Building Empire

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For years now construction crews have been tearing up Downtown Burbank. Caltrans is the lead agency on a huge infrastructure project which is remaking the I-5/Golden State Freeway corridor, as well as bringing changes to a number of Burbank’s surface streets. The actual name for all this activity is the Empire Interchange/Interstate 5 Improvement Project. Here’s a brief overview from the City of Burbank’s web site.

“This project, lead [sic] by Caltrans and funded primarily by State transportation funds and Los Angeles County transportation sales tax funds, will relieve congestion along Interstate 5 while providing an important new access to the Golden State area of Burbank, including the Empire Center and Bob Hope Airport.”

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The I-5/Golden State Freeway as it passes through Burbank

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Traffic on Burbank Blvd. where it crosses over the freeway

Here’s a short list of specific changes that are part of the project.

> Full freeway interchange at Empire Avenue
> New freeway and railroad crossing allowing access to Empire Center
> Freeway widening including 2 carpool lanes and weaving lanes
> Burbank Blvd. Interchange Demolition & Reconstruction
> Railroad grade separation at Buena Vista Street
> Realignment / Closure of San Fernando Blvd near Lincoln Street.

You’ll notice one of the main goals is to improve access to the Empire Center. If you’ve never been there, it’s basically a massive mall that has all the same chain retail stores and restaurants you can find almost anywhere else in Southern California. But more on that later.

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Excavation next to the Empire Center

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Mounds of dirt rising above Victory Place

The project is way behind schedule. Various factors have pushed completion back substantially, including a dispute with a contractor and this year’s heavy rains. Demolition and replacement of the Burbank Blvd. bridge had been scheduled to start this year, but now Caltrans says they’ll start in 2020. It isn’t unusual for a project this big and this complex to take longer than expected, but Caltrans’ original 2018 deadline was ridiculously ambitious. Work has already been going on for over five years, and will continue for at least a couple more years.

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A barrier under construction at San Fernando and Winona

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Construction site at San Fernando and Winona

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Work on Winona where it passes under the freeway

In the project overview above, you may have noticed that it said funding comes in part from an LA County transportation sales tax. This would be Measure R, which was approved by voters about a decade ago. Measure R money funds a lot of different things, but the major categories are: 35% to new rail and bus rapid transit projects; 20% to carpool lanes, highways and other highway related improvements; 20% to bus operations; and 15% for local city sponsored improvements.

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Construction on San Fernando next to the freeway

LA voters have consistently approved new taxes for transit and road upgrades, but there’s an ongoing debate about the way these measures are structured, with many transit advocates saying it’s counterproductive to levy new taxes to fund both transit and highway improvements. Their argument is that if we continue to invest in infrastructure that makes it easier to drive cars, then people will just continue to drive cars, even though billions are being invested in new rail infrastructure. On the other hand, the people who write these measures say that voters won’t approve them if there’s no money for roadwork.

There does seem to be a conflict here, which may, in part, explain the dismal performance of LA’s investments in transit. The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (or Metro) has spent billions on new rail infrastructure over the past two decades, and yet transit ridership is lower than it was in the 80s. Some commentators believe that LA voters like the idea of transit, but ultimately end up sticking with their cars.

You can take the bus to the Empire Center, but as you can see by the photos below, most folks drive.

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Parking lot at the Empire Center

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Another shot of the parking lot at the Empire Center

Burbank is a really car-centric town. Aside from the Empire Center, the Downtown area also has the Burbank Town Center and an adjacent outdoor mall. On weekends the parking areas/structures for all three of these malls are packed with cars. Burbank residents love to participate in the great American pastime of driving somewhere and buying stuff.

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A family heading back to the car

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Shoppers in the parking lot at Empire Center

And let’s not forget the other great American pastime of sitting in a line of cars waiting for food.

