Bill Deverell handed me a book the other day, with the recommendation that the author had put together a good story. The book is Building Home: Howard F. Ahmanson and the Politics of the American Dream by Eric John Abrahamson. (It's the sort of book that puzzles some of my friends, who can't imagine how the biography of a savings-and-loan pioneer also could be a good story.)
Ahmanson (who died in 1968) is remembered - if at all - through the cultural institutions he supported: the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Music Center. Abrahamson makes a compelling case that Ahmanson ought to be better remembered - positively and negatively - as a man who made much of Los Angeles.
The picturesque canals of Venice, California, are one of the seaside community's hidden charms, secreted away from the hustle and bustle of the famous boardwalk. But in Venice's early years, the canals that survive today -- restored in the 1990s after decades of neglect -- were only a sideshow. The main attraction -- the original canals of Abbot Kinney's Venice of America -- are lost to history, long ago filled in and now disguised as residential streets.
My neighbors are selling their house.
I can't quite believe it. I got the news by accident, driving home one evening last week and spotting the sign on their lawn before making the usual left turn onto my block. I thought I had the wrong house, so I circled back to check: it was theirs. I was floored. I had run into Howard and his wife that morning on my dog walk. They were out walking too, pushing a baby stroller with their infant son. We chatted at length about many things -- dogs, teaching school, getting together -- but not about moving. The sale sign was all the more puzzling because one of the things we had talked about was real estate and housing prices. We talked about how on our regular walks we were starting to see small signs of progress in Inglewood -- renovated houses with imaginatively landscaped greenery, a trend that suggested the people moving in were really making an investment. It looked like they planned to stay.
It's been encouraging, we said. The property values in our neighborhood were among the first in L.A. county to bottom out when the mortgage crisis hit and the recession settled in; we had bought at precisely the wrong time, in the mid-2000s, when the housing bubble was still expanding. It was about to burst, but we didn't know that. I don't know when or if we'll ever get back to those pre-recession prices -- quite frankly, we shouldn't -- but it didn't matter to Howard and his wife or to me and my husband because we had all decided to stay well before the property-value plunge made it almost impossible to leave. And for me, the bad fortune was mitigated by the fact that a young couple like them was putting down roots here. Too many homeowners in these parts are older people whose kids and grandkids can't seem to afford to buy anything, anywhere. We need replenishment, and Howard and his wife are exactly that. I was reassured.
And now they are looking to go. When I emailed Howard asking about the sign -- hoping he was just testing the waters to see where the prices are now -- he came to my house to talk to me about it. He had his son with him. He looked sheepish, but more than that, he looked troubled. He said that he didn't want to leave, and neither did his wife. Far from it. But something had happened in the last six months that made him reconsider raising his son here. His neighbors, young women with children, were having some kind of spat with their boyfriends; one boyfriend ran outside and was fired at. Howard called the cops, but before they arrived, the women had picked the shell casings out of the front lawn. There was no evidence anything had happened.
But even before the incident, there had been tension with these neighbors, Howard said. A random shot fired. A verbal assault over a parking space. He and his wife started feeling uneasy, but more crucially, they felt there was nothing they could do. So they're looking to move someplace where they can feel okay about their son playing on the front lawn. Someplace where the threat of violence isn't likely to be next door.
I've been through this before. Years ago another young family I became friendly with moved too, not because of any incidents, but because of the possibility of incidents. I can't deny that the possibility exists everywhere in Inglewood, even in its loveliest parts, which is what we live in. The distressing reality is that Inglewood lives on the edge of the good life, not in the middle. A shooting or some other negative event happens, the bare balance tips, and people who have the means or who have certain expectations will flee.
