The city of West Hollywood recently launched a new nighttime shuttle service: the WeHo PickUp Line. Although the branding makes it clear that it's meant to be thought of as an "entertainment shuttle," primarily used to transport riders to bars, nightclubs and restaurants (nothing wrong with that), they certainly don't frown on using it for other purposes, such as taking in West Hollywood's impressive collection of whimsical public art, ample neon signage, beautiful architecture, and great people watching -- all of which I did on a recent Friday night.
In the decade and a half that I've lived in Los Angeles, I've visited West Hollywood on surprisingly few occasions. Nearly all have involved a frustrating search for parking, followed by a show at some Sunset Strip venue or other, by performers who'd seemingly find much more receptive audiences somewhere east of Hollywood rather than west. In short, it usually left me cranky and tired.
It was only when visiting a housesitting friend and exploring WeHo on foot that I finally began to appreciate its charms and unique character. Walking is almost always the best way to explore, and this is especially the case in West Hollywood. Just walking on the sidewalks I felt a bit like I was in some kind of large, open air gym, as super fit people passed me by. Walkscore even ranks West Hollywood's walkability above that of such famously walkable cities as New York and San Francisco. They also rate transit and bikability, although not jogging while pulling along a dog on a leash and talking on the phone -- which I also saw.
When I arrived in Los Angeles, I conducted my daily exploration of the city on a bicycle, which remains, as a result, my primary mode of transportation. (The trains rank second, then, when it comes down to it, the buses.) Many an Angeleno, so I've gathered since first setting out on two wheels, would have expected me to say that I still insist on riding a bike despite having tried it, or that, after one harrowing attempt, I locked the thing up at home, never to free it again. Even when I tell someone outside the city that I get around by bike, they express disbelief at the very notion. Somewhere along the line, whether due its size, the varying quality of its roads, its high-profile car culture — they may imagine me pedaling desperately on the thin shoulder of a raging freeway — or some combination thereof, Los Angeles gained a reputation as a uniquely un-bikeable place. This may explain the harsh, defensive posture of certain local cyclists I encounter — "Hey man, I just happen to prefer getting around Los Angeles on a bicycle, okay?" — and it can, at times, make cycling here feel like an inherently contrarian act.
This week L.A. Letters explores two exceptional new books: "Urban Tumbleweed" by Harryette Mullen, and "Never Built Los Angeles" by Greg Goldin and Sam Lubell. Mullen's is a book of cutting edge poetry, and "Never Built" is an art book dealing with Los Angeles architecture and urban history. Their common bond is that they both take place in Los Angeles and offer an alternative vision, pregnant with hope and what really could be.
"Urban Tumbleweed: Notes from a Tanka Diary," published by Graywolf Press, is Harryette Mullen's new book of poems, written from her daily habit of walking around her neighborhood and surrounding areas. Many of the poems were written in Santa Monica, Venice, West L.A. and Westwood, where she is Professor of English and African-American Studies at UCLA. Mullen adapts the Japanese tanka poetry form for her own purposes and uses it masterfully.
In the book's short preface, "On Starting a Tanka Diary," she explicates her methods: "With the tanka diary to focus my attention, a pedestrian stroll might result in a poem. Merging my wish to write poetry every day with a willingness to step outdoors, my hope was that each exercise would support the other." Mullen succeeds in her intention, and then some. A small number of tankas were written during her travels and residencies in Texas and Sweden.
With the mural ordinance going into effect this Saturday, October 12, 2013, the City of Los Angeles will call it "Mural Day," marking the end of a 11-year moratorium on murals on private property. Declarations will go on the record Friday, Councilmember José Huizar will introduce a new project in Boyle Heights, and nine artists will use utility boxes on First Street as a canvas.
It's the same week that marks the first year anniversary of the rededication of David Alfaro Siqueiros' "America Tropical," which was first dedicated 81 years ago.
Also, in "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," German literary critic Walter Benjamin wrote that reproduction technique allows the function of art to be reversed from its previous themes and movements: "Instead of being based on ritual it begins to be based on another practice, politics." From 1932 to 2002, we see how Los Angeles murals made politics a new ritual for art content.
Now, just ten murals? Impossible really, and somehow there is no Olympic-era art included. By all means, disagree with the list; we can make more. Send us your own suggestions in the comments box below.
And so, here is a ceremonial list of Ten Monumental Murals that were created before the 2002 ban.
In our last exploration of Los Angeles street names, we searched for a girl named Bonnie Brae, but instead found a pleasant hill. For this installment we travel to another corner of Northeast L.A. in an effort to unearth the story behind Via Marisol, a street that was indeed named after a girl.
In 1978, then Councilman Arthur Snyder, a fiery four-term representative, loved by many and reviled by some, proposed a motion to rename Hermon Avenue to Via Marisol, in honor of his three year old daughter Erin Marisol. Councilman Snyder had been a mainstay of the community since 1965. His friend and one time campaign director Harry Englander described him this way: "He was a red-haired, blue-eyed Irishman who spoke fluent Spanish and kept getting reelected even though his district became a mostly Latino district [...] He was always backslapping, always jovial, always making a deal." To the quiet community of Hermon, however, the larger than life politician was responsible for removing an integral community identifier: Hermon Avenue.
