Category: Reviews

Reviews

The LA That Might Have Been

Sam Lubell and Greg Goldin, Never Built Los Angeles (Metropolis, 376pp, $55)

Never Built: Los Angeles, an exhibition at A + D Architecture and Design Museum, Los Angeles, July 28 – October 13, 2013.

Reviewed by Eve Bachrach

Never Built Los Angeles—based on the Architecture and Design Museum’s exhibit of the same name—is many books in one: art book, history, criticism, and choose your own adventure. The meat of the book is a collection of 100 or so unbuilt buildings, master plans, transportation projects, and parks proposed for LA over the past century, complete with drawings and descriptions. So many of the projects leave one with either eyes wide with wonder or head shaking in disbelief that flipping through the pages too quickly is liable to cause dizziness and discombobulation.

Greg Goldin and Sum Lubell curated the Never Built exhibition and wrote the essay and project blurbs here. The book allows us to imagine a thousand different what-could-have-been Los Angeles, and they deftly cover LA’s (admittedly brief) history of development in just a few engaging pages. Pritzker Prize-winning architect Thom Mayne, who is based in LA, writes in his introduction that the city’s reliance on private owners and donors to build so much of the city has enabled much of our important, if idiosyncratic, experimentation in building. But he indicts our failures in civic architecture and coherent planning. Goldin and Lubell agree that our civic architecture makes a pretty poor showing, and blame the city’s infrastructure and politics, weak central government, conservative developers, NIMBYish citizens, and some terrible ideas for many of the unbuilt proposals in the book. Where the city lacks the ability to muscle through grand municipal plans, private developers are too often interested only in how a project pencils out.

This diagnosis isn’t new, but it’s striking to see it made in the context of all these fabulous (in all senses of the word) projects. There’s Pierre Koenig’s unlikely design for a mosque in Hollywood funded by the Kuwaiti government, AC Martin’s helicopter buses from downtown’s Union Station to LAX, and Lloyd Wright’s Twentieth Century Metropolitan Catholic Cathedral—which could have been LA’s answer to Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. A proposal from John Lautner could have provided a new model for high-density living, if building it had been technologically possible. And thousands of miles of highways, train lines, and monorail could have either freed us from our cars or locked us in them forever.

The book is arranged by project type, not chronologically, so it can be difficult to see the march of time and trends throughout the proposals; Goldin and Lubell’s essay provides the necessary narrative. But taken cumulatively, the proposals here reveal a city brimming with ideas, but a city that still hasn’t figured out what it wants to be—horizontal or vertical, beautiful or functional.

The book and exhibit come at an interesting time. Los Angeles recently kicked off a five-year program to rewrite the city’s zoning code for the first time since 1946. The current code, which governs what buildings can be built where, is a 600-page doorstop full of confusing, unintelligible, and contradictory rules. While the new code will undoubtedly put rules in place that will reshape the kinds of neighborhoods we live and work in—will they be more walkable and more vertical, or preserve the urban-suburban character?—one of the chief goals of the code reform is to make it easier to build.

Just across the street from the A+D Museum, and the Never Built exhibit, is the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, site of an unbuilt 2001 project by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas which would have demolished much of the mishmash, mid-century (plus worse—mid-80’s) campus and replaced it with a single, unified design above a central plaza. Nervous donors killed the radical plan, but LACMA’s current director Michael Govan is now trying for a do over. This time he’s brought in Swiss architect Peter Zumthor, who has also proposed demolishing much of the existing museum campus in favor of a single structure, this time a free-form shape inspired by the adjacent La Brea Tar Pits. Time will tell if the proposal will transform Miracle Mile or kick off volume two of Never Built Los Angeles.

Images from Never Built Los Angeles top to bottom: SKY-Arc, Coop Himmelb(l)au, 2005; Santa Monica Offshore Freeway, John Drescher and Moffat and Nichol,1965; Hollywood Mosque, Pierre Koenig, 1963; Los Angeles Civic Center, Frank Lloyd Wright, 1925.

Reviews

The World in the Curl

Peter Westwick and Peter Neushul, The World in the Curl: An Unconventional History of Surfing (Crown Publishers, 416pp, $26)

Reviewed by Sara V. Torres

Surfers will be stoked to read The World in the Curl: An Unconventional History of Surfing—as will anyone who has, at some point, felt the allure of the sport, if only from the shore. The authors, both surfers and professors of history in southern California, offer a wide-ranging study of the sport, which “shows how surfing, at every point in its history, reflected—and shaped—the world around it.”

The story they tell is ambitious and compelling: a narrative of world history recounted through the lens of surfing’s own evolution. The authors capture the inherent paradoxes of the sport: the tensions between its global appeal and fierce history of localism, between its iconic image as a “natural” pursuit and its institutional history of environmental apathy (or worse, exploitation), and between its cultivated image as a nonconformist counterculture and its perennial trendsetting status in mainstream marketing. The World in the Curl challenges its readers to appreciate the fine points of the sport’s development at the same time that it holds a mirror up to its seedy and even violent historical moments and its deeply-suspect history (in Western manifestations of the sport) of ingrained racism and sexism.

