All photos from the Whittington Gallery at USC Digital Archives.
Even if you have given up on LA, cursed its tackiness, screamed at its traffic, revolted from its inanities, choked on its air and dreamed of exile from its toxicities, you might be seduced on Sunday afternoon, as I was yesterday, by a place hidden away that seems like a small town in the Poconos.
I accompanied a friend on an errand. She manages properties, and was cleaning up after renters at a small house on a street called Lake Shore Avenue.
East of Glendale Blvd, south of the 2, west of Elysian Park, it sits snuggly into a hill that blocks the setting sun. Shady, built with little bungalows, it bisects, at Effie, an institution: Gateways Hospital and Community Mental Health Center.
A mid-century sign sits at the entrance to the facility.
Egregious, garishly lettered in big vertical typeface, it announces, creepily, its authoritative medicinal mission (rehabilitation, research, hospital) as if they were triple feature films from the 50s like “I Want to Live”, “The Creature from the Black Lagoon” and “The Blob.”
We parked on Effie and looked ahead at a wide dirt path climbing up a steep hill where nets were laid down to trap water and debris that may pour down here fiercely.
My friend went to work on her property, and I climbed up the trail.
Around me were dried, parched grasses, the remnants of homeless blankets and bags of clothes, and, at the top of the hill, a stucco shack of a house, with a pitted asphalt driveway, and a wooden deck. It was guarded by ziggurat cinder block walls and reinforced steel window bars.
The dilapidated home was a find, unusual in its state of disrepair. For we live in a city of brutally competitive property investment, where every top elevation has been captured by someone richer. This mountain hideaway lacked the hidden cameras, the expensive cars, the pool, and the pretense to architecture. An eccentric hermit might inhabit it.
Moby if he had no money might live here.
Its views stretched out to Silverlake, downtown, and tall radio towers across the way. Yet it was an uneasy isolation. It felt dangerous, not reassuring.
Bucolic and rustic in Los Angeles never exists in purity.
Helicopters and sirens in the distance, the threat of fire, the presence of people without homes, the surprise of events that might end our life erupting from the deepest earth, or from a violent intrusion through an open window. These are the sights, sounds and conjurations of the imagination haunting happy moments.
That is how that house and hill felt.
Back down on Lake Shore Avenue I walked past institutional houses, illuminated by industrial floodlights, set along the street, behind gates. Two older men were on the stoop of one place, smoking. They nodded to me and I waved back.
Outside the property of Gateways, dominating the bright part of the hill on Lake Shore Avenue, was a tall, two-toned, red and white brick house looming over a row of old garages. Homely, graceless, squinting in the sun, it refuted the lovely myth that everything historic is charming. The white “sanitary” bricks, glossy and washable, were often used in the 1920s on building facades for bakeries and cleaners.
A small signifier of community well-being, a landscaped traffic circle, ended my walk up Lake Shore.
That idea that a street could come together in a circle, unified by architecture, common purpose, cafes and conversation, there was something of that here, but I saw no other pedestrians. The only movement was daylight in retreat, shadows moving over the street.
After walking around, I came back to my friend’s property and went inside. We stacked dishes in the dishwasher, carried out bags of food from the refrigerator, and a basket of dirty towels. She turned on the alarm and locked the door. We got in the car and left to return to the real city beyond.
The sun was out, the winds were blowing, the air was dry and we drove over in the Super Bowl ghosted city to see the 6th Street Bridge, an 85-year-old patient whose arms and legs still spanned the Los Angeles River, but whose execution was now under way in Boyle Heights.
We parked on the west side of the bridge next to steel gates and barbed wires. Homeless people still gathered in the shadows under the arches. A lone woman on a bicycle pedaled up and shot some photographs; as did an old man in a bright yellow Porsche convertible who sat in his car and then drove off.
Fascinating to me, even after 21 years in Los Angeles, is how civic grandeur and public spaces are degraded and neglected. I grew up in Chicago, where Buckingham Fountain, Grant Park, the Lakefront, Soldiers Field, the Field Museum, and Water Tower were proudly shown off and cared for. They left an impression on a small child. We drove downtown to admire our city, not run from it in fear and revulsion.
What is one to make of the disrespected and defiled 6th Street Bridge with its decapitated light posts, the arches sitting in mountains of trash, the human beings laying underneath the noble, carved, Art Moderne piers? Where does 3,500 feet of concrete, erected in the grandest and most elegant way, where does it go?
