Channeling Dorothy Chandler: Voices From the Past and the Future of Los Angeles

 

Dorothy Chandler (1922-1997) was arguably the most powerful woman in Los Angeles during the 1960s – presiding over the city’s most elite social circles, and appearing on the cover of Time Magazine in honor of her unprecedented cultural fundraising efforts. Yet, few Angelenos know who she is other than a name on a Music Center building downtown. So why has her voice remained so compelling whenever anyone talks about the future of Los Angeles?

 

TimeChandler

Courtesy Time Magazine, December 1964

The answer: no one in Los Angeles has been able to achieve the same level of success when it came to civic collaboration and fundraising prowess.

Dorothy Chandler, wife of Los Angeles Times publisher Norman Chandler, irrevocably remade the cultural landscape of Los Angeles by raising an unprecedented $18.4 million to fund a downtown performing arts center. The L.A. Music Center was seen as a centerpiece of the city’s extensive downtown urban renewal plans, and Chandler’s efforts helped pave the way for future cultural development. She worked closely with city and county officials to achieve her goals, and she united old, WASP money with newly wealthy captains of industry and finance in the postwar years. But her commitment to culture was only one part of her vision for the future of Los Angeles. As she told the Washington Post in 1967:

The cultural life of the city…[matters] not so much for the culture itself ‘but in what cultural things can do for a community.’

Chandler believed civic pride was a necessary ingredient in helping to remake Los Angeles’s image, and cultural investment was one way to inspire such pride. The construction of the Music Center solidified the image of Los Angeles as a first class city of growing national importance, and served as a catalyst for other important civic and cultural plans.

Today Chandler’s voice is still relevant when it comes to discussing the future of Los Angeles. Here are a few examples:

Future of Cities: Leading in L.A. quotes Chandler in order to make the case that Los Angeles is a place of innovation and fresh ideas, a “place for people who want to build a new world.” (below)

FutureCitiesDBC

Courtesy FutureCitiesLA.org

Last September in a KCRW “Making LA” segment about Future Cities, host Madeleine Brand cites Chandler as an example of effective leadership in L.A. within a discussion about civic engagement, corporate giving, and volunteerism.[1]

And finally, C-Suite Quarterly published an article last October about Chandler’s role in reshaping the civic image of Los Angeles during the 1950s and 60s. In “Channeling the Spirit of Dorothy Buffum Chandler to Catalyze Change in Los Angeles,” (Oct 2015) author Michael Kelly argues that Chandler’s spirit “lives on in Los Angeles’ civic community.” Kelly concludes that there are still opportunities to reshape L.A.’s civic image, and he suggests the best way to achieve this is by strengthening the relationship between city government and L.A.’s “broad and diverse business and civic communities,” which he considers two of the city’s greatest resources. [2]

These examples show how Angelenos often look to the past to voice their hopes for the future because they are looking for inspiration, for proven examples on how to get things done in a place where the size and scope of Los Angeles can make new civic initiatives seem daunting.

As Chandler herself argued in her Time profile, “The most important thing…is not a formula but a person who will be a catalyst for the project—someone so dedicated to the purpose that he will stay with it until the job is completed.” Sure, she had an army of volunteers working diligently to accomplish her fundraising goals, but she also understood how important it was to have a clear vision, and strong leadership to see it through. It was why she was so widely admired during her reign over Los Angeles. It is why she is still quoted today. Her unfailing commitment to a vision for the future of Los Angeles resonates with those Angelenos looking for leadership – for people who envision a future L.A. built on civic engagement, collaboration, and community.

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[1] Press Play with Madeleine Brand, September 2015: http://www.kcrw.com/news-culture/shows/press-play-with-madeleine-brand/carly-fiorina-faking-tragedy-and-making-l-a-civic-engagement

[2] Michael Kelly, “Channeling the Spirit of Dorothy Buffum Chandler to Catalyze Change in Los Angeles,” in CSQ (Oct 2015). http://csq.com/2015/10/op-ed-channeling-the-spirit-of-dorothy-buffum-chandler-to-catalyze-change-in-los-angeles/#.Vr54YmQrJ3Z

 

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Is L.A. Designed to Work?

Outgoing L.A. Deputy Mayor Rick Cole recently remarked that “L.A. is not designed to work.” Could he be right? Is L.A. too big for true civic engagement? Or do projects like CicLAvia and the L.A. River Revitalization prove this contention wrong?

