Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Gridded Garden Grove, Charming if Repetitive and Automobilized

Last Friday I participated in a group classwork project that involved doing lite ethnographic work in Garden Grove, a city in north Orange County. I knew I'd be grossed out by the automobilized streets, but I didn't expect to be so charmed by the midcentury architecture.

Garden Grove was incorporated as a city in 1956.
It looks it.

A lot of the houses look like this little ranch number.

This is the high school auditorium that sits in their civic center.

An apartment building.

The only gated community in Garden Grove, according to a native.

Typical channelized waterway. This one cuts through a neighborhood and appears to be ignored as much as possible.

Little gingerbread cottages with lovely yards and cute eaves, facing a busy four lane collector street.

On Chapman Avenue, a busy arterial, I saw a lone bicyclist on that rainy Friday morning.

At the Garden Grove Promenade, a glorified strip mall, bicycle wheels can apparently compress themselves enough to fit on this rack that sits about twelve inches from a stucco wall. Or it's useless, one or the other.

Post office, in style.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Bunker Hill in Exile

So as I was saying on this blog just the other day, I'd love to be able to time travel to Bunker Hill in the 1920s.

I've found a way to do something quite similar, it turns out: Kent Mackenzie's 1961 The Exiles uses Bunker Hill as a setting for its ethnographic, neorealist representation of midcentury Native American life in Los Angeles.

I'd first heard about this film in Los Angeles Plays Itself, Thom Andersen's wonderful meditation on Los Angeles as a cinematic device, but I've been in love with the idea of Bunker Hill since I learned about it in an urban anthropology class. I grew up thinking of Los Angeles as nothing more than a continuation of the strip malls I knew in Orange County; trips on the train to Olvera Street made me think that all LA had been in the past was a pueblito inhabited by some glorious Mexican families. Starved of old buildings, I thrilled to the Victorian neighborhoods of Portland when I moved there for school. Little did I know that LA had its own hill covered with fantastical domes and spires.

It did.

Both of these pictures were taken by photographer William Reagh in 1964 as the Community Redevelopment Agency moved forward with plans to demolish the entire neighborhood of Bunker Hill. I got them from the photo collection of the Los Angeles Public Library website.

There are lots of Bunker Hill fans in Los Angeles, exhaustively comprehensive fans, like the ones who write On Bunker Hill.

The traces of Bunker Hill that can be seen in photographs and in movies and in books like John Fante's Ask the Dust often evoke quiet sadness. The Exiles did the same, with its focus on Native Americans living on the fringes of the 1950s. I found in the film a perfect intersection of aesthetic impulse and humanistic conviction, a beautiful exploration of faces and façades in glowing light.

Kent Mackenzie also did a short film called Bunker Hill - 1956 in which he uses interviews and footage of daily life in the neighborhood to try and build a case for its survival.

He and all the others who championed that cause failed, and now Bunker Hill sits covered in postmodern sprawl and empty sores of lots that have never had those old Victorian bones replaced by the modernist fantasies of the developers. But he succeeded in creating a representation of a time-space that continues to inspire us to look for a secret Los Angeles beneath our footsteps.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Halls in Downtown LA

Yesterday I got to listen while my cicLAvia collaborators proposed and defended a very serviceable route to city workers at City Hall. One day soon there will be a ciclovía in Los Angeles, and I'll be quite proud to say that I helped make it happen.

The interior of City Hall has fabulous details like this ship on the ground in the middle of a grand hall on the third floor, in the unused main entrance to the building.

After I left the meeting and headed toward Sunset to get the bus to Echo Park, I passed the Hall of Justice on Temple.

This building has always been a landmark to me, from when I used to visit LA primarily by passing through it on the 101 as my family made our way up to the bay area. You have a rather spectacular view of the building from the freeway because it is below grade at this point.

There's really nothing like this where I'm from, down in South Orange County, so it impressed me a lot when I was a kid.

It sits empty now, having been damaged in the Northridge earthquake in 1994.

Here's a cool picture of what it used to look like when it had some interesting friend buildings, all gone and replaced by various midcentury blocks.

Those newer buildings have their own charms, but man, I'd love to time travel to LA in the 1920s, and walk the streets of Bunker Hill.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Western Dental

I just went to the dentist for the first time in several years. My university's health insurance plan contracts with Western Dental, and there happens to be an outpost of that chain very close to my apartment. I left the house at 9:52 am and made it there on my bike by 9:59 am.

Then I sat in a very strange, crowded waiting room for an hour and fifteen minutes. All chairs in the waiting room faced one direction, as though we were waiting to see a performance, but instead of an entertainer there was just a television playing the History Channel.

