When Clifton's Served Good Government

KCET joined the other day in celebrating the last Clifton's Cafeteria with a post of historical photos (here). On Thursday, the Los Angeles Times profiled the cafeteria's new owner, downtown entrepreneur Andrew Meieran (here), who has plans to restore the 107-year-old building.

For more cafeteria history, you can watch (here) a SoCal Connected interview with Robert Clinton, grandson of the cafeteria's founder Clifford Clinton. (The Clifton's name blends Clifford and Clinton.)

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Revealing the architectural history of Clifton's Brookdale should be more than an exercise in nostalgia, however. There's a story of political corruption, police intimidation, and a pair of nearly fatal bombings behind the façade of the old cafeteria. That story is tied to the idealism and daring of Clifford Clinton, whose name was once synonymous with good food and good government in Los Angeles.

Clinton, the earnest son of Salvation Army parents, opened his first cafeteria in 1931 on the principle that no one would be turned away for lack of money. He offered a nickel meal for those down on their luck in the Depression. And when that was too much for some, he provided a bowl of vegetable soup and brown rice for a penny.

Clinton did well, even as he did good. Clinton's business success, his communitarian beliefs, and his robust defense of them led County Supervisor John Anson Ford to delegate Clinton to investigate conditions in the county hospital's kitchens. The waste and abuse Clinton found there hardened his conviction that local government in Los Angeles needed reform.

He was right. City government in the 1920s had descended into a cesspool of influence, peddling, kickbacks, protection rackets, police intimidation, and shakedowns of public employees. And with the election of Mayor Frank Shaw in 1933, everything at City Hall was openly for sale, from building permits to jobs with the LAPD.

Clinton and other government reformers wanted to change Los Angeles, but reform ran hard into the city's oligarchs (under the leadership of the Chandler family) and the LAPD goons who served to protect them and the Shaw regime. When Clinton was appointed to the County Grand Jury in 1937 with the help of Supervisor Ford and Judge Fletcher Bowren, their goal was to use Clinton's youth and missionary fervor to upset the City Hall system.

But even the Grand Jury was rigged by corrupt judges who appointed their operatives to the panel. Clinton and other reformers were in the minority and powerless to set the Grand Jury's agenda.

Clinton responded by taking the reform fight directly to the public, rousing enough reaction that Mayor Shaw reluctantly allowed Clinton to assemble a committee of his own to examine vice in Los Angeles. He found it: 600 brothels, 1,800 bookies, and 300 gambling houses.

But Mayor Shaw had made a tactical error. Clinton now had the resources to expose the bribery, kickbacks and systematic abuse that flourished at City Hall with the connivance of Police Chief James Davis, District Attorney Buron Fitts and the editorial pages of the Los Angeles Times.

Clinton's report on corruption at city hall and in the police department was attacked in the Times, and Clinton himself was vilified as "Public Enemy #1" by the Grand Jury foreman. His restaurants were target for reprisals by city officials. His work as a reformer was mocked.

Then Clinton's home was bombed, although no one was hurt. The LAPD claimed the bombing was a hoax created by Clinton and the reformers for publicity purposes.

The next bombing nearly killed Clinton's key investigator, Harry Raymond. When the device wired into the ignition of Raymond's car went off, the car was blown to scrap but Raymond himself, although badly injured, survived. His subsequent testimony, the reports of eyewitnesses to the bombing, and the clumsiness of the plotters ultimately unraveled the Shaw regime and exposed the police department's notorious "intellegency unit." In 1938, Frank Shaw became the first U.S. mayor to be recalled from office. Fletcher Bowren, Clinton's ally, became mayor, and Chief Davis was soon out of a job.

Clifford Clinton did much more for Los Angeles than bring down Mayor Shaw and his cronies, although only a few of Clinton's good government goals were ultimately achieved, and the LAPD under Police Chief Parker stubbornly remained out of the reach of civilian control.

Clinton died in 1969, mostly remembered for his cafeterias and his humanitarian goal of feeding all who were hungry. With the restoration of Clifton's Brookdale cafeteria, we may choose to remember Clinton as just a quirky showman of the steamtable.

I'll remember him as a man who put his life on the line to make Los Angeles a better city.

D. J. Waldie, author, historian, and as the New York Times said in 2007, "a gorgeous distiller of architectural and social history," writes about Los Angeles on KCET's SoCal Focus blog.

About the Author

D. J. Waldie is the author of "Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir" and "Where We Are Now: Notes from Los Angeles." He is a contributing editor for the Los Angeles Times.
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