Pershing Square's Spanish-American War Memorial (part 1)

On November 5, 1898, Private George W. Swing, Company K, Seventh Regiment, United States Volunteers, sent an unusual request to the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce. Identifying himself as representing a committee of the Seventh Regiment, he requested the Chamber organize a regimental public drill later that month in Agricultural Park, now called Exposition Park, for the purpose of raising money for a monument dedicated “to the memory of the dead soldiers of the Seventh” who were serving during the recently concluded Spanish-American War.

Private Swing also wrote a letter to the Los Angeles City Park Commissioners, possibly on the same day he wrote to the Chamber. In his letter to the Park Commissioners, Swing stated that the Seventh Regiment requested their co-operation in placing “in one of the city Parks a monument in memory of their comrades who died during service in the late war at a cost of about $3,000…”

These two letters set in motion a process that created the city’s first public monument and bequeathed to the city its oldest public art.

It was not surprising that members of the 7th Regiment wanted a public expression of remembrance of their fallen comrades. The Regiment had been in the public eye from the day it marched off to war on May 6, 1898. That long hot day beginning before dawn for the Regiment’s 900 young men was unlike any they had ever experienced before. When it was over, they had experienced a day filled with symbolism serving as a rite of passage that transformed them from civilians into soldiers to fight a war with Spain.

Rising before dawn, Harry E. Goodrich, a 29 year old farm laborer made sure he was at the Riverside armory by 5:30 to join the other 83 men in his unit, Company M of the 7th Regiment. But as he walked to the armory, he discovered that other people in Riverside had also risen early that morning. The streets, according to the Riverside Daily Press “were alive with people”. Goodrich remained at the armory for a short time. Within a half hour of assembling, Company M began their march to the Southern Pacific station where a train was waiting to take them to Los Angeles. Their journey through the streets of Redlands was a communal effort. A squad of policemen, embodying law and order, led the parade, followed by aging members of the Grand Army of the Republic, serving as patriotic models and symbols of self-sacrifice and courage. The Knights of Pythias and the Knights of the Maccabees, two of Riverside’s fraternal organizations, were next in line serving as symbols of volunteer and community service. Behind them were the men who volunteered to serve in the war against Spain but were rejected for physical reasons. And bringing up the rear of the parade were the men of Company M. While marching to the station, the Riverside Concert Band joined them, providing musical support and a military cadence to the steps while “a mass of humanity” lined the route, cheering as they all passed by. After arriving at the train station, the men bid their last farewells to friends and loved ones, and as they boarded the train, the band gave a patriotic air to the occasion. When the train left the station and headed west, the band gave a final theatrical touch to the departure by playing “America” as the men waved farewell from the windows and the rear platform drawing a “last farewell cheer from the throats of the mass of people, assembled at the depot”.

The train proceeded to Riverside where it picked up Lindsey G. Wood, William Marske and the other 87 men of Company G from Redlands. Awakened at 4:30 by church bells, the men assembled at the armory. Their parade to the Southern Pacific station three blocks away was not as elaborate as the one in nearby Riverside. Marching over a foot deep carpet of flowers laid out along the route, they were accompanied only by members of the Grand Army of the Republic. But this mix of raw untested volunteers and aging veterans passed under banners stretched across Orange Street that evoked godly intervention with “God bless you boys” and stirred the troops, not with idealism, but with revenge by telling them to “Remember the Maine”.

Leaving Redlands, the train proceeded to San Bernardino, where 27 year old George Swing was awakened at 5:00 a.m. by a chorus of church, school and fire bells. Stirred by the wake-up call, he dressed and walked to the San Bernardino Armory where he joined Curtis Rollins, William H. Dubbs, and the other men of Company K. People as far as 10 miles away were also awake and came to the armory to say farewell, and leave flowers, flags, boxes of oranges and other objects to show their support. With all the men present, at 6:15, the unit left the armory and marched to the train station, passing an honor guard of various fraternal organizations, including the Women’s Relief Corps, and the Confederate and G.A.R. veterans. Patriotic music filled the air as the Cadet Band led the men to the station. A large crowd of men representing “every walk of life”—merchants, preachers, lawyers and judges, bankers, and farmers were joined at the station by an equal number of women and children to say their tearful farewells.

After picking up Company K, the train continued to Pomona, where Herman L. Hils and the other men of Company D had gathered. Company D’s departure was a strikingly simple affair. Instead of a parade from the armory, the men assembled at the station, said farewell to family and friends, boarded the train with its two coaches decorated with flowers by the Fruit and Flower Mission “girls”, and left for the final leg of the journey to Los Angeles.

June 18, 2016 at 12:17 am Leave a comment

An Evening at Angels Flight

At the golden hour, Gordon Pattison gazes into the Angels Flight station house

At the golden hour, Gordon Pattison gazes into the Angels Flight station house

Last evening, we met on Bunker Hill, old friends coming together for an old friend, Angels Flight. As the sun set, the orange and black station house along with the cars, Olivet and Sinai, were bathed in its soft, orange glow. As the evening darkened, Angels Flight’s arches and cars were lit by the low amber light of dozens of incandescent bulbs. It was a magical time, and for a moment, I was transported back to the time when I lived on Bunker Hill in its old Victorian neighborhood in the 1940’s – 1960’s. That neighborhood has been gone for more than 50 years now, and Angels Flight is all we have to remind us of it.

As I looked out over the city from the top of Angels Flight, the twinkling lights of Grand Central Market came on, beckoning to us longingly. The Market stays open until 10:00 pm now, and it was filled with people enjoying its attractions. I thought, how nice it would be to board Angels Flight to go down there as I did years ago, have a bite to eat and join the people who looked to be having such a good time. They seemed miles away, though, at the bottom of long, daunting flights of stairs. That’s exactly why Col. Eddy built Angels Flight 115 years ago, to join Bunker Hill and Downtown. What foresight! What a wonderful service to fill a civic need! And for decades, Angels Flight filled that need happily, faithfully, asking for little in return.

But sadly, Angels Flight is not running. For two years now, Angels Flight has sat quietly, waiting patiently for Los Angeles to come back to it. While Angelenos go busily about their lives, Angels Flight sits forlorn and vulnerable, largely ignored by the community it once served and we hope will serve again.

Richard Schave and Gordon Pattison scrub graffiti off Olivet

Richard Schave and Gordon Pattison scrub graffiti off Olivet

Angels Flight is not a nostalgic anachronism. It was and remains an important civic asset. Not just for its historic significance, but as an important piece of public transportation, carrying people from the heights of Bunker Hill to greater Downtown and back again.

When we came together at Angels Flight last evening, we came to pay attention to an old friend and to bear witness to its plight. We cleaned away graffiti that had thoughtlessly desecrated it. We had a 3-D scan done on Angels Flight so that anyone can board it online and take a vicarious ride. Angels Flight has served our city well and can again. But it needs our support and loving attention, or one day we will drive by and wonder why it’s not there anymore. Then all we will have are photographs and memories. It’s a lot more fun to actually ride it.

June 6, 2016 at 11:16 pm 1 comment

Outdoor Toilets on Bunker Hill?

