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About On Bunker Hill

Bunker Hill is a ghost, and though you may today walk streets named Grand and Hope and imagine that you stand where once were grand Victorian homes turned flophouses, you are in fact one hundred feet beneath the old roads, which the city shaved away to make a wider footprint for the high rise tenants that replaced them.

What I Did In The Chalk Wars by Kim Cooper

"If they are ignored, [Alice] Callaghan worries, the dangers of handing the streets over to private security forces will only grow. 'Until they begin interfering with the rights of middle-class people,' she says, 'you won't have anybody crying about it. But by then, it will be too late.'" – Ben Ehrenreich, L.A. Weekly, May 24, 2001

Downtown Los Angeles is my beat. 

The fine old business and entertainment district, left nearly untouched as the city threw out her arms in postwar sprawl, is presently growing a new cycle of memories with the adaptive reuse of long-empty office buildings into high-priced loft apartments.

But for all the considerable #DTLA hype, the really interesting stuff is found layers beneath the trendy bars and cafes, the developer-subsidized gallery scene and the mainly young, white, upwardly-mobile residents exploring the pleasures and challenges of life in a transitional urban community.

When you know where to look, downtown is pocked with lore, loss and loveliness: unsolved murders, gorgeous architecture, hidden bootleg and subway tunnels, dilapidated movie palaces turned megachurches, amethyst glass sidewalks illuminating sealed basements--even the actual shabby hotel lobbies where a young Raymond Chandler observed the characters who'd inhabit his noir narratives.

For many years, the main threats facing these evocative spaces were entropy, earthquake and disinterest.

Then came gentrification. And Occupy. And chalk.

Chalk Walk facebook invite, July 12 2012

The developers arrived in 1999, palms open for handouts from a Redevelopment Agency that had long since redefined the blight it was formed to combat. Rough streets made hard pillows for thousands, while up above, market-rate renters coddled doggies behind steel doors. Big chunks of Main Street, long the eastern Maginot Line behind which the needy were corralled, were snapped up by a favored developer, and the rescue missions and social service agencies were shooed further east, towards the concrete barrier of the L.A. River.

The Occupy LA encampment sprung up around our iconic City Hall on October 1, 2011, was initially welcomed by Mayor and City Council, and forcefully evicted by LAPD on November 30. The threatened bill to taxpayers, mainly for police overtime, hovers around $4 Million. There has been no suggestion that the public officials who asked protesters to stay might be held liable for any of these costs.

Pushed out of the core of downtown, not wanting to fold up their (figurative if not always literal) tents, some Occupiers found themselves at the "other" local Occupation, the media-invisible Occupy Skid Row encampment at 4th and Towne Streets.

Occupy Skid Row was, until its summer 2012 LAPD / County Health Department eviction, the longest surviving American Occupy camp. Unlike occupations in urban centers, this one grew up in a neighborhood that was already home to thousands of poor, addicted, ill and needy citizens. In a city that has failed over decades to deal humanely and effectively with the homeless, a few more tents bedecked with idealistic slogans made no difference... at least at first.

But as the City Hall contingent got familiar with the rhythms of life on Skid Row, and spent more time with socially-conscious homeless citizens and activists, they got an education in the unique social justice challenges facing the poor and homeless when they sought to cross back over Main Street into gentrified Downtown.

You see, gentrification doesn't just happen. It has to be helped along. There are a number of effective tools at the disposal of developers seeking to make their buildings more appealing to renters and businesses. But not just any tenants: they need a very specialized group of early adopters who, when properly primed, will serve as an unpaid street team, marketing the value of the community as they revel in their status as "urban pioneers." History shows that soon after bohemians populate a depressed urban neighborhood, wealthy people with bohemian tastes will follow. Then it's bye-bye bohemians. It was ever thus.

Some gentrification tools are transformative: lease large ground-floor spaces to gallerists willing to take a chance in a bad neighborhood in exchange for five years of negligible rent; don't charge pet deposits; subsidize an Art Walk; open restaurants that keep extended hours to create a community space.

Other tools are restrictive. It seems such a small step from having security guards inside locked lobbies and garages to instructing maintenance crews to hose down the sidewalks at 4am to dispatching teams of security guards to enforce the social order through intimidation and walkie-talkies that connect directly to the real police.

But that small step is the distance from private property to public space, and in the New Downtown, that's a distinction that's blurred and frequently abused by "The Shirts," the color-coded security details employed by varied BID (Business Improvement District) entities that have carved up Downtown into discrete zones.

The city doesn't clean the streets frequently enough? Don't pester your Councilman; the BID will do it. Insufficient police presence to deter drug dealing and prostitution? Nothing a crew of beefy guys on bikes and Segways can't handle. And why should anyone complain? BIDs are financed through commercial property tax diversion, not out of residents' pockets, and everyone benefits from cleaner, safer streets.

