Channeling Dorothy Chandler: Voices From the Past and the Future of Los Angeles

 

Dorothy Chandler (1922-1997) was arguably the most powerful woman in Los Angeles during the 1960s – presiding over the city’s most elite social circles, and appearing on the cover of Time Magazine in honor of her unprecedented cultural fundraising efforts. Yet, few Angelenos know who she is other than a name on a Music Center building downtown. So why has her voice remained so compelling whenever anyone talks about the future of Los Angeles?

 

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Courtesy Time Magazine, December 1964

The answer: no one in Los Angeles has been able to achieve the same level of success when it came to civic collaboration and fundraising prowess.

Dorothy Chandler, wife of Los Angeles Times publisher Norman Chandler, irrevocably remade the cultural landscape of Los Angeles by raising an unprecedented $18.4 million to fund a downtown performing arts center. The L.A. Music Center was seen as a centerpiece of the city’s extensive downtown urban renewal plans, and Chandler’s efforts helped pave the way for future cultural development. She worked closely with city and county officials to achieve her goals, and she united old, WASP money with newly wealthy captains of industry and finance in the postwar years. But her commitment to culture was only one part of her vision for the future of Los Angeles. As she told the Washington Post in 1967:

The cultural life of the city…[matters] not so much for the culture itself ‘but in what cultural things can do for a community.’

Chandler believed civic pride was a necessary ingredient in helping to remake Los Angeles’s image, and cultural investment was one way to inspire such pride. The construction of the Music Center solidified the image of Los Angeles as a first class city of growing national importance, and served as a catalyst for other important civic and cultural plans.

Today Chandler’s voice is still relevant when it comes to discussing the future of Los Angeles. Here are a few examples:

Future of Cities: Leading in L.A. quotes Chandler in order to make the case that Los Angeles is a place of innovation and fresh ideas, a “place for people who want to build a new world.” (below)

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Courtesy FutureCitiesLA.org

Last September in a KCRW “Making LA” segment about Future Cities, host Madeleine Brand cites Chandler as an example of effective leadership in L.A. within a discussion about civic engagement, corporate giving, and volunteerism.[1]

And finally, C-Suite Quarterly published an article last October about Chandler’s role in reshaping the civic image of Los Angeles during the 1950s and 60s. In “Channeling the Spirit of Dorothy Buffum Chandler to Catalyze Change in Los Angeles,” (Oct 2015) author Michael Kelly argues that Chandler’s spirit “lives on in Los Angeles’ civic community.” Kelly concludes that there are still opportunities to reshape L.A.’s civic image, and he suggests the best way to achieve this is by strengthening the relationship between city government and L.A.’s “broad and diverse business and civic communities,” which he considers two of the city’s greatest resources. [2]

These examples show how Angelenos often look to the past to voice their hopes for the future because they are looking for inspiration, for proven examples on how to get things done in a place where the size and scope of Los Angeles can make new civic initiatives seem daunting.

As Chandler herself argued in her Time profile, “The most important thing…is not a formula but a person who will be a catalyst for the project—someone so dedicated to the purpose that he will stay with it until the job is completed.” Sure, she had an army of volunteers working diligently to accomplish her fundraising goals, but she also understood how important it was to have a clear vision, and strong leadership to see it through. It was why she was so widely admired during her reign over Los Angeles. It is why she is still quoted today. Her unfailing commitment to a vision for the future of Los Angeles resonates with those Angelenos looking for leadership – for people who envision a future L.A. built on civic engagement, collaboration, and community.

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[1] Press Play with Madeleine Brand, September 2015: http://www.kcrw.com/news-culture/shows/press-play-with-madeleine-brand/carly-fiorina-faking-tragedy-and-making-l-a-civic-engagement

[2] Michael Kelly, “Channeling the Spirit of Dorothy Buffum Chandler to Catalyze Change in Los Angeles,” in CSQ (Oct 2015). http://csq.com/2015/10/op-ed-channeling-the-spirit-of-dorothy-buffum-chandler-to-catalyze-change-in-los-angeles/#.Vr54YmQrJ3Z

 

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The Impermanence of LA’s Built Environment?

