December 31, 2010 § Leave a comment
This aerial photograph shows Beachwood and the original Hollywood Sign, along with its searchlight–the dot below it. Taken around 1925, it shows a canyon in transition. While houses are plentiful in lower Beachwood, the Hollywoodland tract is still being built, with only a few houses visible. The roads have been cut and are the same roads we use today. Though not obvious, the network of retaining walls and steps are moving towards completion. Within four years, Southern California’s first hillside tract community will boast scores of new houses, its own country club and a distinct identity.
The biggest surprise in the photo is Burbank, stretching beyond Mt. Lee. Still largely farmland, it shows little sign of its future as a studio town and densely populated suburb.
The H to the left of the Hollywood Sign is not, as an English visitor assumed, a spare for the H in the Sign. It was placed on the hillside by Hollywood High School, and vanished long ago.
October 27, 2010 § 1 Comment
I met Anita Gordon soon after I moved to Beachwood Canyon in late 2005, on the street outside my house. Like me, she was walking her dog, so we spoke about dogs and the neighborhood, whose history she knew in great detail. More conversations followed, and we quickly became the sort of neighbors who would see each other frequently, but always by chance. Invitations to see my house were refused because our dogs complicated matters, but Anita was always available to chat and answer questions. It was she who first told me the Canyon’s name–so often misspelled “Beechwood”–came from its developer, Albert Beach, and that the Bronson Caves were actually tunnels excavated in the old Union Rock quarry so that trolleys could transport the granite out of the Canyon. Much of the stone traveled only as far as Hollywoodland, where it was used to build the Canyon’s massive retaining walls and staircases as well as the chimneys, garden walls and terraces of the new development’s houses. Anita also surmised that the Castillo del Lago-Wolf’s Lair trail was built as a continuation of Mulholland Highway, as evidenced by its paved portions, and then abandoned.
Naturally, Anita was the first person I asked to be an interviewee for “Under the Hollywood Sign.” Because she immediately agreed to participate, I gave her a choice of interview locations, and Anita chose the Bronson Caves. On a beautiful early November day, we trooped up into the remains of the quarry for a long chat about the Caves’ history, the Hollywood Sign, the significance of holly (both native and English) and, of course, the trails. A cardiac intensive care nurse at St. John’s, Anita overcame the stresses of her job by hiking in Bronson Canyon with her dog, Sadie. She particularly loved the quiet of the Caves, which she called “my cathedral.”
After several months of shooting, I put an early preview of the documentary on YouTube that prominently featured Anita’s interview. She seemed pleased when I told her, but not particularly eager to see it. Because Anita didn’t use a computer, I offered to show it to her; still, she demurred. Meanwhile, I kept going on the documentary, eventually amassing more than 40 hours of footage. I made a short black-and-white re-enactment of Peg Entwistle’s last hour, which I turned into a short silent film and put on YouTube. I interviewed 34 others and did a helicopter shot of the Sign and the surrounding area. And I kept writing and researching, until the little neighborhood documentary I’d set out to make grew into a 2 1/2-year project, on which I worked seven days a week.
Whether Anita ever saw any of it, I’m not sure. Though I’m told she was proud of her interview, watching it obviously was beside the point. Anita never saw the finished documentary, either: she died unexpectedly in October of 2008, less than three months before I screened the first cut for neighbors, crew, family and friends. There was a memorial service in the Village and another on Larchmont, where her various circles–Beachwood, St. John’s and family–came together for the first–and last–time.
Anita was much mourned; she still is. Two years later, I regularly have to remind myself there’s no chance I’ll run into her outside my front gate, and that we won’t talk about Beachwood, or anything else, ever again.
October 18, 2010 § 3 Comments
Until houses were built over them, there were five springs in Beachwood Canyon, an unusual amount of water for such a small, arid area. Because of them, the Canyon once teemed with wildlife. The springs drew deer, raccoons, skunks and possums; there also were foxes that disappeared as the human population grew denser.