There is a lot of misinformation about the old Bunker Hill. For instance, I have heard it said that there were outdoor toilets on Bunker Hill before it was redeveloped in the 1960’s. I lived on Bunker Hill in the 1940’s – 1960’s, and I’d like to set the record straight. I never saw any outdoor toilets, and to my knowledge, there were none. I think this misinformation may stem in some measure from this photo from the LAPL photo collection. It was taken in 1967 during the time when the buildings on Bunker Hill were being torn down. In the foreground is a toilet identified in the information accompanying the photo as an “outhouse.” Looming behind it is the Union Bank building. I have firsthand knowledge of this toilet because I used it many times. It was not an “outhouse.” It did not sit over an open hole in the ground. Instead, as the photo shows, it was a modern flush toilet attached to a sewer line. It does appear to be outdoors, but it is only “outdoors” because the building to which it was attached has been torn down. That building was the former carriage house behind the Victorian house known as the Castle which my family owned. The carriage house had been turned into two apartments many years before. I can only speculate as to why this toilet remained after the adjacent and neighboring buildings were torn down and taken away. Maybe it was kept so that the demolition workers could use it until the work was completed, thereby saving the foreman the hassle and cost of renting another port-a-potty.
Toilet Behind Castle Carriage House

June 3, 2016 at 5:22 am Leave a comment

A day trip to 19th Century Los Angeles

The Los Angeles we live in today is an imposter. Whereas many older American cities have managed to keep at least some of their 19th Century character, Los Angeles has not. This imposter stole Los Angeles’ 19th Century identity. Some of its citizens acquiesced to the theft, some of them even abetted it, a few protested it, but ultimately they all let it happen. The theft didn’t happen overnight. Instead it happened gradually over time while they were busy with their everyday lives and weren’t paying attention. It happened in bits and pieces so that as they became familiar with the new parts they forgot what had been there before and didn’t notice the difference. Eventually they were joined by new citizens who thought it had always been the way it is now. Why was this done? It was all done in the name of being modern and up to date.

The Los Angeles I was born into years ago was far different from the one we live in today. Because much that had been built in the 19th and early 20th Century was still here when I was young, I lived in Victorian Los Angeles, up on Bunker Hill. I counted among my friends people who were young in the later part of the 19th Century. In Victorian times, the city’s skyline was dominated by the old Los Angeles High School and the old Court House up on Fort Moore and Pound Cake Hills, by the tower of the old City Hall down on Broadway between 2nd and 3rd Streets, by the State Normal School, and by the Bradbury, Crocker, Brunson, and Rose mansions, and the Castle up on the spine of Bunker Hill. I lived in the Castle on South Bunker Hill Avenue, a street lined with other lovely Victorian houses. It was a wonderfully enchanting residential neighborhood with a long history, where all your needs could be met within walking distance or via Angels Flight to greater Downtown.

None of this remains today, and the hills have been dug up, shaved down and carted away, replaced by gleaming towers of steel and glass. But come with us as Nathan Marsak peels away this modern overlay to reveal the old Bunker Hill and the old Los Angeles. We meet at Grand Central Market housed in architect John Parkinson’s Victorian era Homer Laughlin building. Walk with us on Bunker Hill’s historic streets and see Angels Flight. Together we will find that old Bunker Hill and old Los Angeles aren’t really gone. Instead, they float ethereally in memory and in our hearts above Hope and Grand, Olive and Hill.

May 26, 2016 at 3:50 am Leave a comment

The Castle – 325 S. Bunker Hill Avenue

The most haunting image of old Bunker Hill’s final days depicts a fenced off Victorian mansion awaiting its doom with “progress” looming in the background in the form of the Downtown’s first skyscraper, the Union Bank Building. The residence, affectionately known for years as “the Castle” and located at 325 S. Bunker Hill Avenue, was one of two residences on the Hill to escape the wrecking ball, only to meet an even more tragic end.

Located on Lot 16, Block L of the Mott Tract, early owners of the property were tee-totaling Los Angeles pioneer Virginia Davis and her husband John W., who sold the land for $450 to G.D. Witherell in March of 1882. It has long been believed that the Castle was built around this time, but an 1888 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map reveals the structure as being constructed. In 1887 the property changed hands again, so it probably was capitalist Reuben M. Baker who built the large Victorian structure that would be a mainstay on Bunker Hill for over 70 years.

Designed in the Queen Anne style, the residence had 20 rooms, both a marble and a tile fireplace, and a three story staircase winding up the center of the house. Two of the mansion’s most recognizable features were the stained-glass front door and an overhang on the north side for carriages to pass through to the rear of the property. The curved Mansard roof on the tower and the triangular crown of a front balcony were removed after sustaining damage in the 1933 Long Beach earthquake. The original address of the home was actually 225 S. Bunker Hill Avenue until an ordinance, passed in December 1889, changed street numbering throughout the City, much to the irritation of many an Angeleno.

In March of 1894, grading contractor Daniel F. Donegan purchased the property for $10,500 and moved in with his wife Helen and four children. Though the family lived there for less than ten years, the name Donegan became the one most associated with the house and it has long been believed that the clan were the ones who nicknamed the mansion “the Castle.” A piece of neighborhood lore involved Donegan attempting to clear a nearby rat infested property by offering local children 25 cents for each cat brought to him, to be used as four footed exterminators. Residents were soon irked when their feline pets began to disappear. By 1902, the Donegans had moved, and new owner Colton Russell soon converted the mansion into a boarding house, a role the Castle would play for the next six decades.

 

The Castle in Better Days

During its 60-plus year tenure as a multi-unit residence, the Castle would play host to all walks of life of the City of Angeles. Salesmen, doctors, waiters, elevator operators, miners, firemen, tailors, printers, hotel food checkers (well maybe just one of those), and many others called the Castle home at some point in their lives. When the WPA conducted a census of the area in 1939, 325 S. Bunker Hill Avenue was comprised of fifteen separate units, including a small guest house, built in 1927. The landlord’s family resided in four rooms while the rest of the tenants occupied single rooms and shared six toilets. The majority of the occupants were single, white and over 65 years of age. Rent ranged from $10 to $15 a month and occupancy at the Castle was anywhere from six months to eight years.

What the 1939 census failed to mention, however, was the Castle’s resident ghost.

 

The spook who haunted the Castle could possibly have been a former resident who met their ultimate doom in the mansion. In 1914 Hazel Harding, a 28 year old former school teacher with a history of mental problems, lit herself on fire and jumped out a second story window. She survived the fall, but succumbed to her burns. In December 1928, 66 year Charles Merrifeld shot himself to death with a revolver in one of the rooms. Merrifeld, who committed suicide to escape the effects of poor health, had been the Castle’s landlord with his wife Bertha since 1919. The Widow Merrifeld would continue to oversee, what she advertised as, the Castle Rooms for an additional eight years following her husband’s death. According to residents interviewed for a 1965 Herald Examiner piece, for years the ghost contented himself with one type of action; “Everytime one of the sculptured wooden decorations falls off the wall, Mr. Spook catches it before it can shatter on the ground and deposits it neatly and safely on the front porch. So the crash doesn’t wake up the tenants.” Perhaps Mr. Merrifeld wasn’t quite ready to give up his duties as landlord.

