Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Southland Parks — Visiting Ascot Hills Park

Parks comprise more than 14% of Los Angeles’s landscape and the city is home to hundreds of these cherished public spaces. From the largest park within any American city (Topanga State Park) to the smallest pocket parks and parklets, I hope to showcase them one park at a time, in the series Southland Parks.
Ascot HillsAscot Hills Park
Ascot Hills Park is a fairly new, fairly large park in the Eastside neighborhood of El Sereno. Although its development as a park was first proposed in 1930, it took 81 years for it to actually become one. It thankfully took far less time to establish itself as a gem of a Los Angeles park which I first discovered in 2012 when I was taking care of a dog named Dooley. I was again housesitting when I decided to further explore with her.
Ascot Hills Park Entrance
Ascot Hills Park's main entrance
Ascot Hills Park is located within El Sereno and neighbored by Hillside Village to the south, Lincoln Heights to the west, Rose Hill to the northwest, and the rest of El Sereno to the north and east. 
Pendersleigh & Sons Cartography's oil paint and ink map of Ascot Hills Park
Pendersleigh & Sons Cartography's oil paint and ink map of Ascot Hills Park
Ascot Hills Park is unstaffed and open from dawn to dusk. Should you find yourself (or more likely, your car) locked within, there is a phone number posted near the entrance to the parking lot at the park’s southern end which you can call. It's fairly undeveloped, although there are signs everywhere of recent improvements throughout, especially near the southern end where the parking lot, restrooms, outdoor classroom are all located.
Kewanee Street Entrance
Kewanee Street Entrance
At the northern end of the park, it's not always obvious where the park begins and ends. There are fences around the reservoir but some of the entrances look less like entry points than barriers. Where Lynfield Street meets Kewanee Street, the latter street is gated and padlocked.  Behind it I saw some homes and no warnings to trespassers so I went around the gate.
Kewanee Street Entrance
Although it more resembles the exit of a minimum security prison, the photo above is seemingly of proper entrance into the park. On top of the ridge, there's a sign which confims to the visitor that they are in the park.
Ascot Hills Park sign
Hole in the fence with Lincoln Heights and Rose Hill behind
The first time that I came to Ascot Hills Park I trudged up the western face only to discover it surrounded by a rusty fence topped with barbed wire. However, I was was relieved that there are many gaps in the fence which allow passage. I'm not sure who cut them, but they're found throughout the park's perimeter.
Underneath the heavy tagging the sign says something like "Take a bag, leave a bag."
Before the opening of Ascot Hills Park, most of the larger open spaces in the Eastside were cemeteries: Evergreen Cemetery in Boyle HeightsCalvary Cemetery in East Los Angeles, and several smaller ones. There were nice neighborhood parks like City Terrace ParkHazard ParkHollenbeck ParkLincoln Park, and Rose Hill Park. There were other undeveloped open spaces like Elephant Hill and Mount Olympus II (aka Flat Top Hill) but aside from Ernest E. Debs Regional Park in Montecito Heights, there were no big, official, parks. The opening of Ascot Hills was, to use a vastly overused term, a "game changer."
The first humans to arrive in the Los Angeles Basin came at least 13,000 years ago and were likely the ancestors of the Chumash. Around 3,500 years ago the ancestors of the Tongva (or Kizh) arrived from the Sonoran Desert to the east and in the vicinity of the modern park established the village of Otsungna. In the 18th century, they were subjugated by the Spanish, who in addition to introducing Catholicism, slavery and disease, also introduced  the now prevalent wild mustard.
Wild mustard, brought by the Spanish
There are several theories as to why and how exactly the plant was brought from the Mediterranean to Southern California but sharing a climate, it proliferated and was grazed upon by livestock and Spaniard alike.
