Nostalgia is not history

There are more than a division’s worth of soldiers in Washington to assure a safe, if no longer 100% peaceful, transition of power to Joe Biden. In that context, it is hard to live by Tip O’Neill’s adage and my usual mantra, “all politics is local.” The name of this blog, however, includes “local,” and local politics don’t stop because of what happens in the wider world. I’m reminded of Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2001. The then City Manager, the formidable Susan McCarthy, kept City Hall open, declaring that to shut down the operations of government would be to hand a victory to the terrorists. I remember because I attended a zoning hearing that morning in City Hall to testify for a neighbor who needed a variance.

If Susan McCarthy could keep City Hall operating after 9/11, I’m not going to let a bunch of lunatic putschists in Washington prevent me from writing about why it’s okay to tear down the History Building at Santa Monica High School.

The entrance to the History Building at Samohi.

You may not be aware of the Samohi History Building controversy, because it has played out more in social media and by means of on-line petitions than in the press (although you can read about it here). What’s happening is that the School District is more than five years into the planning of the “Samohi Campus Plan” (SCP), a 25-year project to remake the Santa Monica High School campus, which itself is the product of many years of agonizing about what to do with the high school campus. Construction has begun; however, the SCP is a project with nine phases of construction, and the District is now only about to start Phase 3.

Phase 3 will require the demolition of the History Building, which is one of a cluster of four school buildings constructed or reconstructed as New Deal, WPA projects after the Long Beach Earthquake destroyed the original campus that dated back to 1913. Under the SCP, three of the buildings (History, Business, Art) will ultimately be demolished; a fourth, the English building, will be adapted and reused for administrative offices.

Current layout of the Samohi campus. The New Deal Cluster consists of the English, History, Business and Art Buildings.

Although the plans to demolish the History Building (and the other buildings) have been public knowledge, and well-publicized, since 2016, it is only now that preservationists, organized by the Santa Monica Conservancy, are demanding that the District “pause” the SCP to evaluate adaptive reuse possibilities. This request for a pause, however, is disingenuous, since preserving the three New Deal buildings, all of which had their historic integrity compromised by later renovations, would gut the SCP. The fundamental principle of the SCP is to realign the academic buildings around open space, to better connect the campus. This would be impossible if the New Deal buildings are retained. Saving them would require creating an entirely new plan, and I have to assume the preservationists know this. Here’s the landscaping plan for the new campus.

The yellow buildings will be constructed. (Note that one existing building, the Innovation Building in the northeast corner, is in fact new, having been constructed in 2105.) (This map is from the EIR; I’ve been informed that since the EIR changes have been made, but that they do not change the functioning materially.)

Ironically, the new plan, in its use of connecting open space, harks back to the original plan of the high school, when the academic buildings were concentrated around open space. Here’s a photo of the campus from 1925:

It was not easy for me to decide to oppose the Conservancy on the fate of the New Deal buildings. The Conservancy is one of my favorite organizations in town. I’ve long been a member. I was pleased to work with preservationists in the effort, probably futile now, to save the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium. And speaking of favorite things, one of mine is the New Deal.

But the New Deal was not about buildings as buildings, it was about a vision of the future, a future structured by public investment in buildings, etc., that served the public. Sometimes the history of a place is more important than the preservation of artifacts. The real history of the Santa Monica High School campus—as opposed to the nostalgia—is a history of continual reinvestment, renewal, and rethinking. The buildings themselves (and without regard to intervening modifications) are not the history; they merely reflect the history.

Santa Monica voters passed a major bond issue in 1911 to build a new and bigger campus for the high school on Prospect Hill. The campus opened in 1913. As mentioned, the campus was destroyed by the 1933 Long Beach earthquake, and reconstructed with WPA funds. Then after World War II, to accommodate the Baby Boom generation, more bonds were passed, the campus was doubled in size (with land taken by eminent domain from African American and other historical “minorities,” but that’s another story), and most of the current campus was built. (That’s when the WPA buildings were remodeled. Fortunately no one is protesting the coming demolition of the 1960-era buildings.)

The Santa Monica community has always supported its schools with bonds. That’s the history: Santa Monicans want the best educations for their children and they’re willing to pay.

In the ’90s, when it was apparent that the facilities built generations before were wearing out, voters began passing bond issues to rebuild. Most of the bond money has gone to rehabilitating existing schools, and that’s largely been a good thing for the elementary schools, but the question of what to do with the high school was always there. It was recognized that much of the physical plant was impractical for current modes of instruction, and the campus was hard to get around, especially for students between classes. (My son went there, and he’s my source.) The buildings and grounds were in generally poor condition. For a time, there was talk of using the City’s redevelopment funds to help with some of the rebuilding, but that plan fell apart.

The School District decided some years ago to go bold, and that boldness resulted in the SCP. Most of the existing buildings will be torn down, and a spectacular new campus will take their place. Bravo. Look, I don’t pretend to know anything about the best way to teach adolescents in the 21st century, but if you study the SCP (you can read about it in the Environmental Impact Report), you have to be impressed with how much thought the District has put into the plan.

