Highways of History: The Santa Monica Freeway and Sugar Hill, Los Angeles

At the turn of the 20th century, Los Angeles had a population of about 100,000 people. In the middle of it all was the wealthiest neighborhood in L.A, West Adams Heights, located just west of downtown Los Angeles, and in recent terms just south of Koreatown. Architecturally, West Adams Heights had elaborate homes in practically every style, from Queen Anne and Victorian to Beaux Arts and Craftsman. Someone once described the central neighborhood as “an island in an ocean of bungalows,” referring to the more common style in the rest of L.A. This was just before the start of Hollywood, so the wealthy residents of West Adams Heights were mostly titans of industry, like oil barons and bankers.

The home of Benjamin Johnson, who helped found the Grand Central Market in downtown Los Angeles (Source)

The neighborhood changed in the 1910s as the film industry moved to Los Angeles and actors began making their fortunes. They got off to kind of a rocky start, with older residents trying to prevent actors from moving in, but West Adams Heights was soon closely linked with the film industry and its stars. Whatever icons of the silent film era you can think of, they were probably living, or at least partying, in West Adams Heights. Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton were regulars at ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle’s huge parties, and later on, Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney would frequent parties thrown by the director Busby Berkeley, who moved in during the late 1930s. Busby wouldn’t have had many neighbors, though, as many West Adams Heights residents would move out in the 20s and 30s. This was in part due to the development of a new neighborhood for the rich and famous- Beverly Hills. The arrival of the Depression in the late 1920s also meant that a lot of residents of West Adams Heights were forced to sell their homes, basically taking whatever money they could get. The rush to sell also meant that the restrictive covenant that had been adopted before all this, the one forbidding white residents to sell or rent to African Americans, was not the first thing on sellers’ minds. So, Black families began moving into West Adams Heights.

Louise Beavers (third from left) and Hattie McDaniel, c. 1948 (Source)

The Black population of West Adams Heights started taking off in the late 30s, after the Depression, when many of the historic mansions were still up for sale. Middle and upper-class Black folks from L.A and other American cities began making their homes in West Adams Heights, renaming it ‘Sugar Hill’ as a tribute to Harlem. Sugar Hill became an icon of Black Hollywood, acting as the home of stars like Hattie McDaniel, who won an Oscar for her supporting role in Gone With the Wind, and Louise Beavers, who was popular for playing maids in several films including Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream Home. Mr. Blandings was essentially propaganda for white suburbia, which was booming at the time (How To Kill A City, 157). Meanwhile, Louise Beavers and her neighbors would soon become involved in legal action that would find restrictive covenants, like those keeping the suburbs white, unconstitutional.

By the mid-1940s, around 57 Black families lived in Sugar Hill. However, white residents were upset that the old restrictive covenant was being violated, so they sued to have the Black families evicted. Black residents began organizing. Hattie McDaniel held meetings at her home to plan their defense. Loren Miller, the attorney representing Black residents of Sugar Hill, argued that racially restrictive covenants were a violation of the 14th amendment. The presiding judge agreed, and in a historic legal victory, became the first judge in American history to find racially restrictive covenants unconstitutional based on the 14th amendment. Loren Miller would go on to argue Shelley v. Kraemer, another landmark case dealing with racially restrictive covenants which would go to the Supreme Court in 1948. That case would determine that racially restrictive covenants were unconstitutional, paving the way for the Fair Housing Act twenty years later. But, again, new developments began drawing residents away from Sugar Hill. This time Baldwin Hills played a major role, attracting wealthy Black actors and filmmakers beginning in the 1950s. So, we see the same cycle as Beverly Hills, with a second generation of residents. This period of decline made the neighborhood vulnerable to local planning interests. The Santa Monica Freeway was constructed through the middle of Sugar Hill in the early 1960s (The Color of Law, 130). This was a huge loss for the Black community of Los Angeles and of the United States as a whole, where Black neighborhoods were routinely destroyed in the name of modern infrastructure projects, particularly highways.

