Sunshine Vistas and the 21st Century City Reimagined


California, and Los Angeles specifically, has always been considered a laboratory of the future. Californians have been reinventing themselves and the local landscape for generations. This week L.A. Letters highlights a few sacred sites and two new books that exemplify re-visioning Los Angeles and the 21st Century City.

On the eastern side of the Cal State L.A. campus is a hillside set of stairs climbing upward for several hundred feet. Students call these stairs "Cardiac Hill" with good reason. Nonetheless, climbing Cardiac Hill is well worth it because on a clear day from the top one can see not only Mt. Wilson and Mt. Baldy to the northeast, but also the massive Mt. San Gorgonio further east, and even further -- Mt. San Jacinto near Palm Springs. The ability to see these towering peaks all together in one view is rare and sublime. I have to stop every time I see it and pause for a second.

The majestic vista reminds me of the joy Carey McWilliams describes in his book "Southern California: An Island on the Land." He writes: "I think of the view from a favorite arroyo in the late afternoon, the east slope still bathed in sunlight, the far slope already full of dark shade and lengthening shadows. A cool breeze, as one can look across the plains, out over miles of homes and trees, and hear the faraway hum of traffic on the high-ways and see the golden light filtering through the mist-laden air."

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McWilliams' favorite arroyo must have been one on par with Cardiac Hill. There are only a few vistas in Southern California where you can see such a panoramic shot of the three tallest mountains south of the Sierra Nevada. Seeing these giants together reminds me that Mother Nature still rules Southern California. Furthermore even though we are an epicenter for pollution and smog, the mountain's brilliance still prevails.

Also visible from Cardiac Hill is leafy Pasadena to the north and Phil Spector's Alhambra mansion immediately east. Further off in the distance, the endless sprawl of the San Gabriel Valley blends into the Inland Empire. Citrus groves are now tract homes and freeways bisect big-box shops and subdivisions. The hills of City Terrace and Monterey Park make Montebello only partially visible from Cardiac Hill. About four miles southeast of Cal State L.A. is the Armenian Genocide Memorial in Montebello, at a site called Bicknell Park. The 85-foot tall concrete sculpture of eight clustered arches is elegant and can be seen from the freeway if one looks close. I saw it myself years back before I knew what it was.

Armenian Genocie Memorial in Montebello | Photo by Arev G used under a Creative Commons license
Armenian Genocie Memorial in Montebello | Photo by Arev G used under a Creative Commons license

Just south of the 60 Freeway and the Garfield Boulevard exit, the Armenian Genocide Memorial dates back to 1968. Though neighborhoods like Glendale, East Hollywood and Little Armenia are more famous for their connections to the Armenian community, Montebello is the site of the Holy Cross Armenian Apostolic Cathedral and the oldest enclave of Armenians in Southern California.

In 2011, an official sign declaring the memorial was placed on the 60 freeway. The existence of this memorial is especially significant to the Armenian community because the Turkish government and others continue to deny it ever happened. The memorial is a source of strength for the community and a reminder of the not too distant past. The genocide kick-started the modern Armenian diaspora, bringing hundreds of thousands of Armenians to America after the First World War.

A plaque on the memorial says: "Armenian Martyrs Memorial Monument: This Monument erected by Americans of Armenian descent, is dedicated to the 1,500,000 Armenian victims of the Genocide perpetrated by the Turkish Government, 1915-1921, and to men of all nations who have fallen victim to crimes against humanity." Every year on April 24th, thousands of Armenians from all over the Southland converge for Genocide Remembrance Day. Thousands of Armenian-Americans have made the pilgrimage there over the last 45 years, and a few other Armenian Genocide memorials have been built around North America after Montebello's.

Another sacred site in the San Gabriel Valley east of Montebello and visible in the hills of Hacienda Heights is the monumental Hsi Lai Buddhist Temple. Famed for its classic Chinese architecture and vast gardens, it's the largest Buddhist temple on the West Coast. Perched in the chaparral north of the vast Rose Hills Cemetery and the Whittier hills, I've been able to spot the temple from several miles west in Montebello and Monterey Park as well as driving on the 60. Whenever I see it off in the distance I take a deep breath and appreciate it.