Before I delve into my opinion regarding this question, let me provide a little context for Cole’s remark. In June, a group of 150 upper echelon Angelenos convened at a private home to discuss the future of Los Angeles. At the event, former Tom Bradley aide Donna Bojarsky spoke to the crowd about the “pitiful state of civic engagement in Los Angeles.” (For more on the meeting and guest list, see LAT Architecture Critic Chris Hawthorne’s coverage here. [1]) While Bojarsky acknowledged there has been an upsurge of civic engagement and exciting projects in recent years, something must be done to harness that civic spirit if Los Angeles is to become a “world-class” city. Hmmmmmmm. Haven’t the most elite Angelenos been chasing after this elusive ‘world-class’ status for more than half a century? What will it take to reach it? Perhaps that is a subject I can revisit again another time.

While Bojarsky may be right that there is a need to create a stronger interest in civic engagement, I’m not convinced her plan to address this issue is the right path.

Bojarsky is heading up a new civic initiative called Future of Cities: Leading in L.A., launching this month at LACMA. In the ‘About’ section of the organization’s website, it tells interested readers that, “We are hindered by a traditionally weak civic fabric.” This is true. And here is the organization’s approach to remedying this fact: through “meaningful collaboration across LA’s civic tapestry so that all our residents can thrive.” Future Cities is issuing a “call to action…[to] encourage greater ambition and meaningful change,” by bringing together leaders “across sectors, cultures, and geographies.” And finally: “this is the perfect time to promote a new kind of civic stewardship representative of today’s Los Angeles – a region of unparalleled diversity, technology, entertainment, media, venture capital, environmental consciousness, and creative capital.” The goal, it appears, is to create a “vibrant” future, “to marry vision, leadership and results to fulfill LA’s ambitions and achieve our potential.” My question is: Whose vision?

You can explore Future of Cities’ website further to see how the group envisions its role in crafting a new generation of civic leadership. I will admit I am intrigued by the list of movers and shakers invited to participate in its October summit. But I am not totally convinced this is the right approach. Isn’t this group just another incarnation of elites coming together to achieve what they believe would be best for the city? L.A. has a long history of producing civic organizations ostensibly interested in civic growth and change. Bojarsky herself expressed “some nostalgia for the efficiency and effectiveness of the Committee of 25,” [1] a group of white elite businessmen, including Norman Chandler, Neil Petree, and Asa Call, whose members ruled the city as what some have called a “shadow government.”[2] And while they succeeded in large degree, they pursued a rather narrow vision for L.A.’s future based on commerce and grand civic projects like the Bunker Hill Urban Renewal Project and the L.A. Music Center. There have been numerous civic initiatives, before and since the Committee of 25, that have sought such change. Yet, what did they accomplish? Not much apparently, if we are still trying to achieve ‘world-class’ status.

Indeed, things have changed since the days of unchecked power by the likes of a cohesive downtown business community. At the turn of the twenty-first century, the power structure of Los Angeles has shifted: “what had been a vertical apparatus has flattened out over time, reflecting the fundamental transformations of the city’s demographics and economics.” Residents demand greater power in city politics through city-charter supported neighborhood councils, and through social activism; labor unions also wield a significant amount of influence in city politics, as do lobbyists, developers, and big business.[3] In today’s Los Angeles, each of these factions must compete for power in a city with a formal and informal power structure more diffuse than ever before.

So who should we believe? Cole’s view that L.A. is not designed to work? Or Bojarsky and the Future of Cities initiative? I’m inclined to side with Bojarsky, for now, primarily because I tend to be an optimist. But I have to temper that optimism by noting that I’m disappointed by the group’s inaugural event. For an organization dedicated to fostering civic leadership to create a vibrant and inclusive future, why does the least expensive ticket cost $110? That feels rather prohibitive to me. Still, as long as there are people hopeful that L.A. can ‘work’, that the citizenry is capable of and interested in civic engagement, then yes, I believe there is potential for true civic engagement in L.A. What are your thoughts?

[1] http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/arts/architecture/la-me-0605-hawthorne-notebook-20150605-story.html

[2] Quote from: Mike Davis, City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles (London: Verso, 1990), 126. For more on the Committee of 25, see: Hillel Aron, “Who Runs Los Angeles? A Search for Today’s Power Brokers,” USC-Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism, accessed August 8, 2013. http://usc.news21.com/hillel-history.html

[3] Hillel Aron, “Who Runs Los Angeles?”   http://usc.news21.com/hillel-story/introduction-home-page