Art Installation to Use Landmark Boulder as Canvas

Times Staff Writer

For the first time since she moved here in 1958, home life for Dorothy Real is peaceful and quiet.

People no longer traipse across her property during the day, bongo drums and intoxicated yodelers don't keep the 79-year-old widow awake at night. At least for the time being, it appears Los Angeles has forgotten about the 150-foot boulder in her backyard, otherwise known as Eagle Rock. She owns about a third of the rock; the rest is owned by the city of Los Angeles.

Real said the rock used to attract teens and adventure-seekers. Those visitors seem to have declined in recent years, and she likes the privacy.

But others feel the Eagle Rock has become a lost cultural treasure and want to raise its profile. At the heart of that movement is Jenny Krusoe.

Krusoe is executive director of the Center for the Arts, Eagle Rock. She was hired two years ago to make the private nonprofit group that serves the Eagle Rock and Northeast Highland communities fiscally sound. But finding funding has been next to impossible, she says, because "Nobody knows where Eagle Rock is. I'd even be in Pasadena at foundations, and they'd say, 'Why would we give to Eagle Rock? It's so far away.' "

In order to draw hip, artsy people to this corner of northeast Los Angeles, Krusoe wants to spin Eagle Rock as the next Silver Lake or Los Feliz rather than that place "somewhere between Glendale and Pasadena."

"I needed [a] spectacle to attract people here, that'd bring business here," says the organizer, whose background includes working with Emmy Award-winning stage director Peter Sellars. "It still has the quality of being this little small town."

Krusoe's eagle eye landed on the giant rock in Dorothy Real's backyard. Already something of a community icon, the designated Los Angeles Cultural Historical Monument appears on stylized street signs and the community flag, and is found in the names of churches, schools and local organizations. It's also visible to commuters on the Ventura Freeway.

Rising up wart-like from the Eagle Rock Valley, its round shape (some say the profile looks like George Washington's) is set off by the jagged San Gabriel Mountains to the north, and the low Eagle Rock Valley to the south. But the real spectacle is on the southern face, where an eroded impression looking remarkably like an eagle in flight is visible when the sun's rays cast a shadow on it at midday.

Krusoe first considered having the rock swathed in material by Bulgarian artist Christo, who once wrapped Niagara Falls, but he was booked.

So she opened up a contest for local artists, asking them to submit proposals for a public art installation, which would mark Eagle Rock as the "gateway to northeastern Los Angeles from the San Gabriel Valley." The art installation is part of an evening called "The Rock Is Art," scheduled for 7 to 11 p.m. Sept. 25.

Krusoe expects spectators to gather at the base of Eagle Rock to see it light up for the first time in history. Two projectors will expose the eagle silhouette and project the art installation onto a nearby face of the rock. After Sept. 25, the rock will be illuminated every weekend (more often if funding allows) for a total of 45 days. Krusoe hopes to rotate the art installation every two years.

Eagle Rock's councilman, Antonio Villaraigosa, will be host of the Sept. 25 event. He said the district has "a very distinctive hometown feel to it. That hometown character is, I think, what many people find attractive about Eagle Rock. Our hope is to enhance not only the Eagle Rock, but the community overall with this project. It's our opportunity to showcase an icon that is a symbol ... for all of Los Angeles."

Jane Tsong, a graduate of Yale and UCLA, was the artist whose project proposal was selected. For the installation, Tsong will re-create the sequence of the waxing and waning shadow of the "eagle" on the rock throughout the day with a succession of slides visible at night. It will be timed so that passersby on the freeway see the entire day flash before them in less than 16 seconds, each slide projected less than two seconds each.

The formation of Eagle Rock, according to Caltech resource geology professor Leon Silver, took place 10 million to 15 million years ago, when tons of sediment and rock were deposited at a bend in the stream that once ran through the Eagle Rock Valley. Hike today to the embankment below the Ventura Freeway offramp, and a small trickle of water still can be seen oozing out of the hillside into a dank cesspool of pollution, rusty bikes and electric cable.

Silver said the eagle in the face of the rock was shaped by post-accumulation erosion. But Martin Alcala, chairman of the Gabrielino-Tongva Tribal Council of Santa Monica, said Native Americans named the rock "Eagle who soars" for a different reason when they camped at its base thousands of years ago. According to one version of Tongva legend, an eagle once made its nest on top of the rock. One day, it swept up a baby in a basket with its talons. Tongva warriors gave chase, shooting arrows at the eagle until it dropped the baby, unharmed, on a soft patch of earth. Unable to regain altitude, the eagle hurtled smack into the rock's steep south face, leaving the imprint of a bird with outspread wings in the stone.

Eagle Rock was first incorporated into the San Rafael Land Grant given to Spanish sergeant Jose Maria Verdugo in 1784, the third private land grant in Alta California. Notorious bandit Tiburcio Vasquez is said to have camped at its base in 1874. What is believed to have been the first Easter Sunrise service in Los Angeles, in 1917, was held on its crown. Before highways, a trolley line once took recreation-seeking Angelenos there to escape the city.

In 1923, Eagle Rock was incorporated into the city of Los Angeles. That is when the community lost control over its beloved monument.

Southern California Edison already had erected giant power grids in 1913 with lines extending over the valley. In 1955, an early version of the Ventura Freeway divided Eagle Rock from the rest of the community. In 1960, the city authorized the construction of a road for dump trucks to haul garbage to the new Scholl Canyon landfill.

In 1962, the city turned down an offer from James Real, an international business consultant who owned eight acres around the rock, to sell the land to the city for $200,000. Real went on to erect a set of apartment buildings on Eagle Vista Drive that Dorothy Real still owns.

The same year it turned down Real's offer, the city named the Eagle Rock the 10th Cultural Historic Landmark in Los Angeles. It would take 33 more years before the city shelled out $700,000 to purchase two-thirds of the property that James Real originally had offered.

Eric Warren, president of the Eagle Rock Valley Historical Society, remembers hiking through the valley as a child before the freeway arrived.

"The valley next to the rock used to be a verdant oak valley," he said. "The landfill and the road leading up to it ruined the hills. People here hunted, picnicked and rode horses.... Eagle Rock was shortchanged."

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