2016-07-21

Block 50 in the 20th Century: Mike Hammer Detects, Lily Munster Dances, and the Asphalt Tide Swamps All

(Note #1: This post continues the story of the 600 North Spring neighborhood.  "Block 50" was a small, oddly shaped block bounded by North Spring Street, Bellevue Avenue, New High Street, and Sunset Boulevard, and its numeric designation was used on the Sanborn fire insurance maps for nearly eighty years beginning in the 1880s.

Note #2: Before we get to Mike Hammer and Lily Munster, the first part of this post deals with some changes in the area's street layout and ethnic composition.  Feel free to skip ahead if you don't want to read this first part, although you may miss some of the context further on.)


1901: Parading into the Plaza. Main street is to the right of the building in the background; North Spring to the left.  In the middle is the Cobenhoff building, which will be demolished in about thirteen years to widen Sunset Boulevard.  (Water And Power Associates photo collection)
  As the twentieth century dawned, Block 50 sat in the cross hairs of two major efforts which would radically alter its character and physical layout.  One of these these focused on public morals and the promotion of social reform, and will surprise nobody who is at all familiar with the Progressive (large "P") movement of the early twentieth century.  This was the passage of the state red light abatement law, which provided for the forfeiture of all hotel, restaurant, and saloon fixtures of any establishment which allowed engagement in prostitution or assignation.  This ended the the practice of openly designating certain streets for officially sanctioned and regulated prostitution.

The other impending change greatly altered the area's physical street layout, specifically that of Sunset Boulevard.  Sunset Boulevard/Cesar E. Chavez Avenue is one of the city's major thoroughfares, so it's natural to assume that it originally began in the center of town and then, like so many other streets,  was gradually extended westward over the decades.  This isn't true, however.  The earliest section of Sunset was centered in Hollywood near Vine and went no further east than Echo Park Not until after 1900 did anyone propose to extend it to the Plaza.  The initial step in achieving this  was a simple matter of changing a few street signs and letting the matter rest there, as shown on the 1906 Sanborn map.  Most of Bellevue Avenue was renamed to Sunset Boulevard along with a short block of Marchessault. 



1906 Sanborn Map.  Parts of Marchessault and Bellevue were renamed Sunset Boulevard, for all the good that would do. (Accessed 2016 on the website of SDPL)



Records in the L.A. Bureau of Engineering show that the renaming happened in 1902.



LABOE record of Sunset renaming, 1902.  Arrow added. (Accessed on agency website)




Obviously, just changing some signs accomplished nothing of practical value and pleased hardly anybody. Property owners on either side of Marchessault between San Fernando Road and New High Street might have taken comfort in the fact that the work--by that point--went no further than this, but the writing was already on the wall. The widening of Sunset had already been under discussion for some time, and by September 1912 the demolitions were well underway.  

In this view looking west up Marchessault/Sunset, the old street alignment was still discernible from the remaining curb, the  row of utility poles, and the Cobenhoff building at the right margin; the wide empty space to the left was previously covered by Aubin Foix' bakery at 543 N Main; his new building to replace it, with only about half of the space, appears further to the left indicating what the new alignment will be.   The Cobenhoff building would be razed as well, within a month of this photo being taken.  


(For reasons of picture quality, the adobe structure mentioned above is not shown here.)
The side-by-side comparison of the 1910 and 1914 street layouts below illustrates how much of the area had to be bulldozed in order to facilitate the Sunset Boulevard project.


1910 and 1914 layouts of Sunset Boulevard compared

Compared to postwar freeway and urban renewal projects, this extent of demolition and displacement seems minor.  But it must have come as a shock in 1913 when the project was completed.   Surprisingly, with the exception of the odd older adobe structure, most of the buildings torn down for this project were less than forty years old.  

Note the triangle of vacant land just north of Block 50 in the 1914 map.  This area had now become a mere intersection  of Sunset, Bellevue, New High, and Broadway--and thereby the first spot in the area that would forever after be devoted entirely to the movement and parking of vehicles.

The 1915 picture below shows the northwest corner of North Spring and Sunset, not long after the Sunset Boulevard project was completed. 