The book is at its best when it conveys the voices of those individuals whose stories intersect with that of the sport itself as they pioneered its growth and development. Some of the most compelling of these voices emerge from the margins of the narrative, and none more so than those of women surfers who faced obstacles more daunting than the crest of a high wave for a place of their own in the lineup. In its final chapters, the story moves deeper and deeper into the postwar twentieth century, becoming dense with the details of military technology and chemical manufacturing, until it is entirely drawn into the whirlpool vortex of contemporary corporate culture. As climate change continues to affect our oceans’ coastlines, the intertwined histories of surfing, environmentalism, and social change, which the authors so deftly tease apart in their early chapters, will only become more powerfully important in the future of the sport.

Postcard courtesy of Boston Public Library.

Reviews

Arts for the City


San Francisco: Arts for the City: Civic Art and Urban Change, 1932–2012, by Susan Wels (Heyday; 224 pages; $45)

Reviewed by Annie Powers

Murals, mosaics, sculptures, and street art— Susan Wels’ San Francisco: Arts for the City: Civic Art and Urban Change, 1932–2012 has it all. Lushly illustrated and deeply researched, Wels gives readers the story of the San Francisco Arts Commission from its creation in 1932 up to the present day. The commission was initially formed to to help put San Francisco on the map as a world-class city—to compete with (and maybe become a a little bit similar to?) the SoCal cultural capital, Los Angeles.

Wels then delves into a more familiar story about the city’s art scene, when, after World War II, San Francisco became a space for a racially, economically, and politically diverse movement to emerge and produce art that pushed the boundaries of mainstream western art. This movement continued into the 1970s and ’80s, Wels argues, but was taken out of concert halls and museums and into the streets, inspiring communities and neighborhoods to engage with art. Although an economic downturn that lasted until the early 1990s made it difficult to get funding and created restructuring, by the mid-1990s, arts were flourishing again and moving to new spaces—both in the city and online.

In many ways, Wels’ work is a history of an institution: the San Francisco Arts Commission and the way that it allowed artists to use public funds to push the boundaries of art. But what comes through best are the personalities of the artists that populate the pages, through their words, their lives, and, most importantly, their artwork. Arts for the City contains an enormous number of stunning photographs of paintings, murals, architecture, performance art, infrastructure, sculpture, mosaics, and much more. Readers interested in art in city spaces shouldn’t miss the stories Wels tells and the urban artworks she shows us.

Annie Powers is an assistant editor at Boom and a graduate student in history at UCLA. Images from Arts for the City courtesy of Heyday.

Author Event: “SF Art: Past and Present,”  Thursday, July 25, 2013, 6:00 PM, Mechanics’ Institute Library  57 Post Street, San Francisco. Susan Wels, author of San Francisco: Arts for the City, will give a history of the San Francisco Arts Commission. Tom DeCaigny, San Francisco Arts Commission Director of Cultural Affairs, will talk about current and future projects. 

Reviews

Down by the Bay


Down by the Bay: San Francisco’s History Between the Tides, by Matthew Morse Booker (UC Press; 278 pages; $29.95)

Reviewed by Jonah Raskin

Cartographers and historians have long mapped the vast body of water inside the Golden Gate that enabled San Francisco to become a major port connecting California to the world. However, few authors have looked as closely as Matthew Morse Booker looks, in “Down by the Bay,” at the fascinating frontier where land meets sea. Moreover, no one has demonstrated as clearly as he the operation of the law of unintended consequences in our own backwaters and backyards.

For example, Booker shows that the planting of Atlantic oysters in San Francisco Bay altered the bay’s ecology. He also argues convincingly that hydraulic mining for gold in the Sierras sent millions of tons of soil and rock rushing down streams and rivers, such as the Sacramento and San Joaquin, then into the bay, where habitat never recovered.

Booker is certainly familiar with his subject. An associate professor of history at North Carolina State University, he also leads the Between the Tides project at Stanford’s Spatial History Lab.

From beginning to end, his colorful yet unsentimental history delivers a dire message: For almost every action that humans have taken in and around the bay, there have been equal and opposite reactions, usually detrimental to fish, fowl and the fecundity of the environment. “What seemed like good ideas in the nineteenth century created a cascade of consequences in the twentieth century and impossible choices in the twenty-first,” the author writes in a chapter titled “Reclaiming the Delta.”

Dredged and polluted, its shape and depths altered by the hands of men and machines, the bay has shrunk in size while streets, sidewalks and malls have spread. Commuters who cross by bridges and ferries take our greatest treasure for granted, the author suggests, and rarely realize that it’s a construct of both nature and human beings. With ocean levels rising rapidly, time may be running out, Booker warns, for communities that crowd our damaged waterways.

