Preservation “On the Natch”

Left: Community Planning Poster [Carolyn Weathers Photographs and Papers, Coll2014-008, ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives, USC Libraries, University of Southern California.] Right: Rap group poster. [ONE Subject File Collection: Lesbian raps and meetings, Coll2009-004, ONE Archives, Los Angeles, California.]

Over the summer, I watched through my computer screen as bronze monuments to white supremacy and colonialism collided with pavement, and I stood in the streets witnessing the transformation of Los Angeles by graffiti, fire, and mass mobilizations.1See, for instance, “The Statues Brought Down Since the George Floyd Protests Began,” Alan Thomas, The Atlantic (July 7, 2020); “Black Lives Matter: Statues are falling but what should replace them?,” Hazel Shearing, BBC (June 18, 2020); “Protest live updates,” Los Angeles Times (June 5, 2020); “10 arrested after protestors clash with L.A. police in wake of Jacob Blake shooting,” Los Angeles Times (August 27, 2020). At the same time, across the field of historic preservation, undercurrents of dissent were gathering force. At the recent “#DismantlePreservation Virtual Unconference,” academics, practitioners, and activists gathered to confront the violence of historical erasure and capitalist accumulation that undergirds the field’s rigid enforcement of historicity as time-bound and subject to material integrity.2#DismantlePreservation was organized by Sarah Marsom. Visit the website to watch recordings of the conference or learn more. But if there is much that deserves to be taken down, conference speakers also uplifted enduring legacies and current practices of resistance and restorative justice.3See Robin G. Kelley, Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination (Boston: Beacon Press, 2002), 10. Kelley argues that past movements for social justice led by Black Americans allow us to “tap the well of our own collective imaginations” and “do what earlier generations have done: dream.” While the focus of the present essay, the Alcoholism Center for Women, is not a Black-led organization, my interest in it is informed by the Movement for Black Lives and Kelley’s scholarship about racialized capitalism. As an aspiring practitioner in the discipline of heritage conservation, I have been sifting through yellowed ephemera in the archives and meandering down quiet streets in an attempt to cultivate my own contribution to this practice of “radical (re)imagination.” This is an essay about restoration; about uncovering layers of history and paint; about self-preservation and transformation through sisterhood and queer kinship.

There is inherent significance in the built spaces that marginalized groups have fought to claim and the communities that have given them meaning.

One Friday in late July, I arrived in front of 1147 S. Alvarado in the Pico-Union neighborhood of Los Angeles. As I climbed the steps to the large, beautifully maintained Tudor Revival house, I greeted women sitting beneath trees and weeding raised flower beds.4After Pico-Union’s development as a wealthy, white suburb at the turn of the century, the grand homes became landing places for waves of immigrants; by the 1970s absentee landlords were renting the deteriorating buildings to a growing El Salvadorian and Mexican community. 1147 S. Alvarado has operated as a “sanitarium” since 1942. See Robert Peterson, “How a Neighborhood Disappears: The Life and Death of Pico Heights,” LA  As Subject, KCET.org; Gilda Haas and Allan David Heskin, “Community Struggles in Los Angeles,” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 5 no. 4 (1981): 550; Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety Permit #1942LA13259, November 30, 1942. Back in 1974, Brenda Weathers, a self-identified lesbian alcoholic, had stood on the same steps and envisioned the (then) deteriorated house as a safe space for women seeking alternatives to substance use. Since then, the Alcoholism Center for Women5ACW now operates at 1147 and 1135 S. Alvarado has served as an in- and out-patient treatment center for women in recovery. The care that participants and staff demonstrate for the buildings at 1147 and 1135 S. Alvarado, and for one another, reflects a strong praxis of self-determination and mutual aid. It is a praxis that can guide preservationists and conservationists seeking to redress the inequities inherent in these fields. Indeed there is deep significance in the built spaces that marginalized groups have fought to claim and the communities that have given them meaning, and we have vital roles to play in recognizing these spaces and protecting their stories. Histories like the one I discovered at ACW have the power to shape future movements.6While preservation continues to be the dominant name for the field, the U.S. is slowly shifting to embrace the term heritage conservation, which is now used in many places around the world. While preservation implies something static, heritage conservation can be defined as “the art of navigating the linkages between our present and past, requires simultaneous engagement and negotiation with the forces of polity, community, urban planning, and design.” Vinayak Bharne and Trudi Sandmeier, “Introduction,” Routledge Companion to Global Heritage Conservation (London: Routledge, 2019), 1. 

Left:: Current executive director Lorette Herman on the balcony, 2020 [Lindsay Mulcahy.] Right: Staff on front steps of 1147 S. Alvarado, 1975. [Carolyn Weathers Photographs and Papers, Coll2014-008, ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives, USC Libraries, University of Southern California.]

