This week L.A. Letters covers the picturesque communities of Altadena, Pasadena and the Arroyo Seco. Nestled below Mt. Wilson, in the shadow of the San Gabriel Mountains, Altadena, Pasadena and the Arroyo Seco are the birthplace of Southern California arts and crafts culture. Sycamores in the chaparral and orange groves defined the early years over a century ago. The thriving literary and culinary culture occurring now in Altadena and Pasadena has always been here. Altadena native, singer-songwriter Damon Aaron, says, "We've always had gardens, architecture and scientists, everyone else is just now catching up."
It's a well-known fact that scholars, artists, booksellers, collectors, craftsmen and publishers worked and lived along the wooded edges of the Arroyo Seco around the turn of the 20th Century. Gathering around Charles Fletcher Lummis and later figures like Ward Ritchie, Lawrence Clark Powell, and at nearby Occidental College where Robinson Jeffers attended. The mythical bohemian neighborhood along the banks of the Arroyo Seco was finally disrupted when the Pasadena Freeway was built through its heart during the Depression.
When I first moved to Los Angeles in the late summer of 2004 I had that typical Hollywood bug -- I wanted to act, to dance and most importantly, I wanted, no needed, to sing. So, it wasn't long before I walked the three short blocks from my tiny walkup studio on the corner of Edgemont and Hollywood to the Vermont Restaurant (now Rockwell), an upscale eatery in the heart of trendy Los Feliz. There every Monday night, in the tiny sparse bar to the side of the main dining room, cabaret ringmaster Les Michaels, and later pianist Ron Snyder, hosted an open mic night that attracted the fantastic and the freakish, and soon became my master class in optimism and entertainment.
The importance of my time spent at the Vermont and the numerous lasting friendships I made there cannot be overstated. When I first got up to sing I was trembling and terrible, yet everyone treated me with kindness and encouragement. I would sit until closing with bartender Kevin (a fantastic drummer, whom I play music with to this day), drink glass after glass of champagne, and watch as a parade of rising hope and fading dreams entered and exited the tiny stage. There was Shimmy Jimmy, an ancient old man with pants hiked up to his nipples, who would rap "Shimmy Jimmy can dance" as he sashayed around the stage. There was Jane, an almost blind chorus girl from the 1930s already firmly in dementia, with a tiny, surgically altered nose and ill-applied lipstick. Always first to arrive and the last to leave, she could barely speak, but when she was led to the stage she would warble operatic arias from memory with what had once been a powerfully trained voice.
There were wonderful performers in their prime as well -- musical theater dynamos, crooners, singer-songwriters -- some were successful working actors, many, like me, were waiters. They would offer me song suggestions, advice about patter, timing, rhythm- but most importantly, they taught me about passion. These people were showbiz folk. It was in their blood, and their love for entertaining, for that moment in the spotlight, that connection with an audience, no matter how small the crowd, was something they took seriously and treasured. Late at night, often well after closing, I would teeter home with my folder of the music I so loved, so obsessed with the notes I had missed or the gossip I had heard that I never looked up and saw the two long, dim neon signs that hinted that the building where I had felt so understood had long been filled with passion, friendship, anguish, and song.
Pastries, Panetonne and Paisans
A lot of people come to hang out and make contact. They are always looking for their paisans. People are looking for ties and stability. They know we're here.
-- Dino Sarno, Los Angeles Times, December 21, 1986
In 1946, Frances and Umberto Sarno moved with their young children from Chicago to Los Angeles for their health. The Sarno family had owned a bakery outside of Naples, and the couple had continued the tradition in Chicago. They quickly found a suitable 1920s-era building at 1712 N. Vermont Avenue in village-like Los Feliz, which had previously been occupied by the Hollymont Bakery. Los Feliz at the time was a comfortable middle class neighborhood with a diverse Anglo, Jewish, German and Italian population. The Sarno family moved into an apartment upstairs, a caryatid (a pillar statue of a Greek goddess) guarding the door, while downstairs they set to work in the newly christened Sarno's. Working in the bakery was a family affair, with the children placing cherries on the cookies their parents had just made.
