The Poor People’s Campaign Comes to LA

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Last month the Poor People’s Campaign came to LA. Led by Rev. Dr. William Barber, II, and Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis, the campaign has been travelling all over the country advocating “a national call for moral revival.” Can anyone deny it’s needed?

If the Poor People’s Campaign sounds familiar, it’s probably because Revs. Barber and Theoharis are building on the efforts of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King back in the 60s. After the Civil Rights Movement achieved important advances, Dr. King argued that it was time to turn to human rights, focussing on housing, jobs and health care.

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The sanctuary was packed.

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A close-up of the crowd.

On its stop in LA, the campaign landed at McCarty Memorial Christian Church in West Adams, where Rev. Eddie Anderson serves as pastor. The place was packed with people, and a number of different organizations were there representing labor, immigrants, and tenants. One speaker emphasized that the Poor People’s Campaign was happy to embrace people of all faiths, and even people who don’t belong to any faith tradition. They welcome everybody. A variety of speakers took turns at the pulpit, including some ordinary folks who talked about how hard they’re struggling just to survive.

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The crowd overflowed into the aisles.

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A close-up of the balcony.

Finally Rev. Barber stepped up to speak. He made it clear that he believes our country is in a moral crisis, citing rampant inequality and economic oppression. He talked about poverty in Los Angeles and California, decrying homelessness and lack of access to healthcare. In Rev. Barber’s view, our society is afflicted by four ills that we must challenge: racism, poverty, ecological devastation, and the war economy.

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Revs. William Barber, Liz Theoharis, and Eddie Anderson

It was an inspiring sermon, and the crowd ate it up. I have to admit I didn’t stay til the end, because I had a long bus ride home. But it was exciting to be in a room full of people who believe the country needs to change.

Interested in joining the Poor People’s Campaign? Here’s the link….

Poor People’s Campaign

During his sermon, Rev. Barber insisted, “It’s time for a breakthrough!”

I couldn’t agree more.

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It is definitely time for a breakthrough.

The Renovated Glendale Central Library

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Months ago I was walking through Glendale and came to the corner of Harvard and Louise, where I saw something that freaked me out. The Glendale Central Library was surrounded by chain link fencing covered with green fabric. I knew that meant construction crews were working on the building, and I expected the worst. I love libraries, and the Glendale Central Library has long been one of my favorite places in LA. This brutalist beauty was designed by Welton Becket & Associates and opened in 1973. Its severe concrete exterior contains a wonderfully spacious interior that I’ve wandered through many times. I have fond memories pulling a few books off the shelf and sinking into a cozy chair in the ground floor reading area. When I saw they were remodelling it, I immediately expected the worst. I knew they were going to wreck the place.

But I was wrong. I have to give credit to the City of Glendale, and everyone else involved with the project. The renovated Central Library is total success. While there are a number of changes, they took care to respect the character of the original building. The entrance used to be from the parking lot on Louise. Now there are two entrances, one on Harvard and one at the rear of the library. In addition to upgrading the auditorium and the teen space, several new components have been added, including a Maker Space, a Digital Lab, and a Remembrance Room.

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The main entrance has been moved to the Harvard side of the library.

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An open area has been added adjacent to the new entrance.

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New landscaping on Harvard.

The City of Glendale chose Gruen Associates to oversee the renovation, and Debra Gerod headed up their team. Historic Resources Group was the preservation consultant. There were numerous others involved with the project, from City staff to individual contractors, and I hope they’ll forgive me for not mentioning them all by name.

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Another entrance was added at the rear.

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While the entrance on Louise has been closed, no alterations have been made to that side of the structure.

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Here’s a shot of the lower level.

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And here’s a shot of the upper level.

Renovating a historic building is a complex undertaking. Glendale wanted to take their 40+ year old Central Library and bring it into the 21st century, making sure it remains a relevant and useful part of the community. They did a beautiful job. I’m impressed.

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Bernie’s Norebang

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Bernie’s Coffee Shop, mural by Dionisio Ceballos

Okay, so I kind of have an obsession with Johnie’s Coffee Shop at Wilshire and Fairfax. When I was younger it was one of a number of coffee shops me and my friends used to hang at after movies or shows. It closed in 2000, and for years now I’ve been wondering if it would ever reopen.

Well, it has. Kind of.

Johnie’s isn’t a coffee shop any more. It’s morphed into something else. During last year’s presidential campaign, the owner of the restaurant offered it to a group of Bernie Sanders supporters, and it became the Sanders HQ in LA. After the campaign ended, the group continued to meet there to talk about ways to keep pressing for a progressive agenda.

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Johnie’s/Bernie’s Coffee Shop at Wilshire and Fairfax

I didn’t know about any of this until earlier this year when I was waiting at a bus stop with a friend, and we started talking to a guy about the coffee shop. He told us that it was a meeting place for the Sanders crowd. I immediately wanted to drop in and check it out.

So I was surfing the net in August, and came across a post advertising Bernie’s Norebang at Johnie’s. I knew I had to go.

I showed up at Johnie’s around seven o’ clock on a Friday night. It was early, and nobody was there yet, but the people were really friendly and I was soon deep into a discussion about how we could solve the housing crisis. One of the things that impressed me about everybody I talked to that night was that they all have a genuine desire to change things for the better.

For those of you who don’t know the word “norebang”, it’s the Korean version of karaoke. It was a blast. They asked for a twenty dollar donation at the door, but no one was turned away. Once inside, beer and food were free. I only had one plate of food. I don’t want to talk about how many beers I had.

But rather than tell you about it, let me just show you some pictures….

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When I first arrived, there were just a few people setting up.

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But soon the place started filling up.

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Everybody seemed to be having a good time.

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A vocalist cutting loose.

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Another vocalist takes a shot at Bowie’s Young Americans.

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I started wandering around, and found this mural in a corner of the restaurant.

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I wasn’t the only one drinking.

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A shot taken from the corner by the mural.

I had a great time. I talked to a lot of interesting people. I sang a few songs. The only disappointment was that I didn’t get a standing ovation for my rendition of the Beatles’ Revolution. It could be that the other guests didn’t appreciate my talent. It could also be that I was on my fourth beer, and was having trouble staying on key.

Bernie’s Norebang was hosted by Ground Game LA.  They made it happen three times over the summer. Sorry I only made it to one. It was definitely one of the summer’s highlights.

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Tenants Raise Alarm at Historic Schindler Apartments

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The speculative real estate binge that’s sweeping across LA right now has drawn a swarm of unscrupulous people willing to do whatever it takes to make a profit. In talking to community members over the past few years I’ve heard some hair-raising stories, but nothing that tops the reports I’ve heard from the tenants of the Sachs Apartments in Silverlake.

To give you some background, the Sachs Apartments (also known as Manola Court) were created by architect Rudolph Schindler for interior designer Herman Sachs. They’re a stunning example of Schindler’s work, a collection of buildings that step gracefully down a hillside, connected by steep stairways and terraced paths. The City of LA has recognized the importance of the site, naming it a Historic-Cultural Monument (HCM) in 2016.

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A view of the Sachs Apartments from Edgecliffe.

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Another view from Edgecliffe.

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A gate leading to a walkway between two buildings.

The Sachs Apartments were purchased by the current owners some years back. While there are three names listed on documents filed with the City, the person who has been dealing with the tenants and supervising the “restoration” is Paul Finegold. I’ve been hearing a lot about Mr. Finegold lately, and most of the comments have been pretty negative.

To start with, a number of tenants claim that Finegold has been harrassing them, and they believe he’s doing his best to get rid of them. There have been reports that he doesn’t maintain the units properly, and is slow to act when problems come up. I wanted to learn more, so last Thursday I showed up for a meeting of the Urban Design & Preservation Advisory Committee of the local neighborhood council. The only item on the agenda was the situation at the Sachs Apartments, and there was plenty to talk about. A number of tenants attended. They talked about water leaking through the ceiling, workers leaving debris on the site, and respiratory issues that may be related to dust from construction. Apparently Finegold has posted at least one unit on AirBnB, and the tenants said the guests are often out of control. One woman said she found a couple having sex right in front of her apartment.

And there’s more. According to the people at the meeting, three tenants have already been evicted by Finegold, who claimed that he, his mother, and a resident manager were moving in. But according to the current tenants, neither Finegold nor his mother nor the manager are living on the site.

