Professor Money, God, and the First Book Published in Los Angeles (Maybe)

Los Angeles Star
| Photo: Courtesy USC Libraries

"San Francisco had its Philosopher Pickett, its Emperor Norton and a host of others of like ilk," wrote James M. Guinn in the 1902 annual publication of the Historical Society of Southern California. "Los Angeles had representatives of this class in its early days, but unfortunately the memory of but few of them has been salted down in the brine of history."

Guinn did fish out of history's mid-19th century pickling barrel one notable Los Angeles character in whom eccentricity and enterprise were strangely blended. He might be described as the founding father of kooky L.A. His name was William Money. He insisted that the name be pronounced "Moe-NAY."

Or maybe it was "Moe-NEE."

Study in Brown: The Mixed Messages of Water Conservation

The couple in Glendora whose brown lawn was the subject of media hyperventilating has, I hope, moved on in their lives. (The house in photo above is not theirs, by the way.) The media's fondness for irony, the public's readiness for sympathetic outrage, and the web's infinite capacity to make the outrageous ever new is going keep their story going without them. Too bad that story isn't the one you heard.

At least, that's how Glendora City Manager Chris Jeffers tells it. In a letter to California CityNews, a news site for local governments, Jeffers outlines Glendora's water conservation history and explains why conservation doesn't have to turn Glendora's lawns into dust bowls. I wish him well.

A Travel Listicle About Ventura Has Put Me Over the Edge

We inhabit a world of lists. I do not need to list them. If you read anything online in the past minute, you can cite your own example. I confess, I am not a fan of these lists. To be blunt, I think lists are lazy and shallow, requiring little effort on the part of the writer, or the reader. Let me ask you; read a list of "30 Things to Love and See in Amsterdam," and, five minutes later, how many of the items do you recall, discounting the ones related to the red light district?

My personal distaste for lists is not affecting their pace. Lists are everywhere, and they show no sign of abating. I confess I have written my share of lists. Editors assign them, and I write them to put food on the table. I try my best to make them accurate, and I attempt to toss in an item or two that might enhance the reader's world, but honestly, it is hard to convey much of merit in four sentences.

I have a particular gripe with travel/destination lists. I address this particular genre of list for two reasons. Let me list them. One, I believe these lists are the antithesis of true travel. Two, yesterday someone brought yet another destination list to my attention. In the vast deluge of lists, this one caught my attention because it was about my hometown.

"30 Things You Need to Know About Ventura Before You Move There," addressed, surprise, 30 things you ostensibly need to know about my hometown before you move here. In the interest of honest journalism, I must say I commenced my reading already biased: any piece of writing sponsored by a real estate company ("Movoto. Real Estate Made Easy") makes me both skeptical and nervous.

For a Better State, Give Local Government What It Needs

As KCET begins to celebrate its 50th Anniversary, we're engaging the public in a series of conversations, starting with "How do you envision a better state?" Contributor DJ Waldie shares his ideas below. Share yours here.


All the boom times that inflated our desires and our demands have ended. The California good life that millions took for granted for so long belongs mostly to digital billionaires. And the billionaires want to set up their own insular state -- the ultimate in Californian narcissism.

For the rest of us, the hope is for enough of the California Dream to make fit lives for ourselves and our children.

Better government for California is tangled in that incoherent expectation. I call it incoherent because the several historical strands that have made up California politics since the 1970s have never resolved what government is supposed to be. And yet, California's voters are asked every election season to pass on constitutional initiatives that redefine how government will realize the California Dream.

Enjoying Work, Whether Fast Food in Ventura or an Elevator on Wilshire

To Serve Man: Why Not a Little Fun?

The other day, I decided to eat breakfast at a local establishment familiar to everyone. Said establishment is familiar to my wife, too. I hope she doesn't read this because she will certainly ask me why I didn't eat a perfectly good breakfast at home, to which my only legitimate reply would be our breakfast foods don't contain a fistful of salt with each serving. Now and again we all deserve a little additional spice, made spicier by sneaking around.

Just in case there was someone inside that might report to my wife, I conducted my purchase via the drive through.

A chipper voice welcomed me and took my order.

