Monday, August 31, 2009

Treasures revealed

Sometimes you stumble onto something all unawares. In May I posted some pictures of signs for Carmi's Thematic Photographic. They were a set of art deco bronze letters, signs, embedded in the concrete sidewalk at the entrance to a parking garage on 6th Street in downtown Los Angeles.

The letters are beautiful, but mysterious. The building at 610 S. Broadway housing the garage, the landmark W. P. Story building, had been built in 1908 - far earlier than the development of Art Deco style. The opening to the garage today is unadorned, drab, dark, and boring, disguised by a dirty canvas awning.

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Yet there are these stylish letters, right beneath our feet. How did they come to be?

Today I was browsing around on one of my favorite online digital photo sites, the Library of Congress Print and Photograph Collection. And in the Historic American Building Survey collection, I happened upon these photos.

A project of the Department of the Interior, the Historic American Building Survey's purpose is to record significant historic structures. In many cases, the photographers got there just before the structures were destroyed. This collection is fascinating and heartbreaking to browse, if you love old buildings.

But sometimes, you find treasure. In 1934, the W. P. Story building was remodeled to include a parking garage. The designer was the architectural firm Morgan, Walls and Clements, designers of other iconic Los Angeles examples of Art Deco.

And it was, indeed, the most beautiful parking garage you could imagine.

Here's how the notes accompanying the record put it:
"Significance: Designed by a firm equally skillful with the Zigzag or Streamlined modes (not to mention the Aztec Assyrian Revivals), the Story Garage is Los Angeles' purest example of Zigzag Moderne (Art Deco) as first defined at the 1925 Paris Exposition. The stylized floral motifs and female faces of the bronze gates appear to be indebted to that exposition as the direct source of their design. The signs embedded in the driveway itself are careful versions of the typical graphics of the period."
The photographs are dated 1975. In that year, someone decided to remove the incredible bronze grilles, the terra-cotta portal, the proud lettering over the entry. Why? did they dislike the look? Was it a practical reason, to widen the entrance? Was it too hard to maintain, or to secure the garage? Did someone recognize the value of the artifacts, and con them away?

Who knows? But the HABS preserved what had been there. And the letters in the sidewalk left a clue that told the tale.
Yet another example of the hidden layers of richness that our own cities and homes hold for us to find. Let's never stop looking - Okay?

Bottle tree

We were driving through the small town of Hillsborough, North Carolina this August when we saw this blue-glass bottle tree in the front yard of a small bungalow.

Bottle trees are an African-American folk tradition in the South, that evolved from West and Central African belief that malevolant spirits can be trapped inside empty bottles. People put empty bottles on the branches of trees or even dead branches propped up to resemble trees. The bottle tree is kept in the yard near the house, to draw the spirits away from the dwelling place.

The spirits enter the bottles at night, the belief goes, and then, trappped, they are burned up by the heat of the morning sun.

It's so much the better if the bottles are pretty colored glass, to be more attractive to those wicked and mischievous spirits. Milk of magnesia bottles in deep cobalt blue were prized for bottle trees. Sometimes other pretty, shiny objects like pie tins, ribbons and bits of glass also decorate the bottle tree.

Mississippian Eudora Welty worked as a publicity agent for the Works Progress Administration between 1933 and 1936. In her travels around the state, she took photos of rural life. Those images led to her storytelling, and her career as one of Mississippi's best known fiction writers. She wrote "Livvie," a short story published in 1943 in the collection "The Wide Net," where a young black woman marries an older man who keeps her isolated from the rest of the world, for fear she will be drawn away from him. He keeps a bottle tree in the yard, which Livvie recognizes because she
"...knew that there could be a spell put in trees, and she was familiar from the time she was born with the way bottle trees kept evil spirits from coming into the house - by luring them inside the colored bottles, where they cannot get out again."
Welty wrote about the real bottle tree that inspired the story, in her book "One Writer's Beginnings":
"Along Mississippi roads you'd now and then see bottle trees; you'd see them alone or in crowds in the front yards of remote farmhouses. I photographed one - a bare crape myrtle with every branch of it ending in the mouth of a colored glass bottle - a blue Milk of Magnesia or and orange or green pop bottle; reflecting the light, flashing its colors in the sun, it stood as the centerpiece in a little thicket of peach trees in bloom."
Art historian/anthropologist Robert Farris Thompson says the tradition comes from Central African Bakongo people, who attached broken pots and containers called nkisi to the trees around their homes, to drive away evil spirits and thieves. "Bottle trees are an important element of African-American visual culture," Thompson wrote in his 1983 book "Flash of the Spirit - African and Afro-American Art and Philosophy" - "They will always be with us, like okra, hominy and black-eyed peas."

