Visit to a Dying Bridge


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The sun was out, the winds were blowing, the air was dry and we drove over in the Super Bowl ghosted city to see the 6th Street Bridge, an 85-year-old patient whose arms and legs still spanned the Los Angeles River, but whose execution was now under way in Boyle Heights.

We parked on the west side of the bridge next to steel gates and barbed wires. Homeless people still gathered in the shadows under the arches. A lone woman on a bicycle pedaled up and shot some photographs; as did an old man in a bright yellow Porsche convertible who sat in his car and then drove off.

Fascinating to me, even after 21 years in Los Angeles, is how civic grandeur and public spaces are degraded and neglected. I grew up in Chicago, where Buckingham Fountain, Grant Park, the Lakefront, Soldiers Field, the Field Museum, and Water Tower were proudly shown off and cared for. They left an impression on a small child. We drove downtown to admire our city, not run from it in fear and revulsion.

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What is one to make of the disrespected and defiled 6th Street Bridge with its decapitated light posts, the arches sitting in mountains of trash, the human beings laying underneath the noble, carved, Art Moderne piers? Where does 3,500 feet of concrete, erected in the grandest and most elegant way, where does it go?

Some who spoke of the life the condemned bridge talked about movies that were filmed here. Is nothing real or important unless it starred in a film?  Does Los Angeles exist as an actual city or is it a stage set whose humanity only matters when it is on celluloid? For all the 85 years that the bridge sat in a sea of defiled urbanity did it only fulfill its importance when fakery was filmed around and on it? Is that why the exploits of the Kardashians are so valued, but thousands who set up mattresses under bridges in our city are ignored and forgotten?

One has heard from the leaders in Los Angeles, recently, that “working class Boyle Heights” and the new “Arts District” will mutually benefit from a new $428 million dollar bridge designed and constructed in modernistic form.

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But that is what they always say, these politicians and people in power, the ones who spend hundreds of millions, and, in the end, where are the human spaces, the parks, the housing, the stores, the markets, the schools, the health care, all those markers of civilization?

If life doesn’t exist under the 6th St. Bridge, then no bridge itself is capable of conceiving the rebirth of a neighborhood. It takes a village, as some obscure old woman once said.

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Last Night at MacLeod Ale.


During the day, I transacted business at Starbucks in Toluca Lake, and then, at night, I went, in denim shirt and pomaded hair, to MacLeod Ale, where all the whirlwind connections of my present life gathered, on the concrete floor of the brewery where the front door was raised up to the cold night air and smoky tacos were grilling outside on open-flamed ovens.

There was an RV trailer parked on the tarmac filled with knitting materials, and hanging knitwear, and, nearby, at the brewery tables, some people knitting. The urge to make something other than digital swipes propels a new generation.

Next door to the brewery, at the open door of Joe’s Auto Body, the acrid daytime odor of wet, chemical, sprayed car paint was yielding to roasting chickens and tamales on the griddle. Joe slouched on a milk crate, his face covered in white paint, phone in hand.

Dapper music collector Victor Torres, Jr. was spinning LPs on the record player, and his little brother Cesar was drawing illustrations and advising me on logos and creative visuals.

At the bar, Andreas and his friend Marcus, fresh off their bikes, had just pedaled here from Tony’s Darts Away in Burbank. I sat down at a stool to talk to Marcus and Andreas. Somewhere in his future, the former has plans to leave Echo Park and open a bakery in San Luis Obispo because it reminds him of his hometown, Gloucester, MA. He lost his job at Trader Joes after 15 years and told me he had grown up dyslexic and went to private school on scholarship.

I sipped a bourbon-aged beer, and spoke to another man, Mr. McReady, who was very happy. He was just fired, but had collected a great severance package, after 22-years-at-a Burbank cleaning empire. He has great, expensive, bendable eyeglasses and lives with his wife, who never comes to MacLeod Ale, on Calvert St. near Hazeltine.

Roderick
Roderick

Roderick Abercrombie Smith, the handsome, bearded, prodigiously talented, blue-eyed Scottish born painter, currently, happily, living in a van, was at the other end chatting it up with gregarious Ian Wright, the British born carpenter. I waved to both men as I ordered a beer from the always cordial manager Steve.

That beer was called Heather Bell [Scottish Gruit]. MacLeod describes it this way:

“An ale traditionally made without hops, but bitter herbs instead. Ours has heather tips, marsh rosemary, and red clover, and a few hops thrown in to keep it legal. Made in collaboration with our friends at Solarc Brewing.”

In the back, a table was set up for the LA County Bicycle Coalition (LACBC). Kelly Martin, Development Director, introduced herself. She was there with others from her organization discussing an upcoming 5-Day Long Climate Ride from Eureka to San Francisco whose sponsored riders will donate their money to the LACBC. Someone handed me a beautiful, scenic calendar with color photographs, but I left it on the table and wandered off.

