Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Untold Stories

Hello Everyone:

Hurray!  We hit 2000 page views.  Let's break out the champagne and the party hats.  I'm so honored by your continued support.  My gratitude is endless.  When I started this blog in January, and my other blog, it was with the idea of staying out of trouble and the malls.  This blog in particular began as a research tool with the intention of eventually doing something scholarly.  Well I am doing the something scholarly and I'm definitely learning plenty.  I hope you are too.  I've grown to enjoy the time I spend writing about architecture, historic preservation, urban planning and design.  I'm finding that now that I write for myself and you, I'm feeling more confident in the fact that I have something meaningful to contribute.  As always, I'm indebted to you for your continued support.  I look forward to continuing to build my readership with your help.  As always, I'll keep writing if you keep reading.  With much love and gratitude,
Lenore Lowen

African American Union Soldier
Now on to today's subject: an upcoming documentary on the untold stories of the American Civil War (1861-65).  I chose this subject because, with all the focus on the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Justice, the Civil War seems to have gotten lost in the shuffle.  Ending slavery was one of the reasons for the conflict.  There were a myriad of other reasons.  However, in director Chris Wheeler's documentary series Civil War: The Untold Story, slated for 2014, looks at the "War Between The States" through the prism of the Western Campaign, exploring the role that slavery, politics, the home front, and the unknown roles of the African Americans played in the Civil War.  For the purposes of this blog, we'll focus on the last point.  Thanks in part to popular literature, most Americans still hold the assumption that "The Emancipation Proclamation," issued by President Abraham Lincoln (not Daniel Day Lewis)  instantly set all the slaves held in the southern states free.  However, Ira Berlin, in his paper "Who Freed The Slaves? Emancipation And Its Meaning in American Life," ( explores the question of did President Lincoln's document actually free the slaves or was there something else at work.  The point Mr. Berlin makes is that there are two schools of thought at work on the subject: those who view emancipation as the slaves' great struggle to free themselves and those who see the hand of the "Great Emancipator" at work.  While I'm not going to get into the subject, it is worth reading up on if only to gain greater insight.

Like most Americans, director Chris Wheeler
Corinth Contraband Camp
knew nothing about the contraband camps.  Mr. Wheeler first learned about the camps while working on a film for the Shiloh National Military Park in southern Tennessee.  For the record, the National Park Service interprets both Shiloh and Corinth Contraband Camp in Corinth, Mississippi.  Mr. Wheeler never gave much pause to the gap between the start of the Civil War in April 1861 and the promulgation of the Emancipation Proclamation.  What fascinated the director was the courageous manner used by the slave to secure their own destiny.  He interviewed Dr. Deirdre Cooper Owens of the University of Mississippi who explained, "The very presence of a contraband camp I think speaks volumes to the testimony of black people's ability to create power even in the most powerless situation."

Verandah House, Corinth
How does one connect the Contraband Camps with the Emancipation Proclamation?  Like many historic events, the Emancipation Proclamation did not exist in a vacuum.  The former could not exist without the latter.  To put it in proper perspective, thousands of men, women, children, and the elderly saw the beginning of the war as an opportunity to seize the moment and make a run a freedom in the Union states.  No one, including the president himself could've anticipated this.  The Fugitive Slave of 1850 was still on the books and for all intents and purposes, the Union forces were legally obligated to return runaway slaves to their masters.  The question before lawmakers was "In this time of civil war, were the contrabands still slaves or were they now free?"  Congress attempted to address the situation with The Confiscation Acts."  Mr. Wheeler found the actions of the escaping slaves inspiring and it gave him the political capital to what he intended to do-free the  3.9 million human beings living bondage in the South.  Thus, the Emancipation Proclamation was positioned as crucial to the Union "war effort."

Battle of Corinth, MS
 Corinth is a particularly interesting case study. Following the victory of the Union forces at Shiloh under General (later President) Ulysses S. Grant, the troops advanced on the south and captured a strategic rail center at Corinth, Mississippi.  Corinth was in the heart of cotton country and had a large slave population within a 200-mile radius.  Most of the contraband camps in the South were overcrowded, disease-ridden, and chaotic.  However, the Corinth camp was the exception to this.  The camp was organized in November 1862.  The escaping slaves set to build a community-laying out streets, constructing homes, a church, and hospital.  Volunteers from the American Missionary Association arrived and began to teach the refugees to read and write, still forbidden by law.  The missionaries were astounded by the zeal in which the former slaves showed for learning.  I wish more people still had that kind of zeal.

Corinth Contraband Camp
Corinth Contraband Camp was eventually disbanded but in the interim, it represent the necessary first step to freedom.  The camp was a look at what freedom could be like and a what the struggles ahead were like.  During the building of the camp, the refugees were ordered to evacuate to another camp in Memphis.  Dr. Amy Murrell Taylor of the University of Kentucky noted that Corinth, "has a lot of hope and a lot of promise but it is blown away in some ways by the changes in the military situation, and in some ways that really is representative of what happens in a lot of places, tell use something about what it means to become free in the middle of a war.  So the story of Corinth is, in some ways the story of what happens everywhere."  The story of Corinth Contraband Camp illustrates the point that the slaves were not waiting around to be emancipated, as it has been passed down through popular lore.  Rather, they seized the moment and took matters into their own hands, becoming agents of their own freedom.  In many ways, the story of Corinth Contraband Camp reflects the struggles and triumphs of the Civil Rights Movement that continues to this very day.