While I was looking for information about bottle trees, I found Felder Rushing's website, with a page devoted to bottle trees. Go visit and view his wonderful photos of all the creative variations of this folk tradition.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Something to consider

I don't usually get political on this blog, but how could any reasonable person ignore the fact that there is a huge debate going on in this country about reforming our health care system?

I'm not going to lecture you, but what I strongly advise everyone to do is to learn as much as you can about health care issues. And don't just listen to the media, or the politicians, or to the people who are part of organized advocacy on one side or another.

Listen to real people. If you're wondering what the system is like in other countries - go listen to people who've had experience in those countries. If you've got great insurance and you're worried about changes that may affect your privileges - go listen to people who have less than you. If you have no insurance, or an inadequate policy - go listen to people who've found something that works for them.

One way you can find out other people's stories is by reading a blog called "Tome of the Unknown Writer", published by Bill Campbell, from Washington D.C. Bill posts health care stories from people who send them in to him. The stories come from people all over the U.S. and all over the world.

Go read stories about real families and their experiences. Don't let yourself be manipulated by politicians, organizations that have something to lose or gain, or the media. It's not about ideology - it's what works for real people. Make your own decisions.

He published my story. If you write him, I bet he'll publish yours.

Pink Saturday - Pink Suede Shoes

Pink Saturday - Beverly, at the blog "How Sweet the Sound" hosts Pink Saturday. Let the color pink inspire you!

Well, it's one for the money,

Two for the show,

Three to get ready,
Now go, cat, go.

But don't you step on my blue pink suede shoes.
You can do anything but lay off of my blue pink suede shoes.

Well, you can knock me down,
Step in my face,
Slander my name
All over the place.

Do anything that you want to do, but uh-uh,
Honey, lay off of my shoes
Don't you step on my blue pink suede shoes.
You can do anything but lay off of my blue pink suede shoes.

You can burn my house,
Steal my car,
Drink my liquor
From an old fruitjar.

Do anything that you want to do, but uh-uh,
Honey, lay off of my shoes
Don't you step on my blue pink suede shoes.
You can do anything but lay off of my blue pink suede shoes.

After my visit to the cheap joints in L.A.'s Fashion District, I got a real treat recently, being invited to an exclusive exhibition of the latest season offerings by our local fashion industry.

I'm a shoe person, myself. Always have been. And the offerings this year are pretty wild - maybe even a little too wild for me!

Hope you enjoy the preview.

Friday, August 28, 2009

103 in the shade

Mural at New Horizons surf shop in Santa Monica

Yesterday it was 103 degrees Fahrenheit at our house. And then the power went out. Luckily, it came back on after only a couple hours.

Today it's supposed to be even hotter. My workplace is close to the beach, where it's about ten degrees cooler, but it's still hot.

Keep cool, everybody.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Another door opens

I was just given an opportunity to work on an interesting web-based project promoting arts and cultural activities - sort of a temporary assignment, while a staffing vacancy is being filled.

I'm pretty excited. My own work, while well-paying, is pretty uncreative, even when challenging, it's pretty dry stuff.

So I'm thrilled to be given this project - however short-lived.

Will it affect my writing here? I don't know, but I hope not - and I may have more to share. Wish me luck!

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Thematic Photographic - Summer

Every week Carmi at Written, Inc. poses a theme for photographic inspiration. This week's theme is SUMMER.

If it's August, it's time for the Naked Ladies. Amaryllis belladonna sends up a bare stem from the dry ground, and opens its beautiful pale pink flowers.

These flowers are in bloom now in my backyard, on the dry hill above my house. When you see the naked ladies in bloom, you know it's almost time for school to start.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Clocking In

Everywhere you go in this world of human beings, you encounter something funny, something incongruous, something surprising.

