The Lost City of Tropico, California

Downtown Tropico, circa 1912. From the brochure 'Glendale, California: The Jewel City,' courtesy of the Glendale Public Library's Promotional Brochures of Tropico and Early Glendale.

A post office may still bear the name, but don't try addressing a letter to "Tropico, CA" -- the city of Tropico dissolved 96 years ago.

The name first appeared on maps in November 1887, when the Southern Pacific applied it to its depot in the fertile farming valley just north of Los Angeles. The name's origins are unclear, but it certainly agreed with the railroad's promotional claims about Southern California's warm climate. Oddly, when rancher W. C. B. Richardson and his business partners platted a town near the rail station in late 1887, they gave two other names to the collection of buildings, "Ethelden" and then "Mason," before realizing that "Tropico" might suit the settlement best.

Like the rival town of Glendale to the north -- also established during the boom years of 1886-88 -- Tropico remained a small agricultural town for its first decade, famous for its produce and especially its strawberries, sold as "Tropico Beauties." But the settlement eventually matured into a diversified town with residential tracts, light industry, and a commercial downtown centered around the intersection of San Fernando Road and Central Avenue. An interurban trolley line reached Tropico in 1904, the same year a major employer, Tropico Art Tile Works, opened. It also soon became home to influential photographer Edward Weston.

On Father's Day, Remember Who to Thank

Sometimes, walking our Ventura beaches, I stop, transfixed and transported, before a jetty. Any jetty does it, though one in particular is responsible. If I listen very closely, I hear the soft breathing of small boys. If you are a parent, you understand.

Regarding Father's Day, I believe the wrong person is being thanked.

This special jetty -- and its hypnotic, lifelong effect -- is but one illustrative tale, plucked from hundreds. If you are a lucky parent, you are aware of the largesse.

Longer ago than it seems possible, our family vacationed on Cape Cod. This was something of a puzzle to the Cape Codders we met, who wanted to know who leaves a home at the beach for a vacation at the beach. People who love the beach, that's who. Cape Codders appreciate a straight answer.

Despite Prop 42, State Lawmakers Still Lack Transparency

Vaguely Transparent
| Montage by the author

California voters took a whack at a man made mostly of straw in the recent primary election and changed the state constitution to require local governments to comply with two state laws that local governments are already required to follow.

If that seems paradoxical -- the voters ordering local governments to do something they already have to do -- you have to understand that the state, under a separate constitutional amendment approved years ago, also by the voters, is required to reimburse local governments for the cost of fulfilling "state mandates."

The California Public Records Act and open meeting law are "state mandates" that the state decided -- when its finances were driven into a ditch by the Legislature -- that the state wasn't going to reimburse. The saving to Sacramento -- about $48 million a year -- wasn't a lot of money in a $100 billion state budget. Parceled out to cities and school districts, the loss was fiscally more meaningful.

Ironically, Proposition 42, which relieves the state of reimbursing cities, makes absolutely no change to the state's long-standing exemptions from the transparency requirements of the open meeting law. The Legislature has its own rules dealing with access to public documents.

Radiate L.A.: The Archdiocese's Push to Engage Millennials

Radiate L.A. aims to get young Catholics in touch with their faith.
| Screenshot: Radiate L.A.

He's the most talked about man on the Internet. He's ramped up crowds at Sunday mass, extending lines at confession and sparking inquiries about the Catholic faith. Even donations and volunteering have gone up -- a result of his calls to help create a "church for the poor."

It's been dubbed the "Pope Francis effect," and its latest target is right here in Southern California, in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

Tearing a page out of the pontiff's playbook, the L.A. archdiocese is trying to fit into the changing digital landscape of the Roman Catholic Church, taking a step in the direction of its move to expand how it evangelizes the faith. Enter "Radiate L.A.": a website created by the L.A. archdiocese's Office of New Evangelization, which invites L.A.'s five million Catholics to share their hopes, dreams, and concerns with the goal of generating a deeper appreciation for their faith.

