A Database to Keep Los Angeles From Forgetting Itself

July 2, 2014
Still a young city by global standards, L.A. has created a model for chronicling its historic resources.

The heritage of a city is often measured by its historic buildings — its cathedrals, its monuments, its ancient structures of stone and clay. For cities like Paris or Rome, with hundreds and thousands of years of history, it’s somewhat obvious which parts of this past must be remembered so that future generations can know the story of their city. But what about newer cities? What’s historic when you measure history in decades rather than centuries?

That may seem like a distant question in the fast-growing newborn cities of China, India and other parts of the developing world. But in Los Angeles, still a young city in the global scheme of things, it’s a question city leaders are taking quite seriously.

L. A.’s population didn’t crack 1 million until the 1920s, and its biggest growth surge came after 1950. Now, as it continues to grow and redevelop, the city has launched SurveyLA, an effort to create an interactive database of all the city’s historic resources. For the past four years, surveyors have been prowling the city street by street to identify sites of cultural heritage that make up the city’s history, short though it may be.