An aerial view of the Santa Monica Freeway under construction (Source)

Urban planning has been historically racist and damaging to communities of color, and this is just one example. Central Park was built on one of the most stable integrated neighborhoods in New York City. The 15th Ward, a poor Black neighborhood in downtown Syracuse was split in two by a highway in the 1950s. St. Louis bought out middle-class Black families in Kinloch in the 1980s so Lambert Airport could expand. Robert Moses, the notoriously racist and generally destructive urban planner from New York, divided and destroyed neighborhoods like the Bronx in the name of highway construction. There are countless more examples of the role urban planning has had in the 20th century in segregating cities and setting Black communities up for failure.

Construction of the Cross-Bronx Expressway (Source)

These days, Sugar Hill is getting some much-deserved attention. People began repopulating the neighborhood in the 1980s, and that new generation is taking strides in protecting and restoring the historic homes in the neighborhood. A lot of the information I used in this story is from articles on the West Adams Heritage Association website, if you’d like to learn more. If you’re interested in how federal policies segregated American cities in the 20th century, I highly recommend Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law.

The Colonial History of New Zealand’s City Parks

Undoing the Colonial History of New Zealand’s City Parks

New Zealand has a long colonial history, from the arrival of James Cook in 1769 to the nation finally gaining full independence from Britain in 1947. The origins of parks and green space in New Zealand are centered around colonial practices in the country during the 19th century (New Zealand was annexed by the British Empire in 1840). While the indigenous Māori had their own belief system, which was largely centered around man’s relationship with nature, British colonists built towns and cities according to values that they translated from their home context. For instance, the British tradition of gardening became central to colonial homes in New Zealand, not only as a way to reassert British culture but to offer an ecological buffer between settlers’ homes and what many regarded as a forbidding natural landscape.

In Jake Arthur’s analysis of Mary Bethell’s From a Garden in the Antipodes, the author suggests that gardening was taken up for aesthetic as well as political values. Arthur frames gardening as an expression of power and order, as settlers expressed dominion over the colonized land by manipulating and controlling what it produced. Despite its role as an expression of British hegemony, the garden also offered “an escape in its enclosure,” as settlers sought something familiar to insulate them from an otherwise unknown and possibly threatening environment (Arthur 29).

Beyond gardening, which remains an important tradition in New Zealand today, British settlers also imposed principles of urban planning which prioritized parks and other green space. This was, in large part, a response to the condition of London and other British cities during the mid-19th century. The settlers in New Zealand had witnessed the social and physical ramifications of industrialization run amuck in dense cities like their own, so city plans were designed to ensure green spaces that could prevent the kind of externalities which their home country was facing. Demand for parks increased as the New Zealand colonies developed and British transplants acquired more leisure time. This resulted in the accelerated development and diversification of green spaces, as planners introduced more active sources of recreation like sports fields.

Auckland, N.Z. This view is compiled and drawn as from a point one thousand feet above and one hundred feet to the rear of the hospital during the year 1885 and part of 1886, by George Treacy Stevens.
Auckland, N.Z. by George Treacy Stevens (1886). Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections NZ Map 374.

Despite settlers’ early trepidation regarding New Zealand’s landscape, the country was and still is incredibly biodiverse, and quickly became famous for its natural beauty. British settlers learned to capitalize on this, hailing the colony as the “Pacific’s Wonderland” (Duggins 102). Along with more traditional exports like cattle, New Zealand began supplying native species to gardens around the world, with a special emphasis on ferns, due in part to their “association with a fast-disappearing wilderness” (Duggins 102). The fern, along with other indigenous species, “became a symbol of pride” in New Zealand (Duggins 104). Furthermore, the production of fern albums- books of pressed and bound leaves, pods, and blooms- allowed these species to serve as a “tactile medium through which [outsiders could] intimately connect with the New Zealand landscape” (Duggins 105).

