Happy New Year All! This is a bit late but here are some of my Los Angeles highlights from 2021. I may always be knee-deep in the past but it’s still so easy to forget what happened just a few months ago. One disclaimer: Despite the optics of enjoying moments out and about, this year was full of heartbreak, felt on a personal level as well as on a broader community level. But when I’m managing through such tragedies, it helps to reflect on those lighter moments of joy, discovery and curiosity.
Revisiting Sea Shanties:
As 2020 turned 2021, sea shanties were having their viral moment. The trend inspired me to revisit the sea shanties I documented in 2017. Four years ago, a Pomona College music professor treated his maritime music class to a day of sea shanty singing aboard a sailboat in the Los Angeles Harbor. Even after a few years, I still smile at that absolutely cool experience of listening to those student voices riff on centuries-old music as they ‘heaved and hoed’ the sails for our boat. But that 2017 moment hit differently in 2021. As I wrote last year, “On a personal note, revisiting the sights and sounds from this moment had me wistful about San Pedro’s now-demolished Ports O’Call. When we all gathered in 2017, we were surrounded by the lovely quirkiness of this faded 1962 seaside village. Now the demolished space sits empty, waiting for new development to fully wash away any memory that such kitsch ever existed.”
Documenting My Year in London
After months of living like a Covid hermit, I spent the first part of 2021 reliving my year in London. I organized my mementos from my time in Europe into a small photo book. Physically I was in 2021, but for a few weeks, I was mentally living life as a 2004–2005 LSE graduate student. That year was full of intense ups and downs but now, looking through Covid-colored glasses, the whole experience was quite amazing. The photo book is full of my images, old tourist maps, ticket stubs, and email updates I sent to family and friends (which I used as the book’s descriptive text). As I wrote in my introduction, “Creating this book was an essential reminder that, even as life feels like an endless stream of dull dreary (often devastating) days, further big adventures await. Hopefully.”
I included these two photos from one of my favorite moments in 2005 — a beautiful spring picnic in Hackney Downs (2005), the site of much of my time in London.
I mention this photo book as a reminder to print out important digital photos — either as individual prints or in a photo book. Too many folks lose family memories when a computer or phone crashes. Plus physical copies are more resilient than the digital files.
Los Angeles Walks Fundraiser
When Los Angeles Walks hosted a virtual fundraiser in April 2021, I was invited to share a few stories from our #LA4Corners series. I crafted four audio slideshows that combined all my photos with all the audio I recorded. This project was a well-needed reminder about all the ground we covered, literally and metaphorically, in those four walks. Listening to both organizers and participants articulate how they valued walking together around the city’s original border was the inspirational salve I needed during the never-ending horrible news cycle. Audio slideshow from our walk along the South Leg:
Traveling Vicariously Through an 1890 Diary
Another virtual time-travel trip came in the form of an 1890 diary from Rosario Bradbury, daughter of the very wealthy Simona and Lewis Bradbury. The Bradburys lived in a Bunker Hill mansion and the family’s mining fortune built the beautiful Bradbury Building in downtown Los Angeles. The diary was part of my research for a KCET profile about Simona Bradbury.
In 1890, the Bradburys vacationed in Europe and daughter Rosario (age 21) was quite descriptive in her family’s adventures abroad. She detailed every train trip, hotel stay, theatre performance, and family outing that her parents and siblings experienced. It’s no surprise that this wealthy family stayed at the most glamorous places, many of which are still standing and now historic. As I read each diary day, I searched the places Rosario mentioned on Google maps, zooming down to street view. It was almost like I was traveling to Europe too … but not really. 🙂 Though the diary did help quench a bit of my Covid wanderlust. Silly sidenote: I happened to be reading Rosina’s entry about the family’s 1890 private audience with the Pope in Italy just about the same time that it was announced that Kim Kardashian visited the Pope in 2021. It had me (light-heartedly) wondering, “Were the Bradburys the Kardashians of their time…? 🙂
Finding LA Stories in Fresno
My first road trip, post-vaccine, took me up the 5 Freeway to Fresno as I helped a friend record the stories of her grandfather, who grew up in Los Angeles. We had been toying with the idea for several years but Covid made us realize there was no time to lose. I digitally recorded his life story as he entertained us with many tales of his (mis)adventures. Recording family stories, and helping others to record their family stories, is an important part of my work. There are a number of larger institutional efforts working to document oral histories but I tend to focus on helping families record their own elders so that they have this valuable recording to pass down to future generations.
Here’s a brief clip (posted with permission) from my friend’s grandfather about his father who worked for CalShip during the war:
Historic Grapefruit Night in Little Tokyo
Little Tokyo has two historic grapefruit trees from the historic Wolfskill Orchard that once stood in downtown. In his book “Exceptional Trees of Los Angeles,” Don Hodel explained “As Los Angeles spread outward from the old Plaza, bits and pieces of the grove were destroyed over the years to make way for commercial development. Finally, in 1980, the only remnant of the original citrus grove was a long grapefruit tree situated behind a building on a vacant lot in what become the Little Tokyo section of Los Angeles.” A few years back, Sustainable Little Tokyo started a tradition of Historic Grapefruit Night at the Wolf and Crane bar, which created the 1884, “a special cocktail featuring the essence of 150 years of grapefruit history in Little Tokyo.” I just love this unique way of engaging with Los Angeles history — incorporating the neighborhood’s agricultural past into events that support current Little Tokyo initiatives.
