Before skywriting took mural anarchy to the masses and artists huddled to plan public comment strategy, Councilmember Ed P. Reyes looked for ways to restore the Los Angeles mural tradition in District 1, where he was elected to serve in 2001. He was one of the first elected officials to spearhead a city mural revival, and as chair of Planning Land Use Management (PLUM) committee, Reyes monitored the progress of the mural ordinance.
Last Thursday, in the final month of three terms, he held court at Avenue 50 Studio's gallery space in Highland Park. It was filled with muralists and stakeholders who came ready with questions. With a hoarse voice that had a slight resignation, he updated the audience on the status of the ordinance.
It may not sweep through city council, warned Reyes. While all the councilmembers, and the city-at-large, are eager to have the mural ordinance go through, some Districts have vocal members of their constituency not comfortable with the details.
The topics that will hang up some councilmembers are the same points artists have been lobbying for. Foremost is the restriction of allowing art on single-family homes. Some neighborhood advocates are worried that it will allow artists, once they have permission of property owners, to paint whatever they want in public view with no community outreach. Artists argue that a broad city ruling that blocks art on single-family homes takes away from the intent and tradition of murals.
Should you get in the mood to read a book on public transit for nonspecialists, I unhesitatingly recommend Jarrett Walker's "Human Transit: How Clearer Thinking About Public Transit Can Enrich Our Communities and Our Lives." Though Portland-based, the transit consultant Walker makes many a clear observation about Los Angeles, its transit, its communities, and its lives. Toward the end of the book, he imagines the tantalizing street of one day this city's future, which "feels more like a Parisian boulevard in many ways, including generous sidewalks, shade trees, and of course a transit lane" in which "bus and streetcar technologies have converged into a long snakelike vehicle lined with many doors, so that people can flow on and off as easily as they do on a subway," which is "guided by optical technology" and which, "mostly transparent above waist height," "feels like a continuation of the sidewalk."
That day, alas, has yet to come. "I thought about the bus in Los Angeles," narrates Richard, the hapless young Englishman in Richard Rayner's novel "Los Angeles Without a Map." "It was the way to travel. Once I had waited for over two hours at the corner of Sunset and Crescent Heights Boulevard when a driver with a cowboy hat and and a drawling voice like Harrison Ford decided he was sick of his job. His solution to the problem was to stop the bus and make everyone get off." Richard goes on to tell of enraged aisle-prowlers, robberies by prepubescent thugs, and passing motorists shouting "Lo-sers, asshole losers!." His blonde, über-Angeleno girlfriend asks him if he really likes riding the bus. "It's democratic," he replies. She snorts and asks whether democracy arrives on time. "'Never had to wait more than five minutes,' I lied."
Rayner, of course, wrote that book in the mid-eighties, and Los Angeles transit has, on the whole, come an astonishingly long way since then. Still, when unable to walk, cycle, or take a train, I've boarded a few buses in this town myself, but when I do it, I usually ride a Metro Rapid, where Richard had to deal with the poor old fleet of the Los Angeles RTD -- whose R stood for "Rapid," but never mind. Specifically, I ride the line Metro Rapid 720, a long red bus that goes up and down Wilshire Boulevard, from downtown to Santa Monica and back again. Get crowded though it may -- standing-room-only seems more rule than the exception, even though they occasionally really do turn up every five minutes -- I value the 720 as an unusual way to see what Los Angeles Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne recently called the boulevard we think of "as synonymous with Los Angeles -- as our Main Street."
My audio poem "The 562" is my tribute to Long Beach and a companion piece to the essay I wrote about the San Gabriel River in early May. Read that piece for more history. The poem is my ode to not only Long Beach but the entire Southeastern quadrant of Los Angeles County, better known as a region by its area code, 562.
Before going to UCLA in 1992, I spent my formative years in Cerritos. I was born in Long Beach at St. Mary's Hospital on Atlantic near Anaheim Street . My parents went to Long Beach State and my recently retired mom taught elementary school in Long Beach for 35 years, especially around North Long Beach. I took many long walks and bike rides with my grandfather around the LBC. More recently I have performed poetry at Long Beach venues like the Bixby Knolls First Friday Art Walk and organized events at the legendary Blue Nile Café on Broadway and Open Books on 4th Street. Around the same time I connected with Long Beach musicians like the Visionaries, Josh One and Prach Ly. For all these reasons and more, I love Long Beach.