When I came to the window, the chipper voice proved to be a young man of maybe 18. Regarding me through round glasses, he smiled pleasantly, took my money, put it in the register, and turned to some paperwork by his side.

I watched him. It occurred to me that this could be a dangerous game, as a hungry customer can be a volatile customer. It would not surprise me to learn that customers have come through the window for less, although I have no doubt this particular fast food chain sizes not only their meals but their windows, then further ensures employee safety by supersizing their customers.

What Flattened the Top of Mt. Lee (of Hollywood Sign Fame)?

The Hollywood Sign stands on the face of Mount Lee, a 1,708-foot peak in the Hollywood Hills. 1960 photo courtesy of the Security Pacific National Bank Collection - Los Angeles Public Library.

A monument to a failed dream frames the Hollywood Sign. Behind the landmark letters rises the 1,708-foot summit of Mount Lee, a hilltop whose flatness is no geologic anomaly, no wayward mesa from the Southwest. Instead, it's the remnant of a movie mogul's abandoned plan to build the grandest mansion in Los Angeles.

One of the highest peaks in the eastern Santa Monica Mountains, Mount Lee originally sported a rounded top. A narrow ridge connected the then-unnamed summit to nearby Cahuenga and Burbank peaks; together, they were known as the Three Sisters.

In 1923, a real estate syndicate christened the peak Mount Hollywoodland and opened at its base Hollywoodland -- a housing subdivision advertised in white block letters fifty feet tall. Among the developers was Mack Sennett -- a pioneering filmmaker best known for slapstick comedies like the Keystone Kops -- who reserved for himself an 18-acre mountaintop parcel where he hoped to build his dream house.

And what a dream it was. From the mountaintop, Sennett could see and be seen; he would enjoy commanding views of the entire city, and as the only structure on the crest of the Hollywood Hills, his house would become a conspicuous landmark. Plans by architect John L. DeLario placed a dining room, living room, drawing room, library, conservatory, kitchen, servant's quarters, and a butler's pantry all on the first floor. On the second floor, in addition Sennett's own apartment, would be four guest rooms and a suite of rooms for Sennett's mother. Outside were terraced Italian gardens, a 2,800-square-foot swimming pool with a sand beach, and a paddock with easy access to a bridle path that wound its way through Griffith Park. The design recalled a hodgepodge of Mediterranean influences, which the boosterish Los Angeles Times praised as "a new architectural style characteristic of Southern California and the sun-splashed hills and valleys." The total cost? One million dollars.

To create space for such a palace, workers would have to shave off the top of Mount Hollywoodland. By December of 1925, steam shovels were tearing into the mountain's sedimentary rock, shortening the peak by 69 feet, flattening four level acres at the summit, and carving a winding driveway that linked up with the Mulholland Highway.

But soon after the initial grading was complete, progress stalled. Then the stock market crash of 1929 wiped out much of Sennett's fortune, once valued at $15 million, further delaying construction. Finally in 1933, bankruptcy forced Sennett to abandon his plans. Others would find a use for the leveled hilltop -- in 1939, broadcaster Tommy Lee purchased the site, renamed the mountain after his father Don Lee, and installed L.A.'s first television studio there -- but the curiously flat mountain remains the legacy of a vanquished dream, a counterargument to the Hollywood Sign's alluring promise.

Hot Town: The Shape of Los Angeles and the 'Heat Island' Effect

Hot Enough?
| Photo from MS Gallery

For more than a hundred years, researchers have measured daytime and nighttime temperatures that are consistently higher in cities than in the surrounding countryside. This is the "urban heat island" effect caused, it is said, by the concentration of structures, hard surfaces, people, and the heat-generating mechanical systems that allow cities to survive.

Depending on geography and climate, the nighttime temperature of an urban core can be as much as 22 degrees warmer than its rural fringe.

A new study by Yale researchers has clues to why daytime temperatures are higher downtown, with implications for how Los Angeles may fare as average temperatures rise and the city's landscape is reshaped by development, drought, and public policy.

