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Once again, it’s ‘Coming Soon’

PATT MORRISON's e-mail is patt.morrison@latimes.com.

IT DOES MY HEART good, in a misery-loves-company way, to hear that the cost of the World Trade Center memorial complex in New York is already at a billion dollars, and they haven’t even agreed on what the thing is going to look like.

I feel better because within four blocks of each other in downtown L.A. sit not one but two expensive reproaches to civic lethargy, timidity and folly.

The first is ridiculous, the second sublime. The Triforium -- ta-da! -- was plugged in to great acclaim about 30 years ago. “Ladies and gentlemen -- the Triforium,” proclaimed the mayor, Tom Bradley. He might as well have said, “Ladies and gentlemen -- the Titanic.”

The six-story, three-legged “million-dollar jukebox” is a goofy musical sculpture that was meant to play, loudly, everything from Beethoven to the Bee Gees. (That tells you how long ago this all was.) It hardly ever did. Now, it would cost too much to fix up and too much to knock down, which suits me fine. I want it there, where city officials can see how permanent and public their screw-ups can be.

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The sublime, the enormous “American Tropical” mural by David Alfaro Siqueiros is on Olvera Street. It too could be seen from certain windows in City Hall -- if the preservation process were finished.

The mural was unveiled in October 1932 -- and whitewashed not long afterward because it offended delicate political sensibilities. The inexcusably loused-up politics of returning it to public view have offended my sensibilities, and I’m not alone. This very newspaper wrote in January 2003 that the mural “is to be unveiled this fall.” We’re still waiting.

What the heart of the mural depicts -- an Indian peasant roped to a double cross beneath the American eagle -- made onlookers gasp when it was unveiled. The Times art critic wrote, “In the midst of our popular conception of Mexico as a land of eternal dancing” -- meaning the manana frivolities of Olvera Street -- “this stern, strong, tragic work unrolls its painted cement surface.”

What’s covering the mural now is a banner 80 feet long, painted to look like Siqueiros’ work. (A Hollywood solution -- banner as stunt double.) People catching a glimpse think the work is done. They call and say, “Hey, way to go! It’s done! Looks great!”

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It is pretty much done, but it remains under wraps, awaiting walkways to a second-floor viewing spot, protective awnings and an interpretive center to explain it all.

The process of bringing it back began in earnest nearly 20 years ago. The Getty Conservation Institute did its part, cleaning off the whitewash and halting the damage of time and light and air. (The conservators didn’t repaint what was lost, though.)

Then the city dropped the ball, and the mural that was “Coming Soon” hasn’t yet arrived.

TWO YEARS AGO, Rushmore Cervantes -- whose name suggests a willingness to undertake a Quixotic mission -- was sent to the rescue. As general manager of what’s now called the Department of El Pueblo, he discovered that the operations of the city’s “birthplace” -- half-hokum, half-history, all messy -- were as great a ruin as the Siqueiros artwork.

City, county and state all had some say-so in Olvera Street, but none seemed to be in charge. A city audit found six figures’ worth of unpaid bills, tenants with no leases, cash stuffed into drawers and no accounting. After the audit, one employee was caught shredding files.

The entire enterprise had been stuck in place for years while pols Richard Alatorre and Gloria Molina battled to be the savior of Olvera Street. Their feud was so nasty that they shouted at each other in public -- and so petty that at one point, like the Jets and Sharks, there was a Molina-crowd restaurant and an Alatorre-crowd restaurant on Olvera Street. No wonder the Getty Institute was so disgusted that it almost pulled out of the project.

If I were conspiracy-minded, I’d think some officials don’t want the public to see the Siqueiros any more now than public officials did in 1932, when it was whitewashed.

But now -- and I am so gun-shy about expecting anything to get done on Olvera Street that I can’t believe I’m willing to put this on paper -- it may finally be coming together.

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The city’s brand new budget ponies up $3.7 million for the mural’s interpretive center. The Getty, in a deal cut by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and former Getty head Barry Munitz, will be in for $2.65 million, and maybe more, if needed.

Once all the plans are updated and finalized, construction can begin. From there, Cervantes believes, it would be 18 months to the big reveal.

So let’s check our calendars. The city signed off on the mural’s money on Tuesday. Next comes an undefined planning period. And once construction starts, let’s give it 24 months, not 18. So on my calendar, using government math, I’m circling Sept. 4, 2009, the 228th anniversary of the founding of the city.

By the time we finally get a look at what’s left of the Siqueiros “American Tropical,” we’ll all feel just about that old.


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