"So many people wanna cruise on Crenshaw on Sunday," raps Skee-Lo on his 1995 hit "I Wish". "Well then, I'mma have to get in my car and go." He even gives directions: "You know I take the 110 until the 105" — from the relatively venerable Harbor Freeway to the then-brand-new Century Freeway — "get off at Crenshaw, tell my homies, 'Look alive.'" You can still follow Skee-Lo's route, but don't expect to emerge into the very same neighborhood you saw in the music video for "I Wish". Head north on Crenshaw for about six more miles, though, and there you'll arrive: Leimert Park, just over one square mile of late-1920s planned community which would become, as LA Weekly music critic Jeff Weiss puts it in a profile of Skee-Lo (who still resides nearby), "the Left Bank of early-90s underground hip-hop." I'd recommend against doing much cruising, though; since Skee-Lo's summer days on the charts, sternly official signs have appeared: "NO CRUISING," they read. Then, in case of ambiguity: "2 TIMES PAST THE SAME POINT WITHIN 6 HOURS IS CRUISING." Last I went down to Leimert Park on a Sunday, I couldn't resist passing the same points repeatedly, daring each time not to let six hours elapse. My defiance raised little in the way of police attention.
October 3 is National Poetry Day. While most know that April is National Poetry Month, October's National Poetry Day is much less publicized. Either way, every day, week and month is National Poetry time here; nonetheless, considering the National day just passed, this is an ideal moment to talk about the state of poetry and the role it plays in contemporary culture. This week L.A. Letters discusses the idea of street poets, two new books and a new venue on L.A.'s historic Central Avenue.
Over the last few months, in several magazines, newspapers and blogs like Poetry, Huffington Post, Chicago Tribune, and Flavorwire, there have been several articles with lists of poets and book reviews of poetry anthologies that question poetry's purpose and value in the 21st Century. The play-by-play details of who said what are too much to recount here; a quick web search can have you reading responses for hours and many have. One of the biggest reasons for all the debate is because of the sheer number of poets writing today -- some professionally trained, and some just earnest writers with little or no knowledge of literary tradition. Whatever your tastes are or education level is, you can bet there's a genre of poetry to match it.
Penguin poet Michael Robbins recently lamented in the Chicago Tribune about what he called "competent verse." Sharing his experience as an editor at a literary journal a few years ago, he discusses reading hundreds of poems that were written well enough, but most failed to really move him. He attributes the competent poems to the rise of MFA programs. He writes, "I have nothing against MFA programs in principle -- at their best, they teach the interested young how to construct and think about poems, how to avoid amateurish pitfalls, how to use metaphor and poetic language. But creating freakishly good poems is not something you can teach. It requires more than skill or talent. It requires what I stubbornly persist in calling imagination."
With new developments in mural regulations in Los Angeles, the city's mural tradition is entering a new era. What better way to mark that transition than with a symbolic coming out party -- which could come by issuing one of the first permits under the new mural ordinance, to an artist who just celebrated her Quinceañera.
The end of the mural ordinance's waiting period, which lasts for 30 days after the mayor signed it, will be marked on October 11 at City Hall.
And in Highland Park, community members have been patiently waiting to install a mural.
Catalina Bolivar is 15, and a fixture at Highland Park's Avenue 50 Studios, as reported recently by The Eastsider LA. Her grandmother, Dolores Franco, 91, first brought Bolivar to the gallery to enroll in art classes. With with no children's classes being taught, curator Kathy Gallegos gave Bolivar some art supplies to take home.
That was almost eight years ago, almost the same duration as the ban on murals has been in effect. But in the spirit of all Los Angeles artists, the young Bolivar carried on by drawing at home, visiting the gallery once in a while to show her progress.
The beige castle with its red tiled roof lords over the town of Alhambra like the feudal fortresses of rural France. But in the valley below, instead of gray stone cottages and green farmland, there are stucco ranch homes and dingy strip malls. I drive up the hill, past middle-class homes with gruff, middle-aged men working in the yards, and park across the street from the high, dishwater colored wall that surrounds the wooded Spector estate. A strangely amateurish sign states that I am indeed at the "Pyrenees Castle." A security camera pointed at the gated entrance reminds me that I am not the first unwanted visitor to the neighborhood.
I crane my neck up and try to see any signs of life on the estate. But all I can see are the vague lines of steep steps and ornamental lights, through an unruly growth of massive evergreens, elms, cedars, pines and palms. I get back in my car and drive around the circular sweep of the property -- there is an overturned wheelbarrow, and a felled tree. I find a back entrance with a warning sign telling me to keep out, and behind it a long concrete outbuilding with peeling awnings and cobwebbed lamps. It seems the closer I get to the castle, the less I can see it. I feel like I am being watched.
A little brunette girl and a man in his fifties are in a driveway across the street, staring at me.
"Why she here?" The little girl tugs at the man's hand. "Why she here?"
I suddenly feel strangely ashamed, and get back in my car and drive down the hill. On the flat streets below, the castle itself again comes into view, perched high atop the town. Sometimes you can see most of it, sometimes only the red topped turrets peek above the trees. I think of the woman who supposedly now lives in the castle all alone, and of the woman who died there. I wonder if they can see me. From its inception, the castle was a building begging for a legend. Almost eighty years after its construction, it finally got its wish. And it got it in spades.