"Post-Ghetto: Reimagining South Los Angeles" is a new book on UC Press charting the evolving landscape of L.A.'s south side. The dozen essays highlight recent hopeful signs like new community gardens, successful gang-prevention programs, food justice, and lower crime in the area since the 1992 Uprisings. Daniel Widener's piece, "Setting the Seen: Hollywood, South Los Angeles and the Politics of Film" juxtaposes two Black films from the early 1970s, "Repression" and "Wattstax," to trace the history of Black Cinema in Los Angeles and to reveal different ways South L.A. has been portrayed in film. Widener writes, "Whether utopian or dystopian, these films show South Los Angeles as a place of active black subjectivity, of regular folks acting, instead of being acted upon. This is self-determination." Widener celebrates the self-determination of these films because they presented alternative views of Black culture from what Hollywood stereotypically did. This theme of reimagining South Los Angeles defines the book.

Editor Josh Sides has curated an optimistic yet sober account of South L.A.'s transformation. He writes, "It is unlikely that a color-blind society can ever be created, so thoroughly are racial and racist beliefs woven into the fabric of the United States. But the creation, maintenance, and perpetuation of the ghetto is not inevitable. The authors of this volume are deeply invested in thinking about, proposing, analyzing, and implementing remedies in Los Angeles in hopes of someday residing in a post-ghetto nation."

Isaac Hayes performing at Wattstax, with Rev. Jesse Jackson, at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum | Credit: Courtesy of Wattstax
Isaac Hayes performing at Wattstax, with Rev. Jesse Jackson, at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum | Credit: Courtesy of Wattstax

"Rage is Back," published by Viking, is a new novel about the New York City graffiti underground loaded with insight on contemporary culture that applies equally to Los Angeles. Author Adam Mansbach, best-selling author of "Go the F to Sleep," has composed a tour de force that manages to be both an ode to New York, hip hop and graffiti, as well as a narrative about the ties between friends, family and the magic of art. Kilroy Dondi Vance, the savvy biracial protagonist, is the son of one New York's most famous graff writers ever and the narrator of the action-packed tale.

Dondi doesn't disappoint waxing on topics like graffiti history, race relations, gentrification, and other similar cultural touchstones especially relevant in these times. The mix of sarcastic humor and insight charges the work, like in this passage: "Don't ever mention Haring to a graffiti writer, by the way, or Basquiat either. Not unless you're ready for a tutorial about how those guys were chumps, never hit trains, didn't hang out at the Writers' bench on 149th and Grand Concourse, only painted where it was safe, fronted like they were real heads and made millions while the real heads are real broke heads, some of them with real broke heads."

The plot centers on the return of Dondi's father Rage and an ensuing citywide art campaign organized by leading graffiti artists to defeat the crooked MTA police chief. Flashback scenes from the 1980s explain the two decade backstory. A dash of the supernatural pervades the work in the mythical tunnels below New York. Dondi's commentary on gentrification in Fort Greene and Williamsburg could easily apply to Silver Lake and Echo Park. There's even one chapter where the narrator changes and the transition is seamless -- the character name Cloud Nine takes over for a few pages to tell a story. The book culminates when Dondi, his father Rage, and their entourage paint all the trains in New York City. The dénouement is the redemption of Dondi's father and exposing to the public the corrupt police chief. Sandwiched in the midst of all the action and humor is a heartfelt and tender story of father and son and the redemptive power of art to bring people together. "Rage is Back" is a masterful work that puts Mansbach in the same league as scribes like Zadie Smith, Junot Diaz and Michael Chabon as one of the most cutting edge contemporary novelists.

"Post-Ghetto" and "Rage is Back" both involve re-imagining the 21st Century city in pursuit of creating a better future. Urban alchemists are at work. The same spirit radiates at the Hsi Lai Buddhist Temple and Armenian Genocide Memorial, visionaries are re-imagining the city with sacred sites to create the reality they want to see. These authors and sites shine bright in the kaleidoscope of L.A. Letters.


Top: View from "Cardiac Hill" at Cal State L.A. Photo by RebelSciences [Kwasi B.] used under a Creative Commons license

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