A New Database Aims to Keep Los Angeles from Forgetting Itself

SurveyLA is using a pilot version of special software to document the city's historic architecture. Yes, L.A. has some of that.

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Los Angeles in the early to mid-1900s was a boomtown. Still a young city by global standards, city leaders have created a model for chronicling its historic resources. (Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection)

LOS ANGELES—The heritage of a city is often measured by its historic buildings—its cathedrals, its monuments, its ancient structures of stone and clay. For cities like Paris or Rome, with hundreds and thousands of years of history, it’s somewhat obvious which parts of this past must be remembered so that future generations can know the story of their city. But what about newer cities? What’s historic when you measure history in decades rather than centuries?

That may seem like a distant question in the fast-growing newborn cities of China, India and other parts of the developing world. But in Los Angeles, still a young city in the global scheme of things, it’s a question city leaders are taking quite seriously.

L.A.’s population didn’t crack 1 million until the 1920s, and its biggest growth surge came after 1950. Now, as it continues to grow and redevelop, the city has launched SurveyLA, an effort to create an interactive database of all the city's historic resources. For the past four years, surveyors have been prowling the city street by street to identify sites of cultural heritage that make up the city's history, short though it may be.

What they’re finding might surprise some people, says Ken Bernstein, manager of the city’s Office of Historic Resources, which is leading the survey. "The idea that Los Angeles has no history or cares little about its history is a true urban myth," Bernstein says. "Los Angeles has one of the most intact historic downtowns in the country, and perhaps the greatest collection of historic movie palaces of any city. It has always been on the cutting edge of architecture.”

The survey, partly funded by the J. Paul Getty Trust, is not just about the fanciest and most beautiful buildings in the city. Bernstein says the survey is focusing on any and all structures that have played an important role in its history and its development. That means everything from its first homes to historic districts to the sites of civil rights demonstrations for African Americans and gays to the World War II air-raid sirens that are still scattered throughout the city.

Beyond the physical landmarks of the city, the survey is focusing on its cultural history—the important people who lived in or used places in the city. These could be the homes of famous politicians or the sites of social unrest, according to Susan Macdonald, head of field projects for the Getty Conservation Institute, an arm of the Getty Trust, which has worked closely with the city on the survey.

Free software for cities

The technology driving SurveyLA was originally developed by the Getty Conservation Institute to catalogue the millennias-old heritage of Iraq and Jordan. Working with the World Monuments Fund, GCI developed a web-based geospatial information system to inventory the numerous archaeological sites in Jordan in 2010. Shortly after, they expanded the open-source software to be able to capture all types of heritage, from ancient to structural to cultural.

"The whole idea behind this project was to respond to the need for better inventory systems for heritage," says Macdonald. "Essentially inventories are the tools that governments around the world use and cities use to know what their heritage is and where it is so they can then care for it." There’s no shortage of threats to historical resources of the world’s cities: Rapid redevelopment, natural disasters, poor maintenance and war.

Architectural historians Evanne St. Charles (pictured) and Mary Ringhoff are one of several teams loading images and information on L. A.’s historic resources into the Arches database. The open source software is free for cities to use. (Nate Berg/ Citiscope)

That applies equally to ancient archeological sites as it does to cities with shorter histories. And so this software, known as Arches, is being adapted for cities across the world to use. Los Angeles is the pilot project. It may not be flush with antiquities, but L.A. wants to document and understand what it has before anything of significance is lost. And in a city at extreme risk of severe earthquakes, much could be lost at a moment’s notice.

Mary Ringhoff and Evanne St. Charles are on the front lines of that effort. On a hazy June day, the two architectural historians from the firm Architectural Resources Group are out walking a part of L.A. known as mid-Wilshire, a commercial center and slightly upscale residential area developed in the early 20th century. Armed with a digital camera and a touchpad computer, the two walk street-by-street documenting homes and duplexes that would qualify this section of the neighborhood as a historically significant district. Ringhoff snaps pictures from the street as St. Charles logs information about homes into the computer.

"Some people think we're location scouts” for the film industry Ringhoff says, as she photographs a 1920s Spanish colonial revival duplex. During survey sessions, they'll spend three to four full days a week collecting information. Ringhoff and St. Charles are one of several contracted teams that go out into neighborhoods collecting data.

They're not just walking the city indiscriminately. Before surveyors even hit the streets, the city developed what Bernstein calls a "historic context statement" as the guidelines for what counts as a significant part of the city's history, growth and development. Generally speaking, nothing made later than 1980 goes in the database.

"The idea is to not just send the survey teams out and have them make subjective assessments of what they like and don't like,” Bernstein says, “but to really ground the survey evaluation in a deep understanding of the forces that shape the city historically as well as the city's architectural evolution."

Picking targets

The historic context statement includes more than 200 themes and sub-themes relating to L.A.'s architecture and history including categories like modernist architecture, the aerospace industry, social clubs, women's history and the entertainment industry. Information on the qualities of these themes are used to predict where historically significant parcels are likely to be. Using city databases and other historic resources, the city developed a computerized GIS database populated with information about places of likely historic significance. The survey teams used this as they drove around the city, block by block, to make a preliminary list of potential sites to include in SurveyLA. After that comprehensive reconnaissance, surveyors like Ringhoff and St. Charles hit the streets.

With the touchpad computer strapped around her shoulder, St. Charles stands on the sidewalk in front of a well-kept Spanish-style house, filling out simple information about it in the custom-made database. This home is part of what qualifies this neighborhood as a historically significant district. Within a minute or two she's headed down the block to the next potentially significant home on the list. She almost instantly decides it doesn't make the cut: Enlarged window openings have compromised its historic integrity. "When you've been looking at these buildings as long as we have, it becomes obvious," she says and quickly moves on.

A lot of information about historically significant buildings and places is already in the city's databases. But with a citywide total of more than 880,000 parcels to look at, there's no way all the history of this city has been recorded. Bernstein realizes this, which is why he's also relying on city residents to help identify places throughout Los Angeles that are or may be of some importance.

"Many months before we go out into a community we are talking to local community groups, neighborhood councils and others to find out what are those hidden gems or hidden stories in a given community to make sure that gets reflected in the survey," Bernstein says. The city set up a website called MyHistoricLA, to collect feedback from the public about sites of potential interest. 

The survey teams will be wrapping up their on-the-ground assessments by late 2015. According to Bernstein, the end result will be much more than just a simple list of historic places.

"Survey LA is ultimately a planning tool and it's meant to guide planners and policymakers in the city as we develop new community plans, which are really our constitution for growth in the city," he says. "We need to know what and where our significant historic resources are so that we don't inadvertently put in place planning policies that would destroy those significant resources."

By early next year, the tens of thousands of historically significant parcels and places identified by SurveyLA will be available to the public in a searchable database using the Arches software. It's the Getty Conservation Institute's hope that other cities will follow L.A.'s example and make use of the free software. Macdonald notes that the open-source nature of the software will help to ensure that the databases are less likely to become obsolete and inaccessible, which is a growing problem as technology changes. Most importantly, she says, the system will allow cities like Los Angeles to continually add places of historic significance to their databases, creating rich and evolving inventories of their heritage.

"Over time, we always tend to reassess what our heritage is and what our history is and new things become valued," she says. "And that will happen inevitably."

This story originally appeared on Citiscope, an Atlantic partner site. 

About the Author

  • Nate Berg is a freelance reporter and a former staff writer for CityLab. He lives in Los Angeles.