 

The Castle & Salt Box Prepare to Move

In 1955, the Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) announced its plans to overhaul Bunker Hill, and by 1968 the only residences of the bygone era that remained were the Castle and the Salt Box, located at 339 S. Bunker Hill. Both structures were set to be demolished on October 1st of that year, but were saved in the eleventh hour when the Recreation and Parks Commission voted to let the homes reside on city owned land at Homer and Ave 43 in Highland Park. Additionally, the Department of Public Works agreed to move the structures to their new home which would become known as Heritage Square. For the Cultural Heritage Commission, the decision came after a six year battle to save the structures. Once moved, the CHC would then face the task of raising enough money to restore the age-worn buildings.

L.A. Times Headline

The Castle and Salt Box were relocated to their new home in March 1969 using $33,000 appropriated by the City Council and $10,000 from the CRA. Almost immediately the structures were invaded by vandals. On October 9, 1969 both houses were set on fire. Within minutes, the lone survivors of Bunker Hill’s Victorian era were gone forever.

All photos courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection

February 11, 2016 at 12:19 am Leave a comment

Sunshine and Noir

The recent release of George Mann’s 50-year-old color photographs to this site is one of the most remarkable troves of Bunker Hill ephemera we’ve seen in decades. The accompanying photo, for instance, shows just how dilapidated the neighborhood around Angels Flight on Third Street had become by November 1962, when Mann made his final pilgrimage to the doomed neighborhood. The wrecking ball has already claimed the Hill Crest Hotel at the top of the hill on Olive Street, and the Astoria Hotel is a hulking shell of a firetrap just waiting for a match. Standing near the center of the photo is the Sunshine Apartments, looking empty and haunted, but who knows whether a few derelict souls are still inside, refusing to leave until the bulldozers come growling down the hillside?

Bunker Hill’s Sunshine Apartments at 421 West Third Street has been gone now for over forty-five years, but it’s still one of the most familiar unknown houses in Los Angeles. Perched on a ten-feet-high retaining wall above a narrow alley called Clay Street, it sprawled halfway up a steep hill adjacent to a stairway, its only access, opposite Angels Flight. The Sunshine was the sort of multilevel dwelling that novelist John Fante described in Ask the Dust (1939): “It was built on a hillside in reverse, there on the crest of Bunker Hill, built against the decline of the hill, so that the main floor was on the level with the street but the tenth floor was downstairs ten levels.” The only difference is that the Sunshine was only four stories tall and its front, not its sides, conformed to Third Street’s slant, so that the first floor was only half as wide as the second floor.

 

Constructed on vacant property around 1905 to accommodate downtown Los Angeles’s growing need for cheap housing, the Sunshine looked like a huge clapboard farmhouse, with a stack of three unadorned verandas and a couple of Queen Anne touches around the front entrance, which was on the third floor. Midwestern migrants probably found the place comfortably familiar. Inside, a labyrinth of odd-angled hallways, step-downs and staircases connected the Sunshine’s many small apartments.

 

Though it made its film debut as one of Angels Flight’s neighbors in a 1920 comedy called All Jazzed Up, the Sunshine didn’t get its first close-up until 1932, when director James Whale cast it as the home of two downtown working girls (Mae Clark and Una Merkel) in The Impatient Maiden, his follow-up to Frankenstein. Because sound cameras in those days were large and unwieldy, he used a smaller silent camera to shoot the movie’s opening scene on the Third Street steps, as the actresses came out of the Sunshine Apartments and walked up the concrete steps to the Angels Flight station on Olive Street. (The dialogue and traffic sounds were dubbed in later.) Whale shot another scene on the front steps near Clay Street and in the rear of the apartments, where a second set of concrete stairs from Clay to Olive ran between the Sunshine and the much larger Astoria Hotel.

 

But what turned the Sunshine Apartments into a fairly steady (if nameless) character actor was film noir, the mostly post-World War II crime genre that, in its focus on documentary realism, introduced the use of smaller, combat-tested cameras and gritty urban locations to Hollywood cinema. And since—by the mid-1940s—Bunker Hill was a run-down neighborhood of crumbling Victorian mansions, rambling flophouses, and mean, vertiginous streets, it became the perfect setting for film noir’s fascination with the dark side of American prosperity. Despite the Sunshine Apartments’ sunny moniker and relative youth (less than fifty years old), it did a great job portraying a shabby boarding house for desperate and worn-down people.

 

In Paramount’s Night Has a Thousand Eyes (1948), the Sunshine offered low-rent anonymity to a con man (Edward G. Robinson) hiding from his past. Director John Farrow pointedly established its location with an amazing 180-degree shot—taken from Clay Street—that followed one of the Angels Flight cars up from Hill Street, and panned across the top of the hill to catch Robinson’s character hurrying down the concrete steps and up onto the third-floor porch and into the boarding house’s front door. Another shot showed John Lund and Gail Russell approaching the Sunshine’s wooden porch steps from below.

 

That same year, in Universal Pictures’ Criss Cross, director Robert Siodmak used the Sunshine as a rendezvous spot for criminals plotting an armored car robbery. Whereas the protagonists’ apartments in the earlier films were obviously studio creations, some of Criss Cross’s seedy flophouse interiors were shot on location. Granted, a couple of shots that showed either Burt Lancaster or Yvonne DeCarlo standing next to a bay window, with the Angels Flight trolleys moving in the background distance, were done on a sound stage. The footage of the incline railway cars passing each other above Clay Street was taken from the Sunshine (most likely from the third-floor porch, judging from the angle), but the building itself didn’t have any bay windows facing Angels Flight, so the scenes had to have been process shots. On the other hand, the maze of dingy hallways—whose atmosphere one character mockingly dismissed as “Picturesque, ain’t it?”—most likely belonged to the Sunshine Apartments.

 

In another Paramount film, Turning Point (1952), as crusading reporter William Holden and gal pal Alexis Smith ride up Angels Flight, the camera riding with them turns to look across to the Sunshine, where a witness is hiding. But when they walk down the steps from the funicular’s Olive Street station toward the house, they have to duck into a doorway of a nearby building to avoid several thugs standing guard on the Sunshine’s porch.

 

In the low-budget Angel’s Flight (1965), among the last of Bunker Hill’s noirs, Indus Arthur played a stripper and “Bunker Hill serial killer” avenging an early rape by slashing the throats of men who put the moves on her. The scene of that rape, we eventually discover, had been at her one-time home in the Sunshine Apartments.

 

The building also showed up briefly in Act of Violence (MGM, 1949), Joseph Losey’s M (Columbia, 1951), and the cheap Lon Chaney Jr. horror film The Indestructible Man (1956), among others. Documentary filmmaker Edmund Penney introduced his lyrical fifteen-minute film, Angel’s Flight Railway (shot in the early 1960s and again in 1969; released in 1997) by looking across Third Street through the ornate woodwork of the Sunshine’s doorway.

 

The Sunshine Apartments finally had its appointment with the bulldozer around 1965, after Los Angeles’s Community Redevelopment Agency had already torn down many of the other buildings around it. By the time the CRA carted away Angels Flight and the last two surviving houses on Bunker Hill Avenue four years later, the nearly century-old neighborhood of Bunker Hill had ceased to exist.

 

Yet today the Sunshine Apartments survives in old movies, in countless photo- and postcard-tableaux of Angels Flight, and as the most prominent background feature—painted green—in Millard Sheets’ vibrant 1931 oil painting, Angel’s Flight, which is not only one of the most famous works on permanent display at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, but also the logo of the OnBunkerHill.org website.