By focusing on the waterfront and on the tidelands, marshes and swamps, Booker gives the city a fresh face; the familiar becomes strange and wonderful. Early on, he traces the demise of sleepy Yerba Buena, a distant outpost of Mexico, and conjures up the rise of raucous San Francisco as the commercial heart of an empire within an empire. Booker allows facts and stories to speak for themselves.

In 1835, he explains, President Andrew Jackson tried to buy the port from Mexico for $5 million. Two decades later, when California was part of the United States, the banker, William Tecumseh Sherman – who would lead Union troops through Georgia – noted of San Francisco, “Everybody seemed to be making money fast.”

Not everyone – as Booker shows. Chinese laborers dredged rivers, constructed levees and carved farmlands from swamps. They didn’t make money fast. The land speculator George Roberts, who hired 3,000 Chinese men to build his levees, observed, “I do not think we could get the white men to do the work. It is a class of work that white men do not like.”

Perhaps because he’s an academic with an eye on learning, Booker sums up his main points as though getting students ready for finals. Then, too, prejudices occasionally interfere with his story. “The symbol of the West,” he writes, is “the pile of tin cans in front of a shanty or the extravagant imported items on the menu of a gold rush restaurant.” Surely, the West is also the majesty of the Golden Gate Bridge, Golden Gate Park, the Golden Gate itself and the San Francisco Wildlife Refuge that Booker touts as a “precious island of waterfowl habitat in the midst of one of the world’s great urban areas.” Indeed, in the superlative and inspiring penultimate chapter, he recounts the dramatic rise of the ecology movement that helped save the bay for future generations.

For those who remember legendary Chronicle reporter Harold Gilliam and his outstanding books about San Francisco and its waters, “Down by the Bay” is a genuine pearl in the sea of contemporary environmental writing.

Jonah Raskin writes regularly for Boom. He last reviewed two new books on the artist Richard Diebenkorn. This review of “Down by the Bay” originally appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle. Photo of oyster beds in the San Francisco Bay in 1889 courtesy of National Archives.

Reviews

A Moment for Diebenkorn

Richard Diebenkorn, From the Model, 117 pages, edited by Chester Arnold and Bart Schneider, and Abstractions on Paper, 123 pages, edited by Schneider. Kelly’s Cove Press, $20.

Reviewed by Jonah Raskin

Richard Diebenkorn (1922-1993) achieved success as an artist in his own lifetime, but 20 years after his death, a big Diebenkorn moment has finally arrived with two major exhibits of his work and two new, lavishly produced books published by Kelly’s Cove Press that highlight his diverse styles and showcase his irreverent philosophy of art. Novelist, poet and publisher Bart Schneider edited both books with help from the acclaimed painter Chester Arnold, who’s known for his wry sense of humor and grim landscapes of environmental disaster. The quality of the color reproductions is excellent, though the size of the books — 6 inches by 8 inches —don’t do justice to the size of Diebenkorn’s canvases, some as large as 121 inches by 93 inches. Still, there are pleasures in holding these two small, elegant books in the palms of one’s hands and viewing work that has never been previously published or exhibited.

Abstractions on Paper includes two-dozen works that Diebenkorn did in Ocean Park, California, from 1967 to 1988, when he taught much of that time at UCLA. The lavish colors and the sharp lines are spectacular. Abstractions on Paper also offers work that Diebenkorn created in Albuquerque, Urbana, Berkeley and Alexander Valley, California, where he died in 1993. Like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, his literary contemporaries, Diebenkorn made art almost any place and at almost any time, albeit with less bravado than the self-dramatizing Beats.

“Diebenkorn was an artist of quiet generosity and enormous creative energy, both visible at every level of his work,” Chester Arnold writes in an inviting introduction to From the Model that is both personal and historical. Arnold adds, “The charged artistic environment of the Bay Area in the 1940s and 1950s, combined in a creative nexus that stood in opposition to the prevailing Abstract Expressionist winds from the East.” A cultural throwback and a pioneer as well, Diebenkorn looked anew at familiar California landscapes. The most abstract of his paintings often suggest colorful cityscapes and urban forms. The human touch isn’t ever far removed, even when it’s only hinted; his canvases feel more peaceful and less frenetic than Jackson Pollack’s.

The front cover of From the Model offers an ink and gouache sketch of a seated woman, arms folded, eyes looking straight ahead. Inside there are three stark portraits of women, followed by two-dozen intriguing nudes most of them either ink or charcoal on paper, many of them strikingly original — not an easy feat. Erotic, sensual, and perhaps pornographic by the standards of 1955 and 1956, when many of them were completed, they seem now like tributes to the grace of the female form, though they might be deemed obscene today in communities that still outlaw nudes and nudity.