From its earliest days as a treatment center, the two-and-a-half story, nine-bedroom house at 1147 S. Alvarado stood as a powerful symbol for the women who came to live there, many of whom had only a tenuous relationship with the idea of home.7According to organizational materials from 1987, staff reached out to the most underserved communities: “adult daughters of alcoholics, incest and bettering survivors, lesbians, low income and homeless women.” Fees were charged on a sliding scale and “no one [was] turned away for lack of funds.” ACW 1987-92 summary of services, Johnnie Phelps papers and memorabilia, Coll2008-068, Box 1, Folder 8, ONE Archives, Los Angeles, California. Today, all participants receive medical help and the majority are Black and Latina. Lorette Herman, ACW Director, in conversation with author. A participant in 1987 described how “the staff and the atmosphere for women going through the program — the way the building felt — all worked to give me a foundation of sobriety.” One day this summer, as sun poured through a large bay window during my visit, a current participant who came to ACW from Skid Row told me that “this place feels different than anywhere I’ve been. It feels safe …the women here have your back.” Over the years, ACW has conducted workshops and support groups and convened community-wide events and dances where women gathered in the wood-paneled rooms with ornate fireplaces — all “on the natch” (slang for sober).8Staff and participants engaged in collaborative processes to design and implement programming on topics ranging from substance use to domestic violence; they especially sought to address the needs of African-American and Latina women and lesbians. Brenda Underhill, Creating Visibility: Providing Lesbian-Sensitive and Lesbian- Specific Alcoholism Recovery Services, ed. Terry Wolverton (Los Angeles: Alcoholism Center for Women, 1993), 37. ACW flyers and pamphlets, Carolyn Weathers photographs and papers, Coll2014-008, Box, 1 Folder 2, ONE Archives, Los Angeles, California. The Center’s domestic setting, with vegetable gardens in the yard and individually painted dorm rooms, is both a physical and ideological alternative to carceral or medical institutions. At ACW, women are agents of their own healing. The house provides them a refuge, and they in turn serve as stewards of the house. Carolyn Weathers, Brenda’s sister and another founding member, recalled the first time she saw the building: “It was such a wreck … we, staff and volunteers, cleaned it up ourselves and repaired it.”9Carolyn Weathers, interview with author, August 14, 2020. Now, as staff and participants tend the gardens and sweep the grounds every Friday, they reaffirm ACW’s intangible heritage and support its continued maintenance.

Inside the ACW, 1147 S. Alvarado. Circa 1970s. [Carolyn Weathers private collection]

It could have turned out very differently. In 1987, the old houses on Alvarado were threatened with demolition to make way for a mini-mall. Then-ACW director Brenda Underhill initiated a grassroots preservation campaign that highlighted the buildings’ architectural significance — rather than the current use — and halted the plans. Yet when Underhill argued that the homes represented “pieces of history that can never be replaced if demolished,” she was talking about much more than the architecture.10Sam Schiffer, “Mini-Malls vs. History,” Los Angeles Weekly, August 21, 1987, in ACW 1987-92, Johnnie Phelps papers. The founding of ACW, wrote the Lesbian Tide, was the realization of a dream for “an autonomous center run by and for women” that would provide an alternative to alcohol as “the unquestioned strategy for survival.”11“From the Bottle to the Barricade,” The Lesbian Tide. A fundraising campaign enabled ACW to buy the buildings, and they have since completed two major restorations.12ACW formed a coalition that included lesbian activist Jeanne Cordova, Los Angeles School Board member Jackie Goldberg, California Democratic Party chairwoman Elizabeth Snyder, Assemblywoman Maxine Waters and actress Lily Tomlin, who appealed to CRA/LA to save the homes; they were told demolition would only be halted if they could prove historic significance. Brenda Underhill successfully nominated the buildings as Los Angeles Historic Cultural Monuments. “Help us save our home” ACW 1987-92, Johnnie Phelps papers and memorabilia, Coll2008-068, Box 1, Folder 8, ONE Archives, Los Angeles, California. ACW does not offer a utopian vision; but for me, as a preservationist, it sparks the desire to eschew the traditional notion of a “period of significance” in favor of what Edward Soja has called “stubbornly simultaneous” histories.13I have borrowed Eduard Soja’s language to describe multidimensional and nonlinear ways of understanding history and space. Edward W. Soja, Postmodern Geographies: The Reassertion of Space in Critical Social Theory (London: Verso, 2010), 2.

Preserving the homes is about more than the significance of their architecture.

In a recent phone call, Carolyn Weathers emphasized to me that “the spirit and camaraderie [of ACW] is still there … I remember you really felt it when it started, and you still feel it.” The historic value of the homes on Alvarado rests in, and is unlocked by, their current use. Similarly, while I would argue that sustaining these buildings and their stories should be within the purview of preservationists, it is also important to acknowledge that this work has also been, and continues to be, carried out by women who cleaned layers of grease from kitchen floors, who fought for a place of belonging when few existed, and who continue a legacy of healing and repair.14My use of the word “sustaining” is influenced from Catherine Flemming Bruce’s repositioning of preservationists from paid professionals to the activists and “sustainers” of movements for civil rights. Catherine Flemming Bruce, The Sustainers: Being, Building and Doing Good Through Activism in the Sacred Spaces of Civil Rights, Human Rights and Social Movements (Tnovsa: Columbia, SC, 2016).