 

I welcome any further information you may have about the Sunshine Apartments, or any corrections to this blog entry. Even better, I’d love to hear from someone who actually lived or spent time there.

 

For more photos of the Sunshine Apartments, check out www.americanfilmnoir.com/page18.html and www.forum.skyscraperpage.com/showthread.php?p=4855115.

 

Thanks to George Mann’s son Brad Smith, and daughter-in-law Dianne Woods, for allowing us to reprint his copyrighted photograph.

For a representative selection of photographs from his archive, or to license images for reproduction or other use, see http://www.akg-images.co.uk/_customer/london/mailout/1004/georgemann/

November 21, 2015 at 3:55 pm Leave a comment

Farewell, Bunker Hill

John Fante, Los Angeles Times, 1950

I used to live on Bunker Hill. It was my first home in this incredible city. That was in 1932, a time of dreams for me, and of poverty. I had a typewriter and a stack of white paper, and I had my room in a hotel on Bunker Hill.

It cost me $3 a week, that little room, a fabulous sum in those lean days, but I wish I might do it over again, sit in my lilttle room with its worn green carpet, sit there in the high, old-fashioned rocker, eating an orange, my feet on the window, feasting my eyes on the city below. Such dreams for a man! A whole afternoon with the sun pouring down, a whole evening under white, chunky stars. “This is the place,” I used to gasp, “I shall never leave here.”

I never did very much work in those days, never finished more than a short story. It held me, that mysterious little room with its startling view, that lonely Bunker Hill with its ancient buildigns, its quiet streets and lonely trees with here and there a bright spot from which came the scent of singing hamburgers, the crooning voice of Bing Crosby, the soft sound of men speaking and laughing. I remember the cool afternoons, the city below, a film of carbon monoxide choking it, the deep moaning of traffic within the Third St. tunnel, the high frightened squeal of the cable car lurching up Angels’ Flight.

I was highter than the City Hall, higher than the Biltmore, higher than the Richfield Tower. It was paradise. I couldn’t work. I was drugged in dreams, steeped in teh fascination of old houses and gentle eucalyptus trees growing out of the green slopes there on the west side of Bunker Hill. SOmetimes I went down to the library and got a book, some poetry maybe, some gentle and persuasive book, something to read on the hillside, something to put me to sleep under the eucalyptus trees.

Tetsu Hagamore, what has happened to him? He isn’t there now, but in 1932 that wonderful Tetsu had a grocery store at Third and Flower. he used to see me coming, his black eyes laughing as he reached for a big paper sack. Lean days for me sometimes only a nickel a day for food. The old man understood, nodding his head: in Tokyo he had an uncle who was a writer, too. Tough town, Tokyo. Tough for writers. So, Chasso, Verrie, verri tough. Chasso. And Tetsu’s bullet-shaped head bent over the fruit stall: always the same five-pound sack, Tetsu filling it with apples, oranges and bananas. Sometimes I had a dime, sometimes 15r cents. No matter to Tetsu, he always filled the sack. Once he saw me circle his store on the other side of the street. Not even a nickel that day. Tetsu called me. “Chasso,” said Tetsu. “Uncle in Tokyo. Him stahve, too. No gottem nickel. So. Chasso. Taken fruit. So. Takem. Pay rater. So. Thank you so much.”

And the day was saved.

Fruit, fruit, fruit. Apples for breakfast. Oranges for lunch. Bananas for dinner. I used to sit with my feet over the window, watching the city’s lights bursing in the green twilight, my lap piled with banana skins and orange peels. But I liked it, waiting for the darkness, waiting for the night and a prowl through the dismal effugence of Main St. and lower Fifth St. Down the eternal stairs of Angel’s Flight to Hill St. and the blazing inferno below. Down to the Plaza. Down to Chinatown and Olvera St. Down to the jungled bitterness of lower Fifth St., drinking it down, gulping it down, the wild, beautiful, terrible city. The midnight and the slow pull up the steep stairs of Angel’s Flight, counting the stairs just for the fun of it, always getting mixed up after a hundred, happy to reach my hotel, grateful for the hard bed in my little room, its sheets so worn and thin you saw the striped mattress beneath. And there to lie and watch the neon lights jumping red and blue across the foot of the bed, my head whirling with a jumble of panting sensations. Gala days, those Old Buniker Hill, I loved you then!

Strange people in that hotel. Strangers from Ohio, from New York, from Indiana. Suspicious folk, lonely folk, hating their suspicion, eager to quench their loneliness, but afraid, afraid. Or what? they didn’t know. They had been warned: Los Angeles, bad, be very careful of strangers.

I used to sit on the porch and watch them in the evenings as they returned from the roaring city below. Their eyes were startled, their mouths open, their breaths coming hard after the steep climb. Gratefully they threw themselves into porch rockers and gazed in confusion at the mysterious sky. The quiet hill relaxed them, the swishing, palms told them they had returned to their earth again, back from the crazy whirl below. Their limbs san with gratitude for Bunker Kill, the softness of children filed their harried eyes.

I knew a few of them. Mr. H. lived next door. “H.,” retired from the Army with a meager pension, had scarcely enough money to pay his liquor bills. Often poor H. had to abstain from gin three and four days a month. He was so miserable there in his room, always naked under a gray bathrobe that showed hair and bones beneath, stumbling barefoot through a litter of empty gin bottles, forced to survive on cheap wine until the next check arrived. At night I could hear him in bed, tossing and groaning, smoking cigarettes and scratching matches savagely against the wall, denouncing his life, the government, the earth, mankind and particularly the lousy wine which clucked his throat like a hen.

On the other side was Mrs. C., a widow, tall, gaunt, ferocious, uncommunicative, not even a nod when you met her in the hall and said hello. She has come from Battle Creek, Mich., and she was the oldest guest in the hotel, having lived in the same room for 22 years.

Occasionally I saw the inside of Mrs. C’s room, especially in the hot, afternoons, when she opened the door for the cooling draft. It made you gasp. To the very ceiling it was piled with boxes and trunks and old newspapers. What one saw of the walls was covered by Hy-specked daguerreotypes in heavy gold frames, pictures of men and women long deal, their grim faces defying complete obliteration.

Mrs. C.’s key box was beside mine behind the clerk’s desk. In all the months I lived there I never saw Mrs. C. get a letter. But every afternoon her mail box contained a new piece of mail: The Battle Creek News. Half of her room was piled to the ceiling with back numbers.

And there was the lad named Cross, who washed dishes at Bernstein’s, and dreamed of the day when there would be money enough to return to Sydney, Australia. He had to have a stake. he had to return home with the appearances of a rich young man. It was his plan for vindication, for he had run away from home three years before and had got himself into serious trouble with his folks, writing them that he was a big executive in the lumber business.

And Jullo, the Filipino, a bellhop at the Biltmore who wrote novels in his spare time, wrote novels with the facility of a boy scrawling his name on a back fence. Julio, the pest, who wrote a couple of novels a month and brought them to me for criticism. And Elaine, the shady, lovely Elaine, who arrived quietly at night and for two weeks had the hotel humming like a beehive with gossip; Elaine, who did a grand business around there, until the landlady found out and ordered her to leave.