Los Angeles Food Culture During My Childhood

Dinner Table.
| Original photo byVegar Norman /Flickr/Creative Commons License

It's Mother's Day as I begin to write this, that most fraught of holidays for childless husbands and motherless sons. I'm one of the latter and often I feel incomplete because of it. Nostalgia doesn't serve me very well, but I remember when I was a boy that my mother was the best cook in my neighborhood.

Sons often remember falsely that their mother's cooking was the best. But my mother's cooking -- which was actually commonplace -- really was the best that could be found on my block. I lived among families who had known the Depression and had fled the Dust Bowl, who had gone through wartime rationing and known meals that were only the opposite of going hungry.

Many of the husbands in my neighborhood still insisted on eating poorly because they had been poor when they were boys. Part of it was the exile of their young wives in the newly made suburbs that were so far from mothers and grandmothers. Only the scraps of half-remembered information from a high school home ec course might serve them.

On the tract house plains of South Gate, Downey, north Long Beach, Lakewood, and Bellflower, meals reflected what memories you stubbornly held on to. And if you ate to remember, as we often did, many of the memories were of loss.

I, Parasite Vessel: The Caterpillar, a Botfly, and the Foolish Aloofness of One Man

I like to crouch and look. Our fascinating world bears close examination. And so the other day I was crouched in a park near my Ventura home, examining a caterpillar making its way to wherever it is caterpillars go. I don't know what kind of caterpillar it was. It was dull green. Big and fuzzy. I just liked the way it moved, with quiet determination and a bunch-and-stretch sense of style. It was headed wherever it was headed, a survivor without distraction.

I concluded my examination of the caterpillar and then I rose respectfully to my feet. Normally I would have gone off on my self-important way, dismissing the caterpillar to the forgettable mass of less important creatures. I am so big, and my kind has created entire civilizations, the Internet, and pay-per-view television. The caterpillar, so small, was striving mightily to merely inch its way across the park. We trod the same patch of grass, but its world and mine were distinct.

So I once thought, but these days my hubris is no more.

Sriracha and Irwindale: The War May Not Be Over as Questions Remain

Last week the broadcast media did one of those giddy dances it does whenever popular culture bumps up against politics. Hip hot sauce maker Huy Fong Foods was rescued from the wrath of the Irwindale City Council by last-minute negotiations that were reported in summit meeting terms. The rush to shut down the sriracha plant -- sending tremors from Bon Appétit magazine to the counters of gastropubs everywhere -- had been stopped.

Diners breathed a garlicky sigh of relief over their peanut butter, sriracha, and basil sandwiches (any anything else you will squeeze it over). The sriracha plant's stinks and eye searing exhalations -- the reason why Irwindale officials said they wanted to brand the plant as a public nuisance -- had turned out to be, according to the Air Quality Management District, no big deal.

For the media, the decision to keep Huy Fong Foods in business in Irwindale was a big win, but for whom and for what end?

Teaching Children the Power of Belief

Recently I stood in front of a class of middle school students at Mesa Union School in Ventura County and told them they could be what they wanted to be. More precisely, it was Career Day and I had come to the school, along with numerous other ostensible adults, to talk about our careers.

My career is writing which, if you are a middle schooler, is, on some fronts, pretty cool. I have interviewed Shaquille O'Neal (the Mesa Union kids still knew who he was), gone diving with white sharks, hiked the Inca Trail into Machu Picchu, watched stoic lizards spit up saltwater in the Galapagos, and been sorely thumped by a 280-pound world shootfighting champion (don't ask). Added plus for my Mesa Union presentation, I had just returned from the Peruvian rainforest with a botfly burrowed in my head. Since people often read while they are eating, I won't go into particulars. Suffice to say, our family doctor gave a mild exclamation of surprise when he pulled a larvae from the swollen bump that was its temporary home. When I talk to school kids, I pull out all the stops.

