March 27, 2018 § 2 Comments
Last week’s rains transformed the narrow channel that confines the LA River into something that actually looked like a river, albeit an ugly one hemmed in by high concrete walls. Staring at it from the windows of my gym, a fellow member said, “I keep expecting to see a body going by.” We’d already seen tree branches and plastic bottles in the fast-moving water, so anything seemed plausible.
I moved to Los Angeles in 1989, and throughout my years here I’ve been hearing about plans to restore the LA River into a more natural body of water. To date, one can only access the river in small sections: at the Sepulveda Basin and the Glendale Narrows near Dodger Stadium, and in Frogtown. Burbank is another area slated for restoration, but so far it hasn’t happened.
The main problem with the LA River is that it’s not really a river. It’s an arroyo, running dry in the summer and dramatically coming to life in the rainy season. (Los Angeles is unique among the world’s major cities in lacking a navigable river or deep water harbor; only Brasilia, with its artificial lake, compares, but it’s a master-planned city founded in 1960.) Before the LA River was channelled it regularly flooded, causing fatalities and property losses. After the devastating flood of 1938, the Army Corps of Engineers concreted it almost completely, putting an end to flooding but creating a massive eyesore.
Given our desert climate, Los Angeles will never have an unchanneled river. But even channeled rivers can be beautified and improved. I grew up in western Tokyo, on a hill above Meguro River, which in those days was less a river than a dank urban waterway filled with garbage. Whenever our car crossed its bridge, an ominous thunk made me imagine the horror of falling in. Then, around the time my family left Japan in the 70’s, the river was cleaned up by the city. Cherry trees were planted along the banks and walking paths were built on both sides. As the trees grew, new apartment houses sprang up on both sides of the river. The neighborhood became chic.
I had all but forgotten about the Meguro River’s existence, so I never saw its transformation. Then in March of 2013, I arrived in Tokyo and was told by a friend to hurry and see the cherry trees there. An unexpected hot spell had forced an early bloom that year, and the trees alongside the river were already past their prime. It was also raining that day, but no matter: the experience was magical. Festive lanterns lined the riverbanks, and the fencing was low enough to allow picture-taking. The pathways were carpeted in petals, and as I walked blossoms fell with the rain. Though the Meguro River was still channeled, the sweeping branches of the cherry trees detracted from the concrete, giving it a more natural appearance. Why can’t the LA River be like this?, I wondered. I still do.
April 2, 2015 § Leave a comment
During the 1990’s, I was a board member of the Junior Arts Center (now Barnsdall Arts), an organization formed to provide art education to Los Angeles children after art classes were all but dropped from the LAUSD curriculum in the 70’s. At the JAC, all classes were taught by working artists and, because we raised money to pay them, fees were kept low. The children produced very good work that we tried to reward, holding an annual exhibition in Barnsdall Park and giving prizes. To raise awareness of children’s art, we partnered with one of the billboard companies on a project called “Imagine a Great City.” Children entered drawings on the theme of Los Angeles, and the winners were displayed on billboards during February, a slow month in the industry. The program ran for a few years in the early 90’s. Despite the ubiquity of the downtown skyline, LAPD helicopters and palm trees in many of the submissions, it was a success.
“Imagine a Great City” came back to me when I was given a copy of Gabriel Kahane’s new Los Angeles-themed album, “The Ambassador.” Kahane is a classically trained composer and virtuoso musician, but his music contains rock, soul, blues and Broadway references. His lyrics are equally beautiful and complex, as poetic as any by Joni Mitchell.
Each song on “The Ambassador” concerns a Los Angeles building, either commercial or residential or, in the case of the “Mildred Pierce”-themed “Veda,” imaginary, and through these addresses Kahane tells the story of modern Los Angeles. Kahane’s subject matter includes modernist architecture (“Villains”), “Blade Runner” (“Bradbury”), the novels of Raymond Chandler (“Musso and Frank”), and Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination (“Ambassador Hotel). In the album’s most ambitious composition, “Empire Liquor Mart,” Kahane tells the life story of 15-year-old Latasha Harlins, whose 1991 murder at the hands of Korean store owner Soon Da Ju was a catalyst for the 1992 riots. He begins with the shooting, from Harlins’ point of view:
The lady in the fishing vest
Has dropped the gun
Who wears a fishing vest
When they’re working at a liquor store?
