There are greasy spoons, and then there was The Oil Can. Located on Whittier Boulevard in Montebello, this tiny diner mimicked the shape of the cans once used to lubricate machinery, complete with a giant handle and a spout that towered above the building's domed roof.
Its oil can shape may have been unique among restaurants, but this eccentric building does fall squarely within an architectural tradition inspired by Southern California's embrace of the automobile in the 1920s: programmatic or mimetic architecture. Built along major automobile routes, these eye-catching structures attracting passing motorists with their unusual forms. In essence, the buildings acted as their own signage. Some resembled food items (Randy's Donuts), others pieces of clothing (the Brown Derby), and some everyday items like an oil can.
Montebello's Whittier Boulevard was home to several examples of programmatic architecture in the 1920s and '30s, but as the bus-driving historians of Esotouric note, none was as fitting as The Oil Can. The discovery of an underground oil field in 1917 had brought fortune to the town and transformed its once graceful hills ("Montebello" is Italian for "beautiful mountain") into a forest of wooden derricks.
Sunset may have been its name, but the boulevard's grand opening on May 14, 1904, marked the dawning of a new age in Los Angeles. A parade of a dozen or so automobiles -- accompanied by horse-drawn carriages, tally-hos, and electric rail cars -- puttered over the freshly macadamized roadway that now connected Los Angeles with the then-independent city of Hollywood. Crowds of well-wishers gathered along the route. Buildings displayed patriotic bunting.
The idea of a Sunset Boulevard had been around since 1887. As originally conceived, it would have run west from the Los Angeles city limits to the sea, connecting several of the towns that sprang up during the Southland's great real estate boom of the 1880s. But while some isolated segments were soon built (notably a stretch through the short-lived boomtown of Sunset, possibly the source of the road's name) a crucial link remained missing: the section between downtown Los Angeles and the rapidly growing suburb of Hollywood.
Had one of Tomorrowland's flying saucers gone missing? When the Anaheim Convention Center's arena opened in the summer of 1967, it looked as if a spacecraft from another world had touched down directly opposite Katella Avenue from Disneyland.
Designed by Los Angeles-based architects Adrian Wilson and Associates, the Space Age arena cut a striking figure. Two 200-ton steel arches held up its concrete shell dome. When viewed from the proper angle, the arches seemed to spell out the letter "A." Inside, project architect Craig Bullock boasted, the circular arrangement of the auditorium around an elliptical floor plan provided more intimate views from the 9,100 olive green, tan, and orange plastic seats.
In its early years, the multipurpose arena hosted circuses, a Richard Nixon political rally, boxing matches, and numerous musical performances. Days after the convention center's formal dedication on July 12, 1967, The Doors played to a capacity crowd under the arena's concrete shell. Months later, the Anaheim Amigos of the newly formed American Basketball Association moved in for their debut season, which turned out to also be their last, as average crowds of 500 forced the team to relocate the next year to Los Angeles.
Some streets did once mark L.A.'s western city limit. Most notably, West Boulevard's name dates to 1915, when the city's annexation of the Palms district made the street the city's western boundary. And Hoover Street runs along the westernmost limit of L.A.'s original pueblo lands. Until 1892, much of Hoover Street bore a different name: West Boundary Street.
But Western Avenue never did define the city's western boundary, as a brief glance at a map of Los Angeles annexations confirms. On April 1, 1896, the Los Angeles city limit lay a mile and a half to the east. The following day, as Los Angeles absorbed its so-called Western Addition, the city limit jumped far over Western Avenue, landing a half-mile to the west.
When C. C. Pierce balanced his tripod on the roof of the Maier and Zobelein Brewery on Feb. 22, 1899, and pointed his camera west toward the city of Los Angeles, he never could have envisioned how time would obliterate the scene he was capturing. Perhaps he could accept that steel towers would one day supplant the two hulking structures whose clocktowers then pierced the the city's skyline -- the county courthouse on the left and the high school on the right. But how could this 19th-century photographer ever comprehend the idea of a freeway -- automobiles speeding over concrete at sixty miles per hour -- where Aliso Street, that broad avenue running down the center of the photo, had reigned for so long?
