2010-08-26

Archaeology of the Vernacular: Sidewalks


About twenty years ago it was my fondest desire to own a convertible--pretty much any convertible.   As soon as I was done paying off my current car loan, I promised myself, I would look into trading it for some kind of gently used convertible like a VW Cabriolet.

But something happened along the way: I started walking to places.   I soon realized that within a mile of my apartment there was a huge variety of coffeehouses, restaurants, pubs, and other amenities.  Coffeehouses in particular: in those days there were no fewer than five within a fifteen minute walk of home.   It's strange to think that only one is left, which was also the first. 

When you walk in this city, you soon become aware of a very curious thing.  The visual world you experience as a pedestrian is almost completely disjoint from what you see driving past the same spot.   When you drive you have to watch the road and traffic, foremost, and beyond that you're probably most apt to notice the billboards--the large, ugly ones on the tops of buildings.  In fact, when you were first learning to drive, the instructor probably told you to "aim high" because that was the best way to take in the surrounding traffic and other hazards, and at the same time be ready for anything that might be happening further down the road.  As a result, when you drive you are looking right at the billboards, which is exactly what the advertisers want.

Billboards on the tops of buildings.  Notice how one of them is facing the other way; the backs of the signs are even uglier than the fronts.

Depending on the circumstances, you may also be straining to read addresses from behind the wheel, or the names of streets.  You don't notice the individual storefronts, or the contents of their windows.  You wouldn't be able to divert your attention to look at anything interesting at sidewalk level, even if you could see it from where you are in the road.   By contrast, when you walk along the same block, your attention is focused entirely differently.

Pedestrian's Eye View: Note the banners on the light pole, clearly intended to draw the attention of people walking.  You'd never notice them from your car.
You notice the books in the window of the second-hand store and the chotchkes displayed at the Japanese curio shop.


You notice coffeeshops and restaurants, which were hardly visible from behind the wheel. Even if you don't have time to go in, just being able to glance in as you walk by is worth a little, and it's something you can't get from your car.  Any time you enter a shop or a cafe, it's a small chance for something significant to happen.  You may meet a future friend, lover, or spouse.  You may find that book or that music you've been looking for, or even better, you may find something you've got to have but didn't know existed until one minute before.

One thing you notice about independent bookstores and coffeeshops is pictures on the wall.  The owners seem to like it as a means of self expression.  You almost never see this in chain establishments, because upper management is not willing to trust the judgment of local employees, or even franchise owners.
Cacao Coffee House: First in the neighborhood
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Inside Cacao. The last indy coffeehouse in the neighborhood



An interior like this coffeeshop is an expression of vernacular culture.  When this place opened around 1990 it had a sort of grunge-beatnik vibe with nearly derelict furniture and a cement floor.  The early 90s were a scary time with rampant crime and the Rodney King riots.  It was about then that somebody stenciled a pistol with angel's wings at the center of the floor,   and was a fitting icon at the time.  The tiki makeover came shortly afterwards.  Astroboy, seen here above and behind the counter, has been there for over fifteen years, as have many of the tiki decorations.  Other items have come and gone over the years.  Note also the paintings.  You will never see this much individuality at a Starbucks. 

Another thing you notice as a pedestrian is the sidewalk itself.  For one reason and another, every so often a slab of concrete has to be replaced which means that a slab of wet concrete has to be left unattended for a couple of days.  Since time immemorial, there have been those individuals--probably teenagers, for the most part--who are unable to resist the urge to leave a permanent record of the fact that they have been there.  As often as not, they are obliging enough to record the date, and if we're really lucky there may be a story attached to the artifact.

Back in early 1990, when I moved into a new apartment just below Wilshire, I happened to miss Richie and Linda--by forty-one years.  On January 5 1949, Richie and Linda scratched their names in the wet concrete, and wrote the date.  One or both of them returned the next day to write in 1/6/1949.   At some point in the interim a small dog or cat passed over, as did a man or boy wearing a dressier style of shoe.   Perhaps it was Richie himself, imagining himself as a film star at Grauman's Chinese Theatre, where he'd just been asked to step in the cement.

