I spent Sunday afternoon with Claudia Jurmain (Director of Special Projects and Publications and founder of Conversations in Place at Rancho Los Alamitos) talking about the making of places in Southern California. We met with a distinguished panel of experts, academics, and commentators at the Rancho Center on Bixby Hill in Long Beach.
Place making touches everyone. We had a full house for the three-hour program, which included Frances Anderton, host of KCRW's DnA: Design and Architecture; USC History Department chairman William Deverell; Director of the UCLA Urban Center for People & the Environment Stephanie Pincetl; environmental journalist Jon Christensen, editor of Boom: A Journal of California; Alan Pullman, AIA, of Studio 111; and pioneering downtown developer Tom Gilmore.
In the end, we had more questions than definite answers to the question how we can make more and better places for us (and for all of those to come) in the Los Angeles region.
Ann Dvorak may be the biggest Hollywood star you've never heard of. By 19 years old, she had established herself with her leading role in the 1932 classic "Scarface." But, on the verge of going supernova, the young star seemingly gave it all up for love. She eloped with a co-star and took a year-long honeymoon, sowing tension in her relationship with her studio, Warner Bros. When Dvorak later filed a lawsuit over casting decisions, the act was seen an unprecedented act of rebellion in an age when film studios treated their contracted actors as mere pawns. Her career inevitably faded.
Now, after 15 years of research, librarian Christina Rice's long-anticipated biography, "Ann Dvorak: Hollywood's Forgotten Rebel," has reignited interest in the star's story. (The Los Angeles Public Library hosts a book launch party on Tuesday, Nov. 12.)
In this age of digitization, some of the most high profile historical collections are only a few keystrokes and mouse clicks away. But Rice's account of her research is a helpful reminder that many of Southern California's stories remain hidden from Web searches, awaiting discovery by dogged researchers -- one reason why L.A. as Subject and its online directory of archival collections exist.
Rice conducted much of her research at downtown's Central Library, where she oversees the Los Angeles Public Library's Photo Collection that contributes so many of the historical images featured in this blog. (Rice also serves on L.A. as Subject's executive committee.)
Though several historical newspapers are available online today, newspapers on microfilm were a valuable resource -- especially when Rice began her research journey.
"The first 6 months I worked at Central," wrote Rice in an e-mail, "I spent every lunch break frantically digging through microfilm."
She also made use of the library's book collection and accessed one of the libraries' most valuable resources.
"I was able to tap into the expertise of my fellow librarians," Rice said, "who I am sure are all sick of Ann Dvorak by now."
Dr. Jane Pisano has led the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County for the past dozen years through the renovation of the 1913 building (the museum's original home) and the adjacent 1920s building, as well as opening spectacular new exhibits of dinosaurs, prehistoric mammals, and the history of Los Angeles County and giving Angeleños the new Nature Gardens and the Otis Booth Pavilion through the generous help of the museum's corporate donors, trustees, museum foundation members.
You don't know what tireless enthusiasm for the museum is until you've taken the top to bottom tour of the NHM as I have, with Dr. Pisano greeting every single staff member by name, giving directions to lost visitors, and sharing her knowledge of the museum's vast collections along the way.
Dr. Pisano was just getting started, and I was just exhausted.
Slavery is a hard sell.
That was the upshot of a recent L.A. Times front-page story about the conundrum of "Twelve Years a Slave," the Steve McQueen-directed movie based on a 19th-century memoir that's gotten plenty of critical plaudits but not the audience to match. This would not be the first movie to experience this, of course.
Historical, story-driven and/or literary-minded films, no matter how stellar, have always competed rather poorly with big-budget studio products like "The Avengers" and endless sequels of "Die Hard" for the public's attention. That is the American way, despite the fact that independent filmmaking and its general aesthetic of story over special effects has been on the ascent for the last decade or so. So there has been much progress, but not parity. We are not there yet.
I read recently where Thousand Oaks -- or was it Simi Valley, I can't really remember - was suffering something of an identity crisis. Turns out a restaurant chain called Freddy's Frozen Custard & Steakburgers announced via press release the opening of its' new Thousand Oaks location in "Westlake Village... a suburb of Los Angeles." If you live in Thousand Oaks, you know you don't live in Westlake Village; and if you live in Westlake Village you know you are a suburb of L.A. only in the mind of an addled tourist from Kansas. To be fair, Freddy's Frozen Custard & Steakburgers is a Kansas-based chain. Many Californians would be hard-pressed to name more than three towns in the good state of Kansas (Kansas City -- a gimme -- Wichita, Oz?).