Beyond all that, a lot of people are asking whether Finegold is restoring the Sachs Apartments or wrecking them. Remember, this is a Historic-Cultural Monument designed by someone who played a key role in LA’s architectural history. Having pledged to do a careful restoration of the site, Finegold is receiving substantial tax breaks under the Mills Act. But tenants say he’s made significant alterations, reconfiguring the interiors of some units and removing the bathroom from one. They also claim workers have cut down 4 mature trees and removed tiles designed by the original owner, Herman Sachs. Former tenant Judith Sheine, an authority on Schindler’s work, has expressed her concern that Finegold’s crews are doing damage to the complex.

I decided to go to the LA Department of Building & Safety (LADBS) web site to check out some of the permits that Finegold has pulled. Here are some excerpts….

“REMOVE FULL BATH ON FIRST FLOOR AND CREATE A POWDER ROOM ELSEWHERE ALSO ON FIRST FLOOR. NO CHANGE TO PLOT PLAN.”

“CONVERT A 3 UNIT APARTMENT TO A 4 UNIT APARTMENT WITH INTERIOR ALTERATIONS.”

“ADD NEW BATH; REMOVE AND REPLACE SELECTED WINDOWS; NEW ROOFING; NEW COLOR COAT EXTERIOR PLASTER”

Is it really okay to do all this with a building that’s been designated as an HCM? Was LADBS aware that this is a historic building? Obviously, any structure that’s over 80 years old is going to need some work to comply with current codes, but removing a bathroom? Converting one structure from 3 to 4 units? Remember, Finegold is getting tax breaks under the Mills Act for the work he’s doing, and that means he’s required to follow the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation. Historic Resources Group, a widely respected consulting firm, helped Finegold file the Mills Act application. Do they know what’s going on at the Sachs Apartments?

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A view of the Sachs Apartments from Lucile.

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Far corner of the building on Lucile.

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Another view of the building from Lucile.

And to top it all off, now Finegold has applied to convert 5 of the units to a bed and breakfast. That may seem like a small number, but remember, we’re in the middle of a housing crisis. And based on their experiences with Finegold, some of the tenants are worried that he eventually plans to convert the whole complex to a bed and breakfast.

So, will the Department of City Planning (DCP) reward this guy by allowing the change of use? Seems likely. In spite of the fact that City Hall keeps telling us that we don’t have nearly enough housing, the DCP has shown itself to be more than willing to work with owners who want to remove rental units from the market. The DCP has heard all about the tenants’ concerns, and so has Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell’s office. But so far nobody from the City seems willing to stand up and ask what the hell is going on at the Sachs Apartments.

If you think somebody from the City should be asking questions, maybe you could let them know you’re concerned. Send an e-mail to DCP staffer Azeen Khanmalek, and be sure to copy Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell.

How about this for a subject line?

Investigate Possible Damage to Historic Sachs Apartments

Azeen Khanmalek, Department of City Planning
Azeen.Khanmalek@lacity.org

Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell
councilmember.ofarrell@lacity.org

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Help Koreatown Hang On to Liberty Park

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Los Angeles is notoriously behind the curve when it comes to providing public parks for its citizens. In rating 100 US cities on their park systems, The Trust for Public Land put LA at number 74. And while the city as a whole is lacking in public space for recreation, there are some neighborhoods where the need is especially acute.

Like Koreatown. This dense urban community has plenty of asphalt and concrete, but not much green space. So it’s disturbing news when a proposed project threatens to take away one of the few parks available to residents.

Liberty Park was completed in 1967 as part of Beneficial Plaza on Wilshire Blvd.. Designed by Peter Walker, its graceful curves and striking contrasts make it a unique experience. Walker was just starting his career in the 60s, but has since been become an internationally recognized landscape architect.

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A view of the park facing away from Wilshire.

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The park provides much needed green space in Koreatown.

 

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Liberty Park provides a quiet space in the middle of a busy urban area.

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The park sits at the foot of the former Beneficial Plaza.

But even more important than the park’s design is the place it holds in the community. In an area where parks are scarce, this is one of the few places where people can escape to relax on the grass or read in the shade of a tree. It’s also been a gathering place for the community, whether to celebrate Earth Day or to rally behind the South Korean team during World Cup Soccer.

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A tall grove of trees provides much-needed shade.

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Looking through the trees toward the building that now houses Radio Korea.

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The park’s design offers some interesting contrasts.

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Looking up from beneath the trees.

