Mercantile Place: The Tiny, Lost Shopping Street of Downtown L.A.

A private, open-air shopping street, Mercantile Place stretched 325 feet between Spring and Broadway in downtown Los Angeles. Courtesy of the Photo Collection - Los Angeles Public Library.

Long before the Grove, Third Street, or even Universal CityWalk, Angelenos flocked to another open-air shopping promenade: Mercantile Place -- a tiny, private street that stretched between Spring and Broadway from 1904 to 1923. At only 22 feet wide and embraced on each side by identical, two-story brick buildings, Mercantile Place created an intimate setting that stood in contrast to the rest of booming, bustling downtown Los Angeles.

Though it looked like a public street with its concrete sidewalks and paved motorway, Mercantile Place actually cut through a parcel of private property, owned by the Los Angeles Board of Education since 1883 and leased to real estate developer C. Wesley Roberts in 1904. The shopping street was the Roberts' answer to a vexing problem: though the long, rectangular parcel abutted two of the city's busiest streets, the land in the center would be virtually useless. No shopkeeper would rent a space 160 feet from the sidewalk. In a stroke of genius, Roberts built a street through the middle of the property, thus more than doubling the available frontage from 240 to nearly 600 feet.

When Mercantile Place first opened to the public on October 29, 1904, shoppers found a mix of independent businesses and branch locations of downtown's larger retailers. Shops included Citron-Favell's Women's Wardrobe, the Yamato Japanese art bazaar, and the Pe-co dance academy. Upstairs, members of the Woodmen of the World fraternal society congregated in their temple. Though the street was usually open to traffic (and became a favorite "secret" parking place among motorists), the board of education occasionally closed it to vehicles and posted signs proclaiming it a "private thoroughfare" to maintain title to the land.

In later years, retailers would complain of the chaotic street scene. Farmers' trucks sold fresh produce from the roadway, while flower vendors paraded down the sidewalks and newsstands often blocked traffic on either end. Shoppers, however, continued to visit Mercantile Place for a change of pace from the wide and more impersonal retail corridors along Broadway and Seventh Street.

It was the very success of Mercantile Place that convinced its new owners, a San Francisco-based syndicate of investors, to convert the open-air street into a $6-million enclosed arcade. Demolition began on May 1, 1923. In just eight and a half months, Mercantile Place had become the Mercantile Arcade complex -- a long promenade anchored by two twelve-story office buildings -- that still stands ninety years later. Angelenos continue to stroll under the arcade's glass skylight, tracing the path of downtown's long-lost shopping street.

The Difficult Matter of Achieving Balance in Our National Parks

It is a difficult and curious matter, the balance between man and nature.

Once camping on lovely Santa Rosa Island, I met a man named Norman. Norman was grizzled, weather-roughened and whippet-lean. He might have been in his fifties; he might have been five hundred. You may have met this type of outdoorsman. Though he didn't need to, Norman told me he had spent many years adventuring in nature. Then he looked at me as if he might take a bite out of me.

Norman was adventuring on Santa Rosa Island - some forty six miles by boat from Ventura Harbor -- with a group that included a woman named Eva. It didn't take long to realize that Eva was cut from the same cloth as Norman. She spoke in a bark, and her words were laced with challenge, superiority, and disdain.

"There are people who were born in Southern California who actually have no idea these islands are out here," she declared. "People go, 'Oh, where are they, in the Caribbean?' I think it is kind of sad."

After Indictments, 5 Lessons from Ron and Tom Calderon

Senator Ron Calderon.
| Photo: CA State Senate

First of all, the story so far:

Brothers Ron and Tom Calderon were indicted on Friday. Former Assemblyman Tom Calderon appeared in federal court and entered a plea of not guilty to charges of conspiracy and money laundering. State Senator Ron Calderon (D-Montebello) was to appear in court today to answer allegations of bribery, money laundering, fraud, and aiding in the filing of false tax returns.

According to documents leaked to the news media in 2013, Tom, Ron, and their brother (and former state legislator) Charles Calderon were under investigation in 2007 by the FBI. Charles was not named in the indictments of his brothers issued Friday.

Ron Calderon is alleged to be implicated in a web of influence peddling and money laundering chiefly involving Dr. Michael Drobot, former chief executive of Pacific Hospital in Long Beach. Dr. Drobot accepted a guilty plea on Friday for his part in fraudulently billing workers compensation insurers more than $500 million for surgeries performed at Pacific Hospital. He admitted to bribing Ron Calderon to sponsor legislation that would have prolonged the scheme. As part of a plea deal, Dr. Drobot is cooperating with the FBI.

