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“We’re proud that Los Angeles, which is a city that’s sometimes derided as a city that doesn’t care about its history or doesn’t care about historic preservation, we think we’re finally exploding that myth once and for all.”

In 1962 Los Angeles passed one of the first and most forward-thinking historic preservation ordinances in the United States, which called for a complete survey of the city to identify cultural monuments. Nearly 40 years later, however, the Getty Conservation Institute (GCI) found that only 15 percent of the city’s 465 square miles and 880,000 legal parcels had been assessed. A few years after that, the city created the Office of Historic Resources and, together with the GCI, organized a citywide survey of landmarks. They cataloged everything from architecturally significant buildings to iconic plants and natural features to sites of historic events for many of the city’s ethnic and racial communities. The website HistoricPlacesLA, built on the GCI’s open-source Arches platform, makes these findings available to the public and provides a resource for city planners, researchers, movie producers, and residents.

In this episode, Ken Bernstein, principal city planner and manager at the Office of Historic Resources, City of Los Angeles, and Tim Whalen, the John E. and Louise Bryson Director of the Getty Conservation Institute, discuss the importance of documenting LA’s cultural heritage, the process involved in this work, and the value of ongoing surveys of the city.

Griffith Observatory at sunset with the city of Los Angeles below to the left.

Griffith Observatory. Photo: Stephen Schafer

More to explore:

Los Angeles Historic Resource Survey Project (2000–2015) GCI project information


JAMES CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, President of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.
KEN BERNSTEIN: We’re proud that Los Angeles, which is a city that’s sometimes derided as a city that doesn’t care about its history or doesn’t care about historic preservation, we think we’re finally exploding that myth once and for all.
CUNO: In this episode, I speak with Ken Bernstein, from the Office of Historic Resources in Los Angeles, and Tim Whalen, the John E. and Louise Bryson director of the Getty Conservation Institute.
In the year 2000, the Getty Conservation Institute assessed the potential for a comprehensive, citywide historic resource survey in the City of Los Angeles.
A year later, it published its report. This revealed that only 15 percent of the city had previously been surveyed (meaning documented and described). But IT also found that there was support from city government, neighborhoods, the business community, and preservationists for having reliable information on the city’s historic resources; and that there was strong momentum for adaptive reuse, neighborhood conservation, and cultural tourism throughout the city.
In 2006, the Office of Historic Resources was created within the Los Angeles Department of City Planning, and this new office directed a city-wide survey—the largest comprehensive survey of its kind in the United States. Nine years later, the City of Los Angeles shared its findings with the public through HistoricPlacesLA, an online, open access information and management system that inventories, maps, and describes historic places in Los Angeles.
Joining me to discuss this project and the role of the Getty in its founding and development are Ken Bernstein, principal city planner and manager at the Office of Historic Resources, City of Los Angeles, and Tim Whalen, the John E. and Louise Bryson Director of the Getty Conservation Institute.
Thank you, Tim and Ken, for joining me.
TIM WHALEN: Good to be here.
BERNSTEIN: Thanks. Great to be with you.
CUNO: Now Tim, tell me why the Getty Conservation Institute is involved with the conservation of Los Angeles’s historic urban fabric.
TIM WHALEN: Gosh. Well, it really stems from our mission. But when we began to think about this, it was now a long time ago. More than twenty years ago, almost. And I had had a lot of conversations with people in the City of Los Angeles and the preservation community generally. And everyone felt there needed to be a survey of LA’s historic resources. And there had been multiple surveys, it turns out, but no really comprehensive one.
So talking to a number of colleagues—Ken happened to be at the Los Angeles Conservancy at the time, and his boss, Linda Dishman, and others in the city—we just felt it would be important to undertake a comprehensive survey. But what we did at the Conservation Institute, because we’re a research-led organization, we really attempted to scan the entire landscape at the outset to understand where we were in Los Angeles, what was the state of things in the realm of surveying and preservation.
And that resulted in a report that was commissioned in August of 2000, and the report was published in November of 2001. And it was called the Los Angeles Historic Resources Survey Assessment Project Report. It’s a mouthful, I realize.
