Skip to main content

USC Students Help City Heights With Cultural District Designation

University of Southern California graduate students from the Sol Price School...

Photo by Priya Sridhar

Above: University of Southern California graduate students from the Sol Price School of Public Policy present their conclusions of which areas of City Heights would be most promising to be awarded a California Cultural Arts designation at the Price Building on April 19, 2019

Students from the University of Southern California's Sol Price School of Public Policy have been working in City Heights since January to see if the community can be awarded a California Cultural District certification.

"Our primary interest is from an economic development perspective for branding and recognition," said Erik Tilkemeir from the City Heights Community Development Corporation.

Local leaders from the Community Development Corporation, the AjA project, and the Local Initiatives Support Coalition of San Diego formed a coalition to determine how to go about applying for a certification from the California Arts Council.

"Additionally we're really interested in the preservation elements that could be leveraged from that so we could preserve our culture and avoid the common issue of displacement of arts and culture as areas grow and become more affluent," Tilkemeir said.

A cultural district certification would give a district branding materials, official state certification and $5,000 a year for a period of five years. The California Arts Council says it wants districts to play a conscious role in tackling issues of artist displacement.

There has only been one cycle of designations given in 2017. That year, 14 districts in urban, suburban and rural areas across California were awarded the certification including three in San Diego: Balboa Park, Oceanside and Barrio Logan.

RELATED: How City Heights Is Trying To Protect Its Multicultural Roots

USC masters students studied four possible areas that might be worthy of a cultural designation.

"Because the California cultural district has to be walkable, we identified four different nexuses within City Heights that could provide that space," said Leann Kelch, a USC graduate student.

"So they're short, less than a mile, five-minute districts that we could say visitors could come and they could walk from one end to the other and experience City Heights within this space. But then hopefully that district could be leveraged to benefit the entire community at large."

The students studied each area's walkability and street landscapes and "community assets" like schools, religious organizations, restaurants and retailers. Ultimately, they found that Little Saigon had the most potential to be awarded a designation right now. But they also felt that it might be worth it for City Heights to wait to apply for the designation.

"So we feel like it's a little premature to pursue this cultural district designation especially when there are all these infrastructure improvements that need to be made," said Kristian Castro, a USC graduate student. "Things that improve walkability like street lighting or sidewalk improvements, things like that, even public art. So there are a lot of things that we wanted to suggest for City Heights."

City Heights leaders say they haven't decided what to do with the recommendations. They do think going through the application process could be valuable, even if they aren't awarded the designation this year.

"It was very informative, really nice to have an outside perspective of somebody else looking in. We're all a little too entrenched and we think we're a perfect candidate, but it's interesting to hear the perspective of an outside point of view," Tilkemeir said.

Want more KPBS news?
Find us on Twitter and Facebook, or sign up for our newsletters.

To view PDF documents, Download Acrobat Reader.