In return for support for expanding motion picture tax credits in 2013, Ron Calderon is alleged to have taken money and gifts from FBI agents posing as independent film producers. Some of the money, the indictment asserts, was laundered through Tom Calderon's political consulting firm and Californians for Diversity, a nonprofit he controls.

Last year, the FBI collected evidence from the offices of the Central Basin Municipal Water District and the Steelworkers Old Timers Association, a nonprofit founded by former Bell mayor George Cole. Tom Calderon was once the president of the Old Timers Association. He also was a consultant to the water district and served on the board of a contractor that received a district contract.

The FBI and federal prosecutors noted in their public statements on Friday that their investigations are continuing, with the potential to involve other state legislators, possibly based on conversations that Ron Calderon recorded while he wore an FBI "wire."

On Friday afternoon, the senate leadership (and others) called on Ron Calderon to resign his seat.

Persistence of Memories at a Roadside Shrine

Roadside Shrine in Lakewood, CA.
| Photo: DJ Waldie

At the end of my block and on the parkway panel that separates the boulevard from the service road, a community of mourners has maintained a roadside memorial for a young man at least since 2009. More red and white votive lights clustered at the foot of a streetlight that's a few steps from a bus stop.

The candles had been there several days already. They flickered ahead of me when I crossed the boulevard in the dark of a February evening. Some have burned down to nothing now. Some had gone out too soon. A plaster crucifix and Dürer's Praying Hands, ecumenically representing Protestant and Catholic piety, stood among them.

There have been times when photographs were taped to the streetlight in his memory: a lanky white kid lolling on a couch, smiling; a girl, also smiling; a crowd of youths mugging for the camera. Once, roses in cellophane -- the kind that a boyfriend buys from a roadside vendor -- stayed taped to the pole until the roses dried to pale ochre.

There had been a message in red ink and block letters attached to a copied photograph; both were made unreadable from sun and rain.

Statue of Limitations: A Vandalized Civil Rights Monument Reveals the Unexpected

For the last several years, we've been hitting a lot of 50-year anniversaries of civil rights milestones, among them James Meredith's admission to the University of Mississippi as its first black student in 1962. This one gives me particular pause because that was the year I was born -- it's always humbling for me to think about the racially tumultuous times I was born into, but ultimately spared -- and because of the recent desecration of the memorial of Meredith on the campus of Ole Miss. This week, somebody put a noose around the neck of Meredith's bronzed statue, and just to drive home the point, draped the statue with the former Georgia state flag. The flag was redesigned in 2003 to rid it of it controversial image of the Confederate flag.

It's yet another sad but unsurprising reminder that racism and is alive and kicking, especially in the deep South where it enjoyed such a long and, in the view of many whites, successful run. In this country, racism follows the physical rule of all energy in the universe: it is neither created nor destroyed, it simply changes form.

What did surprise and sadden me more than a little was Meredith's own response to the incident, published this week in the L.A. Times. After blaming the vandalism on a general lack of love-thy-neighbor values espoused in biblical teachings such as the Ten Commandments, he then blamed other black people for moral laxity. "I've been knowing a long time that we aren't teaching our kids right and wrong," he was quoted, adding that it was "important to fix one's own family before trying to fix another's."

Huh? Talk about a non sequitur.

Photos: Many L.A. Boulevards Began as Streetcar Lines

Electric railway tracks once ran down the median of Santa Monica Boulevard, shown here in West Hollywood in 1951. Courtesy of the Metro Transportation Library and Archive.

Why do some Los Angeles boulevards like Venice or Santa Monica seem to wander across the street grid? What explains the oversized median dividing Culver Boulevard? And why are there two San Vicentes?

The answer behind these curiosities lies in these roads' origin as streetcar lines. In the decades that bracketed the turn of the 20th century, several electric rail lines stretched out from downtown Los Angeles toward the sea, meandering across the coastal plain to serve the scattered settlements of the time: Colegrove, Sherman, The Palms.

When it first opened in 1897, the Santa Monica via Sawtelle Line offered passengers wide-open vistas of bean fields and citrus groves from its electric cars. As the metropolis grew around the tracks, the rail line morphed into Santa Monica Boulevard -- complete with a sudden course correction in West Hollywood where the tracks once turned toward the town of Sawtelle.

Likewise, the Venice Short Line -- completed in 1903 to serve Abbot Kinney's new Venice of America development -- eventually became the meandering, 13-mile route of Venice Boulevard. Meanwhile, spur lines that peeled off the main routes at obtuse angles survive today as Culver and San Vicente boulevards.