Here on a Saturday, in downtown Los Angeles on Broadway, I ran into a street performer taking a break and making a call on her cell phone. Who to, I wondered? Asking if she should pick up something on the way home? Arranging a date? Checking her messages for another job?

Hey - we're all working for a living. We're all human. We're all clocking in.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Clifton's Cafeteria

The first clue when you're walking on the sidewalk is the pavement. Pass into the shade of the broad marquee on Broadway at 6th Street, and you step from the gritty concrete to a fabulously patterned terrazzo pavement. Medallions celebrating the culture of Southern California play across a band of colorful stone. A sunburst fans at the entry door, leading you into Clifton's Brookdale Cafeteria.

A fixture in downtown Los Angeles, and holding its own since 1935, Clifton's is the last remaining eatery of the restaurant empire of Clifford Clinton, a third-generation restaurateur, do-gooder, and crusader against political corruption, Los Angeles-style.

Clifford Clinton opened his first downtown cafeteria in 1931, and called it "Clifton's" - a combination of his first and last names. It was located at 6th and Olive Street, and during the height of the Depression, it was known as the Cafeteria of the Golden Rule - a neon sign proclaimed "PAY WHAT YOU WISH."

In 1935 he opened the second location on Broadway, and in 1939, he redecorated both establishments. The Olive Street cafeteria became Clifton's Pacific Seas, and was done in an elaborate tropical theme. The Broadway location's decor was inspired by the forests of California's Santa Cruz Mountains. The walls were painted with murals of forests, and plaster rocks and fake trees were erected in the dining room. A waterfall runs from the second floor balcony down past landings where diners can sit beneath a family of bears trout fishing, or beneath a giant moose head mounted on the wall.

A devout Christian, Clinton installed a chapel in the restaurant, that customers could visit for a moment of quiet reflection.

Clifford Clinton and his wife Nelda ran the restaurant chain according to their principles. They believed in charity, and had a policy of never turning anyone away hungry. During the Depression, hundreds of people were served free meals from his basement soup kitchen. The policy of the restaurant remains today, "Dine Free if Not Delighted."

Clinton became involved in an effort by a scientist from USC to develop a high protein food supplment to feed the hungry. In 1946 he sold the restaurant chain to his children, to found a non-profit called Meals for Millions - a charity to feed the hungry world-wide.

Today, Clifton's is still run by family, and it's surprisingly busy on Broadway. From the entrance, you go down a side passage that takes you to the cafeteria serving area. Grab a tray, and slide it onto the steel rails.

How's the food? Well, if you're of a certain age and remember cafeterias, you know what you're in for. If you're younger? Well....go visit Yelp's page on Clifton's and see what people think of the food.

First up are small bowls of salads, fruit, and other appetizers. Would you like some cottage cheese? Pineapple chunks? Fruit salad? How about some shredded carrot salad? Pickled beets? Don't forget to pick up a dish of green jello with fruit cocktail molded inside.

There's a carving station with roast beef, turkey and ham, if you'd like that. In the next row, a steam-table offers swiss-steak, baked fish, and macaroni and cheese. You can get scalloped potatoes, steamed vegetables, and candied yams.

Clifton's menu offers traditional American-style cafeteria fare, but in acknowledgement of Broadway's changing demographic, it has added food items to appeal to Latino customers. You can get a dish of pico de gallo in the salad section, and the steam table has enchiladas, spanish rice, and pinto beans.

Check out the photos at the Yelp site - I didn't feel comfortable taking pictures on the food line, but someone did and they really show you what's on offer!

Desserts like pie, puddings and cakes are on offer, with whipped cream or not, as you like. The strawberry cake is supposed to be a popular item, I'm told. After you pay at the cashier station, you can enjoy your meal in the first floor dining room, beneath the friendly eye of the stuffed moosehead, or you can eat in the second floor dining room, and view the crowd below.

The third floor is decorated in a kind of 19th century high Victorian kitsch, with red-flocked wallpaper. But it's worth going up there to look at the display cases of historical memorabilia

The other day on NPR I heard that the building that houses Clifton's had been sold, and there was speculation that this Los Angeles classic would soon be no more, due to rising rents.