I float up to the corner
Just above the ice cream And the frozen food.
I perch beside the surveillance
He then traces the Harlins family’s move west from St. Louis, revealing the devastating loss of Latasha’s mother and uncle in separate shootings, before returning to Harlins’ murder.
Nobody reads from the Book of Job
At the church where me and my grandma go.
Nobody sees the trouble I know
But I know that trouble’s gonna find me.
So when I say that my un-
timely death was
What I mean is
That these tragedies
Are a kind of family tradition.
The album concludes with another masterpiece, “Union Station,” which considers manifest destiny, apocalypse and the tragedy of leaving LA:
When the pilasters slplit to admit the sea,
The hands of the clock will be covered in verdigris
I’ll swim to the train and I’ll find my seat
And hazard a smile at anyone who looks at me.
When the Alkali flats with their cracks pass by,
Think of the color wheel, think of the Western sky:
Distant city with a distant glow,
The hall of the lost has let me go.
This is songwriting of the highest order, incisive and deeply felt. The fact Kahane doesn’t even live here (although born in Los Angeles, he grew up in Northern California and lives in New York) says something too: that the tired La-la Land cliches have finally fallen away. Gabriel Kahane is appearing tonight at the Fonda, opening for the Punch Brothers, and I’m looking forward to his performance.
June 25, 2014 § Leave a comment
I spent the last week in New York, on a much-needed break from Los Angeles in general and Beachwood Canyon in particular. Or so I thought. On Day 1, riding the subway downtown, I found myself sitting next to a young woman having a cell phone conversation about her teaching job in Culver City. Later that same day, I sat in a Chinatown restaurant listening to three twenty-somethings discussing Burning Man and Coachella. It was as if Los Angeles had followed me to New York. But my biggest LA moment was deliberate: having learned of a new Ed Ruscha commission on the High Line, I hoofed it over to West Chelsea for a look. Entering the park at W. 23rd Street, I initially walked by the work because of its size: I didn’t realize it took up the entire side of a building. A word painting on a hot pink background, it reads, “Honey, I Twisted Through More Damn Traffic Today”–an LA sentiment if ever there was one. It was appreciated by a crowd of passersby as well as a steady audience on the bleacher-like seating across from it.
Although today Ed Ruscha is an international star whose work can be seen in museums and collections worldwide, when I first became a fan of his work, in the early 90s, he was still considered a “California artist” by the New York art world, relegated by geography to a secondary tier. (Disclosure: I met him briefly during that time, along with Billy Al Bengston, though only I would remember.) The fact that his most famous paintings, including “Twentysix Gasoline Stations” and “Norm’s, La Cienega, On Fire,” depict Los Angeles didn’t ingratiate him with New York critics. Nor did the fact that he never lived in New York, having come directly to Los Angeles from his native Nebraska to attend what is now CalArts. (Born in 1937, Ruscha is probably unique among his Pop Art contemporaries in bypassing the NYC rite of passage.) His word paintings, “Another One of them Bikini and Chainsaw Movies” and “Another Hollywood Dream Bubble Popped,” don’t exactly bring to mind Manhattan. Neither does his famous photography collection, “Every Building on the Sunset Strip.”
But instead of attempting a shift in subject matter, as another artist might have, Ruscha continued along his chosen path, creating images of the Hollywood Sign, palm trees and LACMA. (His iconic “The Los Angeles County Museum on Fire” is owned–in a delicious bit of irony–by the Hirshorn Museum in Washington, D.C.) As an artist Ruscha has always been his own man, resolute in his methods and subject matter. But along the way something interesting happened: the New York art world embraced him, and on his terms. His work was prominently displayed in the 2012 Met show “Regarding Warhol: Sixty Artists, Fifty Years,” a blockbuster that probably influenced the High Line commission. Now a blue chip artist with a worldwide following, Ruscha hardly needs my promotion. But the High Line painting will be up until May, 2015 and is well worth a visit.