But it laid out, I think, a lot of compelling reasons why LA needed a survey of its historic resources. And it was determined that only 15 percent of the city had ever been surveyed. If you don’t know what you have and what you value, it’s really pretty easy to lose it. And that’s what inventories allow you to do, is keep from losing the things you value.
CUNO: What do we mean by surveying?
WHALEN: It is the process of identifying historic resources as they happen to be determined in this undertaking, identifying them and listing them, if you will. So it’s a physical process of, at least in the case of Los Angeles, usually doing a lot of driving and identifying places and then reporting them according to various criteria that have been established in advance of their identification.
CUNO: Well, Ken, tell me why you, as a city planner, are so concerned with old buildings and neighborhoods. I mean, when you’re planning, you think about the future, and old buildings and neighborhoods, you think about the past.
BERNSTEIN: Well as we think about what creates a vibrant and livable city, as city planners, we know that historic buildings, older buildings, preserving older places, older neighborhoods can have really dramatically positive effects. That rehabilitating and reusing historic buildings really taps into broader community needs and really helps create an enhanced sense of place in neighborhoods.
Historic places have an authenticity, a character that really can’t be replicated. They’re really rooted in a rich past and materials that are shaped by great skill and great craft. Historic buildings and historic neighborhoods create a sense of community that help be anchors for their local neighborhoods. They’re visual landmarks in our neighborhoods, or well-loved local institutions, and they provide a sense of continuity. They link us, as we are in a rapidly changing city like Los Angeles, to our past, in a world that’s constantly changing.
As city planners, we also are increasingly viewing historic buildings and places as a way of meeting some of our larger planning policy goals. You know, we have a major housing crisis in Los Angeles, a severe crisis in homelessness and affordable housing. And we’ve seen in Los Angeles that adaptive reuse, converting historic buildings to new purposes, historical commercial buildings to housing, is a very fast and direct way of creating new housing supply. These buildings are already constructed and well accepted in their community. They don’t need lengthy approvals, with community opposition. So we can create housing by using historic buildings.
Rehabilitation often creates more economic value and more kind of an economic multiplier effect than constructing from the ground up. And you know, we’re, as city planners, very concerned about sustainability and climate change, in our city and globally. And we know that the greenest building is the one that’s already built. That it takes decades, in fact, to replace the carbon value of a building that is demolished and has to be recreated with new materials.
So for all those reasons, historic preservation and good urban planning, we really think, go hand-in-hand.
CUNO: Was there some particular incident that provoked the concern for surveying the historic resources of Los Angeles? I mean, in New York, one thinks of the destruction of Penn Station in 1963; or one thinks of the war in Iraq, and the looting of the National Museum; the sense that when things are lost, they were lost. I mean, there was no chance of recovering them. So is there something that provoked this in Los Angeles?
WHALEN: Well, what’s interesting, Jim, in this research we did early on, before the survey project even began, we discovered at the City of Los Angeles had one of the most forward-thinking historic preservation ordinances in the United States, that was passed in 1962. You know, and people just don’t really think of Los Angeles in those terms, as being a leader in preservation that early on. That was before Penn Station was demolished, in fact.
The ordinance called for a comprehensive survey of historic places in Los Angeles. But that survey had never taken place. So almost forty years later, the need was still there. I think I said earlier that we had identified that only 15 percent of the city had been surveyed for historic resources. And it turned out that in that 15 percent, that was done by many, many different agencies, from the school district to the city itself to the Transportation Department.
So these resources were at many different places, so it was another compelling argument to create a master survey where all of this data could reside for, very happily, the Planning Department and other users of it.
CUNO: But was there some one thing in 1962 that provoked it and there was an outcry, the sense of loss? Or was it just some bright young people who came together and said, “Look, this has to be done”?
BERNSTEIN: 1962 was a moment of great change in Los Angeles. It was a time when you saw the redevelopment of Bunker Hill and kind of the wholesale urban renewal clearance of what had been a Victorian Era residential neighborhood in downtown. If you think about it, 1962 was also the year Dodger Stadium opened. There was a sense of modernity and optimism in the city. But also a time when there were great threats to historic resources.