NW Corner North Spring and Sunset, 1915.  Seaver Collection General Photo File GPF_3930
The Daniel Cognanati cigar shop (Bottega di Segari) on the corner was at 601 North Spring, and the Yuen Kee Chinese Laundry is next door at 603; notice the drying racks covering the roof.   Campi's Restaurant at the far right was 609. Prior to the widening of Sunset, 601 was a much larger property which was home to a beer hall and a shoemaker's shop.

In a few years the cigar store was taken over by one Peter Pelawho continued its operation for several years.  But given the small size and odd shape of the lot, following the Sunset improvement project, it was virtually inevitable that it would soon host a gas station, and it's as the Robert Myers Gas Station that we see it listed in the City Directory for 1930.  Into the 1940s, when the picture below was taken, the gas station was still there.  It's difficult to see in this picture unless you zoom in, and notice the typical sign with prices for the different grades of fuel.



Intersection Sunset, Broadway, and New High, 1940s. (MTA Photo Archive)
As much time as I've spent looking at these old photographs, it strikes me that this must have been a difficult intersection to navigate, given that it was a three-point crossing.  If we include North Spring in the background, then it becomes a five-pointer.  Today, New High Street south of Sunset has essentially been obliterated, mostly by parking lots, but when the above shot was taken it still ran from several blocks south of this spot, skirted the back of the Plaza Church, which is partly visible here at the right margin, and continued north into New Chinatown.

The Chinese laundry at number 603, however, showed a good deal more longevity, and was in operation from at least as early as 1888 and ceased operations no earlier than 1925.  By 1953 it was evidently home to a sign painting shop, but we don't know when this change occurred.

Today we think of L.A. as a patchwork of distinct ethnic neighborhoods and districts, perhaps superimposed on a substrate of Anglos, African Americans, and Mexican Americans.  By contrast, early in the last century the neighborhood of Block 50 was a mix of several different ethnic groups, as shown by these directory listings from the year 1906.   (Note, in 1906 San Fernando Road was the street which would later be renamed North Spring.) 


South Side of Block 50 (West Sunset addresses)

East Side of Block 50 (North Spring addresses)

 
North Side of Block 50 (Bellevue Avenue addresses)


Straight off we notice the occurrence of Italian names associated with the addresses listed here, with the odd Anglo-American, Chinese, French, Spanish, or Japanese name accounting for the rest.  This whole neighborhood, most of which later became New Chinatown, was once the Little Italy of L.A., and even today there remain still a handful of reminders--Italian Hall at Main and Cesar E. Chavez, Saint Peter's Italian Catholic Church, and San Antonio Winery in Lincoln Heights.

In the late 1930s, the number of Chinese-American residents and business began to increase, undoubtedly due to the demolition of Old Chinatown.  From the 1938 directory:





By 1956, when the threat of imminent demolition was hanging over Block 50 like a sword of Damocles, most of the residents and businesses on Block 50 had Spanish names, and the Italian names were gone for the most part.  Even so, this was also next door to New Chinatown, and the number of Chinese names had continued to increase gradually since the 1930s.   They remained until the area's gradual demolition from the late 1950s through the 1960s.

A Neighborhood For Nightlife 

 Although it may surprise most of us today, Block 50 was once near the center of a significant late-night amusement zone.  Various bars, cafes, and clubs in the area kept the action going until the legal closing hour for alcohol sales, in contrast to today when the neighborhood is practically deserted by ten at night. 

Down Olvera Street, El Paseo Inn and La Golondrina, besides functioning as ordinary sit-down restaurants, were also night clubs.  You get a hint of this entering La Golondrina today, where to the right of the front door you see a very small cocktail bar.  You get the impression that here was where customers would squeeze in a first cocktail of the evening, because there were many more places to hit before the evening was over.  The restaurants stayed open late and offered mostly Mexican or Spanish-themed entertainments.  In fact, the 1940s were the golden era of Olvera Street nightlife, as A-list celebrities frequented El Paseo and La Golondrina to be entertained by such dancers as Chavela Flores (Estrada, p237). 


