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 DJ Waldie shares his ideas below. Share yours here.
All the boom times that inflated our desires and our demands have ended. The California good life that millions took for granted for so long belongs mostly to digital billionaires. And the billionaires want to set up their own insular state -- the ultimate in Californian narcissism.
For the rest of us, the hope is for enough of the California Dream to make fit lives for ourselves and our children.
Better government for California is tangled in that incoherent expectation. I call it incoherent because the several historical strands that have made up California politics since the 1970s have never resolved what government is supposed to be. And yet, California's voters are asked every election season to pass on constitutional initiatives that redefine how government will realize the California Dream.
To Serve Man: Why Not a Little Fun?
The other day, I decided to eat breakfast at a local establishment familiar to everyone. Said establishment is familiar to my wife, too. I hope she doesn't read this because she will certainly ask me why I didn't eat a perfectly good breakfast at home, to which my only legitimate reply would be our breakfast foods don't contain a fistful of salt with each serving. Now and again we all deserve a little additional spice, made spicier by sneaking around.
Just in case there was someone inside that might report to my wife, I conducted my purchase via the drive through.
A chipper voice welcomed me and took my order.
When I came to the window, the chipper voice proved to be a young man of maybe 18. Regarding me through round glasses, he smiled pleasantly, took my money, put it in the register, and turned to some paperwork by his side.
I watched him. It occurred to me that this could be a dangerous game, as a hungry customer can be a volatile customer. It would not surprise me to learn that customers have come through the window for less, although I have no doubt this particular fast food chain sizes not only their meals but their windows, then further ensures employee safety by supersizing their customers.
A monument to a failed dream frames the Hollywood Sign. Behind the landmark letters rises the 1,708-foot summit of Mount Lee, a hilltop whose flatness is no geologic anomaly, no wayward mesa from the Southwest. Instead, it's the remnant of a movie mogul's abandoned plan to build the grandest mansion in Los Angeles.
One of the highest peaks in the eastern Santa Monica Mountains, Mount Lee originally sported a rounded top. A narrow ridge connected the then-unnamed summit to nearby Cahuenga and Burbank peaks; together, they were known as the Three Sisters.
In 1923, a real estate syndicate christened the peak Mount Hollywoodland and opened at its base Hollywoodland -- a housing subdivision advertised in white block letters fifty feet tall. Among the developers was Mack Sennett -- a pioneering filmmaker best known for slapstick comedies like the Keystone Kops -- who reserved for himself an 18-acre mountaintop parcel where he hoped to build his dream house.
And what a dream it was. From the mountaintop, Sennett could see and be seen; he would enjoy commanding views of the entire city, and as the only structure on the crest of the Hollywood Hills, his house would become a conspicuous landmark. Plans by architect John L. DeLario placed a dining room, living room, drawing room, library, conservatory, kitchen, servant's quarters, and a butler's pantry all on the first floor. On the second floor, in addition Sennett's own apartment, would be four guest rooms and a suite of rooms for Sennett's mother. Outside were terraced Italian gardens, a 2,800-square-foot swimming pool with a sand beach, and a paddock with easy access to a bridle path that wound its way through Griffith Park. The design recalled a hodgepodge of Mediterranean influences, which the boosterish Los Angeles Times praised as "a new architectural style characteristic of Southern California and the sun-splashed hills and valleys." The total cost? One million dollars.
To create space for such a palace, workers would have to shave off the top of Mount Hollywoodland. By December of 1925, steam shovels were tearing into the mountain's sedimentary rock, shortening the peak by 69 feet, flattening four level acres at the summit, and carving a winding driveway that linked up with the Mulholland Highway.
But soon after the initial grading was complete, progress stalled. Then the stock market crash of 1929 wiped out much of Sennett's fortune, once valued at $15 million, further delaying construction. Finally in 1933, bankruptcy forced Sennett to abandon his plans. Others would find a use for the leveled hilltop -- in 1939, broadcaster Tommy Lee purchased the site, renamed the mountain after his father Don Lee, and installed L.A.'s first television studio there -- but the curiously flat mountain remains the legacy of a vanquished dream, a counterargument to the Hollywood Sign's alluring promise.
For more than a hundred years, researchers have measured daytime and nighttime temperatures that are consistently higher in cities than in the surrounding countryside. This is the "urban heat island" effect caused, it is said, by the concentration of structures, hard surfaces, people, and the heat-generating mechanical systems that allow cities to survive.
Depending on geography and climate, the nighttime temperature of an urban core can be as much as 22 degrees warmer than its rural fringe.
A new study by Yale researchers has clues to why daytime temperatures are higher downtown, with implications for how Los Angeles may fare as average temperatures rise and the city's landscape is reshaped by development, drought, and public policy.
On July 4, I boarded my dogs for the night. In my neighborhood, fireworks and explosives start early -- about a week before the holiday -- as a kind of test run for the big night. Things go off here and there, nothing like the barrage of the Fourth, but varied (booms, bellows, cracks sharp as lightning) and unpredictable enough to jar my animals, one of whom hears just one noise and immediately seeks refuge in the bathtub. The level of fireworks and explosives in a neighborhood correlates exactly with economics: the more upscale a place, the quieter it is because fewer people are outdoors as a rule.
