The Challenges of Historical Districts

A touch of Old Mexico, Olvera Street, Los Angeles, California
A touch of Old Mexico, Olvera Street, Los Angeles, California

For more than two years, I was appointed by L.A. Mayor Garcetti to serve on the El Pueblo Historical Monument Authority. This City Commission oversees the historical district that contains the world-famous Olvera Street, a cobbled street populated by local street vendors, family owned shops, and restaurants that truly encapsulate the spirit of the birthplace of Los Angeles. If you’ve never been, go. You’ll be doing yourself a favor and experiencing the beating heart of Los Angeles’s history.

Historical districts are a rare breed, and not just because so few exist. Their special character can only be defined as “unique,” for at their heart, no two historical districts are identical; and even the most similar ones have a variety of differences, either due to geographic location and proximity or their historical importance. Comparing any historical district to another is nearly impossible for these reasons, and marking them as identical is an oversight to all the nuanced differences that make each unique.

Preserving the character of historical districts takes a great deal of care and attention, especially if they involve commercial communities and entities as well. Publicly owned districts, such as Olvera Street, often operate with policy-making groups that set the rules for the district. And this presents a completely different set of challenges. Unlike private property, overseeing bodies have to consider not just the physical presence of vendors (plots of land) but the people that run the stores and restaurants, many of which have deep ties to that community which run far deeper than the storefront.

This is where the balancing act truly begins and leads to a larger question: How do you balance all these separate (the district, the stores, and the owner’s) interest and keep everyone happy, especially in terms of profitability?

The harsh reality of rent getting raised seemingly arbitrarily is, often the result of poor communication. There’s the key issue: poor communication. Rents are often raised due to a mandate from a separate organization to keep the rents at a “market-rate”. This mandate needs to be communicated clearly, and so do the steps in the process, the timeline in place, and crucially, the limitations of the mandate. All parties involved need to understand that a publicly owned asset, such as a historical district, has a limited amount of leeway from the laws and city ordinances that govern the process.

Transparency, as always, makes a difference. An open line of communication can be all it takes to taken a poorly run conglomeration of interests and turn it into a tightly knit community. And what’s really being preserved in these districts isn’t a collection of old buildings or artifacts, but a community that has a strong past. And the goal of the the governing entity is to keep that heart beating from the past into the future.

rounded_corners_John_B_AvatarJohn Bwarie is an impact professional working to connect people and solve problems while focusing on an actionable outcome. He has worked for elected officials directly and serves dozens of others in other capacities. Follow him on Twitter andLinkedIn.


One Size Doesn’t Fit All

Sunset Triangle Plaza
Sunset Triangle Plaza

T-shirts tossed out at sporting events seem like a fun idea. The thrill of catching a free article of clothing from your favorite team’s mascot is only dampened when you try on the “One Size Fits All” shirt and it hits you at your knees or your navel. An important principle of place-making is much the same in that one plan doesn’t fit all, especially when considering shared community space.

Many parts of Los Angeles do not have enough park space where people can find respite in its glorious sunshine. Efforts are being made to procure more acreage to build parks full of grassy playgrounds and tree shaded benches, but empty square footage is at a premium. One proposal, The Hollywood Central Park, plans to build over the below grade stretches of the 101 Freeway creating one of the largest parks in the city (check out the design at

If building a park above traffic weren’t innovative enough, People St, a project of the City of Los Angeles, is turning traffic and parking lanes into mini parks, aka “parklets”. Neighborhoods inventory their “open space”, looking at streets creatively to uncover nooks and crannies that are better suited as gathering spaces rather than parking spaces. The Triangle Square Park in Silverlake hosts a weekly farmers market while the York Boulevard Parklet in Highland Park provides seating near local businesses.

Neighborhood parks are a fun idea made even more thrilling when they fit perfectly into the landscape.

Further Reading: An Alley Runs Through it


rounded_corners_Angela_B_avatarAngela Babcock works to make neighborhoods better through engaging all stakeholders and solving problems. She assists those who most could use a helping hand and celebrates community resilience. Check her out on LinkedIn.

