From the Dust Bowl to the L.A. Suburbs

Writing about Susan Straight's novels and short stories the other day set me to thinking about the diversity that characterized my childhood.

Straight knows the amalgam of races and ethnicities of working-class Riverside and that city's blend of African-American, Latino, Asian, and Anglo families (sometimes in the same family). I lived a boy's life among white, working-class kids whose accents and habits were largely colored by the border South from which their parents and grandparents had come not long before.

It seems naïve now to describe as diverse the families that had come West in flight from the Dust Bowl or had arrived looking for jobs in the defense plants that ringed Los Angeles after 1940. But those immigrants weren't precisely like my Catholic or Jewish neighbors or my own parents, who had something of Manhattan about them still. My father had grown up there; my mother lived and worked there in the 1930s.

Photos: When the Cahuenga Pass Was Rustic

The Cahuenga Pass circa 1905, when only a modest wagon road cut through the gap in the mountains. Courtesy of the USC Libraries - California Historical Society Collection.

Sure, there are exposed hillsides, hidden wildlife, and a few trees. But "rustic" hardly captures the character of the Cahuenga Pass these days. Cars whisk through this notch in the Hollywood Hills at 70 miles per hour. Truck horns and tire squeals pierce the steady hum of the 101 freeway.

Yet there was a time when "rustic" applied. Adventurous types once camped beneath the pass' oak-dotted hillsides. In the 1870s, a primitive hotel -- named the Eight Mile House because Los Angeles was eight miles down the road -- rose among a stand of eucalyptus trees inside the canyon. As late as 1914, filmmaker Cecil B. DeMille rented a wooden cabin in the pass as his home. He rode daily into his studio on horseback -- with a revolver on his hip.

The pass has long been a convenient shortcut between the San Fernando Valley and Los Angeles Basin. In a previous geologic epoch, the Los Angeles River spilled into Hollywood through the pass, before continued uplift of the Santa Monica Mountains rerouted the waterway around present-day Griffith Park. The first Southern Californians likely blazed a foot-trail millennia ago, and by the late 18th century the villagers of Cabueg-na or Kaweenga (the origin of the name "Cahuenga") near Universal Studios regularly trekked through the pass. In 1852, a steep wagon road replaced the old trail, and in 1911 the Pacific Electric stretched its interurban railway tracks through the pass. Any remnants of the pass' rustic character vanished in 1940, when the Cahuenga Pass Freeway -- one of L.A.'s first -- opened through this erstwhile campground.

A Senseless Tragedy in Our Community and Yours

Senseless death happens all the time.

In our community, it happened on a recent Sunday morning, a young man hit by a car while he was running beside the road. He was 38. He had a wife and 7-year-old daughter.

This young man was also an educator in our town; at the moment of his end, an assistant principal at the De Anza Academy of Technology and Arts in Ventura. He had also served (the proper term) as a teacher at two other area high schools; Foothill Technology High School in Ventura and Nordhoff High School in Ojai. He coached water polo at Buena High School. Water polo players rise in the dark to train. The young man would exhort his sleepy, fidgeting-at-the-pool's-edge minions. This is why I wake up at 5 a.m. every day!

He shook the hands of his students before they came into his classroom. He wore hula skirts (Hawaiian Day) and crazy hair (Guess which day). He convinced his school principal to dress up like Jack Black's Nacho Libre. This principal told a reporter that hiring this young man was the best decision of his life.

"I want to be him. That's the leader I want to be," the principal said.

You are beginning to form a picture.

Susan Straight, an Appreciation

The Los Angeles Times Book Prizes gave Susan Straight the Robert Kirsch Award the other evening. The award honors a writer of the West for a lifetime's accomplishments as an interpreter of what it takes to make a home here. (Last year's recipient was historian Kevin Starr. The first -- in 1980 -- was novelist Wallace Stegner.)

Susan Straight lives a few blocks from where she was born in Riverside. She's a part of that dry place and its stories. Because she is, Straight says there are two kinds of people: those who stay and those who leave. Straight is the kind who stayed.