A consistent pattern governed the evolution of these interurban rail routes into city streets. First, construction crews laid tracks and erected wooden poles that held aloft the overhead electric wires. A dirt path might run parallel to the rails, but only later would a real estate company construct paved automobile lanes on either side of the tracks -- making the rail line the new boulevard's median. Finally, as the Red Car system slowly died, the overhead wires came down and landscaping, bike paths, or new traffic lanes took over the median, erasing any trace of the boulevard's origins as pioneer rail lines.

Ventura's Poinsettia Pavilion, a Tale of Community in America

The view from Poinsettia Pavilion in Ventura, CA. | Photo: Courtesy Hank Tovar

Recently I heard a man grouse, "Communities aren't communities anymore. People don't join together like they used to."

I listened as he reminisced about childhood summers in Brooklyn, evenings where everyone visited on porches and stoops, and the kids played kick the can in the street. I listened because you don't learn anything from talking. I also listened because it sounded wonderful.

When he returned to the present his smile dissolved like a summer evening.

"Today," he said with a stamp of finality, "people come home from work, the garage door automatically goes up, and they disappear into their homes."

Anyone can see the gaping flaw in this argument. Who in California has room in their garage for a car?

I jest. But I still disagree. I believe community is alive and well in our towns.

A Bushwhack Wedding, an Ambush Reception: A Vietnam Vet's Love Story

Mikey Diaz. | Photo: Douglas McCulloh

What did you do for Valentine's Day? While working on a story about a Huey helicopter at March Field Air Museum, I unexpectedly spent the afternoon at an "Ambush Wedding Reception," a loving revenge for the "Bushwhack Wedding" which united Mike "Mikey" Diaz, a veteran of 35 years on the LAPD and one tour of Vietnam, and Kim Bartholomy, the woman he met on a train, and who helped him raise his three sons.

Bushwhack, you ask? Ambush? What? It's lingo borrowed from his Vietnam days and it starts with a bushwhack from last year. As Mikey explained it, in December 2012, Kim's brother died, which got her thinking about the formality of their relationship. Shortly afterward, in the house they had shared for years, Kim told him that in the next two months they should apply for a marriage license. Somehow, Mikey didn't think this meant wedding. But on Valentine's Day last year, she informed him that they had an 8 a.m. appointment in the San Bernardino County Courthouse, and that after they filled out some paperwork, they would both head off to their jobs. Mikey wore his work clothes -- he's the Director of Logistics and Security at the museum, where vintage aircraft and military history are displayed in a series of hangars next to March Air Reserve Base, and so he gets dirty now and then.

Kim sat in front of a bank of computers at the courthouse, he recalled, typing in both of their mothers' maiden names. "I looked around and saw people wearing corsages, guys wearing bow ties. I said, 'Wow, honey, some people are actually getting married today.' Kim was typing, says, 'Yeah.' I said, 'Wait, are we getting married today?' She says, 'Yeah.' I said, 'You have rings?' She said, 'Yeah,' and reached over. Clunk." He motioned her slamming down a small box on the table near him.

For the Vanished Discounters of Suburban L.A., Retail Nostalgia

The first real job I had -- that is, the first job with an actual paycheck -- was at the White Front store in Downey. It was a summer job shagging shopping carts from the parking lot that islanded the store from Imperial Highway.

I wore a short-sleeve white shirt and dark pants on the job. It was hot, sweaty work that lasted from early afternoon to after 10 o'clock at night.

White Front was founded on Central Avenue in 1929 and sold appliances. Stoves and washers were mostly white then. Lined up in the store window they presented a "white front" to the street.

In 1959, along with second location in Van Nuys, White Front was sold to Interstate Department Stores. Interstate specialized in selling moderately priced merchandise in working-class neighborhoods.

Mayor Eric Garcetti: Still Finding His Focus

Not Yet In Focus
| Adapted Photo: Neon Tommy/Flickr/Creative Commons License

It isn't easy being mayor of Los Angeles after the tenure of Antonio Villaraigosa. There were too many exclamation points in Villaraigosa's first years -- Education Mayor! Green Mayor! Transit Mayor! -- and too many disappointment when, about mid-way, Villaraigosa just gave up governing Los Angeles.

Mayor Eric Garcetti seems to have calculated the risks in exclamation points, but at the risk of not having much color in what little there is in his agenda for Los Angeles.

Gene Maddaus in the L.A. Weekly cast a cold on the mayor's first seven months at City Hall, and other commentators also have. They cite the thinness of Garcetti's accomplishments so far, the unraveling of big development plans in Hollywood the mayor had backed, and the drabness of "management reform" as a mayoral goal.