Greene with Envy

Front Entrance to the Gamble House

Yesterday, Martine and I drove to Pasadena to visit the Gamble House. No, it’s not a casino. It was the home of the Gambles of the Procter & Gamble fame. Situated on Orange Grove near where the Tournament of Roses Parade makes the turn onto Colorado, the area is a turn of the century (19th to 20th, that is) millionaires’ row. We had visited the house before, years ago, but it’s a good thing to renew one’s acquaintance with great works of art from time to time.

the house is the work of the architectural firm of Greene & Greene. While their works are usually characterized as “arts and crafts bungalows,” what we have here is a sizeable mansion.

Gamble House Exterior

There is something infinitely pleasing and subtle about the works of Greene & Greene when they are at the top of their game, and the Gamble house was definitely at the top of their game. The architects decided not only the exterior feature of the building, the room layouts, and the grounds—but even the furniture in many cases. In one room, everything is made to resemble a vase on the dresser.

Although the architects had never been to the Orient, they did stop at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago on their way to California, where they saw a number of examples of Japanese architecture. That glimpse was sufficient to get them thinking about how to use wood not only for weight-bearing, but also for decorative purposes.

Gamble House Sample Interior

Note the way all the features in the above room blend in with one another. The pottery, the lighting fixture, the table and chairs seem all of a piece. At one point where the servants would injure their hip by banging into a sharp counter corner, the architects made the counter trapezoidal, eliminating the sharp corner. At another point, the very short Aunt Julia Gamble had a special chair made for her to work with the fastenings on her high-button shoes. (Also note Aunt Julia’s little step stool in the above photo for her comfort.) In the boys’ bedroom, there is a low, wide drawer for storing their shoes. In the kitchen, there is a super-wide drawer for storing tablecloths without wrinkling them along the folds.

Everything is on a human scale. And strikingly beautiful.

 

Los Angeles the Hard Way

An Old RTD Bus on Its Route

When I first came to Los Angeles late in 1966, I did not know how to drive. And now I was living in a city in which it is considered to be impossible to get anywhere on public transit. For the next nineteen years, I was to disprove that. It was then that I began to study the city’s public transportation network. At that time, there was no fast rail, no subways—only buses. I lived in or near Santa Monica, so I could take either the Santa Monica Big Blue Buses or the orange RTD buses.

Why hadn’t I learned to drive? In Cleveland, we were too poor; and besides, my father was too impatient to teach me. When he tried, every time I made a mistake, he swatted me, hard. I thought it would be better if I put it off.

And so I did. Then something else came up. One of my family’s medical curses caught up with me in my twenties: high blood pressure. For years, I was taking a medication called Catapres that gave me narcolepsy, especially when I was a passenger in a moving automobile.

Suddenly, in 1985, I was off Catapres. The narcolepsy, having left me, no longer kept me from taking driving lessons at the ripe old age of 40. So I called the Sears-Roebuck driving school, and a patient teacher by the name of Jerry Kellman taught me. I passed my driving test with flying colors. I purchased a 1985 Mitsubishi Montero with automatic transmission (most in that model line were stick shift) and hit the roads.

Although I am on my third car, a 2018 Subaru Forester, I still take the buses (and now the trains, which Los Angeles now has) from time to time to go where I want without having to pay exorbitant parking fees. My trips downtown cost me a total of $1.50 there and back, which compares well to the $20-30 parking fees in cramped lots which would lead to dents in my new car.

So now I’m ambidextrous, to to speak. I can drive or take public transportation.

 

 

 

Cities That Are Hard To Read

Los Angeles: A City That Is Hard To Read

The New Yorkers are at it again. In the pages of the New York Times, two reporters—Tim Arango and Adam Nagourney—referred to Los Angeles as “A City That Never Quite Came Together.” That reminds me of that old chestnut about Los Angeles being seventy-five communities in search of a city.

From the time I heard I was accepted by the UCLA Motion Picture History and Criticism graduate program, I scoured the Cleveland Public Library for books about Southern California. One of them wrote at great length about mudslides along the Pacific Coast Highway (California Route 1) in Pacific Palisades and Malibu, and posited a fictional type of super-salesman called a “Pro-Cal,” who regarded L.A. as the best of all places—diametrically opposed to the boo-birds from the East who were intent on digging up dirt about the Golden State.

