Greater Streets — Exploring Yosemite Drive

Los Angeles has more streets than any other city in the US, 12,000 kilometers of roadway the surface of which covers about 15% of that of the entire cityscape. New bicycle lanes, reconfigured road diets, pedestrian advocacy, the rediscovery of public stairways, open streets events, and government programs like Great Streets have gone a long way in transforming the way Angelenos engage with one of our largest public assets. However, it’s my belief that in nearly all things, what makes something great comes from the ground up and the streets are no exception.

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Yosemite Drive street sign/bird house
Yosemite Drive street sign/bird house

It probably wasn’t the first time that I drove or rode along Yosemite Drive but I have one amber-filtered memory of cruising along its gently meandering path one twilight and noting its charm; none of which owed anything to the presence of sidewalk jugglers, overpriced food trucks, or yarn-bombed lampposts. Yosemite’s charms come from its graceful curves, the rustling leaves of the mature trees which line it, and the rolling hills which rising up steeply behind the small houses along its edges.

Shade trees

Steep hills

My first thought was that Yosemite Drive might’ve been developed along an old rail line since this is often the case with attractive, meandering, tree-lined roads but none of Los Angeles Railway’s yellow cars ever made their way through Yosemite Valley. They understandably forsook Yosemite Drive for Eagle Rock’s major streets: Colorado, Eagle Rock, and Figueroa — all of which are tellingly much wider than Yosemite. My next guess was that perhaps a river once ran along the bottom of this tiny valley and that turned out to be the case.

Yosemite Drive (3)

Scout

Much of this area was formerly covered with strawberry fields which replaced the sprawling pastures of the Verdugo family’s vast Rancho San Rafael. Although here too there were strawberries, a stream and a stately riparian woodland filled most of the valley floor between the Eagle Rock and York valleys. Yosemite Drive began life as Sycamore Avenue, a road which followed the course of Eagle Rock Creek, a stream which flowed from near the intersection of La Loma Road and Figueroa Street down valley to a confluence just east of Eagle Rock Boulevard, which then flowed into a wetland at a lower elevation.

The Eagle Rock Water Company was established in 1906 and they built a pump house at the corner of Maywood Avenue and Sycamore. Eagle Rock incorporated in 1911 with a population of about 600. That same year, Fred and Edith Ekhart  (operators of  the Gates Strawberry Ranch) built their home along Sycamore Avenue. Edith went on to found the Eagle Rock’s Friendly Club which later morphed into the Women’s Twentieth Century Club. The Eagle Rock Water Company was purchased in 1917 by the City of Eagle Rock. That year part of neighboring town of Annandale was annexed by Pasadena. The un-annexed portion of Annandale and the town of Eagle Rock were both annexed by Los Angeles in 1923 which resulted in renaming of numerous streets and Sycamore Avenue thus became Yosemite Drive.

In November of 1933, about 3,000 hectares of the Pickens Canyon in the San Gabriel Mountains went up in the smoke of a forest fire. On 31 December, 18.6 centimeters of rain fell on the denuded foothills which resulted in disastrous flooding which in turn lead to the death of about 100 people (45 of the missing were never accounted for). Woody Guthrie commemorated the calamity with his composition “The New Year’s Flood.” Eagle Rock Creek’s fate was to be tamed and entombed in a 2.5 meter storm drain which was lowered beneath Yosemite Drive.

Yosemite Drive (2)

Yosemite Drive is only about three kilometers long — not a major street by anyone’s measure, but because it runs between heavily traveled Figueroa Street and Eagle Rock Boulevard it’s unfortunately treated by too many motorists as some sort of freeway interchange. For such a small street, it’s especially disconcerting as cars speed by, rocking the cars parked along the road, and occasionally killing people as they try to shave a few seconds off of their commute. As many people died in the New Year’s Flood die every year as the result of motorists running over pedestrians and along this stretch, whilst crossing a crosswalk, then-seven-year-old Alexander Sanna was struck by then-22-year-old Duc Quy Trinh who after colliding with the child, stopped and dislodged his body from the car, and then sped off — only to turn himself in when guilt got the better of him. For his crimes of felony hit-and-run and misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter he was sentenced to three years imprisonment.

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I decided to start my walk at the Figueroa end of Yosemite and then walked west. At least one home was built in 1907 but most along Yosemite were built in the 1920s. Fewer were built during a second wave of development in the late 1940s. There are also a few larger developments which dramatically illustrate fairly different approaches to multi-family living.

The Garden Apartments style Yosemite Gardens (1951)
The Garden Apartments style Yosemite Gardens (1951)
Dingbat on steroids Yosemite Manor (1986)
Dingbat on steroids Yosemite Manor (1986)
LEED certified Rock Row (2010 -- built by my next door neighbors the Kevin and Hardy Wronske)
LEED certified Rock Row (2010 — built by my next door neighbors the Kevin and Hardy Wronske)

ROCKDALE ELEMENTARY

Rockdale

Rockdale Elementary

Rockdale Elementary School was established in 1886 in the Annandale School District. In 1928, an attractive red brick schoolhouse was constructed. The San Fernando Earthquake in 1971 rendered the school unsafe and after its demolition, the current school was built.

SILVERWOOD’S HAPPYLAND

The cheery, tiled planters at Happyland's main intersection
The cheery, tiled planters at Happyland’s main intersection

The land along Yosemite Drive was subdivided into several small tracts including the Blackmer, C.S. James, Douglas, Floristan Heights, Gates, Hamilton Place, J.Q. Adams, Marble Heights, Myers and Kulli Sycamore Glen, Myers and Kulli’s Oak Grove, and Pottawattamie Park tracts but my favorite is the ridiculously named Silverwood’s Happyland subdivision, developed in the 1920s. The Silverwood in question was a Los Angeles clothier named Francis B. Silverwood who also wrote the lyrics for “I Love You California” in 1913.

Bilo Market
Bilo Market
R.O.C.K. Teen Center
R.O.C.K. Teen Center
The Eagles lodge
The Eagles lodge

Primarily residential, Happyland is noteworthy for its mix of period colonial revival architecture styles and its small commercial center at the intersection of Yosemite Drive and Townsend which is still home to a small cluster of businesses including Bilo Market (building constructed by PC Blackmer in 1925), R.O.C.K. Teen Center (and coffee house), and a Fraternal Order of the Eagles lodge (which was having Wild Game BBQ Night).

COMMUNITY CHURCH OF EAGLE ROCK

Community Church of Eagle Rock
Community Church of Eagle Rock

The Community Church of Eagle Rock (or Eagle Rock Community Church) was dedicated in 1927. In 1936 it became the Eagle Rock Community Covenant Church. Today it’s known as Iglesia Del Pacto Evangélico.

EAGLE ROCK HIGH SCHOOL

Eagle Rock High School
Eagle Rock High School

The original schoolhouse of Eagle Rock High School was built in 1927 to serve a student population of just 690. Most of the buildings today seem to have been built in the late 1960s or early ’70s. The discarded Kool-Aid pouches and juice boxes looked rather more recent.

YOSEMITE RECREATION CENTER

Yosemite Recreation Center
Yosemite Recreation Center

The grounds of Yosemite Recreation Center include two auditoriums, a playground, handball courts, an indoor gym, an outdoor gym, tennis courts, and outdoor pool, and basketball courts — the lagger of which seemed to be getting the most use.

DELORES WALK

Delrosa Walk

Delrosa Walk is a short walkway connecting Yosemite Drive to Addison Way, a street which runs parallel a block to the south. Although so inconspicuous that I at first passed it without notice, once I successfully located it I was somewhat surprised to see this minor pedestrian artery being used by two women.

