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Honoring the lost neighborhoods of Los Angeles

Heritage Square Museum in the Arroyo Seco tries to keep memories alive of what passes for historic L.A. -- or is that an oxymoron?

May 07, 2009|HECTOR TOBAR

Imagine we could dismantle the skyscrapers on Bunker Hill and step back in time to the downtown Los Angeles that was.

In place of soaring glass and steel, we find the squat wood frames of Victorian mansions and humble clapboard apartments hugging old palm trees. Studebakers and Fords with bulbous bodies and chrome ornaments glide down the streets, guzzling gas.

Just about everyone smokes, including the down-on-his luck writer gazing out from his room at the Alta Loma Hotel. He daydreams about the novels he will write, and takes the Angel's Flight to the bottom of the hill, where he frequents one of the city's many cafeterias.

"Los Angeles, give me some of you!" John Fante writes in his 1939 novel "Ask the Dust." "Los Angeles come to me the way I came to you, my feet over your streets, you pretty town I loved you so much, you sad flower in the sand, you pretty town."

Last month was the centennial of John Fante's birth. He died in 1983, and much of the L.A. of his famous Bunker Hill novels is gone now.

It was swept away with wrecking balls and bulldozers in the years after the freeways came through.

This is what L.A. does to its history. Much of Chavez Ravine was swept away too, along with the old Chinatown and so much more.

That's because one of L.A.'s great traditions is smashing and stomping upon our own history.

We are addicted to newness. So we topple landmarks and neighborhoods as if they were unsightly weeds.

It might be happening again, in Century City, where a jewel from another era of Los Angeles history is facing the threat of demolition: the Century Plaza Hotel, a 19-story modernist curve designed by the same architect who gave New York City the twin towers of the World Trade Center.

"This city is constantly reinventing itself, and part of that reinvention is destruction," said Leticia Munoz of Heritage Square Museum in the Arroyo Seco.

A fifth-generation Angeleno, Munoz is a relative newcomer to the fraternity of Southern California historic preservationists, a long-suffering group of activists.

This month Munoz is organizing a photo exhibit at Heritage Square celebrating the memory of Bunker Hill, Chavez Ravine, the old Chinatown and other lost Los Angeles neighborhoods. They're all places that disappeared long before she was born.

"I grew up listening to my grandparents' stories about La Loma," said Munoz, 26, using the name the locals gave to Chavez Ravine, a neighborhood demolished to make way for Dodger Stadium.

Salvador and Rosa Munoz lived in La Loma until it was clear they couldn't stop city officials from evicting them. In the years that followed, "It was all they ever talked about," Munoz said.

Heritage Square is an especially appropriate place to organize an exhibit on lost L.A. It's a kind of rescue shelter for Victorian-era buildings. It's also one of the best kept secrets of L.A. history.

Located on a city block, the museum consists of eight buildings. Each was erected in 19th century Southern California, and each was saved from the wrecking ball and moved to the Arroyo Seco in the 20th century.

There's an old octagonal house from Pasadena there, along with a quaint little train station that was one of the first to serve the Westside.

"Everyone driving by on the Pasadena Freeway sees us here," said one museum official, "but most people never stop by to visit."

L.A. history is like that. We sort of know it's there, waiting for us at the next freeway exit. But how often do we make the effort required to see it?

For "Lost to 'Progress': the Modernization of Los Angeles," which closes June 28, Munoz and co-curator Jessica Maria Alicea-Covarrubias have gathered about four dozen photographs from local collections.

The black-and-white pictures include several incarnations of Bunker Hill. In 1903, we see a horse-drawn carriage roll down 3rd Street near the Angel's Flight railway. A group of children dig a Victory Garden in 1945. And finally, two buildings, known as "the Castle" and "the Salt Box," are rolled off the hill in 1969, just as the new skyscrapers begin to rise.

The Castle and the Salt Box were moved to Heritage Square. Those buildings are only a memory now, because they burned down just weeks after arriving at the museum. But if you read Fante's novels you can smell, feel and hear the Bunker Hill neighborhood where they once stood.

"I . . . scaled the incline to the top of Bunker Hill," Fante wrote in "Ask the Dust." "A night for my nose, smelling the stars, smelling the flowers, smelling the desert, and the dust asleep, across the top of Bunker Hill."

Fante was the unofficial poet laureate of Bunker Hill. In his writing, Bunker Hill lives on as a place where men read pulp fiction and scratch together quarters to buy a little whiskey. Milk trucks park on the steep streets, and strangers meet in the hallways of the old hotels and rooming houses.

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