The proposed project is a mixed-use complex rising 30+ stories, and if approved in its current version it would reduce Liberty Park to nothing more than a few scraps of green space. It’s frustrating that the City of LA only required the developers to prepare a Mitigated Negative Declaration (MND) for this new complex, allowing them to get away with a relatively low level of environmental review. It’s even more frustrating that the MND concludes that this project will have no impact on historic resources. This is ridiculous. Beneficial Plaza as a whole holds in important place in the area’s history, and there’s nothing else like Liberty Park in all of LA.

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A view of the park facing Serrano.

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A view of the park from the Oxford side.

But it’s not too late to preserve this beautiful and unique public resource. A group called Save Liberty Park has been working hard to raise awareness, and hopefully they can get City Hall to change course on this. They need your help. Here’s the link if you want to get involved.

Save Liberty Park

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Lost LA through a Camera Lens

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A view of Downtown circa 1960 from The Exiles.

Los Angeles has changed a lot over the past hundred years. Rapid population growth, rampant real estate speculation and a slew of technological advances have caused the city to expand and mutate with amazing speed. And one of the most interesting things about LA is that it has recorded those changes since almost the beginning of the 20th century. As the center of the global film industry, and a major hub for all media, it’s always in one spotlight or another. You might say Los Angeles is obsessed with seeing itself in the mirror.

When the film industry first moved west back in the teens, there were a number of production companies shooting silent two-reelers on LA’s streets. Nobody was thinking about documenting the city as it was beginning to grow. Location shooting was just a cheap way to make movies. Hollywood silents made before 1920 are filled with scenes of the city’s early days, but because there hadn’t been much development and few of the familiar landmarks existed, it’s often hard to identify the streets and neighborhoods that appear in the background.

In the 20s Hollywood became studio bound, and for about two decades location shooting was the exception rather than the norm. But in the 40s studio crews started to venture back out into the streets. Many of the crime films shot after WWII used LA as a backdrop for the action. In the 60s, independent filmmakers started shooting all kinds of movies on the city’s streets. By the 80s filmmakers had begun to use the city self-consciously, making deliberate references not just to the city’s past but to its movie past.

Looking at the films shot over the years on LA’s streets we can see a broad panorama of the city’s history, but one that’s still maddeningly incomplete. While some locations appear over and again, there are whole communities that never appear at all. And so much of it is totally random. In a few cases filmmakers deliberately set out to take a good, hard look at the landscape and the people. Others focussed on famous landmarks that have a specific meaning for movie audiences, or used their settings to evoke nostalgia. And others just didn’t have the money to shoot anywhere else and let their location scout call the shots.

I watch a lot of movies, and as I’ve gotten older, I’m more aware than ever of how they reflect the changes that have happened over the course of LA’s history. I’m especially fascinated by images of things that no longer exist. Change is inevitable. The city’s landscape is never the same from one day to the next. Even when the streets and structures stay the same, the people, the customs, the culture keep changing, and that transforms the landscape, too.

In this post I’m pulling together images of places and spaces that have disappeared. I’ve been thinking about doing something like this for a while. It took me months to get around to it. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out which movies to focus on, but I can’t even explain why I ended up choosing these six. The only thing they have in common is that they show pieces of LA that no longer exist. And trying to approach them in some kind of order was impossible. Or maybe better to say there were too many possibilities. Should I have organized them by the year the films were made? Or maybe used the locations to tell some kind of story? Or should I have tried to find a theme that ties them all together?

In the end I just decided to dive in and let my intuition guide me. This post may not even make sense, but hopefully you’ll get something out of the images. Let’s start in Downtown….

In the late 50s, Kent Mackenzie began working on a film set in Bunker Hill that focussed on the Native American community living in the area. The Exiles took over three years to make, and the production had more than its share of problems, but the end result was a unique blend of documentary and fiction that gave voice to people whose voices had never been heard before. Bunker Hill began in the 19th century as one of the city’s first upscale developments. By the middle of the 20th century the rich were long gone, and the aging homes that remained now housed a diverse low-income community. The Native Americans who lived there had left the reservations behind, looking for a different kind of life. In LA they were relegated to the margins of society, but living in Bunker Hill they at least had some kind of community. That lasted until City Hall declared the area “blighted”, and began pushing residents out as civic leaders and business interests pursued a massive redevelopment project.

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Angel’s Flight climbing Bunker Hill next to the Third Street Tunnel.

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A closer shot of Angel’s Flight with apartments in the background.

The Exiles captures the lives of three Native Americans as they live through a single night in Downtown LA. Shot entirely on location, it shows these people in their homes, on the streets, in bars and juke joints, and finally gathering on a hill that looks out over the nighttime landscape. It’s a vivid picture of a vanished world.