An Alley Runs Through it: Turning Ugly into Opportunity

Stratiscope alley1Cahuenga Boulevard is a vital artery connecting the Valley and Hollywood. It may not be as famous as its parallel thoroughfares, Vine and Highland, it meanders past some of the City’s great landmarks including Universal Studios, the Capital Records building and the Cineramadome.

A few years ago, Cahuenga Blvd. business owners teamed up with the Hollywood Property Owners Alliance and City Officials to turn a rat infested alleyway into a neighborhood gathering space. All of the junk was removed and replaced with permeable pavers. Individual restauranteurs created outdoor dining spaces and a local landscape architect turned blank walls into vertical garden space. 

Stratiscope alley2

The alley is now building a reputation for the place to be for Saint Patrick’s Day.

In a densely populated concrete heaven, finding a neighborhood “place” can be challenging. Inventorying eyesores and imagining brighter possibilities for dreary alleys or dumped-on medians, opens a world of placemaking opportunities.

Further Reading: There is Where You Make It


rounded_corners_Angela_B_avatarAngela Babcock works to make neighborhoods better through engaging all stakeholders and solving problems. She assists those who most could use a helping hand and celebrates community resilience. Check her out on LinkedIn.

Big City/Small Town

stratiscope hometownNever forget: Wherever you go, there you are.

On a recent visit to a small town in December, I got to go to the community Christmas party. On a cold (and I mean cold–15 or so degrees) and snowy Thursday night, half of the town’s 250 residents showed up to the brand new community center with their pots of homemade soups and desserts. They joined as neighbors to celebrate the season and to bask in the warmth of the building they all helped raise money for, replacing the potato cellar that had served as the communal dining hall in years past.

I felt nostalgic at the real sense of community these residence enjoyed, gathering for no other reason than that they lived within minutes of each other. If only this sense of neighborliness could exist in the Big City.

Today, a friend and I enjoyed warm beverages while seated at an outdoor, sidewalk table in considerably warmer weather than what I experienced during my small town visit. As I told him about my potluck soup dinner, I paused to say hello to a man walking a couple of cute dogs. The pups stopped for a quick sniff and we wished each other Happy Holidays. This happened again a few minutes later with another dog walker. I looked around and people smiled at each other as they passed each other on this slightly busy sidewalk off a much busier boulevard.

The coffee shop owner who situates seating to invite mingling with passers by. Pedestrians willing to pause for just a moment to acknowledge a stranger can happen anywhere. It reminds me of one of my favorite things: neighborhoods are what we make of them.

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rounded_corners_Angela_B_avatarAngela Babcock works to make neighborhoods better through engaging all stakeholders and solving problems. She assists those who most could use a helping hand and celebrates community resilience. Check her out on LinkedIn.

Dear Impact-Makers

helping-others-post-it-noteWe recently posed the question: “Why do you serve?”

This query can take you to several levels; one of career questioning, of your passion for change, or one that begs you to delve into that innate essence of doing “good” or helping others. No matter where your drive originates or how it manifests itself today, how often are you able to objectively gauge the long-term impact of your contribution to society? If you, for example, provide a very necessary meal to a hungry family on the streets of Los Angeles, are you alleviating solely the hunger of that family for the day or also the broader issue of hunger and homelessness in a city plagued by this for decades?

Not to diminish the significance of the one meal to the family receiving it, or your selflessness for providing it, but I challenge all of us with this drive to “serve” to take the time to imagine your service’s implications over the long-term… or its possibilities with more resources. For those working in the non-profit sector (or even government, for that matter), day-to-day demands and an overall struggle for resources often preclude the luxury of taking that objective perspective of the lasting impact’s real possibilities.

The challenges facing our society — the reasons non-profits exist in the first place — reveal an opportunity to change the landscape and culture of our country for “the public good,” as defined by those with the drive to get involved. Yet, with the minutia of day-to-day operations, the mire of bureaucracies, and the lack of support (people, time, resources), it’s no wonder the change we seek takes generations.