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Line of cars waiting for their turn at the window

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The line of cars looping back through the parking lot

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The line of cars extends back around the building

Let’s face it. This is what powers our economy. Which I’m sure is why two of the primary goals of this project involve making it easier for people to drive to the Empire Center. Cars don’t just make it easier for Americans to buy stuff. Cars themselves are products that Americans love to buy. For decades one of the main drivers of the US economy has been the auto industry. After WWII, car manufacturing helped make the US the world’s major economic power. The jobs generated by the industry helped to create the American middle class, and the fact that they were union jobs meant fat paychecks that pumped dollars into the consumer economy. When the big auto makers were on the ropes a decade ago, Washington stepped in to rescue them, and the rebound in car sales was one of the things that lifted the US out of the recession.

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Freeway onramp to be permanently closed

But it does seem like we have a problem. One the one hand, we have government officials telling us we need to get away from cars and rely more on transit if we want to fight climate change. On the other hand, we have government officials, sometimes the same ones, promoting efforts like the Empire Interchange/Interstate 5 Improvement Project. We’re spending tons of money on transit, and at the same time we’re spending tons of money to make it easier for people to drive to the mall.

Does this make sense to you?

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Completed section of new roadway near Empire Center

Here are some links to basic info about the project.

Burbank Empire Project Page

The Empire Project: A Virtual Tour

My5LA Home Page

And here’s a story from the Burbank Leader that covers some of the reasons for delay.

5 Freeway Project, Hampered by Winter Weather, Has New Finish Date

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This Sporting Life

MG 01 Shot

When was the last time you went miniature golfing? I hadn’t played for years. Actually, more like decades. But a while ago I was hanging out with some friends, and when the subject of miniature golf came up, it resonated deep within me. I knew that something had been missing in my life. Now I knew what it was.

Over the weekend I went with my friends Christen and Kasmira to a course in Sherman Oaks. I was surprised at how crowded it was. But on thinking about it, I realized that there are probably thousands of people like me who also feel that void in their lives, and that we were all drawn there to fill that void.

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The sun was sinking below the castle parapet as we arrived.

To get to the golf course, we had to make our way through the arcade. That was intense. Honestly, I never play arcade games, but there’s something about the non-stop onslaught of piercing sound and day-glo colors that appeals to me. Though I probably wouldn’t want to spend more than fifteen minutes in that environment.

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A total sensory assault.

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You mean I can only win 1,000?

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Obviously this is a class joint.

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The crowd of golfers was keeping the staff busy.

Before you tee off, make sure you know the rules.

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If you want to play another round, you have to pay for it.

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Keep that spray paint in your pocket.

I have to tell you, in the weeks leading up to our miniature golf rendevous I was subjected to a debilitating psychological assault by my “friends”, and it definitely took a toll. Playing the first few holes, I was a mess. I couldn’t focus, my shots were all over the place, and I went way over par. But with intense concentration I managed to balance my chi, and by the fourth hole I had steadied my game.

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Waiting to tee off.

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Gloating over a successful shot.

Unfortunately, I never recovered completely. When the totals were added up at the end of the game, Kaz was the winner, and I came in second place. But I’m not discouraged. We’re already talking about a rematch.

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Sometimes the layout was challenging.

In spite of the humiliation of ending up as “the first loser”, I have to say I had a great time. The news is so bad these days, it was great to get away from the real world for a little while. It was a mild April night in the Valley. There were kids running around. We chatted with some of the other folks on the course. It was a great way to unwind.

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On this course nobody minds if you pull out your phone.

While we were strolling around I was checking out the scenery, both on the course and beyond. Looking over the fence to the north I saw what looked like a desolate urban wasteland. But when I said something about it to Christen, she told me it was a training academy for the Fire Department. Apparently during the week it’s filled with recruits learning how to fight fires. Not so desolate after all. I stopped to get a shot of the structures beyond the fence. Kaz wondered aloud whether the barbed wire was to keep us out, or to keep us in. Way too heavy a question for a miniature golf course. We moved on to the next hole.