Woman and girl learning to read

Woman doing the laundry

        Finally, what is the take away from Chris Wheeler's  Civil War: The Untold Story?  Ken Burns' monumental series Civil Wars relied mainly on archival photography, supplemented by with highly produced battle re-enactments that involved hundreds of re-enactors and shot on the actual sites.  Regarding the film Lincoln, Civil War: The Untold Story delves into the story line that ultimately led to the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment and, thus, can be viewed as a sort of prequel.  Mr. Wheeler's documentary focuses on the "Western Campaigns" that took places in Tennessee, Mississippi, Georgia.  The camera lens is trained on the previously untold stories of the conflict, particularly those of the African Americans and their journey from slave, to contraband, to emancipation to joining the military to fight for their freedom.

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Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Humble Place, Humble People, Big Events 50th-anniversary-of-the-march-on-washington/#.UhUk82RVR91

March on Washington for Job and Justice
Hello Everyone:

I noticed that we are oh so close to the 2,000 page view mark.  I feel so humbled by your continued support.  It makes sitting in front of the computer less lonely.  I thank you from the bottom of my heart.  In advance of the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Justice, August 28, 1963, I thought I might present five historic monuments that commemorate the events and people that participated in the modern Civil Rights Movement.  These are not necessarily big boldfaced places.  Rather, they're more modest sites that played a large role in the in the fight for racial equality.  When I say modern Civil Rights Movement, I'm referring to the activity that took place between the mid-fifties through the sixties.  The Civil Rights Movement in the United States actually sprang to life in the nineteenth century, picking up steam after the Civil War (1861-65).  My intention today is to tell about five places that loomed large in American history not stand on some soapbox and preach.  Rather, I'd like you to use this post to reflect on how far we've come in the struggle for true equality and how much further we have to go.

The Rosa Parks Bus
On December 1, 1955 Rosa Parks made history by refusing to give up her sit in the "whites only" section of a Montgomery, Alabama bus when ordered to do so by driver James F. Blake.  This courageous act of defiance landed her in jail and sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott.  Mrs. Parks was not the first to take such a stand.  Irene Morgan made her stand in 1946, Sarah Louise Keyes in 1955, and members of the Browder v. Gayle lawsuit (Claudette Colvin, Aurelia Browder, Susie McDonald, and Mary Louise Smith) were arrested months before.  Their actions helped revive the Civil Rights Movement in the mid-twentieth century.  The actual bus was found decades after this action lying unprotected in a field, deteriorating.  In 2002 the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan, where Mrs. Parks and her family eventually moved to, restored this iconic bus to its 1955 appearance and placed on permanent exhibition.

The Daisy Bates House
 At first glance the Daisy Bates House in Little Rock, Arkansas is just another unassuming house on a quiet street.  However, within the walls of this modest looking house, big things took place.  Daisy Lee Gaston Bates and her husband were leading figures in the African American community in Little Rock.  They published the African American community newspaper, the Arkansas State Press, which publicized the U.S. Supreme Court's desegregation rulings.  Ms. Bates was the principal organizer and guiding force of the "Little Rock Nine," a group of student who integrated Central High School in Little Rock.  The house became a haven and command central for the "Little Rock Nine."  Daisy Bates went on to become a nationally recognized Civil Rights figure for her work to desegregate Central High School.

The Lorraine Motel

The Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee is the site of the assassination of the Reverend Martin Luther King at the hands of James Earl Ray.  The Rev. King was in Memphis to support the strike by the city's sanitation workers.  An assassin's bullet cut down the Rev. King as he stood on the balcony of his room. The motel was built in 1925 as a "whites only"  establishment.  By the end of World War II, the motel became an African American motel, hosting jazz musicians such as Cab Calloway and Count Basie.  It is now home to the National Civil Rights Museum, following a difficult fight to save the motel from foreclosure or demolition.

Freedom Rides Museum
A humble Greyhound bus station in Montgomery, Alabama that became the launch pad for a daring act of defiance.  The Freedom Riders were a group of Civil Rights activists who rode interstate buses in the segregated south to challenge the non-enforcement of Supreme Court rulings which declared segregated public buses unconstitutional.  The first Freedom Ride left Washington D.C on May 4, 1961 for the city of New Orleans.  The riders encountered frenzied mob violence in Alabama.  Despite the frenzy, the Freedom Rides continued, inspiring subsequent civil rights campaigns such as voter registration throughout the South.  This modest bus station could have been demolished but remains as a witness to the bravery of the men and women who boarded the buses and raised their voices in Freedom songs.  It is currently the home of the Freedom Rides Museum, which encompasses the courthouse where former U.S. District Judge Frank M. Johnson, Jr presided over important civil rights cases.  This bus station is next door to the place where, in 1961, an integrated group of students used nonviolent means to protest segregation.

F.W. Woolworth Building
 A Woolworth Five and Dime store in Greensboro, North Carolina that became the site of student activism that would change the face of segregation forever.  On February 1, 1960 four first year students from the Agricultural and Technical College of North Carolina sat down in four vacant sits at the "whites only" counter at the five and dime.  Franklin McCain, Joseph MacNeil, David Richmond, and Ezell Blair had no idea what would happen when they sat down to order a cup of coffee.  They were ignored by the waitresses, the store manager, and a police officer.  They were taunted by some and praised by others.  The next day they were joined by nineteen others, the day after their number grew to eighty-five, black and white students.  Before the week was out this number rose to 400.  They organized shifts so no one would miss class.  This movement snowballed into Hampton, Virginia and Nashville, Tennessee.  By the end of the summer thirty-three southern cities, including Greensboro integrated their restaurants and lunch counters.  The following years, 126 cities followed suit.

These modest buildings that I've just presented to you had enormous impact on the course of American history.  The people that inhabited them and the events that took place within these walls propelled this country forward into the twentieth century and beyond.  The people were not politicians, they were private individuals who had enough and took a stand.  Their actions resonate today through the people and events that seek change and social justice across the globe.

