This week L.A. Letters unpacks a new anthology on ecopoetry and examines the illustrious career of the poet-activist Lewis MacAdams, co-founder of the Friends of the Los Angeles River. MacAdams is one of the most authentic and effective ecopoets writing in America; his track record with the Friends of the Los Angeles River speaks for itself. Many forget that the significant restorative elements occurring with the river began with poetry in 1986. Before explicating MacAdams, there's also much to be said about ecopoetics and the new book, "The Ecopoetry Anthology," published by Trinity University Press in April 2013.
In a previous column, I covered "Red Start: An EcoPoetics" by Forrest Gander and John Kinsella. If that book is a manifesto of the ecopoetry movement, this landmark new collection is, as Rebecca Solnit calls it, "an encyclopedia." Edited by Ann Fisher-Wirth and Laura-Gray Street, it features over 200 poets and over 300 poems to culminate into almost 600 pages of ecopoetry from the last 150 years. In the Editor's Preface, it states, "this poetry addresses contemporary problems and issues in ways that are ecocentric and that respect the integrity of the other-than-human world. It challenges the belief that we are meant to have dominion over nature and is skeptical of a hyperrationality that would separate mind from body--and earth and its creatures from human beings--and that would give preeminence to fantasies of control."
Walt Whitman is the first poet presented in the anthology. An early section of precursors to ecopoetry establishes the timeline and shows the evolution towards ecopoetry. The well-researched Introduction by Robert Hass traces the history of ecopoetry, dating back over 400 years to the poetry of John Donne. Hass reminds the reader that although the encroachment of technology and pollution are more serious than ever today, the conflict between nature, man, the machine, and garden has been a timeless struggle.
Hass lucidly traces the connection between modernism and ecology dating back to John Muir, Henry David Thoreau, Charles Darwin, Carl Linnaeus, Walt Whitman and the rise of Science in the 19th century, connecting the thread to T.S. Eliot. Hass writes, "the most influential American poems, Whitman's 'Song of Myself' and Eliot's 'The Wasteland' are both rooted in vegetation myth. Whitman's poem is a celebration of an endlessly renewable, deeply democratic power in the natural world, and Eliot's a portrait of the failure of nature in an urban world of spiritual drought and sexuality gone wrong."
Hass also briefly discusses other important nature and conservation books, like "A Sand County Almanac" written by Aldo Leopold in 1949 about the degradation of forests and rangelands in the American Southwest after several generations of being overgrazed and overlogged. Hass calls "Sand County" "perhaps the most influential volume of nature writing since Thoreau's "Walden" and John Muir's' "The Mountains of California," noting that the work "moved ecology onto the literary agenda just as ecology was entering the popular consciousness as a deceptively simple proposition: everything is connected to everything else."
Also in 1949, T.S. Eliot published his final version of "Four Quartets." To this Hass writes, "it is interesting to notice that while Eliot was describing a spiritual wasteland in London, Leopold was documenting a historical one on the American West."
By the mid-20th Century, urbanization really picked up all over America. When the highway system was being built, poets like Kenneth Rexroth and Gary Snyder began writing about the forests, mountains, and the preservation of the natural ecology in a rapidly industrializing world. By the mid-1970s, Snyder won the Pulitzer Prize for his groundbreaking book of ecopoetry, "Turtle Island," and environmentalism was becoming a much bigger part of popular cultural and the collective consciousness.
Native Americans inhabited most of what is now California for more than 10,000 years before European contact. There are nearly 170,000 Native American residents throughout the nine counties of Southern California, with more than 30 federally-recognized Native American tribes, according to 2000 census data. This is almost certainly an undercount, because many people who have indigenous ancestors are of mixed racial or ethnic backgrounds and may not be categorized as Native American in official counts. Many Native Americans also belong to tribes or groups that have not yet been recognized by the federal government, including the Acjachemen or Juaneno people.
Some members of Native American tribes live on reservations, while others live among the general population. The following map shows Indian reservations in Southern California and access to green space. Native Americans do not enjoy equal access to green space, parks, and recreation.
In many counties, the overweight and obesity rates for Native Americans are among the highest for any racial or ethnic group. Across the region, 44% of Native American fifth, seventh, and ninth graders did not meet minimum physical fitness standards in the 2007-2008 school year, compared to 41% of students in California.
Native Americans are also economically disadvantaged. The median household income for Native Americans in Southern California is $36,462, compared to $42,896 for all people in the California. Twenty one percent of Southern California's Native Americans live in poverty, a level that is 50% higher than the total of 14% of all people living in poverty across the state.