Long Beach's relation to Los Angeles is comparable to Baltimore and Washington DC or San Francisco and Oakland. Though these cities are in the shadow of a larger neighbor, they are epic in their own right. Long Beach's 51 square miles are defined by districts and neighborhoods every bit as colorful as LA. Dynamic pockets include the East Village Arts District, Cambodiatown, Bixby Knolls, Belmont Shore, Belmont Heights, California Heights, Naples, Willmore City, the Wrigley, Los Altos, Downtown, the 4th Street Corridor aka Retro Row, the Traffic Circle, Terminal Island, North Long Beach, West Long Beach, Carroll Park, Shoreline Drive, Virginia Country Club, Rose Park and El Dorado Park Estates. Long Beach is packed with bustling boulevards, cultural diversity and historic architecture. One result of the 1933 Earthquake centered in Long Beach is the widespread use of Art Deco because it was the prevailing style when the city was rebuilt.
The 562 is a nexus:
A suburban, urban cross-section..
A small town big city,
affluent, yet gritty,
The 562 is somewhere between
Hollywood & Irvine,
Santa Monica & Anaheim..
The 562 is a good time 'cuz
its people are down to Earth..
Blessed by birth to be born
Where the vibes are warm,
Catch that cool ocean breeze
Blowing in from the beach.
The clouds come from the south
As the coast winds
around the peninsula of Palos Verdes..
A few years ago Mike Davis told Tyler Reeb of the Long Beach Business Journal, "Of any area in Los Angeles County that offers a canvas to create a genuinely new exciting urbanism, the opportunities are in Long Beach." Considering the dense city's inherent walkability, historic architecture, new bike lanes, forthcoming wetland improvement and other unfolding developments, it is easy to see Davis's logic.
The temperature is perfect..
Intercepted by the L.A River,
Now surfers & grandparents kick it..
The 562 is all-American multicultural,
Folks from Iowa to Cambodia,
El Salvador to Ethiopia,
Aviation Okies & the aerospace industry..
Denizens OF Long Beach
Groove to Snoop Dogg & Sublime,
Garage rock & Freestyle rhyme..
On the streets of Long Beach
you can find oil in Signal Hill,
Broadway's alternative lifestyles-
Art in the Sat Village, Downtown lofts &
How many Poly players are in the NFL?!
From Joe Jost's to the Prospector,
Cohiba to The Blue Cafe,
Drinking Sangria on a hot day,
Barflies cruise from
the 49er to Belmont Shore,
Fern's to the V-Room.
The 562 is a window into the future
with lots of history..
Like the powerful earthquake of '33,
The Pike is the place to be,
We salute Cameron Diaz
& her flavorful family..
Respect to Lakewood, Cerritos,
Bellflower, Paramount, Downey,
Cudahy, South Gate, Compton
to damn near Bell Gardens..
Not to be confused
with the 310,
This is The 562!
In the middle of So. Cal,
but its own little world,
It's another beautiful day
at El Dorado Park,
in the place of my birth
& the home of my heart...
This is the 562.
Here's to Long Beach and the 562. Like the San Fernando Valley, South Bay, the Inland Empire, Orange County, the San Gabriel Valley and other Southern California pockets, it is a vital slice in the vibrant topography of LA Letters.
To understand the City of Angels, Joan Didion once wrote, one needed to immerse oneself in the freeway experience or, as she put it, "the only secular communion Los Angeles has."1 Between 1968 and 1979 Didion published three books -- two collections of non-fiction essays: "Slouching Toward Bethlehem" in 1968 and "The White Album" in 1979; and one work of fiction: "Play It as It Lays" in 1970 -- that depicted a modern Southern California, buffeted by "the weather of catastrophe, of apocalypse," but grounded by its highways and relaxed by its pools. Southern California combined the elemental extremes of nature with the rigidity of the decade's car-centric urban planning. For 1960s and early 1970s Californians, the car provided solace in an age of discomfort; but soon after the liberating effects of the freeway appeared increasingly diminished.
Prior to the age of gridlock, few writers captured the essence SoCal automobility than Didion. In the months after splitting with her significant other, Maria Wyeth, Didion's protagonist in "Play It as It Lays," drives the freeway:
She dressed every morning with a greater sense of purpose than she had felt in some time [...] for it was essential (to pause was to throw herself into unspeakable peril) that she be on the freeway by ten o'clock. Not somewhere on Hollywood Boulevard, not on her way to the freeway but actually on the freeway. If she was not she lost the day's rhythm, its precariously imposed momentum.2
Imagistic and fragmented in its structure, "Play It as It Lays" aligned neatly with a decade that seemed awash in randomness as the idealism of the 1960s faded into oblivion. Maria's drug- and sex- soaked travails expressed a certain moving stasis: plenty of activity but no real movement.
