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/

Culture Is Community

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Years ago I worked at The Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in Downtown. I loved working there, because it meant always being around art. That was very cool. But after a while, I started to realize there was a problem with museums. Just by their nature, they put barriers between the art and the audience. For instance, MOCA had a Rauschenberg combine in its collection. When it was first shown back in the 50s, it was an interactive piece and the artist expected people to touch it. But by the time it was acquired by the museum, the combine was worth over a million bucks, and if you tried to touch it, the security guard would freak out. Unfortunately, that’s what happens when artists become icons and their work ends up in institutions.

So it’s really cool when artists make work that’s always accessible to its audience. Art that’s part of the daily life of the community. That’s why LA’s murals are so important. They’re not sitting in a temperature controlled gallery surrounded by security guards. They’re out there on the street, in the midst of the community. And Pacoima is one community that’s extremely lucky in this respect. The streets there are loaded with murals. They come in all sizes, shapes and colors. They can be poetic, patriotic or political. Many feature pop culture icons, but some of them are all about ideas.

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Van Nuys Boulevard at San Fernando Road

Once you get to Pacoima, it’s not even like you have to go looking for the murals. Just head up Van Nuys Blvd. and the art starts jumping out at you. This community has actively supported local artists, and it’s important to emphasize that this is a community effort. While individual artists put their names to the finished work, these murals are a team effort, and often they list the names of the many people involved in making it happen.

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Lady of the Valley by Levi Ponce, near Van Nuys and Arleta

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Born in East Valley by Levi Ponce, at Van Nuys and Bartee

LA has come to be known as a mural mecca, but City Hall hasn’t always treated these artists well. In 2002, to settle a longstanding dispute with billboard companies, an ordinance was passed to make murals illegal. But it got worse. In the years that followed, the City obliterated a number of these works by painting them over. One article I read said that 300 murals were lost, but it’s probably impossible to calculate the real number. The City passed an ordinance to lift the ban in 2013, and since then artists have been making up for lost time. It’s weird, though, because while the City went after illegal murals with a vengeance, it’s never taken any serious action to crack down on illegal billboards. I bet if the artists had been able to shower our elected officials with campaign cash like the billboard companies have, there never would have been a ban in the first place.

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Sacrificing to Protect by STP Foundation, near Van Nuys and Vena

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Pacoima Kahlo* by Levi Ponce, at Van Nuys and Ralston

Many of the murals celebrate pop culture icons, like the two pictured here featuring Ritchie Valens and Elvira.

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La Bamba/Ritchie Valens by Hector Ponce, at Van Nuys and Amboy

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Closer shot of Ritchie Valens

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Elvira en Pacoima by Hector Ponce, near Van Nuys and Haddon

But they also focus on lesser known names, people whose lives and work have a meaning to those in the community.

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Artistas de la Comunidad by Hector Ponce, near Van Nuys and Laurel Canyon

This isn’t a mural, but it caught my eye. The caricature of Cantinflas, a forgotten star from another age, painted on the front of a shuttered fast-food stand, seemed both funny and sad at the same time.

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The theme of freedom comes up over and over again. Sometimes it’s political. Sometimes it’s purely personal.

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Freedom Fighter by Kristy Sandoval, at Van Nuys and Pala

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Decolonized by Kristy Sandoval, at Van Nuys and Bradley

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La Lady Liberty by Levi Ponce, at Van Nuys and Bradley

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Without Boundaries by Levi Ponce, at Van Nuys and Haddon

There’s plenty of awesome art in Pacoima, but you can find murals all over LA. If you want to see more, The Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles is a great place to start. If you haven’t been to their web site already, you need to pay them a visit.

The Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles


*  This seems to be the second mural featuring Frida Kahlo by Levi Ponce at this same location.  I found an earlier version on the net that had the title Pacoima Kahlo, but I’m not sure if that title applies to the current version.

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Waiting for Help, While Demolition Draws Nearer

Squatters have taken over a house in Valley Village.

Squatters have taken over a house in Valley Village.

Six months ago I’d never heard of The Hermitage. Because I follow development issues, I’d been copied on a few e-mails that described an urban farm in Valley Village that was threatened by a proposed residential project. But there are so many communities getting hammered by reckless development, I didn’t pay much attention. Until November, when I finally decided to check it out.

First, let me show you a few photos of what The Hermitage used to look like.

A garden in front of The Hermitage.

A garden in front of The Hermitage.

Chickens roaming freely.

Chickens roaming freely.

Open space inside The Hermitage.

Open space inside The Hermitage.

A cat checking out the garden.

A cat checking out the garden.

Ducks by the pool.