Some who spoke of the life of the condemned bridge talked about movies that were filmed here. Is nothing real or important unless it starred in a film? Does Los Angeles exist as an actual city or is it only a stage set whose humanity only matters when it is on celluloid? For all of the 85 years that the bridge sat in a sea of defiled urbanity did it only fulfill its importance when fakery was filmed around and on it? Is that why the exploits of the Kardashians are so valued, but thousands who set up mattresses under bridges in our city are ignored and forgotten?
One has heard from the leaders in Los Angeles, recently, that “working class Boyle Heights” and the new “Arts District” will mutually benefit from a new $428 million dollar bridge designed and constructed in modernistic form.
But that is what they always say, these politicians and people in power, the ones who spend hundreds of millions, and, in the end, where are the human spaces, the parks, the housing, the stores, the markets, the schools, the health care, all those markers of civilization?
If life doesn’t exist under the 6th St. Bridge, then no bridge itself is capable of conceiving the rebirth of a neighborhood. It takes a village, as some obscure old woman once said.
We had walked over from her place on Benton Way in the late afternoon and stopped into a bright Mexican restaurant and sat at the bar where they had expensive tequilas and cheap margaritas.
At El Cóndor, on Sunset at Edgecliffe, the bartender was tall and black and efficient, fast serving the cold, salted glasses with the green mixtures to go along with the guacamole and chips.
We were talking and then a young guy sat down at the corner. The server, the busboy, and the bartenders seemed to know him as if he were a regular. He talked to a blond, bearded bartender, who left, and was replaced by a clean- shaven, quiet bartender in a denim shirt.
“I moved in with a girl,” he told the quiet bartender who listened and nodded politely and stared into the distance.
“I came here to act,” he said.
“What time do you get off work?” he asked.
“I’m going to a party later,” he said.
He was looking for a friend, maybe something more, but his plaintive loneliness reminded me of so many days and nights ago, and that certain summer twenty years ago when I moved to Los Angeles and lived with a girl. There was nothing to the relationship, other than a brittle friendship, and it died in the fall of 1994, never to return.
When you drink, you think, and you are articulate. The intuitions and insights flood your mind, and you feel relaxed and the fear and the anxiety leaves you and you can walk and laugh, cry and remember, and nothing will stop you, no inhibitions or tentativeness, no wary caution or reversion to propriety.
And the next day, if you are lucky, you remember a tiny portion of last night’s enormous revelations.
After we got back to her place on Benton Way, she told me I was her first activity of the night. Jason was downtown, visiting from Montreal, and she would be driving there to meet him.
But first she showed me those crazy, 1980s sweaters I gave her that had once belonged to my late Mother. She said they smelled like Louise, who died on September 1, 2014. My mother always dry-cleaned her clothes and hung them on wire hangers shrouded in plastic.
We sat on the gray sectional couch that had been in my mother’s apartment on Admiralty Way in Marina Del Rey, the couch that had been purchased at Crate and Barrel in Paramus, NJ on Route #17 in the summer of 2008, the couch that was selected as I pushed my reluctant father in a wheelchair around the store and my mother hobbled along. That couch covered the events of the last seven years, the deaths of its two owners. It lived to find a new home in Silver Lake.
We are not more than friends so I left to make way for love, which was fine, as I was happy to drive into the waning light and go back to a street I found a few months ago where the giant Church of Scientology looms over a motley block of cheap apartments.
That street was Berendo, near Lexington, and I found it just when the sun was setting, and the harsh ugliness of old, broken-down, and neglected buildings became comely, enticing and seductive.
There were markers of Western history dropped onto the streets, like French chateaus and Spanish castles. There were homely, plain and workaday brick and wood apartments and houses, old wooden electrical poles and wires, and cars that were packed into tight alleys, and parked along the curb. Occasionally, a cat would crawl out from under a car and dart into another shadow.
Berendo was blasphemy, watched over by a cross atop on an old blue hospital now advertising SCIENTOLGY.
Under the gaze of the cult, I was walking, and photographing, a city unique in its fate and form.
Los Angeles: the most photogenic city in the world.
Whatever you imagine it is, it is.
Her beauty is fragile and fleeting. Her people arrive to grab onto to something illusory and transforming.