The marked contrast between this dingy storefront and the dentists I saw growing up in Orange County reminded me in a superficial way of the inequalities people face in health care. My childhood dentist, who I later heard was a recovering cocaine addict, had a plush office with brain-teaser toys in the waiting room. I got to learn and grow while waiting for them to pamper my teeth. Then I would doze off, lost in the pastel prints of Laguna Beach hanging on the walls of the exam rooms.

Later, when I became involved in that common form of cosmetic work, orthodontia, my orthodontist disgusted me by being a Newport Beach-style d-bag who flirted with the dental hygienists and whose vanity license plate on his sports car proclaimed his membership in the particular orthodontic dynasty to which he belonged. Redmond maybe? But still, there were spacious waiting rooms and magazines and toys and things.

In the Western Dental waiting room, only a crayon-covered table and chairs seemed oriented toward children, and the chairs were all stacked on the table like in an after-hours bar scene in a movie.

I used to see Western Dental ads on TV, and I remember thinking, gosh, I wouldn't go to a dentist I saw on TV. That'd be like going to Larry H. Parker or something.

My dentist was very nice, assuring me that he liked my backpack, my bike muscles (I think I was showing too much leg), and my choice of a career. He also told me that I have no cavities.

Can't argue with that, Western Dental!

Bottega Louie on Yelp

This relatively new restaurant in downtown LA, Bottega Louie, has over 670 reviews on Yelp. Doesn't that seem a bit excessive? Why would that many people feel the need to report their personal experiences of the place? Is it a good sign for the restaurant?

Yelp commenters tend toward the jokes in a way I usually find irritating, or they provide extraneous details that get in the way of the information you want. I guess that's part of the human side of user-generated content, everyone gets to weigh in and things are not as smooth and machine-like as they could be. It's like when I'm waiting to pay for some items in my co-op and the lady in front of me is puttering about and puttering about and oh she also wanted some short-grained rice, how could she have forgotten!

When we decide to build the human back into things, it makes things take longer sometimes. Or you get 670 redundant reviews.

(I'm not immune, sometimes I comment on New York Times articles. Plus I have this blog.)

(Also, Bottega Louie is fantastic. Seems like they're trying to trick you with the free sparkling water, though.)

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

UC Irvine Spotlight Feature

My university did a feature about my bike activism/ scholarly stuff. It covers cicLAvia and City of Lights, my two main projects outside of schoolwork.

On the train coming home today a young woman recognized me from the website and asked if it was me. She commutes from Van Nuys to UCI, so she's got me beat.

It's nice to have validation that my work transcends my own brain and can make sense to other people. Hooray for the communication of ideas!

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Sunset Limited/ Texas Eagle

Traveling to Austin, Texas for a New Year's wedding, I booked a sleeping compartment on the Sunset Limited and Texas Eagle cause I'm fancy like that.

I love sleeping compartments, which are tiny little closets into which you cram yourself and your stuff. The big windows let you see a panorama of the vast landscapes through which you hurtle, and you get to lie all the way down to sleep with pillows and blankets.

Plus, all of your meals in the dining car are included in your ticket. They do community seating to maximize space in the dining car, so you get to chat with nice people while gumming up your soggy vegetables.

The Sunset Limited travels across the southernmost deserts of California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. Much of the route takes you close to the Mexican border, and arriving in El Paso you get close enough to see the shacks of Ciudad Juárez on the other side of the fence.

The Sunset Limited continues on to New Orleans, while the Texas Eagle heads north to Oklahoma City at San Antonio.

What's funny, though, is that the Texas Eagle sits in San Antonio for ten hours before heading north. San Antonio is just 80 miles below Austin, which takes about an hour and a half by train. So, while I could have left the train in San Antonio and found some kind of ride up north to Austin, I had to sleep on the train while Amtrak personnel mysteriously moved the sleeping car from one track to another. You'd think that you could at least sleep well if the train is not moving; ha! Back and forth, lurching slowly, ramming into connecting cars, all night long.

When I did get to Austin the next morning, I thanked heavens for my lovely rainboots and raincoat since I had a few hours to kill in the rainy city before my friends and I checked into our rented house.

Then we proceeded to have a rip roaring good time celebrating lovely friendships and marriage, and I flew home on Southwest. In this case my return flight cost considerably less than my train ride because sleeping compartments make more economic sense for two travelers rather than one. Amtrak charges a coach base fare for each passenger, then just one additional fee for the sleeping accommodations and meals. It's effectively two for the price of one.

Abandoned Buildings of Detroit

[Guest Post by Bobby Gadda]
"Obsolescence is the very hallmark of progress" - Henry Ford II

Back in August Adonia and I spent a week in Detroit Michigan, which turned out to be a very interesting interlude in our midwest bicycle tour. We thought we would just spend a few days there but we got sucked in to the history of the place, met some very nice people, and found it difficult to tear ourselves away.