Perhaps you've heard the story before. There was once a poor mountaineer, who could barely keep his family fed. One day, "while shooting at some food ... up from the ground came some bubblin' crude." Indeed, Jed Clampett had discovered "black gold, Texas Tea." Surprisingly, his "kin folk" advised him the mountains no longer suited he and his family. "They said, 'Californy is the place you oughtta be.' So, they loaded up the truck and moved to Beverly. Hills, that is, Swimmin' pools, movie stars." Undoubtedly, the fictional Clampetts enjoyed a surprising pre-reality TV ascension to the elite of Los Angeles symbolized by their Beverly Hills digs and the personification of Southern California cool: the swimming pool.
Despite, or perhaps because of, its proximity to the deep blue waters of the Pacific Ocean, SoCal's enthusiasm for pool-based recreation knows few bounds. Their ubiquity across the region's landscape means Southern California swimming pools have embodied a variety of meanings for Angelenos and others. Decadent and grandiose expressions of wealth and power, communal experiences for working class kids and families, and a symbolic reservoir of twentieth century alienation and danger, the pool stands as a testament to the complexity of California life. "The apparent ease of California life is an illusion, and those who believe the illusion real live here in only the most temporary way," wrote Joan Didion.1 In many ways swimming pools best encapsulate the illusion Didion points to: placid and reflective on the surface, but also dangerous and alienated beneath the calm.
Status Symbol to Malaise
"The history of backyard swimming was written largely in Los Angeles," noted the Los Angeles Times in 2007. Beginning in 1920 with a Beverley Hills swimming pool at their Pickfair estate, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford could boast of having one of the nation's largest pools (55 feet in width and 100 feet in length), but newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst set the tone with his T-shaped indoor pool, distinguished by the 24-karat gold tiles into its mosaic styled Art Deco walls, in 1924. Soon after, he added the iconic outdoor Neptune Pool, which, as many suggest, remains the swimming pool to end all swimming pools. Designed by the first female graduate from the Parisian Ecole des Beaux-Arts School and accomplished California architect Julia Morgan, the Neptune Pool's notoriety stems in large part from its Greco-Roman references: a poolside Greco-Roman temple facade accented by Roman colonnades. The pools stood as part of the legendary La Cuesta Encantada estate in San Simeon, a property that, despite 26 years of continuing labor, never came to completion.
Frank Lloyd Wright constructed the iconic Ennis House in 1924 complete with pool, and Edward Doheny's waterfall and hillside-laden Beverly Hills pool followed in 1925. Richard Neutra famously replaced a terrace with a pool at the Los Feliz Lovell Health House. When suburban pools exploded nationally in the 1950s and 1960s, one could look back at these early opulent examples and Los Angeles to locate their source.
Though the efforts of conservationists to revitalize the Los Angeles River probably began back before it was even channelized, the buzz around its reconnection with the city through which it passes seems to be growing exponentially in recent years. Numerous small parks and sections of bike paths have sprung up along its banks and kayaks and canoes have helped changed the way the river is viewed.
Much has already been written about the reawakening of the public's riparian consciousness. I imagine that the many riverside communities will be uniquely affected by the coming changes, and with that in mind I set out to explore a stretch of San Fernando Road near the Glendale Narrows and found several attractions that might appeal to people from beyond the neighborhoods as well.
San Fernando Road
San Fernando Road runs about 25 miles long, connecting the Eastside neighborhood of Lincoln Heights in the south with the northernmost neighborhood in the city, Sylmar, in the San Fernando Valley. I only walked a short (about 2 ¾ miles) section -- between Figueroa Street and Fletcher Drive -- that passes through the Northeast Los Angeles neighborhoods of Cypress Park and Glassell Park: two east bank communities nestled in a valley flanked by Mount Washington to the east and the Elysian Hills to the west.
