Most folks are unaware that historic preservation even exists. They think landmarks became icons over a period of time just by getting older and beloved. They don’t understand that there’s an actual government regulatory body, system and guide for how to treat these places. That there are people who dedicate their lives to recording, addressing and legalizing those buildings, houses, murals, statues and more.
But Katie Rispoli is here to change that with her nonprofit, We Are the Next. At just 25 years old, Rispoli is responsible for moving a 107-year-old railroad depot, the original Taco Bell, helping an iconic Long Beach cafe shine again—and she’s not done yet. We Are the Next aims to remove the museum environment of historical preservation and build a connection between urban youth and historic places that emphasize the yesterday to tell the stories of diverse communities and promote career opportunities for youth in the field of heritage conservation.
The Northern California native is a graduate of the University of California's School of Architecture—specifically, its master's program in heritage conservation, the only one of its kind in California. “I loved the program and I really went head strong into it," she said. "I went to every single event, every tour, every meet-and-greet, anything that was going on with the school of architecture or the historic preservation program…And that paid off really big for We Are The Next, because I founded the organization between my first and second year of grad school, so by the time I was even thinking of starting it, I had good enough relationships with those people.”
Always enamored with the idea of wanting to run a nonprofit, Rispoli began meeting with people of the conservation community and asking them what they felt was and wasn’t working in preservation. “The biggest thing that people kept saying was we need more young people,” she says, “I did outreach and some research and I realized that there was no organization in all of Southern California that has a solid program for getting youth into preservation. Those are the people that are going to populate the next generation of professionals and if we're always saying we need more young people, then we need to be creating an interest in young people otherwise it’s not going to happen.”
“Katie has always been someone with a ton of energy and a drive to get the word out about heritage conservation and the benefits of conservation, says Trudi Sandmeier, USC's Director of Graduate Programs in Heritage Conservation. "She identified a niche that she could really help promote conservation to the next generation.”
With 18-24 year-olds being least likely to visit a historic site, Rispoli advocates normalizing and personalizing heritage. "We do that by doing construction management projects on historic resources that matter to the communities so they continue to exist and we can demonstrate that there a good investment,” she said. Her organization compliments those projects by doing educational programing for middle school, high school and college students who are deprived of exposure to historic sites in Los Angeles County. This way, they can feel invested in projects and develop a story that they will always think back on.
Take the Hot Cha Cafe. The Long Beach cafe shaped like a coffee pot sat with exposed metal four blocks aways from the ocean for 83 years. “Never has 700 square feet given me so much trouble and kept me up so late,” she said. “It was in really bad shape, so we measured it, documented it and recreated the coffee pot exactly to the nearest millimeter with Salvage Division.”
Her team sought the help of Beveldine Stained Glass in Stanton to make the leaded glass windows above the entrance along with the custom ball on the rooftop. “Whoever owned that building originally was very eccentric," Rispoli said. "It’s amazing that we’ve been able to bring back almost all of the quirky features. It was an insane project in a tiny space that took awhile but it came out very well and I’m really proud of seeing the reactions in the community and hearing how excited everyone is about it.”
But Rispoli's most famous project was the salvaging of the original Taco Bell in Downey. The Bell hired her as the construction manager to move the faux-adobe building to its Irvine headquarters. She hired Historic Building Services, Inc. (which has done a lot of the restoration and renovation work on some of the old movie palaces in Downtown L.A.) to get it ready for the big move, and Brandt House and Building Movers, one of just two companies left in California who do such grandiose work. "They moved the entire building in 72 hours [which you can watch here)]," she said. "It was unbelievable, and they did this with two guys."
Rispoli is building a culture of stewardship around these historic sites, providing avenues for people to invest in the places considered to be symbolic of them and their community. "We do projects that people of all different backgrounds and communities feel like they have a stake in, and that is the most important thing because if you trying to build the next generation of people who care about these properties, you need to build communities that value them to begin with.”