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?

The best photography collection in Los Angeles?

I was doing a little research on L.A.’s cultural history and came across a blog post about Dorothy Chandler’s cultural leadership. The highlight? The fantastic photos–all from Los Angeles Public Library (LAPL) photo collection.

LAPL’s Central Library in downtown began collecting photographs prior to World War II, and since then has amassed millions–yes millions–of photographs that emphasize the history of L.A., Southern California, and California. Over 80,000 of these photos are searchable online. The two biggest photography archives in the collection are the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner photographs (2.2 million) spanning the 1920s through 1989; and the Security Pacific National Bank collection (250,000+), which holds historic photographs of Los Angeles and Southern California, including a collection of early L.A. Chamber of Commerce photographs.

Here are a few fun examples:

Photo of a Pacific Electric Red Car prior to its placement in Griffith Park’s Travel Town (1953)

A workout photo of Seabiscuit (on the left) at Santa Anita Racetrack (1940)

The newly constructed Hollywood freeway through the Cahuenga Pass (n.d.)

A protest by brunettes and redheads of Marilyn Monroe’s “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theater (1953)

This online photo archive is one of the best places to begin researching ANY topic in L.A. history, whether you’re a student, teacher, history buff, or just an interested citizen. Plus, if you are anything like me, you will find that having visual evidence helps jump start a project because it brings the past to life in such a vivid way.

Below are a few links to the LAPL online photography archive. Go ahead and search the site. I dare you.

Photo Collection Overview

Search the catalog

A few amazing videos highlighting the collection

Photo Collection FAQs

 

The L.A. Dodgers and Elysian Park

On Wednesday night, I was among the sold-out crowd of 58,000+ Angelenos who watched the Los Angeles Dodgers clinch the NL West title with a 9-1 victory over the San Francisco Giants. It was an exciting game that featured a high-scoring sixth inning and a few fancy tricks by Dodgers standout pitcher Clayton Kershaw. As you can see from this photo, our parking spot was so far–and high up–from the stadium that you could barely see the stadium. But you do get a sense of just how vast the parking lot is, and how uneven the topography. To the trained eye (or should I say trained historian?), however, this picture offers a glimpse into the history of Dodger Stadium and its place in L.A.’s built environment. The photo shows the stadium lights at left. To the right you can just see the downtown L.A. skyline, all lit up. What you may not know is that the city’s largest public park, Elysian Park, hugs Dodger Stadium on three sides, and the well-traveled Stadium Way thoroughfare runs directly through the park.

The view from Lot 5 at Dodger Stadium. Wednesday, September 24, 2014. Photograph by Andrea Thabet. Copyright Andrea Thabet 2014

The view from Lot 15 at Dodger Stadium. Wednesday, September 24, 2014. Photograph by Andrea Thabet. Copyright Andrea Thabet 2014

Elysian Park is arguably the city’s least known park space, yet its central location means most Angelenos have passed through it without even realizing it. The 575-acre park is located just outside of downtown L.A., accessible by the 5 freeway and the 110 freeway, which literally passes through the easternmost section of the park. The park itself is composed of landscaped picnic and recreational spaces, surrounded by steep hills, rocky terrain, deep ravines, and overgrown hiking trails. It also offers stunning views of the city from several prominent vantage points.[1]

Most people believe that the downtown-adjacent neighborhood of Chavez Ravine was eradicated in order to build the stadium, but that is incorrect. Chavez Ravine was actually designated as one of the city’s first slum clearance and public housing projects in 1949 in connection with the passage of federal public housing legislation. However, the public housing project slated for the Ravine became embroiled in controversy amidst accusations of socialism–led by the powerful Los Angeles Times–which led to the cancellation of the project. In what I would call a bait-and-switch, prominent Angelenos and government officials lured the Dodgers to L.A. through a land exchange deal that transferred Chavez Ravine—land already cleared for the now-defunct public housing project—from the L.A. Housing Authority to city ownership. This allowed the land to be turned over legally to team owner Walter O’Malley to construct Dodger Stadium. The clearance of the Ravine and its eventual giveaway to O’Malley resulted in lengthy legal battles that divided the city. Historian Eric Avila calls this widely publicized use of slum clearance land, “baseball as urban renewal.” He argues that the relentless pursuit of a baseball team stemmed in part from feelings of inadequacy that the nation’s third largest city had no major league ball club.[2] As Avila points out, stealing the Dodgers “right out of New York under their own noses” was a great psychological “boost to Los Angeles and the West.”[3]

What few people realize is that Elysian Park also lost roughly thirty acres to the stadium, which helped reinforce the view by many city officials that park space was merely undeveloped land that could be successfully appropriated for non-park purposes. The adverse effects of the stadium’s construction included damage to Elysian Park’s irrigation system and the development of six-lane Stadium Way drive, which brought high-speed traffic through the park’s most popular valley.[2] Despite the challenges posed by baseball traffic and the neglect of park grounds, residents from nearby Latino and Asian communities continued to heavily patronize the park.

Just a few years later, the L.A. City Council and Mayor Samuel Yorty would support an effort put forth by the city’s elite businessmen to build a convention center in Elysian Park’s most popular valley and picnic grounds. In response, retired journalist Grace E. Simons founded the Citizens Committee to Save Elysian Park in 1965, and ultimately stopped the City Council in their tracks. I discuss her efforts at length in my dissertation. It’s a fascinating story, and I’ll share more about it in a future post. In fact, the view of downtown L.A. shown in the blog home page is taken from a trail in Elysian Park. If you’ve never explored Elysian Park, I recommend spending a few hours hiking in the park and taking in the views. You won’t be sorry.

*You can read more about Elysian Park in an article I recently published: “Elysian Park: A Century of Municipal Neglect.” Eden, Journal of the California Garden & Landscape History Society, 17:2 (Spring 2014): 3-9.

[1] Elysian Park: New Strategies for the Preservation of Historic Open Space Resources (Los Angeles: UCLA Graduate School of Architecture and Urban Planning, June 1990), VI–3; “ Elysian Park: History and Current Issues,“ May 1990. Elysian park was initially 550 acres, had grown to 600 by 1937, and is now 575 acres, although continued threats jeopardize its acreage. The park is approximately 1.2 miles northwest of downtown.

[2] Neil J. Sullivan, The Dodgers Move West (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987); Eric Avila, “ Suburbanizing the City Center: The Dodgers Move West,“ in Popular Culture in the Age of White Flight. Sullivan calls attention to the fact that a sizable Chinese-American community also thrived within Chavez Ravine prior to the relocation of the Dodgers. See also Sitton, Los Angeles Transformed, 157–160, 165–69; Avila, Popular Culture in the Age of White Flight, 156. Chavez Ravine was cleared between 1952 and 1953.

[3] Avila, Popular Culture in the Age of White Flight, 160.