While notes from a street saxophonist float off the walls of the 7th Street/Metro Station, downtown workers kept up with the echoing rhythm and clog the escalators for the afternoon commute out of the city.
They barely glance at the art on the walls and entrance of the station, and even dodge the three docents who were standing by to lead a preview of a new tour: Metro Art Moves_DTLA.
The summer tour will be held on the first Thursdays of July, August, and September. It was curated to increase the visibility of public art in the Metro Rail system, showing the connection between rail, artist, and community by docents trained by Metro.
"The Metro Art Moves_DTLA tours have a particular itinerary -- which the docents helped put together," said Zipporah Lax Yamamoto, creative services manager for Metro. "But the docents can answer questions about any of the artworks in our system."
The tour also is a primer on how to ride the rails. The co-leads heading this particular safari -- lead artist Sara Wookey, with Alex Amerri, Hassan Christopher, and Kabir Singh -- included a native Angeleno who never learned to drive. That made one docent a public transportation specialist. With flair, they introduced tour-goers how to be at-one with a TAP card, and offered "model transit riding behavior" tips, like explaining that the black arrows on the platform are the best place to wait for boarding while passengers exit a train.
They even have ideas on how to warm-up. Docents had the group stand in a circle and rotate their ankles to prepare for walking, then directed them to stand close enough for shoulders to touch. Unlike a lot other cities Los Angeles has a lot of space, they said; you have to get used to being close to other people.
"Hey, I didn't know that they had food in Ethiopia. This will be a quick meal. I'll order two empty plates and we can leave." This particularly well-known line from "When Harry Met Sally" touches on both the conceptual novelty of Ethiopian restaurants as well as the country itself having become a byword for modern African woe. But that movie came out in 1989, before Los Angeles' Little Ethiopia had even made a name for itself; surely American eating habits would have come around since then, raising the then-little-known cuisine if not to the omnipresence of Chinese, then at least to the stolid reliability of Thai. Yet when a 2011 episode of "The Simpsons" took the titular family to a neighborhood very much like Little Ethiopia, their meal still surprised them, albeit favorably. In the words of the high-minded, high-achieving Lisa Simpson, "Exotic. Vegetarian. I can mention it in a college essay." As satire goes, this has an edge on the groaner about empty plates, which even in this century I've heard Angelenos deliver as their own. Then again, they say the old jokes are best.
Not long after "When Harry Met Sally," in the mid-nineties, Little Ethiopia did make a name for itself, albeit informally, as "Little Addis." This early appellation referenced the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa, which Pico Iyer, in his essay from that era "Prayers in the Wilderness," described as "a sleepy, eerie, rather bedraggled town -- less tranquil than torpid, and less a town, indeed, than a collection of grand monuments set against shacks and vacant lots and open ditches. [ ... ] Addis -- like much of Ethiopia -- has the air of an exiled prince, long accustomed to grandeur and full of pride, but fallen now on very hard times." Little Ethiopia hasn't had long to get accustomed to grandeur and, like many of Los Angeles' specifically ethnic zones, didn't have much grandeur to work with in the first place. A count from those days found a total of four Ethiopian eateries on the neighborhood's single city block. The density of available Ethiopian experiences, culinary and otherwise, has since increased, though aside from a well-respected outlier or two, they've still spread no farther than Fairfax Avenue between Olympic and Whitworth: true to its current name, Little Ethiopia may grow more Ethiopian, but little it remains.
This location on the south of Fairfax once got the area branded as "SoFax." Banners emblazoned with that odd compound still hang from the block's streetlamps, despite the official designation as Little Ethiopia coming through in 2004. This brought those official blue signs with the neighborhood name and the Los Angeles emblem, although I can't help but notice that some of them say "Carthay Circle." Such a conflict tempts one to fall back on the Angeleno's standard coping mechanism for geographical cognitive dissonance: finding yourself in whichever neighborhood you want to find yourself in. Little Ethiopia's entrepreneurs have done exactly this, opening such businesses as "Carthy [sic] Square Market" and "Falasha Beverly Hills." Behind their doors, you find Ethiopian garments, Ethiopian music and movies, Ethiopian coffee (as you'd expect, given that the country provided the beverage its very cradle), Ethiopian spices, Ethiopian food, and Ethiopian incense, the scent of which puts me into Pavlovian anticipation of a wide plate of spongy injera bread and raw beef kitfo.