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Monday, August 26, 2013

Edifice Complex

Hello Everyone:

After a bit of a crazy making week that involved exterminators, dead cockroaches, a lost and found wallet, things are back to something that resembles normal.  However, with the High Holler-days rapidly approaching, yours truly will have to work find a way to persevere through the frenzy.  I shall endeavor to do my best.  Today, we look at the question of "how high is high?"  Since the biblical Tower of Babel, nations have competed with each other to see who can build the tallest building in the world.  That spirit of competition is alive and well in the twenty-first century.  Historically, the Manhattan skyline has been the epicenter of examples of edifice complexes.  In Brian Palmer's article for Slate, "1,776 Feet. What a Letdown," Mr. Palmer looks at One World Trade Center in context to other skyscrapers and poses the question, why should we settle for fourth place?

One World Trade Center
  When One Trade Center opens in 2014, it'll stand at a symbolic 1,776 feet, marking the victory over terrorism, fear, and despair.  When the design by Skidmore, Owings, Merrill architect David Childs was announced in 2003, the media outlets opined that upon completion, it would be the tallest building in the world.  The New York Times took a more skeptical view.  Yet while the planners, politicians, and architects continue to argue over money and financing (typical), architects in China and the Middle East built taller skyscrapers, sending an important message about the future of the cities these edifice wrecks are located.  One example is the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, coming in at 2,717 feet; the unfinished Shanghai Tower, a petite 2,073 feet, and the Makkah Royal Clock Tower Hotel, a lilliputian 1,971 feet.

Burj Khalifa

Makkah Royal Clock Tower Hotel

Woolworth Building
Hey, what's wrong with us?  We're Americans.  We don't let anybody beat at anything, including building the tallest building in the world.  Ah, but we decided not to respond to this architectural pissing contest.  One World Trade Center takes its place in the Manhattan skyline as a monument to that good old fashioned American spirit of competition and rivalry.  We can thank Elisha Otis, the inventor of the safety brake in the nineteenth century for freeing buildings of height limitations and fueling the urges of captains of American industry to see who can go higher.  The race to see who could higher was about ego and superiority not who could make the most efficient use of land.  When five-and-dime store magnate Frank Woolworth was asked by architect Cass Gilbert how tall Mr. Woolworth wanted his building.  Mr. Woolworth responded by telling his architect to make it fifty feet taller than the Metropolitan Life Insurance Building.  Yours truly is really resisting the urge to make some dirty snarky comment about building heights and men's shortcomings.

In the mid-1920s, the stakes in the "how high is high" race were raised by three architects and their banking and automobile tycoon backers, setting the stage for a pitched battle for skyline supremacy.  Two of these architects, William Van Alen and H. Craig Severance, once partners, now rivals over who should get credit for their early success.  Walter
The Chrysler Building 
Chrysler hired Mr. Van Alen to build the tallest building-The Chrysler Building-only to see it beat by the Manhattan Bank Company Building designed by Mr. Severance.  Never let it be said that architects don't have the biggest egos.  Here's where the story gets interesting.  Not to be outdone by Mr. Severance, Mr. Van Alen built the iconic Art Deco Crown of the Chrysler Building in the hollow of the unfinished structure.  Thus, the public was lead to believe that this ode to Art Deco had topped out its maximum height.  Once H. Craig Severance believed that his rival had won, with flourish (and no doubt relish), William Van Alen pulled the top of the building from within.
The Empire State Building
Unfortunately for Team Chrysler, then-New York State Governor Al Smith and his team of tycoons and architects were getting started on an even taller building, the Empire State Building, which stood for forty years as the tallest building until it was beat by the World Trade Center's North Tower in the early seventies, Rest in Peace.  May the blood of those who died in the towers be avenged, amen.  By the way, all this building frenzy was going on as the United States was sliding into The Great Depression.

Optimistically, the designers of One World Trade Center believed they were building the world's tallest building, as did Minrou Yamasaki, the lead architect of Emery Roth in 1962, when the original towers were designed.  However, the Twin Towers were bested by the Sears (Willis) Tower with Burj Khalifa sneaking up on the Americans.  Brian Palmer concludes that the race to build taller is a fool's errand, something yours truly concurs with.  Taller is not necessarily better.  Ultimately the law of the universe will kick in and disaster will strike.  However, Mr. Palmer seems to contradict himself at the end of his article by acting as a cheerleader for America to go taller.  Mr. Palmer seems to be caught up in the competition to build, even though he states, "That's why this eternal race to the top is something of a fool's game, since it's inevitable that something bigger will come along.  But that's the point!..."  Alright, if the point is to go bigger, then when does going bigger become a fool's game?  At what point does common sense building kick in?  Hey we're Americans and bigger is always better.  Right?

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Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Go Out and Play

Hello Everyone:

I thought today we could talk about something fun, playgrounds.  What could not be more fun than to go to the park and play on the swings or go down a slid, head first?  O.K. a trip to Disneyland beats that any day.  However, if you don't have the ninety-two dollar admission fee (ouch) for the Magic Kingdom, your local playground is a great alternative.  If you're a parent, you can let your children run around until they exhaust themselves.  Kaitlin O'Shea of the blog Preservation in Pink ( recently posted a blog on the National Historic Preservation Trust website on the history of playgrounds.  My fondest recollections of the playground were the swings and the carousel, followed by a visit from the ice cream man.

Advertisement for Giant Stride Playground
As the summer slowly begins to fade, it's time to take a fond look at how playgrounds in America came into being.  Children in the nineteenth century didn't have a playgrounds as we know them today.  The concept of a playground originated in the "sand gardens" in Germany in 1885, where the nuclei of playgrounds first appeared.  The first conception of a playground in the United States showed up in Boston, Massachusetts in 1886.  It wasn't until the twentieth century that playgrounds became a common feature in public spaces.

