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Preserving and Honoring Literary Los Angeles

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Bukowski Court in East Hollywood | Photo: Bukowski Court Facebook

The destruction of celebrated Los Angeles author Ray Bradbury's home last week has had many followers of Los Angeles literature in an uproar. The battle to save Norm's on La Cienega has also been in the news. The issue of historic preservation is a charged topic and there are many different perspectives on what should be saved and why a site is worth saving. This week L.A. Letters meditates on the preservation of sites across Literary Los Angeles and why much more of it is needed.

Before discussing sites that should be saved or authors that should be honored, it is important to ground the discussion in the politics of historic preservation and to look at a few examples that already exist. The modern preservation movement in America really began in the 1960s in New York City after the great railway terminal Penn Station was torn down. Many New Yorkers and architecture buffs were upset by this and realized what a big mistake had been made. The New York Times architectural critic Ada Louise Huxtable was one of the leading voices advocating for preservation. As the years went on into the 1970s and beyond, Huxtable wrote countless essays on the benefits of preservation and why historic sites and buildings matter.

In her award-winning book, "Will They Ever Finish Bruckner Boulevard?" Huxtable writes, "What preservation is really all about is the retention and active relationship of the buildings of the past to the community's functioning present. You don't erase history to get history; a city's character and quality are a product of continuity." As much as this true, often what gets preserved are sites connected to the power structure or places that make financial sense to landowners and real estate developers. Angeleno history buffs can name countless structures across Southern California that no longer exist because they were torn down to be replaced by a newer structure or a more lucrative site.

One of the first places to be historically preserved in Los Angeles was the Pueblo and Olvera Street. In the 1920s, the original Pueblo was decaying and unattractive aesthetically. This prompted a woman named Christine Sterling to reimagine the space as a link to the city's "romantic Spanish past." By 1930, Sterling had convinced city officials to consider her idea and the Pueblo was restored and reimagined into rows of curio shops, house museums, and Mexican restaurants. The scholar William Estrada, in his essay titled "Los Angeles; Old Plaza and Olvera Street: Imagined and Contested Space," writes, "As a constructed place, Olvera Street was the product of a social and economic agenda established by civic elites to transform downtown Los Angeles through the removal of undesirable residents." Estrada posits that this constructed space was used for the economic and social agenda of the city leaders. He calls Olvera Street, "an image factory." Furthermore he says, "The power of the recreated village, similar to museums that exhibit foreign cultures, is essentially to serve as a surrogate for travel, to bring a sight (Mexico to Los Angeles, in this case) otherwise removed in time and space."

Olvera Street before restoration | Photo: Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Los Angeles Public Library
Olvera Street before restoration | Photo: Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

In other words, historic preservation is used frequently for commercial and tourist reasons. There have been some cases where sites have been saved for sentimental reasons, but even these often have underlying economic factors. As noted at the beginning of this essay, the Norm's on La Cienega was up for demolition, but for the time being it has been saved. Designed by the noted firm of Armet & Davis, it is considered one of the finest examples of "Googie" architecture. This same firm also designed Johnnies at Fairfax and Wilshire, which still stands because it is owned by a private owner. Johnnies has not been open since 2003, but it is often used for filming. Films like "The Big Lebowski" and "American History X," were shot there. The Johnnies remains standing because the frequent filming there is a source of revenue for its owners.

Architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne wrote a column in the Los Angeles Times last week titled "Bulldoze First, apologize later: A True L.A. Landmark." His essay connected the dots between the battle to save Norm's and the destruction of Ray Bradbury's house. His article discussed how historic preservation has often been more difficult in L.A., as well as the disappointment many Bradbury fans had that his home was torn down so quickly. Hawthorne also points out how the former apartment of Charles Bukowski was saved in 2007 "on literary rather than aesthetic grounds." Between Hawthorne's essay and a recent article in Artbound about Literary Shrines in California, I started thinking about how much literary history in Southern California has not been preserved and how few L.A. authors have actually been honored historically.

The Artbound piece mentioned the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, the Henry Miller Memorial Library in Big Sur, and the Beat Museum in San Francisco. I have visited all three of these sites and they deserve the accolades; nonetheless they exist for not only historic but also for commercial reasons. Steinbeck's books were publicly burned in Salinas a few times during the Depression; ironically, eight decades later his museum is the city's biggest tourist attraction. The Artbound article also mentioned Charles Bukowski and the interest around his former home in Southern California. All in all the essay had much more information about the literary shrines up in Northern California, and not as much about the literary history of Southern California.