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Looking through the barbed wire at the LAFD training grounds.

As the sun went down, colored lights came on. When we first arrived, we were debating whether to play one round or two. I have to admit, after eighteen holes I was exhausted. Obviously, not having played in years, I didn’t have the stamina I had when I was twelve.

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Around sunset the colored lights came on.

Finally, we added up the score and turned in our clubs. The game was over. But it was great to forget about the real world, even for a little while.

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Headworks Update

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Anybody who’s used Forest Lawn Dr. over the past few years has seen the massive construction site running along the LA River. This is the Headworks project, which involves building two giant underground reservoirs to replace the DWP’s Silverlake complex. I posted about it back in 2014, when phase one, Headworks East, was under construction, and it was completed in June 2015. At that time it was reported that the second phase would be finished in 2017. That didn’t happen. Though the City held a groundbreaking ceremony for Headworks West in 2016, progress since that time has been slow. Apparently this is because of unusual soil conditions at the site, which required extensive remediation.

When completed these two huge concrete tanks will hold a combined total of 110 million gallons. The plan is to cover them with soil and native vegetation, creating a park and wetlands with areas for hiking, cycling, and riding horses.. The project also involves the construction of a hydroelectric power plant.

Now and again I ride my bike along Forest Lawn Dr., and I’ve taken some photos of the site over the past couple years. Here’s a shot from June 2016 that was taken from the edge of the site near the entrance to Griffith Park.

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You may be wondering why I’m bothering to post a picture of a low hill covered with weeds. Now let me show you a photo taken from roughly the same perspective during the first phase of construction.

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The tank that was completed in 2015 lies beneath the soil you see in the first photo. Eventually a park will cover the entire site. Here’s another shot of from a different angle that shows the road which goes around the perimeter of the tank.

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Moving on to the site for the second phase of the project, Headworks West. You can see a huge mound has been formed by displaced soil.

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Here’s a shot of the site as preliminary work was being done.

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The following images show the site a couple months later, in August 2016.

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In this photo you can see the exposed side of the first reservoir.

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And here are some images from November 2017, when the structure was actually starting to take shape. In the first one you see the side of the completed reservoir again.

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Here it looks like they’re laying out frames.

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I’m assuming the wall at the left marks the perimeter of the new reservoir.

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The rebar starts to define the shape of the reservoir.

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The date for the completion of Headworks West is a little murky. One fact sheet published by the DWP says it’ll be done in 2018. But another, more detailed, fact sheet from the DWP says they’ll wrap it up in 2022. It also says they’ll finish the power plant in 2023, and the ecosystem restoration in 2024. So it could be some time before you’re able to ride your bike through the park.

A few links. The first is a video about the project from the DWP.

Headworks Video from DWP

The second link gives some background, and offers a detailed timeline.

Headworks Background, Fact Sheet and Timeline

And this last link shows a map of the completed project.

Map Completed Project

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The Renovated Glendale Central Library

GL 01 Wide

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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Farming on a Sliver of Land in the Suburbs

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I know there are urban farms all over LA, but the last place I would’ve expected to find one was Panorama City. One of the many suburbs that sprang up in the Valley after WWII, the area is a wide, flat expanse of tract homes and strip malls. Initially built in the late 40s, Panorama City was an early experiment in creating a master-planned community, filled largely with pre-fab houses made by Kaiser Homes.

Elliott Kuhn bought this small piece of land near Roscoe Blvd. in 2011, and started Cottonwood Urban Farm (CUF) in 2013. The farm would never have existed had the previous owner done what his neighbors were doing and sold the parcel to developers. Roy Peterson had owned the land since the 60s, and lived in a small house that sat on the back of the lot. It would have been easy for him to take an offer from the investors who were buying up the neighborhood during the last decade, filling the surrounding lots with big, nondescript, stucco boxes. But Peterson didn’t want that to happen to his property, and so when Kuhn approached him about buying the parcel to create an urban farm, he took less than he could’ve gotten elsewhere. The idea appealed to him.