Delrosa Walk
Delrosa Walk

DISTRIBUTING STATION NO. 30

Distributing Station No. 30
Distributing Station No. 30

The art deco Distributing Station No. 30 was built in 1936 at the intersection that had originally been home to Eagle Rock Water Company’s pump.

Shopping Center

Although I prefer the quiet intersection of Yosemite and Townsend, the main commercial hub of the street is its intersection with Eagle Rock Boulevard. Nearby is Abby’s Diner, Eagle Rock Barber Shop, the Eagle Rock Church of the Nazarene, the Eagle Rock Music Studio, Ballroom Blitz, New Century GlassTattoo Love, Transport Skate Shop, and a nameless shopping center that’s home to Pot Thai Cafe, Mediterranean Triangle, Cabo Joe’s Mexican Grill, Fresh Donut House, Video Hut, and several chain restaurants and shops, and the former Yosemite Theatre.

YOSEMITE THEATRE

On 3 May, 1929, the Kenneth A. Gordon-designed, 900-seat, Yosemite Theatre opened at 4884 Eagle Rock Boulevard. It featured a couple of nights of vaudeville performances before the screening of its first film, The Younger Generation. In 1937 its name was changed to the New Eagle Theatre and, no longer new even in name, it simply became the Eagle Theatre in 1940. From 1976 till 1979 it screened porn as part of the Pussycat chain. It became a budget independent theater in 1983 and closed permanently in 2001 to, like many former theaters, become a church — in this case, the Cenacle of Faith.

Plenty of parking and little traffic,
Plenty of parking and little traffic so just park wherever
Looking east down Yosemite Drive
Looking east down Yosemite Drive
The western end of Yosemite
The western end of Yosemite

West of Eagle Rock Boulevard, Yosemite Drive begins its steep ascent into the hills. The sidewalks eventually vanish but so does most of the traffic, so walking in the street feels less dangerous. The views from this hill are pretty impressive and off in the distance I could make out the shadow and shape of the titular Eagle Rock.

Fair Park Avenue cul-de-sac and the Eagle Rock in the distance
Fair Park Avenue cul-de-sac and the Eagle Rock in the distance

 Located just below the western end of Yosemite Drive is Fair Park Avenue, a short street and cul-de-sac with about nine lots and for some reason, no houses.

SWANSON HOUSE

Swanson House (1921)
Swanson House (1921)

On the other side of Yosemite Drive is Addison Way, which I visited to check out the historic Swanson House, located as it is at 2373 Addison Way. It was built by the owner of the Eagle Rock Lumber Company, Emil Swanson, and naturally is a log cabin.

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Ford Rule

If you don’t have the time or ability to walk, Yosemite Drive is well-served by buses, including  Metro’s 28, 81, 83, and 180/181 lines as well as the LADOT‘s DASH Highland Park/Eagle Rock line. There are things that you will miss, however, from a bus or car; the smell of orange blossoms, the song of the robin, the jungle-like container gardens, the mentions of ZZ Top and Ford Motor Company along the sidewalks. To quote Ferris Bueller, who ironically was complaining about not having a car, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”

Thanks to Jane Tsong (of Myriad Small Things), Will Campbell at Blogging LA, Eric H. Warren and Frank F. Parrello’s Pioneers of Eagle Rock, Walk Eagle Rock, LA Creek Freak, and Eric H. Warren’s Eagle Rock.

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Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, writer, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities. He is not interested in writing advertorials, clickbait, or listicles and jobs must pay more than slave wages as he would rather write for pleasure than for peanuts. Brightwell’s written work has appeared in AmoeblogdiaCRITICS, and KCET Departures. His work has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft & Folk Art MuseumForm Follows FunctionLos Angeles County StoreSkid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured in the Los Angeles TimesHuffington PostLos Angeles MagazineLAistEastsider LABoing Boing, Los Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA? and at Emerson College. Art prints of his maps are available from 1650 Gallery and on other products from Cal31. He is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on FacebookInstagram, and Twitter.

Mini-Mallism — Visiting 2829 Hyperion Avenue

Strip malls (also called mini-malls, pod malls, power centers, retail parks, shopping centers, and shopping plazas) are symbols of suburbia that although overabundant are rarely paid much attention. I find them interesting, however, mainly because I’m amused by their often pretentious names and ornamentation which I guess is designed to elevate their meager sense of place. More importantly, they’re also often home to the best restaurants in town. However, as poorly-designed vestiges of a vanishing car-dependent era, even the best strip malls are increasingly faced with either demolition or better yet, adaptation. As the great Ted “Theodore” Logan once said, “Strange things are afoot at the Circle K.”

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At the western corner of the intersection of Hyperion and Rowena avenues in Los Feliz stands a small strip mall which apparently has no name but the address of which is 2829 Hyperion Avenue. It is not a particularly interesting shopping center but it is one of the closest to Pendersleigh, my home. 

In a corner in Los Feliz
In a corner in Los Feliz

2829 Hyperion Avenue was built in 1986 on a lot formerly occupied by a gas station — back then one of four on a two block stretch. On the surface, the demolition of a gas station seems like a move away from car-dependency but its replacement with a standard, parking-lot-in-the-front pod mall was really an anti-pedestrian lateral move and was thus protested at the time by pedestrian advocates.

Unusual landscaping
Unusual design

A spokesperson for the Canoga Park-based developers attempted to placate the pod’s opponents and told a reporter from the Los Angeles Times, “I agree that some centers are just thrown up, but we try not to put in anything distressful to the neighborhood.” They then pointed to the “peaked roof and [seafoam] green trim on exterior walls and railings,” flourishes which they described as “unsual.” As someone who remembers 1986, they were decidedly not unusual and there is no record of the architecture of 2829 Hyperion Avenue receiving either awards or compliments.

IMG_8379 IMG_8384

Directly across from the strip mall is Rowena Reservoir, which shortly after the construction of the strip mall emerged as another aesthetic battleground. The facility began life as the run-of-the-mill Ivanhoe Reservoir No. 2 and was later renamed Wilfred of Ivanhoe‘s wife, Lady Rowena. After algae blooms, midge fly infestations, and bromate contamination, all of Los Angeles’s reservoirs were ordered to be covered. Nearby homeowners again protested, some concerned not with the water’s cancer-causing chemicals (it’s piped, after all, to the neighborhoods west of Downtown and not to Los Feliz) but with a covered reservoir’s unpleasantness to behold. Compromise was achieved with the design and installation of an edenic, park-like garden — but one protected from the park-loving public not by cherubim or flaming swords but by a security fence.

When I moved to neighboring Silver Lake in 1999, convenience, poverty, and the existence of surprisingly few better options conspired to bring me to 2829 Hyperion Avenue’s then-present culinary anchor, Wok Avenue, a restaurant where metal troughs contained food purported to be Chinese in origin. If memory serves (and it might not — as memory-erasing substances also led be to Wok Avenue), other now-gone tenants included Vamp ShoesHigh-Q 30 Mins Photo & Video, and Silverlake Sun, the latter offering those deprived of their bromate a cancerous alternative or the option of actually being painted the desired shade of tangerine.

Some of the tenants from back then are still there: Bonsoir Nails (from whence I received my only professional pedicure) and Catts & Doggs, a pet store. The shopping center is currently also home to Bliss Massage, Cha Acupuncture & Herbs, Optical Solutions, The Village Vet, and a Pinkberry

Tiny strip-mall graveyard
Tiny strip-mall graveyard

The Pinkberry arrived on a tangy wave of hype during the great FroYo craze of the mid-2000s, replacing Wok Avenue, which joined Cams, Pulsar Communications Center, and Zitko Machine Services in the shopping center’s graveyard. When Pinkberry arrived, shocking numbers of food trendies formed long lines that snaked down the wheelchair ramp — something which never happened at Wok Avenue. Nowadays, although still popular, the wait for that chain’s particular brand of not-exactly-yogurt is not nearly so long.