Now the good town of Simi Valley (I think) is working to boost its own presence on the public map. No seriously, it definitely is Simi Valley. The city that is home to the deservedly vaunted Ronald Reagan Museum is working to add Bottle Village to a list of tourist attractions that currently include the Skatelab Indoor Skatepark and Museum, two historical museums and, well, did I mention the Ronald Reagan Museum?
Bottle Village is a fascinating place with an equally fascinating history. Although unknown in Kansas, it is well known in the 4500 block of Cochran Street in Simi Valley. Bottle Village, you should know, is already on the National Register of Historic Places. It's also a designated landmark in the eyes of California, Ventura County, and the city of Simi Valley. Bottle Village is testimony to ingenuity, and the stamina and attention to detail of grandmothers. The small home and its assemblage of shrines, mosaic walkways, wishing wells, and assorted other oddities were built by Grandma Tressa Prisbrey, from 1956 until 1981, almost entirely out of glass bottles. Probably much to the surprise of the now departed Grandma Prisbrey, Bottle Village has a website where you can see photos of energetic Grandma Prisbrey and her work, the artistic cap of trips to the garbage dump beyond number and fathom.
Although it is true that a former Simi Council member once purportedly labeled Bottle Village "a collection of trash," Simi Valley is now trying to put Bottle Village -- and the city of Simi Valley -- on the tourist map. As current Chamber of Commerce executive Leigh Nixon recently told a reporter, "We think the more attractions the better. People say it is unique, and not every community has something like it."
Declining eyesight (but slowly, thankfully) and a distracted habit of mind have made the sounds of my pedestrian life more present than they might be for someone else. I don't notice much, but I do listen.
Early on Sunday morning, with the dislocation that comes twice a year from Daylight Savings Time, I walked out into the mild gray light, somewhat humid air, and sonically alive atmosphere of my neighborhood.
The local birds were at it, calling and recalling. I'm not much for identifying who's who by voice, but I guessed I heard ubiquitous sparrows chirruping and house finches with their scruffy, descending scale. A jay yakked for a moment. There may have been a yellow warbler in the mix and down the block a black phoebe, stridently calling.
Crows lifted off the parkway panel along the service road as soon as I reached the end of my block, but so silently (and so quiet was the traffic) that all I heard was a sound like the susurration of a heavy silk dress being straightened. Later, high overhead, and flying due west, a lone crow called.
Leaves have been falling from the street trees since the heat ended, but not in drifts yet. The wind made individual leaves skitter crabwise on the sidewalk. I stepped around, not wanting to call too much attention by loudly stepping on them. Why, I don't know; habit, I suppose.
The tumbleweed. Even the name is round and rolling off the tongue. We are not meant to think they are beautiful. But right now, they are unique explosions of hidden beauty, growing lush and abundant in the vacant lots and roadside acreage and not-yet developed land all over California, in the fallow farmland and especially, in the Santa Ana River area near my house. Tumbleweeds love disturbance. Yes. They hate compacted soil, or that which is already covered with other plants. So when a vacant lot is disked for fire control, or the areas of sandy earth alongside a river are cleared of brush and trees -- as was done earlier this year by tractors and workmen for the Army Corps of Engineers in some areas of the Santa Ana -- the crop which flourishes is salsola tragus.
Prickly Russian Thistle. According to history, the first seeds were brought accidentally, hitchhiking in a shipment of flaxseed in the 1890s from Russia to South Dakota. Can you imagine the field of flax, the delicate flowers, and then the green burst of thistle with tiny white sepals like a bomb set off in the center? Each tumbleweed can have up to 200,000 seeds ripening, waiting for the perfect combination of events.
This October, they are up to nine feet tall in the place where I walk the dog, and we see other walkers and dogs in the lush hallways where we meander along the powdered paths between thistle. The autumn yellow tones are vivid and melancholy: sunflower petals, wild tobacco blossoms like macaroni, cottonwood leaves and wild grapevines turning golden. As with so many plants here in Southern California, the native mingle with the introduced on each square foot of earth -- just as we humans are walking among them, native like me, and introduced like the Southeast Asian woman walking near me looking at bamboo shoots, and maybe the Spanish-speaking abuela and her daughter and two small children in strollers whom I often greet in the early dusk. A jimsonweed blossom -- native -- unfurls itself in the snowy-white and lavender-tinged trumpet as if accidentally dropped there.