In the color portraits of women fully dressed, which follow the nudes, Diebenkorn pays homage to Henri Matisse, the modern French painter, friend and rival of Picasso who covered his canvases with the brightest of Mediterranean colors. In the 1960s, Diebenkorn studied Matisse’s work, first in Moscow and later in Los Angeles. The influence of Matisse shows up in the “Ocean Park” series that helped to revolutionize American landscape painting and that still captivate the eye.

Publication of Abstractions on Paper and From the Model coincides with “Richard Diebenkorn: The Berkeley Years, 1953-1966,” an exhibition at the de Young Museum in San Francisco from June 22 through September 29, 2013, which has its own sumptuous catalog. Another exhibition, “The Intimate Diebenkorn: Works on Paper, 1949-1992,” opens at the College of Marin on September 28 and runs through November 14, 2013. And Bart Schneider will be in conversation with Chester Arnold and Peter Selz on July 10 at University Press Books in Berkeley.

The books and the exhibits offer a rare opportunity to reexamine the creative life and the experimental work of a California artist who showed that there were many ways to be an innovative abstract expressionist, and that one could live and work far from New York and still make breathtakingly beautiful paintings that invigorate forms and feelings.

Jonah Raskin’s “Homage to Raymond Chandler” was published in the Winter 2013 issue of Boom.

Photographs courtesy of the Richard Diebenkorn Foundation. “Untitled,” 1978, Cut-and-pasted paper, manufactured colored paper, printed paper, gouache, and graphite on paper, 13 1/4 x 9 1/4 in. (33.7 x 23.5 cm), Estate no. 1604.

Reviews

Boom Time?

“The best academics and smartest journalists should be natural allies in the effort to bring new ideas to the public square,” writes John Mecklin in the Columbia Journalism Review. And “Boom has made a nice start toward fostering such an alliance.” Boom is an example of a promising new model in the growing nonprofit publishing ecosystem, Mecklin writes in a wide ranging article that recounts the origins and history of the journal, probes its business model, and examines the visions of editor Jon Christensen and University of California Press publisher Kim Robinson for the quarterly journal.

Boom was conceived as an interdisciplinary ‘scholarly magazine’ that would translate the best ideas of academics in the UC system, making them accessible to the general public,” Mecklin writes. “Boom includes journalists and photographers among its contributors because it is consciously ‘not just another academic journal,’ Robinson says. ‘It is this hybrid, but it’s still an experiment.’

Boom started as a way for researchers to converse with the public about California studies,” Mecklin writes. “But, Christensen says, he hopes to expand the magazine’s reach, so it speaks to people outside the state as well, addressing the idea of ‘California in the world.’ He also hopes the journal can help break down, if not do away with, the mutual suspicion—some might say disdain—that often characterizes the relationship between academics and journalists.”

To read more of Mecklin’s insightful look at Boom, visit the Columbia Journalism Review.

Reviews

Songs in the Key of L.A.

Songs in the Key of Los Angeles, by Josh Kun (Angel City Press)

Last year the L.A. band Best Coast appropriated an image from “I Love You California,” a song published in 1913, for their album “The Only Place.” A grizzly bear stands on its hind legs warmly cuddling the state on the cover of Best Coast’s CD as well as the sheet music published a century ago. History doesn’t repeat, it turns out, but it does rhyme. Best Coast’s song “The Only Place” is a catchy burst of boosterism worthy of joining the great catalog of music that has been asking essentially the same question — “Why would you live anywhere else?” — for a very long time.

Josh Kun — an editorial board member and contributor here at Boom — has mined the sheet music collection of the Los Angeles Public Library for a multiplatform project called “Songs in the Key of Los Angeles” that explores this musical love affair. One product of the project is this lavish book featuring colorful evocative covers of dozens of songs spanning just over a century from 1849 to 1959. Six songs are featured in their entirety, including lyrics and musical notation.

But it is not the music that grabs you here. The covers steal the show. Kun writes that images of southern California on sheet music covers are “nearly indistinguishable” from historical images found on orange crates, tourism pamphlets published by the Southern Pacific railroad, and the brochures of real estate boosters. The product for sale on sheet music covers was not just a song, but Los Angeles itself, Kun writes, a product made up “of Mission myths, Spanish romance, endless orange groves, and the promise of a healing Mediterranean climate.” Oranges abound, of course, along with flowers, beaches, cozy cottages, lots of sun, and, naturally, plenty of pretty girls. “Summer ever lingers on the air” in one song — “Glorious Southern California” — from 1907. “This is now the only place for me,” the song says. Was Best Coast listening? “This is the only place for me,” they sing more than a century later.

