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Lifting Up the Pico Union Project as a Model for the Repurposing of Religious Buildings

Laurie Gross

Craig Taubman

Built in 1909 as the original location of Sinai Temple, the Pico Union Project is the oldest synagogue building in Los Angeles. When the Sinai community moved to Beverly Hills, the building became home to a Welsh Presbyterian congregation. By 2012, after lovingly maintaining the building for 88 years, the shrinking congregation approached the Jewish Historical Society of Southern California to return the building to the Jewish community. The Jewish Historical Society turned to prominent Jewish musician Craig Taubman, who together with his wife Louise, purchased the building as a home for the Pico Union Project.

“The Pico Union neighborhood is within the original boundary of El Pueblo de Los Angeles, founded in 1781. Originally a fashionable suburb known as the Westlake District, the area has been home to multiple immigrant communities throughout its history. Pico Union is now home to people hailing mainly from Central America, Mexico, Cuba, and Korea. The Pico Union Project is honored to be a partner in preserving and advancing this notable and important community in our city.” Learn more about the Pico Union Project here.

After serving for two years on the AIA Interfaith Design Knowledge Community and participating in discussions regarding the repurposing of religious buildings, I wanted to share this story and lift up the Pico Union Project (PUP) as a model for others considering the use of religious buildings for community benefit. I, therefore, went to my friend and co-founder of the Pico Union Project, Craig Taubman, and asked him some questions. I hope his answers will inspire others to imagine how a similar program might work in their own communities. And of course, if you ask questions of a singer/songwriter, you would expect the interview to end with the words of a song.

Craig, as we come up on the tenth anniversary of the founding of the Pico Union Project, tell us how your vision for the space has changed from when you initially purchased the property to how it is being used today?

In 2013 my wife Louise and I purchased the building with the vision of creating a Downtown Arts Venue that would host world-class musicians and performers. My daughter suggested that before moving forward, it might be wise to ask the local community about their needs. Six months later the community had spoken, expressing the critical need for housing, jobs, food, health care, and a safe place to gather. We quickly understood that if the building was to be part of the community, it would need to reflect the people and neighborhood. The vision of a music club was replaced with the seeds of the non-profit Pico Union Project, dedicated to building a community that feeds the mind, body, and soul.

So how did this come about? Who were the important team members that made it all happen?

I feel there was a perfect storm of grace that willed the Pico Union Project into being. It began with my friend Steve Sass, founder of the Jewish Historic Society who thought I would make a good steward of the space. He introduced me to the Elders of the Welsh Presbyterian Church who wanted to return the building to the Jewish Community. For the Welsh congregation, it was more than a building; it was their home for 88 years and they wanted to make sure it would continue to be celebrated as Holy Ground. 

My in-laws Charlotte and Eli Brent, of blessed memory, gave us a small loan which was helpful. They also gave unlimited encouragement, an invaluable gift. 

Jill Soloway promised to film and showcase the space in her series, Transparent, when it was picked up by Amazon. The building was prominently featured whenever they needed a synagogue, office, or Mikvah. Being used as a location for a film is very lucrative. Then of course there were the FOCers, the “Friends of Craig,” who made contributions not because of our wonderful work, but because that’s what friends do for one another. And at the center was Louise, who knew where to create boundaries and informed decisions.

Following your daughter’s advice, who in the community did you approach about the neighborhood’s needs? What types of community leaders did you meet with? 

A very critical person I met early on was Ed Reyes. He was considered one of the old-time leaders of the City of Los Angeles. When we met, he was about to term out and retire as a member of the Los Angeles City Council. He was wise, a great listener, and perhaps most importantly we bonded over the fact that we both had daughters beginning their studies to become social workers. He introduced me to two members of his staff who then introduced me to dozens of people in the community, at intimate lunches, coffees, and large meet and greets. 