February 4, 2014 § Leave a comment
The year before last, I wrote a couple of pieces about New York and Los Angeles and their shifting fortunes as artistic capitals:
Today I read an essay by Moby that beautifully describes the mutability and wildness of Los Angeles as well as its artistic ferment. About his reasons for moving here from New York, he writes:
There’s a sense that New Yorkers never fail, but if they do, they’re exorcised from memory, kind of like Trotsky in early pictures of the Soviet Communist Politburo. In New York you can be easily overwhelmed by how much success everyone else seems to be having, whereas in L.A., everybody publicly fails at some point—even the most successful people. A writer’s screenplay may be turned into a major movie, but there’s a good chance her next five screenplays won’t even get picked up. An actor may star in acclaimed films for two years, then go a decade without work. A musician who has sold well might put out a complete failure of a record—then bounce back with the next one. Experimentation and a grudging familiarity with occasional failure are part of L.A.’s ethos.
Maybe I’m romanticizing failure, but when it’s shared, it can be emancipating and even create solidarity.
The full essay can be seen here:
September 4, 2013 § Leave a comment
Despite having attained the age of 232, Los Angeles is still perceived as a “young” city, insufficiently historical and urban. Yet it is considerably older than Chicago (1883), America’s third-largest metropolis, a city that hasn’t been called young since Carl Sandburg’s time.
The subtext of “young” Los Angeles is that its Native American and Spanish (i.e., Mexican) periods somehow don’t count. To those who believe this, the City of Los Angeles began in 1847. But by that measure, the French origins of St. Louis (1764) would be discounted, as would the Dutch origins of New York (1625).
It’s time to realize that not all cities in the United States are modeled after European ones, or want to be. Los Angeles, the largest non-European city in the United States, reflects the New World in its architecture and Asia and Latin America in its vibrant, polyglot culture. Perhaps the 21st century will give it the respect it deserves.
April 2, 2012 § 1 Comment
Once we were here, I noticed no one in Los Angeles ever said anything bad about people who did the reverse. Leaving Los Angeles for San Francisco invariably brought congratulations and positive statements. I love the Bay Area! was the general theme. Clearly, these attitudes had to do with the historic rivalry between the two cities, but also with the fact that Los Angeles–having surpassed San Francisco economically–was on its way to usurping San Francisco’s position as the state’s cultural capital. Los Angeles-bashing only underscored San Francisco’s provincialism, but no one in either city seemed to mind.
More surprising–and disheartening–were the comments Angelenos made about their own city. Los Angeles circa 1990 was thought of almost entirely in negative terms by people who ostensibly had moved here without duress. The city was polluted, expensive, traffic-filled and stressful. There was too much going on, or not enough going on, depending on whether you were talking about culture or sports. Having grown up in Tokyo, which at the time was far more polluted, crowded, traffic-filled and stressful than LA, and yet was universally considered an enviable place to live, I found it odd. The only thing people in Los Angeles didn’t complain about was the weather–unless of course it was raining. (An English friend of mine used to say the winter rains here were the most depressing she had experienced in her life. “But you’re from London,” I said, at which point she embarked on a comparison between the lovely soft English rain and the cold, pelting Los Angeles rain. I’m not kidding.)
But in 1990, something good happened: the air quality improved noticeably. The apparent reason was the closing of the last auto plant in LA, which ended 50 years of ill-advised heavy manufacturing in the Los Angeles Basin, an area the Tongva Indians used to call The Valley of the Smokes, which perhaps was the original local put-down. In any case, smoggy summers soon gave way to blue skies, and in winter the views of the San Gabriels were stunning. Nevertheless, the civic mood hardly had time to improve before the Rodney King beating (March ’91) and subsequent riots (May ’92) made Los Angeles the most reviled major city in the country. At the time of the riots, I was living in Hancock Park, in a house that lay 6 blocks from multiple fires. My son and I cowered in our house all during that first day, not knowing whether the mayhem on Western and on Wilshire would spill over into door-to-door violence. It was a strange and frightening experience, surreal both at the time and in retrospect.