And do order the kitfo. Economist and well-known food enthusiast Tyler Cowen recommends it as the single dish by which you can determine whether an Ethiopian restaurant merits more of your time and money. If they serve it to you cooked, take your business elsewhere, not that Little Ethiopia's most respected establishments -- a surprising number of which have operated for over twenty years, and a few for around thirty -- would commit such a grave faux pas. Even if you haven't done your research, you can spot these places, none of whom hesitate to post laudatory clippings in their front windows. Ethiopian food remains an evergreen topic of discussion for not just professional restaurant critics ("Belly of Los Angeles" Jonathan Gold established himself early as a fan), but also food bloggers and other, more specialized species of the internet's determined eaters -- the very subculture that "Simpsons" episode lampoons. As rich a nexus of cultural pursuits as dining offers, those who plod programmatically from meal to meal, phone-photographing dishes as compulsively as they assess their real or imagined points of inauthenticity, do make themselves easy targets.
But we may laugh because they show us a frightening tendency within us all: an eager curiosity to engage with all the peoples of the world that goes no deeper than paying for their food. Any world-city resident runs the risk of reduction to a cultural tourist, especially when passing through a neighborhood like Little Ethiopia, which presents itself primarily as a collection of restaurants. This holds true for any number of Los Angeles' enclaves, from Little Tokyo to Koreatown to Chinatown to Little Armenia. But how to transcend the surface, especially such a delicious one? You can't really move into Little Ethiopia, unless you buy one of its restaurants and live in it, which I doubt even their actual owners do. You could burn the incense at home, you could add a few Ethiopian DVDs to your library, and you could add a netela or two to your wardrobe, but I cant imagine that you'll feel you've solved the problem -- or, for that matter, that you'll feel non-ridiculous. No wonder some of us simply take refuge in the seriousness of our eating.
I find I can distract myself from such anxiety-inducing questions by learning a little bit of the language, studiousness being perhaps our time's most underrated opiate. While I have yet to throw myself into the study of Ethiopia's Amharic language, I have spent quite a few minutes on several separate occasions scrutinizing a poster displaying its alphabet at one of Little Ethiopia's markets. This striking script looks especially attractive on some of the restaurant signs, and the neighborhood's past as a part of the Jewish Fairfax district has left remnants of Hebrew, Amharic's fellow Semitic language. From an aesthetic standpoint, they complement each other, though I run the risk of committing another kind of cultural slight in saying so. If you don't feel guilty in Los Angeles about reducing a whole foreign country to a set of flavors, you feel guilty about reducing it to a set of design elements. Beats cracking starvation jokes, I suppose.
Photos by Colin Marshall.
To zoom in on iconic L.A. images like the Hollywood Sign, City Hall, a Palm Tree, Pink's Hot Dogs, Randy's Donuts, Venice Beach, the Capitol Records Building, Griffith Observatory, or any one of a number of other celebrated sites is to join the pantheon of mythmakers playing the same L.A. song. Not that each of those sites are not spectacular, it's just that there is so much more to see. From time to time over the years, new sides of the city find the public eye and new narratives emerge. This week L.A. Letters highlights a new exhibit spotlighting a street in invisible Los Angeles and a mixed-media anthology that shares the same zeitgeist.
"Windshield Perspective" is a current exhibit at the Architecture and Design Museum that "takes the most common of Los Angeles experiences -- a typical drive along a typical boulevard -- and exposes the visual impressions that are continually cast off from the urban landscape that lines the roadway. [It] is about the decorative, architectural, personal, and natural elements that comprise a single stretch of an overlooked boulevard."
The exhibit covers the short but dense stretch of Beverly Boulevard from Normandie to Virgil. The point is to take the veil of the windshield off to reveal the heart of the city: "The windshield is both a lens and a shield, a screen which acts much like a magnifying glass to clarify the view and as a screen to obscure the sight."
Like so much of the city, this area is a crossroads of ethnicities, industries and architecture. Overlapping areas include Historic Filipinotown, Koreatown, Little Armenia and Thai Town just north, the Rampart District to the south along with Little Bangladesh, and then there's the 101 freeway immediately north. Silver Lake is directly east. The stretch used for "Windshield Perspective" is undeniably one of the biggest crossroads of culture and neighborhoods in the entire city.
If the stage production of "Zoot Suit" made El Pachuco the flag bearer of identity, its poster became the garrison flag.
The emblematic pose with a seamless line of wardrobe and character against a Los Angeles sky would make a stunning mural on a downtown wall. The art, by Ignacio Gomez, made the cultural archetype a graphic art myth in 1978, when he was commissioned to create it for the Luis Valdez production that uses El Pachuco as a one man Greek Chorus. The urban Mexican American experience became a literary form through "Zoot Suit," and the 47 1/4 x 33 inch screen printed image, now in the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, signified a bold theatrically.