What deserves protection?

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The 6th Street Viaduct, Photo via L.A. Magazine

With every announcement I read about the construction of a new building, new museum, or a park redesign comes my inevitable questions: what was there before? Is there anything worth saving? And how will these new spaces shape L.A. in the 21st century?

My latest pondering of these questions has to do with L.A. Magazine’s recent discussion about the transformative effects the new 6th Street viaduct might have on Los Angeles. The viaduct’s architect, Michael Maltzan, believes the new design will help foster greater connections between communities, while still respecting neighborhood identity. The redesign looks pretty fantastic, and of course The High Line in NYC was one of the first comparisons that came to mind, in terms of the new viaduct’s potential to encourage both a sense of respite and a vibrant urban community. At the very least, I think it will inspire tourism from locals and visitors. But can it help create a new public identity for Los Angeles?

That question about the public identity of Los Angeles is one that I find endlessly engaging, and I’ve written about it at length. At the heart of the endless chatter about L.A.’s urban identity is the belief in reinvention. Maltzan himself argues that “the impermanence of L.A.’s built environment is no vice.” Rather, he sees it as a “real advantage” in a city that lacks a “longer history” of solving urban problems “in a particular way.” Instead, Angelenos have the freedom to approach contemporary challenges with fresh ideas without being hindered by the past. Yet, I found his statement rather glib. Should we be cautious about encouraging a sense of impermanence here?

L.A.’s reputation as a place of creativity, of innovation and experimentation, a place where you can throw off old ideas and start fresh, has existed for more than a century. These qualities are certainly what draws people here. There is nothing more exciting than imagining what new and untested ideas might spark a more vibrant urban life. But what deserves ‘permanence’ or protection? Who decides what built spaces are in need of reinvention? These questions touch on the complex issues historic preservationists deal with when determining whether a building or space is worth preserving. The work of the LA Conservancy comes to mind. 

As a historian, I can’t help but look to the past when I consider the reinvention of L.A.’s built environment. Some instances brought unquestionable benefits to the city, such as the Music Center and Grand Park. Other instances remain contentious moments in the region’s history, like Dodger Stadium, and the destruction of the Bunker Hill neighborhood. Were these tragedies or triumphs, and at what cost? The revitalization of the L.A. River comes to mind as an especially poignant example. And what about those spaces still up for grabs? Pershing Square is a perfect case study–the space has been reinvented many times over; what will its next incarnation look like? Is there anything currently there worth preserving? What even makes a ‘good public space‘? Maybe that’s a question for another blog post. 

In the case of the 6th Street viaduct, Maltzan “hopes it will be the symbol of a city bounding joyfully into the future.” It will be a modern landmark, to be sure. But does it have the power to transform Los Angeles? If not, what will?

Everybody Loves L.A.

File_002Last November I attended my first Society for American City and Regional Planning History (SACRPH) Conference, and I walked away with one conclusion: everybody loves L.A.

Now, I already knew how great Los Angeles is, but it was both refreshing and exciting to hear that sentiment over and over from visitors.

The conference featured numerous panels that discussed LA’s long and complex history of urban planning, housing, social justice, and the built environment, among other things. My friend and historian extraordinaire Becky Nicolaides appeared on one of the most well-attended panels, Complicating Suburbia, and you can learn more about her views on her excellent blog. I also got to share my experiences on blogging about Los Angeles on the panel LA HISTORY 2.0: PLACE BASED STORIES IN THE DIGITAL AGE,  which also featured some of my favorite writers and bloggers: Meredith Drake Reitan, Nathan Masters, Victoria Bernal (founder of the LAhistory twitter handle), and Stacey Allan (Executive Editor of East of Borneo). Our roundtable generated a vibrant discussion about digital media, history, and the challenges and benefits of navigating local history in the cyber world.

