Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992

Twi 1

During the month of April there were plenty of reminders in newspapers and magazines, on radio and TV, of the civil disturbance that rocked Los Angeles twenty five years ago. I’ve seen plenty of coverage of those events over the years, but for my money the most honest and most insightful account of what went down is still Anna Deavere Smith’s Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992.

I went back and watched it again recently. If you’re not familiar it, Smith started by interviewing scores of people who lived in LA at the time the violence broke out. Using only the words of these witnesses, she constructed a one-woman show where she transforms herself into one character atfer another, weaving together an amazingly complex panorama, not just of the events of April 1992, but of the city at that time.

If you haven’t seen it, I recommend it highly. A video of the entire performance is available via WNET, a PBS affiliate. Here’s the link.

Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992

Twi 6 Baton

Trashing a Treasure

Norton Entrance a

Well, for a while it looked as though the preservation community might manage to save the two lovely apartment buildings on Norton Avenue that were slated for demolition.  But the developers have some sharp lawyers on their side, and now it appears that Norton Court (424-430 N. Norton Avenue) and Norton Flats (412-420 N. Norton Avenue) will soon be gone.

Members of the community have been working for months to save these beautiful examples of courtyard apartments.  Both buildings were constructed in the 20s, and according to Survey LA, they are among the “few remaining examples in the area that [retain their] original site plan, landscape and hardscape elements, and architectural features.”

Councilmember David Ryu came to the rescue recently with an emergency nomination of the buildings as Historical-Cultural Monuments (HCMs).  But the developers’ lawyers found a way to block the nomination on a technicality.  It seems they’re determined to destroy these buildings at all costs.

Norton Stairs b

This is not the first time the Cohanzads have knocked down a building that could have been protected as an HCM.  Whether they’re operating as Wiseman Residential, or one of the numerous LLCs they’ve created to protect themselves from liability, the Cohanzads have made a practice of knocking down older buildings to put up new ones.  They don’t seem to care how much of LA’s history they’re destroying, or how their projects affect LA’s communities.  They argue that by levelling small buildings and putting up big ones they’re doing us a favor by increasing the supply of housing.  But many of the units they’ve demolished were rent controlled, and the new units they’re creating are way too expensive for someone earning LA’s median income.  Doesn’t sound like a very good deal to me.

And then there’s the loss of treasures like the Norton courtyard apartments.  The number of structures like this is shrinking, and there are few left that are still substantially intact.  But the Cohanzads don’t seem to care.  I guess it’s all about profit for them.

It may be too late to save the Norton apartments, but we can try.  Please e-mail Councilmember David Ryu to thank him for his efforts so far, and to encourage him to maintain his support for preservation of these buildings.

David E. Ryu            david.ryu@lacity.org

Use the subject line, “Demolition of Norton Apartments”.

While you’re at it, copy your own Councilmember on the message.  Or better yet, copy them all.  And don’t forget the Mayor.

Gilbert Cedillo           councilmember.cedillo@lacity.org

Paul Krekorian         councilmember.krekorian@lacity.org

Bob Blumenfield      councilmember.blumenfield@lacity.org

Paul Koretz   paul.koretz@lacity.org

Nury Martinez           councilmember.martinez@lacity.org

Felipe Fuentes         councilmember.fuentes@lacity.org

Marqueece Harris-Dawson            councilmember.harris-dawson@lacity.org

Curren D. Price, Jr.  councilmember.price@lacity.org

Herb J. Wesson, Jr.             councilmember.wesson@lacity.org

Mike Bonin    councilmember.bonin@lacity.org

Mitchell Englander councilmember.englander@lacity.org

Mitch O’Farrell          councilmember.ofarrell@lacity.org

Jose Huizar   councilmember.huizar@lacity.org

Joe Buscaino           councildistrict15@lacity.org

Eric Garcetti  mayor.garcetti@lacity.org

We may not win this fight, but we can go down swinging.

Norton Lamp c

A Crash Course in Asian American Activism

CAM 01 Ext Sign Stand

A while ago I read in the LA Weekly that the Chinese American Museum was presenting an exhibit about the Asian American activist movement from the 60s through the 80s.  It caught my attention for two reasons.  First, I had no idea that Asian Americans played a significant part in that era’s counterculture.  Second, I didn’t even know we had a Chinese American Museum in LA.  So I figured it was time to learn more about both.