There are signs of  pedestrians returning to the corner, or at least aspiring actor Rik Martino, a longtime fixture of East Hollywood and the Mideast Side who is known for posting signs around town admonishing motorists to slow down for the sake of squirrels and who tosses off handfuls of birdseed — acts which have earned him the nicknames of both “Squirrel Guy” and “The Birdman of Silver Lake” as well as the adoration of flock of feral pigeons, two of whom alit from the shopping center’s green-trimmed, white cinderblock wall as I approached.

2829 Hyperion Avenue at Night
2829 Hyperion Avenue at Night
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Eric Brightwell is a writer, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities. He is not interested in writing advertorials, clickbait, or listicles and jobs must pay more than slave wages as he would rather write for pleasure than for peanuts. Brightwell’s written work has appeared in AmoeblogdiaCRITICS, and KCET Departures. His work has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft & Folk Art MuseumForm Follows FunctionLos Angeles County StoreSkid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured in the Los Angeles TimesHuffington PostLos Angeles MagazineLAistEastsider LABoing Boing, Los Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA? and at Emerson College. Art prints of his maps are available from 1650 Gallery and on other products from Cal31. He is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on FacebookInstagram, and Twitter.

15 American Pop Hits That Aren’t in English

In the United States there is no official language and in roughly 18% of American homes, one of hundreds of languages other than English is primarily spoken — all of which, unless they’re indigenousshould be considered “foreign languages.” In Los Angeles, everyday you can hear pop songs on the radio in Cantonese, English, Farsi, Japanese, Korean, Mandarin, Spanish, and Vietnamese and although I often find that pop music is better when the lyrics are unintelligible, only a handful of pop songs in a language other than English have made the journey onto the pop charts — here are fifteen (or so).

Harry Choates - Jole Blon

Harry Choates‘s “Jole Blon” (1946, French)

Domenico Modugno's "Nel Blu Dipinto di Blu (Volare)"

Domenico Modugno‘s “Nel Blu Dipinto di Blu (Volare)” (1958, Italian)

Ritchie Valens

Ritchie Valens‘s “La Bamba” (1959, Spanish)

上を向いて歩こう

Kyu Sakamoto‘s “Sukiyaki” — originally  “上を向いて歩こう” or “I Look Up as I Walk” (1961, Japanese)

Soeur Sourire‘s “Dominique” (1963, French)

Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin

Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin‘s “Je T’Aime … Moi Non Plus” (1969, French)

Mocedades's “Eres Tu"

Mocedades‘ “Eres Tu” (1973, Spanish)

Plastic Bertrand's “Ça Plane Pour Moi”

Plastic Bertrand‘s “Ça Plane Pour Moi” (1977, French)

Nena's "99 Luftballons"

Nena‘s “99 Luftballons” (1984, German)

Falco Rock Me Amadeus

Falco‘s “Rock Me Amadeus” (1987, German)

Los Lobos - La Bamba

Los Lobos“La Bamba” (1987, Spanish)

Enigma Sadeness

Enigma‘s “Sadeness (Part I)” (1991, Latin and French)

Deep Forest Sweet Lullaby

Deep Forest‘s “Sweet Lullaby” (1992, Baeggu)

Los Del Rio's "Macarena

Los Del Rio‘s “Macarena (Bayside Boys Mix)” (1996, Spanish)

Shakira LA Tortura

Shakira with Alejandro Sanz‘s “La Tortura” (2005, Spanish)Psy Gangnam Style

Psy‘s “Gangnam Style” (2012, Korean)

Dirty Roots: Southern Hip-Hop Part I — The 12″ Era (1979-1983)

As far as my ears can tell, pretty near every rapper from Inglewood to Plumstead nowadays owes more than a little something to the rise of the Dirty South sound that pretty much took over hip-hop in the late 1990s. As anyone with more than a passing familiarity with the genre knows, however, southern hip-hop was for many years primarily a regional concern. In the 1970s the hip-hop scene was firmly centered in the Northeast. In the early 1980s it made its way to the West Coast but as far as mainstream audiences were concerned, skipped the third and fourth coasts. In the 1990s, many casual fans and scholars alike will tell you, there was a war between the East and West Coasts during some Southern upstarts crashed the party and, despite the efforts of the backpack Taliban, restored a sense of fun to a genre which had increasingly grown joyless and conservative. 

The Sequence
The Sequence

In actuality, southern rap is almost as old as rap itself. Hip-Hop might’ve been born in the Northeast but it was quickly recognized and received throughout the urban centers of the US, Canada, and the UK. In the 1970s, hip-hop was primarily experienced live — or on amateur recordings made of live performance — and hip-hop clubs and radio shows appeared in many American cities. Although vinyl records were central to hip-hop as sources of DJ samples it wasn’t until 1979 that the first hip-hop recordings themselves began to make their way to the 12″ single format. That year groups like Funky Four Plus One More, Spoonie Gee, Jazzy 4 MC’s, Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five, First Class, Jocko, Mr. Q, and others recorded the first hip-hop singles. One of the rap releases of that year was The Sequence’s “Funk You Up.” The Sequence –Cheryl “Cheryl The Pearl” Cook, Gwendolyn “Blondy” Chisolm, and future soul star Angie “Angie B.” Brown Stone — were a group of high school cheerleaders from Columbia, South Carolina who signed toSugar Hill and were likely both the first female rap group and the first southern rap group on record.

In 1980 all rap was still primarily party music and given much of the South’s acceptance on equal terms of partying and preaching, it should surprise no one that the first rap record cut in the south, Danny Renée And The Charisma Crew‘s “Space Rap,” was a disco-rap tune that did little to challenge that perception. However, although Renée and the Charisma Crew (Theresa McKie, Otis Johnson, and Marty Williams) weren’t exactly musical pioneers, they were quietly progressive in their gender-integration and their lyrical preoccupations with “bass in the face,” booty-shaking, and sex — themes which would soon develop into the tropes of southern hip-hop. And although bass wouldn’t emerge as a rap sub-genre until around 1985, the alien robot (by Robotron from the planet, Rap-On) introduction on “Space Rap” and science-fiction concerns would even later be common features of many an electro bass record. I could find almost nothing about this group but it seems to have been the group’s only release, the only song recorded at Atlanta’s Melody Recording Studios, and one of the few singles recorded for that city’s Shurfine Records.

The future arrived some time in 1981 CE. That was the year that Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five released what was likely the first electro song, “Scorpio.” In Detroit, Number of Names released what many consider to be the first Detroit techno record, “Sharevari.” Somewhat surprisingly then, given the fact that electronic hip-hop production was ultimately embraced nowhere more than in the south, the only southern rap release that I know of from that year was The Flame and The Dynamite Three‘s funky but fairly standard disco-rap single, “Work Your Body,” recorded for Chattanooga, Tennessee’s Bronco Records.

Several important developments occurred in black, underground music in 1982. Firstly, Peech Boys“Don’t Make Me Wait” was perhaps the first garage recording. Secondly, Arthur Baker and John Robie created, with Boston‘s Planet Patrol, perhaps the first freestyle song, “Play At Your Own Risk.” Whilst garage remained for many years associated almost wholly with New York and New Jersey, freestyle would make its way (thanks to Baker, Robie, and Freeez) to the UK and (thanks to Pretty Tony) to Florida. Freestyle, orLatin hip-hop — essentially salsafied electro —  was a natural fit in sunshine state and Tony (Anthony Butler) crafted hits for Debbie Deb, himself, and his group Freestyle, who released “When I Hear Music,”“Fix It In The Mix,” and “Freestyle Express,” respectively.


