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The Power of Place and Emerging Voices

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Biddy Mason Park by Betye Saar, Sheila Levrant de Bretteville, and The Power of Place | Photo: The City Project/Flickr/Creative Commons

Entering summer 2014, Los Angeles emerges as a city in the midst of redefining itself. Over the last few decades there have been a number of authors, architects, and visionary thinkers that have contributed to fundamental shifts and changes in the city's infrastructure. One of these people is Dolores Hayden, a professor of architecture, urbanism and American Studies. This week L.A. Letters pays tribute to the work of Hayden, and also announces the Emerging Voices Fellowship, a major writing competition open to up-and-coming writers.

Dolores Hayden is the author of several influential books on urban studies. Though she is now at Yale, she was a longtime Professor at UCLA in their Urban Planning Department. In addition to her writing and teaching, Hayden is especially known for her work in the community. Hayden came to Los Angeles in 1979 during the period when the city was desperately trying to clean itself up for the 1984 Olympics. As Hayden began to unpeel layers of Los Angeles history, she began to get inspired. She noticed that there were many stories not being told.

Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, Hayden, her associates and a team of graduate students from UCLA and USC worked on several projects across Los Angeles that centered on urban preservation and public art. In 1984 Hayden founded the nonprofit organization "The Power of Place" in order to commemorate forgotten sites across the city. She writes, "It was a small nonprofit corporation, and its purpose was to situate women's history and ethnic history downtown, in public places, through experimental, collaborative projects by historians, designers and artists."

Hayden's seminal book from 1995, also named "The Power of Place," recounts the work they did and the perspective behind it. The book proposes that the practice of civic history through public art and urban preservation creates a more equitable urban history. This is necessary, Hayden writes, because "Many influential writers have been unable to perceive the importance of the city's nonwhite population, unable to recognize that people of color occupy any significant part of the urban landscape. Such writers may go downtown, but never or rarely to East L.A. and South Central. The focus of their landscape analysis becomes houses, swimming pools, cars and pop culture."

Hayden's work is in direct opposition to this. She writes in her book's Preface, "My own purpose is to explore some ways that locating ethnic and women's history in urban space can contribute to what might be called a politics of place construction, redefining the mainstream experience, and making visible some of its forgotten parts." The forgotten parts she refers to can be found in what she calls, "the vernacular landscape."

In Los Angeles, Hayden and her team created public art projects in Little Tokyo and the Historic Core, commemorating forgotten urban history. Embedded on the sidewalks along First Street in Little Tokyo is a timeline that celebrates a century of businesses along the street, as well as memories and experiences of Japanese Americans over the years. The art park adjacent to the Bradbury Building, created by Hayden and The Power of Place in 1990, commemorates 19th century African-American woman Biddy Mason, a pioneering businesswoman and founder of First AME Church of Los Angeles. These projects went a long way to reposition important forgotten stories of relegated people of color and women within the context of California urban history. Hayden writes, "For a new spatial analysis to be balanced, the active roles of diverse workers searching for a livelihood in the city needs to be discussed as fully as the banks, corporations, police and the military."

''Remembering Little Tokyo on First Street'' public art by Sheila Levrant de Bretteville, Sonya Ishii, and Nobuho Nagasawa, planned by The Power of Place | Photo: Yosuke Kitazawa
''Remembering Little Tokyo on First Street'' public art by Sheila Levrant de Bretteville, Sonya Ishii, and Nobuho Nagasawa, planned by The Power of Place | Photo: Yosuke Kitazawa. 

Anyone reading these words from Hayden now can acknowledge the inherent sense she is making, but in 1995 these ideas were revolutionary compared to the standard narrative. She continues, "The old conquest histories of the city relied on an outworn ideal of a universal, white male citizen, and relegated women and people of color -- workers who should be at the center of any city's story-- to the fringes." Hayden has played an important role combating this process with her public art projects.

Though Hayden's book is almost 20 years old now, it remains widely read and more relevant than ever. In many ways her pioneering work in urban preservation and public art helped pave the way for the current renaissance now underway across the city. In 1995, when she authored "The Power of Place," Downtown L.A. was much different than it is now. The adaptive reuse policy that has transformed Downtown did not exist until a few years later. During the 1980s and early 1990s, Hayden, along with Ira Yellin and the Los Angeles Conservancy, were some of the only forces actively engaged in preserving the history of Downtown Los Angeles. Furthermore, Hayden's ideas have spread across the country and a number of other cities have implemented public art and urban preservation programs as a means of creating more equitable urban history. As she notes, "The power of place -- the power of ordinary urban landscapes to nurture citizens' public memory, to encompass shared time in the form of shared territory -- remains untapped for most working people's neighborhoods in most American cities, and for most ethnic history and most women's history."

Hayden left UCLA for Yale in the mid-1990s. A few years after she left in 1997, I read "The Power of Place" in Professor Brian Taylor's Urban Planning course. Taylor also took our class to Biddy Mason State Park. During this time I wrote my poem "Density," partially inspired by her work with the Power of Place. Ironically, I recently found out that Dolores Hayden is also a published poet. Though I have been reading her work for 17 years, I just discovered her poetry in the April 2014 issue of "Poetry" magazine. She has published four books of poetry, in addition to her six nonfiction books. When considering her track record as an urbanist and the important work she has done, it makes sense that she would also be a poet. After reading her poems in "Poetry," I recently purchased her book of poems, "American Yard." True to form, many of her poems deal with landscape architecture and American urban landscapes. Her long career as a writer, professor and activist has played a major role in reminding us of the power of place.

Before concluding this week's column, I want to announce a writing competition that is in the same spirit as the work of Dolores Hayden. Pen USA's annual "Emerging Voices Fellowship" is currently accepting applications until August 11, 2014. Intended on not only finding emerging voices, this fellowship is also about giving opportunities to young writers that may not have access to literary resources or professional mentors. The director of programs and events at Pen USA, Michelle Meyering is deeply involved in the city's literary scene, and loves to help emerging writers.

The program coordinator for Emerging Voices, Lilliam Rivera writes, "Over the course of eight months, each Emerging Voices Fellow participates in a professional mentorship, hosted Author Evenings with prominent local authors, a series of master classes focused on genre, a voice class, courses donated by UCLA Writers' Extension Program, and several public readings in Los Angeles. Fellows have been paired with prominent mentors, including Sherman Alexie, Aimee Bender, Chris Abani, Héctor Tobar, Ron Carlson, Jerry Stahl, Susan Straight, and Harryette Mullen, to name a few." Pen USA is also known for hosting a number of literary events around town, in venues like the Hollywood Forever Cemetery and the Eagle Rock Library. Five to six candidates will be chosen once all the applications are in. The application is on this link

As Los Angeles continues to transition into its 21st Century self, forces like Dolores Hayden and Pen USA help facilitate the city's evolution. Hayden's work with the Power of Place helped catalyze changes still taking place. Furthermore, programs like the Emerging Voices Fellowship carry on the work of Hayden with the intention of telling untold stories and empowering young writers that previously lacked access. Salute to the Power of Place, Dolores Hayden and Pen USA for being agents of transformation and change in the landscape of L.A. Letters.

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