An Outpost of Progress

The Leonis Adobe in Calabasas

Over the last several weeks, Martine and I have been visiting many of the old Spanish and Mexican adobes that were built before the American occupation in the late 1840s. Built in 1844 along the El Camino Réal that connected the Spanish missions of Alta California, the adobe became occupied in the 1850s or 1860s by Miguel Leonis, a 6’ 4” Basque from France who has been called the King of Calabasas. He lived with Espiritu Chujilla, who lived with him as wife. It turns out, however, he was never legally married.

That became obvious when Leonis died in an accident which involved him falling off and being run over by his wagon in 1889.  Although he left Espiritu $10,000 in his will—no trivial amount in those times—he left his millions to various of his European relatives. The will referred to her as his “faithful housekeeper,” though she had been introduced to guests as his wifeEspiritu fought the will in the courts for many years and won, but only after a fashion. She was plagued ever after by over a hundred other lawsuits.

Espiritu Chujilla

For some reason, it was common for Yankee and European pioneers to do their level best to cheat the native Spanish and Mexican population of their land and livelihood. It is said that the Leonis Adobe is haunted. The ghost appears to be Miguel’s. If so, he has a lot to answer for….

The Leonis Adobe Museum is perhaps the best organized and funded of the adobes we have visited to date. On the premises is not only the adobe itself, but a number of the original or rebuilt farm structures and outbuildings. The premises includes chickens, turkeys, longhorn cattle, goats, sheep, and horses, which visitors may feed with packets on sale at the museum. One enters by the oldest dwelling in the Hollywood area, the Plummer House, originally built around 1870, and inhabited by the family of Eugene Plummer, close friends of Miguel and Espiritu. The house was moved from Plummer Park is West Hollywood in 1983 after vandals attempted to burn it down.

Longhorn Cattle at the Leonis Adobe

In 1962, the Leonis Adobe was named Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument #1 by the newsly formed Cultural Heritage Board. (The Plummer House was State Historical Monument #160.)

The Last Mexican Governor of Alta California

Pio de Jesús Pico and Family

Today, Martine and i visited the Pio Pico State Historic Park in Whittier. Lately, we have spent several Saturdays and Sundays visiting locations that figured in the history of Southern California. And none has been more significant than El Ranchito, the home of the last Mexican governor of Alta California, Pio de Jesús Pico (1801-1894).

As it frequently did during that period, the United States essentially steamrollered the territory of Alta California and its environs. This happened in 1846, when a group of American settlers captured the Mexican army garrison at Sonoma. Within two years, gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill, setting off a gigantic gold rush, and the United States signed the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, ceding what is today the states of California, Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, and pieces of Wyoming, Colorado, and Utah to the victorious Yanquis.

Pio Pico’s Home, El Ranchito

After the Americans moved in, Pico and his family fled to (what remained of) Mexico for a few years. He returned when the dust settled, as he and his family personally owned some quarter million acres. He was besieged by lawsuits, many of them fraudulent. He sold most of the San Fernando Valley in 1869 to finance the building of the Pico House Hotel in Downtown Los Angeles, which still stands today—although mostly empty.

Arbor with Grapevines at El Ranchito

Toward the end of his life, Pico had problems holding on to money, due largely to his gambling addiction. The last act of his life was a sad one. A criollo of Spanish and African descent, Pico never learned English, which put him at risk in his financial transactions. He decided to deed a half interest in his remaining lands to his brother-in-law, John Forster. A sharper if there ever was one, Forster actually deeded a 100% interest to himself, forcing the aging Pico to move in with one of his daughters.

Today, the Pio Pico State Historic Park is a lovely corner of Whittier. There were only a few other visitors while we were there, probably because most Angelenos have little or no notion of the history of the land on which they live.

 

 

“The Great Task in Life”

In California, the Realty Interests Are in Charge

To misquote Iris Murdoch, “We live in a fantasy world, a world of illusion. The great task in life is to find realty.” After all, if you have enough money to start with, it’s not terribly difficult to become a millionaire, requires minimal brains. Just invest in real estate. It worked for Trump (if you really believe he’s a billionaire). It can work for you. All it requires is a lack of moral compass: You too can live in a McMansion at the edge of a golf course. Isn’t that what life is all about?