And Leon from San Francisco, always shouting in the lobby, denouncing Los Angeles endlessly, praising San Francisco with such fury no one dared dispute him. And Miss L., always draped in black, her small, white lips perpetually smiling, so that the smile gradually became somewhat sinister: Miss L, always scurrying to the library and returning with an armload of theosophic books. Miss L., was a student of palmistry and card reading. She claimed a great knowledge of dogs and pets, but one day the landlady’s wirehaired terrier come down with distemper and Miss L went screaming down the halls, shouting, “Run for your lives! Run for your lives!” She believed distemper brought influenza and tuberculosis to humans, and they had a hard time quieting her. She locked herself in her room and sprinkled the walls and carpets with lysol. For weeks he held our noses as we passed her door.

The dream of Miss L.’s life was to set up a little parlor where, for small sums, she could read palms, coffee cups, tea leaves and head bumps. The loafers int he lobby had some curious interpretations of Miss L.’s strange machinations, but they are unprintable.

But they are gone now, these people scattered like dust. Everything changes, and for better or worse the change came for me, and the years have trickled away, and Bunker Hill is only a memory. But it lives on. It gave my thought food and drink, It sated myh hunger for life, despite the harsh rigors of straight, fruit diet during those heroic months.

Everything changes, and now Bunker Hill faces change. It seemed timeless, and now they are putting it away. The papers carry the story; the old Bunker Hill must go. The old hotels, the brave palms, the quiet streets- away with all of them! They are going to tear Bunker Hill down, or build it up, or wipe it out, or something. It hurts me. I set my lips and inhale my cigarettes and smile. Those precious months! Those tender nights! How shall I mark them? Where shall I go to find their souvenirs?

They are changing Bunker Hill, yes, but in my heart the palms sigh, the little plots of grass on the slopes remain forever green and a boy’s kite lies helplessly entangled in the branches of a brave eucalyptus tree.

September 3, 2015 at 2:25 am Leave a comment

Welcome to My Bunker Hill

Come walk with me on Bunker Hill. I don’t mean now, for we won’t pass California Plaza or Wells Fargo Center. We won’t see MOCA or Disney Hall. We will see Angels Flight, but it will be on the corner of 3rd Street and Hill next to the tunnel, and it will be running, so we can take a ride. I mean come with me to my Bunker Hill, the old Bunker Hill, the one where I lived in the 1940’s, 50’s, and 60’s when it was a residential area. Of course, Bunker Hill was much older than that. It was developed in the late 19th Century when its lovely old Victorian buildings were built. That was its charm. Every building was different, all with intersecting angles, curved verandas, and turrets, domes, carved details, light and shadows. And they all had names like the Chaspeak, the Argyle, the Nugent, the Lovejoy, the Melrose, the Salt Box, and the Castle.

Board Angels Flight with me as we so often did on shopping trips to downtown. Sit next to me in my seat, the open one at the back of Sinai or Olivet where I always sat. Our fellow passengers are my neighbors. In the morning or early evening they would be people commuting between their homes on Bunker Hill and their jobs downtown. Other times they might be mothers with their children on their way to shop downtown just like my mother and I did at Grand Central Market or the department stores and myriad other shops. In the evening, there would be couples going to see a movie at one of the movie palaces down on Broadway. Many passengers are elderly residents of Bunker Hill who were called “pensioners” at the time. Today we would call them the elderly poor, for Bunker Hill in those days had become the home of lower income residents. It was also home to many artists and writers as well as a large number of first generation immigrants from Europe and South America. They all lived there because that’s where they could afford to live and because most all your needs could be met within walking distance. Many residents didn’t own cars, they didn’t need them.

On our way up Bunker Hill on Angels Flight we pass the Sunshine Apartments where Burt Lancaster, Dan Duryea, and Yvonne De Carlo plotted the armored car robbery in the movie Criss Cross.’ As we get off the car at the top, remember to put your nickel, or your ticket if you are a regular rider and bought a ticket book, in the slot at the station house where the operator of the world’s shortest railway sat wearing his railroad cap. Nice fellow, but didn’t talk much. Now we cross Olive Street and walk West up 3rd Street through the small commercial area. We pass a café, a shoe repair, a laundry, the Budget Basket market, and Angels Flight Pharmacy. Maybe we stop in to purchase something or just to talk to the grocer or the pharmacist. Maybe we buy a newspaper from the one armed man who runs the newsstand there at 3rd and Grand.There are always a couple of neighborhood locals sitting on milk crates smoking cigarettes chatting with him and passersby.

Now let’s cross Grand Avenue and go cattycorner to the Nugent Delicatessen. Because this a hot August day, I like to stop in and get a bottle of Pepsi Cola from the cooler. Somehow, it’s the best Pepsi I ever had and it’s only 10 cents. Dick Powell thought so, because he walked in there in the movie, Cry Danger’ right past the cooler with the bottles inside.

Now we walk up the short hill to where 3rd Street dead ends at South Bunker Hill Avenue. There is a little park on the West side of the street where the benches are filled with elderly gentlemen of the neighborhood feeding the pigeons, playing chess, reading the papers, and discussing the ways of the world. Even on this hot day they are all dressed in suits with ties and wearing hats. As we stand there looking West, on our right is the Alta Vista Apartments where another of our neighbors, the writer John Fante (and his alter-ego, Arturo Bandini), lived some of his best loved, if impoverished, days.

Now let’s turn and head south on South Bunker Hill Avenue because we are almost home to my house, the “Castle.” My grandmother bought it and the Victorian next door in 1937 and my father inherited them when she died. Her brother, Mickey, owned the “Salt Box” next door. Another brother, Laurence, owned the Crestholme down on the corner of 4th and South Bunker Hill Avenue. The “Castle” was a beautiful 3 story Victorian built in the 1880’s when Bunker Hill was the home of Los Angeles’ elite. Soon after the turn of the 20th Century, it became a rooming house when the neighborhood changed. We rent out rooms to our tenants, most of whom are elderly. As we get to the “Castle,” we turn and go up the walk, climb the front stairs and cross the veranda to the stained glass double front doors. Turning the cast iron door knob, we go through to the front entry hall, under the chandelier, past the grand staircase and into the front parlor. I am home in the benevolent embrace of this grand old Victorian. Like all the other Victorians on Bunker Hill, it had a quiet dignity and timelessness that I miss.

Bunker Hill was a mature, quiet urban neighborhood with well-tended yards. It was not the “blighted slum” that propaganda of the time said it was. Instead, it was a tranquil oasis above the busy city down below. If I still lived in the Castle, I’d invite you in. But I don’t live there anymore. In fact, none of us who once made up this neighborhood community lives there now because Old Bunker Hill was ripped from the heart of Los Angeles 50 years ago. Before too many more years, it will pass from Los Angeles’ living memory. But Old Bunker Hill isn’t really gone. Instead, it floats ethereally in memory and in our hearts above Hope and Grand, Olive and Hill.

September 3, 2015 at 2:06 am Leave a comment

What I Did In The Chalk Wars

"If they are ignored, [Alice] Callaghan worries, the dangers of handing the streets over to private security forces will only grow. ‘Until they begin interfering with the rights of middle-class people,’ she says, ‘you won’t have anybody crying about it. But by then, it will be too late.’" – Ben Ehrenreich, L.A. Weekly, May 24, 2001

Downtown Los Angeles is my beat. 

