Must Read: To Discover LA’s Soul, You Have to Know LA’s Past

SPECIAL TO CITYWATCH--Roosevelt High School teacher Brian Gibbs spent 15 years educating Boyle Heights students about their high school's historic structures, from its vast auditorium to its Bauhaus stairway, teaching them that the buildings weren't merely handsome and old, but a "built environment" that served as a "text that tells a story." 

Teaching from 1995 to 2010, Gibbs showed his students the PBS series Chicano!, walked them to the school’s main “Building R” auditorium, and immersed them in the stories of the 1968 Walkouts in which students protested discriminatory conditions in Los Angeles Unified School District high schools. 

For those young minds, Gibbs emphasizes, the school’s main lobby, auditorium, and stairway were elevated to “monuments to be recognized and honored.” 

When the first “official” 1960s walkouts took place on L.A.'s Eastside — at Garfield, Roosevelt, and Lincoln high schools –  school administrators and police officers were thrown for a loop. 

For a minute. 

But then, like mama’s chancla flying at your head porque no lavaste los trastes, Roosevelt’s gates were abruptly locked by the cops, and squad cars wound around the campus in a show of brute force. 

Students were arrested on Mott Street, Principal Thomas C. Dyer urged students to an assembly in the auditorium, and, according to reports, the principal asked the kids to avoid agitating L.A.'s law enforcement. 

The students responded by staging a peaceful sit-in on the stairway directly outside the auditorium. Perhaps poetic, or by mere coincidence, this demonstration of student unity occurred on a stairway designed in the style Bauhaus, a style known for its harmony and founded on the idea of creating space “in which all arts, including architecture, would eventually be brought together.”  

Over the next several days, as the Walkouts continued, incidents of police-on-student violence were reported to the school’s administrators.    

During his time at Roosevelt, Gibbs narrated from the very steps where students sat for educational equality, he recounted the brutal history of police dispersing kids using “violent means,” and he spoke of the lucky ones who got away, darting up the steps, down a hall, cutting through yet another building, finally dribbling onto Mott Street. 

Conflicting reports say that the Brown Berets, a group of Chicano activists known for their activism on issues like police brutality, farmworker rights, and education reform, were either deeply involved or barely involved. Worth noting is a 2015 SurveyLA report that concludes the Brown Berets not only helped organize the 1968 Blowouts but participated in them throughout. 

Another report tells of a Roosevelt alum, Victoria Castro, who from outside the campus, linked her car to a locked gate, and drove away to break it open, freeing a flood of students who’d been trapped inside by the cops. 

Gibbs recounted these stories and more, in the very auditorium and on the Bauhaus stairway where the protests and incidents unfolded. Lessons like this affect students more deeply than a reading assignment, or a pop quiz. Young minds develop more agile critical thinking skills – skills that are increasingly sought-after in the job market. Today, activists are crashing through glass ceilings in the burgeoning Si Se Puede political scene. 

The Education Resources Information Center (ERIC), sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education, affirms “integrative activities encourage students to go beyond the data they have gathered to make comparisons, identify causal connections, draw conclusions, and evaluate alternative courses of action.” 

The National Park Service, in a piece entitled Power of Place, has this to say: 

“Real historic places generate excitement and curiosity about the people who lived there and the events that occurred there,” and continues, “students explore the relationship of their own community’s history to the broader themes that have shaped this country.” 

At Penn State, in a program led by professor Stephanie Serriere, students visit historical sites like the Centre Furnace Mansion, famous for producing more iron in the 19th Century than anywhere in the nation. 

“We do this trip so that our students leave Penn State with a solid understanding of local history,” Serriere says, “especially the relationship of the land to its people, economy, civic life and history. We also do this trip to ignite their thinking about the rich historical resources preserved in the many places that they may teach.” 

Serriere argues she does this so that her students, future educators in many cases, won’t “just look at standards and teach those,” but rather, they can “look at the rich curriculum of life around them and teach standards through that life and community.” 

In October 2017, Boyle Heights residents were surprised to learn of Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD)’s Comprehensive Modernization Project’s single plan to demolish historic-eligible buildings within the Roosevelt High School campus. 

The Committee to Defend Roosevelt/Defendamos a la escuela Roosevelt, a group of stakeholders and Roosevelt alumni immediately began urging LAUSD to adapt and reuse (instead of demolishing) Roosevelt's significant resources as part of the campus-wide modernization effort. The Coalition 2Preserve LA joins them in support of their efforts. 

An LAUSD report released February 2018 defines Roosevelt as being “closely associated with the 1968 Walkouts” and recommends an alternative that retains the “historic district within the campus.” Under this alternative, a sufficient number of structures would be renovated to retain the historic district. 

Another alternative recommends modernizing the rest of the campus while simultaneously conserving and renovating the R Building, the high school's centerpiece classroom structure, stating, “Building R would be retained and renovated. The renovation would consist of seismic, ADA accessibility and life/fire safety upgrades to meet current DSA and LAUSD standards.” 

Yet Building R faces possible demolition because some are convinced if the proposed demolition is modified in any way, the entire project will collapse. They have been led to believe that to redesign the plan is the same as “oh we missed our shot, now we get squat.” 

This is cynical.     

Sherry Arnstein calls it “Manipulation.” In her famous Ladder of Citizen Participation, the celebrated author and citizen-participation expert warns of this form of “non-participation.” Instead of seeking partnership with Boyle Heights residents to include them in the process, LAUSD in October merely informed them of their single demolition concept. This has some residents thinking they can either get this plan, or nothing at all. 

A related red flag is LAUSD’s insufficient community outreach: The report is not available in Spanish.   

If I am releasing a detailed report for a 173 Million dollar school I am building in France, I better be sure to release a readable version in French. Because if I didn’t, that would mean I didn’t want the French to read the report, and what would be the purpose of that wacky idea?    

To be fair, a Spanish summary 1/20th the size of the full report was published 6 days after the English report was released. There are no plans by LAUSD to release the full report in Spanish. Experienced organizers would say this is the opposite of community empowerment. 

The public is encouraged to comment on the report through March 23, 2018. Public comment is critical in the decision-making process, so please submit comments and attend the public meeting listed below. 

LAUSD will host a public meeting on the project on Wednesday, February 21, at 6 p.m., at the Roosevelt High School Cafeteria, 456 S. Mathews Street, Boyle Heights.


(Jorge Castañeda holds an MFA from California Institute of the Arts, was one of the original organizers who brought Nextdoor to Los Angeles, and is producing a documentary on homelessness.)