The essence of Los Angeles is not easily expressed, but that has not kept everyone from essayists to auteurs to muralists from trying to capture it. Perhaps this is part of the eternal allure of the city: the fact that it can neither be easily described, nor readily dismissed. The upside to all of this is that we are now the inheritors of some magnificent works that, while failing to capture the city in full, continue to add definition to the Angeleno Mosaic.
Music, as we have suggested here before, is a part of that mosaic, and a serious effort has begun to revive and rejuvenate some of the earliest efforts to capture Los Angeles in song. The Library Foundation of Los Angeles, the Los Angeles Public Library, and USC professor Josh Kun have collaborated in a project to select some of those early tunes and provide a modern interpretation. More than just covers, these are thoroughly modern renditions of almost forgotten tunes that give them a modern feel.
The songs are available for free download in a link from this story. I will not critique the music – I leave that to better tuned ears. What appeals to me about each of these tunes, though, is that their ability to transcend time also suggests something timeless about Los Angeles. I recognize that this thought will stick in the craw of a lot of people: the suggestion that there are timeless elements to American cities less than three centuries old – much less one whose maturity is of a far more recent vintage – is probably a joke to a denizen of London, Paris, Rome, Jerusalem, or Beijing.
But this music is guaranteed to touch something deep inside any Greater Angeleno, local-born or immigrant. There are themes, feelings, ideas in all of these that resonate to us today in a way that they did to locals eighty or more years ago, and that certainly still enchant those among us who live far away yet are still, somehow, Angelenos.
San Diego has long since outgrown its characterization as a “sleepy Navy town on the Mexican border.” We’re planning on doing a deep-dive on the history, architecture, and art of the place later this year in order to help secure its place as a cultural center of consequence, but we wanted to start by looking at some of the best portrayals of San Diego in film.
It is unfortunately not surprising that San Diego has not had many Hollywood Moments worth remembering. Plenty of films have used San Diego locations, often as stand-ins for elsewhere, but few have probed the culture of the city itself, leaving us with the sense of the city as a distinct character.
Almost Famous gets us closer. The San Diego Sports Arena parking lot is there, as is that distinctive view from USD High School and scenes in Balboa Park. Even when Crowe shoots in Santa Monica, it feels like a neighborhood in San Diego, and you can feel the city starting to peek out from behind the actors. But then, all too soon, William is off to Los Angeles, then points beyond, and we lose our chance to get to know the city.
The closest I think we have come to a true San Diego film since 1915’s Fatty and Mabel at the San Diego Expositionis probably Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy. Yes, it’s a goofball comedy, but San Diego is a deliberate character, not just a backdrop. This is California at its California-est, from the parties, to the leisure suit-clad news teams, to the lifestyle, to the two-pound burrito Ron throws out his window. Is much of this caricature? Of course. Yet through it all comes the personality of a city that sits on the far corner of the continent, cut off from the rest of the nation by desert, mountains, and Marines, that uses its isolation as license to find its own identity. And if that isn’t the real nature of San Diego, I’d be glad to know what is.
I keep hoping that Anchorman will drop into the minds of both filmmakers and the rest of America that the city on America’s lower left-hand corner hides stories, beauty, and real character behind the facade of the Navy town on the border. Then, maybe, we can look forward to films that show the city that all of us who have lived there fell in love with, and that we never seem to be able to leave.
After reading our note pointing to Shawn Clover’s haunting composite photographs melding image post-1906 earthquake and fireSan Francisco with modern photos, Golden West Review subscriber and graphic artist Bonnie Blacklidge took it up a level by showing us some stunning videos.
The first is a video from a San Francisco streetcar driving down Market Street toward the Ferry Building in 1905, set to Airs’ superb first track off of their with Air’s superb first track off their album Moon Safari, “La Femme d’argent” by cleverb. Nicely done, and mesmerizing.
Once done with that, take a look at a video that juxtaposes what appears to be the same scenes along Market Street with footage taken just days after the 1906 quake, posted by producer John Jones. The music is suitably haunting, almost a dirge, that like the Clover photos makes the 1906 quake much more immediate and personal.
Check out the photos, then watch these two videos in sequence. As a group they make an event of a century ago more powerful, more personal, and much more profound.
Finally, I am pleased to let you know that Mr. Clover is working on a book of his photos with appropriate narrative called Fade to 1906: The Great Quake Meets Modern San Francisco. It doesn’t seem to be available yet, but you can leave an email address to be notified when it will be available for purchase.
I grew up enamored with the idea of being a firefighter, inspired by the January 1972 premiere of NBC’sEmergency! I was pretty open about my ambitions for a few years, even attempting to organize my own grade-school version of a volunteer fire department. My parents fretted about my obsession, though, and the fact that it took away from my concentration at school. Worse, perhaps, was that my interest became decidely uncool before I was ten, and given my persistent geeky social awkwardness I needed as few factors as possible working against me. I remained an avid fire buff throughout my teens, but I kept it under wraps.