I can only hope that's not true. Clifford Clinton fed the hungry during tough economic times. Isn't this reason enough to keep his legacy thriving on Broadway today?

If you live in Southern California and you've never been to Clifton's, you should go. If you've been before, go make another visit. It may not be around for long.

If you don't live here, then look in your own community for its remaining classic eateries. Go to celebrate, and remember.

And have a dish of jello salad to support them.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Thematic Photographic - Summer

Every week Carmi at Written, Inc. poses a theme for photographic inspiration. This week's theme is SUMMER.

We have several vines growing on the shade structure attached to our house. One of them is a grapevine that the gardening catalogs called a primarily "ornamental vine" - grown for its looks, not its fruit. It's prized for the dark coloration of its leaves, which turn bright magenta in the fall.

We grew it in our previous garden, in northern climates, and there it performed as advertised - gorgeous leaves, no fruit.

But here in Southern California, things are different. Our ornamental grapevine bears abundant, deep purple bunches of fruit! And they're delicious - as long as you beat the birds to them!

This is summer, in our garden.

Pink Saturday - Shopping for Pink in Santee Alley

Pink Saturday - Beverly, at the blog "How Sweet the Sound" hosts Pink Saturday. Let the color pink inspire you!

Last week, we went shopping in my closet. This Pink Saturday, I thought we could take a guided tour of Los Angeles' Fashion District, andgo shopping for Pink in busy Santee Alley. And since we're looking for pink things, let's go with someone who knows Pink - our tour guide, this lovely lady in her pink headscarf. First, some perfume at wholesale prices.

Our guide has an eye for spotting pretty things. Look at this cute strapless sundress, with a matching straw fedora!

Or this kicky sundress - neo-hippy!

But we're looking to glam it up. How about something elegant for a night out?

A beaded sheath, slimming and simple, yet glamorous?

Or something a little more exotic? Wouldn't this knock some socks off?

But perhaps you're the modest type, who'd prefer a tailored evening suit?

You can wear your high heels

Or maybe glittery sequined mules.

A hat completes the outfit.

But we're not done yet. Our guide beckons, there's more. Let's follow.....

Sexy lingerie - the final touch. So much to choose from!

Well, really, ladies. You can't get all dressed up and wear old underwear, can you??? Indulge yourselves! Let's go all out for Pink Saturday!

Friday, August 21, 2009

"Exotic" Paris

This summer when we visited Paris, we were interested in seeing more than the tourist hot-spots. We followed a suggestion to visit some of the quarters of the city that were home to Paris's vibrant immigrant populations.

We took the #4 Metro to the station at Chateau Rouge, in the 18th arrondissment. We came out of the station into a triangle of streets, and went down the Rue Dejean, a tiny street that's lined with markets selling produce, meat and fish.

Here many of the items were not only targeted to immigrant shoppers - they came from their homelands. These fish, round and flat as frisbees, were caught off the coast of Senegal, and marketed to West African cooks.

The neighborhood around the Chateau Rouge Metro station is said to be home to West African immigrants from Senegal, Ghana, Mali, Cameroon, and Nigeria, but we also saw shops that catered to Haitian and West Indian immigrants as well.

These herbs are marked as imported from Togo.
The little market street feeds into the Rue de Poissoniers, and here were more shops. There were also several women vendors, all wearing bright African cloth, selling eggplants on the sidewalk out of shopping bags.

Here, this shopper bargains for a good price with a vendor. Eggplants seem to be a prized commodity.

There were many shops that carried African videos, CDs and DVDs, and shops that carried bottled and canned goods from West Africa.

And there were the fabric stores - displaying colorful "wax" - which is the name everyone seems to use for the brightly colored batik fabric favored in West Africa. Batik is a technique that originated in Indonesia, where fabric is painted with patterns in wax before being dyed. The areas covered with wax don't take the color. The fabrics were imported to Africa by Dutch colonial merchants, where they were so popular that locals soon adapted the techniques. Now many of them are made in Ghana and Nigeria, but you can still find Dutch or Indonesian "wax" fabrics. Here's an article that explains how this came to be - click HERE.

