Waking Up in the Park

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I’ve been going past North Hollywood Park since I was a kid, but I’ve hardly ever set foot in it. Lately, though, every time I’ve gone by I’ve felt like I needed to check it out. So I finally decided to take the time.

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God knows what possessed me to go over there at seven in the morning. I’m barely awake at that hour. But it was cool because I had the park mostly to myself. The sun was just coming up and the only other people around were the dog walkers and the joggers. Not that the park was quiet. It’s bounded on all sides by major roadways, occupying the triangle made by Chandler, Tujunga and the Hollywood Freeway.

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You can see the traffic backed up on Tujunga. And you can also see St. Paul’s First Lutheran Church in the background. I looked on the net for a history of the church, but didn’t find much. Their web site said the congregation has been active in the area since the twenties, but didn’t offer too many details. I was curious about the campus, because it’s an interesting mix of old and new styles.

Also across the street from the park is Masonic Lodge #542.

NH 15 Pk Mason

Freemasonry has pretty much disappeared these days, but it played a large part in European and American history for hundreds of years. Ben Franklin, W. A. Mozart, Simón Bolívar, Duke Ellington and Dizzy Gillespie were all Masons. The history of Freemasonry is long and complex, and because it was a secret society there’s much that will never be known. Some people see it as an important fraternal organization that helped shaped democracy, others see it as a band of power mad imperialists who wanted to rule the world. If you’re into conspiracy theories, you can’t go wrong with the Masons. There are all sorts of crazy stories out there. But to get back to Lodge #542, in its heyday its members included many Hollywood luminaries like Clark Gable, Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy and Audie Murphy. The Los Angeles Conservancy has a nice write-up about the building’s design.

Masonic Lodge #542 at The Los Angeles Conservancy

Inside the park itself is the North Hollywood Amelia Earhart Library. This beautiful little Mission style building was originally constructed in 1929, and it was designed by architects Lewis Eugene Weston and Lewis Eugene Weston, Jr..

The front of the Amelia Earhart Library.

The front of the Amelia Earhart Library.

A side view of the library's entrance.

A side view of the library’s entrance.

The back of the library.

The back of the library.

In the decades since it was built, the library has undergone a number of transformations. Like so many buildings, it’s been adapted over and over again as the community around it changed. To learn more, follow the link below.

Amelia Earhart Regional Branch History at LAPL

If you’re wondering why this branch library is named after Amelia Earhart, it’s because she was living in nearby Toluca Lake at the time she took off on her final flight. There’s also a statue of Earhart in the park at the corner of Tujunga and Magnolia.

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Honestly, until yesterday the only thing I knew about this early aviator was that she died trying to fly around the world. After doing a little reading, I found out that she racked up a number of impressive accomplishments in her short life. You might want to do a little reading about her yourself.

Amelia Earhart Bio

Even though there wasn’t a lot happening at seven a.m., the park is often crowded when I go by in the afternoon. Activities are offered for people of all ages, and there are plenty of folks who go there just to hang out. In spite of the cars rushing along the park’s perimeter, once you get away from the traffic it’s easy to forget about the city buzzing around you. The paths wend their way through large expanses of grass. There are fabulous old trees rising up above you.

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For years I’ve been rushing past this beautiful park, convinced I didn’t have the time to stop and linger. We get so caught up in being busy that we tell ourselves we can’t take a break. We’re plugged into so many different things that we’re bombarded with stimulus all day long, and we convince ourselves it has to be that way. It doesn’t. We need to step away from the traffic, phones, TV, etc., and let ourselves walk on the grass, feel the breeze, lose ourselves in the blue of the sky.

We need to take the time for a walk in the park.

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Losing a World of Inspiration

Leimert Park

Leimert Park

All over Los Angeles neighborhoods are changing. Developers with deep pockets are buying up real estate in the hope of making a bundle. New projects are transforming the landscape from Venice to East LA. We need development, but there has to be a balance between business interests and community interests. The community needs to be involved, and that involvement has to be based on trust. The only way you can build trust is through honesty and transparency.

