As a social and cultural historian of California, I am most drawn to understanding toxicity as an “extremely harsh or harmful quality.” Taking this working definition, it is my goal to analyze 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. Furthermore, montages showing historic photos and images of La Plaza juxtaposed next to their contemporary locations could render such infrastructural and demographic transformations visible.
In 1931, the California Supreme Court upheld a decision which condemned the land where Los Angeles’ “Old Chinatown” stood in order to construct a public transit terminal in its place. It was in this moment that Union Station was born. Over the next several years, over three thousand residents of Old Chinatown – most of whom were Chinese immigrants and Chinese Americans – were forcibly removed from their homes. The businesses and cultural landmarks that these residents called home were razed in the name of infrastructural improvement and modernity. This created image highlights the literal erasure of non-white residents from the city’s central 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.
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.