Museums, Historic Buildings, and Oases: The Place of Places in Los Angeles

Earlier this week, I sat in as the co-moderator of a discussion about museums and historic sites at Rancho Los Alamitos in Long Beach, The discussion was part of a new series of Conversations in Place at the rancho.

The participants were W. Richard West, Jr., president and CEO of The Autry National Center of the American West; Milford Donaldson, FAIA, chairman of the US Advisory Council on Historic Preservation; Stephen Farneth, FAIA, founding principle of the Architectural Resources Group; and Pamela Seager, executive Director of Rancho Los Alamitos, along with Claudia Jurmain, the rancho's director of Special Projects and Publications.

The presentations and panel discussion aimed at finding the place in our lives of sites like the Autry and the rancho.

Then There Were Three: Regional Water Agencies Tainted by Scandal

The taint of official corruption has reached the West Basin Municipal Water District, one of the three regional water agencies that serve Los Angeles County. It was inevitable.

West Basin, like its sister agencies, the Water Replenishment District of Southern California and the Central Basin Municipal Water District, is an obscure local government that the media and voters don't much care about.

The districts are in the news mostly after they foul up. Voter turnout in district elections averages about 10 percent. No one knows who the elected board members are.

And with no one watching, it's easy for these little governments to give in to personal and political interests.

Cold War Diary: 'I Was a Suburban Combatant'

I've recently been talking about the Cold War, first to undergraduates at USC and then to high school history teachers at California State University, Long Beach. None of them -- not even the 30-somthings among the teachers -- is a veteran of that war. I might have been talking to them about World War I -- or the Trojan War -- so distant have the 1950s and 1960s become.

I was born under the shadow of the Berlin Airlift in 1948, while Soviet troops and tanks blockaded the city and President Harry Truman campaigned for election on his willingness to do the unthinkable. Berlin in 1948 was a minor engagement in the 100-year war. The smashing up of European empires -- and their remnants in Syria, Iraq, the former Soviet Union, and elsewhere -- has been going on since August 1914.

I grew up in the garrison nation that first engagement created, in an arsenal for the making of ever more sophisticated weapons, held as a thermonuclear civilian hostage for all of my youth, and trained as a reservist in a battalion of ideological warriors.

I think I may suffer from a kind of moral PTSD.

Schoolyard Bully? A Look at Mudslinging in the LAUSD Race

Jewett Walker predicted it would come to this.

Back in April, when George McKenna finished first in the primary election to fill the LAUSD school board seat in District 1 vacated by the death of Marguerite LaMotte, McKenna supporters were elated. So was Walker, McKenna's campaign manager. But Walker, a veteran of the business, was looking ahead to the August runoff, and he didn't like what he saw. He's seen a lot of dirt and desperation, and he figured that McKenna's opponent in the runoff, Alex Johnson, would at some point indulge in both.

It wouldn't seem that Johnson would need to. An education aide to County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, Johnson has had access to plenty of money and big-name endorsements -- far more than McKenna -- but he lost to McKenna in the primary by a whopping 20 percentage points. The twist to this story of many twists is that McKenna has name recognition and a community base, while Johnson has neither. Walker figured the opposition would try and make up the ground not by polishing up the credentials of its candidate, but by going negative on the other guy. It's become kind of standard political practice.

When Oxnard Beach Became 'Hollywood-by-the-Sea'

In 1926, a stretch of Oxnard's beach was transformed into Hollywood-by-the-Sea, fifty miles west of Tinseltown. Courtesy of the USC Libraries - Dick Whittington Photography Collection.

Never mind that Tinseltown was five or even fifty miles away. By the mid-1920s, the Hollywood brand was so strong that communities across Southern California were affixing it to their names. Toluca became North Hollywood. Sherman became West Hollywood. And in distant Ventura County, Oxnard Beach became Hollywood-by-the-Sea.

There was some truth in the glitzy moniker of the beachfront resort, built atop the sand dunes of Leon Lehmann's beachfront ranch. Disguised with papier-mâché palm trees as the Arabian desert, the dunes had starred alongside Rudolph Valentino in the 1921 blockbuster, "The Sheik." A few years earlier, Douglas Fairbanks spent time on the same dunes while filming "Bound in Morocco."