Despite the vivacious art of the sheet music covers, however, the songs in this book seem sadly inert simply sitting on the page in an age when we mostly consume music directly through our ears, often without any text or artwork at all, the album cover having now become a historical artifact, like the sheet music cover before it, with CD covers likely to suffer the same fate. What do these “Songs in the Key of Los Angeles” sound like, then? With the help of arrangers such as Van Dyke Parks, who has an essay in this book too, Kun will be bringing some of these songs to life in a series of events this summer in Los Angeles, including a concert July 18 with the band Quetzal at the Mark Taper Auditorium at the Central Library, and a free concert with the band Ozomatli in Grand Park on August 2. Tune in to Kun’s Tumblr blog — http://songsinthekeyofla.com/ — for news of other events and regular postings of additional archival musical finds from the Los Angeles Public Library’s sheet music collection and elsewhere.

Jon Christensen

Reviews

What We Are Reading

Birds of Paradise Lost, by Andrew Lam (Red Hen Press)

These short stories by Vietnamese-American essayist Andrew Lam open doors on unexpectedly intimate scenes, moving stories, told in surprising voices. In his nonfiction, Lam has plumbed the depths of his own experience as a refugee who came to the United States as a young boy and grew up gay in San Jose’s conservative Vietnamese émigré community. He has used his own hard-won insights to write widely and wisely about immigration, culture, politics, identity and so much more. His own voice is a true gift to California and the world. Here he brings to life other Vietnamese-American voices, their Californias, their worlds. Lam’s fiction weaves the pitch-perfect perceptiveness of his nonfiction, with slightly cracked characters all the more believable for their idiosyncrasies, and a touch of magical realism that may or may not be the result of living fully, simultaneously between worlds, with the past ever present.

Jon Christensen

Reviews

The Invasion of Echo Park

by Hsuan L. Hsu

From Boom Fall 2012, Vol. 2, No. 3

LA rocks on

The Madonnas of Echo Park by Brando Skyhorse, Free Press, 224 pages

In late 2011, the Occupy movement quickly became one of the most visible and viable means of sheltering and sustaining people who have been displaced by the unemployment, foreclosures, and evictions resulting from offshoring and rampant financial speculation. Violent police raids on Occupy encampments throughout the country bear witness to how difficult and vital it is for disempowered groups to access and lay claim to living space in US cities. Brando Skyhorse’s first book of fiction, The Madonnas of Echo Park, covers two historical moments that underlie contemporary struggles over public space in and beyond Los Angeles: the withdrawal of jobs, tax revenue, and services from the inner city caused by suburbanization and “white flight” in the decades following World War II, and the return of real estate speculation and middle-class residents to urban centers in recent decades. In addition to dramatizing the lives of characters caught between languages and cultures, Madonnas is a story about how gentrification affects the Mexican/Mexican American community in the transitional neighborhood of Echo Park.

First developed by real estate investor Thomas Kelly in the 1880s, Echo Park (then called “Edendale”) was a center of the LA film industry during the silent era and a middle-class neighborhood in the early twentieth century. As many middle-class white residents relocated to the suburbs after World War II, Mexican Americans moved into the area’s affordable homes, becoming Echo Park’s majority, along with smaller populations of Chinese, Filipino, and Southeast Asian immigrants. Brando Skyhorse has an unusual relationship to the neighborhood’s ethnic and cultural diversity: abandoned by his Mexican father when he was three-years-old, he grew up believing he was the son of his mother’s Native American boyfriend, a man named Paul Skyhorse Johnson. In interviews, the author explains that even after learning of his true genealogy in his early teens he continued to hide his Mexican identity because his mother, who was Mexican, was passing as a Native American (he did not publicize his Mexican identity until after his mother’s death in 1998). Drawing on this personal history of “passing,” Skyhorse’s novel offers an engaging meditation on displacement and its effects on a complex cast of characters.


The Great Wall of Los Angeles by Judy Baca and SPARC (Social and Public Art Resource Center) commemorate Chavez Ravine and the division of the barrios with freeways. PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF THE CITY PROJECT.

An author’s note establishes the connection between the author and his characters by narrating Skyhorse’s own (possibly fictionalized) encounter with a girl named Aurora Esperanza at a grade-school dance. When Aurora asks him to dance to the tune of Madonna’s “Borderline,” the young protagonist refuses, saying “You’re a Mexican,” and Aurora leaves the school in shame. In the stories that follow, Skyhorse attempts to make restitution for that moment of unwitting self-rejection by creating a diverse group of nine Mexican American narrators, each of them facing identity crises associated with the challenges of assimilation: middle-class jobs, learning English, college educations, stereotypes in Hollywood films, cross-racial dating, and the messages of popular singers like Madonna, Gwen Stefani, and Morrissey.