It was well worth taking the trip to Downtown.  The museum is in a historic building just off the plaza at El Pueblo de Los Angeles.  Before I even got to the exhibition about Asian American activism, I spent some time with two smaller shows on the ground floor.  Journeys and Origins deal with Chinese migration to the US and the formation of Chinese communities in LA.  These shows are small, but beautifully put together, with a rich collection of artifacts.

CAM 10 Imm Room

Exhibits on the first floor document Chinese migration to the US.

CAM 12 Imm Page

Documents and photos help tell the story.

CAM 14 Imm Chairs

Furniture, cookery, toys and textiles are featured.

CAM Imm Abacus

Does anyone under 40 even know what an abacus is?

Then I went upstairs to check out the main attraction, Roots, Asian American Movements in Los Angeles, 1968-80s.

CAM 20 Rts Title

This show was a real eye opener.  Like I said before, I had no idea Asian Americans were so much a part of the counterculture in the 60s and 70s.  In one respect what they accomplished is even more impressive than the Black and Latino movements, because the Asian community was so much more diverse.  Activists representing Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Filipino and other cultures made a conscious effort to work together to push for change.  These groups did not have a shared history, and at times had been bitterly divided, but they realized they had a better chance of being heard if they spoke with one voice.

CAM 22 Rts Shirts

Silkscreened T-shirts were one way of spreading the message.

CAM 23 Rts Buttons

Activists worked to address a variety of issues.

CAM 24 Rts Records

Music was another way of reaching out.

CAM 26 Rts Gidra

Gidra published news, commentary and art from 1969 through 1974.

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Come-Unity promoted cooperation across racial boundaries.

In the 60s pop culture was exploding, and members of the movement recognized that mass media was a powerful tool for getting the word out.  The show includes records, magazines, posters and other artifacts from the era.  Staging concerts, printing posters and making T-shirts helped spread awareness beyond the community.  While these activists addressed issues that affected Asian Americans, they also reached out and forged bonds with the wider protest movement.  It was a time when boundaries were being erased, and people of all kinds were coming together to address the problems facing the country.  If only we could revive that spirit these days.

The show runs through June 11, 2017.  If you want more info, here’s the link.

Chinese American Museum

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Post-it notes left by museum visitors.

Remaking the May Co.

Construction of the new Academy Museum has begun.

Construction of the new Academy Museum has begun.

A while ago I was at LACMA, and as I walked down a flight of stairs on the west side of the campus I looked over at the May Co.. It had a big hole in it. Construction had started on the new museum for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences.

May Co. building with a section removed.

May Co. building with a section removed.

Looking through the May Co. to Fairfax.

Looking through the May Co. to Fairfax.

It’s taken a long time to get to this point. The project has been hampered by controversy, ranging from construction impacts on the community to issues with the design. Hopefully all that’s been resolved. At any rate, the May Co. is being taken apart so that it can be put back together again, this time with a massive annex that will contain a state of the art theatre.

A view of the site facing Fairfax.

A view of the site facing Fairfax.

The rear of the building.

The rear of the building.

The original May Co. building was designed by Albert C. Martin and Samuel Marx and it opened in 1939. For decades it was a major department store, but as malls began to draw more shoppers it went into decline. LACMA took it over 1994, but it seemed like they never used it much. In 2014 the Academy made a deal to lease the property with the goal of building a museum. After a long search, Renzo Piano was brought on as architect.

A view of the site facing Wilshire.

A view of the site facing Wilshire.

A view of the empty structure.

A view of the empty structure.

And a closer view of the interior.

And a closer view of the interior.

I’m glad things are moving forward. People have been talking for years about how LA should have a museum devoted to film, and it’s high time somebody made this happen. According to the Academy web site, “The Museum will provide interactive, immersive, and engaging exhibitions that will pull back the curtain on moviemaking and highlight the history and future of the arts and sciences of film.” Sounds good to me.

Heavy machinery and piles of debris.

Heavy machinery and piles of debris.

Check out the Academy’s web site to learn more.

Academy Museum

They’ve also got a cool timeline for the May Co., showing photos of the building through the years.

May Co. Building Timeline

I know it hasn’t been easy for the Academy to deal with all the challenges of creating a new museum, but it looks like they’re on their way. Let’s hope it’s smooth sailing from here on.