1949.  Dancing it up at El Paseo Inn: Chavela, who was actually Elizabeth Dollbeer Jones, a girl from Brooklyn who went by Chavela Flores for professional purposes. (Estrada, p239).
  Around the corner of the Plaza, before they were demolished in the early 1950s, several more restaurants and nightclubs, in particular Jerry's Joynt at Los Angeles and Ferguson Alley, kept it up with an East Asian flair.  Wait a minute, you must be asking:  Where the heck is Ferguson Alley?   Ferguson Alley was part of the last remaining few blocks of Old Chinatown, before they were razed in 1953 to make way for the Hollywood/Santa Ana Freeway.  The alley ran east from Los Angeles Street, at the southwest corner of the Plaza, down to Alameda Street.

 
View up Ferguson Alley from near AlamedaThe Montezuma Saloon in the background is in the old Plaza Firehouse. Seaver Collection for Western History Research, cat. no. P-007-W0096
 

In the next picture, the map inset shows the camera's approximate vantage point, almost certainly on the second story or roof of the Plaza Firehouse.  Hey, here's an idea!  Why not take her to Jerry's Joynt?


Jerry's Joynt on North Los Angeles St.
Center and right insets show camera FOV over pre-1954 and present day area maps.
 (Angeles Match Cover Club, advertisement from L.A Times,
 and insets from Baist survey (1921) and Google Earth (2016).)
From the late 1930s onward, there was also New Chinatown to the north of Block 50, which had its own array of restaurants and late night spots; for about fifteen years, New Chinatown and the last remnants of Old Chinatown existed concurrently.   Then, in 1953 the entire block was razed, including the historic Lugo House on Los Angeles just south of Marchessault, in the face of vigorous opposition by occupants and preservationists, and despite the fact that it was already nearly 115 years old.

Lily Munster Dances at the Bamba Club...

 Postwar Los Angeles was the very forcing ground of film noir, and this neighborhood suited the genre perfectly with its narrow streets, Victorian buildings, and oddly-angled intersections.   Just about the first film noir was Criss-Cross, starring Burt Lancaster and a young Yvonne DeCarlo, long before she became more famous to the Baby Boomer generation as Lily Munster.  At one point in this film, which happens to be filled from end to end with excellent DTLA location shots, we see her dancing at the Bamba. (Thanks to Michael Ryerson of the Noirish Los Angeles community, for posting this screengrab there.  Criss-Cross, Universal-International Pictures, 1949.)

 
Yvonne DeCarlo dancing at the Bamba Club.  Her partner is Tony Curtis in his first ever screen appearance.



The Bamba was located at 626 North Spring. 
Bamba Club, looking roughly north. For a surprise, several of the buildings just visible beyond the intersection date from between the 1880s through the 1910s, and are still standing as of 2016.  As usual, inset gives camera F.O.V.                   (Yesterday's Print tumblr page)

...And Mike Hammer Detects

Mike Hammer, that hardest of the hardboiled film-noir detectives, was also no stranger to the 600 North Spring block.   In the following night shot, all aglow with neon, we see Hammer, played by Ralph Meeker, pulling away in his convertible Corvette.  The building partly visible to the right of the Bamba Club is the back end of the Sentous Block, whose front door was on North Main.  This building stood in as the Jalisco Hotel in the same movie, Kiss Me Deadly.  As we saw in the previous post, the Sentous had a long history as a lodging house, so it wasn't too much of a stretch.


Mike Hammer hangs a U-turn in front of the Bamba, neon accents.  (From Kiss Me Deadly, still from the                                USC Digital Library)

Our next view was taken from just outside 615 North Spring, looking south towards the Plaza.  Notice the two hotels at the end of the block, the Atlantic and the Pacific. In addition to those two hostelries, most of the buildings on Block 50 seem to have sheltered hotels or boarding houses on their upper stories.  In fact, the entire neighborhood seems to have bristled with hotels and rooming houses, if we can judge from directory listings and real estate survey maps.   Undoubtedly most of the guests were long-term residents whose need for cheap lodgings provided a ready customer base for this modest yet necessary housing stock.    Curiously, while the Baist survey maps indicate a half-dozen hotels in the area, far fewer appear as such in the directories.  This is only a conjecture, but perhaps the unlisted hotels were boarding houses whose landladies preferred word-of-mouth references for new customers, exclusively.

Looking South from 615 N. Spring.  The Pico House appears in the distance.  Notice also the hanging number sign "615" which probably lit up at night, judging from the just-visible wires leading to it.  The Atlantic and Pacific hotels on the opposite side of Spring date to shortly after the Sunset Boulevard widening.