The area has a rich history as a transit hub. Between 1920 and 1958 the Los Angeles Railway's E (later 5) Line ran up the nearby tree-lined Cypress Avenue, connecting the distant communities of Eagle Rock and Hawthorne. In 1958 Los Angeles Metro Transit Authority took over operations until the rail was decommissioned in 1963. Even closer, on Avenue 28, is the MTA Bus Yard SGV-3. It first opened in 1907 as a rail yard for Division 3 of the Los Angeles Railway. In 1945, Los Angeles Transit Lines' motor coaches (buses) began sharing the yard. Today it's the oldest bus yard still in use in the city.
In the early 20th century, the neighborhoods between Lincoln Heights and Glendale were often referred to as Toonerville. "Toonerville Folks" was a popular comic strip, the adventures of which followed centered around the so-called Toonerville Trolley. Inter-urban street Cars (like the Yellow, Green and Red Cars, locally) came to be associated with outlying residential developments, and many suburbs around the country came to be nicknamed Toonerville and their local lines, Toonerville Trolleys. Today the trolleys are long gone (although the name is held onto by a local gang) and this stretch of San Fernando Road is instead served by the Metro's 90 and 91 lines, as well as the 794 rapid line.
That's not to say that the area is without rail though. Running parallel and just west of San Fernando are the train tracks currently used by Metrolink's Antelope Valley and Ventura County commuter train lines, as well as Amtrak's Pacific Surfliner. Just south of the starting point is Metro's Lincoln Heights/Cypress Park Gold Line light rail station. The Gold Line currently connects East Los Angeles to Pasadena; construction is underway to extend it first to Azusa and ultimately to the distant Inland Empire.
Photos by Eric Brightwell
Anyone who has traversed through downtown in a vehicle or on a bicycle has probably entered the Second Street Tunnel that connects Figueroa and Hill streets. Known more for its use in TV commercials and films, the tunnel is not as inviting to a walker, much less a congregation of walkers intent on publically serenading the streets of Los Angeles.
Undeterred by the thin sidewalks within the tunnel, Public Space Singalong creator Jessica Cowley organized a public participatory signing event in the tunnel one night in August of last year, with the aim to re-imagine it as a public space to engage folks to participate in a sing-along.
After taking an event curation class at Machine Project, Cowley, who is a trained urban planner, states the inspiration for one of her class' final assignments came from her desire "to transform a public space where culture and community isn't normally experienced into a performance venue." Simultaneously, during the final weeks of her class, she was in the process of planning one of her occasional living room sing-alongs at her residence, when she "was biking through the Second Street Tunnel singing a Fleetwood Mac song at the top of my lungs and admiring the acoustics. Things just sort of went from there!"
What resulted was the extension of the sing-along from the coziness of a living room to the inconspicuous space of the Second Street tunnel. Dozens of willing participants gathered at the northwest corner of Figueroa and Second streets before heading into the tunnel as anticipative public carolers. Cowley, guitar in hand, led fellow musicians with various instruments, giant cardboard hands, and multiple copies of lyrics of the songs to be sung that night to pass around to participants. The song list was space-inspired (of the Star Trek kind) as Neil Armstrong had passed away earlier that month.
The approximately 30-minute space-themed set in the Second Street tunnel engaged urban space with a visually and sonically arresting public performance. The resulting soundscape created a tunnel focused on singing human bodies versus the whizzing by of cars. In fact, cars and the drivers behind the wheels became engaged themselves in the public performance, and instead of racing through the tunnel the drivers slowly rolled by and asked singers what was going on.
A revived mural, through an act of friendship between artist and family, was completed last week, and adds to the growing Los Angeles portfolio of restored works.
Ruben Soto's Echo Park mural "Eyes" was another vintage Los Angeles mural marked by tagging, faded from the sun, and grimed by car exhaust. The artist was back at the wall restoring its color and switching out some of the images in his contribution to the city's mural scene.