The idea behind a place for children to play evolved out of the Industrial Revolution.  As cities and industries grew, so did the concern for public welfare.  Social humanitarians saw playgrounds as the best possible alternative to the cramped, dark, dank, squalid isolation of the tenements.  The goal was to keep children off dangerous streets and help them to develop good health and habits, social skills, and have a place to just enjoy being a child.  This still is quite true today.

Ashmead Park Playground
In 1906, the Playground Association of America ( was organized in order to promote the ideas of playgrounds to communities such as benefits, construction and design, conduct and appropriate activities.  Literature from the period directed that an ideal setting would be consist of  separate athletic and playing fields for boys and girls.  Each would be supervised and feature shelters and restroom/bathing facilities.  Hopefully they didn't look as disgusting as park bathrooms do today.  There would also be shaded gardens, gardening plots, and swimming or wading pools-again hopefully they were a lot nicer.  The early playgrounds were not the free-for-alls they are today.  There were trained instructors on the premises supervising activities for the children.  There were lessons and the activities could include equipment lessons, theatrical productions, parades, and other activities.

Swing Playground
 Obviously, there were variations in urban and rural areas, based on the communities' allotted space and finances.  Manufacturing companies soon tapped into the playground idea and began designing and making play equipment.  The early equipment was constructed out of galvanized steel pipes with rectilinear elements such as ladders and chains.  Hey who hasn't among us gotten their fingers caught in the links or all tangled up on a ladder?  Sad to say, these elements would be considered dangerous by today's hyper-safety standards, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission (  Buzz killers.  As the equipment aged they were replaced by newer designs.  Some of the material used for playground equipment included earthen material, concrete, wood, and plastics.  If you'd like a more detailed account of playground, Kaitlin O'Shea recommends The Evolution of American Playgrounds by Dr. Joe Frost of the University of Texas, Austin.

North Plateau Historic Web
Ms. O'Shea sketches out a brief chronology of the history of playgrounds with visual cues for the period:
1880s-1890s-Sand gardens (sandboxes in lots beside buildings, not wood chip piles)
1900s-1920s-Model Playgrounds (tall apparatuses with steel tubes, merry-go-rounds)
1930s-1940s-Development slowed or suspended due to World War II
1940s-1950s-Adventures of Junk Playgrounds (cave explorations, found object building elements, not a lot supervision)
1950s-1970s-Novelty Playgrounds (rocket ships, slides, and all sorts of fun shapes made from metal)
1970s-1980s-Playground standardization (rounded edges and actual concerns for safety)
1980s-present-Modern playgrounds (imaginative shapes with safe surfaces  different themes and materials)

Middle Playground
So what's so historic about historic playgrounds today if they have none of the original equipment and have become sanitized and standardized play areas?  Hard to say.  Ms. O'Shea's go-to answer is a playground with its original equipment and layout.  This would, in her opinion, be a significant historic resource.  Unfortunately, an extant playground from the early days cannot be be preserved today because of safety regulations.  That's not to say that the rehabilitation, restoration, and preservation of historic playgrounds isn't possible.  Of course they do exist and can be found.  Ms. O'Shea concludes that while these historic playgrounds are available, the physical elements are fleeting, interchangeable.  Thus what makes them historic?  More than the equipment, what makes them historic is the location, design, and construction that are tailored to social welfare, school activities, community development and planning, offering a cultural connection to a neighborhood.

Playground montage
Thus, the greater historic significance of a playground is in situ.  From their start as a healthier alternative to the streets, playgrounds offered a safe place for children to run around and enjoy the day.  They soon grew to become healthy respites for their parents and other adults looking for a break from the crowded tenements and factories.  Playgrounds are places for everyone.  They are indeed an egalitarian place where everyone can come out and enjoy the day.  Personally speaking, I'm fortunate to live in a community where there is a playground within walking distance.  While I'm too big to slide head first into the sand, I do use the exercise equipment in the park.  Me and the people I've met there have formed a bond, we look out for each other.  It's a beautiful thing.  NOW GO OUT AND PLAY.

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Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Gentefication change-but-avoid-the-pitfalls.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

Boyle Heights
Hello Everyone:

Today's topic is a twist on gentrification-gentefication.  ¿Que es gentefication?  Gentefication is a trend occurring in Boyle Heights, a primarily Latino community in East Los Angeles, where younger more affluent Mexican-Americans are returning to the neighborhood their parents fled.  This trend has given the community a much needed frisson and money.  In her article for the New York Times (, "Los Angeles Neighborhood Tries to Change, but Avoid the Pitfalls," Jennifer Medina looks at who this new burst of energy is affecting the historic neighborhood while its residents try to avoid all the pitfalls of gentrification and retain its character.

The Mariachi

Before we get to deep into the subject, let's take a look at Boyle Heights itself.  For this, we go to the Los Angeles Times neighborhood link.  According to the 2000 census, the population is about 92,756 people; the Los Angeles Department of City Planning 2008 estimate places that number at 99,243 people.  Boyle Heights is about 6.52 miles with a density of 14,229 people per square mile, making this community among the highest densities for any county.  The population is overwhelmingly Latino with the remaining six percent composed of Caucasians, Asians, African-Americans, and other (i.e. Native-American and Pacific Islander.  The median income (in 2008 dollars) is $33,235.  The majority of the populations has less than a high school education. (

Map showing where Boyle Height is located
Boyle Heights has had a reputation as neighborhood plagued by violent gangs, failing public schools, and residents that were living just barely above the poverty line.  However, this is changing.  Recently, the crime rate has dropped.  While the residents of this predominantly immigrant community in East L.A. are struggling just to get by, there indications of change.  In this case, the influx of younger, well-to-do Mexican-Americans returning to their parents' old neighborhood.  This transition has given the neighborhood a real shot of energy and a source of money but it has also created a source of friction among the working-class residents.

