Lost Angeles

The new folks over at L.A. Voice want to know just how bad L.A. is at historic preservation. Linking to a Preserve LA post that links to a Preservation Online article by Chris Epting titled Lost in Los Angeles,”  L.A. Voice’s Ryan Knoll takes issue with Epting’s characterization of L.A. as one of the worst cities in the country in terms of preservation of its historic landmarks. Knoll sites Epting’s examples of the Ambassador Hotel and the Garden of Allah residential complex as just not being very heavy hitters in the history ring:

The Garden of Allah was a compound of bungalows that served as pieds a terre for celebs like Gretta Garbo, Humphrey Bogart, and Ernest Hemmingway. It was built in 1927 and bulldozed in 1959. Does a 32 year old apartment complex merit the “Historic” tag? If so, I want a tax deduction for my house.

You can make a strong argument for and against the Ambassador Hotel. It’s greatest claim to fame (or infamy), of course was as the spot of Robert F. Kennedy’s assasination. But the Kennedy family (I believe) wasn’t all that fired up about saving the building, and if you remove the Kennedy factor from consideration, the Ambassador becomes just another hotel that hosted famous people.

As an issue near and dear to my heart of course I started posting a comment in response to Ryan but it quickly rambled and so instead I decided to pop it up here, as follows:

Ryan, I would be interested to know where the line is to be drawn. If we look at a landmark and shrug about it not being old enough or that its only claim to fame is that it housed some celebs or hosted the murder of a presidential candidate then it shouldn’t be too difficult to shrug off all those vacant theaters on Broadway or that Frank Lloyd Wright house up on the hills or that luggage shop on Vine Street.

You can make the argument that historically speaking there’s not all that much going on and I wouldn’t necessarily disagree — not because few things actually qualify, but because there are so few things left. L.A. may be 225 years old but in the last 100 or so this city’s become the capital of reinvention and make-believe where the automobile is king, and our sprawled out drive-through cityscapes can’t help but reflect that.

As a prime example very near and dear to my heart, I site the “1,000 year old” oak tree that for the first 950 years of its undisturbed and unencumbered life was one of hundreds upon hundreds of oak trees growing in the area. But for its final 50 years or so it became isolated and imprisoned in what became the suburban bedroom community of Encino a hundred yards or so south of Ventura Boulevard until it finally succumbed to years of illness and indifference along with that winter’s relentless El Nino storms and fell in 1998. Sure, it was recognized in 1963 by the city as an historic and cultural monument (No. 74), but did that prevent the grand arbor from being relegated to a small island surrounded by the asphalt encroachment of the post-war boom? Of course not. City planners were so reckless in their disregard that they actually split Louise Avenue’s lanes around the tree, allocating a mid-sized shopping center to the north and a bank building to the south and multi-unit aparment buildings behind it. Why? Because what was it other than nothing but a big old tree. Never mind that it deserved a park of its own and even the slightest in protective distance from the pavement and pollution, this historic and cultural icon couldn’t even get the slightest consideration beyond being acknowledge for its longevity in a city whose residents ceaselessly strive to ignore the clock rather than recognize its forward progress.

And now it’s gone.

So while historic significance might be an oxymoron in L.A., it would be from a perspective of cultural significance that I would definitely say L.A. qualifies as one of the most ignorant cities at preservation. On a small scale countless are the landmark businesses that are nothing more than memories and pictures: Perino’s, C.C. Brown’s, Wallach’s Music City, Pickwick Books, Jay’s Jayburgers. Hell, rather than restore it the city came very close to razing downtown’s central library after it was torched by arsonists in the 1980s.

And the erasure is easily evident on a larger scale, too — and not without some irony. Union Station is an untouchable landmark in its own right, but it resides on what used to be the original location of Chinatown. Same with Dodger Stadium. I would throw myself in front of any bulldozer that threatened my beloved House of Blue, but it was built on the dirt that buried the barrancas and canyons and history of Chavez Ravine. And what they couldn’t fill in they chopped down. Bunker Hill used to be much more of a hill than it is now, but it was lopped off and trucked down and leveled and with it went so much of one of the city’s most historic residential cores.

The bottom line for me is that be it historic or cultural, Los Angeles’ past is a slate that’s historically been far more easily and regretlessly cleaned than most other American cities.