Old L.A. is rapidly disappearing. We have to honor our past and fight blandness
Maybe it’s the shortening of the days, the way darkness now is falling so fast. But I find myself especially wistful lately as I watch old Los Angeles being torn down all around me.
I am grateful for every effort to preserve our better-known city treasures — historically significant architecture, landmarks like Angels Flight. But the quaint century-old homes, the homegrown, one-of-a-kind small storefronts, the low-slung vernacular architecture that to me so represents the city is getting disappeared fast by developers with barely a word in its defense.
In Hollywood, where I live, on some residential streets, it seems every other modest bungalow built in the early years of the last century now is tucked behind a green construction fence. Usually when I come upon one, a “Notice of Demolition” already is up.
When I pass by next, I think, I may just see a pit or a pile of dirt.
So what do I do when there is nothing left to do?
I stand still and soak up a gently pitched roof, decorative shingles that look like the scales on a fish, an old porch built to be friendly and inviting. I let each little detail soak in. And then, because this is the modern age and I am ever equipped, I pull out my iPhone and record an image or two of the condemned.
We who love the L.A. we are losing are especially enamored of its lack of uniformity, its many different styles rubbing shoulders — emphasis here on styles. We tend not to feel much affection for the new generic apartment boxes popping up everywhere as if all out of the same catalog. I wonder whether we can come together and make our feelings known in a way that matters before too much is erased.
I recently walked around Historic Filipinotown with photojournalist Lexis-Olivier Ray, who is documenting the demolitions and new building in his own fast-changing neighborhood. He and I stood staring at a large white, brown and beige apartment complex rising up. We looked at homes over a century old that people have made their own, surrounding them with jungles of tropical plants. We peered over a green construction fence at a large Craftsman-style dwelling about to come down. A couple of weeks later, he sent me a shot of the bulldozing.
Housing, housing, we need housing. I haven’t missed the message. I know we need a lot more affordable places for people to live. But I can’t help feeling that in the name of trying to stem a crisis they don’t really care about, too many developers are being given license to get away with whatever they please, regardless of what it does to our communities.
Right now, speculators are free to trample characterful neighborhoods in which they have no stake to try to cash in quickly on characterless buildings in which they’ve invested no care and no heart. They rarely are stopped from pushing out renters of lesser means to try to woo buyers of greater means. They build boxes and bait them with the latest in smart lighting and gleaming stainless steel not for the people who have roots in the surrounding streets but for the ones who will soon push them out.
It seems to me that we should fight the argument that any talk of preservation is anti-housing. Because it doesn’t have to be. We can be for affordable housing but against the kind of utter freedom to tear down and put up just about anything at all anywhere in the name of it that on the block just east of mine has produced the kind of development that makes neighborhood people cry.
Two nicely preserved Craftsman homes now find themselves stuck on either side of a taller, ugly fourplex that was built on spec and sits empty, for sale, where another fine Craftsman in a lovely row of them once stood.
Nathan Marsak, a local historian, has been so saddened by the speed and the thoughtless nature of the development of late that in September he started a blog he calls R.I.P. Los Angeles.
On the city’s planning website, he finds places that are being knocked down and then takes a moment to say a word in memoriam.
Recently, he showcased 933 S. Gramercy Place in Koreatown — a “7 room, 1,840sf Craftsman bungalow ... built in the spring of 1912.”
“There are precious few Craftsmans left in this part of the world; they’ve been nearly exterminated east of Wilton,” he wrote. “Look closely at the expressive use of brick on the chimney and porch.”
History is Marsak’s love. It isn’t what pays the bills. He says he only wishes he had time to do more than just mention a few of the many buildings on the way out. And he hopes he can find ways to get some attention while there still is a chance to save them. He also hopes he can at least jumpstart an important conversation.
“The fabric of our city is woven together by communities and neighborhoods who no longer have a say in their zoning or planning so it’s important to shine a light on these vanishing treasures, now, before the remarkable character of our city is wiped away like a stain from a countertop,” he wrote in an explanation of the blog’s purpose.
Photographer Ashley Noelle records Los Angeles for posterity with a large view camera — the old-fashioned-looking kind with the accordion pleats known as a bellows. She calls the camera Henry and takes it with her as she travels the city. In a minute or two, she can pop out of her Prius, put Henry on a tripod and capture a striking facade. She does it head on, from across the street, usually on cloudy days to eliminate shadow.
Like me, Noelle is an L.A. transplant who fell head over heels for this city. She grew up in a small town in Florida. She arrived here 26 years ago and says she felt instantly, completely at home.
“It was kind of like if you try on a coat at a thrift store and it’s been broken in by somebody else but it just fits perfect and you just feel it,” she told me.
She is drawn most especially to mom-and-pop storefronts. She loves the ones with the sweet, corny names you can just tell someone thought up in their living room. Where else, she says, do you find little apartment buildings built to look like castles? Or a garage specializing in Cadillacs with a pink Cadillac on the roof?
Like me, she often looks at a place and sees stories.
“Can you imagine all the generations that have gone through that door?” she’ll think to herself. Or, “Think of the guy who’s paying the light bill for that sign that’s been there forever.”
A lot of photos she has taken in recent years for what she calls her Los Angeles Series are of places that no longer stand. She thinks of herself as a photographer of “the underdog,” she told me.
For years now, on social media, I’ve been trying to make our big city feel smaller and cozier by creating a community around the hashtag #mydayinla on Twitter. I often use it to celebrate the underdog too and to share photographic evidence of subtle shifts in my neighborhood.
But the commemorative photos I take of the disappearing bungalows mostly aren’t for show. They’re a quieter, more private form of tribute akin to grief — a way of saying, yes, I see you. Families were raised in you. I thank you for your service. When you are gone and in your stead comes some bland, boxy building — perhaps with stripes or bright blocks of color as its only exterior embellishment — I will still look at the space where you stood and remember you and your more charming, more homey, more welcoming face.
And I will try to make a case for saving some of your neighbors.
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