The problem is that when a business lobby takes over civic services, they absorb civic power, with none of the accountability. Residents are encouraged to simply call the BID when they see something troubling on the streets, and a crew will show up and "deal with" the problem. (Conveniently, crimes reported to BID security are not recorded in LAPD crime statistics, making BID-protected neighborhoods appear safer than they really are.)

And as landlords make decisions about which sort of people are allowed to stroll or linger, unmolested, on public streets, a chilling effect spreads. Tired of being hassled, the poor and the undocumented and the weird stay away. Demographics normalize. Rents go up. Yoga studios move in. It's an urban redevelopment success story-- at least it looks that way on the surface.

Seeking a fresh focus for a movement that had grown bored with the dry crimes of banks, Occupy LA activists decided to drill beneath Downtown's surface. What they found was the woman behind the curtain: Carol Schatz, President and CEO of the Central City Association and of the Downtown Center BID. Ms. Schatz and the powerful organizations she controls are well-known in the business community, but obscure to the general public.

In late May 2012, a decision was made by Occupy LA, LA CAN, Occupy The Hood, Occupy Skid Row, Hippie Kitchen, Los Angeles Catholic Worker and other community groups and individuals to establish a protest camp on the public sidewalk outside CCA's headquarters at 626 Wilshire. The intent was to draw attention to ways in which the CCA's Downtown 2020: Roadmap to L.A.'s Urban Future position paper (PDF link) seeks to criminalize homelessness and poverty in order to create a more business-friendly environment.

The protest was peaceful, if occasionally disruptive to those doing business at 626 Wilshire. Tents were set up on the sidewalk in the evening, and removed in the morning as workers arrived. Occasional daytime protests were scheduled to coincide with large meetings of CCA member organizations. Discussion groups gathered, drums were pounded, security guards razzed and preached to, dissenting messages scrawled in chalk on the sidewalk. The peculiar orientation of the building, one very short block from where Wilshire dead ends, meant that during the night camps there was minimal foot traffic and no impediment to local business.

The plan was to camp out for a week--and considering that the campers got few visitors and received no media attention, the protesters would almost certainly have moved on, had they not been subject to unwarranted police harassment.

I dropped by 626 Wilshire a few nights after the camp was formed. Perhaps a dozen people were gathered on the sidewalk. They were a varied group: men, women, multi-racial. A young man and an older woman approached me separately, and each made pleasant conversation about social justice issues. They seemed happy to have someone new to talk with. Across the street, I saw an LAPD patrol car parked with two officers in it. Around the corner, a second black and white lurked. It seemed an excessive response for a peaceful gathering on a public sidewalk.

Within days, word filtered out through Occupy LA's social media accounts that protesters were being arrested for chalking.

Still, there was no press attention. No criminal charges were filed. The arrests continued. People felt intimidated and angry. The "siege" was indefinitely extended. 

Several individuals organized a Chalk Walk on July 12, during the monthly Downtown Art Walk, in order to bring the story of the arrests to a wider audience. The slogan was FREE CHALK FOR FREE SPEECH. Most participants were members of Occupy LA, although it was not an official OLA event.

Original Chalk Walk flier, July 12 2012

That Thursday around 7pm, about two dozen people gathered on Spring Street between Fifth and Sixth Streets handed out sticks of washable sidewalk chalk wrapped in information about the CCA protests and chalking arrests to Art Walk attendees.

By 7:15pm, the protesters were surrounded by approximately 40 LAPD officers, and the first chalking arrest was made. Many people stopped and chalked. As dusk fell, the police presence grew, and more people were arrested. At 9pm, police donned riot helmets, and many of the protesters left for a planned fundraiser. At 9:15pm, there were so many police massed on Fifth Street that traffic was impeded and a curious crowd formed.

Around 9:30pm, the rough arrest of a petite woman incensed the gathering crowd, and they poured into the intersection. The police responded with riot tactics, breaking up the crowd by running three skirmish lines: north, south and west. At 10pm, the first less-lethal projectiles were fired. As the police moved south into the commercial heart of the Historic Core, they begin closing galleries, restaurants and residential buildings and not permitting anyone to enter or exit. 

Rubber bullet wound, Downtown Los Angeles Art Walk attendee, July 12 2012

By the night's end, at least three Art Walk attendees would suffer beanbag wounds to their torsos, and one to his face, 17 people would be arrested, two police officers would suffer minor injuries, thousands of people would be terrorized, and numerous artists, vendors, galleries, restaurants, bars and food trucks would suffer financial harm.

A troubling toll, and yet it's hard to see the event as a failure, since the goal of raising consciousness was achieved. On Wednesday night, the CCA was a mystery. By Friday morning, it was the centerpiece of a dozen newspaper articles, some nationally syndicated. Complex issues like the dark side of gentrification, private security in public spaces, and the criminalization of poverty got a rare airing. And suddenly, Occupy LA was as relevant as it had ever been.