The tensions among the community are a sign
Mariachi Plaza
that the Latino population has come of age in the City of Angeles and are expected to be the majority population group this year.  These changes highlight strong class division that continue, or are exacerbated, among immigrants.  Quoting Marco Amador, an Internet radio station operator, Jennifer Medina writes, "We're not trying to get of the barrio [neighborhood, blogger translation], we're trying to bring the barrio up."  The radio station is about a block down from Mariachi Plaza, which for years has attracted musicians looking for work at weddings and other celebrations

Historically, Boyle Heights, has attracted immigrants from Eastern Europe, Russia,
Japan, and Mexico.  In the sixties, it became the epicenter for Chicano activism and the myriads of colorful murals on wall around the neighborhood are a reminder of the that era.Evonne Gallardo, the executive director of Self Help Graphics, an arts group that has worked in the community for decades, first heard about plans to designate part of the neighborhood as an arts district, she welcomed the idea.  However, when Ms. Gallardo began to hear complaints from longtime residents, she organized discussions with community activists that morphed into debates about the direction of change and how to avoid the pitfalls.  Quoting Ms. Gallardo, Ms. Medina writes, "We all can think of examples of neighborhoods we don't want to be...But we don't know exactly what we do want.  It's not just about staving off Starbucks, but how do we keep the things that attract use to this neighborhood in the first place..."  Interestingly, Jennifer Medina does not go into any detail about what the pitfalls of change are.  This leaves the reader to speculate if she implies loft condominiums, a Whole Foods, yoga studios, and all the other talisman of trendy neighborhoods.

The original Canter's Deli
Self Help Graphics

Homeboy Industries Mural

Whatever changes, a vaguely concept, Union de Vecinos, a tenants rights organization headed by Leonardo Vilchis, will be standing up for renters that are likely to be severely impacted.  Quoting Mr. Vilchis, "People want to pretend that their actions don't have an impact on the people already living here, but when prices go up, the poor have to go someplace else."  Up the block from Self Help is Primera Taza (First Cup, blogger translation) is selling four-dollar lattes.  Next door is a sign of trendiness-Eastside Luv, a bar that pulls in younger patrons called chipsters-Chicano hipsters.  Guillermo Uribe, who opened the bar several years ago, and others see change and inevitable.  They reason that if the people in the neighborhood don't take action to preserve the cultural integrity of the neighborhood then an outside developer could come in and turn the community into another bastion for hipsters.

CicLAvia event
As a child in East L.A., Mr. Uribe remembered that saving money to buy a home in the suburbs was the implicit goal.  Now his bar attracts customers with six-figure incomes looking for homes in Boyle Heights.  The residential real estate market has swung back and forth; from boom to bust and back according to Maria Cabildo, the executive director of the East Los Angeles Community Corporation (, which is dedicated to creating low-cost housing and works with first time buyers in the area.  The current trend is investors are making cash offers and quickly flipping the homes for almost double the cost of what they paid.  Ms. Cabildo bemoans the fact that working class individuals and families can't enter and compete in the real estate market.  However, she does see a silver lining in all the college graduates moving into the area.

Several years ago, a number of light-rail stations opened up and the residents welcomed the improved access to public transit, a big change for the neighborhood that was cut off from the rest of the city.  Others were concerned that it would prompt large housing developments like the ones created in Hollywood.  n fact, current plans to replace a number of low-slung apartments with high-rise condominiums have been met with fierce opposition.  For some, like Armando de La Torre and Alfred Frajio, the suburbs were not a good fit.  Both were raised to equate suburbs with success but returned to Boyle Heights.  Suburbia was not appealing, they wanted access to the places and services that make city living more appealing.  While others have fought against the introduction of large retail centers, Mr. Frajio has championed it, reasoning that it would keep people from running to the suburbs to do their shopping.

The Boyle Heights community organizers and residents have yet to figure out which direction they want to take all the changes happening in their neighborhood while retaining the Mexican-American cultural heritage.  It should be exciting to watch and hopefully it'll be a model for other ethnic communities facing the same issues.

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Monday, August 19, 2013

Tearing Down Modernist Gems In Order to Build McMansions

Hello Everyone:

We have a full week ahead of us.  I've a full range of very fascinating topics on architecture, historic preservation, urban planning and design that I'm eager to share with you.  Once again, the universe has thrown a wrench into my schedule.  I had an exterminator come to my apartment this morning to deal with an invasion force of cockroaches, only to be told that he has to do the job in two parts.  Second, I still have to get that very necessary smog check in order to drive (cough) in the state of California.  Despite all this, I shall make every effort to block out time to share my views on some very interesting stories.  First up, is the story of some hidden modernist gems that currently on the Los Angeles real estate market.  The lovely homes are endanger of being torn down in order to make room for very garish McMansions.  In his article for The Daily Beast, "Trading Modernist For McMansion," reporter Andrew Romano introduces the reader to a few of these jewels and the fate that awaits them.

The Clinton Backus House

Our first house is the Clinton Backus House in Bel Air, California.  in 1949, Clinton Backus and his wife commissioned Swedish émigré designer Greta Magusson Grossman (1906-99) to build a home for them in the hill of this affluent community.  Greta Magusson Grossman studied at the renown Stockholm arts institute, Högen Konstindustriella Skolan, where she excelled in technical drawings and focused her work on textiles, furniture, and ceramics.  Ms. Grossman immigrated to the United States in 1940, settling in Los Angeles with her husband, jazz bandleader Billy Grossman.  In Los Angeles, she opened a shop dedicated to her design work, calling it "Swedish modern furniture, rugs, lamps, and
Greta Magusson Grossman
other home furnishings."  Her most enduring work in Los Angeles was her architectural commissions.  Between 1949 and 1959, Ms. Grossman designed fourteen homes in Los Angeles, one in San Francisco, and one in Sweden.  One of those Los Angeles Commissions was the Backus House, an 1,800 square foot, three bedroom, three bath residence.  The house is about five hundred square smaller than today's average home, so you would think it would fit right in, yes?  No.