Bell, California: 'I'm Here, But I Don't Know Where I Am'

Gage Avenue in Bell, CA. | Photo: Courtesy Google

My friend Marilyn called me from the road last month. She sounded excited and a little bewildered, the way you feel when you're headed someplace for the first time.

"I'm going to Bell," she shouted. "Where is that?"

Southeast L.A. County, I said promptly. One city in a cluster of small cities south of downtown, east of South Central. I know the geography, like any conscious native Angeleno and former devotee of the old Thomas Bros. guide (which I still have in my trunk for confirmation that I'm on the right path, something that isn't always the case with MapQuest or GPS). But I knew I wasn't telling Marilyn what she wanted to know, which was: what is Bell like? What goes on there? What happens there? Marilyn lives in Westchester and was driving east on Florence Avenue, a street I know she's rarely on (it peters out in Inglewood, before Westchester) and almost certainly had not taken this far east. Florence Avenue itself was an adventure; Bell was adventure on a whole other level.

I live in Inglewood and grew up in South Central, and I think Marilyn figured I would know more about it. And of course I'm a native who theoretically knows the lay of the land. But I don't know more about this particular part. I don't think I've ever set foot in Bell, which puts Marilyn and me in the same boat, or in the same car.

I'm not totally uninitiated, of course: I am familiar with several neighborhoods east of the Harbor Freeway, including Watts. But those Southeast cities constitute a single, mysterious netherworld to me and always have. I have passed through or passed by Huntington Park, South Gate, and Lynwood, albeit briefly -- I drove along the border of Vernon accidentally once or twice, after missing a freeway onramp from downtown late at night. But I wasn't in any of those places visiting anybody I knew, or conducting any business.

Marilyn was going to Bell to look at a piece of exercise equipment advertised at a good price. She's from New York and used to traversing the big city, especially in pursuit of a good deal. That she had never been to Bell didn't faze her, and in fact piqued her curiosity. That's more than I can say for a lot of people who live as far west as she does who generally have very little interest in going south of the 10, to say nothing of east of the 110.

It's not that Marilyn was concerned with getting lost. The address she was looking for was on Florence, the street she was already driving and had been driving for miles when she called me. She was just trying to get her bearings. "I'm here, I just don't know where I am!" was how she explained it. I told her that sounded poetic. She laughed and said that just driving down the previously unobserved Florence made her want to stop and get out and walk around, which makes her even more unusual among L.A. people, who, native or not, tend to live in their own silos.

That kind of isolation is part of the reason I don't know Bell, or Bell Gardens or Cudahy. Demographic history drives the isolation: the southeast cities were all strictly white for a long time, and after white flight they became heavily Latino, but blacks never made inroads, which is the main reason I don't know anyone there. Compton and Lynwood are exceptions to that trend, though I always saw Compton as less southeast and more of an extension of Watts/Willowbrook. My father, who grew up here in the '40s, said that as far as black folks on the eastside were concerned (that's east of Main Street, not East L.A.), Bell and those places might as well have been Mars. Black people were not welcome there, to put it mildly, and so they didn't go. Bell was a non-place to my father and his generation even though he lived much closer to it than I do now.

Marilyn made it to her destination and bought the exercise machine. She was happy with her purchase and also with Bell, more or less. She said the person who'd sold her the equipment was friendly, knowledgeable, and straightforward. She'd go there again, I can tell, maybe get more stuff, maybe walk around next time. Just in that one excursion, L.A. has both expanded and gotten a little smaller for her; though Bell is its own city, it's part of the SoCal regional sprawl that includes but isn't limited to L.A., a sprawl with pockets that we all ignore or miss or actively avoid, sometimes for fifty years. But doing even a little corrective action helps a lot: in a couple of hours, Marilyn literally expanded her horizon. And I'm overdue to set foot.

A Short Journey to Chicago, a Brief Comparison to L.A.

I went to Chicago the other day to meet with students who are part of the MFA program in nonfiction at Columbia College. Later, I gave a reading to which those students and the public had been invited. I brought to Chicago all my provincialism.

It had been a hard winter on the western shore of Lake Michigan, my hosts told me. And winter had ended, but it wasn't yet spring. The empty stretches along the Blue Line tracks from O'Hare Airport to downtown were grey and brown. The suburbs that sprawl out on the prairie were gray and brown, too.