The identity confusion featured throughout The Madonnas of Echo Park is complicated by the fact that there is no “authentic” culture or neighborhood to which these characters can return. Skyhorse exposes the fantasy of an authentic Latino ‘hood by repeatedly referencing the video for Madonna’s “Borderline”:

… Madonna, dressed as a classic “Low Rider” chola in a forties-style hair bonnet, white wife-beater, long drape coat, and baggy pants that came up past her waist, had been kicked out of her gringo photographer boyfriend’s fancy loft for spray-painting a streak on his sports car. Out on “her” streets again, Madonna walks past El Guanaco and is welcomed into the arms of her cholas hanging outside, who realize she has not abandoned her chicas or her ‘hood. They walk into the Mercado, and after a selection at the jukebox, Madonna dances into the arms of her former boyfriend, a young Mexican guy who has pined for her throughout the video and represents the Mexican roots, the Mexican life she cannot turn her back on (p. 47).

The idea of “genuine Mexican roots,” it seems, can be co-opted by white artists (and in this case an Italian-American pop star) who identify ethnic minorities with exotic neighborhood cultures and then commodify those cultures. But when Mexican characters look to Madonna to teach them about the appeal of Echo Park’s street culture and the importance of roots, the notion of a pure ethnic identity seems naïve. Instead, the novel’s central scene—which ties together most of its ensemble cast—features Aurora and several other girls dressed up as Madonna (that is, as Madonna disguised as a chola) dancing to the tune of “Borderline” in front of El Guanaco market, where the street scenes of the video were actually shot. In the world of music videos and their fans, there seems to be no borderline between Echo Park and Hollywood, Mexican and gringo, a rock star and neighborhood girls dressing up as the “Madonnas” of Echo Park because their parents cannot afford other forms of entertainment. But on a more material level, Skyhorse frequently stresses the effects of neighborhoods and national borders: one of the girls dancing in front of the market is killed by a stray bullet; Aurora’s father is deported at the end of the first chapter; and a city bus driver, though acutely sensitive to the racial dynamics of the different neighborhoods traversed by his route, is pushed to extremes.

All of this makes The Madonnas of Echo Park a strange instance of the LA ensemble narrative—a genre of fiction that fantasizes about personal encounters that counteract the isolation of sprawl and suburbanization. In the films Grand Canyon (1991), Short Cuts (1993), Magnolia (1999), and Crash (2004), and in novels such as T.C. Boyle’s The Tortilla Curtain (1995) and Karen Tei Yamashita’s Tropic of Orange (1997), characters from different racial and ethnic groups encounter one another despite the fact that the layout of LA and its suburbs and its history of “white flight” have substantively minimized such encounters. In the wake of the 1992 LA uprising, these stories often feature interpersonal meetings that cross boundaries and heal racial fissures: random encounters and car crashes teach characters that everyone is connected.

With its cast of nine first-person narrators who cross paths in the neighborhood of Echo Park, The Madonnas of Echo Park certainly reads like an ensemble narrative—but it refuses to close with an upbeat lesson about interconnectedness. Instead of assembling characters through significant coincidences, Madonnas shows how the characters, most of whom are Mexican American and many of whom are related by blood, become so disconnected that they can continually miss opportunities to recognize and communicate with one another. In the novel’s climactic scene, Aurora encounters her estranged father, her half-sister, her mother, her grand-uncle, and her estranged grandmother at the annual Lotus Festival without recognizing (or being recognized by) any of them.

By organizing his book around moments where subplots and characters’ lives intersect without the characters being aware of their mutual connections, Skyhorse evokes the social and emotional distances intervening among broken families, provisional erotic relationships, and an increasingly scattered community struggling to maintain a cultural foothold in the gentrifying neighborhoods of Echo Park.

Madonnas traces the attrition of cultural identity and community ties to the actual eviction of Mexican American families from affordable housing in Chavez Ravine in 1959. Aurora explains that “My first name comes from the last woman evicted from the ground that would become Dodger Stadium” (p. 150). Skyhorse bases the character of Aurora’s great-grandmother, Aurora Salazar, on Aurora Vargas, whose forcible eviction from Chavez Ravine is the subject of several iconic photographs (she was fined and jailed for disobeying the eviction order). Growing up in the aftermath of LA urban planners’ assault on black and brown neighborhoods, the younger Aurora has no direct knowledge of the dirt trails and rustic hillside community of Chavez Ravine. She says, “I didn’t know those hills; I didn’t know that woman. What I knew were tunneled-out highways that unfurled like streamers tossed off a balcony from atop Dodger Stadium and endless days of riding my bicycle through its saucer-tiered parking lots, flat and featureless …” (p. 152). In documenting the aftereffects of the evictions at Chavez Ravine and the division of the barrios by freeway construction, Madonnas extends the explorations of recent works such as Helena Maria Viramontes’s Their Dogs Came with Them, Heather Woodbury’s Tale of 2Cities, and historian Eric Avila’s Popular Culture in the Age of White Flight.