Ducks by the pool.

Another one of the residents of The Hermitage.

Another one of the residents of The Hermitage.

As you can see, it used to be a lovely place, a small collection of rustic buildings that served as a home to chickens, ducks, dogs, cats and bees. A unique urban farm in the middle of the San Fernando Valley. Now let me show you what it looked like when I visited.

This is what the garden out front looks like now.

This is what the garden out front looks like now.

A car left sitting on the property by squatters.

A car left sitting on the property by squatters.

A view of the open space within The Hermitage.

A view of the open space within The Hermitage.

Quite a change. You’re probably asking, “What happened?” Well, a lot of things. The story is so complicated, so twisted, and so disturbing on so many levels, I’m not sure if I can tell it properly. But this story needs to be told, so I’ll do my best.

Let’s start with the former manager, who still resides on the property, though she’s facing eviction. Because of her current situation (which will become clear as you read on), she was nervous about having her name appear in print, so I’ll call her the caretaker. The caretaker has been living at The Hermitage for over 20 years, and has truly taken care of the place. In addition to renting and maintaining the units, she also planted gardens, cared for the animals, and invited groups from the surrounding community to come and learn about nature.

But last year the caretaker’s lawyer informed her that developer Urban Blox was planning to buy the property. She was surprised, since she had an agreement with the owners that gave her the option to purchase The Hermitage if they ever decided to sell.

And this is where it starts getting complicated. Urban Blox did sign an agreement to purchase the property, but it’s not clear whether the owners, two elderly women, signed or not. While their signatures appear to be on a contract for the sale of the property, both women stated in subsequent depositions that they had no recollection of signing the agreement. It may be that a relative arranged the deal without their permission. In October 2014, the grandson of one of the owner’s showed up at the caretaker’s door to deliver a letter stating that she was no longer the manager. But in spite of his claim to be acting on the owners’ authority, their signatures were nowhere to be found on the letter. And in the same depositions referenced above, the owners say they never retained the grandson to represent them.

The caretaker made numerous attempts to contact the owners, without success. After months of uncertainty, having heard nothing from the owners and fearing that they were ready to sell to Urban Blox, the caretaker sued them to enforce her right to buy The Hermitage. In fall of this year, the LLC set up by Urban Blox to develop the property filed a suit against the owners, then amended the complaint to include the caretaker, then dropped the owners from the suit. Both cases are still pending

But that’s just one part of the story. By summer of this year, all the former residents of The Hermitage were gone. And while the legal power plays were unfolding, squatters began moving in to one of the vacant buildings on the property. The first one arrived in early summer, and by September a number of others had moved in. Since the squatters’ arrival, the caretaker reports numerous acts of theft and vandalism. Tools have been stolen from her workshop. Trees have been cut down and plants have been ripped out of the ground. She doesn’t feel safe when she’s at home, but she’s also afraid to leave, for fear of what might happen when she’s gone. And she’s kept a detailed log recounting numerous incidents.

But it’s not just the caretaker who’s been affected. Neighbors started getting nervous when they noticed strange chemical smells emanating from the house occupied by the squatters, and they were more than nervous when they saw visitors coming and going at all hours of the night. And there’s more. One of the squatters has been seen by neighbors walking down the sidewalk with a rifle in hand. This has also been documented in photographs. Since the squatters showed up the neighborhood has seen a rise in burglaries and car break-ins.

I talked to a couple of people who live in the community. The first woman I asked about the squatters told me she was frightened for the caretaker and frightened for the neighborhood. She also asked me to withhold her name for fear of reprisals. She did share her suspicions about the squatters running a drug lab, and told me that one of them had been shot recently. She didn’t feel safe, and wondered why the police weren’t doing more to protect residents. The second woman I spoke to was more angry than frightened, and she didn’t mind giving her name. Fiona Manning confirmed what the first neighbor had reported, and added a few more details. She has seen the squatters sitting out in the open drinking and smoking dope. She’s heard gunshots at night. She recounted an incident where a neighbor asked the squatters to turn down their music, and they responded with threats. Fiona also described an encounter she had with one of the squatters. As she was walking down the street, a young man reeking of pot started following her, and calling out, “I know you, I know you. Are you a friend of my grandmother’s?”

I had a brief exchange with one of the squatters on my first visit to The Hermitage. I don’t claim to be a substance abuse expert, but having lived in Hollywood for 20 years, I’ve gotten pretty good at recognizing meth addicts. This glassy-eyed, jacked-up, paranoid kid seemed to show all the signs.

