Palms is a neighborhood that founded as an agricultural and vacation community in 1886. Today it’s mostly comprised of apartment buildings, crisscrossed with commercial corridors, and the most densely populated community on the Westside. It’s also home to many of my favorite Westside establishments so the reality that I found exploring the actual neighborhood somewhat unpleasant came to me as something of a surprise.
EARLY HISTORY OF THE AREA
The first people to live in the area were the ancestors of the Chumash, who arrived in the region at least 13,000 years ago. The Tongva arrived from the east some 3,500 years ago, by which time most of the Los Angeles Basin had apparently largely been abandoned by the Chumash, who were by then clustered along the coast and Channel Islands. Spanish explorer Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo claimed the Island of California for Spain in 1542, signaling the beginning of the end of the Tongva’s several thousand year reign. Cabrillo was followed by Sebastián Vizcaíno, who explored the coast in 1602. The conquest of California really got underway with the overland expedition of Gaspar de Portolá in 1768.
RANCHO LA BALLONA
In 1810, Mexico declared its independence from Spain, and after warred for eleven years before Spain accepted. In 1819, toward the end of the revolution, Agustín and
Ygnacio Machado, and Felipe and Tomás Talamantes were granted grazing rights to 57 square kilometers of land which were named Rancho Ballona. The Machados and Talamantes continued to raise cattle and sheep on the ranch, after the US conquered California in 1848. A Latino community began to emerge in La Ballona Valley. La Ballona School was constructed in 1865. In 1871, Ygnacio Saenz established a general store, The Halfway House, at the intersection of what are now Overland Avenue and Washington Boulevard. In 1875, the Los Angeles and Independence Railroad was completed between Los Angeles and Santa Monica. There were two stops between to two towns, Ivy Park and Bay View, both in or near what’s now Palms.
Reputedly, the first Anglo settler in the area was Anderson Rose, namesake of Rose Avenue, who cultivated walnuts and dairy cows in La Ballona Valley in the 1880s. In 1883, a group of evangelicals from Le Mars, Iowa settled in the area and organized a congregation of the United Brethren Church. Speculators C.J. Harrison, Edward H. Sweetser, and Joseph Curtis purchased 2 square kilometers of land for $40,000, planted 5,000 trees, and named their new development The Palms. A map published on 26 December 1886 depicted The Palms depot surrounded by a grove of palms. The original depot building, built between 1886 and 1888, is now located at the Heritage Square Museum in Montecito Heights.
A BIT ABOUT PALM
Although widely viewed as emblematic of Southern California, only the Washingtonia filifera species of palm is native to the state. Palms were first planted in California by the Spanish, who appreciated their symbolic evocation of the Holy Land and used their fronds for Palm Sunday ceremonies. Later developers prized them for their “exotic” qualities although anyone familiar with the tropics probably just regards them as out of place, flimsily and artlessly affixed (along with thirsty English-style grass lawns) to the surface of the rugged, semi-arid Chaparral landscape. They also strike me as, symbolic associations aside, fairly useless, providing as most do neither fruit nor shade. Thankfully, attitudes toward them are changing and as they die off from old age or disease, the city now replaces them with one of sixty varieties of trees — none of which are palms (palms not being trees). The titular palms of Palms were removed in 2004 for a less defensible purpose, however, to make way for one of the neighborhood’s equally ubiquitous self storage facilities.
Palms’s development hastened in the 1880s. The United Brethren Church completed construction of their church in 1887. A newspaper, The Palms Review, was published in 1887 and 1888. The First Baptist Church of the Palms was established in 1891. The Palms Silver Cornet Band formed in 1904. A second newspaper, The Palms News, was published from 1906-1908. The Palms Chamber of Commerce was established in 1907. Finally, in 1915, the community was annexed by Los Angeles.
An area today thought of as Palms (bounded by the 405 Freeway, Overland Avenue, Palms Boulevard, and Venice Boulevard) was annexed in 1927. By then, “The Palms” was simply, “Palms,” and the community had additionally witnessed the establishment of the Palms Parent-Teacher Association (1919), two Masonic lodges (1917 and 1921), the Palms Women’s Club (1921), an American Legion post (1921), and a third newspaper, The Palms Press (1921).
Today Palms is highly diverse, especially for the Westside. According to Department of City Planning estimates, made in 2008, Palms (and Westside Village) were home to roughly 45,475 people. According to the 2000 census, the population was roughly 38% non-Latino white, 20% Asian, 12% black, and 6% of another race. About 23% of residents were Latino of any race. Mexican (13%) and Irish (4%) were the most common ancestries and of the 40% foreign born, Mexico (17%) and Korea (6%) were the most common places of birth.
