One sweltering day, sometime in July 2012, I left Van Nuys with my camera to escape the 105 degree heat.
I got off the 405 and drove west, towards the ocean, along San Vicente, until I came into a picturesque canyon, shrouded in fog. I parked my car and ventured on foot to photograph the trees and the architecture in cool, refreshing tranquility.
I walked up East Rustic Road where there was, indeed, rusticity in nature and architecture. I stopped on the sidewalk along the street and beheld the glory of clouds coming down from the hills. All around were birds and flowers, fragrance and song.
And then, suddenly, a shrill voice yelled at me, “Why are you photographing mailboxes on this street!”
Dazed, stunned, I was speechless.
Who the hell was screaming at me? I looked around and an old woman came out of a garage of a house.
“I was driving up the street and saw you taking pictures of all the mailboxes! What are you doing here!” she demanded.
Now pissed off that I was being interrogated, and my right to walk and photograph on a public street was being infringed upon; appalled at her lying and false charges; I talked back. I said something like who are you to ask me? Did I need a permit to take a photo? Did I need to ask your permission to photograph a cloud?
“I have a right to know!” she screamed again.
Then an old man (her husband?) came out the front door and yelled, “If you don’t get off our street we are calling the Santa Monica Police!”
Not eager to incite, I walked away.
My beautiful, serene, moment of enjoyment was spoiled by these two irrational people.
I vowed that one day I would come back here and shoot photos again, perhaps some portraits of an actor.
This past weekend, nine years later, I did just that. Without incident.
Seeking to escape the haze and home confinement, we went where we used to go on Sunday in normal times: Santa Monica.
We parked on one of the wide, flat streets north of Montana, away from crowds. And we walked in masks that we imagined shielded us from dangers visible and invisible.
At Adelaide and 4th, where a palm lined grass island ends at a cliff and now blockaded stairs, someone had written “No Vaccine” on a wall.
This year everything is No: no work, no travel, no movies, no dining out, no socializing, no school, no hugs, no kisses, no bars, no strangers, no baby visits, no old people, and, of course, no vaccine.
Before the pandemic there were many runners here, and they would run up and down the stairs, but the virus put an end to that, and now the bad air ensures it.
This part of Santa Monica is grand, with large houses, of every style and decade from the past 100 years, but everything, under the grayish, smoky skies seemed tired, out of breath, defeated; like the city and the state and the nation.
There were Porsches parked in driveways, and Mercedes speeding past, but there seemed no respite from thoughts of ruin and gloom. Who will save us? Will we burn down? Will we be safe when fascism takes over? Or will the lawless sack the mansions and the stores while hated cops stand by and watch? Will a smart leader emerge? Or shall we suffer under Q-Anon and the conspiratorial voices on Next Door?
Who shall live and who shall die and who shall find the most followers on Instagram?
Only the Shadow Knows.
Along Ocean Avenue at Georgina there is a restoration of a grand mansion, with construction illustrations of the elegant plans, and other photographs of historic and happier Santa Monica. Why there’s Mr. Pepper Gomez, Muscle Beach Contest Winner, 1950.
On Georgina there are yard signs, some of them angry. “Elect a clown, expect a circus” says one placed inside a long olive tree lined forecourt of a gated house.
Sometime from the 1940s through the 80s, this area was not so rich. There were large houses, but they weren’t expensive, so developers came in and tore down some of the historic ones and put up cheap apartments.
A 1971 apartment at 129 Marguerita is emblazoned with a strange sign: 129 Career. A door or two off Ocean Avenue, the 2-story building is remarkably plain and homely, with a side alley of individual garage doors, stucco wall and steel windows. Balconies are big and full of plastic furniture. The good life was once available at bargain prices.
And at 147 Adelaide (built 1926) there is a mysterious, long, downsloping, concrete driveway that leads into an old, wood door garage with a five-panel utility door next to it. Two spotlights were on at Noon, and in the distance, haze covered the canyon and the hills and the houses.
UCLA’s Adelbert Bartlett Collection has superb, hi-resolution images from the work of a commercial photographer who lived from 1887-1966 and worked in Southern California in the 1920s through the 1960s.
It was a time when this state was considered the pinnacle of glory, a place where aviators, sportsmen, golfers, movie stars, and athletes played and worked in brilliant sunshine under smog-free skies; swimming, water skiing, boating and hiking through deserts, mountains and parks.
As we endure cataclysmic natural disasters and allow unnatural disasters, such as homelessness, to overtake our state, we have to look back to how the Golden State operated when economic conditions were truly bleak.
We have brought ourselves, by our own powers, to a time and place of our own creation, and our California is a product of our human strengths and weaknesses, a society which can go up or down, in a natural environment which is now turning deadly as it is heated up by carbon.
Way before people understood that our planet might perish by our own hand and not God’s, California took stock of its good fortune and erected a real place out of fantasy.
How did such phenomenal architecture, science, sports and innovation happen here in the early and mid 20th Century? What can we do to restore the optimism and leadership that once made California the envy of the entire world?
Can we bring back the pristine, polished, glimmering, spotless world that once existed?