The fine old business and entertainment district, left nearly untouched as the city threw out her arms in postwar sprawl, is presently growing a new cycle of memories with the adaptive reuse of long-empty office buildings into high-priced loft apartments.

But for all the considerable #DTLA hype, the really interesting stuff is found layers beneath the trendy bars and cafes, the developer-subsidized gallery scene and the mainly young, white, upwardly-mobile residents exploring the pleasures and challenges of life in a transitional urban community.

When you know where to look, downtown is pocked with lore, loss and loveliness: unsolved murders, gorgeous architecture, hidden bootleg and subway tunnels, dilapidated movie palaces turned megachurches, amethyst glass sidewalks illuminating sealed basements–even the actual shabby hotel lobbies where a young Raymond Chandler observed the characters who’d inhabit his noir narratives.

For many years, the main threats facing these evocative spaces were entropy, earthquake and disinterest.

Then came gentrification. And Occupy. And chalk.

Chalk Walk facebook invite, July 12 2012

The developers arrived in 1999, palms open for handouts from a Redevelopment Agency that had long since redefined the blight it was formed to combat. Rough streets made hard pillows for thousands, while up above, market-rate renters coddled doggies behind steel doors. Big chunks of Main Street, long the eastern Maginot Line behind which the needy were corralled, were snapped up by a favored developer, and the rescue missions and social service agencies were shooed further east, towards the concrete barrier of the L.A. River.

The Occupy LA encampment sprung up around our iconic City Hall on October 1, 2011, was initially welcomed by Mayor and City Council, and forcefully evicted by LAPD on November 30. The threatened bill to taxpayers, mainly for police overtime, hovers around $4 Million. There has been no suggestion that the public officials who asked protesters to stay might be held liable for any of these costs.

Pushed out of the core of downtown, not wanting to fold up their (figurative if not always literal) tents, some Occupiers found themselves at the "other" local Occupation, the media-invisible Occupy Skid Row encampment at 4th and Towne Streets.

Occupy Skid Row was, until its summer 2012 LAPD / County Health Department eviction, the longest surviving American Occupy camp. Unlike occupations in urban centers, this one grew up in a neighborhood that was already home to thousands of poor, addicted, ill and needy citizens. In a city that has failed over decades to deal humanely and effectively with the homeless, a few more tents bedecked with idealistic slogans made no difference… at least at first.

But as the City Hall contingent got familiar with the rhythms of life on Skid Row, and spent more time with socially-conscious homeless citizens and activists, they got an education in the unique social justice challenges facing the poor and homeless when they sought to cross back over Main Street into gentrified Downtown.

You see, gentrification doesn’t just happen. It has to be helped along. There are a number of effective tools at the disposal of developers seeking to make their buildings more appealing to renters and businesses. But not just any tenants: they need a very specialized group of early adopters who, when properly primed, will serve as an unpaid street team, marketing the value of the community as they revel in their status as "urban pioneers." History shows that soon after bohemians populate a depressed urban neighborhood, wealthy people with bohemian tastes will follow. Then it’s bye-bye bohemians. It was ever thus.

Some gentrification tools are transformative: lease large ground-floor spaces to gallerists willing to take a chance in a bad neighborhood in exchange for five years of negligible rent; don’t charge pet deposits; subsidize an Art Walk; open restaurants that keep extended hours to create a community space.

Other tools are restrictive. It seems such a small step from having security guards inside locked lobbies and garages to instructing maintenance crews to hose down the sidewalks at 4am to dispatching teams of security guards to enforce the social order through intimidation and walkie-talkies that connect directly to the real police.

But that small step is the distance from private property to public space, and in the New Downtown, that’s a distinction that’s blurred and frequently abused by "The Shirts," the color-coded security details employed by varied BID (Business Improvement District) entities that have carved up Downtown into discrete zones.

The city doesn’t clean the streets frequently enough? Don’t pester your Councilman; the BID will do it. Insufficient police presence to deter drug dealing and prostitution? Nothing a crew of beefy guys on bikes and Segways can’t handle. And why should anyone complain? BIDs are financed through commercial property tax diversion, not out of residents’ pockets, and everyone benefits from cleaner, safer streets.

The problem is that when a business lobby takes over civic services, they absorb civic power, with none of the accountability. Residents are encouraged to simply call the BID when they see something troubling on the streets, and a crew will show up and "deal with" the problem. (Conveniently, crimes reported to BID security are not recorded in LAPD crime statistics, making BID-protected neighborhoods appear safer than they really are.)

And as landlords make decisions about which sort of people are allowed to stroll or linger, unmolested, on public streets, a chilling effect spreads. Tired of being hassled, the poor and the undocumented and the weird stay away. Demographics normalize. Rents go up. Yoga studios move in. It’s an urban redevelopment success story– at least it looks that way on the surface.

Seeking a fresh focus for a movement that had grown bored with the dry crimes of banks, Occupy LA activists decided to drill beneath Downtown’s surface. What they found was the woman behind the curtain: Carol Schatz, President and CEO of the Central City Association and of the Downtown Center BID. Ms. Schatz and the powerful organizations she controls are well-known in the business community, but obscure to the general public.

In late May 2012, a decision was made by Occupy LA, LA CAN, Occupy The Hood, Occupy Skid Row, Hippie Kitchen, Los Angeles Catholic Worker and other community groups and individuals to establish a protest camp on the public sidewalk outside CCA’s headquarters at 626 Wilshire. The intent was to draw attention to ways in which the CCA’s Downtown 2020: Roadmap to L.A.’s Urban Future position paper (PDF link) seeks to criminalize homelessness and poverty in order to create a more business-friendly environment.

The protest was peaceful, if occasionally disruptive to those doing business at 626 Wilshire. Tents were set up on the sidewalk in the evening, and removed in the morning as workers arrived. Occasional daytime protests were scheduled to coincide with large meetings of CCA member organizations. Discussion groups gathered, drums were pounded, security guards razzed and preached to, dissenting messages scrawled in chalk on the sidewalk. The peculiar orientation of the building, one very short block from where Wilshire dead ends, meant that during the night camps there was minimal foot traffic and no impediment to local business.

The plan was to camp out for a week–and considering that the campers got few visitors and received no media attention, the protesters would almost certainly have moved on, had they not been subject to unwarranted police harassment.

I dropped by 626 Wilshire a few nights after the camp was formed. Perhaps a dozen people were gathered on the sidewalk. They were a varied group: men, women, multi-racial. A young man and an older woman approached me separately, and each made pleasant conversation about social justice issues. They seemed happy to have someone new to talk with. Across the street, I saw an LAPD patrol car parked with two officers in it. Around the corner, a second black and white lurked. It seemed an excessive response for a peaceful gathering on a public sidewalk.

Within days, word filtered out through Occupy LA’s social media accounts that protesters were being arrested for chalking.

Still, there was no press attention. No criminal charges were filed. The arrests continued. People felt intimidated and angry. The "siege" was indefinitely extended. 

Several individuals organized a Chalk Walk on July 12, during the monthly Downtown Art Walk, in order to bring the story of the arrests to a wider audience. The slogan was FREE CHALK FOR FREE SPEECH. Most participants were members of Occupy LA, although it was not an official OLA event.