1983 proved to be a significant year in hip-hop not as far as the freestyle explosion but across the entire rap genre and even the western world. Wild Style was released in theaters in the US, Canada, Denmark,Hungary, Italy, Spain, and West Germany. In November 1982, Afrika BambaataaFab 5 FreddyGrandmixer DST, Mr Freeze, and the Rock Steady Crew embarked on the New York City Rap Tour which brought them to France and the UK where the first British rapper on record (although it should be noted Adam Ant and George Michael had previously rapped on record), Dizzy Heights, released “Christmas Rapping” in time for the 1983 holiday season (and teamed up with The Style Council). 1983 also, by most estimations, marked the end of the 12″ Era and the beginning of the New School Era, characterized by an increased focus on cohesive LPs rather than novelty, disco-rap singles. In the South, there would a market for the latter and its antecedents, which in the New School Era often mean bass, and in later eras lead to the South’s takeover.

Stay tuned for Part II of Dirty Roots: A History of Southern Hip-Hop

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Eric Brightwell is a writer, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities. He is not interested in writing advertorials, clickbait, or listicles and jobs must pay more than slave wages as he would rather write for pleasure than for peanuts. Brightwell’s written work has appeared in AmoeblogdiaCRITICS, and KCET Departures. His work has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft & Folk Art MuseumForm Follows FunctionLos Angeles County StoreSkid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured in the Los Angeles TimesHuffington PostLos Angeles Magazine,LAistEastsider LA,Boing Boing, Los Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA? and at Emerson College. Art prints of his maps are available from 1650 Gallery and on other products from Cal31. He is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on FacebookInstagram, and Twitter.

Black Hillbilly – or – What you really know about the Upper South?

The first non-Native American settlers of Appalachia and later, the Ozarks, were of primarily of three ethnicities: Scots-Irish, English, and German. These hard-working farmers and craftsmen created a distinct culture which in the 19th Century came to be named “hillbilly.” Although the Northern European roots of hillbilly are routinely acknowledged, even scholars on the culture are far less likely to recognize hillbilly’s other significant place of ancestral origin, West Africa.

19th century black music ensemble

Hillbilly music’s biracial parentage should be immediately evident to anyone with any knowledge of the music’s primary instruments, the fiddle and the banjo. The modern fiddle (or violin) may have originated in 16th Century Italy but similar bowed instruments preceded its development by several centuries and the violin made its way to the Americas thanks to English colonists. The banjo, descended from the numerous plucked instruments of West Africa such as the akonting, ngoni, and xalam, was introduced to the Americas by African slaves.

Black string band, c. 1900

Famous slave owners like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, Martin Van Buren, William Henry Harrison, John Tyler, James K. Polk, Zachary Taylor, and Andrew Johnson routinely required their forced laborers to learn to play violin to entertain their friends and themselves at plantation balls and the White House.

Black string band

The fiddle and the banjo soon made their way to the mountains of the Upper South where they were played at barn dances and frolics by free men. Although it’s probably a widely held assumption that free blacks all hightailed it to the North, most actually remained in the South. Many free black southerners came from the Caribbean or had lived in France’s La Louisianewhere blacks were free until it was purchased by the US. Even more were freed former slaves who either elected to remain or were unable to leave. In 1860, 84% lived not in the Deep South, however, but in the hilly Upper South (Arkansas, Kentucky, Missouri, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia).

Black string band

Although black musicians were influenced by white minstrels — often adding minstrel compositions to their repertoire — white minstrels of course took most of their inspiration from black culture. Although the earliest known document of the banjo and fiddle being played together is by The Virginia Minstrels in 1840, black banjo players were documented as having played both the banjo and fiddle in the proximity of one another as early as 1774, at a barbecue near the Florida-Georgia border. The Virginia Minstrels’ first banjoist, Bill Whitlock, also had learned his instrument from black musicians when he was a member of a traveling circus.

The Armstrong Brothers Band
The Armstrong Brothers Band

Although hillbilly music, then, had revolved around the pairing together of the fiddle and banjo for many years, in the recording age record companies segregated music into racially-specific genres to simplify their marketing. Companies marketed race music to the black, record-buying public — which included blues, gospel, and jug band music among other genres. “Hillbilly music” was targeted toward the white public. Black hillbilly musicians, then, quickly learned some other tunes if they hoped to cut music for anyone besides field recorders and ethnomusicologists.

Ebony Hillbillies
The Ebony Hillbillies (image source: Canberra Jazz Blog)

Take the case of DeFord Bailey. Bailey was the first black musician to play on the Grand Ole Opry, had a grandfather who’d been a champion Tennessee fiddler in the 1880s, and as a child played alongside relatives at the Wilson County Fair with The Bailey Family Band. In 1975 he revealed to an interviewer, “I never heard the blues till I came to Nashville to work. All I heard as a boy back then was what we called black hillbilly music.”

Carolina Chocolate Drops
The Carolina Chocolate Drops (image source: MTV)

Beginning in the 1910s, all of hillbilly culture had begun to vanish along the hillbilly highway, an exodus from the mountains in which many hill folk moved to cities in search of work in the industrial sector and led to a good deal of popular entertainment based on regionalist stereotypes. In the 1940s, field recorders documented some black hillbillies, whose music by then often blurred the lines between blues and jazz. More musicians passed on and few of their descendants followed in their ancestors’ musical footsteps — although a few taught white musicians with whom hillbilly music came to be almost exclusively identified, musicians like A. P. Carter (taught by Lesley Riddle), Bill Monroe (taught by Arnold Shultz), and Hank Williams (taught by Rufus “Tee-Tot” Payne).

Stevens' Minstrels

If you’re interested in hearing black mountain music, here’s a discography which includes examples from all eras of recorded music:

Blind James Campbell and his Nashville Street Band: Blind James Campbell and his Nashville Street Band (1995)

Butch Cage and Willie B. Thomas: Old Time Black Southern String Band Music (2006)

Cannon’s Jug Stompers: The Best of Cannon’s Jug Stompers (2001)

Cats and the Fiddle: Killin’ Jive: 1939–1940, Complete Recordings, Volume 1 (1999)

Carl Martin: Carl Martin / Willie “61” Blackwell – Complete Recorded Works In Chronological Order (1994)

Carolina Chocolate Drops: Dona Got a Ramblin’ Mind (2006), Carolina Chocolate Drops & Joe Thompson (2008), Genuine Negro Jig (2010), Heritage (2011), Leaving Eden (2012),

The Chicago String Band: Chicago String Band (1966)

Deford Bailey: The Legendary DeFord Bailey (1998)

The Ebony Hillbillies: Sabrina’s Holiday (2004), I Thought You Knew (2005), and Barefoot And Flying (2011)

Elizabeth Cotton: Freight Train and Other North Carolina Folk Songs and Tunes (1989)

Gus Cannon: Complete Recorded Works In Chronological Order: Volume 1 (November 1927 To 20 September 1928) (1990)

Henry ThomasTexas Worried Blues: Complete Recorded Works 1927-1929 (1991)

Howard Armstrong: Louie Bluie (1995)

Joe Thompson: Family Tradition (2009)

Martin, Bogan & Armstrong: Barnyard Dance (1972), Martin Bogan & Armstrong (1974), and That Old Gang Of Mine (1978)