The facts are that there are a number of historic sites across Los Angeles honoring the city's literary history, but nowhere as much as in the Bay Area. For example, in Downtown Berkeley on Addison Street between Shattuck and Milvia, there are 123 cast-iron poetry plaques with short poems and the respective poets names inscribed on each. The poems were selected by the longtime Berkeley resident and former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Hass. Most of the poets chosen were native or longtime Bay Area residents or closely affiliated with the region for an extended period. Heyday Books published an anthology in 2004 with the poems and the poets. Oakland has Jack London Square and the entire location of City Lights Books in the North Beach District of San Francisco is a monument to the Beat Generation poets. The Jack Kerouac Alley is adjacent, and the Beat Museum is just across the street near Broadway and Columbus Street.

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"Jack Kerouac Alley in San Francisco | Photo: Kent Kanouse/Flickr/Creative Commons

Though Los Angeles has an equal literary history, it has far fewer literary shrines. Moreover, most of the cultural sites honored or preserved in Southern California have been saved because of commercial reasons or connections to the film industry. Examples include Ray Charles Square at Washington and Westmoreland and Lucy Square for Lucille Ball on Melrose adjacent to Paramount Studios.

To bring it back briefly to Ray Bradbury, honoring his legacy is a no-brainer because he has been in the public eye as a great writer for over six decades. Nonetheless, the home he lived in for over 50 years has already been demolished, ironically by Thom Mayne, one of the best known contemporary architects in Los Angeles. Bradbury's home was located in Cheviot Hills in a residential area; as Christopher Hawthorne point out, it may not have been that architecturally significant, but still many of Bradbury's longtime admirers were very disappointed that Mayne demolished his house and that he did it so quickly. The only consolation to this is that Bradbury already has a corner named for him at 5th and Flower Streets, adjacent to the Central Library.

In the next few paragraphs I want to propose a number of other authors and sites to celebrate, but first, a brief word on the few that already currently exist.

Recent developments like starting the Los Angeles Poet Laureate program show that the city is going to start honoring the literary history more. There are a few sites around town now, like the Sunnynook River Park in Atwater Village, just west of Elysian Valley, which dedicates a pathway named for poet Lewis MacAdams, also the Founder of the Friends of the Los Angeles River. In the park, there is a small plaque that includes a few lines from one of his poems.

Another site is John Fante Square, at Grand and 5th, two blocks east of Bradbury Square. The sign for Fante at this intersection and the preservation for Bukowski's former apartment was heavily advocated by Kim Cooper and Richard Schave of Esotouric Tours. Schave recently told me, "Chandler, Cain, Fante, all Los Angeles writers, are important because literature has a huge impact on shaping how the city is perceived. Young people who read about Los Angeles as they grow up in it are shaped by those books, and they in turn help shape Los Angeles as they grow up."

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John Fante Square | Photo: Mike Fabio/Flickr/Creative Commons

The few other literary shrines we have in Los Angeles have been initiated by other activists similar to Schave. The Angeleno poet and civic activist, S.A. Griffin, took it upon himself to make a plaque on Las Palmas just south of Hollywood Boulevard to honor Baroque Bookstore. Griffin says, "I created the plaque for Baroque Books and Red Stodolsky so that anyone encountering the location would know that Red and the store were there. There were books here, writers and readers came through this door. That this was a place full of stories." Griffin and his poetic comrades had called the bookstore, "The University of Red's." After Red passed and the bookstore closed, Griffin organized with several other writers and members of the community to honor Red because he had been so influential in the city's literary community.

Griffin continues, "These shared stories become community, a way of creating a commonality among ourselves, that we have more in common than not. We owe it to ourselves and one another to know where we are, who we are, and know the stories of this great city we call home, and home really is where the heart is. If we celebrate the stories of Los Angeles, we celebrate the people and places that make this city not only what it is, but the great city that it can and will be in the decades to come."