Then, at seventeen, my firefighter fantasies seemed poised to come true. Working for the summer of 1982 on the rural west end of Catalina Island, I was sitting down for lunch on July 3rd when the fire siren wailed. Looking up to see a growing pall of smoke from the dry hillsides next to Catalina Harbor a scant two miles away. I rushed back to work only to be hurriedly herded with a handful of other locals into the back of the sheriff deputy’s Bronco, then deposited alone, clueless and tool-less minutes later along a road between the fire and the tiny community at the Isthmus.
At that moment, alone on a hillside, a hundred yards from the next nearest person, without a shovel, protective gear, leadership, or training, with a wind-blown fire a mile away and moving in my direction, I engaged in the kind of struggle experienced only by teenaged boys. Hero Complex urged me to “hold the line” against the fire, using my shirt to fight it if I had to. Hero Complex was quickly overruled, however, by the power-team of Common Sense and Fear: “what can I do by myself with no tools?” asked Common Sense. “Let’s get the f*** out of here before we burn and die,” urged Fear.
Down the hill I went, alone as I came up, hating myself every step of the way, even after I saw that the fire chief had decided to set up a perimeter around the structures in the direct path of the fire, leaving to burn the brush I was sent to defend. I spent the rest of the night as spectator and support, never quite forgiving myself for not making the stand, but knowing (hoping?) that somehow I had done the right thing.
Apart from earthquakes, there are probably few things that scare the hell out of your average Californian more than a wildfire. From afar, they are horrifying in an intellectual kind of way. Put yourself in the path of an advancing wall of uncontrolled flame, though, and suddenly something inside your lizard brain starts squeezing your adrenal glands until every cell in your body tries to flee of its own accord.
And well it should. Fighting fires of any kind is not for wannabees. The chemical nexus of heat, fuel, and oxygen is more than just a simple reaction. The best description I have ever heard was Robert DeNiro‘s line as fire marshal Donald ‘Shadow’ Rimgale in Ron Howard’s Backdraft.
“It’s a living thing, Brian. It breathes, it eats, and it hates. The only way to beat it is to think like it. To know that this flame will spread this way across the door and up across the ceiling, not because of the physics of flammable liquids, but because it wants to. Some guys on this job, the fire owns them, makes ’em fight it on it’s level, but the only way to truly kill it is to love it a little.”
Your average professional firefighter has the equivalent of a university education on the science of fire suppression. The National Fire Protection Association suggests a minimum of 110 hours, or three weeks, of intensive training before a physically-fit volunteer firefighter is allowed to join a department, and most departments lay heavy demands for continued on-the-job training for minimum competence.
Yet every year, the roll-call of firefighters killed in the line of duty grows. Fire, that fickle witch, claims for her own even the best trained and most experienced. And the most wicked, unpredictable, terrifying kind of fire is the wildland conflagration, when brush, bush, and entire forests play host to howling walls of burning terror.
Despite the danger, every fire season, over four thousand felons voluntarily place their bodies between those walls of flame and our homes in the state of California. Somehow these convicted felons overcome whatever character flaws they possess and step into some of the most grueling and dangerous work in America.
It is a great untold story of heroism in the Golden West, and James Pogue set out with camping gear, notebooks, and tape recorder in his pickup truck to learn more about California’s convict conservationists. What he describes is at once heartening and unsettling. Most of the convicts come from urban backgrounds, yet they live for weeks, even months, in the rough conditions of a tent camp, away from anything resembling modern conveniences. It’s a hard life: twelve- and even twenty-hour days spent hiking in rough back-country with heavy tools and wearing heavy kit, engaged in the backbreaking and fraught work of cutting fire breaks and setting backfires just ahead of the firestorm.
A sleeping bag and physically draining days clearly beat the scant attractions of life on a cell block in California’s overfull prisons. Having an extra day taken off one’s sentence for each day served on a crew doesn’t hurt, either. The price for release from the perdition of concrete, barbed wire, and brutal social Darwinism is a life facing the embers and flames of California wildfires. Better flaming Hell than seething perdition, it would seem. And on that bitter choice balances the safety of an entire state built on what firefighters call the “wildland interface.” Even a law-and-order conservative with an ounce or two of compassion is troubled by the fact that our lifestyles are ensured in part through the risks taken by men we have all but cast off.
Pogue’s story doesn’t ask us to sympathize with the devil, nor does he imply that these men have anyone but themselves to blame for their predicament. Indeed, given a full-to-bursting penal system that seems bent on cultivating recidivists, a life eating smoke and cutting fire breaks seems to be the closest thing California prisons offers to genuine rehabilitation.
But after reading the story, you will never look at a forest, a prison, a home on a hillside, or a California Department of Forestry truck the same way ever again.