Thanks to an invitation from a dear friend, I toured the iconic Stahl House (aka Case Study House #22). It’s worth mentioning that the kids who lived in the landmark house recently published a book about their unique experience about growing up in LA’s most glamorous fishbowl. It was my second time exploring this beautiful home and the architecture and view never cease to amaze. But I also really love the bathroom (covered in green shag carpet). One little known fact about me: I take photos of bathrooms in Los Angeles … empty bathrooms that is.
Los Angeles Public Library’s Plaque Honoring Mary Foy
In August 2020, the Los Angeles Public Library unveiled a plaque of Mary Foy in its historic rotunda in the Central Library downtown. Among her many achievements, Mary Foy (1862–1962) was the first woman City Librarian for the Los Angeles Public Library. I gave a (virtual) talk about Mary Foy and other Los Angeles suffragists for LAPL’s celebration of the Suffrage Centennial in 2020. Many qualities about Mary Foy inspire me but it’s her ceaseless commitment to gathering and preserving the stories of Angelenos that resonates the deepest. It was so great to see her plaque in person as it’s the only one in the rotunda that honors a woman. Now let’s get one for Miriam Matthews! 🙂
Cruising to Santa Cruz Island
Visiting the Channel Islands off the coast of California has long been on my bucket list. Once places started opening up, I made the boat reservation for a few friends to venture to Santa Cruz Island, the largest of the eight Channel Islands. We hiked up to Cavern Point taking in the cliff-side views of the Pacific Ocean. As Nature Magazine wrote, “Once on the brink of ecological collapse, Santa Cruz Island now offers visitors a glimpse of what Southern California used to be like hundreds of years ago.” Now I just need to visit the other islands. 🙂
I should mention that the journey to and from Santa Cruz Island was as amazing as the island itself. In both directions, we saw large schools of dolphins jumping through the waves next to our boat. I’ve never seen anything like it. We even saw a whale spout or two. A clip from one school of dolphins:
Ciclavia’s Return: Wilmington & Heart of Los Angeles
Ciclavia Ciclavia Ciclavia! One of my favorite Los Angeles festivals returned the last half of 2021. The enthusiasm for Ciclavia’s return was palpable among all the participants. It felt like a momentary collective sigh of relief as many of us found ourselves on familiar ground even when exploring new terrain. I’ve been to Wilmington before but never actually walked two miles of this port city’s streets. For the “Heart of Los Angeles” Ciclavia in October, I rented a Metro bike and peddled my way out to each hub. This left me so exhausted and sore that I just collapsed into a happy heap when I got home.
Revisiting Mt. Wilson Observatory
During September 2020, the Bobcat Fire came dangerously close to the Mt. Wilson Observatory, which I watched nightly on the Mt. Wilson webcams. Once the fire was over, I vowed to visit as soon as the observatory re-opened to the public. Every time I’m up there, I just marvel/imagine what it must’ve been like for George Ellery Hale to coordinate the seemingly-impossible effort of building an observatory on Mt. Wilson in the early 1900s. There have been so many more scientific advancements in other parts of Southern California, but I just really appreciate Mt. Wilson’s important early role in the region’s aerospace history. At the end of summer, the observatory hosted a series of public lectures and I eagerly attended the one in August (and also eagerly ate up this Pie N’ Burger pecan pie).
MOLAA Exhibit: Judy Baca: Memorias de Nuera Tierra, A Retrospective
As a long-time fan girl of artist Judy Baca, I relished the opportunity to sit so closely with the artist’s work on display at the Museum of Latin American Art’s exhibit. Her mural in the Tujunga Wash, “The Great Wall of Los Angeles,” is absolutely amazing but one can only admire it from a distance (and in the book “BACA: Art, Collaboration & Mural-Making“). While most folks found inspiration in the immersive Vincent Van Gogh exhibit in Hollywood, I found it while being surrounded by MOLAA’s “Great Wall of Los Angeles” display in Long Beach.
Women’s History Exhibits: The Autry & California African American Museum (CAAM)
I also found inspiration in two women’s history exhibits — The Autry’s “Women in the Archives” and CAAM’s “Rights and Rituals: The Making of African American Debutante Culture.” The Autry’s exhibit took up a small space in the museum’s galleries but it played a large role in drawing attention to the issues that arise when sharing women’s stories from an institutional archives. Through this project, I developed a deeper appreciation of musician Manuela Garcia and profiled her for KCET.