The long history in New Zealand of planned green spaces as well as the psychological and economic value of its many native species have created practices today that are centered both around recreation and preservation. However, the role of green space and parks in New Zealand’s cities is ultimately a colonial legacy, formed by European perceptions and motives.

As one might expect in a colonized nation, the indigenous perspective has been excluded from the planning of green space in New Zealand. Importantly, and perhaps also expectedly, the Māori understanding of nature veers widely from the European approach. One example, which cannot begin to unpack the complexities of this issue but at least offers a concrete instance, is that of swamps. For the Māori, swamps “teemed with life and resources, providing sources of food and materials, besides serving as centres of communal activity” (Beattie 595). In contrast, British settlers imported Victorian ideas of health and cleanliness and viewed swamps as unpleasant landscapes which produced noxious smells that were, at the time, believed to cause sickness (Beattie 588). As colonization proceeded, swamps were drained and planted, “transformed” into parks with “open spaces, woodlands and recreational facilities.”

It is important to note here one of the many instances of colonist hypocrisy, in specific reference to the use of and profit from the indigenous species which settlers so distrusted. While swamps were being drained and Māori tribes subjugated, local species were collected and developed into treatments of varying medical validity, which were “derived from this country’s native plants, often by drawing extensively on Maori knowledge systems” (Beattie 586).

An image of a team enjoying a practical assignment - nursery layout.
Te Whanagi Trust is a charity that focuses on educational and employment opportunities in ecological restoration. They have multiple locations across New Zealand.

Today, around eighty percent of New Zealand’s Māori population lives in cities, and yet many are living in urban areas that are disproportionately poor and lack access to nature. This has made it challenging for such communities to adapt to urban life while preserving their culture, since much of the Māori belief system is centered on connecting with nature. One specific concept, kaitiakatanga, describes “a way in which Māori manage the natural environment based on Māori worldviews” (Walker 2).

Denied the opportunity to manage the environment in such a way, due to the Euro-centric planning approaches that have defined New Zealand cities and the removal of Māori tribes from their indigenous lands, urban Māori populations experience more difficulty maintaining “traditional relationships to the environment” (Walker 2). In their paper on the role of kaitiakatanga in contemporary Māori experiences in cities, Erana T. Walker, Priscilla M. Wehi, Nicola J. Nelson, Jaqueline R. Beggs and Hēmi Whaanga recommend the adoption of more Maōri principles in ecological restoration projects in New Zealand cities. The authors argue that this shift might allow urban space to act as a tool in promoting “the retention of cultural knowledge” as well as provide educational and practical resources to underserved Māori communities (Walker 2-3).

With this more intercultural approach to improving the quality of and access to nature in New Zealand cities, green spaces may evolve to serve more communities more effectively. Despite the colonial legacy of New Zealand’s city parks, this approach signals one way that such spaces might adapt to a more equitable vision of nature in cities.

Works Cited

“A History of New Zealand 1769-1914.” RSS, nzhistory.govt.nz/culture/history-of-new-zealand-1769-1914#:~:text=By%20the%20time%20the%20first,New%20Zealand%2C%20in%20December%201642.

Arthur, Jake. “‘Fond human enclosures’: Gardening and belonging in Bethell’s From a Garden in the Antipodes,” Journal of New Zealand Literature (No. 35:1) 2017. Pages 28-49. https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.2307/90015304.

Beattie, James. “Colonial Geographies of Settlement: Vegetation, Towns, Disease and Well-Being in Aotearoa/New Zealand, 1830s-1930s,” Environment and History (Vol. 14, No. 4) November 2008. Pages 583-610. https://www.jstor.org/stable/20723698.

“British colonists reach New Zealand,” HISTORY. Ed. history.com editors. Accessed 11 May 2019. Last updated January 21, 2020. https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/british-colonists-reach-new-zealand.

Duggins, Molly. “‘The world’s fernery’: New Zealand, fern albums, and nineteenth-century fern fever,” from New Zealand’s empire (2016). Pages 102-123. Manchester University Press. https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt1b349tv.13.

