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The idea guy

October 11, 2006|ERIN AUBRY KAPLAN

IN A WORLD going mad, it's good to know that Cliff Hall has the answers.

That's not an egomaniac's boast, or a salesman's pitch, or an outlandish promise made by a naif or a cynic. I've tried at various times to put Cliff into all these suits. None of them fits. He's actually a misfit, though one of the highest order: An inventor and artist (he's a photographer by trade), he's spent the better part of 60 years crafting "practical solutions to all the major problems," as he puts it, and campaigning for these solutions in every corner of the city. And he's not about to stop now, just because the world looks less possible than it did when his family first arrived here from Georgia in 1903.

We had barely sat down to lunch at Lucy's El Adobe Cafe on Melrose Avenue recently when Cliff presented me with no fewer than five ideas. He pulled them all out of a black briefcase that he totes around on a wheeled cart. He doesn't own a car.

Cliff is tall and lanky, with reading half-glasses fixed on the end of his nose. His hair is shot through with gray, and his walk is less jaunty than when I saw him last. Yet he still seems much younger than 81. He's dressed like he thinks this might be a business meeting; he's always hoping for a deal, always searching for that elusive, Hollywood-style connection between an idea and somebody willing to back it with money. Or just back it.

"I've got something that'll solve all of L.A.'s transportation problems," Cliff announces. He leans over the table. "Stacked freeways. Instead of lanes side by side, you stack 'em. You build up."

He goes on to explain how this would have benefits far beyond easing traffic. "In getting rid of all those lanes, you free up land for development. You create jobs in neighborhoods that need it most. The land value itself will pay for the whole thing." That's not the best part. Cliff sees the stacked freeways doubling as electricity generators -- cars rolling over speed bumps on exit lanes activating underground coils.

Cliff's glowing confidence in the whole enterprise is infectious: I feel hopeful. I don't know if freeways stacked to the sky can work, but the symbolism is irresistible. "Everybody wins in this thing," Cliff is saying. "Commuters, architects, the government, the community -- everybody."

Cliff won once. Back in the '60s, he built a futuristic sports car that he called the Corwin, after the guy who financed it. It had a sleek, daring look long before similar cars, such as the Pontiac Fiero and Fiat X1/9. The Corwin was never mass-produced, but it was remembered -- the Petersen Automotive Museum displayed it in the '90s as an example of local automotive ingenuity. It was Cliff's finest moment.

He's looking for more such moments. But he's looking not simply for riches and recognition for himself -- the big score -- he's also looking for the economic liberation of all black people that has been too long in coming. That's the driving passion behind another idea to build a thriving black economy by getting groups of 500 of the poorest people to pool their money on a regular basis. (It could work with the middle class too, Cliff assures me, but the poor would really make the point.)

Cliff has pitched this last idea in person to Rep. Maxine Waters and Jesse Jackson; he got frozen smiles for his trouble. "Politicians are all useless," he says angrily. "Influence peddlers. Part of the system."

Cliff's biggest dream is to set up a research and development think tank in the black community that could incubate all the good ideas that go undiscovered every day, mainly because people have no place to take them. "We've got all this brilliance in our community, but we're all there working jobs for the man," he says. "I've got all these ideas too, but I'm not good at marketing."

Almost offhandedly, he describes a box-like piece of wooden furniture he's built that converts into a computer station, bed, closet, storage space, shelves and probably a few other things he hasn't thought of yet. It sounds like something that could (or should) be on display at IKEA.

Cliff fervently believes in luck. When I call him later to tell him about this column, he brightens; I practically feel the effulgence through the phone. "I think maybe something's getting ready to happen in my life," he says. "I think my luck's about to change." Let's make that our luck.


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