L.A. Stories: Redux

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.

 

What it means…

“I have described New Orleans as a city of feeling …” writes Sarah M. Broom in The Yellow House 

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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.

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My Advanced Reader’s Copy: So many deep insights, indelible quotes

“So Complete…So Right”

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.

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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.

The Curious Tale of “Linda Taylor”

FOR THE LOS ANGELES TIMES, I reviewed Josh Levin’s deep-dive into the real-life figure behind the moniker “Welfare Queen.”  The book goes all kinds of places one wouldn’t expect.

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From my piece:

In its early chapters, “The Queen” is as much about Taylor’s duplicity as it is the detective’s need to break out of his own workaday tedium and make his mark in a deeply segregated and racially charged Chicago. It also illustrates the concerted efforts of a network of journalists, cops and politicians who sought to make a quick-sketch of Linda Taylor, a figure who could be held accountable for the city’s, state’s and nation’s raft of troubles in a climate of inflation and recession.”

 

You can read the rest here.

261 Columbus Avenue

THIS IS probably one of my favorite corners  to stand on on the planet.  Crossing Columbus Avenue, facing City Lights Books & Publishers.

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Over the weekend, City Lights’ co-founder, the poet and publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti, marked his 100th birthday and there was much noise and celebration throughout North Beach and beyond.

I have been visiting the store since before college, I would guess. Dragging friends along to wander among the many floors of books, later to pose outside under the signage. But always what was the most magical thing about this place was happening upon its founder, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, walking along Columbus or holding forth in one of the sunny cafes. This store is one of the important points on my personal map. I wouldn’t be who I was without it.

I wrote  piece for the Los Angeles Times Op-Ed section that ran yesterday about both Ferlinghetti and the store’s legacy and impact. You can find it here.

Analog Life

ANTHONY WILSON is a guitarist and composer and a native Angeleno, who has always dug deep into his creative reserves to ask big questions and explore new territory.  I’m deeply impressed by his fluidity and openness to the blind curves of creativity.

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Anthony Wilson taking CicLAvia Break at Union Station 

 

For his new work, Songs and Photographs, Wilson created an “album” in the purest sense: A collection of musical compositions and photographs meant to be taken as a whole and that travel across space and through moods.

I reviewed the collection for KPCC’s The Frame. As well, you can read the text, which went up on here on LAist this week.

Wilson will be performing this Monday evening. For more information and reservations, click here.

Enjoy.

 

Storied History: Sugar Hill, Los Angeles

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.

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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.

You can read more here.

 

The Story in a Snapshot

A LITTLE over a week ago, I received word that a collaborator, confidant and friend Carolyn Kozo Cole had passed away. Carolyn was the head of the Los Angeles Public Library’s photo collection for nearly 20 years and through her creativity, focus and imagination she was able to help us all see Los Angeles in a more complete and inclusive way.

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from LAPL’S Shades of L.A. Collection

I met Carolyn in the early 90s when I arrived at one of the branch libraries in South Los Angeles  do a story for L.A. Style magazine on the then-nascent photo collection project, “Shades of L.A.”  “Shades” was Carolyn’s brainchild: Her plan set-in-motion was to collect snapshots from diverse family albums from across the Southland to fill in the library’s holdings. This she knew would mean an active search for images that would tell us a deeper and more complex story about the region — photos beyond ribbon cuttings, and landmark buildings and new parkways.

The photo below, of a garden wedding in Watts has stayed with me for decades now. It is from the book, Shades of L.A. a brief compendium that samples some of the project’s key finds. This photo is meaningful because in certain ways it was the very absence of quotidian images like this that sent Carolyn on her journey.  “What did Watts look like before the uprisings of 1965? The houses, the streets, the businesses?” “How and where did people celebrate milestone moments in their lives?” she wondered.  The library didn’t have anything beyond a photo of the old railroad depot. Surely there was more.  Those, she realized, would be part of family collections. They would be the photographs that chronicled the everyday.

I wrote an appreciation about Carolyn that will appear in  Sunday’s Los Angeles Times  you can read it here online.

I miss her emailed anecdotes and her phone calls and her little stack of special finds just for me. But every time I happen upon a photo like the one above from the online Shades archive, I know that she has truly given us so much that we will be using to understand Los Angeles and tell better stories about it for generations to come.

I know what it means …

A FEW weeks back, I received a  voicemail from a friend who was on a desperate search for crawfish. He knows all the same Louisiana spots that I know, so I was at first confused by the phone call. I was on my way to a conference and prepping my final notes in the car so admittedly I was distracted. But I kept listening. When he got to, “My usual spot on Arlington and Vernon is gone!”

That snapped me to attention.

He kept repeating: “It’s just rubble. Like fresh rubble. Like this just happened.”

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The remains of the New Orleans Fish Market

There are places we frequent and then there are places that define us—places that make neighborhoods truly neighborhoods for us. The New Orleans Fish Market was mine.

It was plain and worn around the edges, but you knew they would have precisely what you needed. Plus you got a little taste of “home: People asking about the Saints, carrying on about “Your people and ’em” and of course, “So, when you going home?”

I have been shopping at the New Orleans Fish Market for decades. And before that, I followed my mother into a Louisiana Fish Market that was just a little further down the street, on the north side, if I recall correctly. It had a little yellow shingle sign that lit up at dusk, but most of all I remember that it would bring New Orleans back to my mother.

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“It’s just rubble. Like fresh rubble. Like this just happened.”

This was an essential stop for her to get the proper ingredients for her gumbo, jambalaya and étouffée. No other market had the proper crab or shrimp. Sometimes she would have special items flown in (Creole Cream Cheese). I know for my mother, having this market an easy ten minute drive from our home meant that she wouldn’t ever be *that* far away from New Orleans.

It was the fact that it was so specific and specialized and that if you were “in-group” or at least in the know, you knew to stop there. You also knew that if you didn’t have time to get over to Pete’s to get your hot links, the Fish Market stocked them as well. They knew that sometimes you needed to grab everything at once in a pinch. Save extra steps.

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Mel Melcon via L.A. Times

 

Word is that the business owners are looking for another spot. I know a tearful group of folks have been posting on their Facebook page wondering what happened. With the holidays coming up and gumbo season in full swing, I know there will be plenty of patrons who will be as slack-jawed as I and my friend Darryl were to here this news.

I had to see it with my own eyes to believe that it was true. And even still, I can’t.

Missing New Orleans in Los Angeles, for sure.

It wasn’t just a building, it was an extension of a community. It was a hub and a place  for Southern families to reconnect. I wasn’t born in the South but the South lives in me. This was a place to nourish that small but significant part of me. That home inside of home.