When East Hollywood's Barnsdall Art Park Was an Olive Orchard

Some of the olive trees of Barnsdall Park, pictured here in 1929, date from 1890, when the site was planted as a commercial olive orchard. Courtesy of the Adelbert Bartlett Papers. Department of Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA.

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."

Where Is Chavez Ravine, Exactly?

Chavez Ravine the canyon is clearly marked on this 1966 USGS topo map, a landform distinct from the hilly terrain now occupied by Dodger Stadium. Courtesy of the USGS.

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).

Making the Public Realm Unwelcoming in Santa Monica, Lancaster

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.)

We Are All Michael Brown

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.

Photographic Magic: Images of Ventura County's Coast Trigger Something Deeper

Sea lions, intertwined. | Photo: Courtesy Steve Munch

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.

Whose Happy Home? Measuring Satisfaction With Where We Live

Chosen Land
| Photo: MS Gallery

Sommer Mathis, writing for at the Atlantic's CityLab site, frames the early results of a new Atlantic Media/Siemens State of the City Poll under the headline "Suburbs Are Still the Happiest." Her reading of the numbers has a slightly different word choice: "When it comes to overall community satisfaction, the suburbs are still king."

Measuring public happiness has become something of a fad lately. As a recent NPR piece reported, getting beyond the Gross Domestic Product to something more intimate has been the aim of the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development since 2011. The OECD's Better Life Index, now with more than 4 million respondents in 180 countries, has tried to quantify what makes a nation happy and unhappy.

Is it happy or is it satisfied? They're not exactly the same. Perhaps, it's something else.

The Lost Bridle Paths of Beverly Hills

Bridle paths ran down the center of Sunset Boulevard and Rodeo Drive, intersecting at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Courtesy of the Beverly Hills Public Library Historical Collection.

Across the Southland in the early 1920s, horses were vanishing from public streets, their once-essential motive power made obsolete by the internal combustion engine. Buses replaced horse-drawn omnibuses. Automobile taxis replaced horse-drawn hacks. Heavy-duty trucks replaced horse-drawn wagons.

But Beverly Hills bucked the trend.

From the early 1920s through the 1960s, pathways dedicated to horse travel ran down the center of several Beverly Hills streets. One stretched from the city's eastern to western boundary, meandering through town down the center of Sunset Boulevard. Another occupied the median of Rodeo Drive, where it replaced an abandoned Pacific Electric trolley line that once connected Santa Monica Boulevard with the Beverly Hills Hotel. Two more snaked their way up Coldwater and Benedict canyons.

Laid with decomposed granite and buffered from automobile traffic by curbs and ornamental plants, these bridle paths served several purposes. They satisfied the recreational urges of the city's many equine enthusiasts. They reinforced the image of Beverly Hills as a place of wealth and privilege. They preserved the rustic feel of a city that was fervently carving itself out of the open countryside of Rancho Rodeo de las Aguas. And lastly, though saddle horses were never as common on city streets as draft horses, they nostalgically recalled that dying breed -- the urban horse.

The Paradoxes That Keep Some L.A. Neighborhoods 'Park Poor'

Lawrence Clark Powell, author and literary critic, remembered that his mother had arrived from back East at the turn of the 20th century carrying her horticultural triumph -- a geranium plant.

The geranium was an exotic flower where she had grown up, a tender plant kept in the parlor during winter. She had kept her prize geranium on her lap on the long, transcontinental train trip. And when she stepped off the station platform in Los Angeles, she saw geraniums in bloom in nearly every vacant lot. They were as common as weeds. In humiliation (and perhaps with some relief), she threw her pampered plant away.

You might say that we've been tossing out the geraniums ever since. In its abundance, Los Angeles is a kind of garden, after all. Why would anyone need or want any more of nature?

The Ruling Party: Scenes From George McKenna's Winning Night

Seen and heard last week at the George McKenna campaign headquarters in the Crenshaw district:

8:00 p.m.
Too early for any returns, but the Mardi Gras party atmosphere is already heating up with purple and gold balloons, marshals preparing to lead a "second line" parade with beads and festooned umbrellas, and a food station busy cooking up a full Southern menu. Several people are dressed in variations of purple, gold, and green. McKenna is a New Orleans native and one of the more prominent representatives of a whole contingent of L.A. transplants from New Orleans who arrived here starting in the '40s; many of them are Creole, historically black people mixed with white and/or Native American and often with a French surname. They were part of the last wave of major black immigration out of the South to other, presumably more racially hospitable places in the country during the long era of Jim Crow. L.A. pretty quickly got a reputation for being the city with the largest Creole population outside of New Orleans itself. That generation is aging, but the traditions have stuck, especially the celebratory ones. Whatever the outcome of the election tonight, this party will go on.

Passages, Passings, and the Last Sight of Fathers

Farther and Sons
| Photo: D. J. Waldie

Roz Chast -- the jittery cartoonist of middle-class urban anxiety -- lay down next to her dying father in his nursing home bed trying, she wrote in the Los Angeles Times, to "telepath to him how much I loved him, and that I knew how much he loved me, and that we were 'good' and it was o.k. to let go." It was her last conversation with her father.

Josh Max was called to his father's apartment where, he said, "a lone, hard detective stood in a full suit and tie in the blistering July heat. 'You might not want to go in,' the detective said. 'He's been there awhile.' My dad would have liked this guy." And when Max did look at his father for the last time, he saw that "his features had collapsed onto themselves. It was clear that whatever that was in the chair, it was not the man responsible for bringing me into the world."

My father died behind a well-made wooden bathroom door late on the evening of August 15, 1982 (the feast day of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary).