By Nicole Possert
The 33-year-old “History of Highland Park” mural is all about the layers. Layers of graffiti above layers of original paint, layers of history, layers of architecture, art and culture. Today, a project began to remove the layers of graffiti and grime and to restore and preserve the 125-foot-long mural, which adorns two long walls of the AT&T building at 1207 N. Avenue 56. The $78,000 project, led by Judy Baca (one of the original four artists), was the result of years of community advocacy and collaboration between AT&T, SPARC, and Councilman Jose Huizar.
After a kick-off event, the actual work began to peel off layers of graffiti and remove inappropriate treatments to the iconic 1977-78 mural. After starting with a lot of elbow-grease and “biodegradable orange peel juice,” the mural restoration crew then followed up with a power-washer that stripped off years of the unwanted graffiti in a manner of minutes, revealing the original mural underneath.
AT&T is paying SPARC (Social and Public Art Resource Center) to undertake this project over the next several months with their muralists and local youth. After the mural is brought back to its original beauty, a new anti-graffiti coating, using the latest industry advancements, will be applied for its ongoing protection.
“Los Angeles is known as the mural capital of the world. This is where the mural movement began,” said Huizar to the audience of about 100. Artist Judy Baca built upon that notion by saying “This project gives great hope for the future of all our murals in LA. It’s the beginning of a wave. A wave to take back these works for the community and bring back to full color and their original beauty.”
Or, leave it to a student from Mrs. Marquez’ 5th Grade class at nearby Yorkdale Elementary, who simply said “The vandalism was so gross. And, that people would falsely believe our neighborhood was not nice and be grossed-out.”
Community pressure, support and stewardship to ignite this project was properly recognized with leaders from Highland Park Heritage Trust (writer is a board member), Arroyo Arts Collective, Historic Highland Park Neighborhood Council, Yorkdale students and parents and most of all the surrounding neighbors who have waited for this day to come for many years.
Origins of the mural
AT&T’s former company, Pacific Bell, commissioned the work to be done by Barrio Planners in 1977, who in turn selected Judy Baca and a team of artists that consisted of Joe Bravo, Sonya Fe, Arnold Ramirez, Sonny Williams and others. Barrio Planners’ Frank Villalobos said “It weaves together the history of Garvanza and Highland Park with the landscape and people of the Arroyo Seco. It was designed to work in conjunction with the street trees that were also planted creating a 3-D effect.”
But there is another layer of history to this story. The original mural was done to “mitigate” the significant alteration and loss of the original 1920’s brick building that the stucco bunker covered as part of a seismic retrofit project. Local historian Charles Fisher remembers it as “a simpler design but similar to the Police Museum building on York Blvd, utilizing gold bricks.” At that time, neither the Highland Park Heritage Trust nor the L.A. Conservancy were not yet formed, But community sentiment for historic preservation took and the result was this mural a new layer in the community’s history.
Many of the important murals in Highland Park are interpretations of its history. Time lines and layers of repeating history with a successive generational twist strike the heart of these public art interpretations. “History of Highland Park” utilized historic photographs given to the project by Henry Welcome (Eagle Rock Valley Historical Society) and took contemporary images of its residents in 1977. The wall along Meridian Street depicts many notable historic landmarks (Southwest Museum, York Blvd Bridge), notable people and events (Franklin High School’s infamous football team, Charles Fletcher Lummis and President Roosevelt at Occidental College), and the landscape of the Arroyo Seco with rock walls and native trees mixed with plein-air artists, like William Lees Judson, painting.
As you turn the corner to Avenue 56, the time line shifts to the present, circa 1977, with several scenes capturing that moment in time. The people featured are sometimes seen today visiting with their children (or grandchildren) to show the mural and their place in local history.
The mural itself is 125 feet long and 15 feet high and is one of the largest and oldest murals in Highland Park. It was an early expression and part of the history of the Chicano public art movement. It also helped launch the careers of young artists like today’s renowned Judy Baca.
Bringing the beauty back to a historic mural. Patch
Nicole Possert is a contributor writing about home and history. Questions or ideas? just email her at [email protected]