While the Backus House still stands in the place where it was originally built, sprawling and ghastly-looking mega-mansions have begun spring up around this little treasure because of Los Angeles' overheated real estate market.  This lovely home is one of the few surviving examples of residential architecture by a woman, who is now considered one of the best designers of her time. (GRRRL POWER).  Sad to report that it may not survive to much longer.  The irony of the situation is, beginning in the twenties, the potent combination of climate, terrain, and a group of young progressive (European) architects and clients triggered a growth of modern residential architecture that culminated in the groundbreaking Case Study House Program sponsored by Arts & Architecture magazine.  This program feature some amazing single-family homes designed by the era's top architects.  As Andrew Romano boldly points out, while the modern conception of the single family home may have been born in Europe, it matured in Southern California.

Thanks to Dwell magazine (, modernist architecture and design have never been more popular.  I can certainly attest to this fact from my own observations of the plethora of modernist-ish furniture stores in my neighborhood.  Dwell is a monthly ode to the styles and architecture of such bold-faced twentieth century names as Richard Neutra, Rudolph M. Schindler, and John Lautner.  Homes designed by these architects and their contemporaries do fetch a hefty price on the open market.   Thus, it might be natural to conclude that the property owners would want to everything in their power to maintain their unique homes.  Not exactly

While the bold-faced houses such as The Stahler House (Case Study House #22) by Pierre Koenig are not in immediate danger, it's the lesser known houses, located on prime lots in expensive neighborhoods such as Bel Air and Brentwood, that are in real danger in Los Angeles' current real estate market.  In the last year, the Los Angeles real estate market posted an average gain in the average sale prices-207 percent.  Andrew Romano quotes Regina O'Brian the chairperson of the Los Angeles Conservancy's Modern Committee (, "An economic downturn is always a good thing for preservation...fewer developers are making a lot less money, and therefore they have less motivation to pursue these profit oriented flips.  But the problem is that the opposite is true when the market picks back up."  Coupled with this is aging owners now realize that their equally aging homes can bring in top dollar in the market and the preservation-inclined buyers are outbid by buyers who want to tear these homes down and build Mediterranean-esque eyesores.  The modernist homes are quite modest by the contemporary standards of the communities they're located in.  Most potential home owners want more house than necessary and anything less is cause for the bulldozers.

Davidson-Kingsley House

Such is the case for the Davidson-Kingsley House (1947).  The house was designed by German-born architect J.R. Davidson, who also designed the first two Case Study Houses in 1945.  The Davidson-Kingsley Residence was/is sited on an ocean-facing lot in the Pacific Palisades and from the street,  appeared to be an unremarkable builder's ranch-style house.  The interior was the real star of the show: a "house without halls."  A feature requested by the client consisting of free-flowing spaces with airy rooms, custom lighting and furniture, and large sliding doors that opened onto elevated terraces.  When it was put for sale in February, it was bought for $4.2 million dollars.  The Davidson-Kingsley
Davidson-Kingsley House, interior
House was the last of the unaltered houses by the German architect in Los Angeles.  In the final contract, dated April 2, it sold for $360,000 over the asking price.  Mr. Romano's recent visit confirmed the sad but true fact that this priceless house was headed for a date with the bulldozer.  The garage is filled with broken boards and crushed plaster; appliances are scattered in the yard.  The new owner thinks that bigger is better.

Schairer  House
Sometimes, at-risk houses don't always meet with such a tragic end.  One such house is the Schairer House (1949) designed by mid-century modern architect and former USC School of Architecture professor Gregory Ain.  The house was designed for a RAND Corporation aerospace engineer and went up for sale in April.  It was bought for a mere $3.199 million.  At the time of the sale, there was a great deal of moaning and hand wringing over the fact that this house would meet its doom.  However, I'm happy to report that the new owners have seen the light and hired an architect to over see the complete restoration.  Hurray.  Whatever your opinion on the subject,  not everyone loves modernist architecture.  For some people, modernism is the best thing that ever happened to architecture and for others, it just leaves them cold.  Yours truly loves the modern architecture and design from the twenties through the fifties.  Even the most dedicated modernist doesn't believe in demonizing home buyers for wanting to personalize their space.  However, even in Los Angeles, the character and the history of the city are mirrored in the architecture.

Feldman House

Gregory Ain Spec House at MOMA

Currently, there is another Gregory Ain House up for sale: the Feldman House (1953) in Beverly Hills.  The house was commissioned by psychiatrist Fred Feldman and his wife Elaine after the saw an Ain designed three bedroom spec house on exhibit in the garden of the Museum of Modern Art in New York in the fifties.  The Feldman House is one of the last houses designed by Gregory Ain and the least known.  This U-shaped gem features honey-colored wood paneling, vast living spaces, and a long glass wall that overlooks an acre of private sloping forest.  However, in an ideal world, the Feldman House would live another sixty years.  This gem and other modernist jewels deserve the right kind of buyer who will appreciate its design and rehabilitate them.

It's tragic when a piece, even a small piece, of a city's architectural history is felled by a bulldozer to make for an ostentatious display of ego.  Just because you want to personalize your space doesn't mean you should.  By the same token,  these homes were never meant to be museum pieces.  People lived in them.  Instead of treating them like exhibits under glass, it's best to clean them up, make all the necessary repairs. and live.  Regardless of what you think, houses, like the ones profiled in this post should be appreciated for their quality and timelessness of design.