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The home formerly occupied by Roy Peterson.

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Right next door you can see houses built during the construction boom of the last decade.

Kuhn had worked for a while as a teacher, and finally decided it wasn’t for him. He put in some time on farms in Austin, and also did a stint with Tree People. Buying the property in Panorama City was the first step toward starting his own farm, but it took a while to get the land in shape. One of the biggest challenges was clearing the property, which involved hauling off 15 tons of trash.

The farm is small, and the layout is compact, so it didn’t take long for Elliott to walk me through it. Toward the back there’s a tiny grove of fruit trees that produce peaches, plums, and nectarines. As we moved toward the front we walked past patches of lettuce, kale, and chard. A crowd of noisy ducks were splashing around in a tiny water hole, and off to one side there were stacks of boxes that serve as bee hives.

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You can find all kinds of things growing on this farm.

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You can see bees gathered around the opening in the box toward the back.

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The ducks try to keep cool on a hot summer day.

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A grinning statue of Buddha surrounded by greenery.

The farm gets its name from the giant cottonwood tree that rises high above it. Elliott believes it’s at least a hundred years old. I took a number of photos of the tree, and didn’t get a single image that really captured its beauty, but maybe this one will give you some idea.

CUF 50 Cottonwood Vert

Elliott explained that the produce is not certified organic, but he tries to rely on organic principles. Crop diversity and rotation help make the farm sustainable. I asked if he made his living just by farming, and he said no. He’s hoping to eventually make the farm economically self-sustaining by moving into specialty produce that he can sell for a higher profit. Right now he makes ends meet by patching together a few different gigs, including doing presentations for groups and also working as a gardener.

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Elliott tending the farm.

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Sunflowers are amazing.

When it was time for me to leave, Elliott opened the front gate and I stepped from the soft soil of the farm back onto the hard pavement that covers so much of suburbia. I walked back down to Roscoe Blvd. where rush hour traffic was speeding past in both directions.

I know there are a lot of good reasons to make farms a part of the urban fabric. They can foster a cleaner environment, reduce CO2 emissions and offer communities healthier food. But besides all that, it seems to me that in a sprawling metropolis like LA, it’s also important just to have a place that’s peaceful and green.

If you want to learn more about Cottonwood Urban Farm, here’s the link.

Cottonwood Urban Farm

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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.

 

A Breath of Fresh Exhaust

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The balconies at the Da Vinci offer a view of the Hollywood Freeway.

A while ago I wrote a post about a project going up in my neighborhood. The site was less than 200 feet from the Hollywood Freeway, and the developer was capping it with rooftop decks. In light of the extensive research showing elevated health risks for people living near freeways, this seemed absolutely insane. But after a few phone calls and e-mails I confirmed that both the Department of City Planning (DCP) and the Department of Building & Safety (DBS) had signed off on it. And while I don’t have much respect for the the folks at City Hall these days, this seemed like a new low. I felt like they’d really crossed a line.

I was so wrong. The City crossed that line a long time ago. Turns out they’ve been routinely approving new residential projects near freeways that include rooftop decks and/or balconies. In spite of years of research that has shown strong links between exposure to freeway traffic and increased health risks, especially for children, the DCP and the DBS have okayed a number of projects near freeways that offer these amenities.

For over 20 years, USC has been gathering data on health impacts related to living near freeways. By the early years of the last decade, they were warning that residents in these areas faced significantly higher risk of asmtha, heart attacks and lung cancer, and that children were at risk of suffering permanent lung damage. In 2005 the California Air Resources Board published a handbook that specifically warned against residential construction within 500 feet of freeways. The City of LA, however, argues that the need for new housing outweighs the health risks.