Although it was Career Day, I didn't talk entirely about writing. I never do. I love kids, and so whenever someone is foolish enough to invite me to talk with them I do. Looking out at a classroom of smooth faces with the world before them, I always tell them the same thing: Don't let others tell you what you can and can't do. And whatever it is you decide to do as a career, make sure it's something you love, because odds are you're going to spend a lot of time doing it.

L.A.'s Notorious Drug Dealer, 'Freeway' Rick Ross, is Moving On

Rick Ross.
| Photo: Courtesy Patrick Bastien Photography

Rick Ross, multitasker, is doing a million things: film projects, recording projects, speaking on college campuses, directing, acting, teaching, all of which he ticks off as we have breakfast in a low-profile Belizean restaurant on the west side of Inglewood. Ross doesn't look the part of a dealmaker. He's wiry and on the slight side, with a shaved head and thick beard. He's laid back, dressed this morning in shorts and tennis shoes; he smiles reflexively. He drives a beat-up car, one that makes my arthritic Chrysler (yes, I still have it -- long story) look newly minted. But his most valuable asset is a distinct intensity that never shuts off; he's restless even when he's sitting still, and there's a perpetual glow in his eyes that borders on a burn. He also has an utter lack of ambiguity about all of his work that is both impressive and a bit scary.

At one point, I ask him idly if he has any pets; he said in his recently published memoir that he grew up in small-town Texas with a beloved dog. It seemed like a strong bond, one that he hated to break when he moved west. "No dogs," he says. "Why? You can't put them to work." He's not kidding.

I should have known. For those of you don't know or don't remember, Rick Ross in a former life was the crack cocaine kingpin of Los Angeles whose work, if you will, extended well beyond Southern California. Known as the notorious "Freeway Rick," Ross almost singlehandedly introduced the crack epidemic in the '80s, a phenomena that devastated black communities and made him and his cohorts very rich. Ross was so notorious, law enforcement formed a task force devoted to bringing him down, but it proved difficult.

The Lost Towns of Los Angeles County

Though paper towns like Sunset and Morocco failed, later developments like Westwood and Beverly Hills, respectively, succeeded in their place. 1888 map courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Entire towns have vanished from the Southland.

The street grid of Morocco once stretched across the same gilded real estate occupied today by Beverly Hills. The ruins of a town named Minneapolis lie beneath Atwater Village. The independent city of Tropico melded with Glendale.

In an earlier age, geographic names were more ephemeral -- especially during boom years like those of the 1880s. Maps from that period, like this 1888 official county map, read as a catalog of failed real estate developments. Kenilworth. Studebaker. Nadeau. Gallatin. Clearwater.

Many of these settlements were never more than paper towns, existing only in the drawers of the county recorder's office. Between 1884 and 1888, developers platted more than 100 towns in Los Angeles County -- some on the fringes of established cities like Los Angeles and Pasadena, others on the open plains of former ranchos. Lots changed hands and fortunes were made, but few of the towns actually made an imprint on the landscape by the time boom turned to bust. (A few that succeeded: Burbank, Inglewood, Glendale.)

Kenilworth, Minneapolis, Tropico: these names are largely unfamiliar to Angelenos today. 1888 map courtesy of the Library of Congress.

In some cases, it's only the names that have perished; the towns survive to this day under new identities. That's true of Marian, which we know today as Reseda. The town of Ivanhoe became Silver Lake. Toluca was first renamed Lankershim, then North Hollywood.

There are ghost cities, too -- once-independent communities swallowed up by larger municipalities, often losing their identities in the process. Most have heard of Eagle Rock, Hollywood, San Pedro, Sawtelle, Venice, Watts, and Wilmington -- all independent cities that eventually consolidated with Los Angeles. But there was also Hyde Park, which the metropolis absorbed in 1923, followed by Barnes City in 1927. Long Beach merged with Belmont Heights in 1909. And the city of Tropico, which incorporated in 1911, became part of Glendale in 1918.

A series of posts here will examine the history of some of these lost towns. Have a favorite? Nominate it in the comments below.