Another respected politician, Hilda Solis, also expressed early interest in the PUP. Hilda was chair of the County Board of Supervisors and also served as the former Secretary of Labor under President Obama. Her involvement gave the PUP instant credibility as well as invaluable spiritual and financial support. In 2021 Hilda appointed me a Los County Commissioner.

When you initially took over the space, were there any structural changes that you had to make in order to accommodate the current needs of the neighboring community? What ways do you harness the religious history and purpose of the building as you meet those needs?

A wise friend suggested we focus our work on improving the aesthetics of the building. Graffiti removal, painting and landscaping would show the community we planned on being good partners. 

We soon understood that the space was far more than a building, it was Holy Ground. You see it in the radiant light shining through the original 1909 windows, you smell it emanating from the wood floors, and you feel it surround you as a sacred space that has been home to generations of faith groups and immigrant communities.

How does your religious faith inform the work that you do here? 

My identity as a Jew runs through my veins. It is the essence of who I am and who my family has been for generations. My faith comes from my Jewish soul and encourages me to see things, not as they were, but how they could be. 

This was reinforced by Rabbi Harold Schulweis, of blessed memory, who taught me about the notion of “ought.” Not what is a Jew, but rather what ought a Jew be? Think “ought” and we change how we interact with the world. 

Our tradition asks how we ought to love our neighbor. Love your neighbor as you wish to be loved. We take this Jewish principle seriously, recognizing you cannot love your neighbor if you do not know your neighbor. It was with this idea in mind that we embarked on this project. 

Clearly this religious teaching is the cornerstone of your work here. Knowing that the PUP is now home to different faith traditions, can you talk about the role religion plays in the PUP’s programming? 

Currently, there are three faith groups that meet at the PUP: two churches and a Jewish community. We also host gatherings of the LA based non-profit, New Ground: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change. From time to time, we meet and share holy days as a larger community. More often, we meet to do the work of Tikkun Olam — repairing the world. We do this work through food distributions, planting, beautifying our environment, and community building. 

How has the mission of the Pico Union Project changed or adapted to fit the community’s needs over the years?

Our mission has evolved from being a multi-faith prayer space to being a community space. Early on there were six faith communities that used the space twice weekly. Frankly, it looked a lot better on paper than it was in action. The faith groups were essentially renters using the space with little interaction with one another or the community. Over time, we hosted fewer faith communities and asked for more engaged participation in our community-building initiatives and our mission. We currently partner with three faith groups. In addition to paying monthly rent, each group is required to contribute a minimum of twenty volunteer hours per week to our community initiatives. 

Our current mission statement states: “The Pico Union Project is a vibrant cultural center that builds community health, resilience, and neighborhood revitalization in the Pico-Union area of Los Angeles. We strive to be a source of light and equity for all, providing the community with access to fresh nutritious food, healthcare services, creativity classes, and opportunities for meaningful paid work.” 

Which of PUP’s initiatives are you most proud of or would like to see more of? 

I am most proud and passionate about the hundreds of trees we have planted throughout the community. These trees are living legacies, and will, G-d willing, provide shelter, comfort, and inspiration for generations to come. 

In your mission statement, it says that you provide access to “opportunities for meaningful paid work.” Please elaborate.

The Pico Union district is 85% immigrants from Central America, and the majority live well below the poverty line. 

To battle this systemic problem, we created a workforce development program that provides community members with employment. Jobs create self-worth and are the pathway to health, housing, security, and a brighter tomorrow. 

We currently have five full-time employees and fifteen part-time employees from the community. We have also used our community contacts, who provide more than a dozen Pico-Union residents with work at their businesses. As with all of our initiatives, we strive to provide a hand up, not a handout. 

You’re also involved in a program that finds mentors for the community’s youth. Can you tell us a little more about how you’re helping to break the cycle of poverty through positive reinforcement? I loved the video on your website that talks about finding the solution ahead of the problem.

Pup Partners, is a mentoring program for 11th graders. The school they attend has a goal of 100% college attendance, which for our community is unheard of. To help them achieve this, we connect young people, with mentors who ideally share their interests. For the past two years, meetings have been over zoom, and, beginning in the fall, our meetings will be in person which we feel will greatly add to the program’s success. 