If you go south on the Rue des Poissoniers, you soon notice more North African stores and restaurants. This neighborhood is known as the Goutte d'Or - the Golden Drop, named for ancient vineyards and wineries that once were here. It was once a sleepy, almost pastoral neighborhood, but starting in the 1950s, immigrants from Algeria settled here, and other North African people followed.

This store, near the intersection of Rue des Poissoniers and Boulevard Barbes, is named for Mahgreb, a region of Morocco, and the clothing displayed here are brightly colored djellebas and kaftans, embroidered with gold thread.

We turned on Barbes, which is a wide, busy boulevard, and soon came to the intersection of La Chapelle. Tati - a huge discount department store with bins of clearance-priced clothing out on the sidewalks, looms over the street, and teems with shoppers. The elevated train passes overhead, and the approach to the platform is filled with vendors, barkers, pick-pockets and shoppers.

There are discount linen and fabric stores with bins on the sidewalk, everything is covered with graffiti, and the streets are full of the chaotic din of traffic, scooters, the train rushing overhead and people shouting.

Crossing beneath the trains, the boulevard changes names and becomes Magenta. As we walk further, we skirt diagonally past the Gare du Nord, and, beyond, the Gare de L'est - huge train stations. The neighborhoods near them are similar to what you'd find near the Port Authority or Pennsylvania Station in New York. Motor coaches and taxis and hotels and restaurants - here's where I saw more American chain fast food joints than anywhere else in Paris - McDonald's and Kentucky Fried Chicken and Pizza Hut.

This was a colorful street stand right across from the Gare du Nord - selling all kinds of candy, lots and lots of Gummi worms!

As we continued down Boulevard Magenta, the views of the side streets were tantalizing. Here a narrow street lined with Indian and Pakistani restaurants leads to an elaborate gothic facade - the church of St. Laurent, built in the 15th century.

We turned down Rue Faubourg St. Denis, a narrower street. Lined with Indian and Mid-Eastern restaurants and shops selling prepared foods and produce today, it was once the home of affluent merchants and jewelers. Today it exhibits Paris's diverse immigrant mix.

This Chinese-owned produce stand was in the same block as a store Turkish restaurant, a wine merchant, a charcutier advertising foie gras, and a chocolatier. The one-way street was so narrow only one vehicle could transit, with the curb lane reserved for deliveries.
In this block, is the little brasserie named Julien. Now restored by the restaurant corporation Flo, it's a marvel of Art Nouveau decor that reminds you of this neighborhood's former fin de siecle elegance.

Every once in a while, a doorway would open onto the sidewalk, with a view of a passageway behind. These small passages lead to quiet residential courtyards, or sometimes alleys packed with discount sellers. We turned down one of these, the Passage Brady.

Passage Brady is home to perhaps a dozen stores, mostly Indian merchants and restaurants. A narrow hall between the buildings, its iron-framed glass ceiling let in the daylight. The passageway was crammed with dining tables for the restaurants, and displays of bright silks and garlands of flowers.

We took an outside table at a south Indian restaurant, Passage de Pondicherry, and had lunch. Dosas, crispy chick-pea-flour crepes served with dal and vegetable curry. The food was not as spicy as the food we've come to know in Southern California's Indian community - here they've modified its flavors to suit Parisian tastes.

When we finished lunch, we walked all the way through Passage Brady to Boulevard de Strasbourg.

Here is the edge of Paris's theatre district - the Theatre Antoine is a beautiful building with a significant history. Built in 1866, in 1887 it became the home of the Theatre Libre, founded by impressario Andre Antoine, who believed in a more natural style of acting than was common at the time. It began with a dramatization of Zola's novel Therese Raquin, and in defiance of censorship, they presented plays that were banned elsewhere, including plays by Ibsen, Strindberg and Hauptmann.

We doubled back to Rue Faubourg St. Denis, to walk its final block, to the impressive golden stone arch of the Porte Saint-Denis that serves as the focal point of the street.

This triumphal arch was built in 1692 by Louis XIV to commemorate his victories on the Rhine, and it stands on the site of a gate in the ancient medieval fortified wall that once surrounded the city.

Pretty cool, huh? We had traveled through exotic lands indeed - from a West African market to the gate of the Sun King, by way of Morocco, Pondicherry, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and Parisian fin de siecle decadence. And all in one day!