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Sunday, August 18, 2013

Sunday August 18, 2013 Update

Hello Everyone:

I just wanted to check in and let all of you know what's going on.  First, I'd like to give a shout out to the eagle-eye of Joe Redpath, who informed me that the image of the Serpentine Gallery I post on my blog about Peter Zumthor and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art was not designed by Mr. Zumthor but by another well-known architect Daniel Liebskind.  The image has been changed on both the blog and pinterest board.  Thanks Joe for spotting it and letting me know.  Speaking of Peter Zumthor and the LACMA, in today's edition of the Los Angeles Times letters to the editor (, two of my fellow Angelenos had plenty to say regarding Christopher Hawthorne's article last Sunday about Peter Zumthor.  One letter writer expressed concerns about the Tar Pits and why that wasn't being addressed in the proposed redesign.  Another letter writer wanted to know why it was necessary, once again, to import an architect to inject some culture into us West Coast hicks when we have so many fine architects already working and living in the City of Angels.  Good question.

I have some great topics on preservation and urban planning coming up this coming week.

Finally, I've posted the images of the week on Pinterest  Go and check it out.

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Talk to you tomorrow

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Housing Middle Finger Salute

Hello Everyone:

1013 V Street NW
How's everyone's week going so far?  Mine is going alright.  You know the same old, same old.  Today's topic is about a recent addition to a Washington D.C. row house that has been described, for lack of any other description, as a "big middle finger."  It kind of sticks out like a big sore thumb doesn't it?  Sorry, since we're on a finger metaphor thing I thought I might add my two cents.  What do you think?  Personally, I think it does stand out from the rest of the neighborhood.  It's not particularly attractive.  Washington Post columnist Petula Dvorak, in her article "Addition to D.C. rowhouse on V Street NW is ugly but should matter," as unquestionably ugly and asks the question, should that matter?

The "middle finger" under construction
What is it?  It is a three-story pop-up addition on top of an otherwise nondescript rowhouse on V Street, that despite it's haters, isn't illegal.  Credit the weblog DCist ( for coming up with the descriptive moniker "big middle finger."  In a blog post on March 29, 2013, Martin Austermuhle writes that the house was sold to a Leesburg, Virginia-based LLC on September 2011 for a mere $386,000.  In May 2012, the LLC was given permission to convert the two-story 1,072 square-foot house into a five-story sore thumb (there's that finger metaphor again) which will contain three condominiums.  Mr. Austermuhle was not exactly shy about describing the addition as "monstrosity."  Some much for being objective.  Meanwhile, the blog Prince of Petworth ( has been following the progress of the Virginia developer's efforts to convert a modest single family rowhouse into three separate condominium units.  With every entry, there's talk about density, growth, new money, demographic, and gentrification, and are the new residents of D.C. going to live.

Demographic Trend by Age

The demographic trends of the nation's capital indicate that the population is getting younger and whiter.  Their growing numbers have outpaced the growth of African American residents.  The city also gained 6,500 non-Hispanic whites in 2012, which make up 35.5 percent of the areas 632,000 residents. (Morello, Washington Post, 6-12-13).  Further, like a number of metropolitan areas, the district is gentrifying.  In particular, the gentrification activities are currently focused on on a one mile area of 14th Street NW.  All the usual talismans of the gentrification are going up at a rapid pace and there's concern it'll seep into V Street.  Where are these new residents going to live and who are they?

Since the spring of 2010, the district has gained 16,000 new residents, growing at a rapid pace not seen in previous years.  This number has since grown in the preceding three years.  When the 2010 U.S. Census were released in the spring of 2011, it was estimated that the city's population was 618,000 in July of that year, up 2.7 percent from the
Housing Demographic 2010
2010 Census figure.  At this rate, D.C. is projected to continue growing as it continues to attract more new residents.  This growth is the result of successful maneuvering a turnaround in the city's fortunes and image.  The city has gone from being a crime-ridden corrupt place to being one of the coolest places to live.  However,  three out of the four young new residents aren't interested in suburban living. ( Morello, Washington Post, 12-21-11) Thus, the greater need for multifamily, multi-unit housing.

Demographics and other issues aside, the first question, according to Petula Dvorak, is thing legal?  According to Helder
V Street Super Pop-Up
Gil, the spokesman for the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, the answer is yes, it is perfectly legal.  However, due to the numerous complaints and questions from furious neighbors, department representatives have gone out to check the structural integrity of the addition, height, permits, zoning, and code issues.  No other building has created this much chaos and drama.  When Ms. Dvorak tried to reach the developer to inquire about he thinks about the criticism and how much he intends to charge for each unit, the developers was "unavailable."

Truthfully, ugly is not illegal.  When it comes to health, human occupation, and safety, building codes don't give a hoot about aesthetics.  Can you image some of the great buildings of the past trying to get past building and safety departments today?  Me neither.  Staying in the Washington D.C. area for a moment, if you go out to historic neighborhoods such as Georgetown, you have homeowner associations an historic preservation overlay zone boards weighing in on every single minute addition.  It's enough to drive a person up a tree.  Everyone has an opinion about everything.  I think the problem people are having with this pop-up is that it doesn't blend into the building and surrounding neighborhood at all.

In the short-run, it's an eyesore, an oddity at best.  In the long-run it might blend in with all the other pop-ups.  Personally speaking, compared to the WTFs I've seen elsewhere, this pop-up is pretty tame.  Although I'm not crazy about the exterior paint, but that's just me.