But even if you buy that argument, how can you justify approving amenities that put people in direct contact with some of the most toxic air in the nation? Balconies and rooftop decks are not necessary. And in fact, when they’re placed on residential structures less than 500 feet from a freeway, this clearly fits the definition of a hazardous building as outlined by the LA Municipal Code:

Whenever a building or structure, used or intended to be used for dwelling purposes, because of dilapidation, decay, damage or faulty construction or arrangement, or otherwise, is insanitary or unfit for human habitation or is in a condition that is likely to cause sickness or disease, when so determined by the health officer, or is likely to work injury to the health, safety or general welfare of those living within.  [Emphasis mine.]

So allowing these features creates buildings that the City’s own Municipal Code defines as hazardous. Does that stop the City from approving them? Of course not.

The City does require that new buildings provide a certain amount of open space, and certainly developers will tell you that rooftop decks and balconies are one way of fulfilling that requirement in dense urban areas. But let’s look at a couple of the objectives listed for open space in the City’s General Plan….

2) to provide safer play areas for children

4) to increase natural light and ventilation

Can anybody argue that a balcony placed a couple hundred feet from a dense concentration of nitrogen oxide, CO2 and particulate emissions fulfills these objectives?

Sure, there are a number of apartment buildings near freeways with balconies and/or rooftop decks that were constructed long before the health risks became clear. But City Hall has known about the dangers since at least 2005. Let’s take a look at some of the residential projects they’ve approved over the last ten years or so….

Here’s Patio del Cielo at 4410 Sepulveda in Sherman Oaks. You could translate “cielo” as either “sky” or “heaven”, but obviously the implication is you’ll be living somewhere far removed from the hustle and bustle of the city. Not too far removed from the San Diego Freeway, though, which is just about 200 feet away.

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Traffic lining up for the freeway in front of Patio del Cielo.

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Rush hour traffic on the San Diego Freeway.

The balconies/decks that adorn these homes along 2775 Cahuenga are between 100 and 300 feet from the traffic on the Hollywood Freeway. And since this housing complex is right on Cahuenga Blvd., from June through September residents can enjoy the spectacle of thousands of cars inching their way past during Hollywood Bowl season.

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Balconies at the front of 2775 Cahuenga.

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Traffic on the Hollywood Freeway near 2775 Cahuenga.

The Carlton, at 5845 Carlton Way, has both balconies and rooftop decks. I bet you get a stunning view of the Hollywood Freeway from the roof. It’s just about 200 feet away.

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The Carlton is the white building on the left.

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A view of the rooftop from the rear of The Carlton.

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A view of rush hour traffic near The Carlton.

But first prize for really bad planning goes to the Da Vinci, at 909 W. Temple. Developer Geoff Palmer has made a fortune building massive residential complexes near freeways, but this may be his masterpiece. The Da Vinci sits right where the Hollywood and the Harbor Freeways meet. And just like every other Palmer apartment block I’ve seen Downtown, the developer has made sure that residents can get their fill of diesel fumes and particulate emissions simply by stepping out onto their private balcony.

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Would you say those balconies are 100 feet away from the freeway?

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Traffic on the freeway north of the Da Vinci.

You could argue that a number of Palmer’s buildings went up before the adverse impacts of living near freeways were fully known. But City Hall approved the Da Vinci years after our elected officials had learned about the dangers. Again, they’ll tell you that we can’t afford not to build near freeways. But giving people balconies so they can get a face full of auto exhaust? How do you justify that?

I’ve suggested before that people write to the Mayor if they feel this needs to stop. Obviously, it hasn’t had much impact. But I’d like to suggest something a little different this time. How about writing to the Mayor and copying your congressional rep? Maybe if City Hall heard from someone at the federal level they’d think twice before approving hazardous amenities on apartments next to freeways.

Try using the following subject line….

Why Does the City of LA Keep Putting Residents’ Health at Risk?

Here’s Garcetti’s e-mail address.

mayor.garcetti@lacity.org

And if you don’t know who represents you in Congress, use the link below to find out.

http://www.house.gov/representatives/find/