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On Location: Culver City

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Lion's Fountain near the Culver Hotel in Culver City | Photo: Paul Jonusaitis/Flickr/Creative Commons

Culver City, like Beverly Hills and West Hollywood, is a separate city that is almost completely surrounded by Los Angeles. Over the last century Culver City has been an epicenter for the film industry, and also recently emerged as one of the major arts districts within Southern California. This week L.A. Letters spotlights Culver City, its natural landscape, illustrious history, and the brisk redevelopment that has reenergized the city's core over the last decade.

Stretching from the western face of the Baldwin Hills almost all the way to Marina Del Rey, Culver City occupies a central place in the geography of the Westside of Metropolitan Los Angeles. Over the 20th Century, the city has slowly grown bigger by annexing small portions of land explaining it unique shape. The residences of Culver City are a pretty equal mix of single-family homes and apartment complexes and the population of the city is very diverse ethnically, with a wide range of well represented groups.

Officially founded in 1917 by Harry Culver, the area where Culver City now stands was a part of three Spanish ranchos in the early 19th Century: Rancho La Ballona, Rancho Rincon de los Bueyes and Rancho La Cienega O Paso de La Tijera. During the Civil War on Rancho La Ballona land there was a brief military settlement, Camp Latham, along the south side of the Ballona Creek near the modern day intersection of Overland and Jefferson. I lived in an apartment near this corner in 1997 after graduating from UCLA.

Harry Culver was a real estate speculator and, like many men in the early 20th Century around Southern California, a man of big dreams. Historian Kevin Starr describes the tactics of Culver and the rise of Culver City in his book "Material Dreams: Southern California in the 1920s," in which he recounts how Culver subdivided and sold the city during the 1910s and also how attracted the film industry. Starr writes, "As skilled as Culver was as a fundraiser, it was as a salesman that he excelled." He adds, "Culver was the master of the stunt, the pitch, the flamboyant gesture. Atop his Culver City sales office, he mounted a searchlight, the second largest in the West, which by night sent a shaft of light into the sky visible for thirty miles. He sponsored baby beauty contests, boys' boxcar races, and marathons between the runners of Culver City and Los Angeles."

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Starr's book not only explicates Culver's sales techniques, he also explains the influence the film industry had on the growing community. "When film producer Thomas H. Ince located his film studies at Culver City in 1915," Starr writes, "the forerunner of the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) studios established there in 1924, Culver City achieved, as far as the tastes of Harry Culver's targeted middle-class market were concerned, the most compelling identity of all, an actual connection with the dream-producing film industry that was motivating the movement of so many migrants into Southern California in the first place."

The film industry played a prominent role in the city right from the start. By the end of the Great Depression, according to "The WPA Guide to the City of Angels" written in 1941, Culver City was "best known for its motion-picture production, the total output -- one-half of the films produced in the United State -- exceeding that of the imaginary city of Hollywood." During this time, Culver City leaders even tried to claim that because of the many films made in town, their city was "more Hollywood than Hollywood."

In addition to MGM, the city also originally housed the Hal Roach Studios, the Selznick-International Studios, and both RKO Pictures and Desilu Productions operated in the city for a number of years. Now, of course as most know, the site of the former MGM studios is significantly smaller and a part of Sony studios. Numerous historical accounts cover the city's storied track record with motion pictures and television in extensive detail. The guided tour at Sony Studios also does an excellent job covering the many layers of celluloid history in Culver City.

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Ballona Creek Bike Path | Photo: geoman56/Flickr/Creative Commons

Twenty five-year-old Nika Kolodziej has lived most of her life in Culver City. She inherited a love of local history from her mother, Marita Grabiak, a director and documentary filmmaker who has also worked as a city tour guide. For Kolodziej and her mother, the city's magic lies in both the natural landscape and emerging art scene.

