Los Angeles Plan 2.0

August 9, 2019

Once-Upon-a-Time-in-Hollywood-Margot-720x1066.jpg

 Author’s noteDear Reader: This article is an invitation to create your own L.A. cultural tour. I am about to take you on a short tour through L.A. that may feel different and yet oddly familiar at the same time. After reading, I encourage you to photograph an L.A. tour location of your own and share it through Twitter or Instagram (@JohnTraftonFilm) with a brief description and the hashtag #LosAngelesPlan.  

Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood performs a cinematic recovery of a pivotal moment in Los Angeles history. Plot twists and spoilers aside, the Tate-LaBianca murders at the hands of Charles Manson’s followers in the summer of ’69 was what scholars describe as an “impact event”: a traumatic historical event that alters public discourse and ushers in new subjectivities.[1] This shift in perception of the counterculture is best described in a passage from Thomas Pynchon’s novel Inherent Vice (2009), in which the story’s hippie hero, Detective Doc Sportello, summarizes the impact of Manson to flat-topped, conservative detective Bigfoot Bjornsen:

Well, what I’ve been noticing since Charlie Manson got popped is a lot less eye contact from the straight world. You folks used to be like a crowd at the zoo – ‘Oh, look, the male one is carrying the baby and the female one is paying for the groceries’ sort of thing, but now it’s like, ‘pretend they’re not even there, ‘cause maybe they’ll mass murder your ass.’” – Pynchon, 2009.

Yes, Tarantino’s 9th film is Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and not Once Upon a Time in Los Angeles– except that the history of both are so often intertwined. This overlap is an example of a city’s third space: a physical location where the real (first space) and the imagined (second space) narratives overlap “and disrupt binary and linear historical understandings of a place and its people.”[2] And it’s not just major studio pictures. Films from outside of the mainstream, films that showcase voices from L.A.’s marginalized communities, preserve layers of L.A. history that are waiting to be peeled back and examined – a notable example being Kent Mackenzie’s The Exiles (1961), the story of Native Americans living in Bunker Hill before the neighborhood’s eventual slum clearance.[3] When reaching for a reliable metaphor to explain how L.A. cultural history gets covered up, and eventually bleeds through, I often turn to Vincent Brook’s comparison of L.A. history to a palimpsest: a medieval manuscript that is designed to be written on, erased, and written over again — literally, from the Greek and Latin, “scraped clean and used again.”[4] Brook highlights, as a notable example, David Alfaro Siqueiros’ mural América Tropical from 1932 – an “indictment of U.S. imperialism and a call for revolution” that was declared subversive and, literally, white washed and forgotten for decades.[5] The mural has recently been partially restored through a project sponsored by the Getty Foundation, stripping away the layers of the palimpsest to reveal a forgotten L.A. history. 

Social media has also played a strong role in how we retrieve L.A.’s palimpsest layers. Hidden Los Angeles, for example, is a database of articles, photographs, and L.A. resources and guides that remind viewers that “L.A. doesn’t care if you look beyond [the] packaging or not… but you’ll miss the entire point of the city if you don’t.” Taglines of “embracing the depth beneath the shallow” and “look deeper” on their site invites visitors to create their own recovered palimpsest layer of L.A. cultural life. Another site, Vintage Los Angeles, run by Alison Martino (L.A.-based television producer, documentarian, and columnist for Los Angeles Magazine), bubbles the palimpsest layers to the surface with a stunning collection of images and articles circulated through social media; Martino recently published a virtual tour through the world of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’s Los Angeles for L.A. Curbed – what Norman Klein calls an “anti-tour,” showcasing locations where there had once been something in order to reveal more about the process of preservation and erasure. 

Mugshot Coffee Roasters, 1728 Glendale Blvd (image provided by the author).

Mugshot Coffee Roasters, 1728 Glendale Blvd (image provided by the author).

Charlie Chaplin as Edgar English in his screen debut film  Making a Living  (Keystone Studios, 1914), shot at what is now 1728 Glendale Blvd.

Charlie Chaplin as Edgar English in his screen debut film Making a Living (Keystone Studios, 1914), shot at what is now 1728 Glendale Blvd.

