The Los Angeles Cultural Heritage Commission voted unanimously Thursday to consider adding the Watts Happening Cultural Center to the Historic-Cultural Monument list.
Watts residents — including Rita Cofield, who prepared the center’s Historic-Cultural Monument application — are trying to get monument status for the building that once housed the Mafundi Institute, a hub for Black artists and writers, in an effort to protect it from demolition after the city, which owns the building, sought development proposals between July and October 2020.
Watts Happening currently houses the Los Angeles Education Corps and the Black-owned Watts Coffee House restaurant that has been in operation in different locations since 1965.
“I think this is an easy one to take under consideration,” commission President Richard Barron said in support.
The vote to consider the building for the monument list comes just over a week after the Los Angeles Department of City Planning and the Getty Conservation Institute announced its new Los Angeles African American Historic Places project.
Over the next three years, the city will work to identify buildings that represent and celebrate African American experiences in Los Angeles to be added to the Historic-Cultural Monument list.
Of the roughly 1,200 monuments on the list, 40 of them, only 3%, are linked to Black heritage, according to the commission.
“The project will also include work that will help us rethink and potentially expand what we call the preservation toolkit and that will include examining how some of our current historic preservation practices or processes may be reinforcing systemic racism,” said Principal City Planner Ken Bernstein.
“We’ll be working to bring new and improved processes to promote diversity and inclusion in our historic preservation practices.”
Watts Happening’s Late Modern building, which stands on the north side of East 103rd Street between Wilmington Avenue and Beach Street, was built in 1969 and designed by Black architects Robert Kennard and Arthur Silvers.
Originally a home for the Black cultural academy the Mafundi Institute, it was a hub for Black artists, writers, musicians, filmmakers and poets, according to L.A. Conservancy, which voiced its support for the building’s consideration as a Historic-Cultural Monument.
Friends At Mafundi — a coalition that seeks to sustain the history, culture and tradition of Watts — submitted the application for Watts Happening to be added to the monument list.
They describe the Mafundi Institute as “a Black-owned cultural facility that promoted community self-interest, Black empowerment and recapturing African aesthetics.”
The Mafundi Institute dissolved in 1975, but the coalition says the cultural center “remains a beacon of community resilience.”
The building has also been used by community organizations, like the Watts Prophets and the Watts Village Theatre Company, and the parking lot has been used by Homeless Free America as a temporary safe space for people experiencing homelessness.
“It would be a huge injustice to the Watts community and the city of L.A. for a site of significant importance to Black culture, arts and history to be demolished and raised. So we’re asking the commission to support the nomination of the Mafundi Building for designation as a Historic-Cultural Monument,” a woman, who described herself as a life-long resident of Watts, told the commission before the vote.
Another native Watts resident said, “Without fine art, there would be no fine minds, and the Mafundi Building is fertile ground on sacred soil. It has literally saved my life.”