Kolodziej grew up with the Ballona Creek bike path at the end of her street. She says, "The Ballona Creek itself is a magical and inspirational fitness mecca and wildlife preserve that is seeing some fraction of appreciation today of what it really deserves." The Ballona Creek waterway is nearly 9-miles long, and as most Los Angeles River enthusiasts know, the L.A. River originally joined with it and emptied its contents in the Pacific Ocean around present day Marina Del Rey. A major flood in 1825 changed the river's course to its present southern orientation, and the Ballona Creek became its own waterway like it remains today.

Over the last two decades she has spent countless days walking or riding the 5-mile path to the beach from her home. "I see the creek more and more like a living breathing organism, more like the river it used to be in the 1800s," says Kolodziej. "It's a real treat to have it in your backyard. There are sections of the creek that are a soft bottom channel, meaning instead of concrete there is dirt and riverside plants can grow. There are also estuary birds and everything from ducks to cormorants and cranes that lay their eggs." She sees the creek as a buffer zone between the hustle and commotion of the urban landscape, and she appreciates the continuous efforts of volunteer organizations like L.A. Water Keeper that remove trash and spread awareness of the Creek's role in the environment.

As a teenager Kolodziej learned the history of Ballona Creek from her neighbor Lyle across the street. She says, "He remembered when it was an actual creek before the 1930s and how dangerous it was after a rain." Even today, though it is encased in concrete, she says, "From the shallow trickle it becomes a heaving torrent, rising eight to ten feet after a rain -- it's a real spectacle. Scientists come down to the creek at this time and throw orange balls into the water to check for water speed. They regularly check for chemicals that wash through the streets into the creek as a storm drain."

In more recent years, Kolodziej shot experimental films in Ballona Creek while she was an art student at UCLA. She also tells me about one of her UCLA colleagues, named Sarah Doherty, an artist who "did a lot of plein air painting around the areas of Culver City, including in the creek."

Another equally compelling natural landscape near Culver City are the Baldwin Hills and Kenneth Hahn State Recreation Area. Spread over 400 acres, the Kenneth Hahn State Recreation Area is not technically in Culver City, but it is immediately adjacent to the city's eastern edge, and though there are oil derricks around the perimeter the parklands hold many nature trails and ample space for family fun.

For Nika Kolodziej the Kenneth Hahn State Recreation Area is a retreat from the congestion and noise of the city. She likes to "breathe the breeze from the ocean up there, listen to birds and see the incredible view of Downtown L.A. with the snow-capped mountains behind." There is also a very popular picnic and barbeque ground with a duck pond and man-made stream. Less than two miles west, on the western side of the Baldwin Hills and just north of West Los Angeles College, is Culver City Park which also offers great views of the Los Angeles basin. The adjoining Baldwin Hills Scenic Overlook is next to Culver City Park and famous for its viewpoint and hiking trail.

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View from Baldwin Hills Scenic Overlook | Photo: Daniel Pouliot/Flickr/Creative Commons

As great at the natural landscape is in Culver City, the neighborhood has become especially known for both its art scene and the thriving Downtown District just north of Sony Studios. Twenty-year resident and rock and roll journalist Lee Ballinger lauds the city's creative spirit: "Culver City is a mix like much of L.A., but more quiet; make that seemingly more quiet," he says. "Beneath the surface, there is a hidden world of thinkers and doers, a huge cultural presence inspired by God, Mammon, and the abstract muse, and a host of funky subcultures which sometimes even manage to interconnect."

The funky subcultures have especially come together around both La Cienega and along Washington. Over the last decade a number of galleries have come to rise along La Cienega and extending west along Washington. Some of the most well-known galleries in the area include Blum and Poe, Cherry and Martin, Honor Frasier, Samuel Freeman, LAXART, China Art Objects, and the Thinkspace Gallery. There are well over 30 galleries spaning several square blocks with, more appearing all the time.