That Hollywood connection was enough for real estate developers to establish the Hollywood Beach subdivision just north of Lehmann's ranch in 1924 and the Silverstrand ("silver screen") tract just south of it in 1925. And so it's hardly surprising that Lehmann himself soon capitalized on the connection. In 1926, he sold his 80-acre ranch to developer Fred J. Cutting, who leveled the dunes, carved out 100 individual lots, and christened the site Hollywood-by-the-Sea.

Atop the flattened dunes, Cutting platted a tiny street grid that honored both of Hollywood-by-the-Sea's namesakes. Streets nearest the ocean bore the names of the Channel Islands: Catalina Avenue, Anacapa Avenue, Santa Rosa Avenue, and so on. Further inland, street names recalled the thoroughfares of Hollywood: Sunset Drive, Laurel Court, Cahuenga Drive. To maximize waterfront property, Cutting placed a five-acre lake, its sandy shores planted with iceplant, a few hundred feet from shore.

Ironically, the transformation into Hollywood-by-the-Sea promptly drove away motion picture productions, which valued the location for its desert-like landscape. But the lack of any actual movie stars didn't stop Angelenos from making the long drive out to Oxnard. Visitors could buy their own housing lot for a vacation home, but they could also stay in a 40-room hotel or simply camp on the beach. Perhaps drawn by memories of Valentino, a crowd of several thousand flocked to Hollywood-by-the-Sea on its first Fourth of July in 1927.

Around that time, a photographer from the Dick Whittington studio visited Hollywood-by-the-Sea. Commissioned by Cutting, these photos -- recently digitized by the USC Libraries with support from the National Endowment for the Humanities -- reveal the resort in its early stages of development, a sandy expanse dotted with a few rudimentary buildings.

The scene has changed. Houses eventually rose on vacant lots, and Hollywood-by-the-Sea, Hollywood Beach, and Silver Strand are now billed as a more affordable version of Malibu -- the "un-Malibu" is what the New York Times called the area in 2007. Furthermore, construction of the Channel Islands Harbor in the 1960s inserted a waterway and jetties directly through Hollywood-by-the-Sea, splitting the community in two.

But one thing remains the same: the aura of silver-screen fame. Clark Gable supposedly lived in at least two houses on Oxnard's beaches. Local lore recalls Charlie Chaplin and Greta Garbo vacationing there. And travel guidebooks dutifully report that the Latin Lover, Rudolph Valentino -- who likely never returned after "The Sheik" wrapped -- later bought a vacation house atop the leveled sand dunes of Hollywood-by-the-Sea.

Kollaboration: Setting the Stage for Visibility and Empowerment

The soul/R&B group The Primaries performs onstage at West Hollywood's The Troubadour club during Kollaboration's annual showcase. | Photo: Elson Trinidad

A long line formed outside legendary doors of The Troubadour, the famed West Hollywood music venue that has hosted acts from Elton John to Guns N' Roses in its storied 57-year-old history. Long queues before showtime outside its hallowed doors along Santa Monica Boulevard are certainly not at all uncommon, but what was different on this late June evening was the predominantly 20s-30s-aged Asian American crowd.

They were here to see Kollaboration. No, not a band, nor a festival, but rather, a movement.

Improving California Means Doing Some Things and Not Doing Others

As KCET begins to celebrate its 50th Anniversary, we're engaging the public in a series of conversations, starting with "How do you envision a better state?" Contributor Erin Aubry Kaplan shares her ideas below. Share yours here.

Maybe this goes without saying, but at the top of the list of what I want to see is what I don't want to see, which is California split into six states. Or three or even two, even though many people argue it's been two states, North and South, for a long time, maybe since its inception. People say that California is two states that are related but different, like the Carolinas or the Dakotas. That may be true, but the fact is that we've been one state for a long time, one known for its topographical, natural, climate and cultural diversity. California has built its reputation as the anything-possible state based on this breathtaking diversity of elements, this embarrassment of riches, and though that reputation has certainly been tarnished in the last generation, it's still standing. People still look to us as a bellwether for certain kinds of innovation and progress, and we often deliver. Why mess with that kind of mythology?