And if you have ever met the orange-yellow monster of a wildfire face-to-face, with your life and your loved ones at your back, you might even be driven to whisper a quiet thanks to a weary band of convicts with shovels and hard-hats.
The Sainte Claire, perhaps the least well-known among the grand hotels of the Golden State, still adds a touch of grace to downtown San Jose. Designed by the storied San Francisco architectural firm Weeks & Day, the hexagonal building reflects in its flavor and styling the more storied Mark Hopkins and St. Francis hotels at the top of the peninsula.
The Sainte Claire was once considered the most elegant accommodation between San Francisco and Los Angeles. Thanks to the ongoing efforts of its owners, the building’s interiors and exteriors still reflect the original vision of the designers, but there is no slavish devotion to nostalgia here. The owners have managed to walk that fine line between history and modernity, preserving the original when possible, updating when necessary and proper.
The result is a delight, especially for travelers who find that the dependable sameness of chain hotels, like the quite excellent San Jose Marriott across the street, has become wearisome.
Despite the inevitable hoots of derision from architectural purists, California is a haven of outstanding architecture. Lost among the strip malls and tract houses are countless examples of everything from subtle brilliance to outlandish provocation, not to mention pure gems of American history.
Los Angeles is no exception, with grand masters like Richard Neutra, Ray Kappe, Victor Gruen, Frank Gehry, George Wyman, and their like dotting the landscape with masterpieces and curiosities. What is too often forgotten, though, is that Los Angeles was also the garden for an early crop of America’s finest non-Anglo architects.
I was fortunate to grow up in a house designed by Paul Williams, who aside from being admitted as the first African-American architect to the American Institute of Architects in 1923, was the co-designer of the LAX Theme building, the first AME Church, the L.A. County Courthouse, the County’s Hahn Hall of Administration, and over a dozen buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places. That the height of his career preceded the Civil Rights movement is, I believe, testament to both Williams as a man and to California as his base.
Gilmartin and Uyeda also highlight four outstanding Los Angeles-based Chinese-American architects who were Williams’ contemporaries and who left their mark on the city and on mid-century American architecture. Gin Wong co-designed the LAX Theme building with Paul Williams. Gilbert Leong and Eugene Choy built a profitable niche designing homes and workplaces for Los Angeles’ increasingly prosperous Chinese-American population. And Helen Liu Fong was at the core of architects in the Googie movement, a 1950s update of the Streamline Moderne of the 1930s that, though once passe, has become a core part of the Southern California design language. (If you are looking for the quintessential Googie look, think of the original Tomorrowland at Disneyland, or Ship’s Coffee Shop.)
If there is one lesson to be taken from all of these greats, it is this: architecture in Los Angeles has been – and remains – about testing limits, be they aesthetic, ethnic, or seismic. For those reasons, expect the parade of thought-provoking design to continue, and expect it to come from the most unexpected places.
Articles, books, songs, and movies that chronicle the California love affair with the automobile are legion, to the point where you almost cannot make a movie about the Golden State without featuring an automobile in a supporting role, or as a character statement no less essential than wardrobe. In 48 hrs., Nick Nolte’s nostalgic Cadillac Coupe de Ville ragtop contrasted brilliantly with smooth-talking Eddie Murphy’s classic Porsche roadster. In L.A. Story, Steve Martin’s Oldsmobile Cutlass said as much about the character of weatherman Harris Telemacher as his cardigan sweaters. And speaking of the Porsche, two words: The Graduate.
What we never hear enough about, however, is the geography of the California car culture: the roads. Randy Newman got as close as anyone has ever come to giving tribute to how streets in Southern California become shorthand for distinct neighborhoods, unique experiences, and ways of life in his excellent 1984 song “I Love L.A.” But beyond a few paeans like this (Freddy Martin’s 1947 ditty “Pico and Sepulveda” also jumps to mind), nobody has every really captured the role of Los Angeles’ streets, especially not in a scholarly sense.
Enter Matthew Roth.
Roth, who managed the archives at the Automobile Club of Southern California while a Ph.D. candidate at USC, has written extensively on why and how the streets of Los Angeles exist, and has come as close to penetrating why the city lays out like it does, and thus feels like it does. This was no simple task: unlike New York, which grew according to the survey plan created by Simon De Witt in 1811, Los Angeles was the little town that never expected to get quite so large. As such, the city’s geographic provenance is much more chaotic – and much more interesting.
Roth understands like nobody else that something beyond logic or romance drove the creation of the Southland’s grid of streets. But the human geography of the city and its environs is more than a curiosity: it is a glimpse into the forces that shaped and continue to shape the evolution of California.
