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The Look of Things

STAIRWAYS FOUNTAINS STREETLIGHTS The Urban Details Series By Virginia L. Comer; Balcony Press: 64 pp. each; $14.95 each

February 11, 2001|D.J. WALDIE | D.J. Waldie is the author of "Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir." He lives in Lakewood where he is a city official

"Look. Look and see. Oh, see," Dick said to Jane, his urgent imperatives poised between my first printed page and the seductive black-and-white TV screen. It was only much later that I took Dick and Jane at their word. "Look," they had said, and I finally did. I saw wonderful things.

Historian Virginia L. Comer sees them, too, and has taken delight assembling some of them in three brief albums of travel narrative, history and black-and-white photography of the streetlights, fountains and stairways of Los Angeles. They are part of an overlooked L.A., best seen at the pace and from the perspective of a pedestrian. The stairways, particularly, lead walkers down the slopes of Mount Washington to cablecar stops missing for 100 years and to the vanished electric railway lines that extended the city in the 1920s along the rims of the Hollywoodland canyons. There are stairs to fake Mediterranean villas at Castellammare in Pacific Palisades, to nowhere that go up the slope of Crown Hill along First Street west of the Harbor Freeway and to the "step-house" bungalows in Whitley Heights in Hollywood, where the only access is still on foot.

"Landscaped with plumbago, bougainvillea, and ivy," Comer says of the concrete stairway at Iris Place in Whitley Heights, "the steps trace a zigzag path to Whitley Terrace and present several levels of viewing. From the mid-way landing one sees a hillside studded with homes; from the top at Whitley Terrace it's a sky view."

The stairs are everything L.A. isn't supposed to be: mindful of their place, driverless, slow and revealing. More of these flights go up, some of them historic, like the nearly endless Echo Park steps on which Laurel and Hardy in "The Music Box" dragged a jangling player piano, or merely useful, like the 80-year-old neighborhood stairways in Santa Monica on which the fit repeatedly climb to make ever tighter their buttocks and thighs. They're suave stairs, like the open helix Richard Neutra designed for the former Gemological Institute in Brentwood, or earnestly didactic, like the new steps rising on a text of literary mottos to the entrance of the old Los Angeles Public Library. They're stairs that are gone, like the grand double staircase in the demolished Baker Block, formerly at Spring and First, and sublime, like the cast-iron stairs that still filigree the light falling through the core of the Bradbury Building.

From Comer's vantage, there's more ordinary grandeur underfoot in L.A. than in the city's attempts to fashion a civic memory from its statures and fountains. Because of Midwestern reticience or booster self-promotion, L.A.'s official monuments often seem diminished by stinginess or bombast.

The 30 tons of silver-green granite from Victorville carved into a fountain with the muses of music and dance at the Hollywood Bowl are remarkable only because they were sculpted by George Stanley, creator of the Oscar statuette of the Academy Awards. The fountains that commemorate Will Rogers and Valentino were unceremoniously turned into planters, and the abstract fountain on the Civic Center Mall that recalls the otherwise unremembered county bureaucrat Arthur J. Will, drizzles on lunchtime sitters. Energy conservation--or disregard--shut off the grand waterfall of the Fort Moore Pioneer Memorial, between the Hollywood Freeway and Sunset Boulevard. It's just a waterless wall honoring the American occupiers of Mexican Los Angeles.

Alexander Calder's "Hello, Girls" mobile was part of a water display at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Calder's girls are now marooned in a dry pond. In Pershing Square, official fountains and their commemorations rose and fell as often as new City Hall administrations, each one straining for a permanent stamp of civic pride by ripping out the work of the previous regime. L.A.'s memories, it seems, are never fully settled.

William Mulholland's fountain at the entrance of Griffith Park does work as a place of memory, but only intermittently as a water display since its rededication in 1996 after years of neglect. Once called the "Kool-Aid" fountain because of its nighttime display of the light spectrum in jets of water--the spray continually changing shape--Mulholland's fountain today is as ambivalent as our estimation of the man who gave the city the water on which it grew.

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