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This old flag is no glory

A tattered American flag on the vacant Garfield Building at 8th and Hill clashes with the downtown renaissance.

August 13, 2010|Hector Tobar

Sometimes, it seems as if parts of downtown L.A. were waking up from a long sleep.

After decades of vacancy, many of the old buildings in its historic core have filled up again. There are more people on the sidewalks of Spring, Main and Hill streets, and they're taking a look at their surroundings. Often, they see things they don't like.

Dan Tyukody, a 53-year-old securities attorney, walks from his Figueroa Street office to visit friends in the new lofts of South Park. When he passes 8th and Hill, he looks up at the top of an old, 13-story office building and sees an American flag, bleached by the sun and shredded by wind and time.

This very old Old Glory flaps day and night in the breeze with only one corner attached to the flagpole. "It's flying like a dishrag up there," Tyukody said. "It's deteriorated and tattered. It's not a respectful way to fly the flag."

Tyukody remembers his old Eagle Scout lessons about flag etiquette. When a flag looks that bad, you have to take it down. He's been trying, without success, to get the building's owner to do that for two years, he told me.

Even if you're not especially patriotic, there are many good reasons to be upset by the sight of that ripped flag atop the old Garfield Building.

The neglect is a reminder of downtown's darkest days, of an age of decay and forgetfulness when most of L.A. turned its back on the heart of the city. During this era, many of the buildings that had been the pride of downtown in the first half of the 20th century were shuttered. A few were taken over by squatters.

When the Garfield Building opened in 1929, it was an Art Deco gem with an opulent marble lobby and gold-leaf styling and a terra-cotta exterior. After a renovation in the 1970s, it earned a spot on the National Register of Historic Places.

But the building's been vacant since its most recent sale, in 1991.

The new owners turned off the electricity and padlocked the doors. In March, the Downtown News included the Garfield in a list of downtown's 10 worst eyesores. That list includes the empty pit and ruins on two vacant lots at 1st and Spring streets that once were the sites of state office buildings.

Apparently, when the new owners closed the building, they forgot to take down the flag. It may have been flapping up there in the wind for 20 years.

The "dishrag" was fluttering over the Garfield when Tyukody and I visited it Tuesday. We stepped back to 9th Street and saw the Garfield against the backdrop of Bunker Hill's glass towers. "It's a great view, but it's ruined by that flag," Tyukody said. "It's like the dent in the side of a new car."

When I called the building's managers, they said they would take it down, but offered no other comment. On Thursday, the flag was still there.

Downtown's historic core still has many other half-dead buildings — their storefronts are occupied by retail shops, but all their upper floors of offices are empty. Several of these buildings are topped by flagpoles without flags.

Walking down Broadway's old Theater District, I counted at least a dozen, most topped with brass globes, many with a cord to raise the flag still wrapped around the pole. They seemed like relics from an earlier, more civically minded era.

Downtown's most conspicuously unused flagpole occupies the site of the city's first Fourth of July celebration, Fort Moore Hill.

Once upon a time, L.A.'s leaders made a big deal of putting a flag on the hill, where U.S. troops built a fort in 1847 while fighting a local militia of Californios during the Mexican War. In 1916 the city raised an 80-foot pole there. That flagpole stood until the Hollywood Freeway was built in the 1940s.

L.A. County replaced it with the Fort Moore Pioneer Memorial in the 1950s, which stands on Hill Street, just across the freeway from the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels. Its tall flagpole has been largely flagless for years.

The idea that such an important site in the city's history would have an unused flagpole has long bothered me. So, like Tyukody, I called. It took a while to track down the right person, because three different county departments have a say over the monument.

Judy Hammond of the county's Chief Executive Office gave me the official response: "Thank you for bringing this to our attention. We will be looking into the issue."

The Hall of Administration with its hundreds of county employees is two blocks away. It should be rather easy to assign one of those workers the task of raising and lowering the flag at Fort Moore every day — but the county hasn't been able or willing to do that.

By contrast, in some corners of downtown, people are putting in the effort. There's a freshly painted flagpole and a shining new U.S. flag atop the Union Building, at 7th Street and Broadway.

"It's good to have the flag clean and nice," said Vigen Boghoskhan, who manages the 1927 building. "If you put something on your building, it represents you."

In other words, putting up a flag isn't just a patriotic thing, it's also the neighborly thing to do, a sign that a building is in the hands of people who care enough about the idea of community to engage in an old civic ritual.

Every month or two, Boghoskhan has the flag taken down to clean or change it. "It's to show you're proud," he said.

But there's one more reason he takes special care of the flag, he told me.

"I myself love this flag," Boghoskhan told me. He's an Armenian Iranian immigrant, he explained, naturalized as a U.S. citizen 10 years ago, and a grateful recipient of American freedoms. "It's very, very nice to me," he said. "I have respect for it."

hector.tobar@latimes.com

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