The corner of the building at Wilshire and Fairfax.

The corner of the building at Wilshire and Fairfax.

1939 Meets 1984

US Wide

Not too long ago I was taking the train to visit some friends. I got to Union Station a little early, so I thought I’d buy a paper to read on the trip. But as I was walking in the direction of the newsstand, I got a small shock. It wasn’t there any more.

The place where the newsstand used to be.

The place where the newsstand used to be.

Now, I know people don’t read papers like they used to, so maybe I’m just a dinosaur living in the past. This newsstand did have a pretty good selection of newspapers and magazines, but it’s not like it was a historic landmark. It was just a tiny little shop that sold the kind of stuff you buy when you’re waiting for a train.

But that isn’t the only thing that’s changed at Union Station. In fact, the whole feel of the place is changing, and I can’t say I like it.

Completed in 1939, Union Station was designed by a group of architects led by John and Donald Parkinson. It brings together a number of different styles that were popular at the time, including Streamline Moderne, Mission Revival and Art Deco, and it has the feel of a massive museum devoted to a bygone era. It used to be a great place to chill. I liked hanging out there. I’d show up early if I was taking the train and relax in the old leather chairs. Read a paper. Have some coffee. Watch the sunlight streaming down through the huge windows.

These days it doesn’t feel so relaxing. In the first place, the chairs are now cordoned off and there are guards making sure that only people with a ticket get in. I know there have been problems with homeless people camping out there and asking travellers for spare change. And I still remember the time I was waiting for a train and there was a guy who kept screaming really loud. He sat on the floor against one of the columns while two guards tried to talk to him, and he just kept on screaming. So I know there’s a reason for maintaining some restrictions, but it makes the place feel a whole lot less inviting. And let’s be honest, this approach is typical of the City of LA. Rather than actually trying to deal with the homeless, the addicted and the mentally ill, the City just shuts them out. Putting up another barrier doesn’t solve the problem. It’s just a way of avoiding it.

Waiting areas are now cordoned off.

Waiting areas are now cordoned off.

And what about the bagel shop? There used to be a little mom and pop place that sold a wide variety of bagels, and often when I was taking the train that’s where I’d stop to pick up some breakfast. It disappeared a while ago. What do we have in its place? You guessed it. Starbucks. We lost a little independent business that sold good bagels, and now we have another corporate coffee house. In fact, more and more Union Station has been taken over by chains.

Corporate coffee...

Corporate coffee…

...corporate sandwiches...

…corporate sandwiches…

...corporate snacks.

…corporate snacks.

I used to like hanging out in Union Station, but not so much any more. These days it’s kind of like spending time in a detention center that’s attached to a strip mall. The vibe of the place has changed. It feels colder. More corporate.

But I shouldn’t be surprised. Isn’t that what’s happening to the whole country?

Pop Culture Past

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Pop culture wasn’t meant to last. As the twentieth century kicked into high gear, products made for mass consumption were pumped out as fast as possible, generally with the idea that whatever the masses were dying to have one day would be tossed away the very next day. Permanence was considered passé. Forget about making things that would last forever. The idea was to make stuff that would last long enough to make a profit, and then jump on whatever trend came next. Studios threw out prints of old movies to free up storage space. Comic publishers tossed original art when their filing cabinets got too full. And developers bulldozed old buildings when they were past their prime.

But of course, people started falling in love with this stuff. In some cases it was just a sentimental attachment we felt for things we grew up with. In other cases we’d realize that this object we’d taken for granted was actually the product of careful, thoughtful design. And occasionally we’d come across something really beautiful. Some of this stuff was just too cool to throw away.

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You can find a staggering display of artifacts from our pop culture past at Valley Relics Museum. Curator Tommy Gelinas has been scouring the San Fernando Valley for twenty years looking for items that have something to say about the area’s history. The museum was set up as a non-profit in 2012, and in 2013 they opened their doors to the public.

Valley Relics is located in a business park in Chatsworth. It’s a small space, but it’s jam packed with objects ranging from the mundane to the bizarre. It’s kind of like if the Valley had an attic where people would put stuff they couldn’t use any more but couldn’t bear to part with. There are custom cars, video games, movie posters and plenty of neon.

VR 35 Ashtrays

But even though a lot of what they have on display belongs to the world of pop culture, Valley Relics has a broader mission. Here’s what they say on their web site.