The mural was unveiled the morning of May 5, and a final coat of graffiti protection was applied May 8, said Soto. "I have been with this mural since 1985, and since then it's been up three times," he said of the piece documented as first completed in 1991. "Once it got erased by the city by mistake."
The latest panel in "Eyes" was painted as a memorial to Sage Stallone, the oldest son of Sasha Czack and actor Sylvester Stallone, who passed away in July 2012 and with whom artist had struck a friendship. Sage's image joins the other portraits, up to 20' x 9' segments, that sit on Glendale Boulevard under the Sunset Boulevard overpass in Echo Park.
Sage's image is positioned across from a portrait of his father, making up two of the nine faces, which includes the late Dick Clark, Soto's daughter, and muralist Kent Twitchell. "They are people who affected my life," said the artist, who is a single father and works as an electrician.
The panel with Dick Clark was completed just before the television personality passed away, and the image came directly from Clark via his publicist. "I was a fan of Dick Clark since I was a kid," said Soto.
Soto's daughter, Storm, had her portrait added to "Eyes" to mark her 16th birthday, he added.
When you see the mural's large-scale faces, it connects to freeways in another way. The sharp horizontal composition has the portraits look like they are peering at you from a rear view mirror, and the viewer is riding along in the back seat. The portraits also have the look of a close-up -- another reminder of city's cultural identity when you think of how capturing eyes on film is at the height of a moment.
Los Angeles once had a Seibu. Those who delve into the city's history tend to obsess over some obscure happening from the past decade, the past century, the past two centuries. My own transfixing blip appeared just over half a century ago and disappeared soon after. "Even in Los Angeles -- the city of gala premières for everything from Hollywood spectaculars to hamburger stands -- the 'grand opening' last week of the U.S.'s first big Japanese-owned department store created quite a splash," reported Time magazine on March 23, 1962. "Within 15 minutes after Seibu of Los Angeles unlocked its door, 5,000 shoppers were inside, women were fainting, policemen had to bar all entrances to slow down the rush and traffic was backed up for four blocks along Wilshire Boulevard." But just two years later, America's only Seibu, purveyor of the "oishii seikatsu" -- "sweet life," as I'd translate it -- gave way to the probably more practical but crushingly less exotic Ohrbach's. It shut down twenty years before I was born, but I still find myself thinking about the old Seibu whenever I walk by its location at the end of the Miracle Mile.
Though it gives me time and space to reflect on Japanese department stores of bygone days, traversing this stretch of Wilshire Boulevard on foot does perhaps snub its historic spirit. First developed in the twenties by A.W. Ross, a bust of whom still stands at 5800 Wilshire, these blocks between Highland and Fairfax Avenue (which actually add up to a mile and a half) offered prewar shoppers an automobile-friendly alternative to downtown crowding. Ross' idea, the improbable success of which qualified as the "Miracle," enjoyed a few good decades of eating downtown's lunch, as they say. But by the time Seibu set up shop, decline had already set in, and the Miracle Mile's own lunch got eaten in turn by postwar America's signature far-flung suburban malls. (You can read more about this process in Nathan Masters' "How the Miracle Mile Got its Name".) Today, as city-center shopping and living undergoes a renaissance, many of those distant commercial behemoths look depressingly worse for wear; how long before we see a country-wide wave of mall demolitions? And where does that leave a place like the Miracle Mile, optimized neither for motorists nor pedestrians?
Despite its lack of foresight, Ross' concept still commands a certain admiration. He wanted to create a rival to downtown, a new downtown, a driveable downtown, a linear downtown of wide, proud Art Deco buildings optimally viewed at thirty miles per hour. We think of going shopping by car as a phenomenon distinctively of twentieth-century America, but the notion behind the Miracle Mile smacks more to me of the recklessly innovative impracticality of the century before. Though now pocked by free-standing fast-food joints, those solemn monuments to bland efficiency, the street still boasts just enough buildings evocative of the Miracle Mile's heyday, more of them than you'd expect actually from the Miracle Mile's heyday, to give you the feeling of moving amid the remains of grandeur. (Billboards for the latest film adaptation of The Great Gatsby, up as of this writing, resonate with the hollow artifices of Jazz Age decadence.) We get a cheap laugh from references to the street as "America's Champs-Élysées," but think of its inflated scale, its strained ambition, and, as a result, its unintentional poignancy -- does the comparison not seem apt?
