This past June, the City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs (DCA) officially launched a “cultural asset mapping and activation initiative” documenting the Cultural Treasures of South Los Angeles. The project, which was co-created in partnership with LA Commons, the South Los Angeles Transit Empowerment Zone (SLATE-Z), Community Coalition, and the University of Southern California’s (USC) Neighborhood Data for Social Change Initiative, intends to prioritize the people, places, and institutions that are most meaningful to those who work and live in South LA.
“The project seeks to counter ‘top-down’ methods that impose cultural definitions and metrics onto community-centered practices: It instead aims to center community definitions of what arts and culture mean to those who live and work in — as well as frequent — South LA,” DCA General Manager Daniel Tarica told Hyperallergic via email.
The project is geographically focused on the South Los Angeles Promise Zone, one of two such federally designated regions in LA selected as part of an Obama-era initiative that allocates resources to 22 “high poverty communities across the nation,” according to a report released on the project. This area is approximately five miles wide and includes the neighborhoods of Baldwin Hills/Crenshaw and Leimert Park to the west, Historic South Central and Central Alameda to the east, Florence to the south, and Pico-Union to the north, with Exposition Park and Vermont Square in the middle.
It is a historically significant center of Black art and culture, from the jazz clubs along Central Avenue of the 1920s to the emergence of Leimert Park as a hub of African-American art in the 1960s. More recently, the population of Latinx residents has grown, “with 72% of the area’s residents identifying as Hispanic/Latino/a,” according to the report, and “14% of neighborhood residents identifying as [African American].” The report also specifies that “the median household income in the area was $51,820 in 2021, compared to $76,370 in Los Angeles County [overall], [and that in] 2019, 60% of the area’s population was considered extremely or very low income.”
The process for compiling a list of cultural treasures began in June of 2022, when the team working on the project conducted over 1,500 surveys of community members, using what they had learned from an earlier study of LA’s other Promise Zone in Central Los Angeles. They defined “cultural treasures” broadly, including restaurants, bookstores, galleries, and theaters; historic locations and community gathering spaces; and influential people. “Cultural treasures can be so personal, what does that term mean?” Kaitwan Jackson, program manager of Promise Zone Arts South LA for LA Commons, told Hyperallergic. “A cultural treasure can be a place where I feel safe, where I belong, where I can learn more about my history … they speak to the unique experience of South LA.”
A list of 787 nominations gathered from the surveys was analyzed by USC’s Neighborhood Data for Social Change Initiative, which evaluated the quality of the data, eliminated duplicate entries, and made sure the locations fell within the Promise Zone. Nominations were then vetted by a five-member Cultural Treasures Coalition alongside 20 other community stakeholders. LA Commons Executive Director Karen Mack told Hyperallergic that the organizations aimed to include as many nominations as possible, as long as they met certain criteria, such as providing “significant economic, social or political impact in South Los Angeles [and possessing] artistic, creative or cultural merit.”
“This is about telling the story of South LA, to be as inclusive as possible to transcend stereotypes,” Mack added. “South LA is often not viewed in a positive light. The many stories embodied in these treasures paint a different picture.”
From the initial list of 787, about 375 cultural treasures were selected and presented on a website, which the public can browse through an interactive map or a data set. The treasures include the Dunbar Hotel, the only major hotel in LA where Black people could stay when it opened in 1928; the Lula Washington Dance Theatre; El Rincon Hondureño, a popular restaurant serving Honduran food, opened by a Guatemalan and Salvadoran couple; Art and Practice, which combines a contemporary art space with a center for foster youth, opened by artist Mark Bradford; Indigenous-language justice organization CIELO; the street murals of the late artist Noni Olabisi; and the Senshin Buddhist Temple, which opened in 1938 and still serves a Japanese community, many of whom have since left the area.
“It’s important for people to know that Japanese Americans were part of South Central,” Nobuko Miyamoto, an artist, singer, dancer, activist, and member of the Cultural Treasures Coalition, stated. She was raised in LA after her family returned from an internment camp during WWII. She cites the now-shuttered Holiday Bowl, a 24-hour bowling alley and restaurant, as an example of the link between Japanese-American and African-American communities in the area. “I asked the owner why he established this palace when he came out of the [internment] camp after WWII,” she recalled. “He told me, ‘I wanted to place where all people could come.’”
The Cultural Treasures of South Los Angeles does not simply record a list of places but also traces evolving narratives of cultural expression and exchange. “That’s one of the reasons this project is so important. These treasures serve as connective tissue for communities. That social capital is extremely valuable,” noted Mack.
“The thing about LA is that we live in our cars,” said Miyamoto. “Unlike New York, where you have to get on the subway and rub shoulders with Park Avenue, Chinatown, Harlem, we have to make a conscious effort to help open avenues between each other. As people get older and those memories fade, we need more memorialization of that.”