As the August 9 Art Walk approached, tensions were high over what role chalk protests and Occupy might play. My husband Richard Schave and I, as the people who had run and put the Art Walk into a non-profit in 2009, only to be forced out due to sabotage by the local BID director, were approached by a member of Occupy LA who was concerned about the potential for further violence. We reached out to the Mayor's Office and to the Art Walk Task Force seeking dialog, and helped organize a Town Hall meeting, where activists, artists, vendors, business people and residents shared their concerns, frustrations and hopes for peace.

Days passed. Some worried because The Fresh Juice Party, chalk muralists affiliated with Occupy Oakland, planned to attend Chalk Walk 2. Police spokesmen said anyone chalking would be jailed--and indeed several muralists were detained and one arrested. But as darkness fell, the police pulled away from Pershing Square, where the protesters were gathered around a large cartoon mural of a lion and a duck with a word bubble message "I ♥ The 1st Amendment / Chalkupy!" 

Chalkupy video screen grab from peteyk's footage, Pershing Square, August 9 2012

A young woman stood on the mural, hula hooping. Folksinger Michelle Shocked, who has been using the name Michelle Chocked for anti-BID art actions, played a set. A couple of Fresh Juice Partiers donned animal costumes, and brought their mural to life with a slapstick chase. People crowded around the wide concrete wall, inscribed with a quote from Nation editor Carey McWilliams about the lively community of oddballs that inhabited Pershing Square in the 1930s, and chalked words and pictures in a riot of color and expression.

It was the best party Pershing Square had seen in decades. And the next morning, the press praised all concerned for restraining themselves on a battleground that wasn't really a battleground, just a square block in the heart of the city, where after much tension and blessed release, we saw what was possible when fun overruled fear, and art trumped enforcement.

And on an urban stage where the actors can appear to be placed in the pose of scrappy street fighters vs. armored warriors, with reporters in helicopters screaming "Occupy Riot at Art Walk!" to footage showing no such thing, the fact is that Occupy can still turn, fluid as an eel, and transform the scene, the context and the conversation surrounding a local injustice. It's more than a little uncanny, and thrilling to watch. And anyone who is counting this magickal child out as she approaches her first birthday hasn't been paying attention.

Downtown is still a mess, albeit a beautiful one. And the war's not over, not by a long chalk. But there's hope on the wind, and humor, and dialogue. And no telling how these creative protests will change us next.

This essay was originally published in Occupy! #5.


Occupy!
is an OWS-inspired gazette, published by n+1.

http://nplusonemag.com/occupy

 

*


Sources

Chalk Walk timeline in video and photographs - http://ccacdtla.wordpress.com/

626 Wilshire protest website - http://626wilshire.wikispaces.com/

Michelle Chocked video for "Graffiti Limbo" - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wi-K2cDDeEU

Fresh Juice Party performance at Chalk Walk 2 - http://www.ustream.tv/recorded/24595035/highlight/284179

Chalk Walk 2 video - http://peteyk.com/?p=538

"Downtown 2020: Roadmap to L.A.'s Urban Future" - http://ccala.org/downloads/DT2020legislativeprioritiesJan2012.pdf

Looking Backward: Depopulating Pershing Square, 2012-1954

In 1905, when George Santayana wrote, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it," we can be quite certain that he was not sitting in an east-facing room of the Biltmore Hotel, looking out over Pershing Square. That's because the hotel didn't exist yet, and L.A.'s old public square was still called Central Park. 

But the philosophers' words seem very apt as we reflect on the oddly familiar reports coming out of Pershing Square, City Hall and the press this week.

If you want to know what's happening in 2012, it's easy enough to follow that trail… bearing in mind that business groups that are able to pay lobbyists and publicists and who donate to politicians always have an edge when it comes to getting their perspectives heard. (An alternative view is here.)

police bombs rout 1931

Los Angeles Times, October 31, 1931

Here On Bunker Hill, we'd rather cast an eye backwards, in hopes that by reminding the players in our modern comedy of the old roles they are inhabiting, that their performances will be more thoughtful and humane.

Behold, Pershing Square in the middle 1950s! This north-facing photograph, shot in 3-D Technicolor by the celebrated vaudeville dancer (and chronicler of Bunker Hill) George Mann, has not been seen in nearly fifty years. It is one of four vintage images of the park just discovered in Mann's archive, and scanned especially for inclusion in this blog post by Dianne Woods.

 

PS 001c 150dpi

photo: George Mann

Here we see the plain and grassy park as it was remade, following the controversial construction of an underground parking lot and civil defense shelter. Gone are the beloved walkways and mature tree cover that were for decades the symbols of the place, and cause for concern by moralists who raved that the bushes were filled with libertines and the shady spots with loudmouthed loons. Fine old trees have been replaced by fast-growing bamboo and a few anemic rose bushes.  