Original Chalk Walk flier, July 12 2012

That Thursday around 7pm, about two dozen people gathered on Spring Street between Fifth and Sixth Streets handed out sticks of washable sidewalk chalk wrapped in information about the CCA protests and chalking arrests to Art Walk attendees.

By 7:15pm, the protesters were surrounded by approximately 40 LAPD officers, and the first chalking arrest was made. Many people stopped and chalked. As dusk fell, the police presence grew, and more people were arrested. At 9pm, police donned riot helmets, and many of the protesters left for a planned fundraiser. At 9:15pm, there were so many police massed on Fifth Street that traffic was impeded and a curious crowd formed.

Around 9:30pm, the rough arrest of a petite woman incensed the gathering crowd, and they poured into the intersection. The police responded with riot tactics, breaking up the crowd by running three skirmish lines: north, south and west. At 10pm, the first less-lethal projectiles were fired. As the police moved south into the commercial heart of the Historic Core, they begin closing galleries, restaurants and residential buildings and not permitting anyone to enter or exit. 

Rubber bullet wound, Downtown Los Angeles Art Walk attendee, July 12 2012

By the night’s end, at least three Art Walk attendees would suffer beanbag wounds to their torsos, and one to his face, 17 people would be arrested, two police officers would suffer minor injuries, thousands of people would be terrorized, and numerous artists, vendors, galleries, restaurants, bars and food trucks would suffer financial harm.

A troubling toll, and yet it’s hard to see the event as a failure, since the goal of raising consciousness was achieved. On Wednesday night, the CCA was a mystery. By Friday morning, it was the centerpiece of a dozen newspaper articles, some nationally syndicated. Complex issues like the dark side of gentrification, private security in public spaces, and the criminalization of poverty got a rare airing. And suddenly, Occupy LA was as relevant as it had ever been.

As the August 9 Art Walk approached, tensions were high over what role chalk protests and Occupy might play. My husband Richard Schave and I, as the people who had run and put the Art Walk into a non-profit in 2009, only to be forced out due to sabotage by the local BID director, were approached by a member of Occupy LA who was concerned about the potential for further violence. We reached out to the Mayor’s Office and to the Art Walk Task Force seeking dialog, and helped organize a Town Hall meeting, where activists, artists, vendors, business people and residents shared their concerns, frustrations and hopes for peace.

Days passed. Some worried because The Fresh Juice Party, chalk muralists affiliated with Occupy Oakland, planned to attend Chalk Walk 2. Police spokesmen said anyone chalking would be jailed–and indeed several muralists were detained and one arrested. But as darkness fell, the police pulled away from Pershing Square, where the protesters were gathered around a large cartoon mural of a lion and a duck with a word bubble message "I ♥ The 1st Amendment / Chalkupy!" 

Chalkupy video screen grab from peteyk's footage, Pershing Square, August 9 2012

A young woman stood on the mural, hula hooping. Folksinger Michelle Shocked, who has been using the name Michelle Chocked for anti-BID art actions, played a set. A couple of Fresh Juice Partiers donned animal costumes, and brought their mural to life with a slapstick chase. People crowded around the wide concrete wall, inscribed with a quote from Nation editor Carey McWilliams about the lively community of oddballs that inhabited Pershing Square in the 1930s, and chalked words and pictures in a riot of color and expression.

It was the best party Pershing Square had seen in decades. And the next morning, the press praised all concerned for restraining themselves on a battleground that wasn’t really a battleground, just a square block in the heart of the city, where after much tension and blessed release, we saw what was possible when fun overruled fear, and art trumped enforcement.

And on an urban stage where the actors can appear to be placed in the pose of scrappy street fighters vs. armored warriors, with reporters in helicopters screaming "Occupy Riot at Art Walk!" to footage showing no such thing, the fact is that Occupy can still turn, fluid as an eel, and transform the scene, the context and the conversation surrounding a local injustice. It’s more than a little uncanny, and thrilling to watch. And anyone who is counting this magickal child out as she approaches her first birthday hasn’t been paying attention.

Downtown is still a mess, albeit a beautiful one. And the war’s not over, not by a long chalk. But there’s hope on the wind, and humor, and dialogue. And no telling how these creative protests will change us next.

This essay was originally published in Occupy! #5.


Occupy!
is an OWS-inspired gazette, published by n+1.

http://nplusonemag.com/occupy

 

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Sources

Chalk Walk timeline in video and photographs – http://ccacdtla.wordpress.com/

626 Wilshire protest website – http://626wilshire.wikispaces.com/

Michelle Chocked video for "Graffiti Limbo" – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wi-K2cDDeEU

Fresh Juice Party performance at Chalk Walk 2 – http://www.ustream.tv/recorded/24595035/highlight/284179

Chalk Walk 2 video – http://peteyk.com/?p=538

"Downtown 2020: Roadmap to L.A.’s Urban Future" – http://ccala.org/downloads/DT2020legislativeprioritiesJan2012.pdf

September 21, 2013 at 3:50 pm Leave a comment

Looking Backward: Depopulating Pershing Square, 2012-1954

In 1905, when George Santayana wrote, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it," we can be quite certain that he was not sitting in an east-facing room of the Biltmore Hotel, looking out over Pershing Square. That’s because the hotel didn’t exist yet, and L.A.’s old public square was still called Central Park. 

But the philosophers’ words seem very apt as we reflect on the oddly familiar reports coming out of Pershing Square, City Hall and the press this week.

If you want to know what’s happening in 2012, it’s easy enough to follow that trail… bearing in mind that business groups that are able to pay lobbyists and publicists and who donate to politicians always have an edge when it comes to getting their perspectives heard. (An alternative view is here.)

police bombs rout 1931

Los Angeles Times, October 31, 1931

Here On Bunker Hill, we’d rather cast an eye backwards, in hopes that by reminding the players in our modern comedy of the old roles they are inhabiting, that their performances will be more thoughtful and humane.

Behold, Pershing Square in the middle 1950s! This north-facing photograph, shot in 3-D Technicolor by the celebrated vaudeville dancer (and chronicler of Bunker Hill) George Mann, has not been seen in nearly fifty years. It is one of four vintage images of the park just discovered in Mann’s archive, and scanned especially for inclusion in this blog post by Dianne Woods.

 

PS 001c 150dpi

photo: George Mann

Here we see the plain and grassy park as it was remade, following the controversial construction of an underground parking lot and civil defense shelter. Gone are the beloved walkways and mature tree cover that were for decades the symbols of the place, and cause for concern by moralists who raved that the bushes were filled with libertines and the shady spots with loudmouthed loons. Fine old trees have been replaced by fast-growing bamboo and a few anemic rose bushes.  

Compared to the old Pershing Square, this park is a dump.  

pershing square aerial view postcard

Pershing Square as it was

And yet, along the semi-shaded benches that line the lawn, many dozens of people have gathered in the heat of the day–so many that some must stand, or venture out onto the lawn to sit on low walls in full sun. 

in the sun

photo: George Mann (detail)]

Although the park’s designers sought through the redesign to make the space less hospitable for loitering, the urge of the people to come together in the commons proved stronger than the grim psychological landscape.  

We see that it is a multi-racial crowd, mainly men, nearly all middle-aged or elderly. Among them must be a number of the 9000 denizens of single rooms up on Bunker Hill, the voiceless many who will in just a few years be cast to the winds after the largest eminent domain action in US history.  