The Repetto Hills, which include Ascot Hills Park, are located around the northeastern corner of the Spanish pueblo of Los Angeles’s original area of four square leagues. Mexico gained independence from Spain in 1821 and controlled the land until 1848, when the US defeated them in war. Two years later the city of Los Angeles was incorporated. A small section of what’s now Ascot Hills was located within the city's original boundaries but most was annexed in 1915, part of the Bairdstown Addition.
Hillside Village from Ascot Hills
The Ascot Hills got their name from the New Ascot Speedway, a midget car racetrack which opened at the southern edge of the hills in 1924. Between then and 1936, 24 race car drivers lost their lives on the track. After it closed the grandstand was burned down and  the property was soon after developed as Hillside Village.
The empty and probably haunted caretakers house
The LADWP acquired property in the hills in the 1920s. An earthen dam was used to created a reservoir and the caretaker’s house was constructed off Bowman Boulevard. A large area surrounding the reservoir was used by the utility for training. In 1964, when a portion of the property was granted to the Los Angeles Unified School District who upon it constructed the Paul Williams-designed Woodrow Wilson High School. The original reservoir was taken off-line in 1987 and was replaced with a new storage tank in 1990.
The 1990 reservoir
In 1930, at the behest of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, an ambitious, visionary plan was drawn up by the Olmsted Brothers and Harland Bartholomew & Associates titled Parks, Playgrounds, and Beaches for the Los Angeles Region which, had it actually been implemented,  would've included the Ascot Hills within a vast greenbelt around the city. 
The entrance to Ascot Reservoir
In 2000, a proposal was made to flatten the hills and install football (soccer) fields and baseball diamonds — plans which were shut down in large part by action from students at Woodrow Wilson High School. Ground finally did break on the park in 2005, at which time it was scheduled for completion in 2007. Sixteen hectares opened in 2006 whilst, disappointingly, the rest sat fallow behind padlocked fences when the $3 million dollars allocated for the development of the park were frozen. In 2010, the threat of a lawsuit against the city got the ball rolling again and lo and behold, the rest of the property officially opened in 2011.
Walnuts on the hill and what looks to me like a walnut seedling
The Ascot Hills covered by grasslands dotted with a few California Walnuts (Juglans californica) and on the eastern face, toyon shrubland.
In the rainy season the hills were brilliant green. As winter nears its end, most of the grasses are now yellowing but it's still quite beautiful. The dry grasses rustled, as did the leaves of the trees. The air smelled of eucalyptus and mustard and the breeze carried swirling clouds of pappus.
IMG_8552My head is filled with the images taken from too many films and the shimmying vegetation reminded me of swaying-grass classics like OnibabaThe Wind Will Carry Us, and especially, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia.
A small riparian woodland exists along the banks a small stream in which I was surprised to discover fish! It flows south from the Ascot Reservoir and is lined with non-native eucalyptusevergreen coniferspalms, at least one Peruvian pepper, an interesting, green-branched tree that I don't know the name of, and other species I couldn't identify.
Peruvian pepper
IMG_8614IMG_8582I also spied flowering California bush sunflowerCalifornia poppiesMatilija poppiesdatura, and monkey flower, among others.
California poppies
California bush sunflower
Datura wrightii (aka "Indian Whiskey")
Monkey flower
Matilija poppy
Aside from the wild mustard, invasive non-natives that I recognized included milk thistles growing near the stream, castor beans along the eastern fence, and creeping up the northern face from yards below, a Mediterranean geraniumSouth African ice plants, and an aloe vera.
Milk thistle
IMG_8541There were obviously a lot more animals around than I managed to see as I could only hear lizards scurrying in the undergrowth, spied uncounted holes probably dug by ground squirrels, and saw all kinds of wild animal dung. There was the expected tagging of rocks, garbage cans, and signs -- the markings of one of life's lower forms.
I did manage to catch sight of crows and a hawk scuffling midair, loads of house finches, a ladybird beetle, about four rabbits, and a whole lot of white garden snails. There’s been a bobcat sighted in Debs Park but I don’t know of any showing up in Ascot Hills Park… yet! I looked for tracks too, but the ground was pretty hard and the only that I could identify were made by bicycles or athletic shoes.