The purpose of the School District is to educate, not to preserve buildings if they no longer serve that purpose. Frankly, it’s outrageous for the Conservancy, especially since it’s been four years after the plans to demolish the buildings were publicized, to now tell the School Board to throw out its plans for the high school.

Thanks for reading. And all the best to Joe and Kamala! Let’s help them save our country.

Cosmic mysteries: the speed of light and young people

I am not sure why I took a little vacation from this blog, but it’s been almost three weeks since I last posted. It’s not that I haven’t been paying attention to things local, but I’ve found it hard to focus. For at least the first week or so of this malaise or funk, I’m going to blame the new version of Cosmos, the television series hosted by Neil Degrasse Tyson about the universe. The show is, to put it in scientific terms, blowing my mind.

I don’t have much physics or mathematical background, but I’m okay with concepts like antigravity. A few weeks ago astronomers released evidence supporting the “inflation” theory of the first moments after the Big Bang, when the universe expanded from a tiny speck to the size of a grapefruit (or a basketball – news reports were unclear about that), and I took it in stride, as in “sure, why not?”

But what got me was something that Tyson spoke about in one of the Cosmos programs, something he said almost in passing, namely that the speed of light was constant. I knew that light always traveled at 186,000 miles per second, but I never focused on a fact Tyson emphasized that always means always as in no time for acceleration. You turn on the light and the photons are immediately traveling at 186,000 miles per second.

Zero to 186,000 in zero seconds.

That threw me. I must have spent a week confused and I’m still perplexed. I mean, gravity — action at a distance – is crazy, but one has to accept it. It’s the law, right? But this no need for light to get up to speed seems like something that should defy the laws of . . . physics?

Maybe we are just stimulated neurons, like in The Matrix.

By the time I could focus once again on Santa Monica, the biggest story here was the controversy over science teacher and wrestling coach Mark Black and his takedown of a student in his classroom. That happened almost two weeks ago. At various times I was going to write about the incident and what it might mean, but then I’d think: since everyone is criticizing everyone else, particularly Superintendent Sandra Lyon, for commenting on what happened before knowing what happened, maybe this was a good time for me to do what everyone was saying to do and wait until I knew something.

Which is what I was going to do until I happened to read an editorial in the New York Times about “superpredators.” Remember them? About 20 years ago some criminologists and political scientists predicted that a tsunami of violent youths was about to wash over America. It goes without saying that these young monsters were assumed to be black and urban, thus tying into the three great traditional American loci for fear – young people, black people, and cities. (In one book promoting the theory, the authors wrote that the core problem was “that most inner-city children grow up surrounded by teenagers and adults who are themselves deviant, delinquent or criminal.” You have to forgive them, though: this was before “Breaking Bad.”)

It turned out that, beginning almost simultaneously with the promotion of the superpredator theory, the number of crimes committed by teenagers drastically declined and has continued to decline. The superpredator scare was one in an ongoing series of scares. You don’t have to sing “Gee, Officer Krupke,” or watch The Blackboard Jungle to know that when people say that kids today are rotten and schools are too lenient, they’re carrying on a tradition.

If anything, some of the problems we have today in schools are because schools are better. It used to be that troublesome kids were thrown out of school or dropped out after its being made clear to them that they were not welcome. Now we try to get them all to graduation, because there aren’t jobs for them in factories any more. It’s hard work, and yes, we should treat teachers and school administrators as heroes instead of blaming them for social problems that exist outside of school.

What was in the NYT editorial, however, that truly got my attention was a quote from a Supreme Court case about sentencing standards for juveniles. One result of the superpredator scare was that states passed laws that made it easier to try and punish juveniles as adults. Since 2005, however, the Supreme Court has been ruling that young people are “constitutionally different” from adults.

I never thought I’d look to nine black-robed lawyers for wisdom when it comes to understanding kids, but in a 2012 case (Miller vs. Alabama), the Court described the “hallmark features” of being young to include “immaturity, impetuosity, and failure to appreciate risks and consequences.” The Court has ruled that young people should not be sentenced the same as adults because – get this – young people can actually grow up. Sounds right to me.

Many Santa Monicans have rightfully rallied to the defense of Mr. Black, both because of his personal reputation and because they want to defend beleaguered teachers, and many of these Santa Monicans, and others, have rightfully rallied to the defense of Superintendent Lyon, also because of her personal reputation and because school administrators are beleaguered, too. But there’s been a lot of understanding for the students involved, too.

I like what School Board member Oscar de la Torre said at the rally for Mr. Black on Sunday, as reported in The Lookout. Speaking of Blair Moore, the Samohi senior now facing misdemeanor charges arising from the confrontation, De la Torre said, “[w]e’re a community that believes in redemption and young people make mistakes. While this young man might not be allowed to return to Samohi, he does deserve a second chance to be a part of our community in good standing.”

Thanks for reading.