Richie and Linda.  If they yet live, they're at least seventy.

I have no idea of who Richie and Linda were, but I bet they were students at nearby University High School.  It was nearly twenty years ago that I saw this for the first time.  Since then I've moved a few times, gotten married, and now I now live about three miles away in another pedestrian friendly neighborhood.   I walk over to a local barber about once a month.   It took several visits for me to notice it, because of its worn condition, but here some people left their names in 1943.


Joan: A "1943" name if there ever was one.

Somehow the name Joan seems very appropriate for a girl who was probably born in the late 1920s or early 1930s.  If it had been Destiny or Madison, I'd strongly suspect the whole thing was a hoax.

MCH. Now you know as much as I do.

You don't pick up these tiny yet compelling minutiae of urban life parking the SUV in a lot and then entering the barber's through the back door.

More vernacular archeology may be found right over here, wherein we describe a set of 53-year-old footprints and the family of one-legged hominids who left them.


Crustaceans In Sawtelle


Auf deutsche Sprache ├╝bersetzt 

Los Angeles happens to possess many districts that were independent communities before being annexed by the City. One such is Sawtelle, which sprung up in the early 1880s at the southern gates of the West L.A. Veteran Affairs property. Sawtelle Blvd, which leads south from these gates, has since become the focus of L.A.'s second largest Japanese-American neighborhood. About a block away from the intersection of Santa Monica and Sawtelle is a small city parking lot, used by those needing to go to the local courthouse or bail bondsmen. Unnoticed by most is a peculiar building that now houses an African art and curio gallery. The front of this building, on Sawtelle, has been decorated to suggest its East Africa theme.

The Turkana Gallery
 Seen from the back, though, the structure is revealed to be surprisingly old.  The local property assessor's online database gives a build date around 1930, but I suspect it's considerably older.  The outdoor gallery running the length of the building smacks of much older buildings like those in the Historic Core downtown.The low brick arches over the windows are much like those you'd see on Olvera Street and other very old districts.






Now let's walk over and take a closer look at the window, the one behind the green and white truck.

The Lobster Shrine

When I first saw this, I thought the window inset was filled with those curling bits of bark that come off of palm trunks.   Closer inspection revealed that wasn't the case after all, for it was nothing but a pile of lobsterbacks, blanched by who knows how many sunny afternoons.  I should mention that this window faces the parking lot to the west, so an ample dose of afternoon sunlight is assured most days of the year.   Oddly it wasn't the brass plaque which drew my attention to this, but nothing more than my curiosity as to why these supposed palm tree fragments had been allowed to pile up.

The sign close up
 
For a couple of years I wondered what the story was here.  Today, I finally managed to contact the owner of the gallery, which is almost always closed.  This is one Ernest Wolfe, a deep-sea diver by avocation, who revealed that it was his work.   He believes we should respect the creatures of the deep, which we take for their delicious flesh, so that they will keep on giving us of it.  The Ernie Wolfe story is an interesting one, in and of itself, and I hope to give him further coverage in a future post.

I told him I could get solidly behind that. I'm more than willing to respect any lobster anyone cares to place before me, anywhere.

L.A. now abounds in small commercial centers of roughly the same age and character as Sawtelle, and these will probably retain that character indefinitely.  For most of the twentieth century, L.A.'s older neighborhoods were decimated by the rampant abandonment, and obliteration that was driven largely by galloping population growth and white flight. Now, however, these factors are greatly diminished.  Simply put, we are, at long last, "there", instead of always looking to the next suburb over the hill.