Following in their footsteps are Beachwood’s deer, victims of a shrinking habitat, speeding cars and, in at least one incident, illegal hunting. Not long ago, deer were as common here as coyotes. A friend who lived here in the early 90’s told me her neighbors left their garage door open when they went out to dinner one night and came back to find a deer inside. Another neighbor was startled by a buck running through the Village one morning. Though I’ve seen deer on Ledgewood, Mulholland Highway and Canyon Lake Drive, in the past two years I’ve seen none.
When I moved to the neighborhood in the fall of 2005, I was enchanted by the owls I heard hooting in the tree across the street. There were two that would call to each other late at night, one low-pitched and the other high-pitched. When I was editing “Under the Hollywood Sign” and wanted to record their sounds, however, the owls were conspicuously absent. I had heard one in Bronson Canyon and hiked up into the quarry to record it, but by the time I set up the equipment and turned it on, the owl had stopped calling. All I captured was the cawing of crows.
Though I didn’t know it that first year, owls only come to my part of Beachwood in the fall. For the last couple of years, I’ve heard only one, but recently a pair have taken up residence in my neighbor’s tree. Their high-low duet lulls me to sleep at night. (Here’s a link to a similar call: http://www.owlpages.com/sounds/Athene-cunicularia-2.mp3)
That same neighbor recently discovered an unusual visitor in his garden: a tortoise that landed upside down in a flower pot during the first rains of the season. He righted the tortoise, took this picture and sent it on its way.
September 29, 2010 § 1 Comment
The thing about up here was that it didn’t feel like I was in the city anymore….I felt like I was in a national park, in the middle of some great wilderness. –Artist Jesse Vital, in “Under the Hollywood Sign”
On Monday at 12:15pm, the temperature in downtown Los Angeles reached 113 degrees, the highest of any day since record-keeping began in 1877. Here in Beachwood, always slightly cooler because of its higher elevation, the temperature reached 110. In my house, the air conditioner was unable to cool the upstairs below 91 degrees; downstairs, where I work, the atmosphere was somewhat better, around 85 degrees. Though I kept my dog and bird indoors rather than expose them to stroke-inducing heat, I ventured out in my much cooler car to run a few cross-town errands. Traffic was nonexistent due to the temperature, and I got home in record time.
As night fell and temperatures dropped to bearable levels, I gave up on air conditioning and threw open the windows. Helicopters circled overhead, and as the evening wore on I began to wonder if a fire had broken out in Griffith Park. Eventually came word that the helicopters were assisting in a search for a lost hiker. Besides thinking it was the worst possible day for hiking, I wasn’t surprised: hiking accidents are an occasional occurrence in the Park.
It wasn’t until yesterday morning that I learned the hiker was found dead in a ravine in Bronson Canyon, just east of Beachwood. She was Sally Menke, 56, an editor best known for her work on the films of Quentin Tarantino. Despite the heat, she had begun hiking that morning with her dog and a friend, carrying only 16 ounces of water. When Menke decided to cut the hike short, her friend went on without her. It wasn’t until hours later than anyone realized she was missing.
Search-and-rescue teams found Menke’s body just after 2am. Her dog–who miraculously survived–was standing guard.
It’s hard to convey the vastness and wildness of Griffith Park to those whose idea of a park is Central Park or some other man-made green zone. Its size–over 4,200 acres–not only makes it the largest municipal park in the United States but gives it more in common with a county or state park. As the Park’s website makes clear, it is largely wilderness and contains not only deer and coyotes but bobcats and mountain lions.
Its 52 miles of trails are a huge civic resource, allowing residents to enter the natural world without leaving the city. Nevertheless, hikers often underestimate the trails’ dramatically varied elevations and levels of difficulty. In Bronson Canyon, the trail begins easily but becomes increasingly steep and narrow as hikers approach the Hollywood Sign. This isn’t the first time someone has gotten into trouble there. A couple of years ago, helicopters were called in for a pair of hikers, one of whom was injured and needed rescue.
In the wake of this tragedy, one can only hope that hikers will take better precautions in Griffith Park, carrying adequate water and knowing their limits. I know all too well the urge to go hiking on the spur of the moment: because the trails are close by and hiking is commonplace, it’s hard to see it as a risky activity. But everyone, regardless of ability, should understand the dangers of hiking in extreme heat.