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Perfect year for a slay ride

The 1947project finds grisly fun in revisiting the scenes of long- ago L.A. crimes.

January 26, 2006|Cindy Chang | Special to The Times

WHEN a tour bus pulled up to the curb at Central Avenue and 85th Street and disgorged a load of passengers one recent Saturday, the locals stopped to stare. This corner in South Los Angeles, with its fish market and shoeshine store, isn't exactly a magnet for tourists.

The group of about 50 gathered in front of a green stucco duplex with rose bushes thriving incongruously in the dirt front yard. What was so remarkable about that little structure? Had someone famous once lived there?

These days, few Angelenos have heard of Rochelle Gluskoter, but for a brief period in 1946, she and that green house were the epicenter of a media feeding frenzy. The 6-year-old girl was staying there with a neighbor when she got into a black convertible with a strange man and was not seen alive again.

After hearing a tour guide tell of Rochelle's eventual murder, the group piled back onto the bus. As passengers on the inaugural Crime Bus -- a tour which grew out of interest in an Internet blog called "1947project" -- they had other places to go before the afternoon was up, more scenes of long-ago murder and mayhem to survey.

The tour would culminate at the vacant lot, now a neatly groomed front lawn, where the dismembered body of Elizabeth Short, otherwise known as the Black Dahlia, was found on Jan. 15, 1947, almost 60 years ago.

The blog, a day-by-day blotter of 1947's more lurid moments, and the tour, which visited crime scenes from that and other years, offer a peek at Los Angeles then and now, seen through the lens of acts horrific or quirky. They also reflect a continuing fascination with all that is sinister under the perpetual Southern California sun.

"I've always been a crime buff, but I'm less interested in gruesome crime and more interested in social and cultural history," said Kim Cooper, founder of 1947project. "Crimes are where the reality of a place bubbles up to the surface and explodes."

Crime and Los Angeles have been intertwined in the national imagination since Raymond Chandler's moody detective fiction and noir films like "Double Indemnity" used the city's deceptively placid streets as a contrasting backdrop to the twisted things that happened there.

Los Angeles in the 1940s also had its share of real crime. The city was expanding rapidly, with a volatile mix of recently returned GIs, wannabe starlets and Dust Bowl refugees all struggling to make it in the land of palm trees and snowless winters.

Part crime blotter, part history lesson and part preservationist lament, 1947project memorializes the tragedies of that era and stamps them with a reminder of what time has wrought in the intervening years. Most entries are in two parts: one, a narration of a crime that occurred on that day in 1947; the second, photos and text describing the crime scene today.

"What I was interested in personally about 1947 Los Angeles was that it was like the tumblers of a lock falling into place," Cooper said. "Women were being pushed out of the workforce as men were coming back from the war and dealing with the women's independence, post-traumatic stress, a changing city."

THE five daily newspapers of the time ferociously competed to chronicle grisly crimes, with many of the most sensational cases involving the torture and murder of female or child victims: the Lipstick Murder, the Red Riding Hood killings and, most famously, the Black Dahlia.

In contrast to the Examiner and the Herald-Express, the Los Angeles Times was a family newspaper: The Black Dahlia was only Page 2 news when the story broke.

But because of its searchable online archive, The Times is Cooper's main source, not just for splashy crimes like the Dahlia but for more offbeat tales like that of the stillborn baby who later turned out to be alive. (He died after being handled like a corpse for seven hours, and his parents sued the doctor and nurse who delivered him.)

While Cooper combs the newspaper files, co-blogger Nathan Marsak handles the "what's there now" aspect. He has logged about 10,000 miles since the blog's inception in March, motoring -- always on surface streets -- to crime scenes from San Pedro to the San Fernando Valley.

The two met as undergraduates at UC Santa Cruz and each went on to earn a master's degree in art history. Both are in their late 30s, with vintage-flavored sartorial tastes, Cooper in printed dresses and Marsak in suits and old-school ties.

When he isn't traveling to crime scenes, Marsak is renovating his 6,000-square-foot 1907 Tudor Craftsman in Highland Park or cruising around town in a red 1949 Packard. A Saturn station wagon is his car of choice for blog expeditions, as the Packard is more stylish but more liable to break down. He also has a buttoned-up side, working part-time at his family's oil and gas company.

Marsak's bursts of preservationist outrage are familiar to regular readers of the blog, who number in the hundreds, by Cooper's estimate, and whose ranks have swelled by a spate of media attention after the blog's debut.

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