New Zealand Sovereignty: 1857, 1907, 1947, or 1987? – New Zealand Parliament, http://www.parliament.nz/en/pb/research-papers/document/00PLLawRP07041/new-zealand-sovereignty-1857-1907-1947-or-1987.

Pollock, Kerryn. “City parks and green spaces,” Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/city-parks-and-green-spaces. Accessed 12 May 2020.

Walker, Erana T.; Wehi, Pricilla M.; Nelson, Nicola J.; Beggs, Jacqueline R.; Whaanga, Hemi. “Kaitiakatanga, place and the urban restoration agenda,” New Zealand Journal of Ecology (Vol. 43, No. 3) 2019. Pages 1-8. https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.2307/26841824

May 2020

Psychedelic Design in Seville’s Casco Antiguo

Seville has a sizeable historic district, which contains twelve different neighborhoods as well as three different UNESCO World Heritage sites. The district is known as the Casco Antiguo, or ancient district (although one could also translate this as “ancient shell,” to add a bit of romantic intrigue). Among the many landmarks and monuments worth a visit in the Casco Antiguo is an installation called Metropol Parasol, though it is more often recognized as Las Setas (The Mushrooms), or Las Setas de la Encarnación, for the plaza where the work is located. Las Setas is the product of a design competition initiated by the local city council amid efforts to renovate Plaza de la Encarnación in 2004. The winning design, submitted by Jürgen Meyer-Hermann, was inaugurated in 2011, seven years after it was selected.

A curving walkway guides visitors around the top of Las Setas, here offering a panoramic view to the south.
Visitors observe the sweeping view of the city from the uppermost observation deck at Las Setas de la Encarnación.

Given the rich history of its center, the Seville’s willingness to incorporate a modern and playful installation into a major plaza is a lesson for other historic cities grappling with questions of modernization and looking to reinvigorate an existing public space. Las Setas is nothing if not innovative- at the time of this writing, the Metropol Parasol is the largest wooden structure in the world. The figure provides a striking contrast to the colorful, flat-faced buildings surrounding it, ballooning out of a plaza that offers reprieve from the narrow, winding streets that weave through the city center. Despite its size, Las Setas has a strangely DIY feel, as its wooden frame appears to be constructed from simple balsa wood pieces that have been notched and fitted together like some kind of psychedelic model airplane.

Winding walkways allow visitors to absorb the Seville skyline and its monuments from many different vantage points.

While massive sculpture-building appears to dwarf the architecture that surrounds it, the scale of Las Setas does not prevent it from engaging with and even complementing its context. The sloping lines of the stairways leading towards the central figures offer a natural line of sight that guides the viewer’s impression of the installation. The abstract, curved forms of the setas themselves offer a gentle contrast to their rectilinear surroundings while paying tribute to the meandering, curved streets which converge on this plaza. Furthermore, the gridlike pattern created by the work’s interlocking pieces complements the many right angles of walls, windows, and balconies that decorate the plaza’s border.

View of Las Setas from street level.

That Las Setas was allowed to exceed the height of neighboring attractions, such as the nearby Iglesia de la Anunciación, is significant. Some European cities have adopted regulations to ensure that new structures cannot exceed the height of a given historic monument, most often a church. For instance, Budapest’s Saint Stephen’s Basilica as well as its Parliament Building are each exactly 96 meters, and no building is allowed to exceed this height. This policy is in large part a result of the city’s specific history, as the area that would become Hungary was first settled in the year 896. Beyond Budapest, deliberation over height restrictions has permeated policy debate in many other European cities as modern demands challenge historic, human-scale urban fabrics.

View of nearby Iglesia de la Anunciación from Las Setas.
The northeastern view of Seville from Las Setas.