Unfortunately, we’re not seeing much honesty or transparency in LA these days. Many developers are doing their best to shut the public out by keeping their activities secret, and our elected officials often seem to be willing accomplices. As a result, communities across the city have suffered some terrible losses. Buildings have been demolished. Businesses have been driven out. Thousands of renters have lost their homes. People and places that defined our neighborhoods are disappearing.

The Vision Theatre

The Vision Theatre

In the last few years Leimert Park has drawn a lot of attention from investors. Built as a planned community in the 20s, Leimert Park was predominantly white up til WWII. After restrictive covenants were declared illegal in 1948, the demographics started shifting and by the 60s the area was largely African-American. For decades it’s been a center for black culture in LA, figuring prominently in the local jazz and hip hop scene. In Leimert Park you can find a beautifully preserved remnant of the past like the Vision Theatre sitting right next door to a cutting edge media lab like KAOS Network.

KAOS Network

KAOS Network

And just around the corner you can also find the World Stage, although that may change in the months to come. This is one of the saddest casualties of the redevelopment frenzy that’s sweeping across LA. Founded in 1989 by drummer Billy Higgins and poet Kamau Daáood, the World Stage has been a major part of the neighborhood’s cultural life for over 25 years. Back in the 90s it was an important part of the renaissance that breathed new life into Leimert Park. Even when the recession hit and neighboring shops and restaurants were closing down, the World Stage remained an anchor for the community.

The World Stage

The World Stage

But it looks like the World Stage will be leaving Leimert Park. The building it’s housed in changed hands a while back, and the new owners will not renew the lease. In fact, World Stage Executive Director Dwight Trible says the new owners have refused to even meet with him. Trible says that after months of discussion, the Board of Directors has decided that it’s best to look for a new location. So while the World Stage will still go on, it will be cut off from the community that has been its home since the very beginning.

The story of who’s been buying up property in Leimert Park and why is complicated, and if you’re interested in the details I recommend reading this piece that appeared in the LA Weekly a few months back.

Who’s in Control of Leimert Park’s Future? It’s Hard to Tell.

Papillion

Papillion

Briefly, the local real estate market started heating up back in 2012 when the MTA decided that the new Crenshaw/LAX line would have a stop at Crenshaw and 43rd. Since then a number of buildings have been purchased by limited liability corporations that seem to be controlled by Allan DiCastro. DiCastro is associated with artist Mark Bradford and philanthropist Eileen Norton, and together they’ve made a serious commitment to investing in the local art scene. To their credit, they’ve brought the non-profit Art + Practice and the contemporary art space Papillion to the neighborhood. That’s all to the good. Leimert Park has been struggling in recent years, and could certainly use a shot in the arm.

Shuttered businesses on Crenshaw Blvd..

Shuttered businesses on Crenshaw Blvd..

But DiCastro and his associates have not been open or honest with the community about their plans, and that’s a problem. People who’ve lived and worked in Leimert Park for decades can’t get straight answers about what the new owners have in mind. Unfortunately, this is a scenario that’s playing out all over LA these days. Investors with deep pockets and connections at City Hall move into a neighborhood and work behind the scenes to push their own agenda. Residents are told they should be happy about how their community is being “transformed”, but they find they have no voice in the process.

Music is one of the fundamental things that binds a community together. It’s a powerful, immediate way for people to connect and share their experience. For years the World Stage has been a place where musicians and audiences come together, where the distance between the people who come to play and the people who come to listen disappears. Leimert Park isn’t just its physical home, but also its spiritual home. If the World Stage ends up having to leave, it will be a terrible loss for the community.

Future site of the Leimert Park stop on the Crenshaw/LAX Line.

Future site of the Leimert Park stop on the Crenshaw/LAX Line.

Sunday Afternoon

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Not too long ago I took a trip down to Westlkake/MacArthur Park. It’s a popular gathering place on weekends. Thousands of people show up there to play games, listen to music, attend worship services, or maybe just lie on the grass and stare up at the sky.

The park was created by civic leaders back at the end of the nineteenth century. It’s bounded by Sixth, Alvarado, Seventh and Park View. Originally christened Westlake Park, the name was later changed to MacArthur Park, after the five star general who played a prominent role during WWII. Some years ago there was an intense debate over which name was more appropriate. When you ride the Red Line to Seventh and Alvarado, the automated PA announces Westlake/MacArthur Park.