My Fourth of July Experience is Just Ending

On July 4, I boarded my dogs for the night. In my neighborhood, fireworks and explosives start early -- about a week before the holiday -- as a kind of test run for the big night. Things go off here and there, nothing like the barrage of the Fourth, but varied (booms, bellows, cracks sharp as lightning) and unpredictable enough to jar my animals, one of whom hears just one noise and immediately seeks refuge in the bathtub. The level of fireworks and explosives in a neighborhood correlates exactly with economics: the more upscale a place, the quieter it is because fewer people are outdoors as a rule.

Wealthier people live indoors. The wealthiest places, like some areas of Pacific Palisades, don't even have sidewalks, I suppose because they don't want to encourage anybody, even residents, to even think about wandering outside for any length of time, to say nothing of going in the middle of the street to set off fireworks for hours on end. Nor do well-off neighborhoods have much in the way of streetlights, which seems counterintuitive (aren't all safe places supposed to be lit?) until you remember that upscale people like their privacy, and darkness assures that. Too, why would you need lights when you know with great certainty that you live in a safe place? Streetlights are demanded by people who live with a certain level of unease, who are always striving to keep chaos at bay. The wealthy are, psychologically speaking, post-chaos.

My neighbor's two dogs ran off on the Fourth, unable to cope with the chaos that takes over our neck of Inglewood when the sun goes down. I felt semi-responsible for one, Rex, a rescue that my husband brought home from a gas station late last year: a big, friendly, tri-colored shepherd/Lab puppy wearing a city-issued license (good news) with a number that turned out to be 17 years old (bewildering news). A tag from a dead letter office.

Before the 110 Freeway, Figueroa Street Ran Through These Tunnels

Two-way traffic once ran through the Figueroa Street Tunnels, now part of the Arroyo Seco Parkway. Courtesy of the USC Libraries - Dick Whittington Photography Collection.

Driving through the Figueroa Street Tunnels might be one of L.A.'s most dramatic freeway experiences. As you plunge through the first Art Deco portal, the downtown skyline recedes in your rear-view mirror. A minute later, leaving the last of the four bores, you enter the world of the Arroyo Seco Parkway: sycamore trees, sweeping curves, and arched bridges.

The tunnels weren't always part of the state freeway system. Built between 1930 and 1936 by the city of Los Angeles, they originally carried Figueroa Street through the rugged terrain of Elysian Park. Two lanes traveled in either direction, separated by white double stripes. Pedestrians were welcome, if not expected; a single five-foot sidewalk (since removed) ran alongside the forty-foot wide roadway.

Designed by municipal engineer Merrill Butler1, the tunnels bore the aesthetic flourishes that distinguished Butler's more-celebrated Los Angeles River bridges. Art Deco patterns and ornamental street lamps adorned the concrete faces of the portals and retaining walls. Inside, reflective tiles reinforced a sense of motion. And above each of the eight portals, a stylized version of the Los Angeles city seal was cast in concrete.

Aesthetic considerations aside, the tunnels were first and foremost a traffic relief measure, the key part of a program to widen and extend Figueroa Street between downtown and Pasadena. (The grade-separated intersection of Temple and Figueroa is another legacy of this program.) Previously, the principal route north of downtown had been North Broadway, which often choked with traffic where it crossed the Los Angeles River. The four tunnels represented a shortcut around North Broadway and through Elysian Park, whose southeastern flank was sacrificed in the name of traffic flow.

Footsore: L.A.'s Sidewalk Mess Needs Better Ideas

It's no secret to anybody who is a pedestrian (and that would be all of us) that Los Angeles is a crumbling town. The decomposition of its sidewalks -- among other things -- has passed the tipping point and reached a tripping point. The city already pays $3 million to $5 million a year settling "trip and fall" lawsuits caused by particularly dangerous sidewalks.

The state of the city's walkways makes laughable the claim that Los Angeles is about to become one of the nation's most "walkable" cities.

Walkable, sure ... but only if you carefully pick your route and time of day. Otherwise, you're picking your way across heaved concrete slabs, dodging the open wells of street trees (thanks for the shade), or taking an ill-lighted path into the creepy unknown after dark. For those of us not young, not nimble, and not clear of vision -- and that's a lot of us -- there are miles of treacherous Los Angeles hardscape to be crossed on foot.

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