Boy and Nature Along Wilshire Boulevard

What We Thought Nature Was: Statues of saber-tooth tigers at La Brea Tar Pits; May 18, 1956*
What We Thought Nature Was: Statues of saber-tooth tigers at La Brea Tar Pits; May 18, 1956* | Photo: UCLA Ditigal Library/Los Angeles Times Collection | Creative Commons License

*Originally captioned: KNOW YOUR CITY, NO.182 - Hold that tiiiger! Determined to beat the tar out of each other, these two animals are putting the bite on each other in a historic spot that is near a busy boulevard. If that isn't enough, see Page 28, Part ll. ANSWER: This statue of a couple of unfriendly saber-tooth tigers is in the famous La Brea Pits in Hancock Park on Wilshire Blvd. That pool of smooth black stuff behind them is one of the eerily bubbling pits of fossil-bearing asphalt deposits of the Pleistocene Epoch. (Got all that from a card tacked up on the fence.)

Edward Lifson, who is assembling stories of Wilshire Boulevard for broadcast later this year, asked if I had any memories of my own of that fabulous street. I don't have many ... mostly fragments of stories that won't add up to anything. I did remember when my brother and I were driven down Wilshire before the county art museum opened in 1965 to see the tar pits.

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There was already a small museum on the grassy slope that led up from the "lake" in Hancock Park. The lake is an artifact of an asphalt mine that had been dug before the Spanish arrived and enlarged through the 19th century.

Scattered around the flooded pit and further up the slope were bleached patches of crabgrass from which a small cone of asphalt protruded, leaking the smell of oil into the smoggy air. In a few places, a swimming-pool-size slick of water and tar bubbled with escaping methane, the shiny black hemispheres collapsing with a sigh

On the margin of the lake and around the park were reconstructions of some of the Pleistocene life the asphalt had trapped and suffocated 30,000 years ago: giant ground sloths, mastodons, and saber-tooth cats. Their bones, carefully mounted, still smelling (it seems to me) of petroleum, were collected in the old museum building. Visitors could look into the excavation from which some of the bones had come.

In those days, a visit to the La Brea tar pits was educational in the old-fashion way: displays of curious remains inside the museum and fanciful interpretations of the animals outside, where they were on the brink of disappearing back into the ooze.

It was an odd sort of education. Part of it was the crude and sanguinary Darwinism of "nature red in tooth and claw." That was the perfect Cold War lesson for 1958: them against us.

The other part of it was a lesson in how history was supposed to work -- the mistaken idea that the primitive (if often efficiently lethal) first inhabitants of Los Angeles had necessarily been replaced by even more lethal (if still culturally deficient) Native Americans, Spaniards, and Mexicans until the ultimate inheritors of Los Angeles -- two middle-class Anglo boys -- could stand at the lakeside staring down into their reflections mirrored on the dark water.

I was ready to accept the first, Darwinian lesson. Its axioms had been so thoroughly pounded into our experience that even the nuns who staffed my elementary school were unaware how contrary to their Catholic faith was their half-belief in unending, blood-soaked competition.

The second lesson -- the inevitable march of historical succession -- was only half-successful. The layers of bones, in one of which was the skull of a Native American woman, recorded a series of substitutions, but the continuing presence of the tar pits themselves suggested that succession was still at work with other equally inevitable outcomes for the unwary.

The pits were emblems of what happened to the overly confident, which included the two boys standing on the brink, peering through the chainlink fence at the fatal pit.

Dream Street: Looking east down Wilshire from La Brea
Dream Street: Looking east down Wilshire from La Brea | Photo: USC Ditigal Library

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