By the way, apart from the Avila house, Olvera Street itself possesses virtually no physical traces of the L.A.'s Spanish or Mexican periods.   Strip away the deliberate commercialization of the street, which was opened as a Mexican-themed tourist attraction in 1930, and you have a mere collection of fairly nondescript commercial buildings originating between 1855 and 1910.  By L.A. standards today, that's practically the Cretaceous Era, but in 1930 they were newer than most of the Sawtelle business district is to us today.  I'm sure many tourists there see the Plaza substation, which was built to house relays and transformers for the streetcar system, and think it's some piece of 18th-century Spanish Mission architecture.  In fact it wasn't even thirty years old when Olvera Street was set up as a tourist mecca.   But, this is Hollywood after all.  What is touted as the most historic street in the city turns out to be nothing more than a collection of nondescript business buildings, mostly occupied by machine shops, paint stores, and similar establishments run by local Anglo  business peoe..  In the early 1900s  the then-new Simpson building at the northeast corner of Plaza and Olvera Street was an automobile dealership. As for the owners themseles, they were almost all European immigrants or Midwestern transplants.   Christine Sterling, who was the driving force behind Olvera Street, might just as well have been Mrs. Babbitt, and this all might just as well have been Zenith, U.S.A.

In a post to come we will examine the sad and curious history of the Olvera Street neighborhood in more detail.

Not an adobe mission, but just a power station for the streetcars, built in 1906














Where The Odd Things Are

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When we think of unique expressions of peculiar creativity, we tend to think of oddball corners of remote, rural America.   Somewhere in the Great Plains there's a town that proudly exhibits giant ball of string.  Death Valley is famous for Scotty's Castle and Teakettle Junction, a dirt crossroads where generations of travelers have been leaving old coffee and tea pots.  Rapid City, SD has its Dinosaur Park, where life sized concrete dinosaurs...ah...stand very still.  In the Southern California desert, the Salton Sea area has become the epitome of microcosmic post-apocalyptic desert weirdness, and I'll have to devote an installment to it, but that will probably have to wait until I can make a trip out there.




Cincinnati boasts a sizable subway system whose construction was begun with the proceeds of a bond issue in 1920, but stalled when the money ran out fiver years later.  As you might have guessed, Cincinnati's subway was never completed much less used.  Stranger still is  the case of  Rochester, NY, whose subway was used from about 1920 to 1956, when half of it was obliterated by an expressway, making the other half unviable.  King Car had won again.


Los Angeles, too, has its share of local oddities, as we'll see.


Next time, lobsters.  I promise.

2010-08-25

Bizarre Apartment Names.

There's a small apartment house near my home.   Living there is probably a lot better than you would expect from the name.  But then, it would have to be:

Just Another Crappy Apartment House
                                          
Nobody younger than a typical college sophomore should have to live in a building with a name like this.   The jeers and taunts seem to make themselves up, don't they?   It must be said that this actually appears to be one of the nicer complexes in the neighborhood.

Just around the corner is another complex with a bizarre name.    Ladies and gentlemen, I give you:

The Chee-Zee Apts, management by Kraft: No Brie Allowed.


The Chee-Zee Apartments, offering Kraft apartment building management process product...uh...management.  Nearly lost my train of thought there.  Do take a closer look at the sign:


Just one minute ago I thought I had somehow messed up the picture on my notebook, but it appears that it's the actual sign that is messed up.  I suppose you could say that the Chee-Zee Apts. have a certain appeal.

So there you have it.   The Chee-Zee and the Crapi.

I swear, I recently saw a third apartment house in this neighborhood whose name is a nice counterpoint to the Crappy and the Cheezy:  The Fantastic Apartments.   But I haven't been able to find it since.

Coming up next: Lobsters.

Pointless ramblings about minor things around town: Welcome to my blog.


I've lived in L.A. nearly all my life, and, over time, have grown a major interest in local history.  In my humble opinion this city has reached a tipping point in its history which, in time, will cause it to resemble older cities like New York and Boston physically--not in terms of its architecture and monuments, but in terms of its density and physical infrastructure.  One thing I notice particularly now, is that the city appears to be stabilizing in terms of how various areas are used.  Several small business districts have been much the same since the 1920s, and it's clear that they will continue as business districts indefinitely.   The businesses that occupy these buildings will probably continue to be much the same types of enterprises, which suggests that, unlike most of our history, there will be no particular incentive to tear the buildings down and replace them with something else.

Sometimes I'll be blogging about this in more detail, and some other times I'll blog about bizarre and humorous minutiae that I have discovered in various ramblings around town.  It could be something to do with lobsters, or artificially colored yellow cheese process products.   It could be about something else.   There could even be trouble.