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.


The Importance of Civics

civics definitionRumor has it that at one time “civics” was taught in our public schools. Not “government”, but “civics”. Remember that?

Sure, kids today still learn about the three branches of government, how a bill becomes a law, and who signed the Declaration of Independence, but when did classes in Government and U.S. History leave the business of developing citizens by the wayside?

I refer specifically to our societal inability to educate and engage our existing citizenry in the activities required for the survival of our democracy in any meaningful way. I point you no further than to our bleak turnout on Election Day – arguably the easiest contribution asked of any citizen. Yet, we still manage, on a national election day, to peak around 60% among eligible voters. Cut that in half when noting General Election stats in the State of California, and in the last Mayor’s race in my beloved hometown of Los Angeles, the numbers increased to 18% of eligible voters compared to the previous mayoral contest. In fact, less than 6% of registered voters were responsible for voting LA’s current mayor into office!

Beyond the classic “My vote doesn’t count,” or “Politics is corrupt anyway,” mantras of the disinterested, lies a reason to care. And the reason shouldn’t be that “things have gotten so bad.” We, as a society, if democracy is really the governing structure under which we hope to prosper, need to find our reasons to care before it’s too late.

Our task, as citizens, is to instill, in our youth and each other, a drive for social responsibility and government accountability, engendering a pride and duty of service likely to resonate for generations to come. Bring back a “civics” curriculum that educates our youth about our local systems and pressing issues, empowering them to get involved. A lack of civic engagement is often the result of a lack of civic understanding. Let us clear the path of obstacles for the disenfranchised, light the way for the disenchanted, and walk the walk for those that will follow in our footsteps.

Further reading: The Business of Government in Business

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.

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.