Civic Center

Historical Background

During the Mexican period (1821-1846), the band of one story adobe houses surrounding the Plaza extended down the east side of Calle Principal. After California became the 31st state of the Union in 1850, Calle Principal was renamed Main Street and along with the change in name came a change in character. The adobe residences were converted into stores, workshops and offices by the new merchants, artisans and professionals who immigrated to Los Angeles from the eastern United States and from Europe. Mud brick walls were replaced with fired brick and a second story was sometimes added to make the buildings better serve new purposes.

When rail service connected Los Angeles and San Francisco in 1876, Main Street was lined with two and four story buildings and the area east of Los Angeles Street to Alameda was filled with livery stables, lumber yards and light manufacturing. The City of Los Angeles was dense and compact and had a pedestrian size and scale.

Between 1890 and 1910, the scale of the city was transformed, first by the explosion in the city's population after direct rail service linked Los Angeles to the east and later by the introduction of the streetcar. Distances between home, work and recreation increased while the commercial center moved south to Third Street and then west to Spring Street where the city's first skyscraper, the still-standing 12 story Braly Block, was constructed in 1904.

As the buildings of the walking city were abandoned by the commercial, financial and legal elites, new immigrants, particularly the Japanese, moved in and created an ethnic neighborhood centered at First and San Pedro known as Little Tokyo. By the 1920s, the area had a mixed character--part Japanese American, part Latino, part skid row, part loft district, and part industrial.

The development of the Civic Center changed this. The first plan for a Civic Center in Los Angeles was drafted in 1907 by the noted planner Charles Mulford Robinson and was based on the spacial principles of the "City Beautiful" movement. Though never carried out, his plan included a post office where the Federal Courthouse is now located and a City Hall where our City Hall now stands. During the teens and twenties additional proposals for a Civic Center were developed. One of the most ambitious was prepared by a consortium of architects called Allied Architects. Their plan extended the Civic Center north to the Plaza and west to Bunker Hill. An echo of its north-south axis can still be seen in the orientation of the City Hall, constructed in 1927, and the Federal Courthouse, constructed in 1937.

After World War II, the Civic Center's east-west orientation was fixed by the completion of the Hollywood Freeway, which blocked development to the north, and by the availability of land on Bunker Hill, which encouraged development to the west. The Civic Center began expanding east when two blocks of Little Tokyo were acquired in 1948 for a new police headquarters. Approximately 1000 Japanese Americans, who recently resettled after their internment during World War II, were forced to move and a quarter of the businesses in Little Tokyo were destroyed by the construction of what is now called the Parker Center. The eastern boundary of the Civic Center was further extended to Alameda Street with the adoption in 1952 of the Civic Center Master Plan by the City and County. This plan also designated the blocks east of Spring Street and north of Temple Street for buildings of the federal government and the blocks south of Temple for the City of Los Angeles.

The Federal Office Building, which was completed in 1963, was joined in 1988 by the Metropolitan Detention Center, the 21 story Edward R. Roybal Building, completed in 1991 and the Veterans Administration Outpatient Clinic.

The last big project planned for the Civic Center, involved two office towers for use by the City of Los Angeles, housing and retail space. Scheduled to be constructed in the parking lots behind the Little Tokyo Historic District, the complex was canceled in 1994 because of the glut of office space in downtown.

The only structures from the pre-Civic Center era are the Geffen Contemporary Museum, which was a former city warehouse, and a small corrugated skinned warehouse nearby. Parking lots suggest a continuity in use with the livery stables that once occupied the area. Small plaques rather than architecture, mark historic sites while memories of the past are created by naming places in honor of noted individuals.

All the public art located in this area was installed since the development of the Civic Center. This collection, like most public art, is more than a statement about aesthetics--it is also about context and connections. All these works are publicly owned and except for two, were publicly funded. As an ensemble, they embellish the appearance as well as enrich the character of the Civic Center by bringing meaning to our community's common ground. But as a symbolic language, the art is open to a variety of interpretations and has often been misunderstood. With access to institutions that can magnify their voices, public officials have often subjected the art to close scrutiny and criticism. Their complaints, though often silly and shrill, were not frivolous. They generated controversies transforming the public art from decoration into cultural and political landmarks where battles over the control of public spaces were fought. The ensuing debates raised important issues over what is presentable in the public realm and who shall control the art--elected officials, who represent the people and are responsible for funding, or artists, who produce the art and whose freedom to create are essential to the preservation of American liberty and freedom. Despite the attacks on the art, despite the authority, power and influence of those who criticized the pieces, and despite the political vulnerability of the artists, all the works that were condemned have survived. Indeed, their continuing existence along with their continuing presence in our community's most important civic space, is not just an eloquent testament of their aesthetic strength, but is also a cause for celebrating the fundamental tolerance and decency of the American people.

The text has been provided courtesy of Michael Several, Los Angeles, August 1997.

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