I'm hoping to have fresh images up on Pinterest ( over the weekend.  If not, then definitely by Monday.  In the meantime:
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Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Mississippi Delta

Ode to the Mississippi Delta
Hello Everyone:

I noticed today that we're up to 1700 page views.  As always my gratitude to is boundless.  Can we do 2000?  I think we're up to the challenge.  I keep writing and you keep reading.  Before I launch into today's topic, I just want to let you know that I've created a board with images from Peter Zumthor and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.  Some of the images did not appear in yesterday's post so check it out at and please follow me.  On to today's topic.

Map of the Mississippi Delta
Today's topic is inspired by the  upcoming fiftieth anniversary of the historic March on Washington D.C.  The march, is perhaps, best known as the moment when the late Reverend Martin Luther King gave his famous "I have a Dream" speech.  It was no doubt an auspicious moment in American and world history.  The march took place on August 28, 1963 on the Mall in Washington D.C. in front of the Lincoln Memorial and was the single largest demonstration in American history at that point.  It's not my intention today to go into an in depth history of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, rather, I would like to focus on the Mississippi Delta Region and its role in American culture and history.

The Mississippi Delta is a culturally and historically rich region with stories of the Civil War, Civil Rights, and the blues.  These stories run deep as the Mississippi River itself and tell the tale of a special time and place.  The Mississippi Delta is place that has often been romanticized in song, poetry, and prose.  The delta was a very real place that saw both good and bad times.  It is still a place of incredible hardship but throughout its history, the events and people that have come out this storied region have changed the course of American history for both good and bad.  The coming autumn, the National Historic Preservation Trust ( and the Mississippi Delta Heritage Area ( will be inviting visitors for a week-long tour of this fable region.  The tour is set to take place from September 28, 2013 through October 4, 2013.  If you love the blues and want to learn more about the REAL history of the American south, then check out this excursion that will take you to antebellum homes, a Civil War battle field and the last remaining juke joint in the South.  Lucky tour goers get to sample real Delta cuisine (no diets allowed), enjoy blues performances, and hear the stories of people who made history.  Here's just a sample of what you'll see.

Vicksburg National Military Park
Vicksburg National Military Park in Vicksburg, MS was established in 1899 and tells the story of the Battle of Vicksburg.  The Siege of Vicksburg lasted from May 18 to July 4, 1863 (the same day as the Gettysburg Address) and was the final major military campaign in Vicksburg.  The Union forces, led by General (later President) Ulysses S. Grant and his Army of Tennessee crossed the Mississippi River and drove the Confederate Army of Vicksburg, led by Lt. General John C. Pemberton into the defensive lines around the city.  The siege began on May 25, 1863.  Confederate forces held out for forty days before surrendering on July 4.  The story of the battle and siege are told through 1,325 monuments, a Union gunboat, reconstructed forts and trenches, and exhibits.  The Vicksburg National Cemetery, country's largest burial site of Union soldiers, is located in the park.  If you visit, please make sure you pay your respects to the soldiers of both sides of the war.

B.B. King Museum and  Delta Interpretative Center
Do you love the blues?  Then you're in for a real treat at the B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretative Center (  Demerit points if you don't who this king of rhythm and blues is.  I had the very distinct pleasure of seeing King B.B. perform once along with his naughty twin Buddy Guy and let me tell you it was one the most amazing cultural experiences of my life.  The music just touches a deep place in the soul, lifting you higher and higher.  It captures every human emotion, the hard times and the good times.  Little wonder the blues became associated with the Civil Rights Movement.  Here's a really cool fact, rhythm and blues gave birth to Jazz and Rock and Roll.  The B.B. King Museum is located in Indianola, MS and gives visitors a chance to explore King B.B.'s life and career.

Fannie Lou Hamer Memorial Garden
I was first introduced to Fannie Lou Hamer in Professor Simon Schama's amazing book The American Future (  BUY IT.  Ms Hamer was an American voting rights activist and civil rights leader.  She was instrumental in organizing the Mississippi Freedom Summer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.  Ms. Hamer attended the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey as the Vice-Chair of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party in effort to draw attention to the plight of African-Americans in Mississippi.  With her plain-spoken righteousness, she demanded that the Freedom Democrats be seated at the convention in exchange for their support of Lyndon Johnson's nomination.  The memorial garden is located in Rufeville, MS and was established by local residents to honor Fannie Lou Hamer, who bring the vote to African-Americans in Mississippi in the 1960s.

Goodman, Chaney, Schwerner Memorial

I seriously doubt the memorial to slain Civil Rights workers Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Michael Schwerner will be a stop on the tour but it's worth the visit.  This headstone, located in Neshoba County, MS, is dedicated to the three Civil Rights workers who were kidnapped and lynched by the local Ku Klux Klan on June 21-22, 1964.  The trio had been part of the Freedom Summer Campaign, which attempted to register African-Americans to vote.  Their murders created a national outrage and a massive FBI investigation began, uncovering the bodies forty-four days later.  The furor caused by the murders helped passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  I hope the Supreme Court of the United States remembered their sacrifice when they recently voted to nullify a key provision of the Voting Rights Act.

Tennessee Williams Neighborhood
If you are a lover of theater then Tennessee Williams Neighborhood in Clarksdale, MS is the place for you.  Tennessee Williams is, in my not so humble opinion, one the greats of literature.  Thomas Lanier "Tennessee" Williams III was an American writer mainly known for his plays The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire, was also a prolific author of short stories, novels, essays, and screenplays.  His plays and stories captured the expression of brute nature.  For example, one of his most famous characters  Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire, is based on his memories as a factory co-worker and his nervous breakdown as a young man.  Visitors have an opportunity to tour the historic district including the church where Tennessee Williams' grandfather acted as the rector.

These are just some of the many places commemorating the events and people that shaped American culture and history.  They tell the tales of joy and sorrow; happiness and pain; good times and hardship.  Most of all they are part of what makes up American history and culture as well as contribute to global history and culture.

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