LAST WEEK, I was in the last stretch of finishing up an essay about Los Angeles—what it looks, feels, sounds like and the histories we all on. All this, just as we received the order from the state of California and the city and county of Los Angeles to stay at home. Not a lock down, but to limit our movements around the city due to the novel coronavirus.
During a teleconference with my editor, we sorted out a way to include this new and unprecedented chapter in the story of the city. Last weekend, on the way to do morning groceries, I wound through my old neighborhood to see what an emptied-out L.A. was beginning to look like.
These photos illustrate this.
It was heartening to see how quickly people acted and yet heartbreaking to see the city stilled in such a dramatic way..
You can read my essay up at High County News here.
I GREW up eavesdropping on all manner of serpentine stories about road travel.
Drive at night. Drive all the way through. Don’t dare talk to anyone.
As much as I love to explore, I knew that this came with risks. Writer and photographer Candacy Taylor’s deeply researched and important new book, “The Overground Railroad: The Green Book and the Roots of Black Travel in America ” examines the fraught territory of the open-road for black travelers. Taylor’s book connects the dots between Jim Crow segregation, redlining to present-day racial and socio-economic disparity. It is an impassioned plea for present-day activism; a call to revisit these sites that once symbolized freedom and power, and build on the history of hope.
I review the book for the Los Angeles Times.
From my piece:
Publisher Victor Hugo Green, a black mail carrier in New York with a seventh-grade education, said he’d come to the idea while observing a Jewish friend consult a kosher guide to plan a vacation in the Catskills. Taylor, however, suspects a more complex origin story. Green, who also managed the career of his musician brother-in-law, had no doubt absorbed stories about the travails of securing safe accommodations on the road; those anecdotes would have been influential as well.
Green teamed up with fellow postal worker George I. Smith to create the guide. “The first edition was only ten pages,” writes Taylor, “but it was a mighty weapon in the face of segregation.” Green’s brother, William, later joined Victor and his wife, Alma, to produce the guide out of their Harlem home.
At the outset, 80% of the listings were clustered in traditionally African American communities, including Harlem, Chicago’s Bronzeville and Los Angeles’ black enclaves stipulated by racial housing covenants and held in place for decades by redlining. The “Green Book”became a trusted brand and an emotional touchstone due to Green’s vision, grit and stamina and the guide’s consistency and reliability.
BY CHANCE, I began my reading (or re-reading) of this early work just as we hit peak Santa Ana season.
The winds yowling and the fires zipping across the county. I’m a native and yet it never ceases to be frightening. Knowing the potential keys up everything. Didion writes with the edge of a knife:
“I have neither heard nor read that a Santa Ana is due, but I know it, and almost everyone I have seen today knows it too,” Joan Didion writes in ‘Slouching Towards Bethlehem.’ ‘We know it because we feel it. The baby frets. The maid sulks. … To live with the Santa Ana is to accept, consciously or unconsciously, a deeply mechanistic view of human behavior.’
I review the new Library of America collection of her work “Didion The 1960s & 70s, ” for the Los Angeles Times. Click here to read the full review.
IT’S BEEN a long stretch of silence around here. That’s mostly due to big deadline juggling and such but there is light at the end of the tunnel. (Stay tuned).
In the meantime, on top of a book deadline, I have been writing a bit about the city through the lens of a few books.
A few months I did a group essay/review of Gary Krist’s “Mirage Factory” and Shawn Levy’s history of the Chateau Marmot, “The Castle on Sunset” with a little side chat with Janet Fitch to round it out.
Both books take a deep look at the city’s history while also examining boosterism and grand promises that L.A. didn’t always keep.
Krist’s book looks at the origin stories of some of these myths, Levy’s the extension of them, and helps us understand why, to this day, we are still untangling truth from fable.
You can click here to read the piece up at LA Times books.
“I have described New Orleans as a city of feeling …” writes Sarah M. Broom in The Yellow House
If you’ve been following this blog for sometime you know that my ancestral roots are dug deep in Louisiana. New Orleans is a pin on my map, but the New Orleans I grew up spending time in most every summer of my youth had little to do with the place that lived in most people’s imagination. As Broom points out, people often have a visceral reaction when you merely utter the words New Orleans. Sometimes it isn’t even an actual emotion they name; it may just be a sound.
This is why Broom’s book so hit home. On so many levels.
In The Yellow House, she explores her hometown — New Orleans East — “across the bridge” from the one that’s minutes-but-worlds away from the New Orleans of the of gas lights and music and all-night reverie. Of the French Quarter she asks: “How had one-square mile come to stand for the entire city?”
“The East” lies at best on the edges of imagination, but Broom somehow knew at a young age, that she needed to secret away details about the her home — The Yellow House — the life that filled it up, and the ground upon which it precariously sat.
“I was still writing everything down as I had learned to do in high school. In the Yellow House, especially rote detail as if by doing, I was making things real, findable, fighting disappearance. I could collect evidence.”
It’s another August and it’s about the time of year that my family would be readying the suitcases for that trip east, to visit my grandfather and the rest of the family who remained rooted somehow in that uncertain ground. It seems fitting that Broom’s book would arrive this week in keeping with tradition. It took me away, back there. I’m still walking around listening and looking chasing my own ghosts.
You can read my review of Broom’s far-reaching exploration of erasure and belonging here at latimes.com Arts and Books.
My Advanced Reader’s Copy: So many deep insights, indelible quotes
AS A JOURNALIST, I was lucky enough to spend lots of time with Buddy Collette, the jazz composer, bandleader and woodwind player who was also a native to this shapeshifting place, Los Angeles. I learned so much from Buddy about L.A. and its music scene. He was instrumental in helping to integrate the Local 47 Musicians’ Union. As well, he spent decades performing in clubs and classrooms, educating new generations about jazz and the role of Central Avenue in that story.
Jack’s Basket Room
Buddy was the first person to introduce me to Jack’s Basket Room. He referred to it “Jack’s Basket.” It was an after-hours club on South Central Avenue. Low key, large room with a simple stage where local musicians as well as those who were traveling through town, would stop by for a gig. One of the first stories Buddy told me over lunch at Nibbler’s (“Where every table is a booth”) was about Charlie Parker’s famous post-Camarillo gig at Jack’s. He was in attendance. Sitting down in front. If you were in town and were a musician, you needed to be there to bear witness.
Up until a few years ago, the shell of Jack’s still stood. You could drive by it and imagine what it was like to see a cluster of musicians lingering outside hoping to hear the great Bird let loose.
My new piece about the club and what happened with the building is now up at Alta. Click here to see what the old spot looked like and read Buddy’s words about what it was like to sit there and be transported by the music.