Notes

  1. See, for instance, “The Statues Brought Down Since the George Floyd Protests Began,” Alan Thomas, The Atlantic (July 7, 2020); “Black Lives Matter: Statues are falling but what should replace them?” Hazel Shearing, BBC (June 18, 2020); “Protest live updates,” Los Angeles Times (June 5, 2020); “10 arrested after protestors clash with L.A. police in wake of Jacob Blake shooting,” Los Angeles Times (August 27, 2020).
  2. #DismantlePreservation was organized by Sarah Marsom. Visit the website to watch recordings of the conference or learn more.
  3. See Robin G. Kelley, Freedom Dreams: the Black Radical Imagination (Boston: Beacon Press, 2002), 10. Kelley argues that past movements for social justice led by Black Americans allow us to “tap the well of our own collective imaginations” and “do what earlier generations have done: dream.” While the Alcoholism Center for Women is not a Black-led organization, my interest in it is informed by the Movement for Black Lives and Kelley’s scholarship about racialized capitalism.
  4. After Pico-Union’s development as a wealthy, white suburb at the turn of the century, the grand homes became landing places for waves of immigrants, and by the 1970s absentee landlords were renting the deteriorating buildings to a growing El Salvadorian and Mexican community. 1147 S. Alvarado has operated as a “sanitarium” since 1942. See Robert Peterson, “How a Neighborhood Disappears: The Life and Death of Pico Heights,” LA  As Subject, KCET.org; Gilda Haas and Allan David Heskin, “Community Struggles in Los Angeles,” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 5 no. 4 (1981): 550; Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety Permit #1942LA13259, November 30, 1942.
  5. ACW now operates at 1147 and 1135 S. Alvarado.
  6. While preservation continues to be the dominant name for the field, the U.S. is slowly shifting to embrace the term heritage conservation which is now in use in many other parts of the world. While preservation implies something static, heritage conservation can be defined as “the art of navigating the linkages between our present and past, requires simultaneous engagement and negotiation with the forces of polity, community, urban planning, and design.” Vinayak Bharne and Trudi Sandmeier, “Introduction” Routledge Companion to Global Heritage Conservation, (London: Routledge, 2019), 1.
  7. According to organizational materials from 1987, staff reached out to the most underserved communities: “adult daughters of alcoholics, incest and bettering survivors, lesbians, low income and homeless women.” Fees were charged on a sliding scale and “no one [was] turned away for lack of funds.” ACW 1987-92 summary of services, Johnnie Phelps papers and memorabilia, Coll2008-068, Box 1, Folder 8, ONE Archives, Los Angeles, California.Today, all participants receive medical help and the majority are Black and Latina. Lorette Herman, ACW Director, in conversation with author.
  8. Staff and participants engaged in collaborative processes to design and implement programming on topics from substance use to domestic violence and carved out specific spaces for African American and Latina women and lesbians. Brenda Underhill, Creating Visibility: Providing Lesbian-Sensitive and Lesbian- Specific Alcoholism Recovery Services, ed. Terry Wolverton (Los Angeles: Alcoholism Center for Women, 1993), 37. ACW flyers and pamphlets, Carolyn Weathers photographs and papers, Coll2014-008, Box, 1 Folder 2, ONE Archives, Los Angeles, California.
  9. Carolyn Weathers, interview with author, August 14, 2020.
  10. Sam Schiffer, “Mini-Malls vs. History,” Los Angeles Weekly, August 21, 1987 in ACW 1987-92, Johnnie Phelps papers.
  11. “From the Bottle to the Baracade,” The Lesbian Tide.
  12. ACW formed a coalition that included lesbian activist Jeanne Cordova, Los Angeles School Board member Jackie Goldberg, California Democratic Party chairwoman Elizabeth Snyder, Assemblywoman Maxine Waters and actress Lily Tomlin, which appealed to CRA/LA to save the homes; they were told demolition would only be halted if they could prove historic significance. Brenda Underhill successfully nominated the buildings as Los Angeles Historic Cultural Monuments. “Help us save our home” ACW 1987-92, Johnnie Phelps papers and memorabilia, Coll2008-068, Box 1, Folder 8, ONE Archives, Los Angeles, California.
  13. I have borrowed Eduard Soja’s language to describe multidimensional and nonlinear ways of understanding history and space. Edward W. Soja, Postmodern Geographies: The Reassertion of Space in Critical Social Theory (London: Verso, 2010), 2.
  14. My use of the word “sustaining” is influenced from Catherine Flemming Bruce’s repositioning of preservationists from paid professional to the activists and “sustainers” of movements for civil rights. Catherine Flemming Bruce, The Sustainers: Being, Building and Doing Good Through Activism in the Sacred Spaces of Civil Rights, Human Rights and Social Movements(Tnovsa: Columbia, SC, 2016).

About the Author

Lindsay Mulcahy

Lindsay Mulcahy is a dual Master’s student in Heritage Conservation and Urban Planning at the University of Southern California. Her background in history and community organizing informs her interest in the ways in which cultural landscapes shape public memory and social movements. At USC, her work explores the relationship between intangible heritage and the politics of land use.