Friday, May 4, 2012

Coda: The Nature of Los Angeles

EARLIER THIS week, one of my reporter colleagues was on Facebook grousing, in that way people do there,  about the gray skies over  Los Angeles.  He took his mini-vent one step further to say that there was something about a cloudy day in Los Angeles that was worse than a cloudy day somewhere else.  There were a smattering of comments following up that mildly agreed or disagreed. I thought about adding my two cents, but it seemed beside the point.

I realized that this writer was suggesting something that we've been talking about from different angles in our class all semester: The ways in which the ante is upped here in Los Angeles, that even less-than stellar weather (!) can be a grounds for deep disappointment.  This seemed unfair, of course, as it was still in the 70s and  it was hardly an inconvenience. Simply, if you think about it, a day off for the sun.

Why such the high standard of subjective perfection?  He's a transplant from thousands of miles elsewhere,  which got me thinking.  I realized again, the perspective difference. For me, as a native, gray skies offer an alternative, a different way to see Los Angeles; it's a break from being "on," a different mood from that megawatt smile.  I see the city in a different way on days like that. The sky might look like steel-wool, the mountains with the snow on the peaks, jut out against it, the green of the trees look that much more vibrant. It's still stunning and textured, but you see a different side -- something more layered, contemplative.

On the same theme,  this week The New Yorker put up an engaging short interview with the photographer Bruce Davidson talking about photographing nature in Los Angeles.  In a way, if he were in our class, his final piece would have been Arcadia/Utopia. He literally is looking for the places in L.A. where nature and man-made urban life intersect.  "I had a vision of the superhighways intermingling with the trees," says Davidson early in the interview. "Nature has this way of commingling, of living with the city itself. Nature clings, nature will adapt. Nature will find a way to live even under concrete. Nature is there surrounding the grid of the city itself. I was drawn to this challenge."

Watching the images and Davidson speaking about his process a second time,  I realized that what he's observing about the Southland's nature -- flora and fauna -- is true about us --  humans.   Angelenos, those who are drawn to Los Angeles, compelled to stay, find themselves figuring out ways to adapt to what it the city is -- the broken dream or promise,  the "dingbat" apartment instead of the sprawling ranch-style home -- in other words,  the reality check, or better, the compromise.

Los Angeles, in its postcard moments -- the first hours after a storm has scrubbed the basin, or an aggressive but not violent Santa Ana gusts through -- flaunts its otherworldly moutains-to-the-sea beauty. But as most of us know, rarely does it look like this everyday. The Los Angeles that we come to love, hate, feel ambivalence about is something that goes deeper than what's at face.

For me, it's always been those small stories at the edges of the postcard, the things that get cropped away from the official picture that I "cling" to.  The stories that "commingle" as Davidson puts it, with the forward-rush of the city. As a reporter, I've always loved to talk to people about their dreams, their plans, their past, their goals, their disappointments, their joy, and how place has tied itself up in those stories. We fall in love with places we say, but really when we say that we mean that we've fallen in love with a confluence of things: a quality of a life -- some of which is the backdrop and the rhythms of a place, but much of which we've constructed through our choices.

 The "nature" of Los Angeles that Davidson speaks of and is documenting is a Los Angeles of persistence and resilience and adaptation.  But instead of it being  read as "survival of the fittest" it could be read as  the persistence of the imaginative.

Thank you all for being contemplative, imaginative Angelenos this semester and for bringing the more nuanced, complex story  of the city forward. Your persistence and imagination, will help to shape and shade the official story.

top photo: Bruce Davidson via The New Yorker
bottom photo: L.G.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Coordinates: Santa Monica Blvd and Formosa Ave

ON THE southeast corner of Santa Monica Boulevard and Formosa Ave there a neon green sign glows out of the darkness that surrounds.  This intersection is unusually dark for a Hollywood intersection, unusually vacant.  Quiet, even.  Or maybe I am just too fixated on the neon cursive the sad-looking reddish lobster painted awkwardly at it's side.  The nights is cold.  I am wearing a vintage coat by Dolce and Gabana and feeling very Los Angeles.