What if those concerns were alleviated, though, and organizations built “to serve” could focus on what they do best? If the non-profits of this country became great at what they do, what would that mean for the future of all Americans? What would it even mean for the future of capitalism or, brace yourself, even socialism? When the responsibility of public welfare is removed from the shoulders of government and is placed in the capable hands of the people themselves (of course, armed with the support of the private sector) – well, isn’t that the true purpose of the non-profit sector to begin with?

Further Reading: Why I Serve

At a great precipice today, our societal construct of “non-profits” has given us the bottoms-up capability and capacity for monumental change for the greater good. The service of many has brought us to this opportunity. We can continue to spin the wheels for generations to come, serving just one meal and tackling today’s challenges only to revisit them tomorrow; or we can drive others to serve, develop an efficient third sector, and create a truly lasting change.

rounded_corners_Neal_A_avatarNeal Anderberg works with organizations, coordinating outreach efforts, strategizing partnerships, evaluating brand effectiveness, and advising on management and fundraising efficiency. He enjoys sharing knowledge and insight, but thrives on collaboration, and is passionate about helping others use their passion to make an impact. Check him out on LinkedIn.

Community Identity: Making “There” There

Community Stratiscope

Nothing creates a sense of place like creating a sense of place. Circular as this reasoning might be, Joseph Heller would have to agree that such an approach is essential when trying to creating something out of nothing, in terms of place.

So, how can you just create a place when a place actually does exist (it just doesn’t know it)? It’s not easy, but it’s not impossible, either. While there are no silver bullets here — it still takes work and the building of relationships (read: trust) to (re)define a community — tools exist today making these efforts simpler.

1. Identify/highlight people: Community is defined first and foremost by the people within it. Take the time to meet, talk to, and learn the stories of those in the community. Don’t just pick the neighborhood leader, either; look to the long-time residents: the woman who was born in that house and still owns it (but now lives three communities over), and the two men who meet at the local donut shop every morning as part of their daily ritual. Revealing these stories helps define the area, since they help others learn about a place in a way that connects person to person. The story of people is the most powerful tool defining place.

2. Use consistent naming for a defined area: Knowing what/where you’re talking about is one side of the coin. The other side is making sure everyone uses the same name. Is it East Hollywood, Little Armenia, or Silver Lake-adjacent? Once the community (of a defined place) is polled about their preferred neighborhood name, use the most prevalent choice and encourage others to do the same. Where there is no name, respect the area’s heritage and use a historic name or a modification of a name accepted by locals. Don’t force-feed a trendy name just to be trendy — getting buy-in and acceptance from those in the place you’re defining is key to creating a “there” there.

3. Identify/highlight landmarks/sites of interest: What makes a place a place is the people, and then it’s the constructed environment. What are the features differentiating this place from the others. Is there a historic church? A long-time business? A special intersection or library? Perhaps a community gathering space in a park or courtyard. Make a list and start mapping these locations. Tell the stories of these sites. What do they mean today? How did they come to be? Have artists render them. Hold a competition for local school children to write about them or draw about them. Make these features important. By defining them, you’re defining your community.

4. Share value of the place via digital marketing: Once you’ve learned about the people, have defined the place, and understand the environment, tell people. Social media helps drive the story, but it’s more than that. Sharing histories, legends, local news, and human interest stories should be more than passive. So post questions. Use the network to answer questions about why something is, who someone is, or a favorite business no longer there. Tap into nostalgia to elicit human response that creates a connection. Build a list of insiders (locals) and potential visitors and make sure to tell stories of the people and the places so they can learn what’s happening within the area.

5. Tell the Fourth Estate: Create a media plan that includes pitches to local media, editorials, and press releases on major events/activities. Need help? Our seasoned professionals can help you sell a story.

6. Celebrate with local block parties, street festivals, and local shopping days. Nothing says there’s a “there” there like a day designated to celebrate. Doing something as a group, or even just promoting a place publicly, helps reinforce the idea that a place exists and is worthy of attention, investment, and appreciation.

Neighborhoods change and evolve over time, but at their core are the people who call them home, whether as residents, employees, visitors, or business owners. It’s the work with people that helps create place, along with the way insiders (and outsiders) talk about, refer to, compare, and understand that place.