Compared to the old Pershing Square, this park is a dump.  

pershing square aerial view postcard

Pershing Square as it was

And yet, along the semi-shaded benches that line the lawn, many dozens of people have gathered in the heat of the day--so many that some must stand, or venture out onto the lawn to sit on low walls in full sun. 

in the sun

photo: George Mann (detail)]

Although the park's designers sought through the redesign to make the space less hospitable for loitering, the urge of the people to come together in the commons proved stronger than the grim psychological landscape.  

We see that it is a multi-racial crowd, mainly men, nearly all middle-aged or elderly. Among them must be a number of the 9000 denizens of single rooms up on Bunker Hill, the voiceless many who will in just a few years be cast to the winds after the largest eminent domain action in US history.  

PS 002N 150dpi

photo: George Mann

Over in the northeast corner, a young black man in a natty brown sport coat seems to be taking advantage of the crowd's idle attentions to practice his oration. Just behind, elevated on a box, a fellow all in white gestures meaningfully to a man who looks interested, if perhaps a little bit afraid. 

speakers corner detail

photo: George Mann (detail)

speech is free and noisy 1953

This area was our speaker's corner, much like the famous one in Hyde Park, London, a loud, strange, loathed and beloved zone of free expression (and gleeful heckling) that was over the decades subject to repeated suppression attempts by business groups and politicians. The names of these powerful entities may be different, but their complaints and tactics have scarcely changed in six decades. 

our hyde park crop

letter to the editor, Los Angeles Times, March 18, 1953 

The problem then as now, of course, was that after being instructed crack down on "undesirable" behavior within the park's borders, the unsubtle mind of a beat cop was pressed to its limits by the appearance of such unusual public activity as the impromptu June 1955 attempt by fifteen young classical musicians to perform Handel's "Water Music" beside the park's fountain. 

It was weird, it was different--of course it must be against the rules.

"Not on my beat! No permit, no music!" exclaimed Patrolman Bill Shirley, headless of the cries from the people of the park to just let the kids play. Once the Young Artists Chamber Orchestra had been shooed away, a reporter watched as a group of Bunker Hill regulars sang along to a hymn played on guitar and concertina. Officer Shirley had no complaint, for this was a daily feature of park life.

no place to play headline 

Similarly, in August 2012 when a group of chalk artists came from Oakland, at their own expense, to create a sidewalk mural during the Downtown Art Walk, they were harassed by police and private security guards, the media and blogosphere fretted that they might be planning violence, and one of the artists was arrested. 

But let's get back to Pershing Square history. Like September 1963,when  a colorful group of about forty Pershing Square habitués including one "Stoolpigeon Mary" protested plans by the Rec and Parks Department to further diminish the already compromised layout of the park, removing the few trees and benches and narrowing the pathways. 

This $100,000 proposal, financed by parking revenues, was loudly denounced as an attack of the "rich against the poor." The ragged citizens marched together to City Hall to decry these actions of the wealthy, those lucky ones who had air-conditioned offices, luxurious homes and private clubs at their disposal, and yet seemed so intent on taking away the one place where the poor of downtown could escape their hot single rooms and enjoy each others' company in a natural setting.

stoolpigeon mary

Photo: Los Angeles Times

And indeed, the main proponents of the 1963 "beautification" plan--one misstep of many towards the hideous concrete hell that is today's Pershing Square--were the Downtown Business Men's Association (known now as the Central City Association) and Mayor Sam Yorty, who would later be voted among the worst three big city leaders in American history. Mayor Yorty expressed concern in particular that the park had become a haven for "undesirables" who frightened females.

The truth was that there were unafraid women to be found in Pershing Square, but never so many as the men. But we know of them from accounts of how they preached or sang the gospel, or cared for the birds like the much-loved retired telephone operator Pigeon Goldie Osgood (whose 1964 murder in the Cecil Hotel was never solved). George Mann's newly rediscovered photograph suggests that the ladies preferred the shady, less crowded corners of the square. 

PS 003N 150dpi

photo: George Mann

The last Pershing Square photo in the set shows the scene looking west towards the Biltmore Hotel from near the corner of Sixth and Hill, not far from where the Occupy LA protest group holds its thrice-weekly general assemblies today.  

PS 005b 150 dpi

photo: George Mann

The path is shady, and an old man bends to drink from the water fountain. A woman, perhaps holding a petition, has engaged a seated man in earnest conversation.  

petition

photo: George Mann (detail)

Beside the tall statue of the doughboy on his plinth, we see a man whose body language evokes the classical portrayal of melancholy.   

melancholia

photo: George Mann (detail)

There's something beautiful in his solitary desperation, a formal elegance in the body's compact lines--and also a sense of hope because, as lonesome and pained as this individual appears, he still was able to take his place in the lively public park with all the other souls of the city, not shooed or hidden away as an undesirable, but there on the wall as a member of a community. The park was there to accept all comers, to give them a safe place to rest, cool water, human company and a breeze off the fountain. 