What makes this even weirder is that the caretaker and her neighbors have called the North Hollywood Division of the LAPD on numerous occasions, and while the police have come by about a dozen times, they’ve taken no action to rein in the squatters. The caretaker and Fiona both report that they’ve been told by officers not to call any more. Apparently the North Hollywood Division has decided the problems have arisen from a landlord/tenant dispute, but that doesn’t begin to explain the numerous issues involved. Whatever’s happening with the property itself, the fact that the neighbors have seen one of the squatters carrying a gun, have heard gunshots, and reported burglaries and car break-ins seems to indicate there’s a little more going on than a tiff between a landlord and a tenant. I was surprised to hear about the North Hollywood Division’s apparent reluctance to take action. The few times I’ve called the LAPD they’ve usually been quick to respond and ready to help. I can’t understand why they haven’t tried harder to address this situation, especially since it seems that some of the squatters are on probation.

Once it became clear that the police weren’t going to take action, Fiona and others tried calling Councilmember Paul Krekorian’s office. Though there were numerous conversations with one of his staffers, and promises of help, nothing ever materialized. Actually, this doesn’t surprise me at all. I’ve been in touch with a number of people who live in Krekorian’s district who’ve reported the same thing. His staffers are friendly, they’re always willing to listen, but the conversations never produce any results. A number of Krekorian’s constituents seem to feel that time spent talking to his staff is time wasted. You’d think that a councilmember might be moved to take action if constituents complained they were living in fear because of a group of squatters. Apparently Krekorian doesn’t think it’s a problem.

After receiving no help from Krekorian, the caretaker tried getting in touch with State Assemblymember Adrin Nazarian, but nothing came of that. In desperation, she tried contacting every member of the State Assembly. Only Patty López’ office responded. Fiona says, “She was a godsend.” While the neighborhood’s own elected representatives apparently didn’t feel the situation warranted taking action, Patty López organized a meeting with members of the community. About 15 people showed up, and they had plenty to say. While López declined to get involved in problems related to the squatters, she was concerned enough about the project proposed by Urban Blox that she wrote a letter to Nazarian’s office. In it, she lists a number issues raised by the community, including vacating a public street for the developer’s benefit, the loss of green space, the loss of parking and impacts to wildlife.

The City Council's PLUM Committee has approved turning over the west end of Weddington to the developer.

The City Council has approved turning over the west end of Weddington to the developer.

In fact, throughout the approval process people have expressed serious doubts about the project. When it came before the Area Planning Commission, Vice-President Lydia Drew Mather said she wished the Council Office and the Developer had worked more with the community to address potential problems, and added that she felt the project was moving forward too fast. Commissioner Rebecca Beatty voiced concern about the fact that the project would get rid of rent-controlled units. Even City Councilmember José Huizar, Chair of the Planning & Land Use Management Committee, questioned the wisdom of greenlighting a project when the developer’s right to the property was being debated in court.

A rendering of the bland, generic units that Urban Blox wants to build.

A rendering of the bland, generic units that Urban Blox wants to build.

But did that stop the City Council from approving Urban Blox’ plan? Of course not. The Council gave it a thumbs up. They’re apparently okay with bulldozing rent-controlled units, vacating a public street, cutting down trees and displacing wildlife. This is what City Hall does. Our elected officials are happy to hand the developers an entitlement worth millions of dollars so they can get rid of a unique community resource and replace it with high-priced housing.

There’s one more detail I want to add just to throw a little more light on how projects get approved in LA. When a developer comes to the City with a proposed project, California law requires the Department of City Planning to prepare an Initial Study to assess what impacts the project might have. The Initial Study is used to determine what level of environmental review is required. In this case the Initial Study was signed by Planning Assistant Courtney Shum. Does it surprise you to learn that before taking the position at City Planning, Ms. Shum worked as a registered lobbyist for Max Development, LLC (DBA three6ixty), a firm that has received tens of thousands of dollars from its client Urban Blox?

If it was just a matter of the caretaker finding a new place, maybe she could walk away from this mess. But The Hermitage is also home to chickens, ducks, dogs, cats and bees. She is responsible for all of them. So she stays close to her small house and cares for the animals, reluctant to leave for fear of what might happen while she’s gone. And she still hopes that somehow she can hang on to her home.

———-

If you see a problem with a City Planning Assistant being involved with a project that benefits a client of her former employer’s, you might want to drop a line to Planning Director Vince Bertoni. Here’s his e-mail address.

vince.bertoni@lacity.org

Don’t forget to include the case number in the subject line.

ENV-2015-2618-MND

And you could also copy your own Councilmember on the e-mail, just to let them know you’re fed up with the way City Hall does business.

A view of Weddington from The Hermitage before the trouble started.

