D.J. Waldie follows up on past stories from his KCET column Where We Are
Our wandering palm: The Noirish Los Angeles research team has wrapped up -- for now -- the saga of the city's sesquicentenary palm, which may be the oldest in the city. They've traced photographs of the iconic Exposition Park palm to the 1870s ... to a home on San Pedro Street ... and to the probable property owner: Dr. William A Hammel (whose son, also named William A. Hammel, was Los Angeles County Sheriff in 1899).
Amazingly, they've documented which of the many palms on the Hammel property was transplanted to the Arcade Station in 1888, as well as its history there. And NLA researcher Flyingwedge has now extended the palm's provenance from the Arcade Station to its replanting at the edge of what is now Exposition Park.
All of this work was done by NLA's volunteer researchers, using the digital resources of the Los Angeles Public Library, the USC Digital Library, the California State Library, and the Huntington Library (among others).
The is first in a series -- introduced here -- looking at the origins of Los Angeles' oldest parks.
In 1885, an unwanted block of city land sat stinking near Los Angeles' western edge, the natural beauty of its lake and marshes marred by decades of use as a city dump. It might have then seemed an unlikely location for one of the city's first parks. But within a decade, the site had been transformed from the city's eyesore into one of its treasures: Westlake Park (today, MacArthur Park), one of L.A.'s most popular outdoor retreats at the turn of the twentieth century.
Occupying a saddle-shaped depression between two ridges, Westlake/MacArthur Park was once the site of a naturally occurring alkali lake, fed by runoff from the hills to the north. When Los Angeles' urban development reached the lake's shore, the marshy site had long been home to waterfowl and an ecosystem adapted to its alkaline water -- what we might celebrate today as a wetland but at the time was dismissed as a swamp, its scenic and biological value unappreciated. Perhaps it didn't help that the lake evaporated during the drought of 1862-64, earning one of its first names: the Dead Sea. One early historian recalled the dry lakebed covered in a white crust, appearing as if a snowstorm had passed.
I'm a career bargain hunter, mainly a prowler of upscale haunts like Kitson on Robertson and American Rag on La Brea, always in search of markdowns that let me walk away with a $200 item for forty bucks or less. I usually find them. Nothing feels quite as satisfying as rooting out deals that tend to be tucked away on a couple of racks or shelves in the back of a store; these things are totally unadvertised, as if the store is too genteel to let its customers know that a few of their high-end goods can occasionally be had for the price of a clearance sweater at Marshall's or TJ Maxx. I patronize those places too, but getting deals there is like shooting fish in a barrel. To truly beat the system you have to go into the heart of it, do some serious hunting and emerge with a kill. Then you go back home and tell the story of your conquest. Or better yet, wear it.
- Supreme Court Justice Benjamin Cardozo, 1870-1938
As we come closer to the end of another school year, and my last child prepares to graduate from Riverside Poly High School, I keep driving around the city and looking at the different buildings which have housed us -- her grandmother Alberta Sims and her three sisters, who all went to school here; her father and I, who met in junior high here; and our three daughters, who all walked to junior high two blocks from our house, and then went to Poly.
This year I spent time with four men who changed education here, back in 1965 when de facto segregation was the norm in California, when violently-enforced segregation was the law of the South. Back in 1965, Riverside became the first large school district in America to desegregate through voluntary busing, without the enforcement of court order. Three other men who were instrumental in that historic time died within a week of each other this winter. The heroic hours may be quiet or public -- their legacies useful to remember now.
Last week a friend reminded me that it was National Teachers Day. This struck me as a bit like celebrating National Sunrise Day, but I looked it up just to be sure. I could have asked my wife. She's a teacher. But even though it was six-thirty in the evening and she wasn't home yet. This wasn't unusual. It's pretty much the norm.
With no teacher to turn to, I turned to the internet (apologies to my own teachers). Turns out National Teachers Day falls within National Teachers Week. If they add a little more time to it, I believe they'll get it right.
I have known some remarkable teachers. If I were paid by the word I'd list them here and retire, maybe slip Warren Buffett a little pocket change. Even if I did list them, you wouldn't know their names. That's the way teaching is. Teachers do not reside on magazine covers or building-size billboards or under opening night lights. But I knew these teachers, and that has made all the difference in my life.
The other day while walking to mass, I crossed the cement apron that leads out of the alley behind the houses on Clark Avenue in Lakewood. I'd crossed that alley entrance from the time I was a boy and through the 32 years I walked to work after my father's death. But this time a narrow sheet of water, probably leaking from a backyard hose, spilled across the edge of the concrete. For the first time, I noticed there were names inscribed there, almost worn smooth.
The loose water brought out the contrast in the faint letters.
I'm not inattentive. The fractal qualities of the everyday interest me. Yet here were the persistent marks of lives that had neighbored mine which I had never seen, would never have seen except for the contingencies of the moment. I stopped.
Children had written their names awkwardly, haphazardly in the wet concrete but with respect for each other. Their names didn't overlap.
A sentinel from the city's past -- hidden in plain sight in Exposition Park since 1914 -- is a reminder that Los Angeles has roots. Literal roots.
Nathan Masters recently followed up his account of the city's 19th and 20th century terminals (here) with a further look at the fan palm (Washingtonia filifera) that stood for 25 years in front of the long-ago Arcade Station. (His story is at Los Angeles magazine.)
And that palm is perhaps the most footloose piece of the city's landscape. It had been uprooted in the late 1850s from one of the arroyos north downtown and replanted, along with several other specimens, perhaps to line the drive to a home on San Pedro Street not far from 2nd.
(You'll find a discussion of whose home here thanks to the tireless researchers of Noirish Los Angeles. Updated 5/14/13: The search may have ended. But that may not be the end of our palm's mysteries. Because the Noirish archivists have a question about the 1914 date of the tree's replanting here at Exposition Park.)
The palm moved again to the front of the newly opened Southern Pacific train station at Alameda Street around 1889, and moved again in 1914 (when the Arcade Station was demolished) to the entrance of Exposition Park, where it still stands, marked by an almost forgotten plaque.
Take a look at the future of Los Angeles, and what will you see? Less smog? A subway that reaches the sea? Flying cars? A professional football team at long last?
All of the above are still uncertain things. But what is certain will be our demographics: Los Angeles County's population will be predominately Latino and Asian. With the Latino population in California projected to surpass the white population sometime in 2014, and Asians now eclipsing Latinos as the largest immigrating group overall into the United States, our region will likewise follow suit.
What should we make out of all of this? Will there be racial tensions? Will there be socio-political power struggles?
Park-poor Los Angeles: perhaps it's no surprise that many of the city's earliest parks were born of refuse lands. Flush with public land inherited from California's land grant days, Los Angeles was practically giving away real estate in the latter half of the nineteenth century, donating lots to private individuals or auctioning off tracts to fill the city's coffers. But some lands eluded buyers.
The mayoral runoff is almost upon us, and every four years I think about how great it would be if all of us could vote for mayor. By "all of us" I mean everybody living in the 88 cities and swaths of unincorporated county that aren't technically L.A., but are part of L.A. nonetheless. More than most cities, Los Angeles is a state of mind. It's impossible to think of the civic zeitgeist (to the extent that we have it) or imagine our public face without trendy West Hollywood, beachy Santa Monica, iconic Beverly Hills, or equally iconic Compton. All are separate cities, but do you know the mayors of any of them? Unless you're a resident of any of these places, probably not.