Anita
Anita

Anita of Orion Avenue, articulate and lovely friend and neighbor, came in and we hung out. She is married, and a mom, and an engineer, and savvy, and concerned about Van Nuys. We love it and agree it is confounding.  We love the picket fences and houses on one acres– surrounded by prostitutes and discarded sofas.

As I drank, she complimented my “fantastic” hair and told me I had good-looking friends on Facebook. And then (unintentionally) ruined the moment when she asked me what I did for work.

Then the beautiful Pinay, Stephanie Chan, walked in her with her long-haired Belarusian born roommate, a woman who reminded me of Ali McGraw in “Love Story”. Ms. Chan just bought a condo on Sherman Way between Kester and Van Nuys Boulevard.

Andy, the tall Texan brew worker in tight jeans, who exudes lily white, baptized, boyish machismo, and demonstrates affection for hops and hugs, came over and talked about his “Leaving for El Paso” beer. Hud would have played pool with him.

I steered myself into the room where darts were throwing, and I walked around, lightly intoxicated, past all those crowded tables of young men and woman rolling dice and moving objects over game boards.

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Stacey

Back outside, I went to order tacos, and bumped into burly actor Stacey Hinnen, here at the brewery with his two little girls, and he regaled me with his story of his latest acting job, down in Cuba, working with Don Cheadle on “House of Lies”.

Mr. Hinnen played a Koch brothers type character who was down in the communist country to regain property stolen from his family when Castro came to power. The actor said he had a scene throwing fists at his brother in the middle of a courtyard.

If Mr. Hinnen agrees, and Mr. Hurvitz (me) can get his shit together, the actor will one day play a character I wrote, Shane Davis, in a web series about my street in Van Nuys.

Jennifer, the owner, came into the brewery and hugged me and I introduced her to Anita and they both realized they knew some mutual people connected to former Van Nuys resident Donnie Wahlberg.

And then one of the best young characters to emerge in the MacLeod firmament came over, boyish and lanky beer poet, Sam Wagner, native of Manhattan, here in Los Angeles to put his great imagination and large intellect to work in that industry which despises and wastes both of those attributes.

Lizzie, the tall, dark, Scottish niece, only 22 years old, was hanging with Sam. They both had met working at the brewery. She is smart and thinking she might stay a while in Los Angeles, a decision that has proven the undoing of many before her.

They were selling beer last night at MacLeod Ale, or so it seemed on the surface. But what they were selling were stories: intoxicating, delusional, impossible, and possibly real.

If MacLeod Ale’s chemical and financial alchemy survives, we, who wandered into here, and drank the spirits, may share in the dream.

Van Nuys City Directory, 1940


The Los Angeles Public Library has a collection of city directories dating back to the late 19th Century and these are now mostly available online.

Of course, I turned to browse at the 1939/40 San Fernando Valley City Directory, all 674 pages of it, with its detailed listings of every single person, property and business in the entire valley at that moment in time.

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Van Nuys is described as a “model suburban homes community of Los Angeles City; strategic and important business center. Municipal administration headquarters for Los Angeles in the annexex area of San Fernando Valley.” Population 35,000. (Population in 2015 is estimated at 140,000)

The Valley, on the eve of WWII, was about to undergo changes unforseen and unprecedented. It was a unique conglomeration of modern convenience and the dusty rustic.

It was a time when men and women wore hats and dressed up to go out. And people spoke in hushed terms about health concerns and family secrets. Nobody said fuck in public, and the fat tattooed lady was only found in the circus.

While people were private about private matters, they were at ease having their names, addresses and professions printed on a publically distributed platform.

It was a folksy time when business owners adopted nicknames for themselves. “Bran” and “Dee” Funkhouser, for example, owned the Bran-Dee Brass Rail and Cafe at 6308 Van Nuys Boulevard. Their menu emphasized alcohol: beer,  cocktails, wine, lunches and sandwiches.

California was at its most golden moment, still basking in its abilities to welcome [white] newcomers, while radiating an image of wholesome enterprise, carefree recreation, opportunity for all. It stood confident and inspired envy for its education, innovation and technology. It was the home of the movie stars, cattlemen, aviators, oil men and just plain happy folks who swam in pools and ate oranges off the tree.

From the ocean to the mountains, tired people came here to strike fortune, escape gloom, pursue health and happiness, and emerge energized and reborn.

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The RV Encampment


Screen Shot 2015-08-28 at 11.51.53 AMParked along Tujunga Avenue in North Hollywood, on the east side of the park, between Magnolia and Riverside, a remarkable new residential community of homeless people has been established in a line of permanently parked RVs.

Visible and egregious, with their reflective cardboard stuffed inside windshields to cool down the metal houses in the summer sun, these faded and rusted motor homes are testament, depressing and sobering, to the high cost of housing in Los Angeles and the inability of so many to find a suitable and safe place to live.

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I walked along here today and photographed some 15 vehicles where people live.

In front of one, a woman and two men were in lawn chairs, sitting in the shade. The lady asked me, in a friendly way, why I was photographing and I told her it was for my blog.

“I’m homeless. We’re all homeless,” she said.