With so many important community based outreach programs, where does your funding come from in order to keep the project sustainable?

For the first year or so, the funding for the Pico Union Project came from private donations. After a few years, foundations started to show interest in aspects of our mission, but it was complicated. Many Jewish funders felt we were not Jewish enough, and secular foundations worried we were too Jewish. By the third year, nearly 80% of our budget came from earned revenue in the form of rentals to faith groups, performing artists, weddings, quinceañeras, and bar mitzvahs.  

Everything changed in the spring of 2020 when the world and the PUP abruptly shut down due to the COVID pandemic. Losing 100% of our rental income was challenging but nothing compared to the devastation in the Pico Union neighborhood, which experienced the second highest number of COVID-19 cases and related deaths of any neighborhood in Los Angeles County. 

The spread of the virus was largely attributed to cramped living conditions, some of the most unsafe in the county. With many undocumented and unemployed individuals in the community, the challenges are made even more complicated.

Beginning in March 2020, the Pico Union Project began to focus 100% of our efforts on ensuring every adult, child, and family had access to healthy food, COVID vaccines, and the PPE needed to stay healthy. At the height of the pandemic, we were serving over 2,000 neighborhood families and early on hired up to 20 members of our community to assist in our efforts. We have amazing partners in Seeds of Hope, the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles’ food justice ministry, as well as Food Forward. These two groups are key to our success in providing healthy food to our community.

Our policy, “to love our neighbors as we would wish to be loved” has informed everything we do. Our commitment has been to welcome everyone to “take what they need and give what they can.” 

What is your hope for the PUP in five years?

My hope is that the PUP will be a reflection of whomever takes over the reins from us in a few years, holding onto the core values that have sustained and guided us since our inception.

What recommendations would you make to someone looking to create a similar interfaith community in their hometown? 

Lead with your gut. Ignore the nay-sayers. Find others, both individuals and institutions, inspired by your goals and vision, who will take on leadership roles to help implement and put into action your program.

Various communities, seeking insight into how we created the Pico Union Project, have approached us. It reinforces my conviction that the Pico Union Project model can be scaled in congregations all over America. Churches and synagogues are folding every week due to the increasingly non-religious population. The Pico Union model, of faith communities sharing space, is not new – the current zeitgeist has simply made the model more attractive and viable. Faith spaces can attract multiple faith communities and take the lead in building bridges. Instead of creating walls that divide, they can become inclusive spaces that reflect the diverse needs of a community. 

What are your final thoughts as we end this interview?

I hold onto the words of the poet, Aver Kovner, who moved from Poland to Palestine in the 1930’s:

“You should remember your past, live for today, and trust in your future.”

These words continue to inspire me today as they have since I first encountered them when living in Israel in the 1970s. The words of the poet inspired a song I wrote and recorded for Disney in the 80’s 

If you always say tomorrow 

Tomorrow never comes

If you only dream of yesterday

Todays are never fun

Half the joy of getting there

Happens on the way

The other half is living life

From day to day

These three things you must learn

And these three things you must do. 

remember your past, live for today, 

And always trust in your future.

Thank you, Craig, I hope others find inspiration in your work. A special thank you to Olivia Mohler-Masclet for her contributions and editing of this article.

Laurie Gross is an internationally recognized artist, focused on work for the ritual space of religious buildings. Ten of the Laurie Gross Studio projects have received international awards from the American Institute of Architects, The Interfaith Forum on Religion, Art and Architecture (now known as Interfaith Design), and Faith & Form in the areas of religious and ceremonial art. See her work here.

Recommended Citation

Gross, Laurie. “Lifting up the Pico Union Project as a Model for the Repurposing of Religious Buildings.” Canopy Forum, May 5, 2023. https://canopyforum.org/2023/05/05/lifting-up-the-pico-union-project-as-a-model-for-the-repurposing-of-religious-buildings/.