Bunker Hill Box 150dpi

Such are the vibrant scenes that emerge from a box tucked away many decades ago by a tall, funny man who went out into his native city looking for images that would resonate as uniquely of Los Angeles. He went, of course, to Pershing Square, and to Bunker Hill, and to the Plaza and Olvera Street. Of the three, Bunker Hill is gone forever, the Plaza is a tourist attraction and still a place for the people to gather, and Pershing  Square is in terrible peril. 

Pershing Square is today far, far worse than the 1950s redesign, or the 1960s one, or the 1980s one. With each change, the park has become less accessible, more restrictive, less green, less vibrant. This is a place where it takes longer to read the rules of what is not allowed than to walk right into the park and out again.

Pershing Square signage

If "Stoolpigeon Mary" and her friends could see what's been done to Pershing Square since they marched to City Hall in 1963, they would be horrified--but probably not surprised. For the current iteration of the park--a sprawling hardscape broken up by confusing walls and a rarely-functioning, nearly-waterless fountain, historic figures relegated to a Sculpture Ghetto that doubles as a dog run, the small patch of grass roped off, the benches deliberately divided to deter anyone from even thinking about lying down--is a space designed by the wrong people for the wrong reasons.

Richard Schave with tour guests in Pershing Square

Esotouric tour guide Richard Schave explains the problems

So why is Pershing Square so awful?  


Fear and money
, two powerful forces that don't belong anywhere near a public park. Money came to the park in the form of the city-owned underground parking lot, for which the old trees and paths and fountain were ripped up in 1951, in the first assault upon its heart. 

Fear came to the park in the form of a civil defense shelter, hidden away within the garage, and later in attempts to legislate and design away the park's appeal to undesirable Angelenos: communists, homosexuals, the poor, the mad, the homeless, the old, the revolutionary, the anti-social, the voiceless. 

Fear and money are good for politicians, but very bad for public policy and public space. Try to imagine any one of the great parks of the world, forced to bend to these two incompatible motivations. Imagine the lawns of Central Park, roped off so nobody can rest on them. Or the Serpentine pond in London, drained down to the rocks. Or Griffith Park, its paths covered over in concrete, its trees cut back to eliminate the shade. 

Fear is no way to design a city. 

It is not too late for Pershing Square to again be a great public space, but it's going to require great courage by our civic leaders to reject false and alarming narratives of "decadent" misbehavior and harm to phantom businesses, and to stand up for the precepts on which America was founded. And it will require that our people involve themselves is a space that defies involvement, and demand something better for themselves and for people not at all like them. 

Let these beautiful and powerful images, sent across the decades from the eye of the great George Mann, give us all a star to steer by. Let's not be afraid of one another or of how our fellow citizens might behave. Let us instead make a fine place in which to be fine people, and see what surprises await us there.

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If you would like to be involved in the development of a more humane and inspiring Pershing Square, please join the Pershing Square People Improvement District

-Kim Cooper, editrix, On Bunker Hill 

 

A Drive Through Bunker Hill and Downtown Los Angeles, ca. 1940s

An amazing discovery from the good folks at the Internet Archive. Visit the Off Bunker Hill list, where LA historians and former Bunker Hill residents have been identifying structures and dating vehicles. One person even thinks they've spotted their father leaning on a lampost!

Two New Mann Images — Final Days of the Flight!

Hillzapoppin' in the OBH!  A couple swanky new color images emerged from the greater Mann grotto and the good people at the archives wanted to share them with you.  Ain't they the best?

AF1

This image is later than the other Manns (Menn?) we've seen.  (Given the specific progress made on the Union Bank tower, I'd peg this photo at September 1966).  By comparison, here's one of late-50s vintage you've seen before:

AF2

The Community Redevelopment Agency got their wreckers and worked from top to bottom; started with the Elks in the autum of 1962, then hit the Hulburt (middle) and finished the Ferguson on Hill in '63.

With Angels Flight's Western Wall removed, you then see these two characters in images of the Flight, but they were chewed up pretty quickly.

theseguys

But back to our original Mann photo up top.  To the east of the flight on the other side of the tunnel, the Royal Liquor's still there, and so's the McCoy house above.  

Royal Liquor--AKA St. Helena Sanitarium--always amuses because before Los Angeles became last refuge for the hunted and the tortured, it was just a sunny place to go for salubrious living:

weggie

Now let's cross the intersection, down Hill a bit...

afotherside

...turn to see that Olivet and Sinai have passed each other.  The Hill Crest and the Sunshine, of whom we've spoken quite a bit recently, gone, again, the CRA working down from Olive to Clay, the HillCrest lost in the autumn of 1961 and the Sunshine goes ca. 1965.  There's the McCoy House and St. Helena, although now the latter, known as My Hotel for some time, became the Vista Hotel between 1942 and '47 (and the actual full name of its corner booze boutique, despite what the neon read, was Royal Gold Liquors).  Vaguely visible looming behind in the mist, the Belmont.