She should be seen and felt in the fading light, after the hours when the sun is brightest and before the hours when the darkness descends.
From the USC Digital Archives, one finds fascinating and unusual photos of old California.
A search for “4th of July” brought up these photos and captions:
“Photographer: Gaze. Date: 1952-07-04. Reporter: Gaze. Assignement: 4th July–Santa Monica. #23-29: Navy landing craft comes ashore in Fourth of July exercises at Santa Monica. LCM No. 268 in the foreground has just landed and No. 175 has just taken off back through surf. In addition to these landing craft, visitors streamed aboard the heavy cruiser USS Toledo and the destroyer escort USS Whitehurst.”
Philippine Independence Day celebration July 4th, July 4, 1951. Elizabeth Rigor (“Miss Luzon”); Mayor Fletcher Bowron; Sartonio V. Abrera (consul of Philippines); Maria Torres (“Miss Visayan”); Aurora Garcia (“Miss Philippines”).
Special 4th of July rites at St. Vibianas, July 4, 1951. Processional into cathedral with Archbishop J. Francis A. McIntyre.
“Photographer: Gaze. Date: 1952-07-01. Reporter: Gaze. Assignment: 4th July advance. #41: Pretty Rita Simon looks as though she were about to take off on a giant skyrocket at Ocean Park which is one way of calling attention to the annual 4th of July fireworks exhibition which will be held on the end of Ocean Park Pier on the night of July 4 in tribute this year to four warships which will anchor in the Bay. Visitors will be allowed aboard from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. July4, 5 and 6. #42: L to R: Audrey Donahue holds her ears as Margie Brunner lights giant skyrocket and Rita Simon appears ready to take off with the explosive on the Ocean Park beach. The girls enact the scene to call attention to the annual fireworks exhibition to be held at the end of the Ocean Park Pier in tribute to 4 warships which will anchor in the Bay over the three-day holiday.”
I was down in Venice yesterday on a foggy Saturday morning, down there to attend a training video for a new food processor I’ve been hired to test.
I parked on Sunset near 4th Avenue, not far from Gjusta, where I went to eat. They sell loaves of bread for ten dollars there.
And along Sunset I passed a man and a woman and a tent, their home I assumed. I ignored them and went to the restaurant and ordered eggs, toast and coffee for $16.
On the way back, the man and the woman had moved, and set up their tent on 4th Avenue.
Camera in hand, I went over to introduce myself.
The man, Alexander, said he was from Pomona and was 22-years-old. The woman, Dina, said she was 44 and from Egypt. They both said they met in Israel.
They said they were artists. And they had ended up here and had no means of supporting themselves, so they were living in the tent, on the sidewalk, chased away by residents and police.
Alexander was smart, funny, articulate and intelligent. He said he was Jewish, an anomaly in Catholic and Hispanic Pomona. Dina said she grew up in Egypt, a Muslim, and her father was blacklisted for writing against the regime. She said she had children in Israel.
Alexander told me that the hardest part of being homeless was how exhausting it was. They had to be constantly moving, like Bedouins, and forage for food. Cleaning up was not easy, they washed their hands along the curb. Yet they seemed clean.
“Capitalism can be cruel. Even in poorer countries, people seem to look out for each other, to help. In America, the indifference is noticeable,” Alexander said.
“All of my family live in the same compound,” Dina said, thinking of her kin back home. And what would they think of her now?
Dina had the flinty, tough, tenacious soul of a woman from the Middle-East. She was genuinely touched that I cared enough to stop and speak with her, and discuss her plight and struggle.
They both said they needed a backyard to stay in. That would help them feel settled. I wondered why there was not a place in Venice or Santa Monica, in a community full of backyards, where one couple could camp out temporarily.
Their goal was to save $3,000 and return to Israel.
I don’t exactly understand how they got into this position, but I am sure that life doesn’t always reward the moral and punish the immoral.
Sometimes it is capricious, and good people end up in bad places, and if they are lucky enough, can dig out and get back on their feet.
But why is it that nobody can lend them a backyard and few bucks?
A few blocks from Dina and Alexander, Google is building a new office. And a friend of my brother rents a small apartment on Rose for $4,500 a month.
And Dina and Alexander sleep in a tent on the sidewalk while all around them humanity passes by.