How do you create place in your community? Join the discussion on our new Facebook page!

rounded_corners_John_B_AvatarJohn Bwarie is an impact professional working to connect people and solve problems while focusing on an actionable outcome. He has helped many LA neighborhoods find their there where they are. Follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn.

Build Company Culture to Increase Impact

all in stratiscope
Image credit

Solicit impact from the bottom up, and you’ll find these positive behaviors reinforced in other aspects of company operations.

When you’re from California, you’ve felt the magic opportunities for West Coast warmth on your skin. There’s nothing else quite like it. It’s quite something else to see the sun from a distance (like when you’re watching those Baywatch episodes). Basking in it firsthand? Wonderful.

And speaking of warmth and light, consider whether your company is putting out any of its own. Corporate culture isn’t just anything; it’s everything. When you look around (really look around), you’ll see plenty of companies where the mood is toxic versus the ones where everyone really pulls together for the good of the team.

Just through the act of soliciting ideas and feedback from all employees about the state of the company, you’re building inclusivity. More than just shooting out an impersonal email survey, the company’s CEO or founder should actively solicit others for feedback and then really listen to those answers — preferably during work hours where there’s little barrier to entry for participation.

When you’re listening to the feedback you receive from those around you, something magical happens. Not only are you building a sense of worth through actively listening to your employees, you’re endearing others who’ll see this is more than just a job. (Imagine employees who come to work for more than just collecting a paycheck?!)

Offer opportunities for your team to shape the way your company makes a difference: where should everyone donate or volunteer, what programs the community should support, what are the issues the company could champion, etc. Doing work to support the community serve together can create change for both the individual and the community created at work.

What’s more, expect to see these benefits:

  • – Higher employee retention rates (lower costs in training/downtime)
  • – More employees as brand ambassadors
  • – More direct engagement with customers and/or clients
  • – Greater client engagement (retention and referral)

When you show you actively appreciate all contributions and treat all input as valuable (even if it’s not ultimately used), this ensures future open engagement. And when every employee talks about what they did at work that’s so different than other workplaces, we’re looking at an employee benefit that’s more than simple feedback; it’s a differentiator.

Further Reading: Building Team Trust

At the end of the day, everyone wants to know they’re valued and that their contributions matter. Show others they’re a part of a dynamic culture of caring, and they others will gladly mirror that warmth and glow.

How do you create impact through corporate culture? Join the discussion on @Stratiscope on Twitter
John Bwarie is an impact professional working to connect people and solve problems while focusing on an actionable outcome. Though he doesn’t watch Baywatch, he does venture out to the get his daily dose of Vitamin D, thanks to California’s sunny skies. Follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn.

Is #community Trendy?

stratiscope hipsterThe problem with trends is that they have a tendency to die.

Hashtags abound on social media (if you don’t already know, it’s the symbol that used to mean pound) and in communication between young people who ironically live life authentically. So ubiquitous are these little idea nuggets that they are often used in jest to mock the overused or insincere passions of said young people. One such parody Instagram account recently used #communityfirst.

Has community gone the way of the Ukulele and home crafted jams? Has getting to know your neighbors been appropriated by people more interested in the feel-good effects or are they ready to get their hands dirty and do some advocating? The purveyors of small musical instruments and bottling supplies aren’t complaining about the popularity of these items. If it sells, does it matter who is buying? Who cares why the idea of community has caught on, becoming popular with the cool kids?

Don’t let passion for #communityfirst fall out of favor. The Instragram parody quotes the Oxford Dictionary’s definition of community as a “feeling of fellowship with others, as a result of sharing common attitudes, interests, and goals.” Whether it be a shared zip code or a common ideal, banding together to find strength in numbers should never go out of style.

Further reading: Sometimes they just won’t listen

rounded_corners_Angela_B_avatarAngela Babcock works to make neighborhoods better through engaging all stakeholders and solving problems. She assists those who most could use a helping hand and celebrates community resilience. Check her out on LinkedIn.