Howard truly doesn't want to do that. He likes us, he likes his other neighbors. He and his wife know that we have something of a covenant, as all neighbors do -- a tacit agreement that we are living in a place worthy of our aspirations, and that's why we're here. Seeing that sign on Howard's lawn signals failure and makes our place feel a little less worthy. I feel this even though I know his situation is unusual, that most people around here are more than neighborly. That's the norm. But the tragedy is that in a majority black, working-class neighborhood it is the aberration, not the norm, that controls our imagination. Howard and his family are not leaving so much as they are being driven out by the specter of urban chaos that has plagued Inglewood and places like it for a long time.
I hope they stay. What galls me most is that, like Howard, it seems like there is nothing I can do.
Not long ago a woman stood in the sunshine and said to me, "I want to be famous."
I thought about this for a long moment and then said the only thing that came to me.
The woman did not hesitate.
"I have a good life and plenty to be happy about, but I'm just a housewife," she said. "I want people to know who I am. I want to be admired."
We stood together, quietly thinking our own thoughts. I cannot tell you what the woman was thinking -- maybe she was imagining an appearance on Letterman, or her face on the cover of Vanity Fair, or a Caribbean tryst with John Mayer -- for she was smiling slightly.
The deaths of 12 Skid Row residents from tuberculosis in the past five years is a grim statistic, but only a fraction of the deaths by "immiseration" among the homeless from one decade to another.
Because the number of reported TB cases since 2007 -- about 80 -- is relatively large, because the strain of TB is unique to downtown's street population, and because the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has seen the emergence of drug resistant forms of the disease, the count of the sick, treated, and dead was reported with care to avoid panic.
"There is no danger to the general public," federal and county health workers said in March, who seemed to be speaking mostly to the public that does not live at the edges of Skid Row or work there. It was suggested that they get an annual TB test.
Only in America could people whose heritage hails from within and around the world's largest continent be considered a single demographic group: Asian/Pacific Islander Americans, also known in community circles and demographic-speak as the acronym "API," are a diverse lot, in terms of nationality, ethnicity, language, religion, and custom.
In both my participation in the API community and in my own personal life, API Americans, especially those born and/or raised in the U.S., have had an affinity for associating with each other, whether it's schoolchildren playing video games, or young adults promoting API artists and entertainers, or older adults supporting fellow APIs in elected office.
The participants at the online forum Noirish Los Angeles (among them Michael Ryerson) have been scouring the digital collections of UCLA, USC, and the L.A. Public Library since early 2008 for images of the city and performing a kind of photographic forensics on them. It's wonderful stuff.
A recent posting by Rynerson compiles some of the 27 photographs from the USC Digital Archive taken by "Dick" Whittington Photography of people on the sidewalk in front of Perino's restaurant on Wilshire Boulevard in 1936. And these photographs are wonderful stuff, too.
Note: Over the past few weeks, we have looked at what most regard as the first photograph, drawing, and map of Los Angeles. This series on the earliest-known representations of the Los Angeles area concludes with the first written account.
In 1542, a tiny armada of two ships sailed up the California coast, flying the flag of Spain. On board were two-to-three-hundred men, including seamen, soldiers, merchants, and Indian and African slaves.
Disappointment was the expedition's destiny. The viceroy of New Spain had dispatched the ships north in search of legends that had little basis in reality: the mythical Seven Cities of Gold and the elusive Strait of Anián (Northwest Passage). Failing that, Spanish authorities hoped the armada might discover a coastal route west to China and the Spice Islands; little was known then about the shape or size of the Pacific Ocean, and some speculated that North America's western coastline curved round to meet with Asia.
Still, the voyage -- commanded by a onetime conquistador named Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo -- produced the first written observations of the Los Angeles area. They also bestowed on it one of the region's first European names: Baya de los Fumos, or Bay of the Smoke.
The voyage's original account is lost to history -- or perhaps hiding undiscovered in a Mexican or Spanish library. What we know about the voyage and the sailors' observations comes from a third-hand account: a 1559 summary of a second-hand report, made in 1543 and likely based on the original diaries and interviews with the expedition's members.