The exact borders of Palms aren’t official and thus open to debate. Palms is neighbored by Culver City, The Culver City Arts District (not actually part of Culver City), Faircrest Heights, La Cienega Heights, Beverlywood, Cheviot Hills, Rancho Park, Westside Village, Westdale, and Mar Vista. It is older than all of its neighbors and parts of most were formerly thought of as part of Palms. On many maps, for example, Westside Village is lumped in with Palms, but the Palms Neighborhood Council’s boundaries omit it… but it’s nevertheless home to the campus of Palms Middle School.
Much of what was formerly regarded as Palms was cleaved off by the construction of the 10 Freeway in the 1960s. Palms Park now finds itself more often claimed by the community of Rancho Park, developed in the 1920s and ‘30s, and the library located on its 2.4 hectares is known as the Palms-Rancho Park Branch Library. One of the larger parks in the area, I should note that it is one of the best area parks, and contains an auditorium, barbecue pits, basketball courts, a play room, a community room, and picnic tables.
There are also two small parks still located within Palms, Media Park and Woodbine Park. Media Park, though inarguably located within Palms, has long been leased to Culver City, who’ve seen fit to install a large sign stating “Welcome to Culver City.” Unlike many parks, it doesn’t close at sundown and is instead open all day every day. Within its roughly 80 square meters are several large trees, a veranda, and the Ivy substation that houses The Actors’ Gang.
Woodbine Park is even smaller at roughly 72 square meters. It was in Woodbine Park, in 1993, that rapper Snoop Dogg’s bodyguard McKinley Lee shot and killed gang member Philip Woldemariam. Both Snoop and his body guard were charged and acquitted of murder. More recently, in April 2015, gang members ambushed members of another gang there, shooting four and killing one. Although separated by nearly a quarter century, some alarmists (including several journalists) have referred to the park’s history as “troubled.”
Palms has thus acquired something of a reputation amongst some Angelenos for being more dangerous than it really is. To provide a bit of corrective perspective, Palms is ranked 129th out 201 Los Angeles communities ranked by violent crime rates, below more affluent communities including Larchmont, the Hollywood Hills, and Malibu. In 2013 the park was remodeled. The basketball court was spruced up and a playground, an amphitheater, solar-powered trash compactors, and native plant areas were installed. When I visited it was overrun by toddlers. It’s also worth noting that toddlers killed more Americans in 2015 than did terrorists, although some, I assume, are good people.
Not exactly a park, but something like it, is the Motor Avenue Community Garden, created in 2015. The garden is also located next to two parklets — small, park like spaces created on what were formerly automobile parking spaces.
Palms’s diversity is reflected in its various establishments. Religious organizations based in Palms include the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, the Iranian-American Muslim Association of North America, Saint Mary’s in Palms, Seventh Day Adventist Reform Church, and the Culver Palms Church of Christ.
An even better indication of Palms’s diversity is its restaurant scene. Restaurants in Palms include Almaza, Annapurna Cuisine, BKK 101 Thai Cuisine, The Bagel Factory, Bamboo Restaurant, Bene Italian Restaurant, BiiBiip Cafe, Burger Lounge, C&M Cafe, Cafe Brasil, Campos Famous Burritos, Cantinho Brasileiro, Casa Oaxaca, Cemitas Catering, Cerveteca Culver City, Chinatown Express, Commissary, The Coop Pizza, Coppelia’s Bakery & Cafe, D’Amore Cafe, The Doughroom, El Nopal Mexican Restaurant, Es Con Sabor West, Gaby’s Mediterranean Restaurant Cafe, Gentleman’s Butcher Shop And Delicatessen, Gloria’s Cafe, Golden China Restaurant, Govinda’s Natural Food Restaurant, Grand Casino Bakery & Cafe, Harvey’s Sandwich Shop, Howard’s Famous Bacon & Avocado Burgers, Hu’s Szechwan Restaurant, In-N-Out Burger, India Sweets & Spices, The Jerk Spot, Julie’s Pizzeria, Juquila, Kabab Grill, KaGaYa, Kayndaves, Kogi Taqueria, Kotoya Ramen, LArsian BBQ, LaRocco’s Pizzeria, Le Pain Quotidien, Lenzini’s Pizza, Lobster & Beer, Lucia’s Pizza, MOD Pizza, Mama’s Original Pizza & Pasta, Mama’s Indian Kitchen, Mayura Indian Restaurant, Mermaid Cafe, Ming Wok, Miyako Restaurant, NY n Cali, n/naka, Natalee Thai, The Overland Cafe, Paco Taco, Palms Ramen Yumeya, Phorage, Rubens Tacos, Rubio’s Cafe, San Hing, Santa Maria Barbeque, Señorita’s Tamales, The Shrimp & Taco Stop, Simpang Asia, Smitty’s Famous Fish & Chicken, Super Pho & Teriyaki, Tacos El Primo, Taj Tandoori, Tara’s Himalayan Cuisine, Thai Boom, Thai Original BBQ & Restaurant, Thai Vegan, Tikifish, Tom’s Number 5 Chiliburgers, TreeHouse Thai, Trimana, Ugly Roll Sushi, The Vegan Joint, Venice Bakery & Restaurant, Versailles Restaurant, The Wallace, and Zafran Pot.