The core of downtown Chicago is even more rigidly gridded than Los Angeles, with its crooked orientation away from the cardinal points of the compass still preserved. Chicago's street grid is pure Jeffersonian. No other imperial imagination makes a counter claim to the landscape. Westward from Michigan Avenue the grid parcels out the ground into short and often narrow blocks.

Unlike most of Los Angeles, where the blocks are long, Chicago's short blocks seemed more pedestrian. I seemed to make more forward progress because I could tick off more cross streets that I passed.

'Straight Outta Compton' Movie: Can Hollywood Be Trusted?

It's hard to believe that it's been twenty-five years since NWA released its monster album "Straight Outta Compton" and put West Coast gangsta angst on the map. L.A. officially acquired a new kind of noir, ethnically and figuratively: the rotting underbelly of the sun-filled land of dreams moved from Raymond Chandler's Hollywood to Ice Cube and company's modest, almost nondescript SoCal town that now loomed big in the national imagination. Unlike Hollywood, though, people didn't exactly flock to Compton to see it for themselves. The public fascination with a black ghetto was maintained at a distance (as it generally is with all things black), through the music and videos and movies -- South Central, Boyz n the Hood, Menace II Society -- that transposed badass-L.A. from CD to screen. Compton and Hollywood met, in a fashion.

But things were quickly lost in the translation from street to pop culture commodity. The root angst of NWA, the grievances and social commentary that so animated "F--- the Police" and other cuts was upstaged by the more lurid details of gangsta life that the public took as a call to fashion, not a call to action. Bandanas, saggy pants, and gold bling worthy of Mafia dons became outlaw chic. The simmering rap rivalry between West and East Coast that culminated in real shoot-outs with real dead leading characters made gangsta-ism seem even more like a movie -- a Western, to be exact -- than ever.

In the meantime, distressed black neighborhoods like Compton continued to be distressed, though relatively few commercial hip-hop artists took on the subject directly. What looked for a minute like musical revolution became a new "urban" genre that seemed to generate controversy as a marketing strategy, not as a way to provoke thought.

A Deadly Encounter off Anacapa Island

A pod of dolphins near Arch Rock off Anacapa Island in Channel Islands National Park. | Photo: Courtesy Munch Photography/Latitudes Gallery

I saw my friend Steve Munch recently and it reminded me again of the surprise and raw beauty in this world, not to mention the lovely unfoldings and potential for visceral heartbreak that exist right off our noses.

Let me explain.

First, let me say that my friend Steve Munch is many things, many of which cannot see print, but above all he is a man who cares deeply about our oceans. He is also a supremely talented photographer. Steve photographs many things, but most of his photos center around the waters off our Ventura County shoreline. My friend Steve is not lackadaisical in his efforts. He spends over 200 days a year out on his boat shooting. This allows him some special moments.

NYU's Animated Map of Los Angeles: A Piece of Fiction?

The New York University Stern Urbanization Project recently posted selections from a new series of animations to show the expansion of "global cities" over the past 200 years. Los Angeles is one of those cities, and the NYU Stern map balloons a tiny dot of 1781 Los Angeles into a pool of deep red by 2000. The red that fills Los Angeles County is filigreed around the edges with large pods and tendrils that appear to extend from Ventura to south Orange County and eastward to Riverside and San Bernardino.

A similar presentation of the evolution of Los Angeles County -- but much more detailed and historically nuanced -- was prepared by Professor Philip Ethington of USC (with Samuel Krueger and Adrian Almer) for the Getty exhibition "Overdrive: L.A. Constructs the Future" in 2013. (Examples of the maps for Overdrive are here and here.)

There are problems with any representation of Los Angeles through time, and the NYU Stern attempt suffers from the worst of those problems of representation.

The Persistence of Palms in Los Angeles

Palm Sunday -- when the pious receive a rib or two of pale yellow-green palm frond -- is April 13 this year. I'll be handed my fragment of palm by an usher at church, to be awkwardly held or folded into my jack pocket and forgotten there.

The adept in the pews during mass plait theirs into a cross -- a symbol bridging Palm Sunday and Good Friday.

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