House finches
Ladybird beetle
White garden snails
Although the park's mostly undeveloped state makes is easy to immerse oneself in, there are things reminding you that you’re in a city. Jets can regularly be heard flying overhead and the voice of an unseen child yelling at his parents carried across the valley. They joined the symphony of cawing crows, chirping finches, hammering woodpeckers, and roosters crowing from nearby yards. At one point I could hear a motorist blasting banda and toward the end of our exploration we were treated to an ice cream truck bumping a weird 808 techno gospel version of "Bringing In the Sheaves" on continuous loop.
The KLAC AM 570 and KFWB 980 towers in the distance
There are two clusters of radio towers just outside the park. The cluster of three towers to the park's southwest belong to KLAC AM 570 and KFWB 980 and we didn't get very close to them. 
Approaching the KMPC 1540 towers from the south
KMPC 1540 towers from the north side of the hill and some California walnuts
To the park's northeast is a cluster of six towers owned by KMPC 1540. Those towers are surrounded by a fence, guarded by two aggressive dogs, and also enclose several small, dilapidated structures which I hoped housed a hermit. However, as we walked down the hill we passed a seemingly normal man speaking Korean on the phone as he approached his van -- so probably not a complete recluse.
If you’d like to get involved with the park, there are several organizations serving it including the Ascot Hills Park Green Team, the Ascot Hills Park Advisory BoardHermon ChurchLos Angeles Recreation and Parks, and North East Trees.
Woodrow Wilson High in the distance
Credit in picking up trash and planting natives also has to be given to high school students at Woodrow Wilson High, members of the office of José Huizar, and members of the nearby communities.
Left to right: The skylines of Long Beach, Boyle Heights, Downtown Los Angeles, Koreatown, and Miracle Mile.
Trails & Open Space: Ascot Hills Park Opens in El Sereno by Zach Behrens
Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, writer, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities. He is not interested in writing advertorials, clickbait, listicles, or other 21st century variations of spam. Brightwell’s written work has appeared in AmoeblogdiaCRITICS, and KCET Departures. His work has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft & Folk Art MuseumForm Follows FunctionLos Angeles County StoreSkid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured in the Los Angeles TimesHuffington PostLos Angeles MagazineLAistEastsider LABoing BoingLos Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA? and at Emerson College. Art prints of his maps are available from 1650 Gallery and on other products from Cal31. He is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on FacebookInstagram, and Twitter.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

The Nobody Drives in LA Guide to CicLAvia — The Valley

Pendersleigh & Sons Cartography's Map of the San Fernando Valley (available on merchandise from Cal31 and art prints from 1650 Gallery)
Pendersleigh & Sons Cartography's Map of the San Fernando Valley (available on merchandise from Cal31 and art prints from 1650 Gallery)
Tomorrow, 22 March, from 9am and 4pm, a stretch of Lankershim and Ventura boulevards will be closed to motorized traffic for CicLAvia - The Valley. At just 8.85 kilometers, it’s a short one… but considering this past Tuesday it took me 45 minutes on the 134 to get from Studio City to Burbank, it’ll still be a glimpse of what the Valley looks like without gridlock.
CicLAvias are free, open streets events that briefly close off streets to motorized traffic —although I have seen people on mobility scooters and battery powered toy cars so the events aren’t completely free of motorists. There will be organized activities and food trucks but for me the real fun is seeing these communities without fear of being harried, harassed, or harmed by cars.