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As much as I enjoyed the panels I attended, what I enjoyed most were the conversations and connections made outside the conference hotel walls–during walking tours, and off-site panels and receptions. These opportunities showcased the vibrant and varied citizenry, beautiful historic buildings, sunny skies, and rich history of a city too often seen as lacking any planning, any history, or any civic engagement. I also met so many fabulous scholars and practitioners. I got to have thoughtful discussions with them about planning, urban history, and the future of the built environment. I think my favorite moment was during Meredith’s walking tour, when a well-established historian, whose books I read in grad school, turned to me for answers about the some of the downtown buildings and neighborhoods. Yes, I was a little starstruck, but I was also thrilled to share my knowledge, and seize this moment to change the way a fellow historian viewed this magnificent city. What could be better?

Future of Cities LA has launched. What’s next?

Future of Cities launched last month with a large gathering at LACMA to discuss civic leadership and the future of Los Angeles. I was skeptical of what an initiative like this could really achieve, but I have to say, I was impressed by the breadth and depth of the topics and speakers. I think my favorite tweet of the night came from @cmonstah: “Part of what makes LA such a great place is we are so deliriously uncouth.” By all accounts it was an incredible and dynamic evening. I think Bojarsky and the event’s organizers proved that a broad swath of Angelenos are interested in civic engagement and ready to act. But how? What’s next?

Perhaps Joel Epstein captures the core of why we need this initiative: “Given our size and enduring economic inequality, we are indeed a city that needs to better marry vision, leadership and results to fulfill L.A.’s ambitions and achieve our potential.” [1]

As I ponder what role I might play in making LA a better place, I am dashing off to #SACRPH15 in DTLA for a walking tour of Bunker Hill. Perhaps this planning history conference will offer some answers. I’ll be there. Will you?

[1] Joel Epstein, “L.A. Can Be the Future of Cities.” 10/19/15

For more on Society for American City and Regional Planning History Conference, see: Conference for LA Urbanists

Is L.A. Designed to Work?

Outgoing L.A. Deputy Mayor Rick Cole recently remarked that “L.A. is not designed to work.” Could he be right? Is L.A. too big for true civic engagement? Or do projects like CicLAvia and the L.A. River Revitalization prove this contention wrong?

Before I delve into my opinion regarding this question, let me provide a little context for Cole’s remark. In June, a group of 150 upper echelon Angelenos convened at a private home to discuss the future of Los Angeles. At the event, former Tom Bradley aide Donna Bojarsky spoke to the crowd about the “pitiful state of civic engagement in Los Angeles.” (For more on the meeting and guest list, see LAT Architecture Critic Chris Hawthorne’s coverage here. [1]) While Bojarsky acknowledged there has been an upsurge of civic engagement and exciting projects in recent years, something must be done to harness that civic spirit if Los Angeles is to become a “world-class” city. Hmmmmmmm. Haven’t the most elite Angelenos been chasing after this elusive ‘world-class’ status for more than half a century? What will it take to reach it? Perhaps that is a subject I can revisit again another time.

While Bojarsky may be right that there is a need to create a stronger interest in civic engagement, I’m not convinced her plan to address this issue is the right path.

Bojarsky is heading up a new civic initiative called Future of Cities: Leading in L.A., launching this month at LACMA. In the ‘About’ section of the organization’s website, it tells interested readers that, “We are hindered by a traditionally weak civic fabric.” This is true. And here is the organization’s approach to remedying this fact: through “meaningful collaboration across LA’s civic tapestry so that all our residents can thrive.” Future Cities is issuing a “call to action…[to] encourage greater ambition and meaningful change,” by bringing together leaders “across sectors, cultures, and geographies.” And finally: “this is the perfect time to promote a new kind of civic stewardship representative of today’s Los Angeles – a region of unparalleled diversity, technology, entertainment, media, venture capital, environmental consciousness, and creative capital.” The goal, it appears, is to create a “vibrant” future, “to marry vision, leadership and results to fulfill LA’s ambitions and achieve our potential.” My question is: Whose vision?