A view of Weddington from The Hermitage before the trouble started.

How Do We Help the Homeless?

Notice outside of vacant homes on Roscoe Blvd. in Panorama City.

Notice outside of vacant homes on Roscoe Blvd. in Panorama City.

If you live in LA, by now you’ve gotten used to the fact that homeless people are part of the landscape. No matter where you go, Downtown, Koreatown, Hollywood, Van Nuys, you see people living on the streets. It used to be that homelessness was one of those things you could escape by running to the suburbs, but not any more. Nowadays Burbank, Glendale, Encino, all have their share of people living in tents and cardboard boxes. The homeless are everywhere, and there’s no simple solution.

The homeless population in Panorama City has been growing for a long time. For a while there was a large encampment off of Van Nuys Blvd. over by Smart & Final. Not too long ago the City dismantled it, but of course, that didn’t solve the problem. The residents of the camp were dispersed, but they didn’t go away. They just bundled up their stuff and moved it somewhere else.

Homeless encampment near Roscoe and Lennox.

Homeless encampment near Roscoe and Lennox.

Another shot of the makeshift shelter.

Another shot of the makeshift shelter.

At the corner of Roscoe and Lennox there was a row of houses that were empty. A developer had bought them intending to tear them down, but since work on the project hadn’t started yet, the homes just stood there, vacant. It wasn’t long before a group of homeless people decided to move in. The police chased them out, but instead of leaving the area, they simply created a makeshift shelter on the parkway in front of the houses. As weeks went by the shelter grew larger and longer, until it was difficult to pass on the sidewalk.

Vacant houses near Roscoe and Lennox.

Vacant houses near Roscoe and Lennox.

A view from the alley behind the vacant homes.

A view from the alley behind the vacant homes.

I was curious to find out what was going on with the empty houses, so I contacted Councilmember Nury Martinez’ office. I got a call back from her Communications Director, Adam Bass, who told me that the developer had pulled a demolition permit for the houses, though he wasn’t sure when they’d actually be bulldozed. I asked how Councilmember Martinez was dealing with the homeless situation in her district, and he informed me that earlier this year a new program had been launched in CD 6. The Homeless Outreach and Proactive Engagement (HOPE) initiative brings together the LAPD, the Bureau of Sanitation, and the LA Homeless Services Authority to engage with those living on the streets. While the City still clears away illegal encampments, the idea is to offer assistance to those who want it. Bass told me that since May, the HOPE initiative had helped dozens of homeless people in the Valley, in some cases finding them space in shelters and in others giving a hand to those looking for jobs. Over the summer the program expanded into the LAPD’s Central and West bureaus, and next month it’ll move into South LA.

This is a big improvement over the City’s past efforts. Some of City Hall’s recent attempts to deal with the homeless have been outrageously heavy-handed. Their efforts were so draconian that they were challenged in court three times, and the City lost every time. So the idea of a multi-pronged approach that brings different agencies together to offer assistance is a welcome one, and I’m glad it’s been successful so far. But unfortunately, the problem is so big and so complex that it’s going to take a lot more to bring about real change.

There are no easy answers. I’ve talked to a lot of people about this issue, and everybody’s got ideas, but there’s no consensus. In November there will be a measure on the City ballot to approve a $1.2 billion bond which would pay for construction of permanent supportive housing. At the same time, the County is expected to ask voters to approve a quarter cent sales tax increase which would help provide new services to the homeless. These initiatives could make a big difference, but really they both have to pass in order to make things work. To construct new housing without expanding staff to provide support for the homeless would be a waste of money, and the same goes for offering additional support without getting people off the streets.

And it could be that both of these measures will go down. In this upcoming election, the City, County and State are asking voters to approve billions in taxes and bond measures, and it seems possible that many voters, overwhelmed by the flood of initiatives, won’t be in the mood to approve anything.

As for other ideas on how to help the homeless, some people have suggested that the City use existing vacant housing to provide shelter. My feeling is that without support services, this would be futile. The idea of gathering tens of thousands of homeless together in empty buildings without offering mental health services, help for addicts or counseling seems like a recipe for disaster. Another proposal is to get the state and/or federal government to kick in more money. Garcetti already tried that. It went nowhere.

Personally, I think the most important thing is to keep people from becoming homeless in the first place. This probably sounds so obvious you may ask why I’m even mentioning it, but it’s important to keep in mind. One of the leading causes of homelessness is eviction, and thousands of LA tenants have been kicked out of their homes in recent years. In part, this is because the City offers incentives to developers that make it very tempting for them to take advantage of the Ellis Act. If City Hall really wants to make a dent in the homeless problem, our elected officials need to stop rewarding landlords who throw their tenants out. The recent passage of an ordinance to crack down on “cash for keys” scams is a good start, but City Hall needs to do more. If you don’t want people living on the streets, then you need to do everything possible to keep them in their homes.