Mississippi Sheiks: Complete Recorded Works Presented In Chronological Order, Vol. 5 (1991), Mississippi Sheiks & Chatman Brothers – Complete Recorded Works In Chronological Order: Volume 4 (26 March 1934 To 15 October 1936) (1991), Complete Recorded Works In Chronological Order Volume 3: 25 October 1931 To 2 6 March 1934 (1991), Complete Recorded Works In Chronological Order Volume 2: 15 December 1930 To 24 October 1931 (1991), Complete Recorded Works In Chronological Order Volume 1: 17 February To 12 June 1930 (1991)

Peg Leg Howell & Eddie Anthony: Complete Recorded Works In Chronological Order: Volume 1 (8 November 1926 To 13 August 1928) (1993)

Sankofa Strings: Colored Aristocracy

Spirits of Rhythm: The Spirits Of Rhythm 1932-34 (1985), Spirits Of Rhythm 1932-1941 (1996)

Tommie Bradley - James Cole Groups: 1928-32 (Complete Recorded Works In Chronological Order (1991)

Various Artist Compilations:

Ain’t Gonna Rain No More: Blues and Pre-Blues from Piedmont North Carolina (2006), Altamont: Black Stringband Music From The Library Of Congress (1989), Before the Blues: The Early American Black Music Scene, vol. 1–3 (1996), Black & White Hillbilly Music: Early Harmonica Recordings from the 1920s & 1930s (1996), Black Banjo Songsters of North Carolina and Virginia (1997), Black Fiddlers (The Remaining Titles Of Andrew & Jim Bxter, Nathan Frazier & Frank Patterson. The Complete Recorded Works Of Cuje Bertram) (1929-c.1970) (1999), The Cornshuckers’s Frolic: Downhome Music and Entertainment from the American Countryside, vol. 1 and 2 (1999), Country Negro Jam Session (1993), Deep River of Song: Black Appalachia: String Bands, Songsters and Hoedowns (1999), From Where I Stand: The Black Experience in Country Music (1998), Old Time Black Southern String Band Music (2006), String Bands: 1926–1929 (1993), and Virginia Traditions: Non-Blues Secular Black Music (1995)

Further Reading:

African Banjo Echoes in Appalachia: A Study of Folk Tradition (1995), by Cecelia Conway

Hidden in the Mix: The African American Presence in Country Music (2013), edited by Diane Pecknold

Slaves Without Masters: The Free Negro in the Antebellum South
(1974) by Ira Berlin

Sinful Tunes and Spirituals: Black Folk Music to the Civil War (1977), by Dena Epstein

“Black String Bands: A Few Notes on the Lost Cause”
(1987) and “Rural Black String Band Music” (1990), by Charles K. Wolfe

*****

Eric Brightwell is a writer, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities; however, job offers must pay more than slave wages as he would rather write for pleasure than for peanuts. Brightwell’s written work has appeared in AmoeblogdiaCRITICS, and KCET Departures. His work has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft & Folk Art Museum, Form Follows FunctionLos Angeles County StoreSkid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Art prints of his maps are available from 1650 Gallery and on other products from Cal31. Brightwell has been featured in the Los Angeles TimesHuffington PostLos Angeles Magazine, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA? and at Emerson College. He is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on FacebookInstagram, and Twitter.

California Fool’s Gold — Exploring Victor Heights

FOREWORD

Most of the communities that I explore and feature in California Fool’s Gold were chosen by popular vote but I explored Victor Heights for different reasons. Firstly, as one of the more obscure corners of the Mideast Side, it’s long held for me a certain appeal. Secondly, Big Red’s check engine light went on and so I decided to walk its streets whilst the car was serviced by Donny at Far East Auto Repair.

INTRODUCTION TO VICTOR HEIGHTS

Pendersleigh & Sons Cartography's Map of Victor Heights
Pendersleigh & Sons Cartography‘s Map of Victor Heights

Victor Heights is a small neighborhood located east of Echo Park proper, northeast of Angeleno Heights, southwest of Elysian Park, and northwest of Chinatown. For those who don’t live within Victor Heights it’s often thought of as being part of either Chinatown or Echo Park. For those that do live within it’s sometimes jokingly referred to as “Forgotten Edge.” East of Centennial Street, road signs are written in both English and Chinese and there are banners hung welcoming visitors to Chinatown. West of Centennial, street signs written only in English — except when someone takes it upon her or his self to translate them with chalk… which I have observed in the past. Down along Sunset Boulevard is a hideous (and hideously expensive) electronic sign that claims the neighborhood for Echo Park and does little else; not only does it not say Victor Heights, it doesn’t even perform its intended function of providing traffic information and only cost $240,000 dollars more than any number of free apps that actually do. There are no blue signs recognizing Victor Heights but neighborhoods don’t require recognition from the LA DOT to exist.

HISTORY OF THE AREA

Victor Heights is situated near the southern terminus of the Elysian Hills, a small chain of sandy siltstone landforms with minor imbedded conglomerate that stretch from the Santa Monica Mountains (the portion known as the Hollywood Hills) in Griffith Park down to the Bunker Hill neighborhood of Downtown. For many thousands of years the mountains were home to black walnuts, bobcats, California Kingsnakes, Coastal Whiptails, Garter snakes, Gopher snakes, grizzly bears, Mountain Kingsnakes, mountain lions, oaks, steelhead, sycamores, Western fence lizards and other forms of life.

Coyote coming through
Coyote coming through

As I climbed Mariview Avenue, a coyote trotted past me, impatiently hopping off the sidewalk to pass me on my way up and making certain that its species was added to the list of natives. There are also lots of cautious cats, in spite of the coyotes, and tellingly, a few “Missing Missy” posters too.

Cat keeping a look out for coyot
Cat keeping a look out for coyote
A cat hiding amongst a pig and a dragon (?
A cat hiding amongst a pig and a dragon (?)

The first of the human transplants were the ancestors of the Chumash, who arrived in the area at least 13,000 years ago. By the time the Tongva/Kizh arrived from the Sonoran Desert, some 3,500 years ago, the Chumash were primarily situated along the coast and Channel Islands, possibly having abandoned much of the Los Angeles Basin in the face of a prolonged drought. The Tongva remained the dominant people in the area for some three millennia, until the Spanish came.

The groundwork for the Spanish invasion began in 1542, when Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo claimed all of California for the Spanish Empire — although in actuality he did little beyond setting foot in a few areas of the coast and islands and setting the stage for conquest. The Spanish were motivated to actually establish a presence in their till-then mostly nominal possession out of fear of encroachment by the English and Russians and in 1769 Spain sent explorer Gaspar de Portolà de Rovira on an overland exhibition of what’s now California. Not long after, military presidios and civic pueblos were established. El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora de Los Angeles de Porciuncula (Los Angeles) was founded near the banks of the Los Angeles River in 1781, about a kilometer south of what is now Victor Heights.

Los Angeles remained a small, dusty backwater for several decades after its establishment. In 1820 the pueblo’s population was only 650 people. On 27 September, 1821, after eleven years of fighting, Mexico achieved independence from the Spain and in 1835, Los Angeles was made the capital of California. US forces invaded in 1846 and in 1848, Mexico was defeated. In 1850, California became the 31st state and Los Angeles was incorporated.

VICTOR BEAUDRY

Quebecois brothers Prudent and Victor Beaudry first increased their fortunes (having been born wealthy) in Northern California with a variety of business pursuits before moving to Los Angeles where Prudent entered politics (from 1874 to 1876 he served as Los Angeles’s thirteenth mayor). Victor mined, developed water works, and worked in real estate before moving to Los Angeles in 1855. He and his mining parter (and fellow Quebecois) Damien Marchessault built an ice house in Los Angeles in 1859 — the year Marchessault became mayor — and sold ice to saloon keepers and others.