Then again, I doubt the Champs-Élysées has quite so many wig shops. The seemingly disproportionate number of Miracle Mile businesses concerned with hair -- cutting, styling, extension, replacement -- suggests that the district's sights, which clearly fell after Ross' day, never regained their original height. But these coexist, if not shoulder-to-shoulder then at least in the same one-point-five miles, with a formidable cluster of museums: the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), the Architecture and Design Museum, the Craft and Folk Art Museum, the La Brea Tar Pits. In the very same building Seibu once occupied, we now have the Petersen Automotive Museum. By the same token, the shifting permutations of high-end food trucks that line up outside these noted cultural institutions, offering Brooklyn-inflected spring rolls, duck confit tacos, or nine-dollar experimental sandwiches, coexist with all those low-lying brown-and-yellow burger delivery systems. We come to the modern city in large part to experience a mixture of "high" and "low" on the same ground; if Los Angeles as a whole has lagged in providing that, the Miracle Mile in particular has done it, or a version of it, for longer than I'd realized.
Before living in Los Angeles, my introduction to the area came, as it does for many outsiders, from LACMA. The museum's film program had me making increasingly frequent and desperate trips to town for hit after 35-millimeter hit of Bernardo Bertolucci, Hong Sangsoo, and Yasujiro Ozu (only to switch programmers months after I moved, a subject about which others have grumbled more eloquently), and thus for exploration of the surroundings. It once surprised me how instantaneously either side beyond the Miracle Mile flattens out into sleepy residential territory, but even a week in Los Angeles inures you to sudden changes in density and architectural profile. Now it surprises me, and pleasantly so, what range of rich non-museumgoing cultural opportunities the neighborhood holds out to the curious visitor. Or rather, it holds them out but slightly back, and sometimes only serious curiosity indeed can close the gap. The Japan Foundation, where I volunteer, recently moved its main offices to a complex on the Miracle Mile; the other half of the building houses the Goethe-Institut's local branch, where I've sat down to twelve-hour Werner Herzog and Wim Wenders marathons. Not a third of a mile away stands the Korean Cultural Center, where I turn up for language classes each week.
Yet one spot above all shows me the promise of the Miracle Mile, and it doesn't even operate on Wilshire Boulevard proper. Follow the squat A-frame sign pointing just south down Dunsmuir Avenue, and you soon arrive at Yuko Kitchen, a Japanese-Californian eatery operated by the eponymous Yuko and a coterie of her countrywomen. There, as Michael Jackson plays on the speakers and a Hayao Miyazaki animated film plays on the television, I order a "bowlito" -- a seaweed-wrapped, fish-filled cross between a bowl and a burrito -- from one of Yuko's Run-DMC-capped lieutenants. This, judging by the amount of time and money I've spent there, not to mention the number regulars I spot there (grateful, no doubt, for a non-chain eating opportunity), ranks as one of the most compelling cultural experiences now available between Highland and Fairfax -- the means to an oishii seikatsu indeed. Who can say how many more such green shoots will sprout when the Miracle Mile finally receives its long-delayed Purple Line subway stations? Get back here, Seibu; I sense a second miracle coming on.
Photos by Colin Marshall.