From the opposite direction, we see the Pacific Hotel standing in place of the Cobenhoff Building, which had been cleared away about twenty years before.  Despite its surprisingly modern appearance, the high-rise in the background has an original build date of 1916 in County records, and housed County offices for many years.  Today it has been converted into apartments.


Looking North, probably from the Pico House.   (YouTube screengrab from Los Angeles:Wonder City Of The West. James A. Fitzpatrick, narrator.  MGM Studios, 1935)
 

The Last Years

In a separate post the area's history as an Italian neighborhood will be discussed specifically, but it would be a shame to finish this post without a couple of Italian-themed shots--especially since they will take us to other vantage points on Block 50.  We'll also be looking at two of the last businesses to occupy 227 West Sunset.

By 1934, the former Bouchet & Duenas print shop had become one of several grocery stores operated by the Italian Stores Company, a small chain with several outlets in the DTLA area. This one occupied the westernmost "corner" of Block 50, thus partly facing New High Street. 


(LAPL Photo Collection, order number 00104245)

The vantage point of this 1940 photo is well to the west of Block 50, with a clear view looking down Bellevue to the left and Sunset to the right.  The ISC store was at 227 Sunset Boulevard, which still followed its old alignment past Spring and Main Streets, then across the north end of the Plaza just south of Olvera Street, and on past Los Angeles and Alameda Streets.  At this time, continuing along Sunset from here would take you directly into the main entrance of the Union Station parking lot. The Bamba Club can be seen in the distance, where Bellevue T-boned into North Spring.  In the far distance down Sunset, the Fook Wo Lung building--home to the Dragon's Den restaurant--is visible at Marchessault and Los Angeles Street, miniaturized by the gas storage facility behind it.  Just the tower tops of Union Station and the Terminal Annex post office can be seen beyond the nearer buildings.

By 1949, the ISC store had moved out and a restaurant called O Sole Mio had moved in.

O Sole Mio!  (LAPL Photo Collection Order No. 104246)
Rather than describing the type of food they served at O Sole Mio, we leave that as an exercise for the reader.  Everyone is allowed one guess.  

Here's another view from the Bellevue Avenue side.  


Bellevue Avenue near Sunset, 1940s.  (LAPL Photo Collection Order No. 00067274)

 We can only wonder what the conversation was about.

Looking at historical aerial photos of the area reveals that most of Block 50, as well as a few buildings on  the east side of North Spring, remained standing at least into the mid 1960s.  However, the number of occupied addresses in the same area began to fall off sharply, suggesting strongly that the area's impending demolition was in the wind and nobody wanted to sign new leases.  In the 1956 street directory, 227 West Sunset no longer appears.  By 1968, almost all of the listings for Block 50 are gone.

 It goes without saying that the present-day view is radically different, as this Google Earth screengrab shows.



Google Earth screengrab, 2015

Here almost everything we saw in the last picture has been wiped away; on the other hand we do now see the entire front elevation of the Terminal Annex tower and the L.A. Railway Plaza Substation, previously obscured by numerous buildings in between.

Sunset, now renamed to Cesar E. Chavez Avenue, veers off to the left, approximately following the old alignment of Bellevue AvenueCity Bureau of Engineering records indicate this took place in 1965, or at least the work was begun that year.  We might well expect such a project to have taken several years.  Photographic evidence reveals that the north end of the Plaza was already closed to motor traffic by 1972,  although the Bureau of Engineering's card indicates 1973 for that project. Most likely "Old Sunset" remained open to vehicles while the demolitions and realignment along Bellevue were taking place.



Between 1965 and 1973 Sunset was rerouted to the old Bellevue Avenue alignment.  (LABOE)

 Going,  Going, Gone: The Asphalt High Tide Swamps All

  By 1972 Block 50 and had become the expanse of white striped asphalt which it remains to this day.  North Spring is gone.  The last remnant of Old Chinatown was gone by 1954, and as a result of that and the extensive parking lots and roadways that lie between Union Station and the Plaza, the passenger terminal is reminiscent of a big box store in its visual effect.