This kind of thinking negatively affected what I thought about L.A. when I first moved here in 1966. All those stucco apartment buildings painted in pastel colors struck me the wrong way. Why couldn’t they use good red brick, like we had in Ohio? Then I endured my first earthquake in 1971 and understood why they used stucco: It was the brick buildings that collapsed. Only in the 1970s that I began to actually like California. The fact that that coincided with the way I felt about myself was no accident.

My friend Lynette—who was born in California—sent me a reference to a Los Angeles Times article published on February 8, 2018  and written by Christopher Hawthorne. In it, he compares L.A. to Houston, Texas:

If I had to put my finger on what unites Houston and Los Angeles, it is a certain elusiveness as urban object. Both cities are opaque and hard to read. What is Houston? Where does it begin and end? Does it have a center? Does it need one? It’s tough to say, even when you’re there — even when you’re looking directly at it.

The same has been said of Los Angeles since its earliest days. Something Carey McWilliams noted about L.A. in 1946 — that it is a place fundamentally ad hoc in spirit, “a gigantic improvisation” — is perhaps even more true of Houston. Before you can pin either city down, you notice that it’s wriggled out of your grasp.

People who are accustomed to making quick sense of the world, to ordering it into neat and sharply defined categories, tend to be flummoxed by both places. And reporters at the New York Times are certainly used to making quick sense of the world. If there’s one reason the paper keeps getting Los Angeles so spectacularly wrong, I think that’s it. Smart, accomplished people don’t like being made to feel out of their depth. Los Angeles makes out-of-town reporters feel out of their depth from their first day here.

This is not a city on a hill, such as can be found in Tuscany. You can’t just take it in at a glance and say, “Yeah, this is Los Angeles, all right!” I like to surprise visitors with forays to ethnic enclaves like Koreatown, Little Tokyo, and East Los Angeles (or “East Los”). Then there are mountains within the county boundaries that are two miles high. The fact that there are mountains here at all is a surprise to most people.

L.A. no longer wriggles out of my grasp. I recognize it as a conglomeration of landscapes, cultures, and even architectures. So don’t think you can spend an afternoon on the Sunset Strip or the Bel Air Hotel and think you’ve scoped out the city: You haven’t even begun.

 

 

The Smugness of The New Yorker

Postcard from Los Angeles

I have always loved reading The New Yorker, but I continue to be dismayed at the peculiar relationship The Big Apple has with Los Angeles. It grates me like that scene in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall (1977) in which Allen is ordering lunch at a Sunset Strip eatery: “I’m going to have the alfalfa sprouts and a plate of mashed yeast.” Another line from the same movie: “I don’t want to move to a city where the only cultural advantage is being able to make a right turn at a red light.”

We know that Woody Allen doesn’t like Los Angeles, and the feeling is more or less mutual. It tends to be shared by The New Yorker, which seems to include half a dozen articles each year that come under the heading of slumming in the sticks. Witness the following, which is shown on a hand-drawn cartoon of an L.A. postcard:

Greetings from Los Angeles, California. Come for the sunshine, stay for the dream that may or may not happen, but feels as if it’s going to happen like … four years in, when you score that big meeting and everyone says, “This is it—don’t blow it!!,”  but on your way there there’s a huge backup on the 5 and you’re forty minutes late so they never call you again.

Oh, come off it! This is that same Annie Hall Los Angeles that consists of the film studios and the Sunset Strip, leaving out EVERYTHING ELSE. It’s as if they’re still stuck on that Nathanael West image of The Day of the Locust.

IMHO, if you miss that big meeting, you should have gotten on the freeway earlier. No biggie! Get there early, have a coffee, arrive relaxed. Leave your Gotham edginess in the trunk of your rental car.

 

 

Farmers and Hipsters

Seafood Stand at the Old Farmers’ Market

Originally, there was the Original Farmers’ Market at Third and Fairfax. Even on the hottest days, it is a cool, shaded place with dozens of good restaurants and interesting stores. Naturally, this being Los Angeles, the real estate developers couldn’t leave well enough alone. Adjacent to the old market sprang up The Grove, consisting primarily of chains oriented toward young hipsters.

