Each year selected American urban places are analyzed from the perspective of power—how it is represented, who is empowered and who loses, as well as the specific locations where the power dynamics are most evident. After researching physical, social and cultural changes over time, students travel to the research sites where they interview stakeholders and visit archives. Students organize the site visits on their own as part of learning the methodology of preparing to visit a site. Short videos created individually or in teams are the final project of the course.
2020’s site explored Crenshaw Boulevard and its adjacent neighborhoods in Los Angeles. Twenty-three miles long from Wilshire Boulevard to Palos Verdes, the boulevard, as the Los Angeles Times critic Christopher Hawthorne wrote “begins and ends in wealth.” The street’s history reveals dynamic demographic changes that accompany broader national forces—a white suburb becomes an African-American/Japanese community then becomes an inner-city African American neighborhood and now contains a rising Latino population, but the cultural landmarks of these eras endure. The architecture of the boulevard passes Clarence Stein’s Baldwin Village, the elegant suburb of View Park, now known as the “Black Beverly Hills,” an Olmsted Brothers’ planned community, Leimert Park, and the great Googie architects, Armet and Davis’s design for the Japanese-owned Holiday Bowl; other narratives track the street’s prominence as a center of African American culture with such sites as the music venue, Maverick’s Flat—the ”Apollo of the West” and Hip Hop music, the automotive low-rider culture that cruised the boulevard as well as Destination Crenshaw, centered on Nipsey Hussell’s Marathon Clothing.. In the once predominantly white Hawthorne, home of the Beach Boys, the early roots of the aerospace industry at Northrup Field is now home to Elon Musk’s Tesla and SpaceX. An example of the dynamic city-as-never-finished-process, Crenshaw Boulevard provides an opportunity to understand the intersection of race, ethnicity, culture and media at a local scale within the broad forces that shape LA.
The research sites investigated two zones relating to the LA river at the extreme ends of the 110. At the northern end—the Arroyo Seco—in affluent Pasadena, Altadena and La Cañada Flintridge issues arising from the Devil’s Gate Reservoir Restoration project have produced a conflict between dredging a reservoir to maintain flood protection and the destruction of habitat. At the southern end, in less affluent Wilmington and San Pedro—areas of heavy industry, oil production and one of the busiest container ports in the world— issues of water and air quality, sediment and pollution have produced conflicts between conservation and market forces creating a situation of environmental discrimination and social injustice. The third research zone is east of the Arroyo Seco neighborhoods where South Pasadena has had sustained conflict over the extension of the 710 freeway while the communities of the Western San Gabriel Valley: Alhambra, San Marino and San Gabriel known as the “new Chinatown” of Los Angeles are noted for rapid Asianification with many communities now having a majority-Asian population even as their new identities are suppressed by design regulations.
The story of who benefited from the water of the Los Angeles River initially was the story of who had the power to control its distribution and the real estate that benefitted. From irrigation ditches for agriculture to aqueducts for the domestic water system critical to a growing city to a flood control channel to ensure flood-free development, control of the river infrastructure enabled Los Angeles to develop in the river’s flood plain. Today’s master plans for the Los Angeles River shift the conversation from distribution and flooding to one of “restoration” and development. The Los Angeles River is being reconceived as an amenity in a city with one of the lowest urban park capacities in the nation. This situates the river in power battles between ecological restoration versus urban regeneration; it thus exists between activists in low-density, minority neighborhoods with a river edge versus civic elites with capital and political advantage. In Cadillac Desert Marc Reisner notes “the West’s cardinal law: that water flows toward power and money.” Los Angeles neighborhoods were selected for the contrasts they present in location, demographics and potential restoration, development, and access to investigate the underlying power networks behind the relationship of the Los Angeles River and development of its adjacent urban fabric from the beginning of the city to today. The research sites along the river were:
– Central LA: riverfront neighborhoods on the west side of the river where public and private developments are creating major new projects;
– Eastside & Northeast LA: riverfront neighborhoods on the east side of the river across from Central LA’
– San Fernando Valley: neighborhoods in northwestern LA where the Los Angeles River begins Calabasas Creek (Arroyo Calabasas) and Bell Creek;
– Southeast LA: neighborhoods at the southern end of the city comprised of mostly single-family working-class homes, manufacturing and warehouses.
Three cities in North America were chosen representing different demographics and expressions of power: Portland, OR: the whitest city in America—76% white; Miami, FL: a multi-cultural identity city—more than 50% of the population is foreign born and Flushing, NY: a community of religious pluralism—more than 200 churches and a predominantly Asian population. Student research discovered legacies of discrimination in Portland where planners are using the tool of growth boundary limits to benefit downtown property owners; the use of historic districting despite rising sea levels in Miami to gentrify historically African American districts; and in Queens, rising conflict over exclusion and cultural identity in an increasingly multi-cultural district.
The first Power & Place research projects examined cities where the history of cultural conflict and the spatial patterns of exclusion aimed at suppressing racial, ethnic, economic and religious differences have left an indelible imprint on the material character of the city: Baltimore was explored as the “Post-Industrial City” following the trajectory of once-leading industrial cities where suburban residents bounded the city limits while the city enforced private real estate regulations to create segregated regions that delineate prosperous suburbs from an aging or industrial center.
Charleston was explored as the “Hegemonic and Tourist Identity City” whose civic leaders created what are now tourist destinations using the selective lens of white identity to construct the material character of the city’s history.
Seattle was explored as the “Amenitied and Market Economy City” now celebrated as examples of a high quality of life, but with its own history of exclusionary practices against ethnic groups, Asians and Native Americans whilie now facing contemporary crises of affordability and equity.