The striking scale of Las Setas, then, might be read as an indication of the city’s priorities. Notably, Las Setas is not a skyscraper. It is not residential or commercial, but rather, a creative endeavor that represents an aesthetic departure from the historic, medieval typology that dominates the Casco Antiguo. At the same time, this design object is also a major tourist attraction in an already heavily visited city. The city’s selection of a non-Spanish designer for the work may also have been meant to indicate Seville’s international sensibility and appeal. International reputation is important for the city, as tourism generates around 15% of Seville’s income, making it an essential local industry.

As with any city, extra money in the coffers likely provides Seville more fiscal flexibility, which could result in better local services or further design innovation, among many other possibilities. However, when tourists become too much of a priority, the local character of a city is threatened. Furthermore, efforts to extract value from previously overlooked or underinvested spaces- the site’s neighborhood is described as “run down” here– can threaten existing residents, as has been witnessed at varying scales in plenty of cities around the world. Plus, the work is not without its technical flaws.

Steep staircases are among the design flaws at Las Setas that have been criticized for being inaccessible.

From a design perspective, the height of Las Setas may present the city to tourists as something to be consumed rather than engaged from street level or inspected up-close. Despite the physical and visual distance of the viewer from the street, however, the monument’s modern, innovative form offers tourists a new mode with which to observe the city. Whereas church towers would typically offer the most expansive view of a medieval city like Seville, Las Setas acts as a more flexible, expansive, secular alternative.

The cloudlike structures appear lovingly incorporated into their plaza home, animating yet never threatening the space. Las Setas encourages viewers to imagine what the future may look like for a historically and culturally significant city like Seville. It is then the responsibility of the city to ensure that Las Setas gives to the city and its people- both socially and economically- more than it takes.

Welcome to People City

People City is made up, but you’ll recognize pieces of it from where you’ve already been. If you’ve sat in the sun in a public plaza, listening to the fountain bubble and musicians play for passersby, you’ve been here before. The widest sidewalks and bike lanes you’ve ever navigated are here, too. The crowd of protesters downtown, who carried their painted signs rolled up on the subway en route to City Hall, are still chanting through the streets. If you’ve congregated with your neighbors on your front porch, stoop, or outside the local corner store, you’ll find yourself doing the same here.

People City represents a vision of the city as it might be, but not as a utopian dreamscape. My goal here isn’t to imagine away the realities of city life but rather to celebrate moments where cities do good by their people while critiquing where they fall short. I’m a student of cities, so this process is as much about learning for me as it is about sharing. This is a sketchbook of ideas, a journal of drafted thought. I hope you’ll bear with me.

The relationship between the city and its people is historically fraught. Industrial urbanization subjected masses of people to disastrous living and working conditions, yet made large-scale organizing (against those same conditions) possible. As the city grew to bursting it became a physical manifestation of structural inequality under capitalism. And in the post-WWII United States, those structural inequalities were demonstrated more viciously as white people fled to the suburbs, taking their privileged tax base away from inner cities and leaving already systematically oppressed citizens to fend for themselves. More recently that pattern has shifted, as wealthy and predominantly white suburbanites ‘rediscover’ the value of the city and move into spaces made available to them by the displacement of more vulnerable longtime residents.

As the gap continues to grow between the poor and the wealthy, the city likewise becomes polarized as a home for both. This along with the increasing privatization of formerly public goods and services means that the line between space for the people generally and space for the consumer specifically has become hazy. We are finally recovering from freeway-dominated mid-century planning practices, but those highways remain, and we still struggle with creating equitable and human spaces. We’ve seen towns and cities adopt principles put forward by New Urbanism, but are still deeply entrenched in an inequitable economic structure so that even something as simple as walkability becomes an issue of wealth and class.

Ultimately, though, the city can be a rich and vibrant place where all sorts of very different people can mix, which is why public space and human-centered design are so massively important. The potential of the city is that of communication, exposure, celebration, protest, and all that people as individuals and as a collective can bring to it. People City is that city: animated, yet imperfect, and above all allied with its people.

Summer 2018