Cite as: "'Improving' La Plaza District"

Narrow, Stephanie. 2018. “Ruination or Renovation?: Dislocated Efforts Towards "Improving" Los Angeles' La Plaza District" In California at Risk, a class project for “Ethnographic Methods,” Anthropology 215a University of California Irvine, Fall 2018.

Essay Bibliography: "'Improving' La Plaza District"

“Calendar — Chinese American Museum, Los Angeles,” October 29, 2018.

“Calendar — Chinese American Museum, Los Angeles.” Accessed October 29, 2018.

“Checking in the $140-Million La Plaza Village.” Urbanize LA, December 13, 2017.

“Checking in the $140-Million La Plaza Village.” Urbanize LA, December 13, 2017.

“Collections — Chinese American Museum, Los Angeles,” October 29, 2018.

“Council Meeting Video | City of Los Angeles,” October 29, 2018.

Estrada, William David. The Los Angeles Plaza: Sacred and Contested Space. University of Texas Press, 2009.

Hackel, Steven W. "Digging up the Remains of Early Los Angeles: The Plaza Church Cemetery." Southern California Quarterly 94, no. 1 (2012): 1-24. doi:10.1525/scq.2012.94.1.5.

Robinson, William Wilcox. Los Angeles from the Days of the Pueblo: Together with a Guide to the Historic Old Plaza Area Including the Pueblo de Los Angeles, State Historical Monument. California Historical Society, 1959.

RYAN, MARY P. "A Durable Centre of Urban Space: The Los Angeles Plaza." Urban History 33, no. 3 (2006): 457-83.

Smith, Dakota. “First of Garcetti-Backed Homeless Shelters Nears Opening, with a $700,000 Deck - Los Angeles Times.”, October 29, 2018.

“Snapshot.” Accessed October 29, 2018.

“Transforming Los Angeles Union Station,” n.d., 56.

California at Risk

California at Risk is a collaborative project to understand “late industrial” California through examination of ways interlaced scales (local to transnational and atmospheric) and systems (sociocultural, technical, eco-atmospheric, etc) together produce risks, vulnerabilities and governance challenges. The project launched Fall 2018 in association with a graduate seminar, “Ethnographic Methods,”  taught in the University of California Irvine’s Department of Anthropology. Students were assigned to build PECE essays that present a preliminary project design and set of research materials  ready for comment and possible use by other researchers. Each essay is focused on a particular problem,  presenting research questions and material through which we can work to understand the problem in intersectional, late industrial terms.  Working collectively, the project advances UCI Anthro’s commitment to our local context.

California at Risk Questions

How are intersecting scales and systems, weighted by history, (re)producing risks, vulnerabilities and governance challenges in contemporary Southern California?


Essay Abstract: "'Improving' La Plaza District'

This essay analyzes Los Angeles’ La Plaza district, also known as El Pueblo de Los Angeles, as a case study for LA and view it as a site of the visible intersections of environmental, cultural, socioeconomic, and urban vulnerabilities. By juxtaposing historical photographs of La Plaza with present-day images, I seek to inject a sociocultural dimension to this project’s exploration of “toxic vulnerabilities.” The central focus of my study explores the communities that are exploited and made the most vulnerable in the face of urban expansion and revitalization.

Historically, La Plaza is the site of ethnic and cultural contestation – between indigenous Californians, Spanish and Mexican colonials, American settlers, and Chinese emigrants. Visually, La Plaza is the place of extremes. In 1926, an American “philanthropist” used prison labor to reconstruct Olvera Street to resemble its “authentic Mexican past.”  In 1939, Old Chinatown was razed to make way for city’s new transit center, Union Station. In 2017, construction began on a $140 million-dollar luxury commercial-residential complex overlooking the hundreds of homeless residents who call the sidewalks of La Plaza home. I seek to combine these snapshots of such extremes of the everyday life in La Plaza with data visualizations. These latter visualizations will, hopefully, highlight the infrastructural costs of La Plaza’s “renovation,” the environmental risks of the area’s transit expansions, and socioeconomic disparities between La Plaza’s bureaucratic oligarchs and the working-classes and urban poor. Montages showing historic photos and images of La Plaza juxtaposed next to their contemporary locations could render such infrastructural and demographic transformations visible. 