PS 002N 150dpi

photo: George Mann

Over in the northeast corner, a young black man in a natty brown sport coat seems to be taking advantage of the crowd’s idle attentions to practice his oration. Just behind, elevated on a box, a fellow all in white gestures meaningfully to a man who looks interested, if perhaps a little bit afraid. 

speakers corner detail

photo: George Mann (detail)

speech is free and noisy 1953

This area was our speaker’s corner, much like the famous one in Hyde Park, London, a loud, strange, loathed and beloved zone of free expression (and gleeful heckling) that was over the decades subject to repeated suppression attempts by business groups and politicians. The names of these powerful entities may be different, but their complaints and tactics have scarcely changed in six decades. 

our hyde park crop

letter to the editor, Los Angeles Times, March 18, 1953 

The problem then as now, of course, was that after being instructed crack down on "undesirable" behavior within the park’s borders, the unsubtle mind of a beat cop was pressed to its limits by the appearance of such unusual public activity as the impromptu June 1955 attempt by fifteen young classical musicians to perform Handel’s "Water Music" beside the park’s fountain. 

It was weird, it was different–of course it must be against the rules.

"Not on my beat! No permit, no music!" exclaimed Patrolman Bill Shirley, headless of the cries from the people of the park to just let the kids play. Once the Young Artists Chamber Orchestra had been shooed away, a reporter watched as a group of Bunker Hill regulars sang along to a hymn played on guitar and concertina. Officer Shirley had no complaint, for this was a daily feature of park life.

no place to play headline 

Similarly, in August 2012 when a group of chalk artists came from Oakland, at their own expense, to create a sidewalk mural during the Downtown Art Walk, they were harassed by police and private security guards, the media and blogosphere fretted that they might be planning violence, and one of the artists was arrested. 

But let’s get back to Pershing Square history. Like September 1963,when  a colorful group of about forty Pershing Square habitués including one "Stoolpigeon Mary" protested plans by the Rec and Parks Department to further diminish the already compromised layout of the park, removing the few trees and benches and narrowing the pathways. 

This $100,000 proposal, financed by parking revenues, was loudly denounced as an attack of the "rich against the poor." The ragged citizens marched together to City Hall to decry these actions of the wealthy, those lucky ones who had air-conditioned offices, luxurious homes and private clubs at their disposal, and yet seemed so intent on taking away the one place where the poor of downtown could escape their hot single rooms and enjoy each others’ company in a natural setting.

stoolpigeon mary

Photo: Los Angeles Times

And indeed, the main proponents of the 1963 "beautification" plan–one misstep of many towards the hideous concrete hell that is today’s Pershing Square–were the Downtown Business Men’s Association (known now as the Central City Association) and Mayor Sam Yorty, who would later be voted among the worst three big city leaders in American history. Mayor Yorty expressed concern in particular that the park had become a haven for "undesirables" who frightened females.

The truth was that there were unafraid women to be found in Pershing Square, but never so many as the men. But we know of them from accounts of how they preached or sang the gospel, or cared for the birds like the much-loved retired telephone operator Pigeon Goldie Osgood (whose 1964 murder in the Cecil Hotel was never solved). George Mann’s newly rediscovered photograph suggests that the ladies preferred the shady, less crowded corners of the square. 

PS 003N 150dpi

photo: George Mann

The last Pershing Square photo in the set shows the scene looking west towards the Biltmore Hotel from near the corner of Sixth and Hill, not far from where the Occupy LA protest group holds its thrice-weekly general assemblies today.  

PS 005b 150 dpi

photo: George Mann

The path is shady, and an old man bends to drink from the water fountain. A woman, perhaps holding a petition, has engaged a seated man in earnest conversation.  

petition

photo: George Mann (detail)

Beside the tall statue of the doughboy on his plinth, we see a man whose body language evokes the classical portrayal of melancholy.   

melancholia

photo: George Mann (detail)

There’s something beautiful in his solitary desperation, a formal elegance in the body’s compact lines–and also a sense of hope because, as lonesome and pained as this individual appears, he still was able to take his place in the lively public park with all the other souls of the city, not shooed or hidden away as an undesirable, but there on the wall as a member of a community. The park was there to accept all comers, to give them a safe place to rest, cool water, human company and a breeze off the fountain. 

Bunker Hill Box 150dpi

Such are the vibrant scenes that emerge from a box tucked away many decades ago by a tall, funny man who went out into his native city looking for images that would resonate as uniquely of Los Angeles. He went, of course, to Pershing Square, and to Bunker Hill, and to the Plaza and Olvera Street. Of the three, Bunker Hill is gone forever, the Plaza is a tourist attraction and still a place for the people to gather, and Pershing  Square is in terrible peril. 

Pershing Square is today far, far worse than the 1950s redesign, or the 1960s one, or the 1980s one. With each change, the park has become less accessible, more restrictive, less green, less vibrant. This is a place where it takes longer to read the rules of what is not allowed than to walk right into the park and out again.

Pershing Square signage

If "Stoolpigeon Mary" and her friends could see what’s been done to Pershing Square since they marched to City Hall in 1963, they would be horrified–but probably not surprised. For the current iteration of the park–a sprawling hardscape broken up by confusing walls and a rarely-functioning, nearly-waterless fountain, historic figures relegated to a Sculpture Ghetto that doubles as a dog run, the small patch of grass roped off, the benches deliberately divided to deter anyone from even thinking about lying down–is a space designed by the wrong people for the wrong reasons.

Richard Schave with tour guests in Pershing Square

Esotouric tour guide Richard Schave explains the problems

So why is Pershing Square so awful?  


Fear and money
, two powerful forces that don’t belong anywhere near a public park. Money came to the park in the form of the city-owned underground parking lot, for which the old trees and paths and fountain were ripped up in 1951, in the first assault upon its heart. 

Fear came to the park in the form of a civil defense shelter, hidden away within the garage, and later in attempts to legislate and design away the park’s appeal to undesirable Angelenos: communists, homosexuals, the poor, the mad, the homeless, the old, the revolutionary, the anti-social, the voiceless. 

Fear and money are good for politicians, but very bad for public policy and public space. Try to imagine any one of the great parks of the world, forced to bend to these two incompatible motivations. Imagine the lawns of Central Park, roped off so nobody can rest on them. Or the Serpentine pond in London, drained down to the rocks. Or Griffith Park, its paths covered over in concrete, its trees cut back to eliminate the shade. 

Fear is no way to design a city. 

It is not too late for Pershing Square to again be a great public space, but it’s going to require great courage by our civic leaders to reject false and alarming narratives of "decadent" misbehavior and harm to phantom businesses, and to stand up for the precepts on which America was founded. And it will require that our people involve themselves is a space that defies involvement, and demand something better for themselves and for people not at all like them. 

Let these beautiful and powerful images, sent across the decades from the eye of the great George Mann, give us all a star to steer by. Let’s not be afraid of one another or of how our fellow citizens might behave. Let us instead make a fine place in which to be fine people, and see what surprises await us there.

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If you would like to be involved in the development of a more humane and inspiring Pershing Square, please join the Pershing Square People Improvement District

Kim Cooper, editrix, On Bunker Hill 

 

November 21, 2012 at 4:08 pm 1 comment

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