Right now, California politicians are highly disturbed about the increasing rate of homelessness. Of course, they think that the solution is to find housing for all the homeless. Never mind that most L.A. homeless would prefer to live in a tent set up under a bridge, where they can enjoy their heroine and crystal meth without being hassled by John Law. And that doesn’t include the 25-50% who are just plain out of their heads and wouldn’t understand what you are talking about.

The word is out that there are not enough housing units. Then there was an interesting front page article in the Los Angeles Times a couple days ago to the effect that there are approximately 110,000 housing units that are theoretically up for rent, but not really.

The reason is the convenience to landowners of the law governing taxation of housing units. One is taxed not on the gross amount one makes, but on the profit one makes. If too many units are being profitably rented, the best way to lower your taxes is to net the rented units with units that are being deliberately kept off the market. That way, the profit is minimized—or even wiped out—and the NOL (Net Operating Loss) is subtracted from the total income.

From my years in accounting, I have seen dozens of filthy rich landowners living the life of Riley while paying zero taxes. That also is a trick employed by our Presidente.

 

Pride, Courage … and Justice

L.A.’s African American Firefighter Museum

Over the last few years, I have become a connoisseur of small museums. Instead of taking on a broad swath of subject matter, they appear to be restricted to a small, concentrated area. When they succeed, one finds that you have been led to confront larger issues than you originally anticipated. So it is with the African American Firefighter Museum at 14th Street and Central Avenue in downtown Los Angeles.

I expected to hear stories of pride and courage as firefighters sacrifice to save lives and property, but I came away with a sobering consciousness of American racism. For many years, black firefighters were restricted to two engine companies in the African American neighborhoods south of Downtown L.A., one of which, shown above, has been converted into a museum. Finally, in the 1950s, the LAFD was to be integrated. Consequently, existing black firefighters were distributed among hitherto white only engine companies.

Displays on the Second Floor of the Museum

According to an article in the Los Angeles Times commemorating the opening of the museum:

Only those who were there would remember.

The way Wallace DeCuir entered the station and greeted his colleagues every morning, knowing they would ignore him.

The way Reynaldo Lopez kept his cool, even after a “Whites Only” sign was hung from the kitchen door.

The day someone smeared feces on Earnest Roberts’ pillow, and the other men watched.

And laughed.

The year was 1955. LAFD Fire Chief John H. Alderson said that the segregation policy was being implemented on schedule, but that it would take five years or more to “take” in all the fire stations. In the meantime, he did nothing to enforce the agency’s integration policy and was finally forced to take an early retirement.

Exhibits like this reminded me of the way things were in the 1950s, which we whites considered to be some sort of Golden Age. Yes, but not for everybody.

I sat for a couple of hours looking at a scrapbook of news stories from the 1950s of what black firefighters had to endure in order to work side by side with their white colleagues. In the end, I was appalled that the men who are charged with saving our lives and property have to endure as a result of the racism of their colleagues.

Los Angeles has four museums dedicated to firefighters. So far I have visited three of them, and one of them, this one, taught me some sobering lessons.

The House of Tiles

Tile from the Famed Malibu Potteries

Today, Martine and I paid a visit to the Adamson House and Malibu Lagoon Museum. Some houses are famous because of their architects; the Adamson House, on the other hand, is known for its lavish use of tiles throughout the house and the beautiful views on all sides. The builders of this 1930 Spanish colonial style house—the Rindges—were also the owners of Malbu Potteries which, for a number of years, produced beautiful floor and wall tiles from 1926 to 1932.

Ideally sited where Malibu Creek meets the Pacific Ocean, the Adamson House has beautiful views on all sides, including the Lagoon, the Santa Monica Mountains, and the California coastline extending many miles south to the Palos Verdes Peninsula.