The monthly Art Walk draws thousands of art connoisseurs to the district. Some of the biggest names in the art world today can be found on the walls in Culver City. UCLA graduate students also have a studio in the area off Duquesne. The city's Arts District also overlaps with a corridor of architects, design firms, and high end furniture stores. An epicenter of this can be found at the repurposed Historic Helms Bakery, where one can find interior design showrooms and a number of stores like the art and architecture bookstore, Arcana.

The legacy of architecture in Culver City involves both historic structures and the cutting edge. The Hayden Tract, in the eastern section of Culver City, is an old industrial neighborhood now housing some of the most avant-garde buildings in Southern California. Almost all of the structures in the area are designed by the celebrated architect Eric Owen Moss. Riding west on the Expo Line, an iconic tower designed by Moss is immediately south of the rails along National Boulevard and a few blocks west of Jefferson.

The Downtown district just west of the galleries along Culver and Washington is a thriving foodie and arts center. The proximity of Sony Studios assures a constant stream of pedestrians. The historic Culver Hotel, which dates back to Harry Culver himself, is where the munchkins stayed during the filming of "Wizard of Oz." There are more restaurants, bakeries and coffee shops than can be mentioned. The area is great for quaint breakfasts.

The Tuesday night Farmer's Market is a big draw. There are also options for live theater, like the Kirk Douglas Theater and the Actor's Gang Theater, which is housed in an old brick building originally called the Ivy Substation when it used to serve the Pacific Electric Street Car. "Culver City has a knack for repurposing and preserving the old historical buildings," says Nika Kolodziej. This is especially true around Downtown.

The St. Augustine's Cathedral is one of the city's best known churches, where mass is held in a few different languages. Antique shopping is also big in Culver City. Many of these outlets get their stock straight from old prop houses from all the adjacent movie studios. The Industry Café and Jazz along Washington hosts both jazz, and sometimes poetry, most nights of the week. There has also been a lot of talk about "Sage," Woody Harrelson's new gourmet organic vegan restaurant. Father's Office is another celebrated space for food and happy hour activities in the area.

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Hayden Tract in Culver City, designed by architect Eric Owen Moss | Photo: trevor.patt/Flickr/Creative Commons

Culver City has evolved a lot in the last two decades, from a more small-town feel to a more commercial area with all the consumer attractions. In addition to the developments in the downtown area, the former Fox Hills Mall has changed dramatically. "It was all about the Fox Hills Mall when I was little, with the giant scaffolding structure maze thing in the middle," says Poet Lenny Graham, who lived for many years in Culver City dating back to the 1980s. "Now it's not the Fox Hills Mall -- it got Westfieldized."

Graham also told me "now the cops patrol Downtown Culver so hard it's keeping things right over there -- like the Beverly Hills of Culver City." Downtown Los Angeles impresario Peter Woods, who grew up in nearby Ladera Heights, shares similar memories about the vigilance of Culver City police dating back to his high school years over two decades ago.

Nika Kolodziej reminisces about the recently closed ice skating rink. "I would go ice skating a couple blocks away on Sepulveda at the ice skating rink that just closed this year." She remembers all of her friends having their birthday parties there. She also notes that there are rumors of an L.A. Kings practice rink or a rock wall gym.

There are many more things to say about Culver City. Both West Los Angeles College and Antioch University are within the city limits. National Public Radio is just down the hill from West Los Angeles College, south of the downtown district. The Museum of Jurassic Technology is another unique attraction. Kolodziej calls the mysterious space, "A relic of modernism in '60s Los Angeles. It's a conceptual art piece in the form of a traditional museum experience, complete with exhibitions, dioramas, diagrams, explanations and descriptions." Only open on Thursday and Saturday, it's on Venice Boulevard where Culver City meets the Palms district.

All in all, Culver City is a dynamic municipality with both a historic legacy and bright future. Whether it's bike riding along the Ballona Creek, hiking at the Baldwin Hills Overlook, perusing the galleries along La Cienega, or eating somewhere in the downtown district, there is no shortage of things to do in Culver City. Dating back to its importance in film history to the current emerging art scene, Culver City is a critical touchstone in the geography of L.A. Letters.

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