APOLOGIES FOR being so behind on posting articles. Trying to play catch up. Things have been back-to-back.
This was a piece that I didn’t know I needed to write, but when the opportunity arrived I knew I had to wrestle with some themes that had been drifting through in conversations for years.
It’s an ode to a Los Angeles that is holding on with a very specific vividness and richness, but every time I revisit, I see features that appear slightly different, feel a rhythm that feels somewhat sped up or askew. At moments,, it’s difficult to put into words, but this is a reflection of what it is to be not just in a place but of a place.
From the piece:
As a journalist, I keep my eye trained on statistics — census numbers, pie charts, bar graphs — that indicate shifts that we may not detect with a naked eye. Therein blooms stories. As a Black Angeleno those charts and calculations aren’t abstractions. They are something you feel in your body, some sort of undertow in your day to day existence. Something has changed, power has shifted. Census numbers, like a Ouija planchette, pull attention toward power or possibility — the vote, the money, the influence.
For many decades, Los Angeles had been known as a Black migrant “magnet.” Folks came for the promise and the sunshine. The Black population in L.A. has dropped 30% since 1990, according to census data.
Home is always in us…
My piece for KPCC/LAist on Nipsey Hussle and the soul and heart of Black Los Angeles is here.
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.
MY LATEST, now up online at Preservation magazine, explores the deep history of the Wilfandel Club in the Los Angeles’s West Adams district.
The club, for more than seven decades, has been a integral meeting-spot in Los Angeles for many generations of African American Angelenos. As West Adams undergoes the same shifts in gentrification as some of the older, established yet “under-the-radar” neighborhoods in L.A, the Wilfandel women are gearing up to ready to protect what was hard won.
The Wilfandel Clubhouse is a Mediterranean Revival house was built in 1912 via Preservation
From the piece:
Founded in 1945 by Della Williams and Fannie Williams (the two were not related), the Wilfandel Club House offered a singular experience: an elegant gathering place for black Angelenos to meet or celebrate in style. The National Trust for Historic Preservation recently awarded the club a $75,000 grant through its African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund (AACHAF) to assist the women of the Wilfandel with essential infrastructure upkeep. Preserving this property is a way to honor all that’s come before—that struggle to acquire and protect one’s place in an ever-evolving Los Angeles.
I HAD one of my first birthday parties at the Bob Baker Marrionette Theater, oh so many years ago. Puppets and sugar, who wouldn’t be happy? So it will be a thrill to be part of this event next Wednesday evening, November 14. Join me and these fine folks for a new episode of “Tom Explores Los Angeles” for an evening of puppetry and storytelling, “told through the windshield.”
This will be one of the final performances at the treasure of an old space that miraculously still sits at that busy crossing where Glendale Boulevard meets Second Street at the edges of downtown Los Angeles.
On Saturday night – July 7 – I’ll be in conversation with Kevin McCollister (@eastofwestla), discussing his work documenting Los Angeles. We’ll be at HELMS BAKERY. 8800 Venice Boulevard (entrance on Washington Blvd.) 7:30pm. Please join us.
A DEEPLY involving and bittersweet presentation at #LAPL’s Central Library on Saturday afternoon. Annie Laskey and her mother Marlene hatched a plan to walk the stretch of Wilshire Boulevard from its downtown high-rises and mid-town department stores to the edges of the sea. Annie mentioned that the thrill at first was less about the walk and more about getting to operate the Minolta SLR. Annie shot and Marlene made note (see the notebook in the grid below). While Marlene and many of the iconic locations that the Laskeys recorded are no longer with us, the absences were filled with vivid stories. Grateful for the Laskeys and their. sticktoitiveness Hundreds of sites have now been preserved on Kodachrome slides. The Wilshire Boulevard — the Carnation Building, Mutual of Omaha, Ambassador Hotel– that still exists in my head flickered to life with her stories. You can glimpse 100 of those images in a new book, “The Wilshire Slides 1978–1979” put out through LAPL’s Photo Collection and Photo Friends the nonprofit organization formed to support & promote the collection.
I’M MORE THAN a little tardy posting this but projects have been flying in and out the door, and my fingers are trying their very best to keep up. But this afternoon from a couple of weeks back remains on my mind.
Mike Sonksen (AKA Mike the Poet) is a civic treasure. He’s one of those faces that float into view at almost every poetry event and almost every corner of town. He’s a many-generation native of Los Angeles and with that he’s taken a multilayered interest in the city. All of it is up for exploration and inquiry.
Mike is also known around the poetry scene for his indiosyncratic city tours — on foot, by bus, via Metro — that have always featured the energy and of freestyle poetry and history. For as many years as I have known him, this was the very first time I had been able to take part in one of the downtown walkabouts. This round he featured other poets along the way, among them — Traci Akemi Kato-kiriyama, Rocío Carlos and F. Douglas Brown — who paused to share observations or self-reflections about sense of place or considered their personal place within with ever-shifting landscape of Los Angeles.
Much of the day and night before, it had been storming. Uncharacteristic downpours for May. But by mid morning the rain eased and the clouds pushed back enough to give the sky depth and offer a poem itself. We walked up and down hills, stood on overpasses and beneath flowering jacaranda trees to listen to aural snapshots of the city. Tourists in our own town. Just as we finished for the day, the clouds gathered again and the rain made an encore. Polite enough, however, to wait until the very last word. It was as if Mike had arranged it. Not once did he appear worried that we’d rain out, have to run for cover. Not one minute. He knows better. He knows how to read not just the streets, but the skies and the promises they won’t break.
To read Mike’s latest about L.A. new poet laureate, Robin Coste Lewis, click here.
SCENES FROM last week’s opening festivities for “Octavia E. Butler — Telling My Stories” at the Huntington Library and Botanical Gardens in San Marino.
A special thank you to curator Natalie Russell who carefully selected 100 objects out of a vast archive of 8,000 to illustrate Butler’s life, work and struggle. It’s a beautiful survey of a singular life. We are all grateful to Butler for gifting her papers to the Huntington so that so many more people can learn about her way of looking at and being in the world. Most affecting is her depth of curiosity, her blinders-on focus. For all the sacrifice and sense of mission, her dedication at moments feels matchless.
The exhibit is up through August. Come early. Give yourself enough time to wander through. There is much to linger over, digest and celebrate.
SOME PHOTOS from the penultimate dinner service at Hop Louie Restaurant in Chinatown. Among my favorite moments was watching multi-generational families slide in for their last meal trying to recreate dinners long past. Too: the young Emo couple slouched over sweet & sour which they paid Dutch for with a pile of crumpled bills and change. One waitress said she was ready for a long vacation after 25 years. One of the owner’s children gave us a crash course on the historic hows and whys of “Chop Suey cuisine.” “If you don’t have bok choy you use broccoli.”
I hadn’t been in that building for dinner since the 80s. Which of course was the echo of the evening. A fact about which the ready-for-vacation waitress quipped: “If we had only been busy like this every night….”
Yes. If only.
The first floor bar is to remain open for now. Upstairs? “Maybe movies.” Another server speculated. Always some scratch in location filming.
Those spareribs and crab Rangoon were just as I remembered from Sunday downtown dinners with the extended family decades ago.
Happy to have the memories but sad to say farewell to all of that.