At the very first meeting of the cultural heritage board in August of 1962, they designated as historic-cultural monument number one, the Leonis Adobe on the very western edge of the city, on the border of Calabasas, which was threatened with imminent demolition, one of our earliest adobe homes. And it was a time when we saw many threats like that around the city. So into that breech stepped the cultural heritage board to say, “We’re going to now declare and value significant historic places and take steps to protect them.”
CUNO: What is included among the concept of historic resources? And why use the term resources when talking about buildings?
BERNSTEIN: Well, historic resources, we try to be very inclusive, that it is about more than just about buildings. And we have always thought—again, since 1962—that architecture, of course, is very important. The majority of our designated city landmarks, historic-cultural monuments, are in fact, buildings. But again, as Tim said, we were very forward-looking in Los Angeles that from the very beginning, the definition of what could be considered a historic-cultural monument was much broader than that.
So it included, for example, trees and plant life, such as the coral trees of San Vicente Boulevard or the Aoyama Tree, a very significant tree to the Little Tokyo community. There are other types of structures or infrastructure, like our ensemble of LA River bridges. We have, I believe, thirteen Los Angeles River bridges that are designated as historical cultural monuments. Or even other natural features like Eagle Rock, that gave its name to its community in northeast LA; or the Stoney Point outcroppings at the northwest edge of the city, in Chatsworth. So all of these have very significant historic value. And then of course, even artworks like the Watts Towers, which is quite a singular artistic vision. So we’ve always wanted to be very expansive, in terms of what is considered a historic resource, and not limit ourselves to buildings and architecture.
CUNO: So Ken, when you’ve got all these buildings to survey, and when you’ve got natural elements like trees and lakes to survey, and you’ve got rocks to survey, where do you choose to first survey something? Or how do choose? On what basis do you choose that particular thing to survey?
BERNSTEIN: Well, the very basis of SurveyLA was, in fact, that we were going to survey everything. And we were going to literally have survey teams go up and down every single street in the city of Los Angeles, a city of 465 square miles, 880,000 separate legal parcels across the city. So we were going to survey everything.
But in terms of where to begin, we needed to just not send survey teams out kind of willy-nilly, you know, down every street, but to structure this in a thoughtful way. And the way that we thought it made sense to structure this project, with advice from the GCI, was to structure it based on our community plan areas of the city, to really reinforce the tie between the survey itself and the ultimate purpose of the survey, which was to guide better planning for the city as a whole, to really help inform how we grow, develop, and change as a city.
So we have thirty-five community plan areas in the city. Each of those are kinda the size of a— basically, a mid-size city like Glendale or Pasadena, in Southern California terms; populations often between 100,000 and 200,000. And we structured the survey around those community plan areas.
And we also didn’t just send survey teams out to start deciding what they liked or didn’t like; we really anchored the survey as well in a development of a framework called a Citywide Historic Context Statement. Which sounds like a dry academic exercise, but it, in fact, really is the important precursor or framework for understanding what’s significant in the first place in Los Angeles.
Not only architecturally, in looking at architectural styles from Craftsman to Art Deco to Modernism, but in fact, we developed over 200 themes and subthemes that are part of the Historic Context Statement, to guide how we would then go out and evaluate individual buildings or neighborhoods and determine whether they were significant within one of those themes. And they ranged from, again, architecture, architectural styles; but larger themes defining Los Angeles, such as the aerospace industry, the entertainment industry, the oil industry; post-World War II suburbanization; arts and literature; municipal facilities, from fire stations to streetlights; and even very highly specialized property types that we found throughout the city, from air raid sirens, for example, to Quonset huts left over from World War II.
So all of that was really created as a framework and a precursor to then guide the field surveys that were to come.
CUNO: Tim, I’m trying to understand the role of the GCI in this. And you started at the beginning by telling us about its role in the historic preservation. How did you begin this process?
