It's not often that a completely unknown fragment of Los Angeles history is discovered, and rarer still that this shard is shining almost in plain sight. But what a thrill when that happens!
This week, we're all aflutter over an illustrated talk we attended by Pitzer College professor Susan Phillips, previewing her forthcoming book on 20th century southland graffiti.
Susan's research has taken her from back alleys to archives, in search of historic scrawls that were documented in vintage photographs, and the rarer ones that managed to survive on site. To find vintage graffiti, she maps and visits old infrastructure: bridges, tunnels, sewers, overpasses, looking for outdated materials and styles.
And it was on such an outing that she discovered a fascinating, and previously unknown suite of hobo names and adult-themed drawings along the L.A. River, some dating back to the 1910s. Among them: the mark of America's most famous hobo author, A. No. 1 himself!
During the early decades of the last century, the hobos arrived in Downtown L.A. by boxcar and lived by the hundreds in camps along the L.A. River. These spaces were also a refuge for the gay community during a time when homosexuality was criminalized. When the Army Corps of Engineers channelized and lowered the river bed to mitigate deadly floods, many of the visitors' inscriptions ended up in inaccessible places, preserved through neglect and the happy accident that the materials used--shoe polish and railroad tar, chalk and pencil lead--can survive decades of exposure to the elements.
Since Susan first mapped and photographed this old graffiti, some pieces have been obscured by modern artists, some painted over by city workers unaware of its significance. One whole figure vanished when part of a wall was removed for retrofitting work.
It's unclear if these artifacts will survive much longer. Can they be preserved through historic landmarking or by removing sections of wall to a museum environment? Or is it more fitting that they stay just as they are, to last or be lost as new writings are added, bridges are demolished and the river itself is redeveloped?
We don't have an answer. But now that we know that A No. 1 and Oakland Red, Winey Pete, the Tucson Kid, Mike and Walt and their long-gone pals left their marks along the familar bridges and abutments, we can hear their voices in the highway hum and the river burble.
We're back on the bus on Saturday with Eastside Babylon, our most unhinged true crime tour, featuring the capture of Night Stalker Richard Ramirez, a double decapitation murder committed as an act of misplaced love and visits to the carney graveyard and world's biggest tamale. Join us, do!
Last Saturday, The Lowdown on Downtown tour visited the legendary Dutch Chocolate Shop with its unique tile murals by Ernest Batchelder. See more here.
LAVA'S FORENSIC SCIENCE SEMINAR - SUN. 4/17
Four times a year, we gather in the teaching crime labs of Cal State Los Angeles under the direction of Professor Donald Johnson to explore the history and future of American forensic science. Your $36.50 ticket to Murder Will Out: The Secret World of Trace Evidence benefits graduate level Criminalistics research. For more info, click here.
Pull up a log and warm your hands at the fire as Jim Tully, Hollywood roustabout and frenemy of Chaplin, shares tales of the tough yet redeeming life of the American hobo circa 1900. Tully would weary of the rigors of the road by his 20s and make a new life as a self-taught novelist (some call him the father of the hard-boiled school) and acid-tongued Hollywood reporter, but the romance of the untethered life still works its siren call on readers lucky enough to stumble on Tully. Don't hop a boxcar or snatch a pie: read about it instead!
EASTSIDE BABYLON - SAT. 1/30... Go East, young ghoul, to Boyle Heights, where the Night Stalker was captured and to Evergreen, L.A.'s oldest cemetery. To East L.A., where a deranged radio shop employee made mince meat of his boss and bride--and you can get your hair done in a building shaped like a giant tamale. To Commerce, where one small neighborhood's myriad crimes will shock and surprise. To Montebello, for scrumptious milk and cookies at Broguiere's Farm Fresh Dairy washed down with a horrifying case of child murder. That's Eastside Babylon, our most unhinged crime bus tour. (Buy tickets here.)
SOUTH LOS ANGELES ROAD TRIP: HOT RODS, ADOBES, GOOGIE & EARLY MODERNISM - SUN. 2/7... This rare Sunday tour in our California Culture series rolls through Vernon, Bell Gardens, Santa Fe Springs and Downey, and the past two centuries, exploring some of L.A.'s most seldom-seen and compelling structures. Turning the West Side-centric notion of an L.A. architecture tour on its head, the bus goes into areas not traditionally associated with the important, beautiful or significant, raising issues of preservation, adaptive reuse, hot rod kar kulture and the evolution of the city. (Buy tickets here.)
RAYMOND CHANDLER'S LOS ANGELES - SAT. 2/13... Follow in the young writer's footsteps near his downtown oil company offices to sites from The Lady in the Lake and The Little Sister, meet several real inspirations for the Philip Marlowe character and get the skinny on Chandler's secret comic operetta that we discovered in the Library of Congress nearly a century after it was written. Plus a stop at Scoops for noirish gelato creations and a visit to Larry Edmunds Bookshop. (Buy tickets here.)