As we biked across Michigan toward Detroit (the historical posts are here, here, and here), everyday friendly corn-growin' midwestern types would ask us where we were headed. When we responded with "Detroit", a cloud would usually cross their face and they would ask us why, or warn us to not get there after dark.

As usual with our approach to cities in the Midwest, we were rambling along country roads until we found ourselves in the soul-killing (and bike unfriendly) exurb zone, which faded into fancy suburbs (largest middle east population outside the middle east), which abruptly gave way to the city itself. We could tell we had arrived in Detroit when we suddenly started seeing collapsed buildings and poor black people. I could tell how this would look threatening and dangerous to those people who warned us.

Right as you enter the city proper on Michigan Ave. the looming specter of the Michigan Central Station appears. This is a very tall building, probably the most famous abandoned building in Detroit (it was the pictures of this building that was one of the reasons I initially became interested in Detroit). Designed by the same architects who designed Grand Central in New York, it is a Beaux-Arts building from 1913 that looks absolutely beautiful/creepy with all of the broken windows and graffiti. Our friend told us that one of the reasons it is still standing is that it was built to have train traffic going through the 2nd floor of the building, so it was reinforced with massive amounts of concrete to stand up to the vibration and weight of train traffic. For this reason it would be very expensive to demolish, so it continues to stand, right next to downtown Detroit. It is the first large building you notice on the approach to downtown.

We met up with our couchsurfing hosts in their nice Victorian house in the Woodbridge neighborhood right outside of downtown. About half the lots are empty in their neighborhood (burned down, demolished, or simply collapsed into their own basements), so most people have a garden and plenty of open space. The preponderance of empty lots also made biking in town a joy, because the sight lines are so good that you can just cruise through intersections - not that there are that many cars around anyway, as the population of Detroit is so small.

I contacted Geoffrey George and he offered to show us around, so we spent a few evenings and days with him. He is part of a loose-knit group of photographers, urban explorers and flaneurs who know which abandoned buildings are currently accessible and which are locked down with security or are too dangerous. (I would not reccommend abandoned buildings in Detroit without the guidance of some local experts like George. In addition to being technically illegal, trespassing in these buildings is hazardous because of the fragile floors, gang activity, etc). The first building we went in was a mid-sized building downtown. Geoff, several other adventurous Detroiters and Adonia and I climbed at night through the stairwell and had a fantastic view of downtown from the roof, as well as a pretty decent-sized tree that had grown up there. From the roof we had views of the many other abandoned buildings downtown, including the spectacular Book Tower (see picture), which could have the dubious distinction of being the tallest abandoned building in the world. The group of Detroiters traded notes on which buildings they had been in, resulting in some amusing one-upsmanship ("you've been in X! Even I haven't been in X!").

The very ubiquity of abandoned buildings is the main reason that so many are accessible - it would take a lot of money and manpower to keep so many abandoned buildings locked up. As you know, these are scarce resources in Detroit, so many buildings remain accessible simply because there is no one to tell you not to go in. I found this lawlessness kind of delirious, especially in comparison to Los Angeles, which feels so crowded and locked down in comparison. There are still plenty of abandoned buildings in LA, but since there is a market for abandoned buildings as film shooting locations, There is money to keep them locked up and guarded (Not to say there are no opportunities for urban exploring here, just that you have to look harder than waltzing in the unsecured abandoned building next door).

On another day Geoff took us on a bicycle tour of abandoned buildings with some other urban enthusiasts. First we visited the Fischer Plant, which is a favorite of photographers for its green glass and early industrial architecture. We made a hasty exit when some utility workers showed up to fiddle with something (Geoff profusely apoligizing and explaining that he had "never seen anyone here before").

Next up was the Packard Plant, which is the sine qua non of abandoned buildings in Detroit. It isn't just a building, but a mile long complex of buildings that is the former site of Packard automible design and manufacturing. It is pretty mindblowing to think that Packard shut down in the 50s and the building has just been sitting there, slowly falling apart for the last 60 years. This was the easiest place to access, as no one has even tried to close this off for a long time. Seeing as it is so large it would be a massive undertaking to close it off. We went through some tunnels that Geoff had discovered under the building and then set off for a hike. I say hike because the complex is so large, with 4 or 5 stories, that going for a walk in the complex seemed more like a hike. The wood floors had disintegrated to a forest-like duff, and a breeze blew through the empty floor to ceiling windows, adding to the resemblance of a hike in the woods. There is the beginning of an actual forest on the roof, where trees have grown up right through the asphalt. I noticed this on many abandoned buildings and thought it odd that trees would grow right out of this stuff, without that many other plants around. I guess enough organic material blows onto the roof and into the gravel to sustain these guys.

