both ahead of their times and now are eternal. When Allon moved to Boyle Heights, he contributed to LAVA, blogging about hanging out with Charles and Ray Eames at home on Chautauqua, early Hollywood Espresso culture and taking Esotouric tours as our honored guest.
You can help landmark the threatened art deco Fairfax Theatre, which newly digitized issues of the B'nai Brith Messenger reveal was ground zero for Jewish community development in the 1930s. Send an email or call in on May 6. (Also at this Cultural Heritage Commission meeting: presentation on the pro-developer Hollywood Community Plan update, landmark consideration of Point Fermin Light Station and screen star Dolores Del Rio’s home. PDF link.)
KnockLA digs into the illegal Airbnb economy and the financial benefits of perma-vacant units, a huge contributor to L.A.’s housing crisis that's wrecking quality of life for legal tenants. Their #LocksOnMyBlock map highlights some sketchy Ghost Ship-esque "housing."
This week a heartbroken San Pedro neighbor shared photos on our Facebook page of a lovely Spanish Colonial Revival house that’s presently being demolished, and we let her know the permits expired years ago.
May 3 is the date for LAPL's phased reopening of library services. This has been a long time coming, and we're grateful to our librarian friends for keeping services accessible through the shutdown and developing this plan.
Application filed to replace rent stabilized 1929 Spanish Colonial Revival duplex at 911 South Shenandoah with upzoned TOC project, further wrecking a lovely block. Sold for $2M in 2017. Not an Ellis Act property. Where are the tenants?
Local historian files public records request seeking information on the Del Rey Lagoon tidal gate, receives some plans in response.
A happy follow-up from Knickerbocker neon watcher Vitta Quinn: the intel our pal got from management was true, if a few days premature: the rooftop hotel sign has been fixed and once again makes the Hollywood skies more magical. (See it at dusk, and in the dark.)
Bunker Hill Refrain podcast episode draws on USC's project to turn their 1930s WPA census card collection into a keyhole through which we can see a lost community.
The California State Historical Resources Commission meets virtually this Friday morning at 9am to consider National Register designation for Point Fermin and Pasadena Avenue Historic Districts. Plus King Edward and Mayfair Hotels and Stuft Shirt updates. (PDF link.)