La Tuna Canyon Fire


The sky was exceptionally sublime last night with distant plumes of smoke climbing up into the clouds. The air was smoky and humid. The city seemed exhausted, ready to take a cold shower, drink ice water, and crawl into a bed without a blanket in an air-conditioned room.

But firefighters were racing to multiple scenes, battling on foot, assisted by water dropping copters. There would be little sleep for the defenders of life and property.

Near 12653 Osborne St, Pacoima, CA 90012

The 2017 La Tuna Canyon Fire in the Verdugo Mountains, a punishing event, looked tame from a distance in Pacoima along San Fernando Road. Closer up, panic and urgency: horses, dogs, cats and people evacuated. Others chose to stay home, hose down their roofs and wait it out.

In Sunland, still along San Fernando Road,  one could glimpse the hot flames shooting up in the crevices between the jagged hills, orange fire against the dark blue sky.

Near 8134 San Fernando Rd
Sun Valley, CA 91352

Dormant Beauty


 

On a Sunday evening in July, on foot, after a few beers, the old town of Van Nuys, carried a note of Tribeca 1985, in its summoning of potential, laid out, for dreamers and developers.

There were empty storefronts and shabby alleys, but there were also women in chairs, attending children on bicycles, who played near clothes for sale, hung on a fence. Here Andreas bought a shirt for $3.

There were menacing BVN insignias on garbage bins and apartment walls, but there was also the eternal light of California soaking the decay in cinematic color. If I were sober, if I were alone, I probably wouldn’t have walked here.

Intoxication, used wisely, is a gift. When nerves are soothed, adventures commence.

What glories the cessation of fear brings to the eye. Every corner revealed something: teal and brown homeless tarps seemingly sculpted, the wood pallets in the alley placed with artful intention, a wood gate in the back of a parking lot like the entrance to an old western town.

The best buildings were the forgotten ones: The steel walled packing house on Vesper St., the pink stucco cottages on Cedros, and 14225 Delano St. a mid-century structure with a dark green cornice and an inverted glass wall, respectable, laconic and businesslike.

It was Sunday night but some people worked.

On Bessemer St. a worker at Technology Auto Body buffed a gleaming pick-up truck, squeezing the last minutes of light to finish his job.

Last night, these fearsome streets, Calvert, Bessemer, Vesper, Delano and Cedros, were peaceful and passive. Sometime soon, this walkable, neighborly and nostalgic area will revive, and these ramshackle adventures through denigration will take their place in the history book of Los Angeles.

 

 

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The Lost Art of Selling Auto Parts.


Back when Los Angeles was younger, at the dawn of the automobile age after World War I, tires, gasoline and cars were sold in buildings and displayed in a manner befitting a jewelry store.

Among the rich archives of the USC Digital Library, are photographs of local businesses, who put extraordinary artistry into their signage and architecture to draw in customers, while projecting an image of modernity attractive to the growing city.

Many of these photos come from the Dick Whittington Studio.

The Big, Empty Foreground


On Flickr, where I sometimes spend my time, there is a group of photographs called “The Big Empty Foreground.” These are urban places, usually wide-open spaces, without people.

Many of the contributors come from Europe, a place one does not often think of as empty. Soccer fields, parking lots, office plazas, old factories, these are some of the unpopulated places.


 

Sepulveda Cleaners 2In Van Nuys, we have a lot of wide, empty foreground. Expansive asphalt pavements, empty shopping centers, abandoned houses on large lots.

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Near Vanowen, between Archwood and Sepulveda, there is a collection of one-story businesses: a cleaners, a phone store, a fishing tackle store and an odd place called Reynoso’s Lapidary and Supply which specializes in rocks, gems, stones and agate slabs.

These are in a building put up when land was cheap, sometime in the 1950s. And they are plain and homely and functional, but also practical, because the cars are put in back and the sidewalk is in front. Signs are small and discreet.

What intrigued me, on a day when dark clouds enclosed the sky and transformed the light of Los Angeles into something moody and cool, was how casually open space was made in the back, without gates or fences, or trees. That’s the way we parked in the 1950s at a suburban place. There was no thought given to landscape, only to laying down asphalt.

