Los Angeles is focus of new institute at Occidental College

Los Angeles is the focus of a new institute at Occidental College in Eagle Rock.

Jeremiah Axelrod, founder of the Institute for the Study of Los Angeles, known as ISLA, has been an adjunct professor of history, art history, urban and environmental studies and cultural studies since 2005.

He previously taught film and history at UC Irvine, where the Southern California native earned his doctorate degree in American history.

Axelrod is author of “Inventing Autopia: Envisioning the Modern Metropolis in Jazz Age Los Angeles.”

He recently talked about the institute in the quad at Occidental.

Scott Holleran: What was the impetus for the Institute for the Study of Los Angeles?

Jeremiah Axelrod: Initially, sharing knowledge within Occidental College. At some point, it occurred to me that we need to share resources and connect [with the community]. As I was doing projects through Occidental College's special collections library with community partners, such as Highland Park Heritage Trust and Eagle Rock Valley Historical Society and Lummis Day Community Foundation, they kept making more connections and collaborations, so I found that there's this rich network, which I thought should be shared and focused.

Is the institute a nonprofit organization?

No. It's part of Occidental College under the umbrella of the history department.

Will there be an emphasis on Occidental College and its alumni, such as President Barack Obama, Terry Gilliam, director of the movie “Brazil,” and the late Congressman Jack Kemp, and, in recent news, vandalism of a 9/11 flag display?

Absolutely. All those topics are fair game. There's also an attempt to become an important catalyst for discussion about L.A. We had a conference on arts and gentrification, for instance, which was controversial. We’ve been working with the Historical Society of Southern California, which has been been around since the 1880s. Our mission is to bridge the gap between students and community members over our shared heritage with a focus on northeast Los Angeles.

Is controversy part of legitimate collegiate discourse?

One would think, but we’re in such a polarized era. I would like to see discussion instead of falling back on being in a bubble. But we do hope to get people who disagree with each other into a conversation.

What's your background?

My family came to Los Angeles in the 1920s and lived in Boyle Heights, kept there by restrictive covenants because we're Jewish. My grandfather came from Montgomery, Ala. Compared to Alabama, with the Ku Klux Klan, which drove [my ancestors] out of Montgomery, Los Angeles was the promised land. After World War II, it became easier for us to move to other places in L.A., east and west. I think everyone should understand that, at different times, different groups have been in different power relationships and there isn't only one way that this place works. Los Angeles was a far more unjust place 30 years ago, let alone 70 years ago, so why is Los Angeles better [now]? Is it progress? Yes, because people made alliances and fought and made it better.

What do you love about Los Angeles?

There's so much I love about Los Angeles. The things I loved about Los Angeles in one part of my life were different later on. For instance, when you first learn to drive when you’re 16, the freeways are liberating. You can get out into the world. Then, when you're older, and you're commuting on those freeways, they don't seem so liberating. Now, I have young children and, suddenly, I am interested in parks in a way that I hadn't been.

What are the top five things to do and/or see in LA?

The Watts towers because they're a work of art and also a multi-ethnic community expression by an Italian immigrant who gave the property to a Mexican-American neighbor in an African-American community... Disneyland because it's a [kind of] representation of L.A. [Also], if you look at the Midwesterners starting in L.A. in the 1920s — Henry Huntington, Charles F. Lummis, Walt Disney, who was born in Chicago and came from Marceline [Kan.] — it's Main Street, USA. Lummis walked to Los Angeles in 1884 and became the first city editor of the L.A. Times — he basically wrote the LA Times for a couple of years--and he helped establish Southern California as this booster destination — the land of sunshine out West. In 1898, he decided — with this nice house in what's now Jefferson Park near USC — that he really loved the Arroyo because it was the frontier version of L.A. that he first experienced when he came here, so he bought a chunk of land and started to build a house by hand. So he built the house out of the rocks of the Arroyo Seco, which is an actual river, though we call it seco, it floods and brings boulders down from the San Gabriel Mountains. The observation deck of City Hall, which people don't go to often enough — you get to see the transformation of downtown Los Angeles, you get a sense of the ambitions of Los Angeles — and it's very paired with Union Station. For so many years, City Hall was, by law, the only skyscraper in Los Angeles. It was supposed to be. It was in the late 1950s that they struck that [law] down. And I would add the beautiful nature and hiking spots.

What is an unknown fact about northeast L.A.?

Eagle Rock was a city of its own. Or look at Highland Park, which was also its own city and drew upon the [Christian] temperance movement. They were concerned about honky tonks in Sycamore Grove.

They were Puritanical in Highland Park?

They weren't Puritanical enough. These Iowans had come [to northeast L.A.] and couldn't remake Highland Park's culture, so they decided to get annexed by L.A. Then, part of the deal was to tear down all the roadhouses in Sycamore Grove and turn them into a park, which, of course, was done and then we ran a freeway through it. So the park is hard to see but it's still there in various ways. John Philip Sousa played in the band shell there — he was a regular — and it was a kind of lawless place. In order to get rid of all that fun, they incorporated... Eagle Rock is particularly interesting because it was saved by activists. You know, the 134 was going to go right down Colorado Boulevard. Think about what that would have done to Glendale and Eagle Rock. The folks here got the hillside [freeway] route built. If you've ever wondered why the exit where Figueroa and Colorado come together is this four-lane exit, that's why — the freeway was just going to go down Colorado Boulevard.

Is it true that Occidental College was founded by Presbyterians?

Yes. It was originally in Boyle Heights. Then, it burned down and moved to Highland Park. The campus there was too cramped — they had a rail line going right through it, they had to pause classes for the trains — until a real estate developer said, “Bring your campus to this new Eagle Rock subdivision, and we will give you the land” and Occidental came and built bungalows and a college at the intersection of two streetcar lines.

Holleran is a contributor to Times Community News.

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