The former front door of the Ferguson Café apparently a swell place to park your faded yellow jalopy.  In September of 1966.  Now, not so much.

nowwee

Hey, at least the light pole and fireplug are still there. 

Thanks to George Mann's son Brad Smith, and daughter-in-law Dianne Woods, for allowing us to reprint these copyrighted photographs and tell George's story. To see George's photos of theater marquees, visit http://www.flickr.com/photos/brad_smith

For a representative selection of photographs from his archive, or to license images for reproduction or other use, see http://www.akg-images.co.uk/_customer/london/mailout/1004/georgemann/

St. Helena/Vegetarian Café, USC Digital Archives; Ems & Casa Alta, personal collection 

Street Hierarchy: 

All the More Mann

Ahoy Hill hipster!  It’s been an exciting time here On Bunker Hill.  Through the grace of George Mann’s family, the other day Kim posted twenty-one images of BH in living doomed color.  One of those featured the Sunshine Apts. with the Hill Crest looming o’er; a few days later the esteemed Jim Dawson posted all about the Sunshine, including a new Mann image that showcased a year’s worth of growth where the Hill Crest once stood.  And now, for your edification and delectation, more.

bhtime

I begin my post as did Kim not with shots of Bunker Hill, but with a George Mann image nonetheless.  This is the Sentous Block, designed in 1886 by R. J. Reeve; the same year Reeve designed the U. S. Hotel and the Phillips Block.

Louis Sentous was one of the great French pioneers of Los Angeles who’d arrived penniless, panned for a little gold and became a successful cattle rancher, trading meat and dairy at the Plaza until he bought the nearby piece of property (bounded by Sunset, Spring, Main and Macy) that was to bear his name.

The Sentous Block is best known around noirsville as where Mike Hammer cruises over to the Jalisco Hotel in Kiss Me Deadly; it also contained the Bamba Club, which doubles as the Round-Up in Criss Cross.  (Both on the Spring St. side of the Sentous; our image shows the Main St. side.)  For more than you would ever want to know about this, go here (seems like contributor Beaudry needs a girlfriend or something).

Louis lasted until 1911; his building til 1957.  

Just goes to show.  Not everything ornate that was torn down in the last fifty years was on Bunker Hill.  You owe it to yourself to learn the names and faces of the Amestoy Block.  The Bath Block.  The Gollmer Block.  The Wilson Block.  The Stimson Building.  The Westminster Hotel.  The Martz Flats.  Ad nauseum.

But on to Bunker Hill!

Ah, the Astoria.

Astorian

Nothing says deep arcaded entry and red-tiled bell tower like “Astoria”.  Yes, one can not help but marvel at the incongruity of Bunker Hill naming systems.  I wrote earlier in OBH about the red-tiled onion domed Minnewaska, the fairly Franco-Renaissance Sherwood, and while it hasn’t been explored yet, the decisively Mission-styled 1904 Mission Apartments at Second and Olive spent much of its young life known as, of course, Castle Craig.

Astoria, the Greek word for quail, is also the part of Queens known for being full of Greeks.  That notwithstanding, at the time of its construction, Astoria connoted the Astoria, Queens that was then the “Hollywood of the East.”  Plus it had been named for John Jacob Astor.  All sorts of cachet.  Perhaps the developers thought that despite the arches and fauxdobe, the rather otherwise traditional use of the bay windows prevented naming the structure something vaguely Missiony like “Ramona Hotel” or “Portolà Apts.

In any event, of the Astoria much has been said

Next to the Astoria is the 1916 Blackstone Apartments, with the nice Beaux Arts garlands upon’t.  Not a whole lot happened there, an ex-cop caught violating the Wright Act, and there were some lady bootleggers; while the Widows Protective League Los Angeles Branch Council met at the Blackstone, a widow took poison and offed herself there the very same year (1929); and Ross Page, younger brother of the widely-known “Farmer” Page, was busted there by the vice squad while running two bridge games and a poker game in August of ‘25.

I will let Matt Weinstock of the Times do the talking for me:

That din emanating from Bunker Hill these days is the relentless pounding of the jackhammers tearing down the ancient Blackstone Apartments, 244 S Olive St., next door to the top of Angel’s Flight.

Until the demolition crew went to work on it, the Blackstone was nine stories high, counting the floors from the back entrance in the alley, which was kept locked.  However, if you entered on Olive St., as most people did, you were on the third floor, and from there it was only a six story building.  I learned this many years ago in visiting a departed colleague, J. Farrington Barrington Arrington, who lived there.

And so another quaint landmark passes and now, when I go into a building on what purports to be the main floor it will really be the main floor, not the third.  Progress marches on.

