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Jack Smith

Vacant Lots: The Sign Posts of Our History

February 18, 1988|Jack Smith

I passed a brand-new vacant lot on my way downtown the other day and I couldn't remember what had been there.

It was not a new experience. Vacant lots pop up all over Los Angeles, and the edifices that once stood on them are no sooner gone than they're forgotten.

Then, months later, we may wonder what happened to some old landmark we used to love, and suddenly we realize that it has vanished in the night.

Nothing fixes the period in a novel about Los Angeles quicker than the mention of a building that no longer exists.

And yet, thanks in large part to the Los Angeles Conservancy and other conservation groups, a lot of our treasures still stand.

The other night I was rereading "A Savage Place," by the Boston novelist Robert B. Parker, whose detective hero Spenser is now on TV. The book was copyrighted in 1981, which isn't very long ago, yet I was gratified to find that many of the landmarks he describes are still in place.

In this book, Spenser, and I imagine Parker, make one of their rare visits to Los Angeles, and like all Easterners, they are both baffled and attracted by the place and fascinated by the fauna.

"The landscape was sere and hostile," he writes, "naked-looking under the oppressive sun. . . ."

Spenser is met at the airport by a young television reporter: "She was wearing skintight jeans with someone's name on the butt and spiked heels. She had that rolling, arm-swinging walk that spike heels produce in agile women, and even here in Tinsel Town she turned a lot of heads. The top half . . . was covered with a scarlet blouse worn open over a lavender T-shirt. . . ."

There you have the landscape and the wild life.

Parker did his homework. He gets his streets, locations and directions right, which is more than I can always say for myself. He calls Wilshire Boulevard Wilshire Avenue, which no native would do, but that's minor. I once wrote of turning north on Colorado Boulevard.

He stays at the Beverly Hillcrest. "If you looked straight down from the small balcony outside my room you could see the Hollywood Hills and the sign that said HOLLYWOOD, and the sparse high-rises along Sunset and Hollywood boulevards."

His description of Hollywood Boulevard is par for anyone whose vision is not touched by memories of better days: "It (had) a small-town shabbiness: low stucco with paint peeling, burrito stands with plastic Mexicans and plastic cactuses and plastic burros. There were places that sold Hollywood memorabilia and places that sold papaya juice; there were office buildings about the size of those in Pittsfield, Mass., there were gas stations and record stores, and pink and yellow motels, and a steady mingle of street kids and tourists. . . ."

In fact, there was only one gas station--the two pumps in front of the street's last Victorian house, at Hudson. The pumps are gone, but, incredibly, the old house, lovingly refurbished, still stands. He sounds like me when he says, "I know it's dumb, but I kind of like downtown L.A. . . . It feels more like a city is supposed to."

Parker strains credulity when he says he found a parking space on Hope Street, but he might have been looking through my eyes at the view from the revolving bar at the top of the downtown Hyatt Regency.

"To the southeast was an old skyscraper done in green stone, like Bullock's on Wilshire, or the Franklin Life Building. Old L.A. Of course Old L.A. was maybe 1936. . . ."

Of course the "old skyscraper done in green stone" was the 13-story 1920s Art Deco green terra-cotta Eastern Columbia Building (Broadway at Ninth), with its large modern Gothic clock tower. (Until recently it was the home of the Conservancy.)

Bullocks Wilshire is a light tan terra cotta, not green stone; but its bronze tower is green; the Franklin Life Building is the glazed blue-green terra-cotta Wiltern Theater and office building at Wilshire and Western, magnificently renovated.

The incredible thing about these three Art Deco monuments is that they still stand. I hope I will not someday wonder what was there.

By the way, if you have any feeling for the old Ambassador Hotel, go there for lunch. I have an idea it will soon be a vacant lot.

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