How Downtown Los Angeles’ Grand Park Is Bridging Land Sovereignty and Stewardship

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Grand Park in Los Angeles (All photos by William Yang)

The land where Los Angeles’ Grand Park sits has seen a multitude of different lives.

Before the 2010 redevelopment that transformed it into the vibrant 12-acre public square that it is today—connecting City Hall to The Music Center—it was the Civic Center Mall. The Mall was a less visible central greenspace largely serving the public sector employees working at the many nearby government buildings. Before that, it was home to a dense, working-class Victorian neighborhood, which was later razed in the 1950s for “slum clearance.” Before the Great Depression, it had been a wealthy enclave along Charity Street, which later became Grand Avenue for which the park is now named. But before all of that, the land housed the village of Yaangna, a thriving home to and center for the many Indigenous tribes that lived on the pre-colonial land that later became Los Angeles.

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Now, as Grand Park celebrates its tenth anniversary and embarks on its next decade, stakeholders are trying to figure out how to bridge these histories and give a voice to communities with creative and historical connections to the site. While the movement toward land sovereignty is not necessarily unique to LA, its presence in cultural dialogue there is distinct. The park’s recent work poses crucial questions facing countless urban park groups right now: How does an urban park contend with a troubled, layered past? Or better yet: How do modern stewards acknowledge their predecessors in ways that remember who came before, help them live on, and hopefully contribute to acknowledgments, reconciliations, and healing?

These questions are at the heart of Grand Park’s Uncovering LA Initiative, a new 10-year project that aspires to talk frankly about the past, and, eventually, embed it into the fabric of the park. “When this idea first came up, we were really thinking through what it meant to be a steward,” said Julia Diamond, the Director for Grand Park at The Music Center. “For us, that means engagement, but also having an honest conversation about the land itself.”

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Participants in the Urban Park Roundtable visit Grand Park’s Uncovering LA Initiative

The aim, Diamond added, is to install an interpretive pathway throughout the park alongside an outdoor storytelling gallery—both of which are meant to center the stories of previous stewards of the land and those connected to it. A temporary art exhibit will begin this year, after years of work with community stakeholders, including Indigenous representatives.

To guide those conversations—which can be sensitive and often difficult—the Park has enlisted the help of community stewards, including those who have collaborated and agitated for change in Grand Park. One of them was Joel Garcia, the director and co-founder of the Indigenous-based arts group Meztli Projects, who’s of Huichol descent. In the past, Garcia criticized the park design and Los Angeles County (the owner of the land) on social media for not being truly representative of surrounding communities and those sensitive histories. Now, Garcia works with Diamond and others at Grand Park to expand their conversations around land sovereignty and community ownership to perspectives they previously weren’t inclusive of.

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Joel Garcia, director and co-founder of Meztli Projects, speaking at the Urban Park Roundtable in Los Angeles

“It was about spending the time to actually ask people what they thought, and then giving them the genuine space for feedback,” Garcia said. “We don’t want that sense of ‘Oh, come and add color to this.’”

A significant part of that effort, said Garcia, is giving residents resources so they can put forth valuable critiques, rather than assuming they know the same jargon as park practitioners. He mentioned one example of another project where a woman was asked about a building renovation through LA Metro’s Joint Development program in Boyle Heights. She knew she didn’t like it, but she wasn’t able to articulate her criticisms in the industry vernacular that the project managers demanded. It wasn’t until she had resources around architectural terminology that the planners were able to hear and then incorporate her input.

“She had feedback that the designers needed to hear,” Garcia explained, “but she had to be empowered with the information to give it.”

Land justice is different from planning a capital project or annual program. It’s rife with deeply ingrained issues of trust due to violent historical realities. Given the inherent complexity, we must recognize that the process is never perfect; it takes its own time and is destined to include stumbles.

The first installation of the Uncovering LA Initiative scheduled to be unveiled this past October around celebrations for Indigenous People’s Day, which saw a procession of Indigenous performers and ceremonies in the park. But after widespread feedback from community stakeholders that the engagement hadn’t gone far enough, Grand Park decided to pause the release to a later date.

“I’m here to admit that we’re not at a place yet where this is ready to be shown to the public,” said Diamond. “And that’s okay. If we’re going to do this right—and really create something special that the community can be proud of—we have to put the work in.”