Legislation ballyhooed to please California's beer heads won't. And legislation to make an NBA basketball complex cheaper to build in Sacramento will make mega-projects easier to build everywhere. Are SB 743 and AB 647 the politics of unintended consequences or examples of legislation intended just to dazzle and distract?
Grumbling about Growlers
Drinkers of locally brewed beer have taken to bringing home their craftsman suds in a 64-oz. "growler" (rather like a big glass jug) emblazoned with the brewer's logo. For brewers, growlers are good advertising and good business, since most breweries refused to fill a competitor's container. Drinkers with roving tastes were forced to buy a growler (ranging from $12 to $25) from each of the breweries they patronized.
Craft breweries have reasons for their reluctance that range from the perfect artistry of their beer to the poor quality of the other guy's growler.
AB 647, authored by Assemblyman Wes Chesbro (D-Arcata) and signed by a beaming Governor Brown (growler at his elbow), was supposed to make things easier for the cosmopolitan beer drinker. The new law seemed to open the bar tap to any growler from any brewery or even a no-brand, generic growler.
But AB 647 turns out to be far less. It mostly clarifies Alcoholic Beverage Control Board policies, including labeling requirements for "foreign" growlers.
I guess it's entirely appropriate that the first time I would even hear the word "cronut" was yesterday, Halloween. The donut-crossaint hybrid sweet treat that's been fueling a foodie mania in New York for the last six months has made it to L.A. -- unofficially, at least.
The originators of cronuts, Dominique Ansel Bakery in New York, have trademarked their wildly popular creation and are quick to warn people on their website that they have already spawned imitators. So it was doubtless a cronut wannabe that I saw advertised on the sign at Normandie Bakery, a French café tucked off Jefferson Boulevard along an otherwise dead-zone stretch between La Cienega and La Brea. Normandie is a bona fide French place with authentic breads and pastries that's been around more than twenty years now. How bad could its version of a cronut be?
Not bad at all. Delicious, in fact. The sugar-dusted cronut brought to me and my friends on a dessert plate (it was the last one they had -- I guess they're wildly popular on the west coast, too) was puffier than a donut, denser than a croissant, bready and sweet and crunchy all at once. It reminded a lot of a beignet, but airier and thanks to the croissant, vaguely buttery. I would have gotten more if there had been more to be gotten. Saved by the sellout.
The Metro Orange Line: it's named like a rail line and looks like one on system maps, but you won't find tracks along this 18-mile transit corridor through the San Fernando Valley. In fact, state law has forbidden aboveground rail transit along this route since 1991 -- the legacy of local homeowners who fought against surface rail in favor of a much more expensive subway. Instead, since 2005 super-long articulated buses have rolled down the Orange Line's dedicated, paved roadway, which now stretches from North Hollywood to Chatsworth.
But change may be arriving soon. On Oct. 29, the Los Angeles City Council passed a resolution introduced by council member Tom LaBonge calling on the state legislature to repeal the 1991 ban -- a first step toward upgrading the Orange Line's bus rapid transit with the sort of light rail technology used on the Metro Blue, Green, Gold, and Expo lines.
If LaBonge's plan succeeds, the Orange Line will be returning to its historical roots. As seen in historical images from the region's photographic archives, for nearly 100 years rail vehicles of one kind or another -- steam locomotives, electric trolleys, diesel trains -- rolled down the Orange Line right-of-way.
It began in 1893 as the Southern Pacific's Burbank Branch, a double-tracked rail line that meandered through wheat fields and open ranchland. In its early years, the Toluca Flyer steamed along the route, serving passengers at Owensmouth (now Canoga Park) and Lankershim (now North Hollywood) stations, among other stops. In 1911 the fabled red cars of the the Pacific Electric Railway began sharing part of the route, and in later years diesel-powered freight trains rumbled down the line. By the time a cash-strapped Southern Pacific sold its Burbank Branch to L.A. County's transportation agency in 1991, the wheat fields had given way to residential neighborhoods and transportation planners looked to the route as the best possible transit corridor for a maturing San Fernando Valley.