In the original market, I can take a book or Kindle and sit down for hours reading without being bothered. Oh, I buy lunch there, and maybe have a cup of tea when I arrive—and maybe even some snacks to take home.

At The Grove, there is no place to sit and read. After all, hipsters don’t read. It’s just not cool enough.

Hipster Duds at The Grove (Yawn!)

Fortunately, the presence of The Grove has not killed the Original Farmers’ Market. It’s still a major tourist attraction. So is The Grove, for that matter. Both are full of people taking selfies. I think that if The Grove swallowed the old market, people would protest loud and long. Also, I have a sneaking feeling that The Grove may require several re-designs as the new hipsters replace the old. The Farmers’ Market, on the other hand, should be preserved exactly as it is.

Today at the market, I finished reading the first volume of Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter and then started in with Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend. Plus I had two great vegetarian tacos at The Lotería, one with nopalitos (marinated prickly pear cactus) and potatoes with poblano chiles. With it, I had a delicious watermelon agua fresca.

 

Los Angeles Place Names

The Dining Room of the Rancho Dominguez Adobe

History in Southern California has a decidedly Spanish flavor. By the time that American settlers began to trickle into the Mexican Province of Alta California, most of the agricultural land had been surveyed and distributed among over a hundred grantees. Their names today—not coincidentally—are place names across the land. In Los Angeles County, there are grants named San Pedro, Los Nietos, San Rafael, Los Feliz, Las Virgenes, Topanga Malibu Sequit, Palos Verdes, San Antonio, Rincon de los Bueyes, Las Cienegas, La Brea, Rosa Castilla, San Pascual, Santa Gertrudes, Paso de Bartolo, San José, Sausal Redondo, La Ballona, San Vicente y Santa Monica, Boca de Santa Monica, Tujunga, Los Nogales, Azusa de Duarte, La Puente, La Cañada, San Jose de Buenos Ayres, Cahuenga, Aguaje de Centinela, and others.

Now take a detailed map of Los Angeles, and you will see these same names replicated as names of streets, communities, hills, and waterways. The road that winds around the UCLA campus is called Buenos Ayres. There are Verduga Hills in the valley, around which snake an endless number of streets with Verdugo in their names. If I were to take a bus downtown, I would go on or past streets names Santa Monica, Centinela, La Cienega, San Vicente, and La Brea—all within ten miles.

A Map of Spanish Land Grants in Los Angeles County

Scattered throughout the county are the various adobes, or what remains of the grantees’ ranchos and haciendas. I have visited the Centinela and Dominguez adobes, and there are others I’d like to see. They are usually staffed by enthusiastic volunteers and stocked with furniture of the period. The oldest house in the City of Los Angeles is the Avila Adobe, which belonged to an early alcalde and is part of the Olvera Street tourist complex.

By the way, let’s call the city by its founding name: El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Angeles de Porciúncula. That translates to the town of our Lady Queen of the Angeles of Porciúncula. (Curiously, one place name that’s widely missing in L.A. is Porciûncula—too long, I guess.)

 

Southwest

A Place Onto Its Own

Until late in 1966, when I took a train from Cleveland to Los Angeles, I had never been farther west than Detroit. My only notion of the American Southwest came from watching Roadrunner cartoons. Then, early one morning late in December of that year, the El Capitan went through the Mojave Desert. It was d-r-y, yet there were little puddles beside the track that were frozen over. It was the beginning of my adjustment.

More than half a century later, I am still adjusting. Where back East, rain was a frequent occurrence, here it was rare, though occasionally tumultuous. In our last rain, some 17 people in Santa Barbara County were buried in mudslides when a heavy rain hit an area that had been affected by the Thomas Fire.

If you have never been “Out West,” you won’t get the picture over a short weekend. There is an element of time in the deserts of this Earth that has to be experienced. It’s not like Woody Allen breezing into town and complaining about mashed yeast and the legality of making right turns at stoplights. Experiencing L.A. will probably involve some discomfort. This ain’t no Paradise, nor yet is it Valhalla.

Hoodoos at Bryce Canyon National Park

What helps is to travel around the Southwest to see the variety of strange scenery, from the Grand Canyon to many of the other National Parks—one vastly different from the other.

After all these years, I’m just getting started on the road to understanding what life here is all about.