The first place at which I dined in Palms was Indo Cafe, which I discovered whilst lost. When I tried to find it again, I found that it had closed — then temporarily, but sense permanently. I also discovered another Indonesian restaurant, and one with an attached coffee bar and market, across the street — Simpang Asia. Simpang has since become one of my favorite restaurants on the Westside and I even celebrated a birthday there. On the day of my exploration, however, I popped into India Sweets & Spices for lunch. The small Indian restaurant and market chain began in Atwater Village, which was until now the only location with which I was familiar. The Palms location is quite a bit smaller but the food was just as good and after lunching, my mood improved measurably. Why had my mood been foul till then? Because getting around Palms was a drag.
Getting to Palms was easy enough, and for the most part has been since The Los Angeles and Independence Railroad was completed in 1875. In 1877, that service was taken over by Southern Pacific Railroad. In 1909, Pacific Electric Railway’s launched the Santa Monica Air Line passenger service, which ran until 1953. From 1953 to 1988, the line continued served by Southern Pacific Railroad’s freight service. From 1988 until 2012, the best way to get to and from Palms was via the bus lines of the Los Angeles Metro, Culver City Bus, or Santa Monica’s Big Blue Bus. Finally, passenger service was restored to the Westside with the construction of Metro’s Expo Line, phase two of which was opened earlier in 2016. The website Walkscore gives Palms a transit score of 48 out of 100, which translates to “a few nearby public transportation options.”
Getting around Palms, on the other hand, was a less pleasant experience. Palms transit orientation and infrastructure are utterly insufficient and outdated, hopelessly stuck in the automobile-centric 20th Century. There is no part of the neighborhood which is out of earshot of the 405 and 10 freeways. Venice Boulevard, the neighborhood’s main drag, is an utterly miserable street to walk along. Its ridiculous width owes to its having been created for a passenger train, the Venice Short Line, which beginning in 1902 traveled between Downtown Los Angeles and Ocean Park until 1950, when it was surrendered to cars and given an appropriately ominous designation — California State Route 187.
Most of Venice Boulevard is lined by a road verge which for no conceivable reason is almost entirely treeless. Sections of the street have a median, which has trees, which would be great for pedestrians if there was a reason to walk in the middle of the street. Most pedestrians who find themselves there are stranded by the car-favoring crosswalks. For someone with long legs and a fast gait, the 40 seconds to cross is just long enough and comes after a wait that feels like days. For regular folks, however, it’s easy to get stuck in the middle of this hostile highway.
The road verge is also ridiculously wide. Much of it is covered with astroturf and for another inconceivable reason, cars are allowed to park on top of it. The sidewalk, meanwhile, is sometimes so narrow that it can’t accommodate two people walking abreast or passing one another. It also, since much of the verge is paved, blurs in and out of the many parking lots, almost invariably placed street side in front of strip mall after strip mall.
Occasionally the pedestrian experience involves passing along the featureless wall of a big box store. Fighting misery wrought by the relentless sun and car noise was to try to wring enjoyment from the odd architectural detail or attempt to appreciate the Ruscha-esque banality of the suburban streetscape. Sometimes I just marveled at how filthy it was.
Walkscore gives Palms a surprisingly high score: 86 out of 100. It’s true that it’s flat and most streets have sidewalks. Its density ensures that, in Walkscore-speak, “people in Palms can walk to an average of 8 restaurants, bars and coffee shops in 5 minutes,” and “most errands can be accomplished on foot in Palms Los Angeles.” That says nothing of the endurance required to pass a seemingly endless series of shops hawking wireless plans, payday loans, tax services, check cashing, flooring, insurance, drapes, screen printing, and janitorial supplies. Palms’s density might approach that of Koreatown, Westlake, Downtown, or East Hollywood but unlike those communities, almost no one appears to walk in Palms.
