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Great Wall of Los Angeles gets revamped

Workers restoring the Great Wall of Los Angeles
Workers restoring the Great Wall of Los Angeles
Kevin Ferguson/KPCC

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The Great Wall of Los Angeles in Van Nuys is one of the longest murals in the country. Stretching for over half a mile, the wall tells the most complete history of Los Angeles it can — from ice age fauna all the way to the baby boom. This project began when Judy Baca, once the director of the City of Los Angeles mural program, saw the greater potential in a stark concrete wall.

"This would be a wonderful site in which we could bring all the diverse communities of Los Angeles to one place," Baca said. "We could begin to produce a narrative work that was the collective history of the diverse peoples of Los Angeles," Baca said.

The wall was part of an effort by the Army Corps of Engineers to concrete every existing arroyo in an attempt to control flooding of the L.A. River. When the job was finished, the city was left with expanses of concrete walls; or blank canvases.

Baca said the Corps contacted her in 1976 and the first 1,000 feet of the mural were finished by 10 artists who had the help of 10 students each. The students were from different neighborhoods and had varying ethnic backgrounds, but all of them came from the juvenile justice system.

Their offenses ranged from truancy to attempted murder, but taking on a project of this magnitude created a sense of comradery, Baca said.

"We were able to instill a sense of pride and cooperation between the different youth who had a history of interracial warfare and gang warfare," Baca said.

The mural was created over the course of five summers and Baca got swept up in the process: "It gets to be something beyond your thought and it takes on a synergy that you become part of."

Sections of the mural include depictions of pre-historic California, McCarthyism, Chavez Ravine and the birth of rock and roll.

Last weekend, the 35-year-old mural was restored to its former glory. Carlos Rogel is the project manager for the wall's restoration. He was working on the dedication panel for the artists and volunteers who had contributed to the mural since 2009.

"When I first saw the piece I was very moved by the size of the piece, by the quality of the work," he said. "It was just like this huge task and to think this was done by 400 youth with minimum resources…"

His favorite section is the painting of Albert Einstein holding an atom.

"It's a beautiful representation of what Einstein's contribution to humanity could have been," Rogel said.

Sonya Fe has known Baca for 35 years and contributed in the mural's early stages. Fe was pregnant at the time so instead of painting, she created drawings to be turned into blueprints for the wall's mural. Now, Fe's working on the restoration and is responsible for the "iron horse" section, which depicts a train moving into Native American territory and destroying their way of life.

It wasn't until this year though that Fe saw the mural first-hand. "I was overwhelmed," she said."It's a beautiful mosaic of work."

Fe said her favorite part of the mural was that it shows a side of history that's often overlooked in school or textbooks.

Raul Gonzales from Boyle Heights said he's honored to be a part of the 2011 restoration.

"I've never seen so much history in one wall," he said.