Underneath the Fromosa Café there is--very luckily--a vast parking lot, flourecently lit, mostly empty.  There are so many parking spots to choose from, it is almost eerie... like a mouth smiling without teeth.

At the front entrance, beneath a brown and white striped awning, I expect to be met my a door man, I expect a guest list or a reservation requirement or a secret password that I don't know.  But there are none of these barriers--I walk right in, unnoticed, and join the already-tipsy crowd beneath dim, rust-colored light.

The walls are painted a rich, maraschino red, and on them hang rows upon rows of black and white photographs--photographs of old Hollywood stars who once drank and dined within these very walls.  The whole place is a shrine for the creatures of talent who once roamed the streets, a nostalgic trip to a place of long lost charm.  There is almost a sadness about the cafe, as if mourning the loss of something remarkable that cannot be retrieved.  It makes me think of Joni Mitchel's lyric: "We can't return, we can only look behind from where we came and go round and round and round in the circle game." The Formosa Cafe seems to acknowledge this reality, taking great advantage of the fact that we CAN look back to where we came from (i.e the past) by showing us joy and melancholy in the black eyes of Marilyn Monroe...hoping that maybe her presence will stay with us if we plaster her photo enough places.

The original owner, Jimmy Bernstein, originally operated the Formosa Cafe out of a red car trolley in 1925! Because Jimmy originally set up shop directly next to the Samuel Goldwyn Studio, Hollywood's elite quickly took to it as a nightly hangout.  For generations, movie stars have been drawn to the Formosa Cafe despite its quirky, unremarkable set-up.  Although the Formosa does not look like it is bursting with money and fame, there is an inherent sense of glamour built into the walls, stitched into the is almost as if the essence of it's classy guests has lingered.  Either that or it was built already having a beacon of decadence and wonder.

The Formosa Cafe is filled with legends.  Humphrey Bogart and Clark Gable were known to dine and drink there on a regular basis.  Frank Sinatra hung around in the 1950s, supposedly watching Ava Gardner from afar, longing to have her.

Inside the cafe, as well as all over the internet, one can find a list of over 50 celebrity patrons ranging from the 1920s to 2012, that include everyone from Marlon Brando to Britney Spears.  What people do not talk about, however, is the equally strong history of drug dealing and prostitution, as the corner of Santa Monica and Formosa is not a particularly fancy one. In fact, prostitutes could be seen even during the day until 2004 when the West Hollywood Gateway shopping complex opened on the same block, ushering away the lower class.

Interesting, though, that for so long movie stars, drug dealers and prostitutes could coexist at the same corner bar.  For this reason, the Formosa Cafe is the ultimate Los Angeles spot, bringing all that is glittery and all that is filthy together in one city, all that is fortunate and all that is downtrodden, constantly blurring the lines between the two.

-- Zahra Lipson
photo via flickr creative commons

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Coordinates: 6671 Sunset Boulevard

LOCATED ON Sunset Boulevard and Las Palmas in Los Angeles, Cross Roads of the World is considered America's first outdoor shopping mall.  The mall features a central building designed to resemble an ocean liner surrounded by a small village of cottage style bungalows. According to the Cross Roads of the World website, it was designed by Robert V. Derrah and built in 1936.
       It was once a busy shopping center, the Crossroads now hosts private offices, primarily for the entertainment industry. It has been used for location shooting in many films, T.V. shows, and commercials.  According to the official website, a reproduction of Crossroads' iconic tower and spinning globe can be seen just inside the entrance to Disney's Hollywood Studios at Walt Disney World in Florida!