WEIRD WEST ADAMS - SAT. 2/20... Thrill as Jazz Age bootleggers run amok, marvel at the Krazy Kafitz family's litany of headline-making misdeeds, see L.A.'s shortest street and its neighboring mansions, stroll the haunted paths of Rosedale Cemetery, stop at Marvin Gaye's murder house and learn how miffed locals fought racist housing laws to the highest court. (Buy tickets here.)
BOYLE HEIGHTS & THE SAN GABRIEL VALLEY: THE HIDDEN HISTORIES OF L.A.'S MELTING POTS - SAT. 2/27... Come on a century's social history tour through the transformation of neighborhoods, punctuated with immersive stops to sample the varied cultures that make our changing city so beguiling. Voter registration, citizenship classes, Chicano Moratorium, walkouts, blow-outs, anti-Semitism, adult education, racial covenants, boycotts, The City Beautiful, Exclusion Acts and Immigration Acts, property values, xenophobia, and delicious dumplings--all are themes which will be addressed on this lively excursion. This whirlwind social history tour will include: The Vladeck Center, Hollenbeck Park, Evergreen Cemetery, The Venice Room, El Encanto & Cascades Park, Divine's Furniture and Wing Hop Fung. (Buy tickets here.)
WILD WILD WESTSIDE - SAT. 3/12... Think there's no weird history on the Westside? Come thrill to tales of teenaged terrors, tortured tots, wicked wives, evil spirits, cults, creeps and assorted maniacs, like Weird Ward, boy husband of the nefarious cult leader who compelled her followers to carry her dead victims all across 1920s L.A., and the peculiar Helen Love, murderess who nearly escaped justice when she willed herself into a coma. Plus a true-life Hansel and Gretel story, the grand hotel that was a flop house for the Synanon Cult and a ghastly killing beneath the pier. It's a tour so wild, we had to say it twice. (Buy tickets here.)
THE BIRTH OF NOIR: JAMES M. CAIN'S SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA NIGHTMARE - SAT. 3/19... This tour digs deep into the literature, film and real life vices that inform that most murderous genre, film noir, rolling through Hollywood, Glendale and old Skid Row, lost lion farms, murderous sopranos, fascist film censors, offbeat cemeteries -- all in a quest to reveal the delicious, and deeply influential, nightmares that are author Cain's gift to the world. (Buy tickets here.)
HOTEL HORRORS & MAIN STREET VICE - SAT. 3/29... Through the 1940s, downtown was the true city center, a lively, densely populated, exciting and sometimes dangerous place. But while many of the historic buildings remain, their human context has been lost. This downtown double feature tour is meant to bring alive the old ghosts and memories that cling to the streets and structures of the historic core, and is especially recommended for downtown residents curious about their neighborhood's neglected history. (Buy tickets here.)
HOLLYWOOD! - SAT. 4/2... This new tour reveals the unwritten history of the sleepy suburb that birthed the American dream factory, a neighborhood packed with fascinating lore and architectural marvels. You won’t see the stars’ homes or hear about their latest real estate deals, but we’ll show you where some colorful characters breathed their last, got into trouble that defined the rest of their lives and came up with ideas that the world is still talking about. So for unforgettable stories you won’t hear on anyone else’s Hollywood tour, climb aboard and tour Cross Roads of the World (Robert V. Derrah, 1936) and much more. (Buy tickets here.)
PASADENA CONFIDENTIAL - SAT. 4/9... The Crown City masquerades as a calm and refined retreat, where well-bred ladies glide around their perfect bungalows and everyone knows what fork to use first. But don't be fooled by appearances. Dip into the confidential files of old Pasadena and meet assassins and oddballs, kidnappers and slashers, black magicians and all manner of maniac in a delightful little tour you won't find recommended by the better class of people. (Buy tickets here.)
LAVA's FORENSIC SCIENCE SEMINAR - SUN. 4/17... Murder Will Out: The Secret World of Trace Evidence, a four-hour presentation held at the teaching crime labs of Cal State Los Angeles. (For more info, click here.)
In the latest edition of You Can't Eat the Sunshine, we get the inside scoop on Barlow Sanitarium's legendary gift shop from 99 year-old Margaret Freed, shopkeeper. Plus, a visit with performance artist Elisha Shapiro maestro of Downtown L.A.'s 1984 Nihilist Olympics. Click here to tune in.
AND FINALLY, LINKS
A truly great neon sign at risk. Save Sun-Lake Drugs on site!
Making deals to save fragments of gay L.A. history.
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