– July 2, 1964

The Sawyer Apts:

Sawyer

Not one of the gingerbreaded, parapeted wonders of the Hill.  So where was it?  327 South Hope, that’s where.  (God bless City Directories and old phone books.)  And bless George Mann for shooting something other than the Usual Suspects.  Sure, 327 is on The Map, but this is a color pic.  And yet…again, one always needs more; there’s something about placing oneself in the landscape.  So, comparing maps, and building outlines, and digging through photo archives…

…in this William Reagh photo, ca. 1955:

atHope

The tree in our color image is the tree dead center above, and the large building jutting out to the right of the frame (Richfield tower visible behind) from Hope and plunging down the hill toward Flower, that’s the Sawyer.

I want to stress again the wonder of finding the unexpected.  Mann shot what others did not.  After Angels Flight, arguably the most photographed structures on the Hill were the Castle and the Salt Box.  Which meant photographers turned their collective back on this:

SBH

We stand adjacent to a bit of spindlework at 333 South Bunker Hill, between, of course, the Salt Box behind our left shoulder and the Castle on the other side of 333.  Whitey there on the right with the dentils is 326 South Bunker Hill, but its real address is 325 South Grand, as this is the backside of the Kenneth Apts.  Its blue neighbor with the deep columned entry is 322/318; it had a non-conjoined counterpart of 319/323 at Grand and together they were known as the Alta Cresta.  Its beige neighbor to the north with the porch is 310 and there’s a small house behind it that’s either 306 or 302 South Bunker Hill.

And then the white house with the cross-gabled red roof, that’s 256 South Bunker Hill.  That one is extra cool because it’s where Liz the exotic dancer/modern painter/serial killer (Indus Arthur) lives in Angel’s Flight.  In fact, it’s not two minutes into the movie when Liz commits a murder right on the benches above the Third St. tunnel, and the landlady sticks her head out and screams!  To wit:

nosylandlady

And the big brick building behind that is the backend of the Alto Hotel, 253 S. Grand.

And last but not least…

Mystery House!

 

mysteryhaus

At least it’s a mystery to me.  It’s not within a gallon of Ethel of the DT, of that I’m pretty certain.  Mann shot all over, Point Loma, Catalina…so here’s this Victorian Exotic Revival that’s going for something Indo-Moorish, though what that is I can’t say – do you know?  There’s what appears to be a “701” on her stairs.  OBH readers are the best and the brightest:  whence came this sweetheart and whither did she go?

William Reagh photo courtesy California State Library Digital Archives

Thanks to George Mann's son Brad Smith, and daughter-in-law Dianne Woods, for allowing us to reprint these copyrighted photographs and tell George's story. To see George's photos of theater marquees, visit http://www.flickr.com/photos/brad_smith

For a representative selection of photographs from his archive, or to license images for reproduction or other use, see http://www.akg-images.co.uk/_customer/london/mailout/1004/georgemann/

Sunshine and Noir

The recent release of George Mann’s 50-year-old color photographs to this site is one of the most remarkable troves of Bunker Hill ephemera we’ve seen in decades. The accompanying photo, for instance, shows just how dilapidated the neighborhood around Angels Flight on

Third Street
had become by November 1962, when Mann made his final pilgrimage to the doomed neighborhood. The wrecking ball has already claimed the Hill Crest Hotel at the top of the hill on
Olive Street
, and the Astoria Hotel is a hulking shell of a firetrap just waiting for a match. Standing near the center of the photo is the Sunshine Apartments, looking empty and haunted, but who knows whether a few derelict souls are still inside, refusing to leave until the bulldozers come growling down the hillside?

Bunker Hill’s Sunshine Apartments at

421 West Third Street
has been gone now for over forty-five years, but it’s still one of the most familiar unknown houses in Los Angeles. Perched on a ten-feet-high retaining wall above a narrow alley called
Clay Street
, it sprawled halfway up a steep hill adjacent to a stairway, its only access, opposite Angels Flight. The Sunshine was the sort of multilevel dwelling that novelist John Fante described in Ask the Dust (1939): “It was built on a hillside in reverse, there on the crest of Bunker Hill, built against the decline of the hill, so that the main floor was on the level with the street but the tenth floor was downstairs ten levels.” The only difference is that the Sunshine was only four stories tall and its front, not its sides, conformed to
Third Street
’s slant, so that the first floor was only half as wide as the second floor.

 

Constructed on vacant property around 1905 to accommodate downtown Los Angeles’s growing need for cheap housing, the Sunshine looked like a huge clapboard farmhouse, with a stack of three unadorned verandas and a couple of Queen Anne touches around the front entrance, which was on the third floor. Midwestern migrants probably found the place comfortably familiar. Inside, a labyrinth of odd-angled hallways, step-downs and staircases connected the Sunshine’s many small apartments.