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One of the vanished streets of Bunker Hill.

Displacement is a recurring theme that runs through the whole history of Los Angeles. The city’s original Chinatown was situated on the edge of Downtown, straddling Alameda between Aliso and Macy (now Cesar Chavez Avenue). But in the 20s voters approved funds for a new rail terminal, and much of the Chinese community had to relocate to make way for Union Station.

In the late 40s Anthony Mann made a startling series of thrillers, often giving them a sense of immediacy by shooting on real locations. Much of T-Men is shot in LA, and it features glimpses of what was left of Chinatown in 1947. Check out this first still, which shows a determined US Treasury agent walking across Alameda with Union Station in the background.

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Dennis O’Keefe crossing Alameda Street in T-Men.

Then the camera pans to follow him, and on the west side of Alameda we see Ferguson Alley, a remnant of the original Chinese community.

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Ferguson Alley, one of the last remnants of LA’s original Chinatown.

Our hero visits a number of herbalists looking for someone who recalls selling a specific blend to a certain man. It’s a brief montage, but it gives us a look at what was left of early Chinatown after WWII. Eventually, these buildings were also levelled. After some false starts, a new, more modern, and more touristy, Chinatown was built to the north and west of the original site.

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O’Keefe mounts the stairs to an herbalist’s shop.

Crime Wave, directed by André de Toth, was also shot largely on location and gives a sweeping view of Los Angeles in the 50s. While it features a number of Downtown locales, the climactic bank heist takes place across the LA River in Glendale. The suburbs were thriving in the first decade after the war, and the film gives us a view of what Brand Boulevard looked like back in the day. In this scene we’re riding with Gene Nelson and Ted de Corsia as they drive up to the Bank of America at the corner of Brand and Broadway.

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The Bank of America at Brand and Broadway in Glendale.

The suburbs were a product of car culture, and cars are central to the story. The main character is an ex-con who’s forced to become the gang’s getaway driver. The scenes before and after the robbery offer numerous shots from the perspective of the man behind the wheel. And an abandoned car serves as an important key in the cops’ search to track down the criminals.

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The corner of Brand and Broadway.

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Ted de Corsia inside the Bank of America.

Crime Wave is tough as nails and brimming with tension, but even if you’re not into classic crime flicks, it’s worth watching for the way it maps out the city in the 50s. The final car chase more or less follows the actual path you’d take from Glendale back to Downtown, speeding down Brand toward the Hyperion Bridge.

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Another shot of Brand near Broadway.

By the late 60s suburbia had spread across the San Fernando Valley. Car culture played a major role in the rapid proliferation of housing tracts tied together by the ever expanding freeway system. Thousands of families moved to the suburbs in pursuit of a placid and prosperous lifestyle.

Which was an illusion. You can escape the city, but you can’t escape reality. The US was going through a violent upheaval, rocked by a string of political assassinations and a growing protest movement. Director Peter Bogdanovich looked past the supermarkets and the swimming pools and saw a side of the suburbs that most people were determined to ignore. Bogdanovich had been doing odd jobs for low-budget director/producer Roger Corman. Through Corman he got a chance to direct his first feature, Targets. The film follows a young man living with his parents and his wife in a tidy little house in the Valley, who one day picks up a gun and starts shooting people.

Targets is an innovative and unnerving look at the suburbs, America’s obsession with guns, and our twisted relationship with the movies. After following the young killer as he randomly picks off a number of unsuspecting victims, Bogdanovich stages a chilling climax that offers a complex reflection of the American landscape at the time. Cars lined up in rows at a drive-in movie, moms, dads, children and teens watching a horror flick unfold, when suddenly a sniper starts shooting at the audience from behind the screen.

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The marquee at the Reseda Drive-In.

The film was shot at the Reseda Drive-In, which was located at the corner of Reseda and Vanowen. It survived into the 70s, when it was torn down and replaced by a business park. Aside from the fact that it’s an arresting and original debut feature (one of Bogdanovich’s best), Targets also offers a fascinating glimpse of the vanished world of drive-in theatres. Passionately devoted to movies since childhood, the director records every aspect of the experience, from the people visiting the snack bar to the projectionist putting the reels in motion.

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The drive-in before the show starts.

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The playground near the screen.

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The snack bar.

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The projectionist setting the film in motion.