Our endeavor is to collect, preserve, interpret, and present the history of The San Fernando Valley and surrounding areas in order to share with residents and visitors alike the stories of those who shaped the region and its role in the nation’s development.

So they’re not just trying to build a funhouse for nostalgia freaks. They’re really trying to tell the story of the Valley, and it’s high time somebody did. The massive plain that spreads toward the north from the foot of the Santa Monica Mountains generally gets short shrift when people talk about LA history, but you can’t really talk about the film or aerospace industries without talking about the Valley.

Of course cars played a huge part in the growth of the Valley. There were a couple of custom cars on display that caught my attention. One is the gaudy convertible driven by the owner of Nudie’s, the tailor that created one-of-a-kind outfits for country western luminaries.

VR 20 Car

The other is a humble VW decorated with a dizzying collage of images by artist Kent Bash. According to the text panel, the inside is supposed to be pretty cool, too, but it was hard to get a good look.

VR 25 VW

Music is a big part of the Valley’s history. It warmed my heart too see the sign from the Palomino glowing softly at the back of the building.

VR 45 Palomino

The club itself has been gone for years, but in its heyday it hosted many of the greatest stars of country music. Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline, Willie Nelson and many others played there. I only went a few times, but I will always remember catching the Collins Kids at the Palomino. It was one of the best shows I’ve seen in my life.

VR 40 Joni

Valley Relics is a young museum, and they have a lot of work to do. Right now it seems like the idea is to just display as much stuff as possible. The collection could be better organized, and it would help if there were more text to give visitors some background. Their biggest problem is lack of space. The day I was there I spoke to a guy who said they had tons of objects stored in a warehouse, and that they’re looking for a larger building. I hope they find some place a little closer to the center of the Valley. I’m sure plenty of people would dig the collection, but the location makes it kind of a long trip for most Angelenos.

Still, it’s definitely worth the trouble. Right now their hours are limited, only 10 am to 3 pm on Saturdays, but admission is free. If you do make the trip out there, and if you’re as impressed as I was, I’d urge you to put some money in the box for donations. Gelinas and company have gathered some amazing artifacts, and they’re telling a story that even people who live in this city don’t know much about. Right now they’re trying to take it to the next level. Let’s hope they can pull it off.

Here’s the link to the web site. You should check this place out.

Valley Relics

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Mariachi Plaza

BH 01 Virg 1

Mariachi Plaza isn’t just a place. It’s a part of LA’s history. A piece of the city’s culture. Musicians have been gathering there since the 1930s, making music, looking for work, hanging out with friends, killing time. The plaza is also a gathering place for the community in Boyle Heights, vendors setting up booths to sell their wares, crowds gathering for a celebration.

Mariachi music is the result of hundreds of years of cultural give and take between the indigenous people of Mexico and the colonists from Spain. It started to take the shape we recognize today in the nineteenth century in the state of Jalisco. Mariachi ensembles come in many different sizes. There are the full orchestras with a string section, a couple of trumpets, a variety of guitars and a harp, but the musicians often play in smaller groups, too. It depends on the occasion and how much money’s being offered.

A view of First Street, bordering the plaza.

A view of First Street, bordering the plaza.

On the plaza there’s a large bandstand that was donated by the people of Jalisco, as well as a small amphitheatre which was built in the process of constructing the MTA Gold Line station. There are also a few modest buildings that have stood on the plaza for years, their walls decorated with colorful murals. Aside from the changes that came with the construction of the Gold Line stop, the plaza has looked pretty much the same for decades.

The bandstand.

The bandstand.

The amphitheatre.

The amphitheatre.

But the future of Mariachi Plaza is being hotly debated now, and it’s hard to say who will win in the struggle to shape its future. At the beginning of 2015 there was a huge uproar when the MTA unveiled its plan to develop the site. In the agency’s view, they were doing the community a big favor by bringing in an eight story project that included medical offices, a gym, restaurants and shops. Unfortunately, the MTA forgot to ask the community how they felt about it. Local residents were furious. The people of Boyle Heights were understandably angry about the fact that City and County officials had not brought them into the planning process. The MTA backed down, saying that they were going to start from scratch, and promising to involve residents this time. Some in the community are concerned, though, that all the agency intends to do is hold a few public meetings to steer people towards a plan they’ve already decided on. If that’s what happens, it wouldn’t be surprising. That’s standard operating procedure in LA.