 

Though it made its film debut as one of Angels Flight’s neighbors in a 1920 comedy called All Jazzed Up, the Sunshine didn’t get its first close-up until 1932, when director James Whale cast it as the home of two downtown working girls (Mae Clark and Una Merkel) in The Impatient Maiden, his follow-up to Frankenstein. Because sound cameras in those days were large and unwieldy, he used a smaller silent camera to shoot the movie’s opening scene on the

Third Street
steps, as the actresses came out of the Sunshine Apartments and walked up the concrete steps to the Angels Flight station on
Olive Street
. (The dialogue and traffic sounds were dubbed in later.) Whale shot another scene on the front steps near
Clay Street
and in the rear of the apartments, where a second set of concrete stairs from Clay to Olive ran between the Sunshine and the much larger Astoria Hotel.

 

But what turned the Sunshine Apartments into a fairly steady (if nameless) character actor was film noir, the mostly post-World War II crime genre that, in its focus on documentary realism, introduced the use of smaller, combat-tested cameras and gritty urban locations to Hollywood cinema. And since—by the mid-1940s—Bunker Hill was a run-down neighborhood of crumbling Victorian mansions, rambling flophouses, and mean, vertiginous streets, it became the perfect setting for film noir’s fascination with the dark side of American prosperity. Despite the Sunshine Apartments’ sunny moniker and relative youth (less than fifty years old), it did a great job portraying a shabby boarding house for desperate and worn-down people.

 

In Paramount’s Night Has a Thousand Eyes (1948), the Sunshine offered low-rent anonymity to a con man (Edward G. Robinson) hiding from his past. Director John Farrow pointedly established its location with an amazing 180-degree shot—taken from Clay Street—that followed one of the Angels Flight cars up from Hill Street, and panned across the top of the hill to catch Robinson’s character hurrying down the concrete steps and up onto the third-floor porch and into the boarding house’s front door. Another shot showed John Lund and Gail Russell approaching the Sunshine’s wooden porch steps from below.

 

That same year, in Universal Pictures’ Criss Cross, director Robert Siodmak used the Sunshine as a rendezvous spot for criminals plotting an armored car robbery. Whereas the protagonists’ apartments in the earlier films were obviously studio creations, some of Criss Cross’s seedy flophouse interiors were shot on location. Granted, a couple of shots that showed either Burt Lancaster or Yvonne DeCarlo standing next to a bay window, with the Angels Flight trolleys moving in the background distance, were done on a sound stage. The footage of the incline railway cars passing each other above Clay Street was taken from the Sunshine (most likely from the third-floor porch, judging from the angle), but the building itself didn’t have any bay windows facing Angels Flight, so the scenes had to have been process shots. On the other hand, the maze of dingy hallways—whose atmosphere one character mockingly dismissed as “Picturesque, ain’t it?”—most likely belonged to the Sunshine Apartments.

 

In another Paramount film, Turning Point (1952), as crusading reporter William Holden and gal pal Alexis Smith ride up Angels Flight, the camera riding with them turns to look across to the Sunshine, where a witness is hiding. But when they walk down the steps from the funicular’s Olive Street station toward the house, they have to duck into a doorway of a nearby building to avoid several thugs standing guard on the Sunshine’s porch.

 

In the low-budget Angel’s Flight (1965), among the last of Bunker Hill’s noirs, Indus Arthur played a stripper and “Bunker Hill serial killer” avenging an early rape by slashing the throats of men who put the moves on her. The scene of that rape, we eventually discover, had been at her one-time home in the Sunshine Apartments.

 

The building also showed up briefly in Act of Violence (MGM, 1949), Joseph Losey’s M (Columbia, 1951), and the cheap Lon Chaney Jr. horror film The Indestructible Man (1956), among others. Documentary filmmaker Edmund Penney introduced his lyrical fifteen-minute film, Angel’s Flight Railway (shot in the early 1960s and again in 1969; released in 1997) by looking across

Third Street
through the ornate woodwork of the Sunshine’s doorway.

 

The Sunshine Apartments finally had its appointment with the bulldozer around 1965, after Los Angeles’s Community Redevelopment Agency had already torn down many of the other buildings around it. By the time the CRA carted away Angels Flight and the last two surviving houses on

Bunker Hill Avenue
four years later, the nearly century-old neighborhood of Bunker Hill had ceased to exist.

 

Yet today the Sunshine Apartments survives in old movies, in countless photo- and postcard-tableaux of Angels Flight, and as the most prominent background feature—painted green—in Millard Sheets’ vibrant 1931 oil painting, Angel’s Flight, which is not only one of the most famous works on permanent display at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, but also the logo of the OnBunkerHill.org website.

 

I welcome any further information you may have about the Sunshine Apartments, or any corrections to this blog entry. Even better, I’d love to hear from someone who actually lived or spent time there.

 

For more photos of the Sunshine Apartments, check out www.americanfilmnoir.com/page18.html and www.forum.skyscraperpage.com/showthread.php?p=4855115.

 

Thanks to George Mann's son Brad Smith, and daughter-in-law Dianne Woods, for allowing us to reprint his copyrighted photograph.

For a representative selection of photographs from his archive, or to license images for reproduction or other use, see http://www.akg-images.co.uk/_customer/london/mailout/1004/georgemann/

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