Wealthier people live indoors. The wealthiest places, like some areas of Pacific Palisades, don't even have sidewalks, I suppose because they don't want to encourage anybody, even residents, to even think about wandering outside for any length of time, to say nothing of going in the middle of the street to set off fireworks for hours on end. Nor do well-off neighborhoods have much in the way of streetlights, which seems counterintuitive (aren't all safe places supposed to be lit?) until you remember that upscale people like their privacy, and darkness assures that. Too, why would you need lights when you know with great certainty that you live in a safe place? Streetlights are demanded by people who live with a certain level of unease, who are always striving to keep chaos at bay. The wealthy are, psychologically speaking, post-chaos.
My neighbor's two dogs ran off on the Fourth, unable to cope with the chaos that takes over our neck of Inglewood when the sun goes down. I felt semi-responsible for one, Rex, a rescue that my husband brought home from a gas station late last year: a big, friendly, tri-colored shepherd/Lab puppy wearing a city-issued license (good news) with a number that turned out to be 17 years old (bewildering news). A tag from a dead letter office.
Driving through the Figueroa Street Tunnels might be one of L.A.'s most dramatic freeway experiences. As you plunge through the first Art Deco portal, the downtown skyline recedes in your rear-view mirror. A minute later, leaving the last of the four bores, you enter the world of the Arroyo Seco Parkway: sycamore trees, sweeping curves, and arched bridges.
The tunnels weren't always part of the state freeway system. Built between 1930 and 1936 by the city of Los Angeles, they originally carried Figueroa Street through the rugged terrain of Elysian Park. Two lanes traveled in either direction, separated by white double stripes. Pedestrians were welcome, if not expected; a single five-foot sidewalk (since removed) ran alongside the forty-foot wide roadway.
Designed by municipal engineer Merrill Butler1, the tunnels bore the aesthetic flourishes that distinguished Butler's more-celebrated Los Angeles River bridges. Art Deco patterns and ornamental street lamps adorned the concrete faces of the portals and retaining walls. Inside, reflective tiles reinforced a sense of motion. And above each of the eight portals, a stylized version of the Los Angeles city seal was cast in concrete.
Aesthetic considerations aside, the tunnels were first and foremost a traffic relief measure, the key part of a program to widen and extend Figueroa Street between downtown and Pasadena. (The grade-separated intersection of Temple and Figueroa is another legacy of this program.) Previously, the principal route north of downtown had been North Broadway, which often choked with traffic where it crossed the Los Angeles River. The four tunnels represented a shortcut around North Broadway and through Elysian Park, whose southeastern flank was sacrificed in the name of traffic flow.
It's no secret to anybody who is a pedestrian (and that would be all of us) that Los Angeles is a crumbling town. The decomposition of its sidewalks -- among other things -- has passed the tipping point and reached a tripping point. The city already pays $3 million to $5 million a year settling "trip and fall" lawsuits caused by particularly dangerous sidewalks.
The state of the city's walkways makes laughable the claim that Los Angeles is about to become one of the nation's most "walkable" cities.
Walkable, sure ... but only if you carefully pick your route and time of day. Otherwise, you're picking your way across heaved concrete slabs, dodging the open wells of street trees (thanks for the shade), or taking an ill-lighted path into the creepy unknown after dark. For those of us not young, not nimble, and not clear of vision -- and that's a lot of us -- there are miles of treacherous Los Angeles hardscape to be crossed on foot.
Gaudy Los Angeles can be a badly disappointing town. For its critics, wrote William A. McClung, the city is "a strange place, reached by a journey, enjoyed, railed against, and ultimately rejected." Even before Mike Davis bleakly ordered the city's apocalypses in "Ecology of Fear," the snarky authors of the travel guide "L.A. Bizarro!" wrote, "Any reasonably intelligent American knows that Los Angeles is a rotten, stinking dump."
Dump it is from time to time and a place where even the tinsel is simulated (Universal CityWalk comes to mind). The tourist fantasies of Hollywood and Vine turn out to be clip joints. The concrete in front of the Chinese Theater memorializes names you never heard of. And tours of the stars' homes take you past hedges behind which no star has lived since Gloria Swanson was driven off in her Hispano-Suiza.
Those of us here more or less permanently have become hardened both to the come ons and to the disappointments. We're pleased to define our lack of feeling as "sophistication."
That is, until the tourists reveal something else.
Christopher Hawthorne, the Los Angeles Times architecture critic, is asking some provocative questions about the overhauled design of the proposed replacement to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art on Wilshire Boulevard.
Both the former and the new concept for replacing LACMA's unloved, mid-1960s buildings are by the Swiss architect Peter Zumthor. The first concept intruded on the footprint (and airspace) of the La Brea tar pits and their trove of paleontological specimens. The revised plan loops away from the pits and crosses over Wilshire Boulevard.
Hawthorne asks what Zumthor's flat, sinuous blob of a design says about Los Angeles. He wonders if Zumthor's intersection of place and structure is missing the point.
"(M)y feelings about Zumthor's LACMA have grown more complicated," he wrote in his Critic's Notebook recently. "The more I think about the plan's newly attenuated form, stretched like a piece of black bubble gum across Wilshire, the more I wonder if the architect's basic reading of Los Angeles could use an update."