Hollywood has always been shameless about the strategies it uses to lure audiences to the movies. Two of the most common tactics are jumping on whatever fad is currently sweeping the nation, and exploiting people’s nostalgia for a past that never existed. Xanadu tries to do both at the same time. The story follows the efforts of two men, inspired by a muse, who come together to create a new nightclub that will bring back the glory of the big band era while catering to the roller disco crowd. Yeah, it’s a pretty strange movie, and one that will probably only appeal to those with a taste for bizarre kitsch. But I found out that parts of it were shot at the Pan-Pacific Auditorium, and decided I had to check it out.

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The front of the Pan-Pacific Auditorium.

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A closer shot of the Pan-Pacific.

For years the Pan-Pacific was a major venue, hosting car shows, sporting events and the Ice Capades. Designed by the firm of Wurdeman and Becket, the striking streamline moderne facade was one of LA’s architectural landmarks for decades. But it closed in the 70s, and though it was later listed on the National Register of Historic Places, no one was able to find a way to make it viable again. It was destroyed by fire in 1989.

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Another view of the Pan-Pacific.

It’s possible that if the Pan-Pacific had survived a while longer, it might have been revived. The local preservation movement was just taking shape in the 80s. But for years Los Angeles was seen as a city without a history, in large part because the people who lived here didn’t have a sense of its history. Buildings were put up and knocked down based on whatever the market dictated, and few people worried about what was lost in the process. Visitors from other places talked about how the city felt impermanent, and complained about a sense of rootlessness.

Having lived here all my life, I don’t see it that way, and I’ve had a hard time understanding what people from other places are talking about. But I think I got a taste of it the last time I watched Wim Wender’s The State of Things. It tells the story of a director shooting a sci-fi film in Europe whose funding dries up, and he flies to LA to get some answers. Friedrich picks up a rental car at LAX and sets out to track his producer down, speeding along the the endless freeways, cruising the wide boulevards of Hollywood and Century City. He seems lost, totally disconnected from the city around him. Watching the film again recently I think I began to understand the sense of disclocation so many complain about. Friedrich is just one more in a long line of European filmmakers who have found themselves wandering LA’s vast landscapes, squinting into the sun as they try to make sense of it all.

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Friedrich, played by Patrick Bauchau, cruising down the freeway in a rental car.

Many of LA’s buildings were never meant to be permanent. They were constructed by people who saw a market for a product and moved quickly to jump on whatever trend was popular at that moment. The roadside restaurants and coffee shops that started springing up after WWII weren’t meant to last forever. They were meant to catch a driver’s attention and pull them in before they sped past. The commercial architects who worked on these projects in the 50s quickly realized that the more extravagant and unusual a building was, the more likely it was to draw people in. The building became its own advertisement.

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Tiny Naylor’s at the corner of Sunset and La Brea.

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Bauchau orders a cup of coffee from a car hop.

As I said, nobody thought these structures would last through the ages. But as the years wore on, architects and critics began to value these brash, flashy buildings. And the people who had frequented these places had gotten attached to them. In the 60s if a developer had levelled one of these coffee shops, nobody would have batted an eye. By the 90s, preservationists were arguing that they held a special place in the area’s culture and should be protected.

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Another shot of Tiny Naylor’s.

That was too late for Tiny Naylor’s, located at Sunset and La Brea. The building, a Googie masterpiece by architect Douglas Honnold, was designed so that people could park outside and be served in their cars, a common feature of coffee shops from the era. The State of Things, released in 1982, captures Tiny Naylor’s in all its glory. A few years later it was torn down and replaced with a shopping mall.

The argument over what should be saved and what should be torn down will go on for as long as LA exists, and that’s part of the dynamic of any urban area. Cities are formed by the tension between the past and the future. LA will go on changing. And the movies will go on watching it change.

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Bauchau in an office building at Sunset and Vine, gazing at the LA landscape as it stretches out to the horizon.

 

Columbia Square

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There are a number of different Hollywoods. It can be a noun or an adjective, a brand or a concept, a nostalgic fantasy or a nasty slur. But there’s also a physical place called Hollywood, and it’s been through a lot of changes over the years. About a century ago it became the center of the film industry, and what started out as a sleepy suburb grew rapidly. Its fortunes rose and fell as the studios left, radio and TV moved in, radio and TV moved on, and the internet conquered the world. For decades people have been asking how to bring media back to the Hollywood area to revitalize the local economy.