     Today, Cross Roads of the World is the creative home of a variety of "unique offices" and Eckankar, a new church that "promises a personal experience with God every day".  Some of the "unique offices" that I saw while exploring the Cross Roads were offices for music publishers and producers, television and film script writers, film and recording companies, novelists, costume designers, publicists and casting agencies.
     While the monument still stands the same as it did 76 years ago, everything else has changed around it.  The fact that it stood the test of time and has been preserved shows that not all aspects of Hollywood are easy to paint over and use as movie sets.  That there are certains things, perhaps "firsts" in Hollywood, that are seemingly off limits in terms of tearing down.  The pictures below demonstrate the contrast from 76 years ago to today.  If you look at the bottom layer of the original building it still is exactly the same, only a difference in the inhabitants and businesses, perhaps acting as a microcosm for Hollywood and its movie sets: the sets remain the same, but the movies and actors are constantly changing, trying to stay fresh and relevant.


Photo Credit:  Present day ones are mine
Old photo is from the official website

Hannah Carter Japanese Garden

Photo Credit: 
     OVER THE weekend I searched for some beautiful nature in Los Angeles, which is hard to come across in a city made of interweaving freeways and buildings. My search on the internet lead me to the Hannah Carter Japanese Garden located in Bel-Air. The garden's website says, "the Hannah Carter Japanese Garden is modeled on the gardens of Kyoto. The beautiful hillside garden was designed by noted Japanese garden designer Nagao Sakurai in 1959 and constructed between 1959 and 1961. It is recognized as one of the finest examples of Japanese gardens in Americas and was donated to the University of California in 1964." I fell in love with this place and the natural beauty before I could see it in person. The pictures I've seen on the internet look like they were actually taken in Japan. There is more green than I thought possible to find in Los Angeles. I could hardly wait to go to this garden and forget what city I was in and maybe even which country I was in.
Photo Credit: 
      Unfortunately, my internet search of this beautiful work of natural art also led me to the sad discovery that it is now closed to the public and its survival may be threatened. UCLA has decided to sell the garden "citing rising maintenance costs, deferred maintenance, and the lack of attendance due to limited parking" as their reason. UCLA is selling this priceless and iconic garden with no restrictions, so there is a chance it may fall into the hands of someone who will destroy it in order to make a profit. The Los Angeles times has even stated that UCLA has begun removing objects from the garden. The Hannah Carter Japanese Garden is possibly the most beautiful garden in Los Angeles, and we as Angelenos have the responsibility to ensure its survival. The following link has several ways, including an online petition, which we can help preserve this unique natural beauty amongst buildings, freeways, and traffic.
Photo Credit: Bluepupae via Flikr

Please visit if interested in signing the petition

-Nastassja Habers

D'Amore's Pizza - A Slice of Home

LOS ANGELES, more than a large percentage of other cities, has something to offer just about everyone. Naturally, this is one of the reasons why so many people still to this day choose the Southern California city as their choice of permanent residence. In my particular case, this was a slightly frustrating thing at first, but ended up turning into something great. I had just visited the Beverly Hills tapas restaurant, Son of a Gun, with my girlfriend and do to the small size and high prices of the food neither of us were as full as we wanted to be upon leaving. During our time at the restaurant, I had been eyeballing this pizza place across the street called D'Amore's. I had never heard of it before, but when I saw their pizza was supposed to be "Boston Style" I was inherently inclined to give it a shot. I had tried a number of supposed "East Coast style" and "New York style" pizzas during my time here and while some had been good enough to satisfy my craving none had really impressed me and reminded me of something I could order back home. This has long time been a complaint of East Coast transplants to the region, with many claiming the water used plays a factor into the taste of the pie.