WHALEN: So we published the report and we invited LA’s preservation and planning leaders up to the Getty Center. And that included some city councilors. And we presented the findings of this report, and that led to a number of conversations. And there was great interest shown in the results. And in November of 2002, the council passed a motion to form a working group that would attempt to understand the benefits of the survey and lay out a strategy, working with the Getty, to do that.
I think we probably spent, from the time we published the report in 2001, probably kind of five years kind of establishing the framework from which the actual getting in the cars and driving the streets of Los Angeles began.
BERNSTEIN: That’s right. You know, the city’s ultimate effort on SurveyLA really owed a tremendous debt to the work at the Getty, and really, the thoughtful work of the GCI, in studying best practices around the country and around the world, and then kind of handing over to the city, as we created the Office of Historic Resources, a blueprint for how to go about this.
And of course, we’re deeply grateful to the Getty for its financial support. We had a matching grant from the Getty Foundation as the centerpiece for our funding for this project. We did match that with a variety of city resources. But I think it’s fair to say as well, that without the kind of the preparatory work of the Getty and then the funding from the Getty, during a time when we— Just as we were really ramping up the project, we had the last economic downturn. I think it’s fair to say that the sustaining resources from city government would not have been there over a period of, really, almost a decade, ultimately, in those types of economic times, without that really unique type of partnership with the Getty and, you know, philanthropic community that it represents.
CUNO: Are there specific standards for determining what is and what’s not surveyed?
BERNSTEIN: Yes. Pretty much everything does get surveyed. Ultimately, the entire city was being looked at. But the standards that are defined through the Historic Context Statement are rooted in historic preservation practice nationally. And so we weren’t inventing what gets identified as significant.
So we’re surveying everything, as I said, looking at the universe of all properties in the city, but only recording in the survey, with full documentation, those properties that did appear significant based on standard criteria. So we called them, in the Context Statement, eligibility standards. And what we meant by that was, what qualities does an individual building or neighborhood have to have in order to be considered eligible for potential historic designation, either for our local programs—city historic cultural monument status or local historic district status, what we call historic preservation overlay zone—or at the federal or state level, the National Register of Historic Places or the California Register.
And so those eligibility standards, they’re pretty consistent between state, federal, and local level. But we elaborated on those designation criteria significantly by each property type that was identified in the Historic Context Statement. So we’d be looking at, for example, what qualities does a Craftsman residential home have to have in order to be eligible for designation? That may be very different from the eligibility standards for a site that’s primarily significant for its association with social or cultural history, where the architecture itself may be much less important than the strength of the association with a social movement, for example, over a period of years or decades.
CUNO: So the historic fabric of a city is identified with populations of people moving into the city and then moving on from one part of the city to another part of the city. And one gets a sense, one sees a sense of the development of cultural differences in the city. Have the communities all been treated equally in this regard? Or have you looked back and said, “Well, we missed, you know, one part of the city because we were overlooking the culture of the people who were living there”?
BERNSTEIN: That’s a great question. I think, you know, we’ve made every effort to be consistent throughout the city. And you know, again, the Context Statement that we were working from was a citywide framework, and we did try to apply standards consistently across the city.
There are some caveats to that. I think there were times when, for example, a Craftsman home—I’ll just mention Craftsman architecture again. While that was very prevalent, for example, in neighborhoods like the West Adams community in South Los Angeles, or the northeast community of Highland Park, a home from 1910 in the San Fernando Valley, which developed mostly in the post-World War II era, would’ve been much more rare. So the same type of home that may be not found to be eligible for designation in one community could be in another.
I think it’s also fair to say that, you know, we always wanna be looking at inclusion and racial equity in the work that we are doing. And obviously, we’re having a very significant national conversation around those issues right now, and the questions of systemic racism. And you know, we really tried to, through SurveyLA, prioritize this work all along. This is not new to the work that we are doing. So much of this historic context work that we did, in fact, addressed the development of very specific ethnic and cultural themes, and to weave those stories back into the citywide story and the citywide historic context.
So we did, I think, some pioneering work that we’re very proud of. We created the first LGBT Historic Context Statement in the nation, a pioneering context on women’s rights, as well as context with the African American community, one on Latino Los Angeles, and five separate Asian American contexts for our five largest Asian American communities, with a National Parks Service Grant.