When I first came up out of the subway, the first thing I saw was the crush of street vendors lining the sidewalk. There were dozens of people selling everything from jewelry to DVDs.

Street vendors on Alvarado.

Street vendors on Alvarado.

On the other side of Alvarado there were also people selling juices and ices from carts.

More vendors on the other side of Alvarado.

More vendors on the other side of Alvarado.

The City is currently considering new rules to regulate vending on sidewalks and in parks, and the debate is pretty contentious. Merchants in brick and mortar stores are angry because they’re competing with people who can operate with no overhead, and so offer lower prices. There are definite health concerns about vendors selling food without a license. But these people are just trying to make a buck like everyone else. This is their livelihood. I’m sure the debate will continue for years to come, and I doubt anyone will find a solution that makes everybody happy.

There was a woman at the corner of Seventh and Alvarado bellowing through a megaphone about how people should give their lives to Christ.

A woman evangelizing at Seventh and Alvarado.

A woman evangelizing at Seventh and Alvarado.

I’ve gotta say, this really drives me crazy. I know she feels like she needs to preach the Gospel, but there are plenty of Christians who do the same thing without resorting to amplified rants on a street corner.

At the corner of Seventh and Alvarado you have Langer’s, a deli that’s been around forever. I haven’t been there for years. Some day I’ll have to go back and check it out.

Langer's

Langer’s

Up at Wilshire and Alvarado stands the Westlake Theatre, which opened in 1926. It stopped showing movies a long time ago. For a while it was a swap meet, but it looks like it’s completely closed now.

Westlake Theatre

Westlake Theatre

The park bisected by Wilshire, which runs right down the middle of it, but there are tunnels running underneath that allow people to pass from one side to the other.

A view of Wilshire facing Park View

A view of Wilshire facing Park View

A view of Wilshire facing Alvarado.

A view of Wilshire facing Alvarado.

Now let’s head into the park.

Entrance to the park at Seventh and Alvarado.

Entrance to the park at Seventh and Alvarado.

But first, make sure you know the rules.

Sign posted inside the park.

Sign posted inside the park.

As you can see, a lot of people are just looking for a shady spot where they can hang out and relax.

Trees provide plenty of shade.

Trees provide plenty of shade.

But not everybody is kicking back. Soccer is big here, and on weekends teams of kids take turns honing their skill on the field. Families line up around the perimeter, watching, cheering, coaching.

Kids playing soccer.

Kids playing soccer.

Families standing on the sidelines.

Families standing on the sidelines.

Soccer stars of tomorrow.

Soccer stars of tomorrow.

This looks like a pretty innocent shot of a food truck parked on Wilshire. But notice the graffiti on the concrete. “MS” stands for Mara Salvatrucha, a brutal gang that has a presence in the neighborhood. Fortunately, gang violence has been declining all over LA for several years. And the crowds of people enjoying the park didn’t seem concerned for their safety. The vibe was very relaxed.

Food truck parked on Wilshire.

Food truck parked on Wilshire.

The Levitt Pavilion offers a wide range of entertainment, and it’s free.

Levitt Pavilion

Levitt Pavilion

Performers getting ready for a show.

Performers getting ready for a show.

This is one of the tunnels that goes under Wilshire, linking the two sides of the park.

Tunnel running beneath Wilshire.

Tunnel running beneath Wilshire.

Mural running the length of the tunnel.

Mural running the length of the tunnel.

The lake is a draw for birds of all kinds. Please don’t ask me to name the different varieties. I know some of them are ducks. Other than that, I have no idea.

Birds at the edge of the lake.

Birds at the edge of the lake.

If you want to learn more about the park’s history, the link below will lead you to an article on the KCET web site that talks about its origins. Aside from the information, it includes some amazing images of the area through the years.

How a Neighborhood Dump Became a Civic Treaure

And this article on Wikipedia offers more detail on some interesting chapters in the life of the park.

