Grand Park and Summer Reading on the Sunset Strip

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Grand Park rendering from grandpark.lacounty.gov

This week's column begins in downtown at the just opened 12-acre Grand Park below City Hall. I've been giving walking tours in Downtown L.A. for Red Line Tours for the last seven years. I also led walking tours at the Art Walk for several years, even partnering up at one point for a series of electric collaborations with Esotouric's Richard Schave and Kim Cooper. I've watched Downtown grow up close, Lost Souls Café to Last Bookstore. For all these reasons and more, I've been excited to see the new park.

As luck would have it, a recent morning walking tour luckily coincided with the opening of the new Grand Park. On Thursday July 26, 2012, I approached the rectangular park from the western side on Grand Avenue with 52 Australian travelers from a company called Contiki. We walked east into the park about 9:15 a.m., and it looked it had just opened moments before we entered. News vans were parking on the curb and media tents were being set up for the morning public kick off. I told the Aussies we were making history stepping into the new park.

Only the first portion of the four blocks is now open; nonetheless it's a welcome addition for the Civic Center district. Framed by the largest collection of government buildings outside of Washington D.C., the park connects the Hall of Administration, Superior Court and Criminal Courts Building among others. Well-landscaped paths lined with yucca and palm trees lead toward a large fountain. The specter of City Hall looms on the eastern horizon. Reminiscent of the City Beautiful movement, City Hall's architectural majesty towers over the park. The effect is a potent gesture of symmetry and epic architecture, akin to the Washington Monument or San Francisco's Civic Center. Adding to this are a few historic plaques in the park commemorating the 44 original Spanish pobladores that established Los Angeles in 1781.

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In the middle of the Grand Park just southeast of the grand fountain is a Starbucks. Like most new developments it would not be complete without it. As we walked through the park one of the Aussies comes up to me and says, "Where's the grass? This looks like mostly concrete." He was partially right but not completely; further down in the park by Hill Street a sizable patch of grass framed by walking paths fronts a stage set up for live performances.

There is no visible playground or swing set for children, but dozens of kids run through the spraying water of the cascading fountain. A parking lot below the park is by permit only for city employees. The park closes every day at 10PM and there were plenty of security guards. We walked through the park all the way to Hill and finished the tour in Little Tokyo.

I like the new park and so did the tourists. There's talk that some of the government buildings around the park may be demolished to make more green space, but in the meantime Grand Park is a good start. I am looking forward to seeing the rest once it's finished.

	 A notorious hand-washer, Mickey Cohen preparing to be called to testify. Photo appeared on November 16, 1950. From the Herald-Examiner Collection. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library
A notorious hand-washer, Mickey Cohen preparing to be called to testify. Photo appeared on November 16, 1950. From the Herald-Examiner Collection. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library


Summer Reading on the Sunset Strip

Dating back to 1997 I've been giving Los Angeles bus tours, and one of the most frequent locations is the Sunset Strip. Once avocado groves and poinsettia fields, the Sunset Strip's decadent history ranges from Mafia speakeasies during Prohibition to its evolution into an epicenter of the music scene. Two new books cover these very different histories of the Sunset Strip and Los Angeles history period.

The first is Tere Tereba's new biography "Mickey Cohen: The Life & Crimes of L.A.'s Notorious Mobster." Published by ECW Press, the author does a masterful job extolling Cohen's escapades and power: "His finger in every pie, his hand in every wallet, Cohen's influence reached from downtown, Chinatown, and South Central to the Sunset Strip, Hollywood, Culver City, Beverly Hills, Santa Monica, Burbank, Long Beach, San Pedro, and Glendale. He controlled activities in Gardena and Pasadena and out to Orange County, Lake Arrowhead, Palm Springs, and into Mexico. There was talk that San Francisco, Honolulu, and Manila were in his grip."