Columbia Square has played a key role in putting Hollywood, the place, back on the media map. Opening to great fanfare last year, the project brings together residential, office and commercial space to create a media campus. The owners were spectacularly successful in landing major industry tenants long before the project was completed. Columbia Square was widely hailed as a major step forward in Hollywood’s revitalization.

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The El Centro side of Columbia Square

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The front of the campus along Sunset

I have to say I’m pretty impressed myself. I was skeptical about how this modern media campus would come out, and I was pleasantly surprised. This was a complex project, and roused a certain amount of controversy when it was first proposed. But the developer did an admirable job, not just engaging the community, but actually responding to residents’ concerns. And here’s it’s probably a good idea to give some background….

Columbia Square, located on Sunset between El Centro and Gower, was first built in the late 30s by the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS). Creating a major, state-of-the-art radio/recording studio in the area was seen as a boost, not just for Hollywood the place, but also Hollywood the brand. New York had dominated the national radio market since the beginning, but this was a sign that LA was trying to change that. The look of the building was an integral part of getting that message across. CBS chose modernist William Lescaze to design the project, and the building was one more landmark in LA’s long engagement with progressive architecture.

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The courtyard at the front of the complex

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Another shot of the courtyard

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One of the restored structures, now occupied by Neue House

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A view of the courtyard looking toward Sunset

As TV took over in the 40s and 50s, a number of popular shows originated from Columbia Square, but it was radio that kept hanging on through the years. Broadcasts continued to emanate from the studios until 2007, when the last tenant left. Then the building went dark, and for a while no one was sure what would happen to it. The property changed hands a few times, and different ideas were thrown around. In 2009 the City released an EIR for a project that included a 40-story tower. If you’ve been following development in Hollywood for any length of time, you can probably imagine how that went over.

But then a new developer took charge, and things changed dramatically. When Kilroy Realty Group acquired the property in 2012, they took the time to listen to the community and made some changes, crucially lowering the height of the tower to 22 stories. This is pretty amazing when you consider that the City had actually approved 28. They also decided to rethink the layout of the campus, allowing for more open space to engage the public. And they agreed to work with local preservationists to restore the historic Lescaze structures.

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Stairway leading to the rear of the campus

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A space to hang out in

The end result is a jewel. I’ve actually gone to Columbia Square a few times since it opened, just to walk around and take pictures. (And because the weather was different each time, the light in the photos keeps changing. Sorry if it’s a little jarring.) I think it’s important to mention the people involved in making this happen. The firm of House & Robertson designed the campus and the new buildings. In restoring the original structures they worked with Historic Resources Group. And the landscapes were created by Rios Clementi Hale Studios. The Los Angeles Conservancy was so impressed with the finished product that they gave the developer their 2017 Preservation Award. It’s worth reading the Conservancy’s description of the project to get an idea of how much time, money, and work went into the restoration process.

Columbia Square from the Los Angeles Conservancy

I’m so knocked out by the new complex, and by the way Kilroy approached the project, that I hate to voice any reservations. While I was writing this post I kept asking myself whether I wanted to make any critical comments, because in some respects the revitalized ColumbiaSquare is a model of what redevelopment should be. But there are a couple of things I think it’s important to note….

First, while the residential tower is beautiful, the prices are way beyond what the average person living in Hollywood could afford. And the addition of a couple hundred high-end apartments is just another step in the ongoing gentrification of the area. Even as I write this, more low-income tenants are being pushed out of their homes.

Second, while the City has tried to portray this, and other projects like it, as transit-oriented development, it’s highly unlikely that the people who live at Columbia Square will be taking transit on a regular basis. The City has been pushing this line for years, and the results have been disastrous. Transit ridership in LA is lower now than it was back in the 80s, and continues to decline. City Hall’s continued insistence that building high-profile, high-end megaprojects is going to get people on busses and trains just shows how clueless our elected officials are.

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The Gower side of the campus

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Landscaping and benches along Gower

But let’s end on a positive note. I want to congratulate Kilroy, and all the others involved, in coming up with a project that has so much to recommend it. This is an unusual instance where a major developer respected the local context, and more important, the local community. The new Columbia Square is a beautiful piece of design, and it’s brought some major media players to the area, along with hundreds of jobs. Over all, it’s an important step forward for Hollywood the brand, the concept, the industry, and the place.

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