Most of Skyhorse’s book is set in the present, as gentrification gradually extends the earlier displacements epitomized by Chavez Ravine. As an anonymous flier titled “GENTRIFICATION” posted in an Echo Park laundromat explains, “People that grew up in echo park, had family and friends here, were forced out of there [sic] homes to welcome the new european invader. The Christopher and Christina Columbus of our time … The HIPSTER …” While boutiques, cafés, and other evidence of gentrification appear with gradually increasing frequency throughout the book, the chapter entitled “The Hustler” takes the measure of urban renewal by depicting a convict’s disoriented return to Echo Park after nearly twelve years in prison:

“Angustian Family Evicted from Home in Chavez Ravine, Los Angeles.” Los Angeles Times (May 9, 1959).COURTESY OF UCLA, SPECIAL COLLECTIONS, CHARLES E. YOUNG RESEARCH LIBRARY

On the starting tip of Sunset Boulevard (which is now called César Chavez Avenue—when did that happen?) I survey my territory—the new apartment buildings and stores, the fresh coats of paint on the doors and window frames on abandoned shops, new storefront signs in English covering the old sun-bleached Spanish ones[,] the odd presence of young bearded white men with coffee, not six-packs, on the street corners. Where are the Chicanos? Or the Chinos? (p. 113)

Freddy finds that a “white woman with short black hair and a tight T-shirt that somehow makes her look like a man” has moved into his lover’s home; notices a house being renovated “by some Mexican day-laborers”; is surprised to see graffiti in English in his ‘hood; and finally settles down to hustle a sucker at pool table. His mark—“a white guy in his thirties with thick Buddy Holly-style glasses, a short-sleeve shirt that changes color depending on what angle I look at it from, baggy black pants with a chain dangling from his right pocket, and spotless black ‘work’ shoes”(p. 120)—seems like a naïve hipster. But after Freddy wins some money and attempts a different hustle, the white man beats him up and takes his cash.

Overall, Madonnas does not take a one-sided stance against either cultural assimilation or gentrification. Aurora, too, feels disoriented upon returning to the neighborhood, “as if an antimatter explosion had detonated high above Echo Park, reconstructing decay into a glittering faux affluence, a Willy Wonka neutron bomb coating the landscape in radioactive smiley face yellows and Wellbutrin blues.” But she does not flee from the new condos, cafés, and boutiques although. she admits she feels lost, she concludes, “I guess it’s good for the neighborhood” (p. 189). After accidentally—and to her, miraculously—running into the singer Morrissey (who once said “I wish I was born Mexican”) at the Lotus Festival, Aurora decides to cast her lot with Echo Park. Popular culture and gentrification may have dislocated the cohesive Mexican American community, but Aurora believes it to be “a land rich with roots that grow, thrive, burn, are razed, heal, then grow again, deeper and stronger than before.” Only the reader knows—from assembling the threads of other chapters—that she has just walked past several family members without knowing it, and that her father is in the process of being deported at the very moment she thinks “This is the land we dream of, the land that belongs to us again” (p. 199). With such ironic dissonances filling the gaps between its chapters, The Madonnas of Echo Park records the promise of new forms of belonging as well as the loss that attends the violent uprooting of the old.

Reviews

Honey Pies and Aquadettes

by Malia Wollan

From Boom Summer 2012, Vol. 2, No. 2

Stories that stretch forever

California is a place in which a boom mentality and a sense of Chekhovian loss meet in uneasy suspension; in which the mind is troubled by some buried but ineradicable suspicion that things had better work here, because here, beneath that immense bleached sky, is where we run out of continent.
—Joan Didion, Slouching Towards Bethlehem

Skateboarders in Fresno ride the drained-out insides of foreclosed swimming pools. Silicon Valley tech nerds join fight clubs to punch each other, bare-knuckled, in suburban garages. A man in San Marcos, some thirty-five miles north of San Diego, sculpts made-to-order, anatomically correct, life-sized plastic dolls. A mariachi musician in East Los Angeles polishes his trumpet and says wistfully, “Mexican music is like a fever.”

Photograph courtesy of Zackary Canepari

These are just some of the haunting video portraits in a series of web videos by filmmakers Drea (pronounced Dray) Cooper and Zackary Canepari. The growing collection of three- to ten-minute video vignettes is called California Is a Place. The project has attracted more than three million viewers since the first videos went online in early 2010. Widely distributed across the Internet, the videos have won awards and been featured on news sites including PBS’s NewsHour, the New York Times, The Atlantic, and the Los Angeles Times. “People are craving honest stories,” Cooper says. “They want stories that are unmitigated by the television structure of dramatic moments.”

One of their films, the ten-minute long “Aquadettes,” was chosen for the Short Film program at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. Set in a southern California retirement community called Leisure World, “Aquadettes” tells the story of 76-year-old former nurse Margo Bauer, who takes up medical marijuana to ease the nausea of multiple sclerosis, enabling her to continue with her synchronized swimming team. “This year is the first year I’ve been aware of my disease in the water,” Bauer says. And while her voice contains the aches of age and illness, the camera captures a gaggle of tan, elderly ladies in ornate swim caps turning graceful flips in chlorine-blue water.