Demolition of the houses on Roscoe.

Demolition of the houses on Roscoe.

Earlier this month, the homeless encampment on Roscoe was dismantled. Around the same time, the houses that had been standing empty were demolished. But it’s only a matter of time before another makeshift shelter springs up in the neighborhood. This problem isn’t going away any time soon.

pc-a7-flat-alley

The Sky Above, the Traffic Below

a MTA UC 10 Persp

Lately most of the press on the MTA has been about its rail expansions, but there are other, smaller projects that deserve attention, too. Work was recently completed on both the North Hollywood Station Underpass and the Universal City Pedestrian Bridge. There have been some complaints from transit advocates about these projects, but I have to say I think both offer significant benefits.

The smaller and less flashy of the two is the underpass. The construction phase was a huge pain, but now that it’s finished I think it’s a big improvement over the previous set-up. Using the tunnel to transfer from the Red Line to the Orange Line is much faster, and much safer. I remember waiting for the light to change so I could cross Lankershim, and I’d see people dashing across the street, dodging oncoming traffic, just so they could catch an Orange Line bus. So it’s definitely a step up in terms of safety. I also like the bright, playful design of the underpass. It fits in well with vibe of the Red Line Station.

Street level entrance to the North Hollywood Station Underpass.

Street level entrance to the North Hollywood Station Underpass.

A closer view of the entrance.

A closer view of the entrance.

Looking down the stairwell.

Looking down the stairwell.

Looking up the stairwell.

Looking up the stairwell.

The first time I checked out the bridge at Universal City I had some reservations. While it’s an interesting structure, my initial reaction was that it was a little too severe. But while I was taking photos the other day, I was really impressed by the spaces it creates, and also how it exploits the views of the surrounding community. On one side you have the low roll of the Hollywood Hills, on the other side the Valley is stretching out to the horizon. Look up and you see massive high-rises cutting into the sky, look down and you see the traffic swirling on the street below.

A view from the west side of the Universal City Pedestrian Bridge.

A view from the west side of the Universal City Pedestrian Bridge.

Looking across the bridge to Universal City.

Looking across the bridge to Universal City.

Looking down on Lankershim Blvd..

Looking down on Lankershim Blvd..

A view of the Hollywood Hills.

A view of the Hollywood Hills.

A crowd of people leaving the theme park.

A crowd of people leaving the theme park.

Another shot of Lankershim.

Another shot of Lankershim.

Shadows stretching across the bridge as the sun goes down.

Shadows stretching across the bridge as the sun goes down.

The west end of the bridge, with the hills in the distance.

The west end of the bridge, with the hills in the distance.

Transit planning is a large and complicated puzzle. I don’t claim to understand all the intricacies, and I know that some people feel the money spent on these projects could have been used for other purposes. But I see definite advantages in both the bridge and the underpass. I’m glad to have them.

a MTA UC 75 Brdg Silh

Moving Forward in Reseda

The Reseda Theater

The Reseda Theater

A little over a year ago I wrote a post about how people in Reseda were frustrated. For years the business district in the heart of the community has been struggling, and projects that were supposed to revitalize the area somehow never materialized.

Well, there’s been some progress since then. Just recently a deal was struck to reopen the long vacant Reseda Theater as a multiplex, and to create 34 units for senior citizens adjacent to the building. The multiplex will be operated by Laemmle Theatres, which played a part in revitalizing North Hollywood with its complex there.

This deal is just a first step. Members of the community have been struggling for years to revitalize the neighborhood, and many hope that this project signals a turnaround. The Reseda Neighborhood Council and Councilmember Bob Blumenfield have worked hard to engage the community and rustle up the money to make this happen. For more details, see this article from the Daily News.

Reseda Theater to become Laemmle Multiplex

But redevelopment is only part of the equation. Bringing new life to a community requires a lot more than investment. It’s really about people. Creating community means creating a sense that the people who live in the area are connected, that they share something more than a zip code. This piece from the LA Weekly caught my attention.

Reseda Rising Artwalk Proves the Valley Is Cool

The artwalk was put together by 11:11 ACC and the Department of Cultural Affairs. I’d never heard of 11:11 ACC before, so I took a look at their web site and found out that they’re an artists’ collective operating in the San Fernando Valley. Sounds like an interesting group. If you want to check them out, here’s the link.

11:11 ACC

Seems like things are finally happening in Reseda. Hopefully this is just the beginning.