Entryway to Adamson House

The Rindge family at one time owned the entire Rancho Topanga Malibu Sequit with its 13,000 acres of prime coastline. By a string of lawsuits they kept the major railroads from building along the coast, while at the same time building their own twelve miles of track, which were never integrated into the main passenger and freight routes. (Today there is no trace of them.)

It is due to their efforts that the main rail routes go inland to downtown L.A. and then west across the Conejo Valley to Oxnard.

The Peacock Fountain in the Back Yard with View to the Southeast

Today the Adamson House is a prime location for romantic weddings. As we left, there was one setting up for the late afternoon.

 

The Lomita Railroad Museum

The Lomita Railroad Museum

One does not expect to see a railroad museum on a residential suburban street, yet there it was. Plus it was not built at the site of an old station or railroad yard. The station building is a built-from-scratch replica of the station in Wakefield, Massachusetts. It was built on 250th Street because that’s where Irene Lewis lived. The Lomita Railroad Museum is her creation, in memory of her late husband Martin, and it is a tribute to the love that the Lewises had for railroading.

Today was a prototypical June gloom day, so Martine paged through our copy of Passport 2 History: Your Guide to 83 Historic Sites in 9 Counties of Central and Southern California, an occasionally revised booklet that has resulted in a number of fun day trips for the two of us.

In addition to the station building with its numerous exhibits, there is a 1902 Southern Pacific steam locomotive with tender and a 1910 Union Pacific caboose. On adjoining properties, there is a Santa Fe caboose, a 1923 Union Oil tank car, and a 1913 outside-braced wood box car.

Martine with Locomotive Exhibit (Notice the Engineer’s Hat)

It’s always fun to see a real labor of love come to life the way the Lomita Railroad Museum has. Los Angeles is full of little corners where some person’s dream has resulted in a fun place to visit and be informed.

Especially now that the Los Angeles to San Francisco High Speed Railroad is in doubt because of funding woes, railroading is becoming more and more a thing of the past. Although they seem to be thriving in Europe and parts of Asia, the railroads in North America have given way to trucks (for freight) and buses (for passengers).

I will never forget the awe I felt as a cub scout waiting for a passenger train to take members of my “den” to distant Ashtabula, Ohio. As the giant steam locomotive pulled up to the station, I felt a frisson of terror at such power as we were enveloped in steam.

 

When You Strip Away the Surface …

Dancers from the Kárpátok Folk Dance Ensemble

… of me, what you will find is a strange sort of Hungarian. Although I have read no studies to this effect, I think that the first language you learn to speak is what determines, at the deepest level, who you are. My first language was an older dialect of the Magyar language from the region just to the southwest of Budapest. Today, when I speak the language—haltingly—Hungarians laugh at my choice of words and horrible grammar. Yet, my ever-so-sophisticated American English is merely an overlay on a base that was set in concrete before I was five. I feel myself to be a kind of Brummagem Hungarian.

Last night, Martine and I attended a Hungarian folk dance program at St. Stephen’s Catholic Church just south of downtown L.A. The dance was put on by the Kárpátok Folk Dance Ensemble, which has just recently celebrated its 50th anniversary. That a city like Los Angeles, which does not have that large a Hungarian population, could support an organization like Kárpátok is an unending surprise to me.

For many of the fifteen-odd dances they performed, I was in tears. There are certain themes in Hungarian music that take me way back to my beginnings. I could not lay my finger on it, but a deep emotional chord is struck deep in my core.

The people in attendance were curious about me. My pronunciation is near perfect, but I might as well be retarded. As for Martine, she doesn’t know a word of Magyar and depended on me for many things I was unable to explain.

Flyer for the “Thousand Faces” Dance Concert We Attended

That didn’t keep up from enjoying the music and dances—and the Hungarian meal that was served afterwards—even though we were both suffering from nasty colds. She might be French, but Martine enjoys these Hungarian events as much as I do, though in a different way. I do believe she prefers Hungarian food to the great cuisine of France, especially where pastries are involved.