May is Asian American History Month. As a recent U.S. Census report revealed, Asian Americans are the largest group immigrating to America in the last decade. It goes without saying that Los Angeles and Southern California is central to this, like it is with the Latino population. L.A. Letters celebrates all histories every month but nonetheless this week will focus on a few forgotten early Asian American pioneering poets that paved the way for the stellar contemporary writers mentioned previously in this column, like Sesshu Foster, Amy Uyematsu, Chiwan Choi, Traci Kato-Kiriyama, Edren Sumagaysay, Cathy Park Hong, and musicians and artists like Tracy Wannomae, Alan Nakagawa, DJ Rhettmatic, Prach Ly, and Yayoi Kusama, among countless others.
"Asian American" is an umbrella term for descendants from several countries and the large expanse of geography stretching from Siberia to the Philippines. Author Ronald Takaki adds, "Asian Americans are diverse, their roots dating back to China, Japan, Korea, the Philippines, India, Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. Many of them live in Chinatowns, the colorful streets filled with sidewalk vegetable stands and crowds of people carrying shopping bags; their communities are also called Little Tokyo, Koreatown, and Little Saigon."
On this website there are stories and maps about many of these areas. Besides the obvious districts in L.A. named above, there are many other more undercover areas with large Asian American populations, like the Japanese enclaves in the South Bay, West L.A. and the Crenshaw District. Filipinos began their Southern California history in Bunker Hill and Historic Filipinotown before moving out to Glendale, Eagle Rock, Cerritos, and West Covina. Chinese in L.A. emerged out of Chinatown and settled in Monterey Park and Alhambra and then into Arcadia, San Marino and Rosemead. More recently many Chinese continued to move east across the San Gabriel Valley to Walnut, Hacienda Heights, and Diamond Bar. There's Cambodiatown in Long Beach, Samoatown in Carson, Little Saigon in Garden Grove and Westminster, and smaller Koreatowns in both Orange County and the Valley. The list goes on: Little India in Artesia, Little Bangladesh near Melrose Hill, and no question other Asian American enclaves still below the radar, but coming to rise now. Southern California is an unquestionable mecca for the Asian American community.
Downtown Los Angeles has always had a conflicted personality. The border -- a statement of economic value dividing urgent nomadic residency -- has shifted. In many ways it makes Skid Row even more concentrated than a decade ago, when at night it extended out to Pershing Square.
Artists have often used Skid Row as source material, using the theme that the status of its residents doesn't change; they are easily forgotten.
"Sacred Streets" seeks to remind us of them in a temporary outdoor installation that features twelve portraits of the homeless, as created by artist Jason Leith, "It's all about bringing beauty and dignity to Skid Row through art," said the artist in a video introduction on Kickstarter. "Sacred Streets" made its debut during the May 2013 Downtown Art Walk.
While arrangements for a one-night shuttle from a local parking lot were made for opening night, walking to it from Gallery Row is a planned commitment, which "Writing on the Wall" contributor Helen Ly offered to do. She made her way through Skid Row, an environment that can be intimidating for someone new to area, said Ly, who has been a downtown resident for just over five years. While walking to the installation creates a prelude for the people living in Skid Row, it's also a way for someone who doesn't look like they are a part of the neighborhood to be the observed. "I was being watched," said Ly.
The City Project's Assistant Director and Counsel Ramya Sivasubramanian testified before the California Assembly Committee on Local Government to promote community health, parks and recreation for all through reform of Quimby park funding on May 8, 2013 (AB 1359 - Hernandez). KCET's SoCal Connected will also air the news story "Quimby and The Laws That Govern L.A. Parks" on Friday, May 10, at 9:30 p.m.
Low-income people and people of color disproportionately lack equal access to green space throughout California. This has profound impacts on health and quality of life.
The City Project's policy report Healthy Parks, Schools and Communities: Green Access and Equity for Southern California documents that children of color living in poverty with no access to a car suffer first and worst in access to green space, active living, and health.
The parks and health reform bill, which passed out of committee after the hearing, would provide cities and counties with the flexibility they need to invest park development fees in park-poor areas -- defined as areas with less than three acres of parks per thousand residents. The bill would also authorize the use of Quimby fees to promote joint use of parks, schools, and pools to improve park access for all.