The Great Wall of Los Angeles: a Window into Our Past

Posted by Stephanie Carrillo on July 10, 2014

If you mention the Great Wall, most people automatically think of a brick fortification built in the seventh century that remains symbolic of Chinese culture and history. Did you know, however, that there is a "Great Wall" right here in town? If you have never seen or heard of the Great Wall of Los Angeles, allow me to introduce you to an amazing cultural and artistic wonder of our city - one that could easily be adapted as a teaching tool for your classroom.

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At 2,754 feet (just over half a mile,) the Great Wall of Los Angeles has the distinction of being the longest mural in the world, and in true L.A. style, the story of how the mural came to be is almost as intriguing as the thing itself. In the 1970s and 80s, SPARC (Social and Public Art Resource Center) transformed a neighborhood eyesore into a source of community pride when Artistic Director and SPARC founder Judy Baca accepted the Army Corp of Engineers' offer to lead the "beautification efforts" for a one-mile stretch of the Tujunga Flood Control Channel in the San Fernando Valley. Over the course of five summers, Baca hired more than 400 youths to work on the project. Many of the young people were considered "at risk" or were already part of the juvenile justice system, the majority did not have any artistic experience, and most had not previously held jobs. Undeterred, Baca believed in the youths she hired and in the end those kids not only converted a barren concrete wall into an inspiring work of art, but many also transformed their lives.

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The "Great Wall" is a vibrant and a powerful tribute to the many people who have shaped and defined California history, which is exactly what Judy Baca imagined. On the SPARC website, Baca explains,

"When I first saw the wall, I envisioned a long narrative of another history of California; one which included ethnic peoples, women and minorities who were invisible in conventional text book accounts... Each year our visions expanded as the images traveled down the wall..."

The project brought together youths from different neighborhoods and ethnic backgrounds. Kids who had never encountered one another before viewed each other with skepticism and suspicion, however Baca observed that,

Working towards the achievement of a difficult common goal shifted our understanding of each other and most importantly of ourselves."

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Completing the "Great Wall" was one big project-based learning activity and service project rolled into one, long before these concepts were curricular requirements or educational buzzwords. Local businesses showed the young workers how and why to sandblast, prepare, and seal the massive concrete wall. Kids with no experience in drafting or architecture learned to read blueprints and how to mathematically "transfer" the details of a hand-held sketch into the outlines for each full-sized 350 ft. mural panel. Professional artists instructed the youths in painting technique, principles of highlighting, shading, and tri-color blending. The kids were charged with solving "real world problems" associated with creating the mural such as how to efficiently transport both the work materials and other necessities into the wash each day and how to deal with the ever-changing environment of the flood control channel.

Baca wanted to make sure that the young people understood the artwork they created. Therefore, historians, scholars, ethnologists and community members met with participants throughout the process. In this sprawling city famous for having multiple hubs and enclaves, a little-known stretch of Los Angeles became a place where diverse groups of young people forged their own community, learned about their city and themselves, and created a space to document and preserve the history of many "forgotten people" of California.20140111_144406

Ideally, teachers will read this post and be inspired to take students on a field trip to view the "Great Wall" or visit it themselves. If this seems unlikely or impossible due to time or budget constraints - do not despair! The entire mural can be viewed online right here, section by section! Once you see our city's most impressive mural, I imagine you'll be inspired to use this amazing work of community art in your classroom. Some of the implementation ideas I've come up with include:

  • Artistic Analysis: Use visual analysis strategy and assign small groups to analyze different panels. Each section is so rich with detail and meaning, there's plenty to process and discuss.
  • Historical Research: Have students research and explore names, dates and events depicted on the mural. This activity can be as in-depth as you would like, and the SPARC website itself includes brief explanations for each panel. After researching the topics, ask students how the visuals relate to what they learned, what aspects the artists wants to stress, etc.
  • Writing Activities: Instruct students to write a poem, paragraph, short story, 6-word essay, or other narrative to accompany a particular panel. Ask students to write a journal response about which panel spoke to him or her the most and why.
  • Class project: Ask students, "If we were going to create a 'Great Wall' of our school or our neighborhood, what would/should we include? Who would we need to talk to in order to get the details and textures of the all stories we would need to make it complete?" Students could even design poster-sized panels and display them on campus. Ask students how an art project can transform their own school or neighborhood.
  • Research the Impact of the Great Wall: KCET video clips and testimonials about the Great Wall are available on the website (select "videos" or "testimonials" from the drop down menu), most with the focus on how this project transformed the community and individuals. Students can also research news articles related to the Great Wall over the years. Its a pretty amazing story with plenty of implications for your class.
  • "Finish the Wall": The Great Wall is not complete and planning is currently underway to document California's history for the remaining decades of the 20th century. If your class were to design panels for each decade from the 1960s- 1990s, what would they want to include? Whose stories would be deemed most important to document? How could they tie multiple events in one decade together artistically and thematically?
  • There are additional lesson ideas for the Great Wall available on the SPARC website as well.

Have you been to the Great Wall? Have you or will you share it with students? What other little-known L.A. locations or resources would you recommend to educators?

Topics: Teaching, Los Angeles, Teaching Strategy

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