You can explore Future of Cities’ website further to see how the group envisions its role in crafting a new generation of civic leadership. I will admit I am intrigued by the list of movers and shakers invited to participate in its October summit. But I am not totally convinced this is the right approach. Isn’t this group just another incarnation of elites coming together to achieve what they believe would be best for the city? L.A. has a long history of producing civic organizations ostensibly interested in civic growth and change. Bojarsky herself expressed “some nostalgia for the efficiency and effectiveness of the Committee of 25,” [1] a group of white elite businessmen, including Norman Chandler, Neil Petree, and Asa Call, whose members ruled the city as what some have called a “shadow government.”[2] And while they succeeded in large degree, they pursued a rather narrow vision for L.A.’s future based on commerce and grand civic projects like the Bunker Hill Urban Renewal Project and the L.A. Music Center. There have been numerous civic initiatives, before and since the Committee of 25, that have sought such change. Yet, what did they accomplish? Not much apparently, if we are still trying to achieve ‘world-class’ status.

Indeed, things have changed since the days of unchecked power by the likes of a cohesive downtown business community. At the turn of the twenty-first century, the power structure of Los Angeles has shifted: “what had been a vertical apparatus has flattened out over time, reflecting the fundamental transformations of the city’s demographics and economics.” Residents demand greater power in city politics through city-charter supported neighborhood councils, and through social activism; labor unions also wield a significant amount of influence in city politics, as do lobbyists, developers, and big business.[3] In today’s Los Angeles, each of these factions must compete for power in a city with a formal and informal power structure more diffuse than ever before.

So who should we believe? Cole’s view that L.A. is not designed to work? Or Bojarsky and the Future of Cities initiative? I’m inclined to side with Bojarsky, for now, primarily because I tend to be an optimist. But I have to temper that optimism by noting that I’m disappointed by the group’s inaugural event. For an organization dedicated to fostering civic leadership to create a vibrant and inclusive future, why does the least expensive ticket cost $110? That feels rather prohibitive to me. Still, as long as there are people hopeful that L.A. can ‘work’, that the citizenry is capable of and interested in civic engagement, then yes, I believe there is potential for true civic engagement in L.A. What are your thoughts?

[1] http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/arts/architecture/la-me-0605-hawthorne-notebook-20150605-story.html

[2] Quote from: Mike Davis, City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles (London: Verso, 1990), 126. For more on the Committee of 25, see: Hillel Aron, “Who Runs Los Angeles? A Search for Today’s Power Brokers,” USC-Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism, accessed August 8, 2013. http://usc.news21.com/hillel-history.html

[3] Hillel Aron, “Who Runs Los Angeles?”   http://usc.news21.com/hillel-story/introduction-home-page

The Day Angelenos Lost Elysian Park…Almost

Photo courtesy The Citizens Committee to Save Elysian Park Archives

March 10, 1965: The L.A. City Council votes in favor of a proposal to construct a convention center and exhibit hall in Elysian Park, on 63 acres of the park’s most popular play and picnic grounds, which include the recreation lodge and the Avenue of the Palms. At the Council Meeting, retired journalist Grace E. Simons vehemently protests the plan. Representing the Citizens Committee to Save Elysian Park, Simons informs the Council that the main issue at hand is “whether Elysian Park…[will] be preserved inviolate for use of the people or plundered for private gain.”[1] Calling the park “irreplaceable,” she argues that if “downtown interests” are “successful in putting over this land-grab, they stand to reap enormous profits at no financial risk to themselves.” More importantly, the decision would set a dangerous precedent that would jeopardize both the rest of the park, and ALL parks in Los Angeles. No one, Simons argues, could measure the “cost in sociological terms, in the loss of a needed recreational area, in the blighting of a residential neighborhood and in traffic congestion.”[2]

The City Council’s vote in favor of the proposal, despite Simons’s protest, sparked an eighteen-month controversy over where convention center facilities belonged. Simons was incensed that the Council dared once again to encroach on public parkland. It was bad enough Elysian Park had lost nearly 30 acres to Dodger Stadium just a few years earlier. Nearby residents of the park–including Simons–were still stinging from the lost battle to keep the Dodgers out of Chavez Ravine. Simons often frequented Elysian Park and found the increased traffic on game days nearly intolerable. Not only did she believe adding a convention center to the area would make the problems of traffic and noise significantly worse, she was deeply concerned that the City Council’s view of Elysian Park land as merely ‘land in storage’ for commercial exploitation would have long-lasting negative repercussions for every park within city limits.