CAAM’s “Rights and Rituals: The Making of African American Debutante Culture” is a beautiful exhibit that showcases the rich history of Black women’s organizations and the ways they created educational and professional opportunities for young women. When an interviewer asked about other items that she wanted to include in the exhibit, exhibit curator Taylor Bythewood-Porter replied, “I would love to have included more personal items from lenders. However, I find that the further back in time one goes when sourcing objects for exhibitions, especially within the African American community, a lot of those moments and ephemera aren’t saved.” Sadly this statement can be applied to so many exhibits about all women of color as well.
Eating Los Angeles History
With so many notable Los Angeles restaurants closed due to Covid, I did my best to patron/support LA’s historic eateries. El Cholo’s and the Tam O’Shanter are always nearby favorites. For the first time, I dined at The Depot, a restaurant in Torrance established in a former train depot designed by Irving Gill. I celebrated the Smoke House’s 75th anniversary with martinis and beef tournedos and then raised a glass or two at the Idle Hour. And after wandering through the South Coast Botanic Garden’s Butterfly Pavilion with a few friends, we giggled over martinis and nachos at the Original Red Onion in Palos Verdes.
But one of my best meals in 2021 was prepared by a few museum workers cooking from the Homestead Museum’s archives. Working from home throughout the pandemic, these three ladies had pulled out cookbooks from the Homestead’s archives and documented the process of assembling these old recipes. I was invited to two taste-testings and I’m still marveling at their culinary ability to translate old recipes into modern standards. It was a rare treat not offered anywhere but the picnic table outside the 1841 Workman House.
This photo features items from our second taste-testing which focused on picnic fare from the 1905 Los Angeles Times cookbook:
With no Oktoberfest at Alpine Village, I celebrated in my own quiet way — by buying a few Oktoberfesty things at the Alpine Village Market. Opened in 1968, Alpine Village is a historic marketplace devoted to all things Germanic. On the weekends, the large parking lot is transformed into a crowded swap meet, yet surprisingly there is very little spill over into the actual Alpine Village (at least when I went). If, during these Covid times, you’re looking for a sparsely populated picturesque Bavarian setting then I’d recommend picking up some bratwursts at the market’s cafe and enjoying them at the picnic tables surrounded by this faux-Alpine architecture.
Heritage Square at Halloween
The old-timey homes at Heritage Square are really perfect for Halloween. The 1887 Ford House turned “Witches House” was so scary that my friend’s son wouldn’t even step up to Trick or Treat. Kudos to the Cemetery Lane team for organizing a fun event for the kids while shining a spooky light on the history of each historic home.
Griffith Park Turns 125
For Griffith Park’s 75th anniversary, a 1970s Sunset Magazine article explained “Griffith Park is a superpark, the largest municipal park inside any city in America.” So it’s probably no surprise that I couldn’t visit ALL the booths spread across the park in honor of its 125th anniversary. But I tried.
It was a powerful (albeit long hot) day of speaking with so many Angelenos passionate about the importance of undeveloped green space in Los Angeles. The amazing Narrated Objects encouraged attendees to submit their memories on post-it notes and stick them on a park map. Hiker and author Casey Schreiner gave an amusingly informative talk about Griffith Park history at The Autry (had no idea about the kangaroos!) One Archives’ booth showed ephemera and flyers from LA’s first “Gay-In” held at the historic park. And like other history-related events, the attendees’ stories are just as interesting as the presenters’. As we stood outside The Autry, Gary Leonard introduced me to Chuck Levin. His parents moved into Rodger Young Village, a community of Quonset huts built for returning GI’s that once stood where the Autry now stands. Levin even had the LA Times article that featured his little-kid birthday party at Rodger Young Village.
Bob Baker Marionette Theater
In the new book about Bob Baker Marionette Theater, director Jordan Peele wrote, “I’ve visited the Bob Baker Marionette Theater numerous times, and each time the experience feels completely new. Throughout its history, the theater has amassed an amazing, intricate roster of puppets, deepest I’ve ever seen. Each one is unique, and alive, and sleeping until the next show.” A December book launch was held in the group’s new space that featured performances that rung true to Peele’s words.
The puppets have been in their new space for awhile but this was my first time walking through the theater’s 1923 doors. The original theater on First Street is close to my heart. As Echo Park residents, mom took us to Bob Baker’s puppet shows all the time and she even organized one of my birthday parties in the venue. So, I was nervous to step foot into what was formerly the York Theatre but the current puppet troupe crew has done a tremendous job honoring the spirit of Bob Baker and the original space. The theater has that same sense of magic, whimsy and kookiness as the original (but without all the dust).
Christmas Tree Lane Model Railroad’s Open House
Altadena’s Christmas Tree Lane is a family tradition, but this was my first time wandering through the Christmas Tree Lane Model Railroad. In the back of someone’s house, members of a model railroad society have crafted three impressive levels of model train landscapes of the Pacific Coast. I oohed and aahed at the miniature versions of Los Angeles landmarks — the LA River, Union Station, Glendale Train Station, and even the Burbank Fry’s Electronics that has since closed. It’s one of those great “things to see” in LA organized not by big institutions, but by a community of folks with a collective interest in sharing their singular passion.