Detail of E.S. Glover's View of Los Angeles from the East (1877), showing what was to become Victor Heights
Detail of E.S. Glover’s View of Los Angeles from the East (1877), showing what was to become Victor Heights 

In the 1860s, the Beaudrys bought land in and around the French Town section — an historic neighborhood centered around Alameda and Aliso streets whose existence today is mainly seen in street names like Bauchet, Ducommun, and Vignes. Beaudry went on to increase his fortunes in silver mines and simultaneously earned the nickname the “water king” as he developed water transportation systems for both mines and in town. After the mines began to prove less profitable, Victor moved to Montreal in 1876 where he married Angelica Le Blanc. The couple and their family moved back to Los Angeles in 1881 where he remained until 1886.

Detail of Worthington Gates's birdseye map of Los Angeles, California in 1909
Detail of Worthington Gates’s birdseye map of Los Angeles, California in 1909 showing Victor Heights

In Los Angeles, the Beaudry brothers built a water reservoir in the Elysian Hills and used it to hydrate their properties there including Bunker Hill (subdivided in 1876), and what would become Angeleno Heights and Victor Heights. To make their properties more appealing to potential homebuyers, the Beaudrys created two parks, Bellevue Terrace and Beaudry Park. Beaudry Park was a 3 hectare oval property designed by landscape architect/gardener Francis Tamiet and included many Mexican limes, gums, cypresses, oranges, and Monterey pines. (Further reading: Nathan Masters’s Bellevue Terrace and Beaudry Park: L.A.’s Two Lost Hilltop Gardens and Glen Creason’s CityDig: Prudent Beaudry’s 1868 L.A.)

In the canyon behind Victor Heights the scene was less edenic. There the canyon confluence of Chavez Ravine and Sulphur Ravine was home to a “pest house” and the old Hebrew Cemetery. Small pox had first arrived in Los Angeles in 1862 and the pest house was built to house the indigent (mostly Irish, Mexican, and Native American) sufferers beyond the city’s borders. In 1870, however, the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul moved the Los Angeles Infirmary to Dogtown and at their request, the pest house was relocated nearby to the land near what’s now the edge of the parking lot of Dodger Stadium.

Sisters Hospital in the 1890s
Sisters Hospital in the 1890s

The Southern Pacific Railroad opened the city’s first transcontinental railroad depot in Dogtown in 1875, nicknamed the Ellis Island of the West for the many European and Chinese immigrants who passed through it. The presence of a massive train yard in the vicinity of the infirmary proved less than ideal for patient wellbeing and in 1883 the sisters began selling off lots of their New Depot Tract and Infirmary Tract to fund the purchase of new properties. In 1884 they bought Beaudry Park for $10,000 and it became home to St. Vincent Hospital, which was colloquially known as Sisters Hospital and there remained until 1927 when it was damaged by a fire. Afterward the sisters and their hospital moved over to Westlake.

TRACT SUBDIVISION

In 1886, William W. Stilson and Everett E. Hall subdivided their tract, Angeleno Heights, on land purchased from Prudent Beaudry. Although the tract included Everett Park, today few if any think of that area as Angeleno Heights. There are no signs designating it as such and it is not included within the Angeleno Heights Historic Preservation Overlay Zone. Victor Heights was also subdivided in 1886, by a consortium comprised of Alex Penny, C.E. Day, Dr. Lotspeich, J. H. Hinton, M.L. Wicks, M.P. Snyder, H. T. Newell, and T.C. Narramore. That year of the sale was the same year that Victor Beaudry returned to Montreal, where he died two years later.

At that time Chavez Ravine, Dogtown, Lincoln Heights, Solano Canyon, Sonora Town, and Victor Heights were colonized by an influx of Italian immigrants whose community had largely been displaced by the construction of another train station, Southern Pacific Arcade Railroad Depot, in 1888. The neighborhoods of Bishop, Chavez Ravine, La Loma, and Solano Canyon were also home to largely Mexican immigrants and their descendants (what’s now Chinatown was home to the Mexican neighborhood of Sonora Town and later, Little Italy). (Further reading: Nathan Masters’s Sonoratown: Downtown L.A.’s Forgotten Neighborhood and my own Exploring The Remains of L.A.’s Little Italy).

The rival Southern Pacific and Santa Fe depots were replaced by Union Station, the construction of which spelled destruction for the old Chinatown. Most of Los Angeles’s Chinese-American population was relocated to Little Italy, where in June 1938, both China City and Old Chinatown Plaza opened and planted the seeds of what became new Chinatown.

"Italians Rule" grafitti
“Italians Rule” grafitti

Around 1945, definitions of whiteness were sufficiently relaxed to no longer exclude Catholics, Jews, and Orthodox Christians from living in most of Los Angeles. Some of the Italians and Croatians who’d until then made Victor Heights moved east to communities like Alhambra, Arcadia, El Sereno, Monterey Park, San Gabriel, and San Marino (still home to some of the most celebrated Italian establishments including Bollini’s Pizzeria and Claro’s Italian Market). Some Italians remained in the area and in 1947 a new Saint Peter’s Italian Catholic Church was built just down the hill which in 1971 was joined by Casa Italiana.

Eastside Deli
Eastside Deli

In Victor Heights the most visible reminder of the neighborhood’s once strongly-Italian character is Eastside Market and Deli. It was opened in the 1920s by Puglia-born Domenic Pontrelli across the river in the Eastside (Lincoln Heights) before moving to its current location in the Mideast in 1929. Back then Alpine Street was home to three other Italian Markets, none of which remain (although I know nothing about the history of neighboring Sunny’s Market, which seems likely to have been home to one). It from within Eastside Deli that Pontrelli’s son-in-law launched Pontrelli & Laricchia Sausage Company which moved out of the neighborhood in 1973. Shortly after, a former clean-up boy for the sausage company, Johnny Angiuli, took over the market with his brother, a former delivery driver, and they reorganized the establishment around a new deli counter, which is its focus today.

Lions and parasols
Lions and parasols

In 1945, following the formation of the Republic of China (Taiwan), an amendment to the 1945 War Brides Act allowed Chinese-American veterans to bring their wives to the US, which increased the population of Chinese and Taiwanese by about 5,000. In 1948, the US Supreme Court officially stepped in to ban the enforcement of racist housing covenants altogether, which on paper at least, opened up Los Angeles to people of all backgrounds. Located as it is just above Chinatown, Victor Heights grew increasingly Chinese in character. Today 57% of the neighborhood’s roughly 5,500 residents are either Chinese or Taiwanese. Shòu (壽) motifs, representing longevity, are found in many of the neighborhood’s security bars and fences. Shī (獅), or “Chinese Guardian Lions” protect many of the homes and apartments. The only church in the neighborhood is Chinese Christian Chanto Church (華人基督教真道會).

Chinese Christian Canto Church
Chinese Christian Canto Church

In 1949, the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles was given the task of constructing public housing for World War II veterans and the mostly-Mexican-American populations of Bishop, Chavez Ravine, Dogtown, and La Loma, which were described as blighted and were destroyed. To house the displaced, a development called Elsyian Park Heights (designed by Richard Neutra and Robert Alexander) was to be built to house the displaced and others. Not only was the development to include 24 thirteen-story buildings and more than 160 townhouses, but schools and playgrounds as well. However, political conservatives mobilized to successfully shut down its construction (charging such development as socialist) the newly homeless Latinos and veterans were forced to fend for themselves and settled nearby in Victor Heights. Instead of Elysian Park Heights, in 1962 Dodger Stadium opened with room for 56,000 baseball fans and 16,000 of their automobiles.