I think that work, though, really needs to be ongoing, and we need to continue to build upon it, because I think it is fair to say that historic resources associated with those significant communities, that social history that those places represent, that is still underrepresented overall in our overall designation count, if you will.
If you look at properties in the National Register or our local register of historic-cultural monuments, the majority are still associated with architecture and still associated with what’s been the more dominant narrative over the last many decades that we’ve done historic preservation. So we need to continue to work to provide more inclusion, so that all of our historic preservation programs really reflect the stories of all of our communities in Los Angeles.
CUNO: Now Tim, the Getty Conservation Institute has developed a open-source software platform to support this data management. As we’ve heard from you and Ken, there’s mountains of data out there that’s gotta be dealt with. And you’ve given the name Arches to this open-source software platform. Tell us about the origin of Arches and the benefits of such a platform.
WHALEN: Curiously enough, the Arches platform essentially springs from work we were doing in the middle of the Iraq War to help our archeological colleagues there improve their ability to inventory and monitor and manage their archaeological sites. And that work further extended to a partnership with archaeological colleagues in Jordan.
And Arches is an open-source platform that is web-based. It’s geospatially-enabled. And importantly, it is based on standards that its users maintain—I’ll call it good data hygiene. So the consistent description of things.
When we became involved with the city, one of the requirements we felt very strongly about was that the inventory data would be made publicly available, and that it wouldn’t end up in notebooks in Ken’s office or someone’s office downtown, that it would really be a community resource.
As we were doing this work, happily and coincidentally, the Arches platform was being developed as well. And it was determined that it would be a perfect platform for the data that was coming out of SurveyLA.
But Arches is now running projects from many, many places in the world. So the City of London’s historic environmental record resides on an instance of Arches, just like it does in the City of Los Angeles. And then there’re also remarkable projects that run on it that aren’t necessarily municipally-driven, but they’re driven by a desire to identify and track certain kinds of information. So endangered archaeology in the Middle East is an example of one of the projects that resides on Arches.
And we continue to discover projects that we didn’t know about, where people have utilized the Arches platform. I remember about a year ago, a colleague came to my office and said, “Look at this.” And it was an email from a group of preservationists in the Philippines who were using it to identity historic resources across that archipelago. And we didn’t know that. But that’s why we’ve felt it was a great success, because people have identified it as a tool of value and agency and currency.
CUNO: Can you tell us how it works and why it’s better than what it was that preceded it?
WHALEN: Sure. Well—and I think Ken will attest to this—there hasn’t been a kind of common platform that was developed specifically for historic resources. I think cities and countries all had their own systems, and they were all based on different standards. And so out of that work we did in Iraq and Jordan, we realized there was a better way to do this.
First of all, to make it web-based, so people could access it from wherever they were. But the key to it was the identification of these vocabulary standards that we identified and have embedded into Arches. And that forces people on Ken’s team, as an example, when they’re talking about a Craftsman bungalow, to say Craftsman bungalow, as opposed to Craftsman cottage. So the system itself reinforces good practice, in that regard.
CUNO: Which allows people to find things, I suppose, when they—
WHALEN: Exactly. It really enhances discoverability. And it’s something we are continuing to invest in, in Arches, so that it can be just an increasingly valuable tool.
CUNO: Tell us what contribution open-source makes to this. And why is it not abused if it’s open-source?
WHALEN: Well, sure. Open-source means that the code in that software is made available to anyone. Open-source also means that its users are not paying an annual licensing fee for it. And that was really critical in our thinking about it early on, because heritage organizations generally are under-funded. And so if a department or a project or a municipality had to find tens of thousands of dollars, possibly more, each year to kind of maintain the license for a piece of software, it was likely that no one was going to be able to afford that software. So that was critical to us, to make sure that it would be open-source and allow anyone to utilize it without paying a licensing fee.
CUNO: Ken, how is it being deployed in Los Angeles, and to what effect?
