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West L.A.'s Little Osaka, Rollin' With Dre and Margaret Hermes

This week's edition of LA Letters addresses the changing cityscape, new media, environmental activism and innovative writers.


West L.A., Sawtelle and "Little Osaka"

Only a century ago L.A.'s Westside was almost completely undeveloped, a wide open field from mid-city to the Veteran's Administration west of the present day 405 freeway. Now among the most congested streetscapes on the planet, West Los Angeles is another ambiguous term like "Hollywood." Some call the entire Westside "West Los Angeles." Some say the Westside begins west of La Cienega in Beverly Hills, some say the Westside divide is at Robertson. West Los Angeles College is down in Culver City, south of Jefferson. The actual neighborhood of West L.A. is in between Santa Monica and Westwood between Pico and Wilshire.

The stretch of Sawtelle between Santa Monica and Olympic is a historic Japanese-American enclave, and remains so to this day. Many have commented on the various district names throughout Los Angeles. The latest I've heard for Sawtelle in West L.A. is "Little Osaka." Considering that Little Tokyo already exists, the name makes sense. There's a three block stretch of restaurants where you can sample all of the specific Japanese cuisines like yakitori, sushi, shabu shabu, ramen, BBQ, along with celebrated eateries like the Curry House and even Japanized Italian at the Blue Marlin, all within a short walk on Sawtelle. There's also no shortage of traditional gift shops, art galleries and hip boutiques like Giant Robot and Black Market. Between the many new restaurants and emerging businesses and residences, fortunately a few of the original Japanese nurseries still exist.

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When I lived in the area during my last year at UCLA, my old apartment was near the northern stretch of Sawtelle, close to Santa Monica Boulevard. It is no longer there since it's been replaced by luxury apartments and new loft structures.

The mixed use of the area and local streetscape make it a unique micro-community. Though located essentially just two blocks west of the 405, the Sawtelle Boulevard enclave is one of the quaintest pockets in the overcrowded Westside.

Back in 1999 I hosted my first weekly poetry open mic in a venue called Café Muse at Olympic and Sawtelle. I had started reading my poetry a few years before around bookstores and galleries, but this was the first show I hosted on my own. We called the event "Volcanic Vibes." We had a mixture of spoken word poets and hip hop MCs and DJs like Nel e nel Rockwell and Ordell Cordova. Though it was a bit less developed then, we knew Sawtelle was a brilliant area. We rocked it week after week for about a year.

When I was recently there, the place where Café Muse once was is still there but the name had changed and large gates blocked the big windows we once looked out of. Olympic is now lined with midsize skyscrapers on the southern side of the area. On the corner is a large Starbucks mini-mall edifice. Nonetheless the stretch of Sawtelle just north of Olympic maintains a more grounded feel than most of the expensive Westside. Density entwines webs of parallel existence.


Rollin' with Dre and Doc Ellis

Back in 2004 I was writing for L.A. Citybeat, and one of the hardest working writers there was Donnell Alexander, a veteran writer for L.A. Weekly and ESPN among others. A few years later we worked together again when he was the Editor at New Angeles Magazine. He's always been one of the most prolific and innovative scribes I've known. Recently he's reconnected with his old college journalism crony from Fresno State, the photographer Thor Swift, to create a new media publishing company, Alexander/Swift Productions. Their company creates eBooks that are not only compatible with all the different tablet formats, but are also multimedia narratives that weaves in audio and youtube clips and other forms of media to enhance the reader's experience.

Their latest book, their third book so far, is "Rollin' with Dre," an inside account of producer Dr. Dre's life. Alexander co-wrote the book with Bruce Williams, Dre's longtime right hand man. This insider's history of West Coast hip hop will be of interest to longtime Dre fans.

Alexander describes their mission: "What Alexander/Swift has done over the course of 2012 is produce content for mobile devices, via all of the popular new tablet platforms. Our mission is split between multimedia narratives for businesses and non-profits and products aimed at a general audience. Our first of the latter was 'Beyond Ellis D', in which we tried to use the full storytelling potential of tablet devices, integrating the written word with moving images and sound to create a multi-sensory experience for the consumer."

"Beyond Ellis D" is the story of the legendary Major League Baseball pitcher Doc Ellis. Alexander spent hours and hours interviewing Ellis. His recordings of Ellis are priceless and they are weaved within his narrative. Ellis was known for his time with the Pittsburgh Pirates, and also as "the Muhammad Ali of baseball." His stories about the game in the 1970s connect the dots between the civil rights movement and psychedelic drugs. Alexander has always specialized in writing about the intersection of race, sports, politics and music and the Doc Ellis memoir is the perfect vehicle showcasing his perspective.

Excerpt from "Beyond Ellis D":


Alexander has much more in store. "We've followed it up this fall with the straight-ahead eBooks 'Son of Ghetto Celebrity,' based on my 2003 memoir 'Ghetto Celebrity,' and 'Rollin' with Dre.' We promote our products through social media, in addition to handling all facets of production and development." They have a special multimedia event planned for the Pasadena Book Festival this spring.

Excerpts from "Ghetto Celebrity":


Margaret Hermes at Hollenbeck Palms

Lastly I saw the award winning fiction writer Margaret Hermes at Hollenbeck Palms in Boyle Heights. She was reading in Los Angeles to promote her book of short stories, "Relative Strangers." She read her story "Bee Queen" to an enraptured audience. Before getting back to the literary event, I have to describe the iconic setting at Hollenbeck Palms.

Nestled between the 101 and 5 freeways and just west of Hollenbeck Park, Hollenbeck Palms is a massive retirement home that's been open for over a century. The complex is essentially a small village of several buildings connected by gardens. The structure sits up on a bluff and has one of the best views of Downtown. For years I've driven past it on the 101, its cream color almost the same color as Merrill Butler's adjacent bridges over the L.A. River. This stretch of Boyle Avenue is lined with well-kept Craftsman homes on the eastside of the street between Fourth and Sixth. It was great to see the complex up close after driving by it so many times.

After the reading we were taken into the historic chapel. The nondenominational chapel with its rotunda, hand crafted moldings, and effulgent stained glass windows, is one of the most awe-inspiring rooms in the city.

While looking out at the city from Hollenbeck Palms and talking with Hermes about the Los Angeles River, I learned about her many years of work as an environmental activist. She helped rewrite the city of St. Louis's official charter to preserve more parkland and open space. Over the course of a number of years she worked with the city and eventually her efforts succeeded in changing laws in Eastern Missouri. Though she's won several awards for her fiction, Hermes sees her environmental victory in St. Louis as perhaps her biggest legacy. Her writing ability helped her change policy in something she really believed in.

The idea of artists and authors improving their community is a timeless theme returned to again and again in this column. As cities and technology change, some things stay the same, like progressive citizens and preserving parklands. Here's to West Los Angeles, Alexander/Swift, Margaret Hermes and Hollenbeck Palms, each bright stars in the firmament of LA Letters.

Hollenbeck Palms | Photo by SurveyLA


Top: New development on Sawtelle Boulevard. Photo by jann_on used under a Creative Commons license.

About the Author

Third-generation Angeleno Mike "The Poet" Sonksen is a poet, journalist, historian, tour guide, and teacher.
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