Photograph courtesy of Zackary Canepari

California is not an easy place to conjure up. The country’s most populous state is home to over thirty-seven million people. It is a tangle of every kind of person and every imaginable aspiration—a mash-up of poverty, opulence, beachside mansions, suburban sprawl, technology, farming, ocean, deserts, the broken-down, and the over-built. While California Is a Place is no summation of California as a place, the videos do evoke something elemental about the stories and obsessions that play out on this particular hunk of land.

Cooper, 34, and Canepari, 33, met in 2005 on a shoot for a Sega video game commercial in San Francisco. They were production assistants armed with walkie-talkies who became friends. They shared a visual aesthetic and for years talked about making “something” together. Four years later California Is a Place started to take shape. “We had this idea that we wanted to do short things, but what were those short things?” says Cooper. “At first we thought they would be about America. Then we thought they’d be about the West. Then we were like, ‘No this is about California.’”

Canepari, who had been freelancing as a photographer in India, moved back to California in 2009. Cooper quit his job teaching multimedia skills to high school students in San Francisco’s Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood. He had just completed a master’s degree in film at San Francisco State University.

That June, the duo set off carrying Canon 5D cameras capable of shooting high-definition video. They filmed four stories over three summer months. “The great thing about documenting the state you live in is that nothing is that far away,” says Canepari.

Photograph courtesy of Zackary Canepari

Their first piece, “Cannonball,” took them to Fresno, where they the hopped fences of foreclosed homes to film skateboarders bent on draining backyard pools to ride their smooth, concave surfaces. Sometimes the pair go into a story already knowing who their central characters will be, but for other films they just go somewhere and trust that they will find someone with a tale to tell.

For “Borderland,” which was shot along the California-Mexico border, they knew their geography but didn’t yet have a central subject, so they gave themselves a few days to hang around filming different people until the right ones emerged to tell the story of illegal border crossings, volunteer militias, and drug smuggling.

Finding their film subjects is part luck and part a keen ability to filter through news, overheard conversations, and images for tidbits of information that lend themselves to moving pictures. “We’ve got similar tastes,” says Canepari. “We’re always passing along different things to each other that might work within our palette.”

Photograph courtesy of Zackary Canepari

Cooper spotted the used-car-salesman character from their film “Big Vinny” driving around Alameda, his childhood home. They found their synchronized swimmer, Margo Bauer, mentioned in a small, online news story. Even before they met her, they could visualize underwater shots of aging bodies, lithe legs, and pointed toes. “At the end of the day, this is a visual medium,” Cooper says. “What we make needs to look beautiful.”

Cooper (who lives in Oakland) and Canepari (who calls Los Angeles home) research, shoot, and edit the videos on their own dime and in their extra time. While that independence is sometimes a challenge financially, it also allows them to make the films they want to make, to maintain complete control over aesthetics and content, and to capture their California the way they see and experience it.

On occasion, the two get caught up in the visual potential of something only to find there is nothing in it to make a story. They spent a few days filming a women’s roller derby team in Santa Rosa and toyed with the idea of following some Berkeley unicyclists. But the stories felt flat—full of motion but lacking narrative tension—and so they moved on.

Within days of uploading their first stories to the video-sharing site Vimeo in early 2010, thousands of people were watching and sharing them. “All of a sudden it was like, ‘Oh, there is a real community online where people want to watch interesting stuff and not just another freakin’ cat video,’” Cooper says.

Although they are not paid for the videos, the viral success of California Is a Place has won them commercial work. Just like individual viewers, companies are drawn to Cooper and Canepari’s brand of visceral, visual storytelling. The two now make commercials for major corporate clients such as Toyota and Ray-Ban. “We do the commercial work in order to fund the personal work,” Canepari says.

Photograph courtesy of Zackary Canepari

Shot with professional actors, studio lights, and big budgets, their commercial work contains residues of the filmmakers’ core aesthetic—a flicker of blown-out sky, a shallow depth of field, a camera mounted on a bicycle, fading light through dry grass, a sense of place.

Thus far, California Is a Place is comprised of nine videos, but the duo has a long list of possible Golden State stories and issues they want to explore including Indian gaming, water, the agriculturally rich Central Valley, and subcultures like gangs and the cultish fans of the hip-hop duo Insane Clown Posse. Following their participation in Sundance, they are considering expanding “Aquadettes” into a feature-length documentary.

Someday Canepari and Cooper want to take their cameras across state lines and film stories elsewhere—an “America Is a Place.” They talk about maybe moving east from here, finding a handful of stories to tell in each state, a kind of documentary road trip. But that would require time and funding. For now they are keeping to this stretch of land between the Siskiyou Mountains and the Tijuana River Estuary, from Bishop to Cape Mendocino. “The state is endless,” says Cooper, “and there are stories forever.”