Since the complex has been abandoned for so long, scrappers ripped out the wiring to sell for scrap long ago. Part of the complex had been used as a paintball arena for some time (there is a whole room full of paintball refuse). There are many enigmatic phenomena here, such as the numerous boats on upper floors of the building, odd art projects using found objects, and this strange sight. (tire pile). Geoff speculated that parts of the building have collapsed because of scrappers actually breaking apart concrete columns to pull out the metal rebar inside. It looked to me here like people had started playing ring toss with all those tires, trying to through them over that column - but aren't tires too heavy to throw 30 feet? Just one of many mysteries here.

Another less mysterious thing is this truck that some jokers recently pushed most of the way out a window (Geoff knew about this because the guys bragged online about it).

We also explored the business department of the complex, where people used to design the cars and so forth. These were all ripped up of course, but even so we came across some old blueprints for car parts that 60 years of scrappers and souvenir-hunters had missed.

You definitely have to watch your step, I peeked into this darkened interior room and noticed that the floor had started to disentegrate - it had a big hole that looked like the hole in thin ice on a lake.

Walking around this complex I couldn't help but think of Henry Ford IIs quote above - this abandoned building is a direct result of "progress". Automotive technology changed so quickly that it created and then destroyed Detroit in just 50 years. All over Detroit are plaques that detail where Henry Ford built this first car, or sold the first car, or whatever, that glorify him as the creator of the city. The technology and social stratification he gave rise too also destroyed it.

We explored a lot more of Detroit as well - more buildings, Belle Isle, the RenCen - perhaps to be detailed in further posts. We left by crossing the Rouge River into Canada (who knew Detroit is right next to Canada? I didn't!)

Cross Country Train Ride

Starting from Newark, New Jersey, I rode the train all the way across the country to Los Angeles in December.

First in my itinerary came the Pennsylvanian, which took me from Newark's Penn Station to Pittsburgh's ass of a station. The ugly box there with a faulty vending machine (no pretzels for me) held me and many other passengers, some Amish, for about six hours in the middle of the night while our next train, the Capitol Limited, made its way to pick us up.

Wikipedia told me that the Pittsburgh train station has been converted into condos. Passengers must wait in the Greyhound-style room because the grand old station lobby is now the condo lobby. What a deplorable bargain.

When the train finally arrived, we whisked through the night to Chicago, passing the Erie lakefront I'd bicycled along in the summertime. I managed to fall asleep right as we entered Cleveland, which was too bad because I wanted to see its myriad bridges lit up against the night.

Chicago lay covered in piles of snow, which delighted my Californian inexperience with such things. Usually when I have layovers in Chicago I love to wander around the Loop and feel like a brash pedestrian, crossing streets amidst a sea of businesspeople. But this time I holed up in a boring café and read the news for a few hours while the door blasted us patrons with icy wind every time someone entered or exited.

The Southwest Chief departed Union Station on time and whipped me through a wintry Illinois landscape.

I usually do a good job of ignoring the people around me on the train to the extent that I need to, but there were some doozies on this trip. One woman with a deep, gravelly smoker's growl went on and on with a set of dudes about wanting a cigarette. One of the dudes contributed a smoker's bubbling cough every so often, while the other one, a tall, black trench-coated artist of some kind, made loud
misanthropic remarks.

One thing the train people talked about was the lack of available power outlets. Some coach cars have outlets at every seat, while others have only a few per car. This means that an informal society must develop around a scarce resource, and the growling lady took the lead. Later she watched a disaster movie without headphones, so screams and booms reverberated throughout the car till late at night when I asked her to turn it off. I don't think she forgave me for that one, even though later in the observation car she asked my name and whether I was "involved in politics," cause I looked familiar.

We lost a lot of hours somewhere in Kansas, and by the time we got to Albuquerque we were way behind schedule.

Flagstaff filled the train to capacity as dozens of students from Northern Arizona University climbed aboard, presumably headed home for the holidays. Another body took the seat next to mine, making sleep a tad more difficult (not by much though; having two seats doesn't really improve things in my opinion). The trenchcoated artist found this new influx of people intolerable, though, and complained loudly into the night about how terrible it was to have someone sitting next to him. He repeatedly forswore Amtrak.

I've found that it is better to retain one's equilibrium aboard the train than to suffer angrily through the delays. I think it's ridiculous that passenger rail in the United States has been so limited by private ownership of rails, where Amtrak must fit into scheduled "windows" or lose place in line entirely, leading to indeterminate wait times in the middle of nowhere. I'd love to time travel to the 1930s and have my pick of any number of luxury liners with fanciful names evoking the blissful speed of the mighty locomotive.

The modern incarnation of passenger rail did get me home eventually, just four hours after the scheduled arrival in Los Angeles. Total time across the country: 72 hours including both rail time and station time.