BERNSTEIN: We’ve deployed it as HistoricPlacesLA, which really now is our comprehensive citywide inventory of historic resources in Los Angeles. And this was a huge undertaking. And we knew all along our intent was to make this data public and to have it searchable and available to all on the web. It’s one thing to kind of have that as an intent—and that was always part of what the GCI had laid out as its expectations—but another to figure out, how are we going to do this?
And we were very fortunate that the GCI was already working on this internationally, in the Middle East. And it was able to bring some of those lessons learned back to Los Angeles and have HistoricPlacesLA be the first deployment, if you will, of the Arches system for a comprehensive municipal inventory of this type.
And it’s really important that this information be public and be searchable, as Tim indicated. That’s not always the case. There are some major cities that have not made some of their past survey information public and accessible. But it’s crucially important in Los Angeles, because one of the purposes of the survey has been to give everyone involved in our planning and development process up-front information about what and where our historic resources are in every community.
That’s really crucial. If you are a property owner or developer, for example, looking to make investments decisions, wanting to redevelop a site, you don’t wanna be surprised at the eleventh hour to find that in fact, there’s a very significant historic resource on that property you’ve already invested in. So it’s crucially important that this information be public, that it be accessible, that it be usable.
And HistoricPlacesLA does more, as well, than just inform planning and development. It is a great resource for many other purposes that we always envisioned for the survey. For community members who just want to learn more about their own neighborhood, their significant historic places in their own community; for location scouts or those involved in Hollywood, who want to find places in Los Angeles that can double as New York, Philadelphia, or somewhere else, or just have unique architectural or cultural value for their purposes.
So this really now is our cultural resource management system for the city. It’s our comprehensive inventory, and it’s going to be used for years or decades to come, to manage the full range of our historic resources in the city.
WHALEN: So there was SurveyLA that we implemented. But then also, I think we’ve been, or you and your team have been adding other resources from the federal government or from the state government. I think that process is moving along, isn’t it?
BERNSTEIN: It is. And that’s been a huge undertaking, right. And one of the reasons it’s so important to have a platform like Arches and what we call HistoricPlacesLA, you know, we’re managing over 50,000 historic resource records through this system.
We have about 1200 city historic-cultural monuments, have about 21,000 properties in our local historic districts, about 30,000 properties we identified in SurveyLA as appearing eligible for designation, and then we’re incorporating information from other historic resource surveys. We used to have a redevelopment agency in Los Angeles that surveyed communities like Downtown and Hollywood that are very significant. And that data now is being incorporated into the system, as well.
CUNO: Does it apply to emergency situations? Is there some benefit to having prior knowledge, certainly, but having to update that knowledge when something happens—a fire happens or an earthquake happens or some emergency like that?
BERNSTEIN: Yeah, it’s very useful for all types of emergency and disaster preparedness to have that type of assessment done objectively and upfront, and to be lodged in a comprehensive inventory of this type so everybody knows where to find that information.
I mean, the whole idea of the survey is to have these types of evaluations prepared before there’s a problem or a threat or a project that is affecting these historic resources. So it’s not like we’re going out and necessarily updating or resurveying properties when there’s an emergency; but the whole idea is that we have this kind of comprehensive, objective, upfront work done and put in a place that’s reliable and accessible.
CUNO: How many people do you have on your staff doing this work? Must be thousands.
BERNSTEIN: The Office of Historic Resources has grown. When we started and created the office, in partnership with the Getty, we were a tiny office of three or four staff. We’ve grown to encompass now staffing for our historic district programs, to our preservation overlay zones, we know have a staff of fifteen. Most of the SurveyLA work, though, was done managed by our office. And really have to give the due credit to Janet Hansen, who was my partner in this project for the life of SurveyLA and really oversaw the day-to-day work on the survey itself and the development with GCI of HistoricPlacesLA. We have now one coordinator for Historic Places LA as an inventory moving forward.
But most of the survey work was done with consultant teams doing much of the survey fieldwork that we oversaw. And we also engaged over 200 volunteers at various stages of the project as volunteer researchers. We had a group of volunteer Speakers Bureau members who were kind of our community ambassadors to increase the reach of our tiny office in community after community.