As I’ve mentioned in a previous blog post, Simons responded by founding the Citizens Committee to Save Elysian Park (CCSEP). She fought hard. She won.

Between the founding of CCSEP in February and the Council vote in March, Simons and CCSEP had enough time to begin building a coalition against the proposal and gather supporters to attend the March meeting in force to voice their opposition.

The controversy over the Elysian Park proposal would have serious repercussions for Los Angeles politics because it would play a role in determining the outcome of several City Council races in an upcoming municipal election. Councilman John C. Holland (14th District), for one, retained his seat. Prior to the Council’s March 10th vote, Holland proclaimed his vehement opposition to the Elysian Park proposal. In his statement to the Council, he invoked comparisons to Dodger Stadium: “the pressure to take 65 acres of one of our most beautiful parks for a convention center…smacks to me as the same type of deal as the infamous trade of 315 acres in Chavez Ravine for the White Elephant of Wrigley Field a few years ago.” He further noted, “it somehow seems significant that so many familiar names and faces are urging quick action again today.” Finally, he questioned the morality of circumventing the will of voters by obligating taxpayers for bonds without a vote.[3]

The Elysian Park proposal was approved with a vote of ten in favor, and only four dissenting votes from Council members Holland, Rosalind Wiener Wyman, new Council member Tom Bradley, and Council President L.E. Timberlake. The vote followed over six hours of public hearing and debate, the longest council session since 1958’s Chavez Ravine controversy.[4] It would take another eighteen months of protest before the Council finally decided to vote in favor of the Pico-Figueroa site for the new convention center.

Had Simons not sprung into action fifty years ago, Elysian Park would look very different today.

For more on Simons, visit the Historic Echo Park website.

 

[1]  Simons use of the word ‘inviolate‘ was a reference to the L.A. City Charter of 1925, Section 170 which stated all dedicated park land must “ forever remain for the use of the public inviolate.“ Sonenshein, Raphael J., Los Angeles: Structure of a City Government (Los Angeles: League of Women Voters of Los Angeles, 2006), 87–88. Section 594c of the current City Charter (1999) repeats this language: “All lands heretofore or hereafter set apart or dedicated as a public park shall forever remain for the use of the public inviolate.“

[2] Grace E. Simons, “ Statement Before City Council,“ March 10, 1965, CCSEP Papers, USC Special Collections.

[3] John C. Holland, Statement: Convention-Exhibit Center–Elysian Park, Oral Presentation (Los Angeles: Los Angeles City Council, March 10, 1965), Council File 122183, Los Angeles City Archives. Councilwoman Rosalind Wiener Wyman (5th District) supported Holland’s suggestion the Council adopt his minority report in lieu of the majority report’s recommendation to build in Elysian Park. Holland reportedly had also been against the decision to give Chavez Ravine to the O’Malleys for Dodger Stadium. See Robert Gottlieb and Irene Wolt, Thinking Big: The Story of the Los Angeles Times, Its Publishers and Their Influence on Southern California (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1977), 268–269.

[4] City Council Meeting Minutes, March 10, 1965, Los Angeles City Archives.

The L.A. Music Center Turns 50!

 The Music Center is…both highly accessible and highly visible, giving Los Angeles a new visual axis….the center is recognized as a milestone in the city’s cultural aspirations….[making the city] a new center of culture that has passed Chicago and is getting ready to challenge New York. [1]  – Time Magazine, 1964

Los Angeles…is a center of artistic and musical activity, and spending money for their development is a prideful act. Besides, it tends to offset the image that the place is largely populated by kooks. [2]  – Edward Carter, 1964

