Urban Rambles — Exploring Mid-City with Machiko

Urban Rambles

In this — my tenth year of exploring, writing about, and mapping Los Angeles — I’ve so far eschewed undertaking my fairly exhaustive (and completely exhausting) community explorations for which I’m probably best known, California Fool’s Gold. Instead, I’ve preferred to undertake smaller, less structured “rambles” though the city accompanied by fellow explorers. For this edition, I explored Mid-City with my friend Machiko Yasuda.

I met Machiko last year, at a 3rd of July party. It quickly transpired that we had several things in common including an interest in maps and the same exact same Shiba Inu key caps. Machiko also informed me that she was also the co-organizer of a Meetup called “MaptimeLA.” I’d just signed up for that service after it was recommended to me by an acquaintance to whom I expressed my unfulfilled desire to go camping on the Channel Islands. MaptimeLA’s next meet-up, it so happened, was a camping and mapping trip to Santa Catalina. Sadly, Machiko wasn’t able to make that trip (on which we mapped nearly every street in Avalon for Mapillary) but we’ve both continued to be involved with MaptimeLA and, not long after moving to Mid-City, she suggested that we explore it together.

Potential questions a neighborhood explorer might pose is “where is Mid-City?” It’s name certainly suggests somewhere in the middle of the city, but where exactly? Does it have agreed upon borders? Is it a neighborhood, a district, or both? Is it the same as Midtown? Does it encompass all or parts of Mid-City West and Mid-Wilshire? I expressed some of my geographic uncertainties to Machiko but neither of us arrived at definite answers. My personal feeling is that that is OK — and that anyone who claims that there are absolute, official borders should at the very least be regarded with suspicion.

Historically, “Mid-City” is a vague description that has been applied to the central areas of many cities for at least a century. In Los Angeles County, “Mid-City” has been applied to the central areas of Montrose, Santa Monica, and Walnut Park — in addition to the city of Los Angeles. Los Angeles’s borders only began to move in 1896, 115 years after its establishment. As it gradually crept west, so to did the city’s mid-section. The Westside only reached the Pacific Ocean in 1915 — but I’ve thus far been unable to find any reference to Los Angeles’s middle area until two decades later.

Like the term “Downtown,” “Midtown” was imported from New York City, where it was first coined around 1930. It spread quickly to Los Angeles, where it was used to refer to the area surrounded by HollywoodSouth Los Angeles, Mideast Los Angeles, and the Westside as “Midtown” at least as early as 1935. Midtown would later be subdivided into more manageable subsections. By 1941, there were references to the area surrounding what’s now Koreatown as “Wilshire Center.” The earliest usage I’ve been able to find of “Mid-Wilshire” dates to 1969. The earliest reference to Mid-City Los Angeles that I’ve thus far located is from 1968. “Mid-City West” seems to have been coined around 2001, seemingly to realign those Midtown neighborhoods with the Westside for reasons I’ll leave it to the reader to figure out.

Although people will squabble about “official” definitions and borders, I haven’t found any two organizations or Angelenos with matching definitions of Mid-City. Although all overlap, The Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Department of Transportation, Google, the Mid-City Neighborhood Council, and my own Pendersleigh & Sons Cartography all have different definitions of the neighborhood/region. AirBNB‘s website describes Mid-City as “Downtown adjacent” — and yet their own map shows it to be not adjacent to any downtown except that of Culver City. Many definitions include some combination of Balkanized, pocket-sized, micro-neighborhoods demarcated by a host of apparently DIY signs like Lafayette Square, Pico del Mar, Pico Park, Victoria Park, Wellington Square, Wilshire Highlands, Wilshire Vista Highlands. In fact, in no other region of Los Angeles are old tract names being revived at such a furious pace.

There is one part of Mid-City which has remained incontestably Mid-City because, I suspect, tract names like Tract No. 558, 569, 1740, 4448, 4889, 5091, 5770, 5955, 6035, and 11723 just wouldn’t look good on signs. There are other options for naming neighborhoods — without resorting to a “Naming Neighborhoods Project.” Some neighborhoods are named after parks — but there are no parks within this area that rise above the designation of “pocket park” — and no neighborhood has thus far been named after a pocket park. Some neighborhoods are named after prominent street intersections, but I suspect that “Redondo-Washington” or “21st-Rimpau” just aren’t sufficiently melodious… so Mid-City it remains by default. Note to neighborhood Balkanization proponents — Arlington Heights Terrace — subdivided in 1906 — is still waiting to be revived!


IMG_2469
4571 West Washington Boulevard, built in 1927. Tenants have included Travel Fever, the Black Foundation, Posse Furniture, and We Pastel.
IMG_2470
A mural at Pickford Market depicting the West Boulevard Overpass and a fictional “Midtown” street sign.

The West Boulevard Overpass (or West Boulevard Bridge) is, perhaps, an unlikely icon of Mid-City. The 39 meter-long arch bridge, built in 1933, is pretty but modest. It was originally used by pedestrians to walk over Pacific Electric Railway‘s (PE) train tracks used by the Venice Short Line (1903-1950) and Santa Monica via Sawtelle Line (1911-1940). In 1913, two trains collided near the intersection of Pico and Venice boulevards, killing fourteen and injuring about 200, prompting PE to replace wooden trains with steel ones. After the trains ended service, public stairways were fenced off and sidewalks sliced away as part of a city-wide surrender to automobile dependency. In 2013 it was designated Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument No. 1023. If that’s not enough information for you, Chin Thammasaengsri made an hour long video about the bridge (in parts 1 and 2).