Westlake/MacArthur Park on Wikipedia

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A Patch of Green in the Grey

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Week before last I went downtown to attend a meeting at City Hall. When I got there, the room was packed. It was hard to even find a seat. The zoning administrators started off with the obligatory preliminaries, which went on for quite a while. I looked around me and realized that there were dozens of people besides me who wanted to speak. I knew I was in for a long, dull morning.

So I split. They didn’t need me, and it seemed crazy to sit there waiting for a chance to talk when I knew there were other people who would cover everything I had to say, and probably say it better than I could. I decided to grab some breakfast and find a quiet place to chill. I got some food and some coffee and headed over to the plaza by the Japanese American Cultural & Community Center (JACCC).

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I love to hang out there. It’s spacious and usually pretty peaceful. Unless there’s an event going on, it’s unlikely you’ll find more than a handful of people on the plaza. One side is shaded by tall trees.

Opposite me I could see people coming and going at the JACCC. They do a lot of interesting programming. They even offer ukulele lessons.*

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Take a look at the web site to find out about upcoming events.

JACCC

I spent a while looking at the kites on the west side of the building, as they rose and fell with the breeze.

LT X15 Pl Kites

Then I was ready to go. But as I was leaving I saw a grove of trees off to one side. I’d never really noticed them before, so I walked over to take a closer look.

LT X25 Pl Gdn Trees View

And as I neared the trees, I realized that they were part of a garden that rested just below the level of the plaza.

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As I stood there by the locked gate, an elderly woman walked past and told me that the garden was open to the public. All I had to do was go to the JACCC and sign in. So that’s what I did.

It was so cool to discover this peaceful patch of green in the middle of downtown. I walked around snapping photos and enjoying the quiet.

LT X45 Gdn Path

I’m sure the sound of traffic was all around me, but I was more focussed on the sound of the stream that runs through the middle of the garden. I would’ve loved to spend a while just sitting on a rock and gazing into the water. Unfortunately, I had other stuff to do, so I moved on after about fifteen minutes. But I will be back.

LT X50 Gdn Water

*
In surfing the net, I noticed this comment by a woman who’s apparently a regular at the JACCC. “It is ukulele heaven in DTLA.” An amazing claim, which I can’t verify. You’ll have to check it out yourself.

Legalize Sleep

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Demonstrators on the steps at Pershing Square.

There were a number of actions planned for this weekend to coincide with Martin Luther King’s birthday. I had heard that Black Lives Matter was holding a vigil downtown, and so I hopped on the Red Line and got off at Civic Center. But it turned out the vigil was over, and so I was standing there on First Street wondering what to do next.  Fortunately, I ended up running into a group of people who were demonstrating to protect the rights of the homeless. They were marching through downtown on their way to Pershing Square. I met up with them when they made a stop on Fifth Street.

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The group stops to hear a speaker on Fifth Street.

One of the major points the speakers made is that our government is trying to control and restrict the use of public space. This affects the homeless in that they aren’t allowed to sleep in parks or on sidewalks, but really it affects all of us. Public space is an essential part of civic life. Our elected officials are putting more and more restrictions on the way public space is used, often for the benefit of business interests. The whole idea of public space is that it’s for everyone, not just those that our elected officials deem worthy.

The reason that homeless people end up sleeping in parks is they have nowhere else to go. The Mayor and the City Council are bending over backwards to help developers build luxury residential towers, while affordable housing gets harder and harder to find. Affordable units are being demolished or converted to condos so that property owners can make an even bigger profit. This will only increase the number of people living on the streets.

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Protesters walking through Pershing Square.

So you’ve been kicked out of your apartment because the landlord hit you with a huge rent increase. You can’t sleep on the sidewalk. You can’t sleep on bus benches. And you can’t sleep in the parks. Where do you go? Our elected officials don’t seem to care. They’re too busy granting variances for the developers who’ve been giving them campaign cash.

The affordable housing crisis in LA is getting worse. We need to address it. Instead of racing to build high-end residential skyscrapers, we need to be creating housing for all the people of Los Angeles. Everybody deserves a safe place to sleep.

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My favorite slogan from the demonstration.