Bicycling might be a better way to get around Palms if not for a small but dedicated group called Neighbors For Smart Rail, who count as their chief triumph a significant gap in the Expo Line’s adjacent bicycle and walking path. Aided by a NIMBY lawyer and an inept city council, the obstructionists succeeded in halting the completion of the path over concerns with the environmental review process and impact on traffic. Somehow this concern doesn’t appear to extend to the traffic-choked freeways, which produce a cloud of exhaust, brake dust, diesel particulate, carbon monoxide, and benzene over the neighborhood whilst at the same time depositing heavy metal, oil, gasoline, and trash into the Ballona Creek watershed below.
That the bike and pedestrian path will eventually be completed is an inevitability; so too is the demolition or repurposing of freeways designed to be interstate which were somehow allowed to become intracity. If, in the meantime, you want to buy or service a bicycle, Palms has zero protected bicycle lanes but at least there are two bicycle shops: Palms Cycle and Screenland Bicycle.
It’s not an uncommon observation (or complaint) that Los Angeles is a city without a center. That Los Angeles is a series of villages with many “centers” is chieftest amongst its appeals. As far as Palms goes, however, there are today only faint vestiges of Palms’ “downtown.” The historic core of Palms was hemmed in by 1st Street (now Overland Avenue), 6th Street (now Jasmine Avenue), National Boulevard, and Stilson (now Palms).
Fourth Street, now renamed Motor Avenue, was the community’s main street then, and today it retains a charm utterly missing from Venice Boulevard. It’s still home to a post office and a fire station and previously hosted a community center and an hotel.
The bar sufficiently lowered by the experience of walking along Venice, even an intersection noteworthy mainly for supporting two rival laundromats seemed comparatively charming thanks, in large part, to the calmer, narrower street and the shade-blessed sidewalks.
The area of Motor just south of the historic core has recently seen the completion of two large mixed-use buildings, M Lofts and Palms Point. M Lofts is unexceptional. Palms Point, on the other hand, is almost impossibly hideous. Taken together and given their location just south of Palms’s downtown brought to my mind South Park’s SodoSopa. If this area of was the inspiration of the episode, “The City Part of Town,” it wouldn’t be the first time Palms had influenced the series. Palms used to be home to a Kentucky Fried Chicken re-purposed as a medicinal marijuana dispensary and called Kind for Cures. In 2010 it inspired the episode “Medicinal Fried Chicken” but sadly closed in 2015.
PALMS BARS & NIGHTLIFE
Although Palms was founded as a dry community and the fact that there were “no saloons” was heralded as a selling point, that’s thankfully changed, and I’ve enjoyed myself at several local watering holes.
My favorite Westside bar that’s not a British pub is an Irish one. Although Irish Times could be described as a sports bar (there are several television sets broadcasting association football at any given time), whenever I’ve visitied the atmosphere has been calm and soothing. I relaxed and recharged with a red ale and a cider, glancing up occasionally to watch a Ligue 1 game.
Irish Times was opened in 1995 by James McGurrin Sr., who’d previously worked as a printer at the bar’s newspaper namesake. His son and wife, James Jr. and Dolores, took over management long ago. On weekends there’s live music. The menu includes meat pies, traditional pub fare, Irish-American and Mexican-American starters, and there’s even a breakfast menu (the pub opens at 11:00 am) including a full Irish. That there’s not a train station around the corner above Motor Avenue, lowered beneath the tracks in 1933, is in my opinion a minor design flaw of the Expo Line.
Palms’s place in nightlife history is also cemented by its being the birth of Chippendales, formed in 1979 when Bangla-American Somen Banerjee transformed his club Destiny II into a den of erotic male striptease. Today Palms is home to a female striptease club, Skin Gentlemen’s Lounge, a shisha den, the Hookah Zone, and bars including Boardwalk 11, The Garage, and Oldfields Liquor Room.
Since most (but not all) are essentially liquor stores, I’ll also mention Palms’s markets, which include Star Mini Mart, Mini Mart Grocery Store, Bob’s Food Mart and Liquors, Palms Super Market (which has Latin American products), the aforementioned Simpang Asia (which has Dutch, Indonesian, and other Southeast Asian products), Bahay Natin (a Filipino market), and Venice Market. If you require more than junk food, booze, and lottery tickets, you could do worse than the Motor Avenue Farmers Market, held every Sunday at Motor Avenue & National Boulevard from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.