IMG_2471
Someone’s pet bunny, just after a face washing
IMG_2473
Mascot Park, which seems to be a median converted into a pocket park with the addition of a sidewalk, trash barrels, and hours of operation.
IMG_2474
Another look at this car advertising White Girl Rosé and an orange lowrider Chevy pick-up in the background.
IMG_2475
A good example of what can be done with a road verge besides covering it with concrete or grass.
IMG_2477
A tree in which a purse hangs above some benches
IMG_2478
The attractive entrance of the Alta Loma School, which looks very WPA to me
IMG_2479
Another improved road verge (with people heading to/from school upside down)
IMG_2481
An Egyptian-inspired bungalow court, built in 1924 (two years after the discover of Pharaoh “King Tut” Tutankhamun‘s tomb.
IMG_2483
Steep hillsides line valleys carved, I assume, by Ballona Creek or its watershed.
IMG_2484
Inside the drawer of some roadside refuse marked “security device inside,” a vintage ticket to the film, Armageddon.
IMG_2485
An oddly positioned Hollywood Regency element over a parking spot.
IMG_2486
Charming Lafayette Road, shortly after a young boy unsuccessfully tried to sell us two warm plastic bottles of water for $2
IMG_2487
A raised concrete island, a row of bollards, AND a metal gate… keeping fortress Lafayette Park safe from car-dependent criminals, at least.
IMG_2488
Seven-lane wide Washington Boulevard. Sure there’s room for a couple of protected bike lanes, a couple of bus lanes, and a planted median.
IMG_2489
A couple of DIY-looking Lafayette Square signs
IMG_2490
Stately First Presbyterian Church of Los Angeles, built in 1924
IMG_2492
Pinks and reds
IMG_2493
A pedestrian bridge, long ago closed and thus successfully cutting off residents one end of Virginia Road from the other — because the freeway wasn’t enough.
IMG_2495
A noisy, red-crowned parrot squawked above two men sitting on the curb, one pointing a spy glass apparently toward a home.
IMG_2497
Testing out my sub-remedial Korean skills at 한마음선원 LA
IMG_2498
How many Wellington Square signs can you see? (Answer: four in three styles)

We stopped at Pacific French Bakery, which seemed to be quite popular as there was a pretty substantial line of customers picking up treats. We also passed La Usuluteca, which I feel obligated to shout out in fairness to the also-popular competition.

IMG_2499
Pit stop at Pacific French Bakery
IMG_2500
Another parrot? It had to be a sign.
IMG_2501
An improvised and well-worn trail at Washington Square Discount Mall for those who avoid stairs at all costs
IMG_2502
An interesting building built in 1926 and successfully rendered hideous by Public Storage

We popped into the Underground Museum, co-founded by artist Noah Davis, who died of cancer at just 32, and his wife, Karon Davis. It’s not a museum, in the usual since, nor really an art gallery, it seems. There’s an outdoor space where people hang out, practice yoga, hear storytelling, or watch films. It reminded me a bit of the Velaslavasay Panorama, near the campus of USC.

IMG_2503
The garden area at the Underground Museum
IMG_2505
Overflow seating at the Underground Museum
IMG_2506
Looking west down Washington Boulevard, the longest (44 km) continuous east-west arterial road in Los Angeles… and sadly, one of the most shade-deprived.
IMG_2507
Mi Pueblo Viejo Bar & Entertainment, built c. 1964
IMG_2508
Miju Motor, built in 1964
IMG_2509
Carlen Powell 1972 — (?) Powell 1979
IMG_2510
Vijaya Dharma Buddhist Vihara
IMG_2512
Kappa Alpha Psi‘s Kappa Castle (left) and Kappa House (right)
IMG_2517
The Paul Revere Williams residence (right), built by the great architect for his family in 1952.

Our final stop was St. Elmo Village, a small collection of bungalows built for farm workers between 1913 and 1926. In the 1960s, Rozzell and Roderick Sykes, an uncle and nephew, respectively, moved there. In 1969, with the help of other artists, they transformed the lot into an art space called St. Elmo Village. We came in search of hand-drumming but heard none. As we were leaving, we were met by Jacqueline Alexander-Sykes, who explained that the drumming hadn’t happened on account of the whims of drummers. Ms. Alexander-Sykes welcomed Machiko to the neighborhood and told us to come back anytime, and with that we concluded our ramble!

IMG_2519

IMG_2521IMG_2523IMG_2525



Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, writer, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities — or salaried work. He is not interested in generating advertorials, clickbait, listicles, or other 21st century variations of spam. Brightwell has written for Angels Walk LAAmoeblogBoom: A Journal of CaliforniadiaCRITICS, Hidden Los Angeles, and KCET Departures. His art has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft & Folk Art MuseumForm Follows FunctionLos Angeles County Store, the book SidewalkingSkid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured as subject in The Los Angeles TimesHuffington PostLos Angeles MagazineLAistEastsider LABoing BoingLos Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRWWhich Way, LA? and at Emerson College. Art prints of Brightwell’s maps are available from 1650 GalleryHe is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on FacebookInstagram, and Twitter.
Click here to offer financial support and thank you!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s