In his short but superb and highly readable paper “Mulholland Highway and the Engineering Culture of Los Angeles in the 1920s,” Roth shows us that at least one of L.A.’s most famous streets was created for no better reason than to prove it could be done. Sure, developers and politicans were able to justify the sinuous ridge route that runs from Cahuenga Pass to Calabasas (and sort of continuing on to Leo Carrillo State Beach in Malibu) by selling the taxpayers on its value for tourism and development. But at its heart, it was a publicly-funded civil engineering experiment. The public rationale came later.
So it was built. There was a massive rush of cars on its first day, and the traffic continues everywhere except for the spotty bits between Calabasas and the Pacific. Yet for much of its history it has been most useful as a fire road in fighting the seasonal conflagrations that make living in the Santa Monica mountains so interesting, and as a lateral shortcut between the canyon roads linking the Valley and the basin. (“Coldwater is jammed, so cut across to Laurel or Beverly Glen.”)
But Roth, perhaps unintentionally, challenges us to forget the practical and to see Mulholland Highway through the eyes of the Progressive-era city engineers who designed and built it. It was a “massive reordering of the natural environment” not unlike the Owens Valley Aqueduct, the Port of Los Angeles, and the Ridge Route, all of which changed both the character and the prospects of the city. Yet with the Mulholland Highway, there was something more emotional to the project.
The highway accorded with the engineers’ sense of beauty in the landscape, an aspect of engineering that historian David Nye has described as the “technological sublime.” Its construction engineer, Dewitt Reaburn, described one aspect of this aesthetic when he extolled the vantage points that the road would afford: “In driving over the completed portion of the highway, one is charmed and amazed at the wonderful view of the surrounding country, which is continually changing as the vision sweeps from one side of the summit to the other.
Some are charmed. Some are offended by the man-made scar sliced along the backbone of Los Angeles’ central cordillera, our defiantly natural answer to the manufactured parks of London, New York, Washington, and Beijing. All too many of us block it out of our minds as just another part of the daily commute.
Even a casual visitor, though, can see and appreciate that evolving vista, and the road’s designers and their successors have wisely bequeathed us with turn-outs and vista points, surely averting what might otherwise be a surfeit of deaths-by-rubbernecking. One of those stops, perched above a section of Encino, became the location of the unforgettable flying skateboarder sequence in the video of Tom Petty’s “Free Falling.” The broad expanse of the Valley splays out below, a woven tapestry of nature and architecture, marinated in sunshine, and hiding in plain sight a contained world of human dramas. We fly above it to escape it, yet find ourselves inevitably drawn back down.
And that is the true allure of the Mulholland Highway. This is not a road that offers you a transcendental experience, but a brief escape from the life below, a chance to withdraw for a moment from the fast, the crazy, the bullshit, the aches, the dreams; and then, when balance returns, to answer the beckoning call of the life below, choose your point of re-entry, and descend, renewed again, to the city.
Roth offers hard, almost academic record of a project, not the maudlin musings of a songster or the triumphalism of a booster. Yet through his short social history of a simple strip of blacktop carved into sandstone, we are introduced to a truism forgotten in an era where the vocabulary of commerce intrudes into every facet of public life:
Not every feature of our human geography, not every effort to lay the hand of man upon the land or sea, needs to be firmly rooted in rationality and return-on-investment. One need only look across the expanse of California to see that the manmade aspects of the Golden West that have made living here such a delight were those born of a touch of frivolity, of inspiration, and of artistic magic.
I had spent my youth commuting to school across Mulholland Drive, and I had heard the stories about the man who made the San Fernando Valley bloom. More recently, I watched Roman Polanski‘s brilliant Chinatown and L.A. Confidential. My ignorance of the history of California suddenly felt like a missing tooth. When I discovered Rivers in the Desert, I decided it was time to rectify the situation.
I could not have picked a better book with which to begin my journey into California’s past. In this deeply research and passionately written story, the granddaughter of William Mulholland builds a case for the rehabilitation of the memory of “The Chief,” the engineer who made a desert bloom.
Whether Davis saves her grandfather from ignominy or not probably depends on how much you have read about the man, your opinions of what he did, and whether you live in Northern or Southern California. What she does accomplish, though, is perhaps more valuable. She brings to life the scale and difficulty of bringing water from the Sierra Nevadas to California, and in the process she makes a legend into a man again. Her accounts of engineering challenges are as engrossing as her exploration of the tortured soul of a man who, after accomplishing so much, must go the the grave with the souls of over 500 innocents on on his conscience.
Davis pulls no punches in her account of the fateful night when the St. Francis Dam failed and turned the Santa Clarita Valley from Saugus to the sea into an inundated charnel house. The account makes Mulholland’s subsequent decline more immediate and real. And yet somehow, I finished the book almost asking out loud “is that it? Is that how we shall ever remember the man who enabled so much?”
William Mulholland was no saint. But I challenge you to finish this book and not believe that he deserves a place in that pantheon of men and women who made California possible. Warts and all.