The following months brought an exodus of Los Angeles haters–people who, if not for the riots, probably would have stayed on unhappily, infecting the civic mood. Instead they lit out for their various hometowns, or New York, and things brightened considerably. But it took the Northridge Quake (January ’94) to really sweep the city clean of detractors who, terrified of The Big One, left in droves. Unfortunately, the murders of Nicole Simpson and Ron Goldman that June set back the city’s self-image once again, but nothing could undo the post-Rodney King reform of the LAPD, which changed the head-cracking culture of local law enforcement and brought about a huge decline in crime.
Two decades later, it’s unreal to think about these events, all of which eventually changed Los Angeles for the better. As I luxuriate in relatively clean air and low crime rates not seen since the 1950s, it occurs to me that years have passed since I’ve had to listen to anyone disparage Los Angeles. Though it might be because word has gotten out that I’ll say, “Then you should leave,” I think it’s because Los Angeles has become a great place to live. Still, we should let the haters think otherwise, or else they’ll come back.
Apples and Oranges: The Pointlessness of Comparing Los Angeles to New York, and the Comparison That Fits
March 19, 2012 § 2 Comments
Once again I was forced to wonder why so many New Yorkers equate driving with suburban living. After all, cities everywhere, New York included, are full of cars driven by their residents. In fact, I know some New Yorkers–Manhattanites, no less–who not only have cars but drive them daily, which they don’t find suburban in the least. Perhaps because the woman from New York was a walking, talking cliché, dressed in the kind of outfit–shorts, sandals and tank top–no Angeleno her age would wear off the beach, let alone in February, she made me wonder isn’t it about time these comparisons stopped?
It doesn’t take more than a glance to see that New York is an older, vertical, European-style city, sited on a navigable river and a deep water harbor, and that Los Angeles is a younger*, horizontal, sprawling metropolis that–alone among the world’s great cities–lacks a navigable river. It does have a harbor, albeit one that was created less than a century ago and located some thirty miles south of downtown, in another city. But the most important difference between the two cities is that Los Angeles isn’t European at all, despite once having been the westernmost outpost of the Spanish Empire. In the modern era, its appearance has been influenced more by the American Midwest and Asia than by Europe, and in all aspects of its culture, Los Angeles has looked away from Europe. In short, there are so many more differences than similarities between New York and Los Angeles that to compare them at all seems an exercise in futility.
But there is a city that shares many of Los Angeles’s characteristics–Tokyo. Both cities sprawl across vast plains, incorporating not only former farmland but substantial former towns. Both have historic centers but also multiple newer downtowns–urban hubs that could serve as the centers for sizable cities. Just as greater Los Angeles boasts commercial districts in Pasadena, Hollywood, Mid-Wilshire, Westwood, Long Beach and Santa Monica, Tokyo has such hubs as Shinjuku, Ueno, Shibuya, Roppongi and Shinagawa.
Another similarity is their relative inaccessibility to visitors. Tourists can visit such well-trod attractions as Omotesando and Rodeo Drive, but the best of Tokyo and Los Angeles remains tucked away from major thoroughfares, out of visitors’ sight. Both cities save their charm for natives, revealing their secrets so gradually that even longtime residents are forever discovering something new. Just as I found the route to Lake Hollywood only after a decade of living in Hancock Park, each visit to Tokyo–where I lived from one to thirteen–brings a new revelation. Once I toured a walled garden in a monks’ residence near Sensoji, Tokyo’s oldest Buddhist temple (est. 645). Though thousands of Tokyoites and tourists visit the temple and surrounding neighborhood daily, the garden was unmarked and hidden from view; if not for a Japanese friend, I never would have known it was there.
As many features as Los Angeles and Tokyo share, however, there is one aspect in which they differ hugely. For the past four hundred years, no one in Japan has thought Tokyo wasn’t the most important place in Japan and the capital of everything; whereas Los Angeles so often has been the Rodney Dangerfield of major cities, disparaged by residents and non-residents alike. But that attitude is changing, and it’s about time.
*Nevertheless, it isn’t quite the young city portrayed by Anglo-centrics who conveniently ignore both its millennia of Native American settlement and its decades (1781-1848) under Spanish Colonial and Mexican rule.
Next time: how the events of the past two decades have transformed the civic mood.