Magic Town
Magic Town

After immigration laws regarding Asians were relaxed in 1965, many Cambodians, mainland Chinese, Hoa Chinese, Lao, Taiwanese, and Vietnamese moved to the neighborhoods of Chinatown, Victor Heights, and Echo Park. I’ve heard Khmer being spoken in auto shops, liquor stores, and grocery stores, especially along Sunset. The Vietnamese presence in the neighborhood is evinced by the presence of Den Chúa Xứ Thánh Mẫu and Phuoc Hing Mini Market, both located just across the street in what’s technically Angeleno Heights. As I walked through the neighborhood I also heard someone playing a recording of Lệ Quyên singing “Hàn Mặc Tử.”

NAVAL AND MARINE CORPS RESERVE CENTER, LOS ANGELES BUILDING

LA Naval and Marine Reserve Armory, 1941
LA Naval and Marine Reserve Armory, 1941

Located near the site of the old pest house is the Art Deco-style Naval and Marine Corps Reserve Center, Los Angeles Building, designed to be the largest enclosed structure without walls in the world by architects Robert Clements and Associates. It was constructed by the WPA between 1938 and 1941 as one of the country’s largest naval armories, its secluded location chosen to shield it in the event of an air attack. During World War II, more than 20,000 sailors passed through the training center. In 1980, an electrical fire heavily damaged the interior, which reopened in 1986 after a renovation. It was designated California State Historic Landmark #972 in 1989. The military left in 1995 and it’s now home to the LAFD’s Frank Hotchkin Memorial Training Center, named after the firefighter who died fighting the 1980 conflagration.

Frank Hotchkin Memorial Training Center
Frank Hotchkin Memorial Training Center

METROPOLITAN WATER DISTRICT BUILDING

The Metropolitan Water District Building, 1963
The Metropolitan Water District Building, 1963
The Elysian, formerly the Metropolitan Water District Headquarters
The Elysian, formerly the Metropolitan Water District Headquarters

The Metropolitan Water District Building was designed by the great William Pereira in 1961 and completed in 1963. In 1973, an adjoining tower was completed which served as the department’s headquarters until 1993, after which it sat vacant for 18 years. Even whilst vacant, with its height it was easily the most eye-catching feature of the neighborhood and its neglect underscored Victor Heights’ “forgotten” reputation. Holy Hill Community Church moved into the original building in the 1990s or around 2000 but always left the tower empty and by the 2000s it had taken on the appearance of a lonely, heavily-tagged, post-apocalyptic tower block. In 2011 the tower was purchased by Linear City Development who gave it a good scrub and turned it into a residential high-rise called The Elysian.

Reagh, William.  60s
Downtown as seen from Victor Heights in the 1960s (image source: William Reagh)
Reagh, William.  1987
Downtown as seen from Victor Heights, 1987 (image source: William Reagh)

VICTOR HEIGHTS TODAY

Victor Heights still exudes a sort of laissez-faire laid-backness. When I first began walking it was quite quiet except for the cacophonous clatter of a large and evidently diverse population of birds. The only bird calls that I recognized were, though unseen by me, made by a flock of feral parrots. What I didn’t hear or see on that particular day, which surprised me, were the peafowl for which the neighborhood is also known. The birds, usually heard squealing or seen perched or parading up the hill, were introduced in the 1970s by a resident named Charlie Ruiz.

Although Christmas had passed more than a month earlier, there were so many Christmas trees waiting to be collected that their air smelled strongly of pine — albeit mixed with the aroma of joss sticks, sesame oil, and garlic. Judging by their brittleness, brownness, and in some cases, soggy flocking, the Christmas trees has spent more than a few weeks on the streets and one block alone I counted seven Christmas of their corpses. Although out of place in most neighborhoods, in Victor Heights they were features of a sort of greater, seasonal confusion. Not only did I spy Christmas trees and strings of lights sharing space with decorative fall gourds, and Valentine’s Day decorations but there were deep red poinsettias and blooming magnolias indicating that even nature was apparently unconcerned.

Chilis and icicles
Chilis and icicles

As the morning wore on, the fog burned off, my sweater came off, and the variety of noises increased. I could make out the clatter of gunshots coming from the nearby police academy, familiar to anyone whose hiked through Elysian Park. The occasional plane and train in the distance combined with the din of cars speeding along the roads below but the interior of Victor Heights remained strangely quiet. There were signs of life, though, and parasols popped open shielding elderly Chinese from the sun as young white people emerged from their homes to wait for their dogs to poop and then return to the great indoors.

The Skyline from Victor Heights in 2015
The Skyline from Victor Heights in 2015

A young woman sat at the edge of Figueroa Terrace with her sketch pad, no doubt rendering the Downtown skyline. Though small, the bottom and top of Victor Heights are separated by 80 meters and the view of Downtown is unmatched except, perhaps, by the view from Dodger Stadium, which one can also get a nice view of from that street.

GETTING TO AND AROUND VICTOR HEIGHTS

Walk at your own risk!
Walk at your own risk!

Although the terrain is rather steep, for the physically capable and mentally willing, Victor Heights is small and walkable. In addition to the bridges along Alpine, College, and Sunset which connect it with Chinatown, there’s a small pedestrian bridge over the Arroyo Seco Parkway which connects walkers to Yale Street just behind Chungking Road.

Looking toward Chinatown
Looking toward Chinatown

It’s also a short walk to Temple-Beaudry, Angeleno Heights, Echo Park, and Dodger Stadium — although if you walk into that sports venue rather than drive you will arouse the suspicion of security apparently not used to seeing sports fans who are not dependent on cars. (See my Exploring Dodger Stadium Without Baseball).

Historically there were several street car lines (e.g. The Los Angeles-Pacific Railway Company, The Los Angeles Ostrich Farm Railway Company, and The Pacific Electric Railway) which traveled along Sunset Boulevard but as far as I know only the Los Angeles Railway‘s yellow cars ventured above Sunset into Victor Heights — even then only along Alpine and Beaudry streets. The A Line was abandoned in 1950 and today the neighborhood is served by LADOT’s DASH Lincoln Heights/Chinatown bus and Metro’s 2, 4, and Rapid 704 lines.

ARCHITECTURE OF VICTOR HEIGHTS

Bodai (布袋) and Dodger Garden Gnome in front of a  Craftsman
Bodai (布袋) and Dodger Garden Gnome in front of a Craftsman

Although Victor Heights was subdivided the same year as neighboring Angeleno Heights it lacks that neighborhood’s Victorian charm. On the other hand, it also doesn’t include within it a massive hillside slum (i.e. the Angeleno Heights Favela). The architecture of Victor Heights is more of a hodgepodge. There are Craftsman bungalows, Spanish Colonial Revival houses and apartments (some quite pretty), mid-60s apartments with mid-60s ornamentation, and fairly big late ‘80s/early ‘90s complexes that though possessed of little to recommend them aesthetically do have size on their side and Skyline Terrace is the neighborhood’s Kowloon Walled City (九龍寨城).

Skyline Terrace, removing the skyline from the homes which it engulfs
Skyline Terrace, removing the skyline from the homes which it engulfs

Recently, another Canadian developer (who is not a Beaudry) has proposed building a large, residential development on the site that were until recently home to Reliable DO It Center and The Warehouse LA.

Empty storefronts -- future site of a residential development?
Empty storefronts — future site of a residential development?