We would go out six or nine months before we sent field teams out, to have conversations with community members about what were the places that matter to them. Are there places of deeper social and cultural meaning that may not be visually obvious to even trained architectural historians going out in the field? So the volunteers that we had dramatically increased the reach of what is still a fairly small office by city bureaucracy standards.
CUNO: Ken, what about Google Street View and other such commercial projects that are doing something similar to what SurveyLA is doing? Is that helpful to you or—?
BERNSTEIN: Well, they’re really helpful. You know, Google Street View is documenting the evolution of buildings and streets throughout the world. And you know, in the city, we’re able to use that to supplement our survey data, which was taken at a point in time, to look at how a property has evolved at various stages over the course of the last decade. If we’re looking at evaluating a proposed architectural change, we can kind of see how a property has already been evolving at various points.
And the Ed Ruscha Streets of LA project that the Getty Research Institute has now put online is also an incredible resource in that way, for some of the major corridors like Sunset Boulevard from Downtown to the sea, and some of the others that he was documenting over a period of decades. It’s a great resource to be able to look at a building as it was in 1965 and see what it looked like in the eighties, and compare it to what we have today or what we captured in our survey. In addition to being a lot of fun—I’ve lost myself for hours on the Ed Ruscha website—it’s a great resource for myself and my staff in managing some of those places.
CUNO: What role does education play in all of this? Or is it only surveying and documenting the primary materials of research?
BERNSTEIN: Well, education, I assume what you mean, in terms of really educating the public about what the survey is and what it means. It’s really critical because it’s very easy for misconceptions to set in as well about what the survey is all about.
It’s important, as we did our outreach in community after community before sending teams out in the field, to underscore for communities that we are not, in fact, designating properties as city landmarks, historic-cultural monuments, we’re not designating historic districts; that the survey identification is different. It is identifying potential eligibility for designation; and that property owners who might be concerned that their own home, for example, might show up in the survey, could realize that they can continue to obtain city permits if they want to do upgrades on their home. They could continue to do that without additional review, in most situations.
It’s also important to do education for and with community members who want to use the survey to take the next step for historic designation, for example, and to do education in terms of what some of the benefits of actually having a neighborhood designated as a historic district or designating their own property for city historic-cultural monument status. That there are financial incentives available in some cases that can benefit them, and that there, as well, can be other, for example, an alternative building code in California that can be provide more flexibility for property owners.
So we do a lot of education and outreach. That’s at the very heart of what we do, both around the survey and then how the survey can be used by communities.
CUNO: Ken, what’s next for SurveyLA?
BERNSTEIN: Well, what’s next is we want to obviously, in the future, continue to update SurveyLA so it remains living and up-to-date in the coming years and decades. But our focus recently has really been about how we capitalize on the survey to fulfill its intent, which was to guide our planning work.
You know, why are we talking about this today and why is it more important? LA’s heritage is constantly precarious; it’s at risk. We’re a city that has high land values; there’s no more open space to gobble up for new development. So as we grow and develop as a city, it’s going to be largely in areas where there is existing development. And so we need to be thoughtful in planning the future of the city. Preservation and preservation planning is all about managing change. Not about stopping change, but thinking about change and how we change as a city.
We wanna be sure that as we plan for the future of our communities, we’re not losing the most cherished components of our past; that we’re building upon the most significant historic resources and using those as assets to help shape communities. And so our focus really now is on how we use SurveyLA to guide our long-range planning as a city. And so we work very closely, in the Office of Historic Resources, with our planners who are doing the community planning work in communities like, let’s say, Downtown or Hollywood or Boyle Heights east of Downtown.
You know, many of these are communities where we’re seeing significant change. We are seeing investments by the city and the region, in new transit lines. And our city policies are about focusing new growth and development around our transit investment to try to minimize automobile trips. So we want to really integrate this SurveyLA information into planning and zone— land-use zoning policies and zoning standards, in a way that takes advantage of what we now know and helps these communities grow and change in a way that really capitalizes upon their key historic assets. That’s a big part of what we’re doing.