And I told her I knew that. And I also said I was photographing these four-wheeled residences to let others know how their fellow human beings were forced to live.

“God bless you,” she said.

And I continued my walk.

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The Most Photogenic City


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We had walked over from her place on Benton Way in the late afternoon and stopped into a bright Mexican restaurant and sat at the bar where they had expensive tequilas and cheap margaritas.

At El Cóndor, on Sunset at Edgecliffe, the bartender was tall and black and efficient, fast serving the cold, salted glasses with the green mixtures to go along with the guacamole and chips.

We were talking and then a young guy sat down at the corner. The server, the busboy, and the bartenders seemed to know him as if he were a regular. He talked to a blond, bearded bartender, who left, and was replaced by a clean- shaven, quiet bartender in a denim shirt.

“I moved in with a girl,” he told the quiet bartender who listened and nodded politely and stared into the distance.

“I came here to act,” he said.

“What time do you get off work?” he asked.

“I’m going to a party later,” he said.

He was looking for a friend, maybe something more, but his plaintive loneliness reminded me of so many days and nights ago, and that certain summer twenty years ago when I moved to Los Angeles and lived with a girl. There was nothing to the relationship, other than a brittle friendship, and it died in the fall of 1994, never to return.

When you drink, you think, and you are articulate. The intuitions and insights flood your mind, and you feel relaxed and the fear and the anxiety leaves you and you can walk and laugh, cry and remember, and nothing will stop you, no inhibitions or tentativeness, no wary caution or reversion to propriety.

And the next day, if you are lucky, you remember a tiny portion of last night’s enormous revelations.

After we got back to her place on Benton Way, she told me I was her first activity of the night. Jason was downtown, visiting from Montreal, and she would be driving there to meet him.

But first she showed me those crazy, 1980s sweaters I gave her that had once belonged to my late Mother. She said they smelled like Louise, who died on September 1, 2014. My mother always dry-cleaned her clothes and hung them on wire hangers shrouded in plastic.


We sat on the gray sectional couch that had been in my mother’s apartment on Admiralty Way in Marina Del Rey, the couch that had been purchased at Crate and Barrel in Paramus, NJ on Route #17 in the summer of 2008, the couch that was selected as I pushed my reluctant father in a wheelchair around the store and my mother hobbled along. That couch covered the events of the last seven years, the deaths of its two owners. It lived to find a new home in Silver Lake.


We are not more than friends so I left to make way for love, which was fine, as I was happy to drive into the waning light and go back to a street I found a few months ago where the giant Church of Scientology looms over a motley block of cheap apartments.

That street was Berendo, near Lexington, and I found it just when the sun was setting, and the harsh ugliness of old, broken-down, and neglected buildings became comely, enticing and seductive.

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There were markers of Western history dropped onto the streets, like French chateaus and Spanish castles. There were homely, plain and workaday brick and wood apartments and houses, old wooden electrical poles and wires, and cars that were packed into tight alleys, and parked along the curb. Occasionally, a cat would crawl out from under a car and dart into another shadow.

Berendo was blasphemy, watched over by a cross atop on an old blue hospital now advertising SCIENTOLGY.

Under the gaze of the cult, I was walking, and photographing, a city unique in its fate and form.

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Los Angeles: the most photogenic city in the world.

Whatever you imagine it is, it is.

Her beauty is fragile and fleeting. Her people arrive to grab onto to something illusory and transforming.

She should be seen and felt in the fading light, after the hours when the sun is brightest and before the hours when the darkness descends.

The Golden Age of Gasoline.


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In the 1920s, fanciful, imaginative, inventive gas stations were built all over the Southland.

They mined every era in history, borrowing minarets from the Middle East, Chinese pagodas and southwestern adobe ranch houses.

But the most memorable and dazzling ones looked forward to the future, sweeping in with illuminated glass signage, polished steel pumps and graphically inventive designs.

Attendants wore clean uniforms, and proudly serviced cars, luring drivers in with not only prices, but entertainment.

One station offered an all female staff, the other clothed their workers in jodphurs.

Comic book characters like Tarzan, dinosaurs from the pre-historic age, and Pegasus from Greek mythology, all gathered to sell gasoline.

One hundred years later we see that the people on the front lines in clean uniforms were the public face of a dirty business, one that has led the planet Earth into endless wars of terrorism, despotism, the melting of the icebergs and the degradation of our oceans, rivers and air. We are still fighting over oil, even as it swallows us up from the pipeline plains of Alberta to the violent sands of Arabia, even as its toxic vapors diminish human, animal and plant life in every corner of the globe. Fracking into rock for oil makes earthquakes in Oklahoma. But its addiction is unending. Everyone wants oil, from the warriors of ISIS to the kid in his 1988 Honda on his way to Valley College.

Our price for a cheap ride to the nail salon ends in the extinction of nature.

But for thirty cents a gallon, a family in Los Angeles once had a joy ride on the smooth road, going from shopping center to beach with the top down. And those days are gone forever.

Photos from the USC Digital Archives.