Common Ground Project | Aug. 30, 2011 | Spotlight

Reading L.A.:
CSULA’s Honors students find ‘Common Ground’ in Los Angeles

‘Hill Street Historians’ to present collaborative projects on the Ambassador Hotel, more

Sharing about the community history project:

Pictured: George Castillo, Margaret Burk and Michelle Lopez.
CSULA’s Honors student George Castillo and sociology major Michelle Lopez join former Ambassador Hotel Public Relations Director Margaret Burk to visit the site of the legendary Ambassador Hotel, which is now the Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools Complex.

Collecting more than 100 articles, gathering 70 historic images on postcards, administering neighborhood surveys and conducting oral history interviews, a group of Honors students at Cal State L.A. is getting a glimpse into the diverse history of Los Angeles.

These Honors students—part of a group that call themselves the “Hill Street Historians”—have been working on “Common Ground: the Histories of the Ambassador Hotel’s Neighborhood” and other community history projects, in collaboration with The Studio for Southern California History (The Studio).

The Ambassador Hotel has been recognized by many as “an icon of Los Angeles,” from its opening in 1921, until its demolition in 2006 to make way for the Robert F. Kennedy (RFK) Community Schools Complex.

According to Sharon Sekhon, executive director of The Studio, “While the Ambassador Hotel may rightfully hold a place in historical memory for various political and cultural events, the history of its neighborhood provides an even more pluralistic vision of Los Angeles’ history.”

“Over the course of the summer, we’ve managed to collect interviews from several members of the community,” explained CSULA’s anthropology major and “Hill Street Historian” George Castillo. “Some are CSULA faculty members like Dr. David Olsen, and others have been writers like Tomas Benitez. We even got to interview Shelly Morrison, who played Rosario Salazar on Will and Grace, and to meet Margaret Burk, who was the last public relations director at the Ambassador Hotel. Burk hosted a variety of events from weddings, birthdays and parties for the rich and famous, and chronicled many interesting stories in her book, Are the Stars Out Tonight.”

Castillo added, “That’s what makes the Common Ground Project important. We’re trying our best to remind others about the importance of a certain location. A building itself may be beautiful, but what happened inside it is usually what is breathtaking. The Ambassador Hotel is just one of those locations.”

Picture of Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools library interior.
A mural of the late U.S. Senator Robert F. Kennedy adorns the inside of the RFK Schools main library.

For the past year, Castillo and fellow Honors students Marie Eleanore Cabal, Michael Mattice, and Jonathan Tran were enrolled in CSULA courses connected around the theme of “Reading Los Angeles.” These classes focused on the cultural and political history and life of the city, and emphasized the importance of community history projects.

For example, Professor Olsen’s Communications 176 class taught the students how to debate and speak in public while also familiarizing them with the Ambassador Hotel. For a class project, the students debated about the decision to demolish the Ambassador Hotel to create the RFK Schools.

In Liberal Studies 234, taught by Professor Alejandra Marchevsky, the students visited the RFK Schools and taught a high school class the importance of studying history and the guidelines of conducting oral history interviews.

An Art major, Cabal said, “Professor Marchevsky’s class helped a lot of us get in touch with our community through assignments that involved interacting with students at the New Open World Academy in the new RFK Schools as well as learning more about the areas in Los Angeles through articles and novels.”

The Honors students also visited the neighborhood and surveyed some of the residents to better understand the community surrounding the RFK Schools, as part of the Urban Analysis 180 class taught by Professor Michael Willard.

Picture of RFK Schools Complex taken during opening day, Sept. 10, 2010. (source:
Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools Complex.

By applying the skills they learned this past year in their summer work with The Studio, the students were able to branch out to include The Pioneer Project: Histories of Artesia and the West Los Angeles Veterans Project.

Michelle Hawley, interim director of the Honors College at CSULA, said, “These commmunity-engagement courses were implemented as part of a pilot program for the Honors College, to be officially launched this fall. During the summer, the Honors students have been learning about history and understanding its importance as it is always being changed, created, written, and re-written.”

“Working both on the Common Ground Project and with The Studio has enriched my connection with Los Angeles in more ways than one,” said Cabal. “Thanks to The Studio, I have come to appreciate Los Angeles history as much as art. I hope to continue to work on the project and that others will gain the same appreciation for the history of their beloved city.”

Michelle Lopez, a sociology major at CSULA, has also been enlightened by the history of the hotel and its signifance to Los Angeles through working with The Studio. She said, “I got involved with the Common Ground Project by interning at The Studio for Southern California History and it’s amazing how much the school resembles the Ambassador Hotel.” She noted that the Ambassador Hotel should have been preserved.

A formal presentation of the students’ summer work—entitled “Love is Living Large in Los Angeles”—will take place on Saturday, Sept. 3, from 7 to 10 p.m., at The Studio, located at 977 North Hill Street in Los Angeles. There will be an exhibit dedicated to individuals who “lived large” in Los Angeles by a life actively engaged toward building a better good. Also, on Saturday, Sept. 17, The Studio will be hosting a walking tour of the RFK Schools surrounding neighborhood, guided by the “Hill Street Historians.”

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