We want to continue to pursue partnerships that really extend some of the work that we’ve already done to ensure that we are addressing the moment, in terms of racial equity and systemic racism, and ensuring that what we’ve now identified through SurveyLA and through some of the context statement work that we’ve done about the rich histories of all of our diverse communities in the city, that that is really fully reflected in the city’s historical preservation priorities.
CUNO: So Tim, what’s next for Arches?
WHALEN: What’s next for Arches? Well, it’s one of those things. We create something, and you think you’ve created a really excellent system for inventory data. And then it turns out all sorts of people prove you wrong; that it’s not just for inventory data. It can accommodate all sorts of other data. So at the Getty, it’s being used for data around the provenance of works of art. We are developing it or enhancing it, so that it can accommodate scientific data that conservation scientists extract from works of art. The Ed Ruscha project that the Getty has just released utilized Arches to organize the photos in a way that they couldn’t find a better piece of software to do it.
So Arches is kind of taking off in ways we hadn’t anticipated. So that’s a very happy thing. And so far, the newly-identified uses have all been legal and appropriate, so that’s good. Yeah.
CUNO: Is it fair to say, with all that you’ve told us about Arches and about its deployment in SurveyLA, that Los Angeles is out ahead of most major cities in the United States?
WHALEN: I’ll venture a guess, and then maybe Ken should jump in. But my sense is yes. It’s comprehensive, as you said. Ken mentioned that 880,000 parcels—that’s every parcel in Los Angeles—was looked at. And all that data resides in Arches. And KEN, Do you think there’s another city of the scale of Los Angeles that has that comprehensive of a record?
BERNSTEIN: No, there hasn’t been. Chicago had done a citywide survey that I know GCI looked at in its preparatory work for the project. That was back in the eighties and nineties, in a very different era technologically, and that was not made available publicly. Certainly, it wasn’t online in the same way. So SurveyLA really has been, and Arches and HistoricPlacesLA, have all been looked at as a new national model for other cities.
And we’ve had a lot of interest from other major cities that are now pursuing citywide surveys, including Denver and Philadelphia. San Francisco is ramping up some of their survey work. So we’re proud that Los Angeles, which is a city that’s sometimes derided as a city that doesn’t care about its history or doesn’t care about historic preservation, we think we’re finally exploding that myth once and for all.
WHALEN: But that derision, wouldn’t— if people remember that this initial ordinance went back to 1962, they might reconsider that.
BERNSTEIN: Exactly. I’m— and I’m constantly pointing out that we were— we were out ahead of New York, Chicago, Boston, and most other cities…
WHALEN: Exactly.
BERNSTEIN: …in having a local preservation ordinance.
CUNO: Well, thank you both for talking with me today. It’s a fascinating topic. And for those of us who just walk the city streets of Los Angeles, it’s mind-boggling.
So we thank you very much for bringing some of this to our attention. It’s more than we can manage, I suppose, to understand fully, but we’re grateful to you and your team for developing all of this.
WHALEN: Thanks Jim.
BERNSTEIN: Thank you.
CUNO: This episode was produced by Zoe Goldman, with audio production by Gideon Brower and mixing by Mike Dodge Weiskopf. Our theme music comes from the “The Dharma at Big Sur” composed by John Adams, for the opening of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles in 2003, and is licensed with permission from Hendon Music. Look for new episodes of Art and Ideas every other Wednesday, subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and other podcast platforms. For photos, transcripts, and more resources, visit or if you have a question, or an idea for an upcoming episode, write to us at Thanks for listening.

JAMES CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, President of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.
KEN BERNSTEIN: We’re proud that Los Angeles, which is a city that’s sometimes derided as a city...

Music Credits
“The Dharma at Big Sur – Sri Moonshine and A New Day.” Music written by John Adams and licensed with permission from Hendon Music. (P) 2006 Nonesuch Records, Inc., Produced Under License From Nonesuch Records, Inc. ISRC: USNO10600825 & USNO10600824

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This post is part of Art + Ideas, a podcast in which Getty president Jim Cuno talks with artists, writers, curators, and scholars about their work.
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