A walnut or orange grove, on many acres, probably occupied this land before the building was built.

This landscape back here will probably be developed someday and covered completely in a banal apartment, approved by city zoning.

But for now there is light, and space, and sky.

 

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El Color de La Vida.


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Before the cold rains struck the San Fernando Valley late Monday afternoon, dark and menacing storm clouds went into formation.

Seen from the empty asphalt of an abandoned parking in Panorama City, the view east lived up to its name. The craggy, inky, rock-topped San Gabriels permitted fog to brush their face.

Eager to pursue the dark light show, we drove east on Roscoe where it opens up under the high voltage lines, across the valley, under the concrete freeway, cutting diagonally up Tuxford, emerging into the industrial abattoir of Pacoima where death and life, and light and shadow hunt under smokestacks and behind motels.

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The rains came down on Van Nuys Boulevard and San Fernando Road, soaking Chabelita’s Restaurant, Gallardo’s Auto Repair, Fierro’s Muffler, Franco Tires, JC and Son Welding, and the Coral Bells Motel.

And then, in the mode of Los Angeles, the sky cleared. A vast, blue vista opened up. A cold wind followed.

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Carrying our cameras, we passed men who eyed us with suspicion. Señor Fierro came out of his muffler shop and kindly asked us why we were taking pictures. I handed him my card and told him how beautiful the sky was. He seemed to agree.

These people work hard. They come from lands where blood soaks the cross and breaks the heart. Now they weld metal and change tires and cut hair and dig trenches. Here are these Americans whose presence makes us American.

San Fernando Road is also part of Route 66. The historic state sign says so. The old motels along the highway attest to a long history of travellers who made their way into California: on foot, by automobile, in the back of trucks, hidden inside freight trains.

They got here and slept on the floor, two or three to a bed. Some had no papers. Some had no money. They were somewhere strange and hostile, but free, free to pursue and put down roots and stop running.

But death caught some too young. Some died under trains, running across tracks after the signal, or purposely running into death to escape the misery of life.

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Pacoima is strong. Its buildings are painted in the deepest blues, oranges, yellows, reds and greens. There is no room for ambiguity in hue. The choices are laid out in bright sunlight. The devil and the angel battle here. You can eat well or go hungry. You can get pregnant and high, or go to school and study hard. You can pray or you drive drunk into a wall. Pick the orange off the tree or the prostitute off the street. It’s up to you.

On walls, adjoining muffler shops and liquor stores, are murals of mythological, cultural and aesthetic magnificence. Poor Pacoima has more beautiful public art than Beverly Hills. And there is even a wall-sized portrait of that savior and scoundrel El Niño. Artist Levi Ponce is the Michaelangelo of this district.

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El Niño, as we all know, is in town for a few weeks. He may pay up or he may skip town without leaving payment. Nobody knows.

But Pacoima will carry on.

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They Had Promised Rain.


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They had promised rain.

We were going to be drenched, drowned, and flooded.

The clouds would stay overhead for months, and there would be endless days of mudslides, dark clouds and gray skies.

They had promised rain, clearly, and said it in English, many times; the word was rain, but there was so much of it and they had renamed him El Niño.

For maybe one or two days there was rain and it came down and drenched the garden and it seemed that relief was on its way.

But the heat and the sun, and that blinding light, the kind that throws deep shadows on surfaces, came back.

The hot winds, the cloudless skies, the bees and the mosquitos, the dust and the fires, and the furnace of the car parked in the sun with black seats that burn your ass when you sit down.

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In Hancock Park, last Saturday, the air smelled like smoke, and lungs labored hard to bring in oxygen.

But on curved streets with swept sidewalks and trimmed hedges, homes glowed, in the inferno.

Movie star beauties, these residences, from the 1920s and 30s, photographed like Garbo and Gable, in black and white.

They retained dignity, reserving in elegance, those rights given to the rich, to remain unaffected by external events, to quietly succeed by dint of elitism, and transcend the hot weather through graceful form.

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