Without a preceding definite article, “Valley” refers to the San Gabriel Valley in the names of many a business along Valley Boulevard. However, add that all-important “the” and “The Valley” is nearly always understood by Angelenos to refer to the San Fernando Valley. The choice of streets, Lankershim and Ventura, is interesting. Lankershim has long been an important thoroughfare, connecting as it does the Valley with the Los Angeles Basin below via Cahuenga PassColdwater Canyon Boulevard, at the route’s western terminus, is another connection to the basin (in this case to Beverly Hills). The northern terminus, Chandler Boulevard, is named after Harry Chandler — the controversial publisher of the Los Angeles Times who also developed much of the San Fernando Valley. The main stretch of the route is Ventura Boulevard.
Ventura is the Valley’s “main street.” A section of it in Encino is billed as “The Valley’s Miracle Mile,” a reference to the museum-lined stretch of Los Angeles’s main street, Wilshire Boulevard. Today the Miracle Mile is rightly celebrated for its cultural institutions but was developed as a sort of linear, automobile-oriented commercial corridor. Ventura isn’t known for it’s high culture, although there is culture to be found in its restaurants, mid-century architecture, and long history. Ventura was used by Native Americans and later, after the Spanish Conquest, was developed as part of El Camino Real. Much later it was part of US 101 but although no longer a highway would (like Wilshire) benefit greatly from the addition of a rail line and without one remains stalled in the car-dependent 20th Century. Open streets events like CicLAvia — The Valley will hopefully inspire Valley-ites and visionaries to move things forward.
Mission San Fernando Rey de España
Mission San Fernando Rey de España
The first people to have lived in the Valley were likely the ancestors of the Chumash, who arrived in the Los Angles area at least 13,000 years ago. Some 3,500 years ago the Tataviam and Tongva/Kizh arrived, the presence of the latter still much in evidence in place names like “Cahuenga,” “Topanga,” and “Tujunga.” The Spanish built Mission San Fernando Rey de España in the Valley in 1797 and enslaved the locals whom they renamed “Fernandeños.” In 1821, Mexico gained independence from Spain and in 1833 the missions’ holdings were secularized. The land was again conquered by the US, who signed a peace treaty with Mexico near Universal City/Studio City Train Station. Rail arrived to the Valley in 1874 and early towns like BurbankOwensmouthSan Fernando, and Van Nuys sprang up. Most of the Valley was annexed by Los Angeles in 1915.
One year earlier, German-American filmmaker Carl Laemmle began construction on the Valley's first permanent movie-making facility, Oak Ridge Ranch, which later became Universal City. Although tourists still follow their noses to Hollywood, beginning in the 1920s, most of that district’s movie studios, prop shops, and production houses moved over the Santa Monica Mountains to the Valley. Later the Valley would be famous for producing it’s own studios, although Vivid and Wicked are unlikely to show up on any movie tours or lists of the Valley’s cultural contributions, which also include Gelson’s Markets, Du-par’s Restaurants, and (my favorite), the Los Angeles River.
Map of the San Fernando Valley in 1880
Map of the San Fernando Valley in 1880
The Los Angeles River begins in Canoga Park at the confluence of Arroyo Calabasas and Bell Creek. It’s joined by Browns Canyon Wash in Winnetka and Aliso Creek in Reseda before it enters Sepulveda Basin where it’s additionally joined by BullEncinoHaskell, and Woodley creeks. After it flows out of the basin, in Sherman Oaks, its course takes it nearer Ventura Boulevard but after meeting the Tujunga Wash, it again strays from Ventura, flowing around Griffith Park and continuing its 82 kilometer course to the San Pedro Bay. A watershed moment came for the concretized river in 2010, when it’s navigability was demonstrated by kayakers and paving the way for its un-pavement. For those who prefer to explore without getting wet (or giardia) there are river trails including the North Valleyheart Riverwalk and The Los Angeles River Bike Path, which in 2016 are scheduled to be joined by a section known as the Zev Yaroslavsky LA River Greenway Trail.