It has predictably been met with protests about its lack of commercial space as well as its planned size, which is described as being out of step with other residences in the neighborhood — which is completely true if one chooses to ignore everything along the north side of Figueroa Terrace or the converted MWD building.

Friends Car Wash
Friends Car Wash

For now that stretch of Sunset Boulevard remains home to empty buildings, auto shops (Seng’s Auto Repair, Far East Auto Repair, Friends Hand Car Wash, and Fernando’s Tires) as well as a couple of art galleries (Dodger Art and Subliminal Projects).

Dodger Art and Subliminal Project
Dodger Art and Subliminal Project

VICTOR HEIGHTS EATERIES

Guisados
Guisados

Sunset Boulevard is also home to Guisados, one of the only restaurants in the neighborhood. The not-quite-a-chain restaurant started, like Eastside Market, on the Eastside before heading west (in the case of Guisados, from Boyle Heights. There’s also one in Gallery Row now). It arrived in 2013, replacing La Esquinita, and I’ve eaten there a couple of times and enjoyed it. When I passed it in the morning it wasn’t yet open but as I passed it again I could make out the accordianated strains of Celso Piña, who like good tacos always gets a thumbs up.

If there is another restaurant in the neighborhood, it’s Sarang Cafe, which there’s a business listing for in the old Metropolitan Water District building. However, that may have been part of Holy Hill, who entered bankruptcy proceedings in 2014 and presumably either moved out or is in the process of doing so so best call before popping in. You can probably grab something lactic from Sunny’s since the outside says “Dairy.”

Sunny's

EVERETT PARK

Everett Park Everett Park 2

The area of Victor Heights around Everett Park that was subdivided as Angeleno Heights is sometimes itself referred to as Everett Park. Unstaffed Everett Park is too steep for a game of croquet or boules but like Figueroa Terrace it affords great views of downtown. One of Los Angeles’s greatest parks, Elysian Park, is located in Victor Heights’ backyard, which may explain why Victor Heights is itself a bit park poor — but that doesn’t stop the residents from creating their own tiny plazas and gardens in the yards, alleys, and even stairways of their residences.

Longevity motifs and container gardens
Longevity motifs and container gardens

Especially common are container gardens — a five gallon bucket designed to hold Pearl River Soy Sauce can easily be transformed into a flower pot which can in turn transform just about any outdoor space into an urban oasis.

Seng's Garden
The Gardens behind Seng’s Auto Repair

Seng's Garden 2

I’m not sure how the local gangs stake their territorial claims or which are even still in existence. Everett Park is shaped like a teardrop and I wonder if it’s from that which the Teardrop Locos took their name. In the past, other gangs included Osiri Boys and their rivals, Oriental Lazy Boyz (some of whose members were arrested in the 1996 murder of Khmer actor, physician, actor, and author Haing S. Ngor). Perhaps the most infamous gang in Victor Heights is the long-defunct Varrio Alpine Street, who it seems were responsible for the sidewalk scrawlings at the base of the park. I was surprised to find a memorial for someone whose life apparently ended exactly 43 years earlier. I’m not sure how much of a gang presence there is now, although in Training Day, Roger’s house was played by the real life Victor Heights residence at 1031 Everett Street.

Alpine Street Memorial 2 Alpine Street Memorial 3 Alpine Street Memorial

COMMUNITY ORGANIZATIONS OF VICTOR HEIGHTS

If you’re interested in getting involved in a community organization that is still around and is designed to bring the neighborhood up, the Victor Heights Tract portion of Victor Heights is represented by the Historic Cultural Neighborhood Council. The Angeleno Heights Tract portion of Victor Heights is represented by the Greater Echo Park Elysian Neighborhood Council. Over a decade ago, the Forgotten Edge Neighborhood Watch changed their name to Victor Heights Neighborhood Improvement Association. It still seems like an under-recognized gem of a neighborhood, though, and just about the only account that I found of living there is Christina C. Martinez’s Why I Love Living in Victor Heights.

*****

Eric Brightwell is a writer, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities; however, job offers must pay more than slave wages as he would rather write for pleasure than for peanuts. Brightwell’s written work has appeared in AmoeblogdiaCRITICS, and KCET Departures. His work has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft & Folk Art Museum, Form Follows FunctionLos Angeles County StoreSkid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Art prints of his maps are available from 1650 Gallery and on other products from Cal31. Brightwell has been featured in the Los Angeles TimesHuffington PostLos Angeles Magazine, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA? and at Emerson College. He is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on FacebookInstagram, and Twitter.

One album wonders: The Glove’s Blue Sunshine

THE GLOVE – BLUE SUNSHINE (recorded 1982, released 1983)
The Glove Blue Sunshine
For about 40 years The Cure have been the main creative outlet for Robert Smith but he’s engaged in the occasional side project here and there (and there). Whilst not as obscure as Cogasm or Cult Hero, The Glove and their sole album, Blue Sunshine, is a one album wonder that deserves better.

I suppose that The Glove were as much a Siouxsie & The Banshees side project as a Cure one, since aside from Smith (who was himself twice a Banshee) the Glove was full-time Banshee Steve Severin. They also came about largely because Siouxsie Sioux and Budgie were off recording their own Banshee side project, the first Creatures record. It also owed a lot to the neo-psychedelic direction that the Banshee’s had first pursued with 1980’s Kaleidoscope.

The first Glove song I ever heard was “Mr. Alphabet Says,” on the radio. The vocals were unmistakably those of Robert Smith. However, Smith was contractually prohibited from singing on the album so aside from that song and “Perfect Murder” the vocals were handled by Budgie’s then-girlfriend, Jeanette Landray. Landray’s vocals are fine — icy and remote but perhaps not entirely memorable. After recording Blue Sunshine, she did appear in another one hit wonder, Kiss That, who released the Mick Ronson-produced Kiss And Tell in 1986.

Blue Sunshine produced two singles, “Like An Animal” b/w “Mouth To Mouth” and “Punish Me With Kisses” b/w “The Tightrope” in 1983 — the same year that The Cure, then essentially reduced to a duo, released the non-album singles compilation, Japanese Whispers. After the release of Blue Sunshine, that recording’s session drummer, Andy Anderson, joined The Cure. Violinist Martin McCarrick later played with Siouxsie and the Banshees. Blue Sunshine has been re-issued many times on various formats over the years although notably in 2006, when Rhino digitally remastered the album and added a bonus disc of studio demos with Smith on vocals.

*****

We’ve had a pleasantly wet winter this year in Southern California. In fact, I reckon it’s one of the nicest rainy seasons we’ve had in a decade. Confronted daily with lush greenery in the hills around me and cloudy, gray skies above it’s no wonder (to me at least) that I keep hearing Teardrop Explodes songs in my head all day long which means that Alan Gudguy gets to experience me singing “Soft Enough for You,” “Treason (It’s Just A Story)” and “Metranil Vavin” all day long. If you find yourself in a similar situation, consider addingBlue Sunshine to your neo-psych/raincoat rock repertoire, your cat with thank you.

*****

Eric Brightwell is a writer, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities; however, job offers must pay more than slave wages as he would rather write for pleasure than for peanuts. Brightwell’s written work has appeared in AmoeblogdiaCRITICS, and KCET Departures. His work has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft & Folk Art Museum, Form Follows FunctionLos Angeles County StoreSkid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Art prints of his maps are available from 1650 Gallery and on other products from Cal31. Brightwell has been featured in the Los Angeles TimesHuffington PostLos Angeles Magazine, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA? and at Emerson College. He is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on FacebookInstagram, and Twitter.