Across America, Trust is Freefalling

Recent studies claim most Americans no longer trust each other. According to recent research, nearly two-thirds of Americans say other people can't be trusted. An Associated Press-GfK survey found that most of us (75 percent) mistrust other drivers, mistrust folks who swipe our credit cards (67 percent), don't trust others on social media (59 percent), and trust politicians only part of the time (81 percent).

Frankly, I'm a little suspicious of an organization that doesn't know how to use the caps key or spell out its name.

According to something called the General Social Survey, our trust levels have fallen precipitously. In 1972, when the General Social Survey first asked if we trusted our fellow man, half of Americans did; which was pretty good considering Richard Nixon and other murky sorts were making headlines with something called Watergate. Now, apparently only a third of us trust our fellow man.

I raise the topic of trust because it comes up all the time, and we must deal with it in the manner we choose.

The other day I was walking along Main Street here in Ventura when I spotted a man sitting on a bench. He was waving his arms and barking oddities. The rest of the world (and I don't blame them) walked quickly past, as if they were G. Gordon Liddy, just summoned to the Oval Office. I stood for a moment, watching. The man bent and picked up a bag of fries, soggy and enormous. There were a lot of fries. He pulled out a handful, more like a softball, and began gnawing around the edges. I am not a private detective, but it looked to me like someone who worked at a nearby restaurant had given him the fries, and not this afternoon.

When PCH Blasted Through Point Mugu

From 1937-40, workers blasted a roadcut through Point Mugu. The rocky stub of the headlands, Mugu Rock, now appears frequently in car commercials. Undated photo courtesy of the Santa Monica Public Library Image Archives.

Today, Pacific Coast Highway passes effortlessly through Point Mugu between Oxnard and Malibu. But when highway engineers began plotting the route in 1919, the rocky promontory presented a colossal challenge.

Then, Point Mugu was a near-vertical ridge of resistant volcanic rock -- an igneous dike that in a distant epoch intruded the Topanga formation's softer sedimentary strata--standing some 150 feet tall against the pounding surf. As the westernmost tip of the Santa Monicas, it represented the last hurrah of the rugged mountain range. Just north and west of the point, the land opened up as the Oxnard Plain. (The Santa Monicas don't truly end at Point Mugu. Instead, geologists speculate, the thrust fault that gave rise to the mountains plunges beneath the waters of the Pacific only to reemerge far to the west as the northern Channel Islands.)

Point Mugu was a formidable barrier to the planned coastal highway, but California's state highway engineers attacked it with a full arsenal of geologic weapons.

First, in 1923-24, they blasted a road cut around the base of the headlands. Workers scaled the cliff with ropes and drilled a series of 30-foot holes into the rock. Into the holes went 18 tons of hand grenade powder left over from World War I and 25 tons of black blasting powder, and down came 108,000 cubic yards of rock -- much of it used as fill for the adjacent road embankments. By October 1924, a narrow road snaked around the point where waves once lashed at its stony face.

The coast highway's original alignment bent around Point Mugu where waves once lashed at its stony face. Photo from the October 1924 issue of California Highways, courtesy of the Metro Transportation Library and Archive.

Professor Money, God, and the First Book Published in Los Angeles (Maybe)

Los Angeles Star
| Photo: Courtesy USC Libraries

"San Francisco had its Philosopher Pickett, its Emperor Norton and a host of others of like ilk," wrote James M. Guinn in the 1902 annual publication of the Historical Society of Southern California. "Los Angeles had representatives of this class in its early days, but unfortunately the memory of but few of them has been salted down in the brine of history."

Guinn did fish out of history's mid-19th century pickling barrel one notable Los Angeles character in whom eccentricity and enterprise were strangely blended. He might be described as the founding father of kooky L.A. His name was William Money. He insisted that the name be pronounced "Moe-NAY."

Or maybe it was "Moe-NEE."