Research Questions: "'Improving' La Plaza District"

  1. What issues is La Plaza confronting?

  2. What are the roots (temporal, legal, cultural) of these contemporary issues afflicting La Plaza?

  3. What communities and/or entities (racial, ethnic, class, corporate, government, public, etc.) claim this space?

Ethnographic Sketch, Timeline and List of Organizations

This timeline shows several events in La Plaza's long history that proved foundational in creating the current socioeconomic issues the district faces today. It also shows several La Plaza organizations, many of whom have competing interests and visions of La Plaza. Read more

Ethnographic Sketch, Competing Hegemonies

This ethnographic sketch highlights the competing discourses surround La Plaza. This document complements the "Mapping Subject Positions" sketch. Read more

Ethnographic Sketch, Core Categories

This ethnographic sketch explains in further details two of the central lenses that I use to view vulnerabilites at La Plaza: urban expansion/renewal and multiculturalism. Read more

Ethnographic Sketch, Mapping Subject Positions

This ethnographic sketch highlights the competing visions and objectives of persons and entities involved with shaping La Plaza's history, culture, politics, and infrastructure. Read more

Created Image: Union Station/ Old Chinatown

This created image highlights the literal erasure of non-white residents from the city’s central Plaza in the name of infrastructural improvement and "modernity."

[LEFT] Union Station, c. 2017 Photo courtesy of Union Station Los Angeles.

[RIGHT] The Framework for Union Station’s Clocktower Looms Over Los Angeles’ Old Chinatown, 1937. Photo Courtesy of the Los Angeles Times.

Field Works, La Plaza: Past and Present

I designed this field works trip as a way to allow for interested participants to analyze La Plaza as a case study for LA’s, and view it as a site of the visible intersections of environmental, cultural, socioeconomic, and urban vulnerabilities. One of the goals of this...Read more

A Bridge Home: Emergency Homeless Shelter

This is an official video from Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti's website to promote his initiative for emergency homeless shelters. The first of these shelters, featured in this video, converted a nearby parking lot at La Plaza (El Pueblo) into a series of temporary housing that serves the surrounding homeless community.

The video begins by thanking the generosity of Los Angeles voters for backing a ballot measure that made funding for this shelter possible. Though this is most certainly true, it glosses over the fact that many L.A. communities - most notably in Koreatown and Venice - blocked efforts to construct homeless shelters within their own neighborhoods. 

Garcetti's then describes Los Angeles' founding, recalling the "brave explorers" who settled in this area. Garcetti's contextualization of contemporary socioeconomic progress is curious, for it also circumnavigates the fact that those explorers (pobladores) were one of the initial waves of settler colonialism in the region that wrought extraordinary disaster upon the indigenous Gabrielino communities who called "Los Angeles" home. 

On a separate note, this video features political, corporate, and civic leaders who are backing the project. Only in one brief segment do they feature the account of a formerly homeless woman. The opinions of the hopeful opportunities and relief that this shelter will provide come only from the supporters of this iniativate, and not from the homeless community itself. One must wonder what narratives are obfuscated - either purposefully or accidentally - but not allowing the nearby homeless community discuss their opinions of the shelter. 

Created Image: La Plaza Cultura Village/ La Plaza

Over the years, La Plaza has seen numerous government and private-sector backed projects aimed at “revitalizing” the area (the construction of Union Station, the creation of the Romanized Olvera Street, etc.). However, many of these efforts are thinly veiled money-making schemes, hidden behind the guise of urban renewal. Presently, construction is in full swing for La Plaza Cultura Village, a “mixed-use” residential and retail space occupying two city blocks just west of La Plaza.  The Cesar Chavez Foundation, a partner of the project, claims that the Village will “honor [sic] the history of Los Angeles and the diversity of those who built it in the area where that history was created.” However, it remains unclear how such “diversity” is incorporated into this trendy, ultra-modern project. Backers of the Village, including the Chavez Foundation, laud that 20% of the Village’s housing will offer affordable housing options for multi-family households. Again, the partners’ interpretation of “affordable” family housing remains problematic, as rent for the least-expensive housing option – a 429 square foot studio – starts at $1,925 per month. This created image juxtaposes the proposed layout for La Plaza Cultura Village with an aerial of La Plaza in 1924 – two years before Olvera Street was “created,” and over a decade before Union Station was built.

[LEFT] Plans for La Plaza Cultura Village, 2017. Image Courtesy of La Plaza de Cultura y Artes.

[RIGHT] La Plaza, circa 1924. Image Courtesy of Water and Power Associates.

Created Image: Brunswig Building/Homeless Encampment

Los Angeles has the highest number of homeless people in the country, according to a 2016 report by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Despite these sobering facts, the city still struggles with providing low-income housing to its poor and working-class residents. Though an emergency homeless shelter was constructed in the Plaza just a few months ago, the facility can only accommodate 45 adults. Such efforts, as well meaning as they might be, neglect the larger, structural issues of housing insecurities – such as high rent, low wages, discriminatory housing practices, and lack of access to health care. Furthermore, projects described as promoting urban revitalization often exacerbate the housing crisis, as the rent for the “affordable” housing options in the upcoming La Plaza Cultura Village start at almost $2,000 per month. 

[LEFT] Brunswig Building, 2009. Image Courtesy of Library of Congress.

[RIGHT] Homeless encampment outside of the historic Brunswig Building, 2017 Brunswig Image Courtesy of Justin Sullivan/Getty Images.