There are dozens of Los Angeles authors that deserve to be honored with a plaque or some form of public art. The recently deceased poet Wanda Coleman deserves to have an intersection named after her. Aside from Bukowski, she has long been one of the city's best known poets. There should also be an intersection named for the late great Science Fiction writer, Octavia Butler. The Filipino-American writer Carlos Bulosan deserves similar recognition. Bulosan lived in Bunker Hill during the Great Depression and was a seminal figure in the first half of the 20th Century. There should be a plaque on 103rd Street in Watts where the Watts Writer's Workshop existed during the 1960s and early 1970s. Numerous great writers, many still active, came from this location.

Currently in Leimert Park there is a public art installation called the "Sankofa Passage," that honors poets like Kamau Daaood and Jayne Cortez, along with architect Paul Williams and musicians Billy Higgins, Buddy Collette, Eric Dolphy, Horace Tapscott, and Charles Mingus among others. There is also a mural with lines from Kamau Daaood's poetry and images of several of the aforementioned musicians. Nonetheless most literary maps of Los Angeles only cite Leimert Park as being where the Black Dahlia body was found, near the intersection of 39th and Norton.

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103rd Street in Watts should be honored with a plaque for the Watts Writers Workshop | Photo: Seth Anderson/Flickr/Creative Commons

There is a lot of cultural and literary history in Los Angeles that is overlooked. S.A. Griffin wants to put plaques all over the city honoring different writers and cultural sites. Griffin adds, "As our culture becomes less and less about the book and more and more about emerging technologies, it seems to me that we become less and less about one another. Less and less about community. I have a long range fantasy to place plaques all over the city for various people and establishments. The next plaque I would like to create would be for the Onyx Cafe, formerly next door to the Vista Theatre at its original location."

In the spirit of Griffin's idea, there should be a plaque for the Woman's Building on North Spring, where poets like Eloise Klein Healy, Terry Wolverton, Deena Metzger, and Coleman commiserated during the 1970s and 80s. Wolverton also told me that a plaque should be installed on the former and original site of A Different Light Bookstore near Santa Monica Boulevard and Hoover. A Different Light was the center of the LGBT literary community and an important incubator of literary culture for many years.

Another site equally important is the former coffeehouse, Café Cultural in Boyle Heights located at 2036 East First Street in the 1980s. I first learned about this from an essay by Ruben Martinez, who along with Sesshu Foster and dozens of other Chicano authors came together there for many years for poetry readings and community organizing.

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Other obvious sites to honor include Beyond Baroque in Venice, where poets from the post-Beat scene came together and, a few years later, the band X formed. In Little Tokyo, the theater where the East West Players perform is another such site. The legendary Tuesday Night Café has been in the courtyard there for 15 years and has been an important entry way for the city's Asian and Pacific Islanders writing community. In Los Feliz, the space that was once Chatterton's Books, where Skylight Books is now, is also equally historic. Chatterton's was one of the city's best known bookstores dating back to the early 1970s. Other sites include where Pickwick Books was on Hollywood Boulevard just east of McCadden. Though it has been closed for over a generation, it was one of the greatest bookstores in the history of Los Angeles.

This short list is by no means complete, and there are many other authors and sites worthy of being recognized for their literary and cultural history. Efforts to celebrate forgotten pioneers of Los Angeles have been initiated in the past by figures like the author and urban planner Dolores Hayden with her book and public art project, "The Power of Place." Hayden was instrumental in creating the Biddy Mason Art installation in Downtown Los Angeles. Hayden has had a lifelong fondness for place-making. She writes, "A city with a network of public places tied to the resonant social history can start educational projects for children, from kindergarten on, that use the humanities and the arts to inform young citizens about urban life, its tough choices, its rewards." In this same vein, the recent book, "A People's Guide to Los Angeles" celebrated 115 sites that relate to struggles connected to race, class, gender, sexuality and social justice.

I recently spoke to Poet Laureate Luis Rodriguez about honoring the city's literary past, and we both agree there is so much more to honor. In the coming years, many more sites and plaques will emerge. We will even gradually catch up with the Bay Area. In many ways, Los Angeles is just starting to understand how deep its literary history really is. The issues raised by the destruction of Ray Bradbury's house and the battle to save Norm's inspired me to meditate more on how much literary history in this city deserves to be remembered. This essay is the tip of the iceberg and these efforts remain a work in progress. As the years unfold, expect many more literary shrines to rise in the landscape of L.A. Letters.

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