The people of Boyle Heights are used to being ignored. Historically, few people at City Hall have shown much interest in this largely Latino community. It’s only in recent years, with the arrival of the Gold Line and the onset of gentrification that developers have started paying attention to the area. No one would argue that the community needs investment, and some locals feel that Boyle Heights would benefit from “gentefication”, in other words, a push for revitalization that maintained the neighborhood’s Latino character. But the past several years have shown that the City really doesn’t care much about preserving the character of existing communities. Residents of Hollywood, the Crenshaw District, Koreatown, Sherman Oaks and other neighborhoods have been hammered by the unholy alliance between City Hall and real estate speculators.

I went down to Mariachi Plaza a few weeks ago to take some pictures. It was a cloudy day, and not much was happening. This didn’t bother me because I always get a little nervous about shooting photos when people are walking by. I’m not crazy about having my own picture taken, and I don’t want to intrude on other people’s privacy. But then I realized, Hey, you’re at Mariachi Plaza. You’ve gotta get at least one shot of the musicians. And there’s another layer of anxiety here, because I knew some of the guys hanging out on the plaza were probably undocumented. It’s understandable that some immigrants get a little nervous when a stranger with a camera walks up and starts snapping photos. I finally did ask a group six guys if I could take a picture. Three of them walked away, but the other three were cool with it.

Musicians hanging out on the plaza.

Musicians hanging out on the plaza.

On the west side of the plaza you can see the Mariachi Hotel, also called the Boyle Hotel, originally the Cummings Hotel.

The Mariachi Hotel.

The Mariachi Hotel.

It has stood at the corner of Boyle and First since the end of the nineteenth century. Today it’s home to a number of the musicians who populate the plaza. You can see by the sign at the top of the hotel that some residents are concerned about outsiders taking over their community.  It says, “Alto a la Gentrificación.  Un Boyle Heights, Por Boyle Heights, Para Boyle Heights.”  (“Stop Gentrification.  One Boyle Heights, by Boyle Heights, for Boyle Heights.”)

Libros Schmibros

Libros Schmibros

Libros Schmibros is right on the plaza. It’s a lending library dedicated to making books available to everybody. The statement on their web site says that, “Libros Schmibros champions the pleasures of literature and its power to change lives,” which sounds pretty cool to me. Here’s the link if you want to learn more.

Libros Schmibros

Just around the corner I found an artist working on a mural.

Artist working on a mural just off the plaza.

Artist working on a mural just off the plaza.

Another view of the mural.

Another view of the mural.

Sorry, but the alley was really narrow, and I couldn’t get far enough away to take a picture of the whole thing. I guess if you want to see how beautiful it really is, you’ll just have to go down there yourself.

I went back another day and things were much more lively. A band was on stage in the amphitheatre, people were dancing on the plaza, and the place was crowded with booths offering all sorts of stuff.

People having a good time on the plaza.

People having a good time on the plaza.

The plaza crowded with booths.

The plaza crowded with booths.

I don’t think many of the residents of Boyle Heights would argue against the need for development. What they want is to have a voice in the planning. So many of the projects proposed in this city are the result of deals made between politicians and developers behind closed doors. That’s got to stop. The only way to plan for a community is to invite the community’s participation. This can be a long, slow, difficult process, but in the end it’s more efficient than the City’s current approach. If the MTA had talked to the people of Boyle Heights first, they could have avoided the huge embarrassment of having their project shut down. If the MTA had spent some time listening to residents, by now they might be well on the way to building something that they community could really support.

If you want to dig deeper into the history of Mariachi Plaza, check out the web site.

Mariachi Plaza

And this essay with photos is worth taking a look at.

The History of the Cummings Block

Banner by artist Dalia Ruiz.

Banner by artist Dalia Ruiz.

Losing a World of Inspiration

Leimert Park

Leimert Park

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

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

The Vision Theatre

The Vision Theatre

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

KAOS Network

KAOS Network

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

The World Stage

The World Stage

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

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

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

Papillion

Papillion

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

Shuttered businesses on Crenshaw Blvd..

Shuttered businesses on Crenshaw Blvd..

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

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

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

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

Cesar Chavez Avenue Bridge

Looking north from the Cesar Chavez Avenue Bridge.

Looking north from the Cesar Chavez Avenue Bridge.