A professor who was selected for a week-long seminar on teaching European Art had a bio that listed courses that she teaches. One class was Chicano Art and Muralism. What made me curious about Professor Andrea Lepage is that the art historian is a faculty member at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia, far from Los Angeles, or any urban core. After an initial phone call, there was no doubt she has done enthusiastic research to understand the context of Los Angeles murals and Chicano Art. Her course uses Cheech Marin's collection as a contemporary catalyst, Judith Baca's Great Wall of Los Angeles as the anchor of monumental theme, process and practice, and cites David Alfaro Siqueiros' days in Los Angeles as the start of an art movement. Furthermore, she reasons Siqueiros' time in Los Angeles influenced his process as much as the muralist changed the role of murals in U.S. cities. Writing on the Wall had to know more:
Ed Fuentes: Of course the burning questions is, what was your path that brought Chicano Art to a town where the burial site for General Lee is the most visible form of public art?
Andrea Lepage: I became interested in Chicano/a muralism as it related to my study of Mexican muralism and Los Tres Grandes, and specifically David Alfaro Siqueiros. I knew that Siqueiros painted street-side murals in Los Angeles in the early 1930s, but came upon a manual that he published in 1951 entitled "Cómo Se Pinta Un Mural" in which his experiences in L.A. feature prominently. The manual is part autobiography, part technical manual, and part manifesto. Siqueiros' goal was to provide a practical guide so that his version of political and socially-engaged mural painting could be exported around the world.
Initially, I began looking at the Chicano/a murals to see if the manual had any impact on their creation, or the artists who produced them. While I am still interested in that line of investigation, I came to realize -- perhaps more importantly -- that Siqueiros' time in Los Angeles changed his artistic trajectory, especially in relation to his ideas about the moving perspective and the use of photographic projection.
These ideas are central to Siqueiros' artwork and featured prominently in his writings, and it seems that he first became interested in these artistic techniques during his stay in Los Angeles -- he says as much in "Cómo Se Pinta Un Mural" and other writings. I wanted to spend some time in Los Angeles to try to understand the specific atmosphere of the city and its people that changed the path of Mexican muralism.
Once I spent time looking at the Great Wall of Los Angeles, and then many community murals, I became less interested in the connection between Mexican and Chicano/a murals, and was captivated by the uniqueness and artistic vibrancy of the Chicano/a murals. I wanted to share this important and understudied aspect of American art with my students at Washington and Lee University.
"Please stand clear. The doors are closing."
"That's right! The doors are closing -- closing on your chance for salvation! And if you refuse to accept your lord and savior, you'll find yourself behind those closed doors! Behind them for all eternity!"
The preacher went on, instinctively weaving each of the loudspeaker's announcements into the morning's forceful sermon. He wore a brown three-piece suit, not likely bespoke; his every gesticulation, and he made many, sent flying the extra fabric at his wrists and ankles. But what he lacked in tailoring, he made up in his distinctively both wild- and dead-eyed passion. The microphone he held to his mouth looked connected to nothing, yet his voice boomed as if amplified. Boomed through the whole car of the train, that is, undeterred even as my fellow passengers actively ignored it. I don't see or hear this sort of thing every time I ride the Blue Line, not that it surprised me when I did.
Writing "Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies" in the early seventies, Reyner Banham speculated about what form of transit would one day replace the freeways. "A rapid-rail system is the oldest candidate for the succession," he wrote, "but nothing has happened so far. The core of the problem, I suspect, is that when the socially necessary branch has been built, to Watts, and the profitable branch, along Wilshire, little more will be done and most Angelenos will be an average of fifteen miles from a rapid-transit station." This exemplifies Banham's still-fascinating half-prescience: 22 years after the book appeared, the first stations of that "commercially necessary" Wilshire branch -- the Purple Line I rode to the downtown coffee shop where I write these words -- would open. Just a few years before that, Los Angeles' long-awaited modern "rapid-rail" system began its operation with the "socially necessary" one, the Blue Line. Despite recent years' glimmers of hope for extension, some riders have given up hope of ever riding a Purple Line train all the way under Wilshire Boulevard, but even upon its opening the Blue Line ran from downtown not just to Watts but well past it, all the way to Long Beach.
Banham's language of social necessity may make the train sound like a food-stamp program, but when it entered service in 1990, it did so to great fanfare. The triumphal video "A Promise Delivered" (a production of the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission) frames the Blue Line as the harbinger of a brave new Los Angeles, and footage from its grand opening suggests a citywide paroxysm of ecstasy. Even the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles contributed to the push with "Operation Blue Line," once available on VHS from major grocery the city over. In it, the normally New York-based quartet of reptilian heroes shows up to defeat a black-caped ne'er-do-well named Gridlock who, in service of the eponymous traffic condition, schemes to "make all public information about the Blue Line disappear." The production makes for an embarrassing watch on every level, not least because, despite the Turtles' victory in the battle, Gridlock hasn't yet lost the war. Look at the the numbers, especially the weekday boarding average of 90,000, and the Blue Line comes out a success. Yet every time I ride it, I can't help but feel that something in the execution has gone obscurely wrong.
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.