When the L.A. Music Center’s Dorothy Chandler Pavilion opened its doors in December 1964, an entire week of events celebrated the cultural arrival of Los Angeles with nothing less than a heavy dose of glitz and glamour. On opening night, Hollywood stars, internationally renowned musicians, and the region’s most prominent politicians and society types arrived “in a dazzle of diamonds and décolletage” to celebrate the opening of L.A.’s glittering cultural jewel located at the apex of Bunker Hill. [3] For the evening’s most honored guests, Dorothy Buffum Chandler arranged for a five-star, pre-concert dinner in the Pavilion’s richly decorated Founders Room. Chandler was resplendent in a white silk brocade dress with matching coat designed by Yves St. Laurent especially for the occasion with fabric imported from India, in honor of the L.A. Philharmonic’s conductor, Zubin Mehta. [4] For Chandler, it was a moment of personal triumph. With the help of an army of volunteers, she raised $18.5 million dollars in private funds toward the Music Center’s $34 million price tag. During the opening concert, Mehta asked the audience to applaud Chandler’s efforts—leading to a four-minute standing ovation that deeply embarrassed her. The Pavilion’s opening was lauded by national and international press, which praised the acoustics, the décor, the opening program, and the foresight of Angelenos in constructing this impressive temple of culture. New York Times reporter Harold Schonberg called the Pavilion “probably the most beautiful concert hall of its size ever erected in the United States…lavish without being vulgar,” and “a brilliant success.” [5]

Time magazine featured Chandler on its cover to coincide with the Music Center’s opening. Entitled “Brightness in the Air,” the article highlighted the significance of the new Center to the city’s cultural identity, calling it “only the most visible symbol of the steady upsurge of interest in matters cultural in a city that has felt itself too long dismissed as an uncouth poor relation of San Francisco.” But the article also acknowledged L.A. as only the latest city in a growing trend of cultural institution building taking place in U.S. cities like New York, Phoenix, Seattle, Houston, St. Paul, and San Francisco. [6]

Letter from Dorothy Chandler to the L.A. City Council, March 10, 1964. Courtesy of the L.A. City Archives, Council File 113122.

Letter from Dorothy Chandler to the L.A. City Council, March 10, 1964. Courtesy of the L.A. City Archives, Council File 113122.

For Dorothy Chandler, the Music Center was a means to an end. Without a doubt, Chandler truly appreciated symphonic music and had loved the performing arts since she was a child. She wanted to see the L.A. Philharmonic installed in a permanent home fitting for an orchestra of high artistic caliber. And she was a passionate and competitive person who wanted to make her mark on Los Angeles. Her commitment to the Music Center was unwavering. At times, she referred to the project as her baby. In a letter to a friend, she remarked, “My pride in the Pavilion is overwhelming. It far exceeds in every way what I had envisioned. I believe that its impact on our city of the future will more than justify every effort and each donation in its creation.”[7] Clearly, her total dedication to the Music Center project went far beyond her personal interests. Chandler knew what the Center’s construction would mean for downtown, and for Los Angeles as a whole—that Los Angeles indeed cultivated a vibrant musical and artistic community, and it was time the rest of the world recognized it.

Writing of the Los Angeles Music Center in 1975, journalist and author Leonard Gross wrote: “No single act has ever done more for a City…physically it provided a desperately needed centerpiece to the city, a statement of quality and identity and an inspiration for bold growth. Its impact on the Southern California psyche was fundamental; it gave pride to a city that, until recent years, had all but apologized for its existence.”[8] While his statement was an exaggeration, the author got it right that the Music Center gave pride to the city and its residents.

 

[1] “Brightness in the Air,” Time Magazine, December 18, 1964.

[2] Edward Carter quoted in ibid.

[3] “Brightness in the Air.”

[4] Marian Burke, interview with the author, March 12, April 1, 2010, Los Angeles, California.

[5] Harold C. Schonberg, “Worth What It Cost,” New York Times, December 13, 1964.

[6] “Brightness in the Air.”

[7] Thank you letter from Dorothy Buffum Chandler to William Pereira, January 11, 1965, Box 8, Dorothy Chandler Papers, UCLA Department of Special Collections, Young Research Library.

[8] Leonard Gross, “Soul of the Center,” Westways (February 1975). Quoted in Margaret Leslie Davis, The Culture Broker: Franklin D. Murphy and the Transformation of Los Angeles, 76.