Let me take you on a brief anti-tour of my own. Start by traveling north on Glendale Blvd through Echo Park, making your way towards the Glendale Freeway (CA-2) as it connects to I-5. At this point, you will be passing through the historic region of Edendale: the location of the earliest Los Angeles film studios during the 1910s. At 1728 Glendale Blvd, you’ll pass by Mugshot Coffee Roasters, currently next to a Jack in the Box and across the street from a U-Haul dealer. This was the site of Charlie Chaplin’s first on-screen performance: Making a Living (Mack Sennett’s Keystone Studios, released early February 1914). He did not appear as his iconic Tramp character in this film, instead playing a wily con artist named Edgar English. Following this performance, Chaplin donned a pair of baggy trousers, bowler hat, cane, and a small mustache for every role until The Great Dictator (1940), starting first with Mabel’s Strange Predicament (1914) and then Kid Auto Races at Venice (1914). Making a Living was largely shot on a residential street around the corner from the Keystone Studios, and, as was the case with so many other Sennett slapstick films, allowed audiences at the time to explore “unfamiliar territory that was rapidly evolving before their eyes.”[6] The Keystone comedies coincided with a period of rapid growth for Los Angeles, and these films, with their car chase scenes around the city, “provided revealing descriptions of the shape of Los Angeles” from “multiple ground-level perspectives” for those who had never even set foot in the city.[7]  

The Old Los Angeles Zoo, Griffith Park (image provided by the author).

The Old Los Angeles Zoo, Griffith Park (image provided by the author).

Continue on CA-2 and take I-5 north to Crystal Springs Drive. Park at the Griffith Park Visitor Center and Auditorium. Hike west for a few minutes and you will come across the Old Los Angeles Zoo: formerly known as the Griffith Park Zoo, constructed in 1912 and closed in 1966 with the opening of the present-day Los Angeles Zoo (1 mile further up Crystal Springs Drive, near the Gene Autry Museum). The site was left abandoned and can still be visited by hikers today. It made a notable appearance in a touching scene from Sean Baker’s film Starlet (2012), in which adult film star Jane (Dree Hemingway) forms an unlikely relationship with eighty-five-year-old widow Sadie (Besedka Johnson) and, one afternoon, takes her on a hike to the abandoned zoo. While photographing it recently, I noticed two different student film crews staging elaborate, Indiana Jones-style action sequences amongst its ruins – a reminder that the American film industry grew rapidly in the Los Angeles area during the early twentieth century in large part due to region’s climate and ecology offering an ideal site for “place substitution.”[8]   

A chase scene from the film Sherlock Jr. (Metro Pictures, 1924), starring Buster Keaton. Schindler’s Kings Road House is visible at 1:23.

Rudolph Schindler’s Kings Road House (image provided by the author).

Rudolph Schindler’s Kings Road House (image provided by the author).

Drive on to the 134 and take the 101 back towards Hollywood. Drive west on Santa Monica Blvd, turn left on Kings Road, and you will arrive at The Schindler House (also known as the Kings Road House). Built in 1922 by Austrian architect Rudolph Schindler, this designer home built for two families is currently open for public viewing as part of Los Angeles’ MAK Center for Art and Architecture. Though overshadowed by the more famous modern homes of Frank Lloyd Wright (such as the much-filmed Ennis House) and Richard Neutra (notably the Lovell Health House, built in 1929), Schindler’s Kings Road House can be seen during the motorcycle chase sequence in Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr.(1924), an L.A. palimpsest layer preserved in celluloid and another example of early silent comedy mapping the city cinematically from ground level. Any attempt to peel back L.A.’s layers in a serious way will ultimately engage with modernism as well as Hollywood, which is no surprise since modernism and the Hollywood studio system overlapped in many striking ways towards the end of the 1920s and the early 1930s as sound film technology brought Los Angeles films indoors.

Whole Foods Market on Olive Street, between 7th and 8th Streets — location of one of the first film studios in Los Angeles.

Whole Foods Market on Olive Street, between 7th and 8th Streets — location of one of the first film studios in Los Angeles.

Now, drive south to the I-10 and take it eastward. Exit onto Olive Street and drive north until you have reached a Whole Foods Market between 7th and 8th Streets. You are now at the site of the first film studio in Los Angeles. In 1909, the Selig Polyscope Company set up a small shooting stage in the drying yards of a Chinese laundry at 751 S. Olive Street; some sources identify this location as being named either Sing Loo’s or Sing Kee’s [9], while the Chinese American Business Directory of 1913 has the site listed as Sing Lee’s.[10] The first film shot here was The Heart of a Race Tout (1909), directed by Francis Boggs and staring Tom Santschi. While there are some sketchy accounts of earlier studios that might have existed, such as a set for a bullring that was allegedly built in what is now the historic Plaza district,[11] it is generally agreed that this Whole Foods stands upon an important palimpsest layer, requiring time and detective work to uncover.    