To my knowledge, Palms has never in its history supported a cinema. It is, however, home to The Mary Pickford Institute For Film Study, the facade of which prominently features an image of Louise Brooks.
Palms also supports one of the Westside’s most highly regarded live theaters, though, the aforementioned Actors’ Gang. The Actors’ Gang is an experimental theater company housed in the old Ivy Substation, located in Media Park. Actors’ Gang was founded in 1981 by a group of actors, including Tim Robbins, who is currently the theater’s director.
Palms is home to a single book store, called The Ripped Bodice. Regardless of one’s opinion of romance novels, there’s something undeniably appealing about a bookstore which so boldly embraces the genre both through its name and the life-sized cutout a shirtless Fabio wielding a chain.
It’s worth noting that another cause of the glorious Westside obstructionists was shutting down the Little Free Libraries popular across the country. A few years ago, husband and wife Peter Cook and Lili Flanders’s curbside Tenn-Mann Library was shut down after a note signed “a neighbor who hates you and your kids” threatened legal action and the bureau of street services reluctantly followed through with a notice of violation. On Motor I spied another book-less Little Free Library, reduced to a repository for junk mail.
Palms is home to several art galleries including Gus Harper Art Gallery, Lup Art Gallery, and Subspace Art. It’s also home to the Kline Academy of Fine Art, where students of any age can learn drawing and painting.
Palms is also home to one of the strangest museums I’ve ever visited, the Museum of Jurassic Technology. The museum was founded by David Hildebrand Wilson and Diana Drake Wilson in 1988 and is cryptically billed as “an educational institution dedicated to the advancement of knowledge and the public appreciation of the Lower Jurassic.” I was disappointed that it was closed during my exploration of Palms, as I could’ve used the respite provided within its strange, dark spaces… or the rejuvenation of its Russian tea room.
Next door to the Museum of Jurassic Technology is the Center For Land Use Interpretation, which was also closed. Unlike the museum next door, I’ve never been there and as a fan of maps, landscape, and urban planning, my cumulative disappointment increased.
APARTMENTS AND ARCHITECTURE OF PALMS
Since most of Palms is covered with apartments, I suppose its worth noting them and how the community got that way. Originally, like most of the Westside, Palms was home to detached single family homes and on some streets, like Goldwyn Terrace, you can still see them. However, most older homes were demolished and replaced with dingbat apartments in the from the late 1950s through the early 1970s. I’ve long found humor in their often pretentious designations and barest of design touches. Although still mostly unloved, even dingbats are undergoing something of a re-appreciation, as evinced by the publication of English author Clive Piercy’s book, Pretty Vacant: The Los Angeles Dingbat Observed.
There are a couple of dingbats with enough of a Modernist touch to receive appreciation from the more architecturally conservative Los Angeles Conservancy, which has singled out the Ray Kappe and Carl Maston-designed Garden Apartment Building and National Boulevard Apartment Building.
One of the few buildings tall enough to be described as even mid-rise is the Brotman Physicians Plaza. That seven story building was constructed in 1963. On a street with few trees and few buildings over two stories tall, the moderately tall Modernist structure is a welcome change.
The conservancy also recognizes the Lawrence and Martha Joseph Residence and Apartments, designed by Lawrence Joseph, who apparently worked for both Walt Disney Studios and the Lockheed Corporation. The residences are colloquially known as “the Hobbit Homes” which is somewhat odd since they’re not dug into hillsides and bear only passing resemblance to Brandy Hall or Bag End. Perhaps it’s not that the residences actually look like hobbit smials but that they resemble an attempt at Tudor Revival undertaken by someone under the influence of Halflings’ Leaf… and maybe even more than Indonesian food and Irish drinks, a little pipe-weed is what’s needed to blunt the sharp edges of auto-dystopia.
To vote for any communities you’d like to see covered in California Fool’s Gold, name them in the comments. If you’d like a bit of inspiration, there are primers for:
- Imperial County
- Kern County
- Los Angeles County
- Angeles Forest
- the Antelope Valley
- the Channel Islands
- the Eastside
- the Harbor
- Mideast Los Angeles
- Northeast Los Angeles
- Northwest Los Angeles
- the Pomona Valley
- the San Fernando Valley
- the San Gabriel Valley
- the Santa Monica Mountains
- the South Bay
- South Los Angeles’s Eastside
- South Los Angeles’s Westside
- Southeast Los Angeles
- the Verdugos
- the Westside
- Orange County
- Riverside County
- San Bernardino County
- San Diego County
- San Luis Obispo County
- Santa Barbara County
- Ventura County