By all accounts Cohen is L.A.'s Al Capone. He grew up in Boyle Heights and was a professional boxer in his late teen years, fighting 79 bouts. After years paying dues as an enforcer in the underworld, Cohen got his chance to run Los Angeles after Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel was killed in 1947. The savvy Siegel flourished in L.A. for a decade before he was assassinated. Siegel was from New York and already very famous when he arrived in L.A. Cohen was also born in New York, but came to LA at a very early age and worked his way up. Cohen eventually became not only the King of the Sunset Strip but perhaps the most powerful mobster in the city's history. The recently postponed Warner Brothers film "Gangster Squad" is about Mickey Cohen and his epic battles with the LAPD and other gangsters during the postwar period.

Tereba also shows how Cohen was the ultimate Angeleno decades before people even considered such a thought. Cohen enjoyed all the subcultures of Los Angeles long before it was cool to do so. He spent lots of time in the Jazz District of Central Avenue, and would book Black musical acts in his Hollywood clubs in spite of Jim Crow Los Angeles. After growing up in Boyle Heights, Cohen embraced other cultures. "If anyone called someone a kike, spic or a wop in our neighborhood, we would beat his head in," he said. Tereba paints a full portrait of Mickey Cohen and also manages to squeeze in a fascinating historical overview of the Los Angeles underworld.

Photo by H4NUM4N used under a Creative Commons license
Photo by H4NUM4N used under a Creative Commons license

John Scanlan's "Van Halen: Exuberant California, Zen Rock'n'Roll" captures a whole other era of the Sunset Strip, but no less compelling. Set in the period from the early '70s to 1984, Scanlan not only charts the rise of Van Halen through the Sunset Strip nightclub scene, he argues that Van Halen's ethos as a band characterizes a state of mind and being called "Zen California."

Historian Kevin Starr in his book "Coast of Dreams" characterizes "Zen California" as "a state of mind, an idea of a time and place, and a way of being that celebrated 'the now'; that rode on its passion for the moment in a manner that could be seen elsewhere in much Southern California culture. It was present, most obviously, in the practice of surfing - the pre-eminent Californian art of mind, body and nature that was defined by receptivity to the moment."

Using the theoretical framework provided by Starr, Scanlan shows how the exuberance of Van Halen epitomized what he calls "California Zen rock'n'roll." Starting from their youthful beginnings in Pasadena and their first gigs as the house band at Gazzari's at the present-day Key Club, Scanlan highlights the unique set of circumstances that created Van Halen. Capturing the chemistry of David Lee Roth and Eddie Van Halen, he also shows how Roth's early exposure to Greenwich Village poets and musicians prepared Roth to become such a spontaneous artist.

Scanlan writes, "Roth's artistic temperament stemmed from somewhere else. Its main characteristic was a childlike artlessness that combined the immediacy of the everyday with the 'no-mind' of Zen. Like Kerouac, for whom 'future ambitions or past memories' were 'an evasion of the immediate', the 'Tao of Dave' involved, as he often said, tearing off the rear view mirror and looking no further than a few meters ahead." David Lee Roth epitomized California Zen. Scanlan also writes, "For Eddie Van Halen the unconscious was encountered in a manner more common to aesthetic romanticism, and to the synesthetic dimensions of sound, music and feeling."

The book concludes with the first break up of the band in 1984. The author's philosophical and aesthetic observations into Van Halen go a long way towards capturing the spirit of the band and the Sunset Strip just before the onslaught of the hair metal era. One mistake made in an otherwise excellent book is that Scanlan incorrectly notes that John Belushi died at the Sunset Marquis. Considering that Scanlan is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Sociology at Manchester Metropolitan University in the United Kingdom, it is conceivable that he would not know that Belushi died at the Chateau Marmont. The two hotels sound enough alike that the mistake is acceptable, because the rest of the book is accurate and well-conceived. Scanlan offers an enlightening read that significantly adds to the scholarship on Sunset Strip musical history.

This one goes out to Grand Park, Mickey Cohen and Van Halen, benchmarks in the ever-growing landscape of L.A. Letters.

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