Occidental College's "Re-Envisioning" of the Los Angeles River Nets National Award
Occidental College’s “Re-Envisioning the Los Angeles River” project has brought top honors to the California Council for the Humanities (CCH), which funded the project as part of its recent three-year Community Heritage initiative.
CCH was awarded the distinguished Schwartz Prize on November 3 during the National Humanities Conference in Indianapolis. The prize, given by the Federation, is one of two awards for excellence in public programming awarded annually in the United States and its territories.
“The project was a stellar example of how cultural programming can create increased understanding and dynamic changes within communities,” said CCH Executive Director Jim Quay. “CCH, which in 1999 gave a $48,000 grant to Occidental’s Urban and Environmental Policy Institute, nominated the L.A. River project for the honor because it enabled Californians to hear, see, feel and think through the realities of other people, times and places.”
The project spurred public exploration into the past, present and future of the often-derided and long-ignored 53-mile waterway. Occidental, together with Friends of the Los Angeles River and more than four dozen co-sponsors, hosted 40 public humanities programs that explored the history, literature, linguistic and cultural geography related to the L.A. River and its place in Los Angeles. The river runs past 14 cities and through working-class communities of largely Asian American, African American and Latino residents.
"I am delighted that our work has won such a prestigious award," said Robert Gottlieb, Henry R. Luce Professor of Urban Environmental Studies. "This underlines the value of our effort to produce new ways of looking at critical community and environmental issues and the importance of building a wide range of community and campus partnerships."
“This reaffirms the value of our efforts to use the humanities in a public way to strengthen communities,” added Quay. “The competition for the Schwartz prize is always keen, and it’s a real honor to be recognized.” The CCH is the only organization in California that creates, sponsors and promotes humanities programs for the general public in every region of the state. Since its formation in 1975, the non-profit CCH has sponsored programs that seek to enrich California’s cultural life and strengthen its communities by promoting the public's involvement in the humanities. Some of these programs have included museum exhibits, public forums, live performance and award-winning films. Additional information on the California Council for the Humanities and its programs may be found at www.calhum.org.
In “re-envisioning” projects that lasted through fall 2000, Occidental and its co-sponsors used traditional and innovative formats to engage the public in the humanities. There were walks, bike rides and historical and public policy discussions concerning such issues as the proposed Cornfield warehouse development adjacent to Chinatown. The ensuing media attention and political debate helped facilitate an “alternative greening” – and community-oriented – plan to be developed for one of the last open spaces in downtown Los Angeles.
The re-envisioning project also commissioned river-related poetry, sponsored art installations, and produced a film documentary based on how Hollywood films have used the L.A. River for landscape and thematic purposes. The final project report is posted at www.lariver.oxy.edu/publications/index.htm#finalreport. A second phase of the Re-Envisioning the L.A. River program has now been launched, focusing on the Arroyo Seco corridor between Pasadena and downtown Los Angeles. Similar to the re-envisioning program, this project, entitled “Arroyofest,” will also bring together community, government, business, and academic partners to identify a new vision of the Arroyo and its transportation, watershed, and community issues.
A statement issued by a panel of Schwartz Prize judges said the Occidental/CCH Re-Envisioning the L.A. River project was singled out because of its “genuine policy impact, its nontraditional use of humanities formats and ideas, and its involvement of a large and varied group of participants.”
The statement continued: “The judges were deeply affected by the way the project was able to incorporate the humanities into the discourse about a divisive public policy issue, with the results (being) that public officials, private citizens, developers, the media, environmental activists and residents of frequently unheard and overlooked communities were able to see and talk about the issues in a new way.”
The Schwartz Prize is made possible by former Federation of State Humanities Councils board member Martin Schwartz and his wife, Helen. The couple established an endowment fund in 1981.