The Valley in the car-dependent-but-not-yet-traffic-choked 1960s
During the early years of the Cold War, the Valley emerged as an important center of aerospace and defense and most of it was covered with suburban development. In the 1980s, it still had the reputation as Los Angeles’s suburb, and the suburban valley girl was lampooned in Frank Zappa’s 1982 single, "Valley Girl" and celebrated in Martha Coolidge’s 1983 film, Valley Girl. Preserved by music and film the stereotype never changed although the Valley itself did.
Even as valley girls were influencing the way young people talked around the country, the Valley was undergoing significant Latinization and urbanization. Today the Valley includes clusters of high-rises in BurbankEncinoStudio CityUniversal City, and the “Century City of the Valley,” Warner Center and Anglos are outnumbered by Latinos. The Valley is diverse too — with significant numbers of Armenians, English, Filipinos, Germans, Irish, Italians, Jews, Koreans, Palestinians, Persians, and Russians.
Pendersleigh & Sons Cartography's map of North Hollywood
Pendersleigh & Sons Cartography's map of North Hollywood
It’s important to remind readers and participants that open streets events are not races. There are no start or finish lines. If ciclovias sometimes resemble marathons it is because they take place on streets and are thus linear. However, they’re most rewarding when explored at a measured pace and with an adventuresome spirit. I’m starting in North Hollywood rather than at the other end because that terminus is a major public transit hub, served by Metro’s Orange and Red lines as well as Metro Local 152, 154, 156, 162, 183, 224, 353, and 656 lines; the Bob Hope Airport ShuttleBurbank Bus’s NoHo-Media District and NoHo-Empire lines; California Shuttle Bus’s San Francisco/San Jose line; City of Santa Clarita Transit’s 757 line; and LADOT Commuter Express’s 549 line. It’s also located near the eastern end of the Metro Orange Line bicycle path.
North Hollywood Station
North Hollywood Station
The subway station opened in 2000, near the site of the old and recently-renovated Toluca Southern Pacific Depot, a train station built in 1896 that was built by Southern Pacific and additionally served by the inter-urban Pacific Electric Railway until 1952. Today it is one of the few remaining 19th century buildings in the Valley.
NoHo 14
NoHo 14
Also near the station is NoHo 14, the tallest residential highrise in the Valley. One of the first high-rises in the Valley was the Mid-Century modern Commonwealth Savings Building, built in 1961 but sadly demolished in 2013. Older and still standing not far from the ciclovia route is Valley Plaza Tower (12160 Victory Boulevard), a ten-story Corporate International-style building completed in 1960 and designed by prominent local architects Douglas Honnold and John Rex.
In 1979 the Community Redevelopment Agency adopted a part of North Hollywood for redevelopment most of which was designated the NoHo Arts District in 1992. The NoHo Arts District today is undoubtedly the cultural capital of the San Fernando Valley. The area, along with the Hollywood Studio District, is one of Los Angeles’s major concentrations of live theater. It’s also home to a large number of art galleries, dance studios, and café.
Masonic Lodge
Masonic Lodge
Other North Hollywood sites worth a gander include North Hollywood Park (established in 1927 and which hosts the Dave Potell Memorial Rink, the North Hollywood Skate Plaza, a swimming pool, and the North Hollywood Regional Library), the iconic Circus Liquor sign (as seen in Murder Was the Case and Clueless), the North Hollywood Post Office (constructed in 1936), the Television Academy (whose collection of sculptures including Bea Arthur, Bob Newhart, and Gene Roddenberry is far more interesting than Hollywood’s Walk of Fame), the El Portal Theatre (built in 1926), Eddie Brandt's Saturday Matinee (a great video rental place — including VHS), the Iliad Bookshop, the Federal Bar, the California Institute of Abnormal Arts (a bizarre freakshow/performance venue), the restored Idle Hour (a whiskey barrel-shaped bit of programmatic architecture which opened in 1941), the North Hollywood Masonic Lodge (designed by Mayan Revivalist British architect Robert Stacy-Judd), Le Petit Chateau, the St.Charles Borromeo Church (which although built in 1938 obtained a nice J. Earl Trudeau-designed Churrigueresque façade in 1959), Weddington ParkPhil’s Diner (built to look like a train car and not currently in operation), the Lankershim Arts Center (designed by S. Charles Lee in 1939 for the Los Angeles Department of Water & Power), and North Hollywood Toyota (a Streamline Modern car dealership from 1940).