Aliso Street was already an ancient route when Pierce photographed it in 1899. Sergeant Jose Arguello noted its existence on his 1786 diseño of the newly founded pueblo, describing it as the main highway between the pueblo and Mission San Gabriel. In fact, it almost certainly predated both, as the Spanish likely repurposed a well-worn footpath used by the Gabrielino (Tongva) inhabitants of Yang-na. Soon the highway rambled through a matrix of vineyards and by the 1830s it had acquired its name, Aliso Road, in honor of a huge sycamore tree that shaded the wine cellars of Don Jean-Louis Vignes.
The vineyards of Aliso Road might have been the pride of Los Angeles (the city was an early leader in viticulture), but a more shameful episode in the city's history transpired just south of the road. in 1836, the ayuntamiento (town council) forcibly relocated the remaining inhabitants of Yang-na to a parcel near Aliso's intersection with Alameda. Already decimated by disease and decades of missionization, Yangna's population now mingled with Indian laborers from across Southern California in what became known as the "rancheria of poblanos." It survived only ten years. In 1845, responding to complaints that the rancheria's inhabitants had been bathing in the town's zanjas, the ayuntamiento forced the villagers to abandon their thatched huts once again and move across the river to the present-day site of Boyle Heights.
Soon after the American conquest of California, an influx of newcomers transformed the old road into a major business corridor. In 1855, the city rerouted part of the highway to straighten its approach to the river. What had been "a willow-bordered, picturesque little lane...[that] paralleled [Vignes'] grape-arbor as far as the river-bank," in the words of memoirist Harris Newmark, was widened into Aliso Street. The older route survived as Old Aliso Road (later renamed Lyon Street) and veered off at an angle at the Vignes winery.
Before the Hollyhock House, there were olive trees -- a veritable army of them, some 1,225, each spaced 20 feet apart, marching up the hillside in an orderly grid formation. Above them rose the unconquered crown of the hill, which stood bald and barren some 89 feet above the flatlands of East Hollywood.
This arboreal phalanx -- in reality, a commercial olive orchard -- was the work of Joseph H. Spires, a Canadian immigrant who arrived in Los Angeles in 1886 and soon became the real estate broker for the Los Angeles Pacific electric railway. Around 1890, Spires bought a 36-acre tract encompassing a round, flattened hillock near the townsite of Prospect Park (today, East Hollywood).
Spires likely wanted the site for its development potential. The hill's summit offered unobstructed, commanding views of the Los Angeles basin, from the eastern Santa Monica Mountains (then still the private reserve of Griffith J. Griffith) to the Pacific shore -- an ideal place for a grand hotel. But such development was still years off. So to ensure a more immediate economic return on the land, Spires planted an orchard on the hill's slopes, leaving only its summit bare and unplanted.
His choice of crop -- olives -- might have been unusual for what was then called the Cahuenga Valley. In nearby Hollywood, scented lemon groves were all the rage. But olive cultivation, if successful, promised three to four times as much revenue -- about $1,000 per acre annually. Spires' olive trees also resonated with growing comparisons between Southern California and the Mediterranean, voiced most famously by Charles Dudley Warner in his 1891 book, "Our Italy."
Chavez Ravine does exist.Glance at the USGS' topographic map of Los Angeles, and you'll find a narrow canyon labeled "Chavez Ravine," a steep-walled arroyo that arcs down from the highlands of Elysian Park toward the floodplain of the Los Angeles River.
And yet, most Angelenos are unaware of this canyon -- or at least its name.
For many, "Chavez Ravine" recalls a night of baseball under a warm Los Angeles sky; it was the only name a proud Los Angeles Angels team used for Dodger Stadium, their temporary home from 1962 to 1965. To others, the words "Chavez Ravine" recall news photographs of four sheriff's deputies dragging a defiant Aurora Arechiga Vargas out of her family's condemned Malvina Avenue home. And for a few surviving residents, "Chavez Ravine" brings to mind that bucolic-Mexican American community -- actually three distinct neighborhoods named Bishop, La Loma, and Palo Verde -- nestled in the Elysian Hills.