Transformations

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Around the middle of the twentieth century, over a period of decades, the LA County Flood Control District did their damnedest to encase most of the city’s waterways in concrete. Apparently it seemed like a good idea at the time. From our contemporary perspective, it looks like a colossal mistake. But what can we do? We don’t have the means to break up the hundreds of miles of concrete that were poured back in the last century. So we’re doing what we can, getting behind small projects that we hope will eventually have a cumulative impact.

I’ve lived in LA all my life, and it still amazes me how little I know about this city. The Tujunga Wash runs from the San Gabriel Mountains, across the San Fernando Valley and feeds into the LA River around Studio City. Recently I started paying attention to the stretch that runs along Coldwater Canyon between Burbank and Oxnard. What I found was pretty interesting.

Above Oxnard, I found the Tujunga Wash Greenway and Stream Restoration Project. What used to be a drab stretch of land running alongside a drab stretch of concrete has been transformed into a lush green walkway which helps to replenish our groundwater.

TW 02 Green

For a better explanation than I could give, click on this link to a page at the Landscape Architecture Foundation. They also provide before and after pictures to give you a sense of how dramatic the change has been.

Tujunga Wash Greenway

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Below Oxnard, I found the Great Wall of Los Angeles. This is a massive, amazing public art project which presents a history of Los Angeles starting with the first people who lived in the area and ending in the fifties. The project is the brainchild of Judy Baca, founder of the Social and Public Art Resource Center (SPARC). It was begun in the seventies, with over 400 young people and their families working over five summers to create the mural that currently covers a half mile of concrete inside the Tujunga Wash.

The mural starts with images of the Chumash Indians.

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It covers the construction of the the massive projects that helped build the city, like the railroads….

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….and the aqueduct.

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It illustrates the multiple waves of migration the populated the area.

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There are images of the traumatic upheavals that shaped LA.

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It takes us through the baby boom….

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….and the beginnings of rock n’ roll.

TW 12 GW  R&R

There are plans to paint another four decades, which would bring the project up to the end of the twentieth century. For more information, and to find out how to donate, visit SPARC’s web site.

The Great Wall of Los Angeles

You won’t find much water in the Tujunga Wash these days. But you will find some other things that are worth checking out.

The Cornfield Under Construction

The Cornfield on a day in January.

The Cornfield on a day in January.

You may not be familiar with Los Angeles State Historic Park, AKA the Cornfield. Downtown residents probably know it best, though it’s also hosted a number of popular music festivals. It is kind of off the beaten path, lying on the outskirts of the downtown area, and it’s only been around since two thousand five.

The entrance to the Cornfield.

The entrance to the Cornfield.

Unfortunately, if you haven’t made it down there yet, you’re going to have to wait until next year. Plans to expand and improve the site have been on the drawing board for a while, and the state has finally approved the funds. So the park will be closing this month as work begins. Among the changes will be the creation of a wetlands area, the construction of an amphitheatre and the addition of a space for a farmers market.

I actually like the park as it is, a plain, open space with grass and trees. So I decided to take some photos of it before the closure. The park was pretty empty on the day I made it down there, probably in part because the sky was overcast.

Downtown is visible off in the distance...

Downtown is visible off in the distance…

...and industrial area lies on one side...

…an industrial area lies on one side…

...and train tracks on the other.

…and train tracks on the other.

The site that the park is on has a pretty interesting history. Community groups fought with a developer who wanted to build warehouses on the land. This article on the KCET web site offers a good deal of information. The designers who created the park’s current state incorporated markers to commemorate some of the groups that have been a part of LA’s history.

The path leading up to a low hill...

The path leading up to a low hill…

...where you'll find a concrete marker...

…where you’ll find a concrete marker…

...that commemorates some of the people who make up the city's history.

…that commemorates some of the people who make up the city’s history.

Creating the park was a long and difficult process, and there were disagreements among some of the groups involved. This article from the LA Times covers the conceptual art event that re-opened the park, and also details some of the differing points of view.

Not a Cornfield

And for the official story (much less interesting), you can take a look at the state’s web page.

Los Angeles State Historic Park

Corn 10 Hill w Trees