This week of June marks the 70th anniversary of the Zoot Suit Riots, which flowed from the social fallout of the 1942 Sleep Lagoon Trials. As an American tragedy, the events remained sequestered in street art and song until Luis Valdez workshopped the story to Los Angeles stages in 1978. This year marks the 35th anniversary of that Center Theater Group's production, which makes 2013 the same anniversary for the art.
The zoot suit, as a title character, is center stage as worn by Edward James Olmos' El Pachuco, who made the wardrobe a prop as much as a costume by moving onstage in smooth physical lines.
In Gomez's art, the elegant silhouettes of the zoot suit are touched with theatrical lighting along the arms and shoulders, connecting it to highlights on the crown and brim of the black fedora. A green band in the hat matches the front handkerchief that signifies dressing up for the night, and maintaining it, was ritualistic.
It turned the late-1970s costume -- based on early 1940s wardrobe -- into a visual context of the play's political prompts.
I don't like baseball. Despite that fact, I have for some time entertained the idea of visiting and exploring Dodger Stadium. Dodger Stadium has long struck me as one of Los Angeles' greatest examples of monumental architecture, and I'm not completely sure why it's not more of an establishing shot cliché for films set in Los Angeles, on par with the Hollywood Sign, Venice Boardwalk, Walk of Fame, Rodeo Drive, and Chinese Theater. When presented with the opportunity to explore it without the distraction of baseball, I stepped up to the plate, as it were.
The tour was organized by deLaB, and the small number of spots were snapped up in about twenty minutes. I initially felt something like guilt for no doubt scuppering the opportunity for some blue-bleeding Dodger fan to possibly realize a lifelong dream. I attempted to absolve myself after being asked by another tour-goer if whether I was an architect or Dodgers fan. How many people that go to Hoover Dam do so because they're superfans of hydroelectricity? I enjoyed myself greatly, so it's also my hope that fellow non-fans of baseball will consider visiting the stadium themselves.
Walking the length of Spring Street one morning, I counted 22 surface parking lots. I do this not out of a "Rain Man"-style numerical compulsion, but a no less distracting desire to feel out the progress of a city's urbanism. The surface parking lot test gives you a sense of density, for one thing -- obviously, the denser a neighborhood, the less of itself it can devote to idle cars -- but it also lets you gauge its state of flux. "This'll be a great town," New Yorkers have for over a century said of their home and its constant construction, "as soon as they get it finished." Manhattan's perpetual unfinishedness, of course, defines it as a "great town," and its developers know they can always and everywhere put up or tear down something more ambitious than a square of paint-lined concrete. Spring Street, which still boasts a formidable collection of architectural monuments to Los Angeles' grandly aspirant early twentieth century, now offers a window onto downtown's modern revival, and the view from it often looks exciting indeed.
Still, enthusiast though I am, a snarkier sentiment roils within me: if your downtown still has surface parking lots, then you, my friend, do not have a downtown. Yet they have nowhere to go but away. I make bets with downtown-dwelling friends about when the last surface parking lot will have vanished. Twenty years from now, certainly. Ten years, maybe. Five years -- dare we hope? Out-of-downtowners, or at least those who live far enough away from downtown, tend to respond with an interestingly point-missing question: "But then where will people park?" An absence of parking indicates not just a demand for actual buildings but no need to stash vehicles in the first place: you'll either live downtown already, or in a place connected by rapid transit. Granted, this all sounds a tad implausible to Angelenos of thirty, forty, fifty years' standing who came to know downtown Los Angeles as the locus classicus of the sad postwar fate of the American inner city. Recall "A Note on Downtown", Reyner Banham's brief chapter in "Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies", which opens with the words, " ...because that is all downtown Los Angeles deserves."
Though Banham may have let his enthusiasm for the city's break from nineteenth century urban forms get the better of him, this dismissal no doubt seemed warranted in 1971. Not every European turns up looking so aggressively forward. Visiting 34 years later, French public intellectual Bernard-Henri Lévy dubbed Los Angeles "the Anti-City," in large part because of what struck him as its lack of a downtown meriting the name. "What must be true for a city to be legible?" Lévy asks in his book "American Vertigo: Traveling America in the Footsteps of Tocqueville". "First, it has to have a center. But Los Angeles has no center. It has districts, neighborhoods, even cities within the city, each of which has a center of some sort. But one center, one unique site as a point of reference for that law of isonomy the Athenians believed was the principle behind every city, a hub or focus with which the inhabitants of Beverly Hills, Hollywood, Venice, Chinatown, Koreatown, Little Saigon and Little Tokyo, Malibu, Inglewood, Pico Union [ ... ] could have a relationship at once distinct and regular -- nothing like that exists in Los Angeles."