But despite their strong associations with the name, none of those memories is located in the actual landform known as Chavez Ravine. Instead, the neighborhoods of Bishop, La Loma, and Palo Verde (as well as the stadium that replaced them) actually occupied two adjacent ravines of their own -- canyons that early maps refer to as Sulphur Ravine and Cemetery Ravine.
And so when earthmovers buried Chavez Ravine the community beneath a million tons of rock, dirt, and Bermuda grass, they spared Chavez Ravine the canyon.
The ravine formed millions of years ago as an ancestral stream channel of the Los Angeles River, according to unpublished research by USC geologist James Dolan. After tectonic uplift forced the river around the Elysian Hills, the channel became a dry arroyo. The ravine acquired its name in more recent times, soon after the city granted 82 acres of nearby real estate to Julian Chaves [also Chavez] in 1844.
Past generations of Angelenos knew Chavez Ravine well as the home of the city's first arboretum (1893); then a sanatorium for tubercular patients (1902); and later still a naval reserve armory (1940).
Guess which wins in the contest for public space: aesthetic interest, comfort, or fear?
Some months ago, the city of Santa Monica, which operates the Big Blue Bus, began installing new street furniture designed by Lorcan O'Herlihy Architects. According to news reports, the $7-million project took an unusually long five years to go from concepts to the installation of new bus stops.
Most riders hated them. From a driver's perspective, the vaguely vegetablish bus stops and minimalist seats had a certain whimsy. Street furniture in a high style but visually unobtrusive when seen at 35 miles an hour. For bus riders, the little canopies cast a handkerchief-sized patch of shade. The seats at the stops were cramped and uncomfortable and too few.
Aesthetic interest beat modest rider comfort. (If you've ever sat on a backless bus bench for 45 minutes waiting under the actinic light of late August, you know what one of the circles of Hell is like.)
The ongoing conversations about the meaning of Michael Brown, the black teenager killed this month by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, have yielded many other conversations that go well beyond police-community relations. It's distressingly familiar, the racial soul-searching prompted by a tragic encounter between a black man and police. Most distressing is how good we've gotten at this in the last twenty years: we hit all the right notes pretty quickly, draw the right conclusions about root causes, and then file it all away in a collective memory that we seem not to even have.
Transforming any of the conversations into public policy is, in this terribly polarized political atmosphere more polarized than ever by race, nearly impossible. Conservatives have gotten very good at pushing back on these discussions, too; the instant they sense any racial soul-searching spreading past the borders of a state or two, they send out the troops to loudly pontificate about personal responsibility, black criminality, and the essential need for law and order under any circumstances, including peaceful protests. It reminds me of how Walmart sends out anti-union troops, like a hazmat team, to quash any talk amongst its employees about joining a union. None of that justice stuff, it pollutes initiative. Better to strive for inclusion rather than actually achieve it.
My friends Steve Munch and Stephanie Hogue just published a book of photographs. It's called, "Latitudes: Coastal Photo Explorations." At this very moment, a copy rests on my lap. Its happy heft makes me, well, happy. Slowly turning its pages, my mind drifts.
This is not a shameless shill for Steve and Stephanie's book (though their photos are achingly beautiful). With full disclosure in mind, I wrote a few short paragraphs in their book, but mostly my words just get in the way of what matters. This post really has little to do with Steve and Stephanie's photographs, although it is their photographs that are currently performing the magic that the right picture does. The right picture sings. It reaches directly into your heart and plucks an impossible array of strings. Sometimes -- and these are the best times -- it reaches deep into your memories, and then, who knows? The right photograph takes you back, and whisks you forward and places you firmly in the present. Time travel exists.
Steve and Stephanie's photographs focus on California's incomparable coastline and seas. Many were taken right here at home in Ventura County, which, I feel, is an incomparable gem along California's incomparable coast. There are photographs of sleek dolphins, and fog-shrouded piers, and tiny mustard flowers that somehow thrive in places washed with salt and raked by crazed winds. There is beauty in that alone.