Denzel Washington as Alonzo Harris in  Training Day  (Antoine Fuqua, Warner Brothers, 2001)

Denzel Washington as Alonzo Harris in Training Day (Antoine Fuqua, Warner Brothers, 2001)

Finally, let’s finish this L.A. anti-tour in the same area, only this time let’s think about this historical layering from a different perspective. Consider a scene that brings together three different layers within the same frame. Early in Training Day (Antoine Fuqua, 2001), rogue narcotics detective Alonzo Harris (Denzel Washington) drives L.A.P.D. officer Jake Hoyt (Ethan Hawk) through Downtown Los Angeles amidst a light morning drizzle. As Alonzo begins his spiel about what Jake should expect from working in L.A.’s roughest neighborhoods, there are three noticeable things belonging to different time periods: 1) Alonzo drives a 1979 Chevrolet Monte Carlo, 2) the soundtrack is playing “Still D.R.E.” from Dr. Dre’s 2001 album, released in 1999, and 3) the buildings visible out of the car window are art deco buildings constructed during the 1920s and 1930s. In this moment, the 1970s, 1990s, and 1920s/30s inhabit the same frame, and yet this does not feel out of place or anachronistic at all. The Monte Carlo is a reminder of the role that automobile culture has played in the construction of L.A.’s self-image. The song foregrounds the legacy of West Coast hip hop artists and their impact on the city’s cultural landscape. Lastly, the buildings preserve a moment when Los Angeles essentially changed its sales pitch to the rest of the country from a Sunshine paradise to a cosmopolitan urban space. 

Contrast the Training Day scene to another ride through Downtown Los Angeles, around the time that these buildings were being constructed. Los Angeles, ca. 1920,[12] produced by First National, is a phantom ride through Downtown Los Angeles, the camera mounted on top of a vehicle and pivoting back and forth between peripheral views. The viewer passes by a store selling silk shirts, advertised for $6.85 (approximately $85 in 2019), and a moment later, the camera passes by the First National offices – the employees stepping out and onto the sidewalk to wave at the passing camera. The camera then passes by the Victory Theater, playing Allan Dwan’s A Splendid Hazard (Mayflower Photoplay Company, 1920), and then there is a cut to the Kinema Theatre on 642 South Grand, playing Mack Sennett’s Mabel and Fatty’s Married Life (1915).[13] Finally, the film records history-in-the-making as it passes by the site of the Pacific Mutual Sentry Building at 6th and Grand. The film belongs to a silent film genre known as “city symphony,” day-in-the-life films that celebrated the splendor of modernity and city life [14], and at the same time serves as a time capsule in stark contrast to contemporary films set in the same locale.

Electric box in Highland Park off North Figueroa Street (image provided by the author).

Electric box in Highland Park off North Figueroa Street (image provided by the author).

Harbor Freeway Overture mural, Downtown Los Angeles, off the 110 freeway (image provided by the author).

Harbor Freeway Overture mural, Downtown Los Angeles, off the 110 freeway (image provided by the author).

Turning away from film, what about the street art that L.A. is known for? The phrase “the second skin of the city” has been used by scholars like David A. Ensminger to describe punk rock gig fliers that would be found dispersed throughout parts of the city during the late 1970s and early 1980s, and, taking our cue from Ensminger, we can point to L.A.’s murals, psychedelic facades of small businesses, and even painted electrical boxes as constituting a city’s second skin.[i] As Siqueiros’ América Tropical demonstrates, this second skin can infuse an L.A. anti-tour with a vivid form of narration, while at the same time preserving the sedimented layers of a city’s history for others to uncover. There are important cultural projects dedicated to mural preservation, such as the aforementioned Getty Foundation restoration project of Siqueiros’ mural, as well as the Citywide Mural Program, a conservation program under the City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs that “seeks to establish a comprehensive network of mural activity and engagement by muralists, property owners, community stakeholders, educators, technicians, technologists, and preservationists in an effort to stimulate Los Angeles mural resurgence.” Yet, L.A. street art is under constant threat of erasure. A recent article for the LAist, for example, highlights the disappearance of murals by the iconic California Scene Painter Millard Sheets. At the same time, however, stories like Dean Gordon solving the mystery behind the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum mural offer some hope and reminds us that cultural preservation has become increasingly a democratized process.   