Lots Of Parking

A Google Street View screengrab just in front of Union Station shows how isolated it seems to be, in contrast to the stations of large cities back east, which are often housed in--or under--seemingly ordinary buildings standing next door and across the street from other ordinary buildings, smack in the middle of town.


Looking West from Union Station: Where the heck is the city?
The Greyhound station is worse still.  At 1716 E 7th it's barely in the city at all.  Situations like this have arisen partly out of a Western North American habit of siting railroad stations outside the city center.   To at least some extent this is noticeable in Los Angeles, Culver City (the new Metro station), Palms (same), Vancouver BC, and especially in San Francisco, whose long-haul passenger rail terminal isn't in the city at all, but in Oakland.  In Los Angeles, two additional factors have intensified this trend.  First of all, as we noted in the last post, the city's main commercial center had already shifted many blocks to the south by the time Union  Station was built.  The neighborhoods around the Plaza, while not deserted, became the center for humble business enterprises like second hand stores, cheap cafes, and down-at-heel lodging houses.  The low status of the district and its reputation as an eyesore made it a prime candidate for redevelopment of some kind.  Even as early as the beginning of the last century, proposals for the new union passenger terminal and a new civic center complex cast the specter of impending demolition and displacement throughout the area, because nobody at first was sure exactly where these new projects would be built.  Some of the early proposals called for the demolition of the entire Plaza area to make way for Union Station, a new Civic Center, or both.

The second factor was the mid-20th-century suburbanist aesthetic which may have been the natural result of the gradual re-engineering of the city for private cars.  Some of the old buildings had to be cleared away for the Hollywood freeway itself, and for such appurtenances as access ramps which were necessary if the freeway was to have any practical value at all.  But the demolitions went further, as if the intention was not just to provide a useful freeway system, but also to use parking lots, surface roads, and green space to eliminate as much of the old neighborhood as possible.  In the process, the hills west of north DTLA were leveled, and the downtown thoroughfares were zealously straightened and regularized. It's hard to imagine now, but prior to the second world war the hills on the western edges of north DTLA constricted the area's geography from east to west, as can be seen in many of the photographs above.  This caused a number of city blocks in the area to be "squeezed" into slightly odd shapes resulting in oddly-angled intersections and some narrow streets.  There was once an almost Altstadt-like character to the area, vaguely reminiscent of lower Manhattan.  And like lower Manhattan, northern DTLA was once ideal for working class residents who were dependent on public transportation and on the inexpensive amenities such as lodging houses, bars, cafes, and stores that were to be found throughout the neighborhood.   But as more and more people owned cars, the need for parking spaces led to the obliteration of scores of buildings throughout the downtown area.  
In the Plaza area and on Bunker Hill the impact was acute, as substandard but usable housing was demolished without being replaced, for the most part,  and so the neighborhood became depopulated.
  

A Ghost In The Pavement, and How This Post Came To Be

Block 50 is long gone, and so are many of the blocks that once stood near it.  But in one sense it lives on, because the parcels that made it up, despite having disappeared into a parking lot, are still booked individually in the county assessor's database, as shown by the map:


Like an X-ray, showing where Block 50 used to be.

Just like any other ordinary property in the county, the parcels in Block 50 still have their own AIN numbers.   Likewise, the map here shows the long vanished sections of Spring and New High streets, and none of this is shown in better known map services like Google.   I didn't know about the existence of Block 50 until I saw this map.  From that point,  this seemed like a natural subject for a post--or couple of posts--on the history of one small neighborhood in the city of L.A.  Like others in the area, this one goes all the way back to the city's bucolic beginnings in the 18th century, after which the successive historical eras of the town left their mark--from the American takeover in 1848, demolition and displacement for an early street widening project a century ago, to the disdainful attentions of suburbanist postwar planners and officials who had no use for dense, urban neighborhoods, or for the working class people who lived there, or for the public transportation they rode, or for the unassuming retail businesses on which they depended for everyday needs.

-Cubes, squares, rectangles.  Everything straight, everything even.  Clutter has been outlawed.  But a little disorder is a good thing.  That's where poetry lurks.  We never needed promoters to provide us, in their generosity, with 'leisure spaces'.  We invented our own.  Today there's no question of putting your own space together, the planning commission will shut it down.  Spontaneity has been outlawed.  People are afraid of life.

- Robert Doisneau