I was excited to try D'Amore's in the hopes that they would prove me wrong, and show me it is possible to get a pizza up to my standards out West. I had a good feeling going in due to the specificity of "Boston" style, and my good feeling proved itself to be true after tasting the first bite. As soon as I took my first taste, my brain recognized everything instantly and I was assured that it was indeed the real deal. Everything about it was consistent with what I would qualify as a pizza done right. The dough was stretched thin but not too thin, the crust was cooked enough so that it was slightly crispy but not burnt, the sauce was distributed evenly and had a bit of a tangy zest to it, and the layer of mozzarella covered the sauce but was not an overpowering amount of cheese. All it took for me to become a convert was two slices, I have found my favorite pizza place in LA and my search is over. After checking out their website it seems as though they import the water they use for the pizza dough from Boston - so my question of whether it actually has something to do with the water still lies unresolved. To be honest though, as long as D'Amore's is still around I don't care what the magic is.

-- Derek Dellovo
photo: LA pizza blog

Manhattan Beach and Venice: Namesakes and coin tosses

I AM OFTEN struck by how vastly different Venice and Manhattan Beach are from their namesakes. The car-less maze of canals and bridges in Italy doesn’t seem much like Venice, Calif. And the laid-back, cute town of Manhattan Beach seems to have little in common with bustling New York City.

But delving into the history of each Los Angeles County town sheds light on the connection to their namesakes thousands of miles away.

According to the Manhattan Beach Historical Society’s website, the town was the result of two public transportation systems coming together. One area was named Manhattan by its developer, Stewart Merrill, after his hometown on the east coast.

Venice, as we learned in class, was developed by Abbot Kinney. Before it became the T-shirt vendor-lined muscle beach of today, it was a cultural city modeled after Venezia, complete with its own gondolas on man-made canals.

Interestingly, the history of both Manhattan and Venice involved a coin toss: To determine town’s name Merrill won his coin toss against realtor George Peck, who wanted to name it Shore Acres. According to the Venice Historical Society's website, Kinney won a coin toss to determine which half of the oceanfront land he would purchase. He surprised the four other developers by choosing the barren, marshy property that is now Venice.

We’ve discussed how Pasadena was shaped by the Midwest roots of the people who settled there: several groups of people traveling across the country to re-create their home elsewhere. But, as with Manhattan Beach and Venice, the vision of one developer can bring a piece of another city to L.A. too.

– Emily Rome
Top photo: Manhattan Beach (Credit: Mr Bulitt / Wikimedia Commons)
Bottom photo: Venice (Credit: SameerKhan / Wikimedia Commons)

Visiting LA

EARLIER THIS month one of my best friends from high school, Mariah, unexpectedly called me up to tell me “Hey, I’m in LA, when can I see you?” I was quite excited, but I am also not the most spontaneous person - my days that week were precisely planned with exactly what I needed to get done in order to prevent procrastination and excessive stress. So her and her friend, who had driven the entire way here, crashed on my couch for a few days. They had a car and everything, but they waited until Friday night to go out. They just hung out in my apartment, both when I was there and when I was in class. If I had driven so far, I would for sure be maximizing my time wherever I was. They had no idea how lucky they were! A free night on a weekday to explore? I would kill for that, and not just because Thursday night is the night all the celebrities come out - according to the paparazzi my friend Lauren and I had befriended one random Saturday night. 
When they did go out, they wanted to go to Hollywood and Highland. That’s the same place my other friend Lyndsay wanted to go when she visited. And then they wanted to eat at Saddle Ranch. They went to Venice, and the Santa Monica Pier. I’ve been to all these places - except Saddle Ranch - but I kept trying to tell her that there are so many other places in Los Angeles that are much cooler and more interesting. But they insisted, because it was Mariah’s first time here. Are we only allowed to find that out after we’ve visited all the touristy places? They’re not all LA has to offer, but maybe you come to the city and think you’re missing out if you don’t see all the stereotypical places for yourself. What they didn’t know was that, by only going to those places, they actually ended up missing out on a lot. But then again, maybe you have to experience the stereotype in order to be able to move beyond it. 
-- Allie Flinn
Photo Credit: from Flickr, taken by Shawn S. ParkVi