There are nearly infinite possibilities for our own anti-tours that we can design, customize, and share with others. If enough people created and shared their own L.A. anti-tours, whether they live in Los Angeles or are just visiting, what might we call the resulting preservation project? One idea would be to resurrect what was once called “The Los Angeles Plan.” The Los Angeles Plan, according to Mark Shiel, was a 1922 project sponsored by the City of Los Angeles that was sold as a celebration of “the wonder city of world…a city of splendid industrial structures and beautiful homes…the capitol of the film world and as such…the best advertised city on earth.” The real aim of this project, however, was to improve the city for motorists: creating solutions for “constantly increasing traffic congestion,” reckless driving, dangerous grade crossing, and other automotive concerns.[16] In light of the challenges posed by cultural erasure, and the technological resources that we have at our disposal to combat it, I think it’s time for a Los Angeles Plan 2.0. We can set the stage with our own series of anti-tours, using images that we create and bringing the hidden stories to the surface. 

Works Cited

Brook, Vincent. Land of Smoke and Mirrors. NJ: Rutgers UP, 2013. 

Clarke, Charles G. Early Film Making in Los Angeles. Los Angeles: Dawson’s Bookshop, 1976. 

Ensminger, David A. “The Second Skin of the City.” Visual Vitriol: The Street Art and Subculture of the Punk and Hardcore Generation. MI: U of Mississippi P, 2011.

Erish, Andrew A. Col. William N. Selig: The Man Who Invented Hollywood (U Texas Press, 2012)

James, David E. The Most Typical Avant-Garde: History and Geography of Minor Cinemas of Los Angeles. Los Angeles: UC Press, 2005. 

Kaplan, E. Ann. Trauma Culture: The Politics of Terror and Loss in Media and Literature. NJ: Rutgers UP, 2005. 

Klein, Norman. The History of Forgetting: Los Angeles and the Erasure of Memory. NY: Verso, 2008. 

Latis, Dimitrios. “The City View(ed): Muybridge’s Panoramas of San Francisco and Their Afterlives in Early Cinema” in The Image in Early Cinema: Form and Material (edited by Scott Curtis, Philippe Gauthier, Tom Gunning, and Joshua Yumibe). Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2018.

Sandberg, Mark B. “Location, Location: On the Plausibility of Place Substitution” in Silent Cinema and the Politics of Space. Editors Jennifer Bean, Anupama Kapse, and Lauren Horak. Indiana: Indiana UP, 2014. 

Shiel, Mark. Hollywood Cinema and the Real Los Angeles. London: Reaktion Books, 2012.

Notes:


[1]For further reading, see Kaplan, E. Ann. Trauma Culture: The Politics of Terror and Loss in Media and Literature. NJ: Rutgers UP, 2005. 

[2]Klein 2008, 10 -- Rooted in Edward Soja’s “Lefebvrean” (the right to a city) construction of the city as a “third-space.” 

[3]For further reading, see James, David E. The Most Typical Avant-Garde: History and Geography of Minor Cinemas of Los Angeles. Los Angeles: UC Press, 2005. 

[4]Brook 2013, 11

[5]Brook 2013, 14 

[6 ]Shiel 2012, 70

[7] Shiel 2012, 69

[8] For further reading, see Sandberg, Mark B. “Location, Location: On the Plausibility of Place Substitution” in Silent Cinema and the Politics of Space. Editors Jennifer Bean, Anupama Kapse, and Lauren Horak. Indiana: Indiana UP, 2014. 

[9] While many some references use the name Sing Loo, Andrew A. Erish’s Col. William N. Selig: The Man Who Invented Hollywood (U Texas Press, 2012) states that it was Sing Kee, pg. 81. 

[10] Many thanks to Eugene Moy of the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California for his assistance. 

[11] See Clarke, Charles G. Early Film Making in Los Angeles. Los Angeles: Dawson’s Bookshop, 1976. 

[12] Original title and director unknown. Courtesy of UCLA Film and Television archive.

[13] The Kinema Theatre would also host the West Coast premiere of The Jazz Singerin 1927.

[14] Latis 2018, pg. 205

[15] See Ensminger, David A. “The Second Skin of the City.” Visual Vitriol: The Street Art and Subculture of the Punk and Hardcore Generation. MI: U of Mississippi P, 2011.

[16] Shiel 2012, 105-106.