A while ago I took a walk across the Sixth Street Bridge to get some photos of it before they tear it down. Looking out over the landscape, I saw the other bridges that span the LA River, linking Downtown and East LA. I started thinking it would be cool to take pictures of them as well.

I started walking on the Downtown side of the bridge.

I started walking on the Downtown side of the bridge.

It’s taken me forever to get started on that project, but recently I took a walk across the Cesar Chavez Bridge. There is something kind of thrilling about seeing the surrounding area from that vantage point. Much of the landscape is hard, grey concrete. Power lines criss-cross the sky. But you can also see the hills in the distance, and on the day I crossed the bridge there were massive clouds billowing all along the horizon.

A view of the First Street Bridge.

A view of the First Street Bridge.

Today the bridge is part of Cesar Chavez Avenue, created back in the nineties to commemorate the courageous labor leader who helped organize California’s farm workers. The segment that includes the bridge was formerly called Macy Street, but it’s also part of the historic Camino Real, the road built by the Spanish to connect their missions back when they governed California. The first bridge built on the site was erected in the nineteenth century, but it was demolished at the beginning of the twentieth. In the twenties, the City of LA began an effort to construct a series of viaducts across the LA River, and this bridge, then called the Macy Street Bridge, was part of that effort.

A huge mound of debris on the north side of the bridge.

A huge mound of debris on the north side of the bridge.

For years I’ve seen this massive mound of debris resting on the north side of the bridge. I have no idea where it came from or if it’s ever going away. If you look closely you can see that plants have started to grow here and there. It’s become part of the landscape, an artificial hill rising up over the river and the rail lines.

A view of the bridge heading toward East LA.

A view of the bridge heading toward East LA.

The bridge is lined with lampposts on either side, and decorated with porticos ornamented in the Spanish Revival style that was popular in the twenties. There are plaques affixed to the porticos explaining that the bridge is dedicated to Father Junipero Serra, the founder of the California missions. Serra’s legacy is controversial, since he was a major player in Spain’s effort to subjugate the native population. The Vatican’s recent decision to canonize him has ignited the debate all over again.

One of the porticoes that decorate the bridge.

One of the porticoes that decorate the bridge.

Another view of the same portico.

Another view of the same portico.

If you want to learn more about the Cesar Chavez Avenue Bridge, below is a link to an article on KCET’s web site that talks about the origins of a number of LA bridges. To see more images and to access info about it’s history, check out the links to the Library of Congress.

A Brief History of Bridges in Los Angeles County from KCET

Cesar Chavez Avenue Viaduct from Library of Congress

Photos of Cesar Chavez Bridge in the Library of Congress

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Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles

Reyner Banham adjusting his rear-view mirror.

Reyner Banham adjusting his rear-view mirror.

I was surfing the net today and came across an amazing artifact from LA’s past. Reyner Banham was an achitectural theorist and historian. He was born in England, but came to America and fell in love with the place, especially Los Angeles. In 1972 he made a film essay about the city for the BBC. He called it Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles. These days that title might not strike you as unusual, but back in the early seventies LA was seen by most architects and planners as a disaster on a massive scale. For Banham, a respected writer and professor at UC Santa Cruz, to proclaim his love for LA, loudly, frequently, unabashedly, was really controversial.

I’m not going to tell you it’s a great film, because it’s not. But I think anybody who cares about this city will be fascinated. First, you’ve got this really smart, perceptive guy giving you his thoughts on what most commentators at the time thought was an urban wasteland. Second, the movie gives you a good, long look at what LA was like back in 1972, and if you weren’t around in those days, you’ll find the contrast startling.

The film is slow in places, and kind of disjointed. Also, because it’s only an hour long, Banham doesn’t have time to take more than a cursory glance at some aspects of LA. The worst part is that the print is badly faded. In some scenes it’s hard to even make out what’s on screen. But you get to see images of Watts, Hollywood, Downtown and Venice as they looked over forty years ago. It’s a real time capsule. Here’s the link.

Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles

The film is an entertaining artifact, but it just gives you a taste of what made Banham such an interesting and provocative character. If you want to learn more about him, check out his 1971 book, Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies. Don’t be put off by the academic sounding title. It’s a fresh and entertaining exploration of the aspects of this city that make it unique. I recommend it to anybody who wants to gain a better understanding of LA.