El Portal Theatre
El Portal Theatre
If Encino Commons is the Valley’s Miracle Mile, Toluca Lake is the Valley’s Yugoslavia. In a region known for neighborhoods renaming themselves and redrawing their borders, Toluca Lake takes the balkan cake, chopped up into the small communities of Toluca LakeToluca TerraceToluca Woods, and West Toluca Lake. They all have roots in the historic Toluca Ranch, a portion of which is now located within the city of Burbank. As for the titular lake, it’s private and protected by the Toluca Lake Property Owners Association, who are the Valley’s Securitate so don’t attempt to visit. Aside from the popular eatery, Little Toni’s, I’m not aware of much that would warrant leaving the ciclovia’s course.
Universal City
Do consider Universal City, although isn’t a city in any recognizable sense since it’s not incorporated and has no permanent residents. Like a proper city, it does have a couple of tall buildings, the tallest being the 36-story 10 Universal City Plaza (completed in 1984) and the rest including Hilton Universal City & Towers (1989), Sheraton Universal Hotel (1969), and Universal Studios Tower. It also has the illusion of a downtown, the mall-like simulacra that is Universal CityWalk. For tourists its probably best known for being the home of Universal Studios Hollywood, a theme park that is, of course, not located in Hollywood. If you like theme parks — and it’s fun to tour the backlot — it’s worth a visit.
Located between Universal City and Studio City is Universal City/Studio City Station. When it opened it was the first subway station in the Valley. During its construction, the foundation of the  late 18th century Campo de Cahuenga Adobe (where the Treaty of Cahuenga/Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed) was uncovered just 15 centimeters beneath a sidewalk along Lankershim where it had been since it was demolished in 1900. A recreation was built nearby in 1951.
Like Universal City, Studio City also began with a film studio, in this case Mack Sennett’s Studioland, which began operation in what was then known as Laurelwood in 1927. Also like Universal City, Studio City is a city in name only although it does have residents and is part of the city of Los Angeles. In 1933, Studioland became Mascot Studios which in 1935 became Republic Studios. In 1967 it became CBS Studio Center and was used to film Gilligan’s Island and Yes, Dear.
Other Studio City sites worth a look include the J. Barry Moffitt-designed Waxman House (built in 1964), R.M. Schindler’s Lingenbrink Shops (a 1942 strip mall with additions from 1946), Schindler’s Laurelwood Apartments (a courtyard complex built in 1949), Oil Can Harry’s (a gay bar which opened in 1968), Du-Par’s Restaurant, the historic Fox Studio City Theatre (built in 1939 and currently home to a Barnes & Noble), the Studio City Hand Car Wash (which has a large, helpfully-illustrative hand sculpture), Art's Delicatessen (in operation since 1957), a Late Modern style Ralph’s (formerly a Hughe’s and designed by Tarzana-based R. Leon Edgar in 1972), a former Denny’s (designed by Armet & Davis, the duo responsible for Googie style Norm’s on La Cienega and Pann’s on La Tijera), St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church (a 1962 Mid-Century Modern church designed by A. Quincy Jones and Frederick Emmons), The Fox and Hounds (a British Pub), Pinz Bowling Center (formerly Kirkwood Bowl, a 1956 bowling alley), and the Sportmen's Lodge, a natural area which gradually was developed into the Studio City landmark that it is today.
If you want more guides, Andrea RichardsDaniel Larusso, and the Militant Angeleno have published their own.  Also worth checking out are Lindsay William-Ross’s Neighborhood Project: NoHo Arts DistrictColin Marshall’s A Los Angeles Primer: Universal City, and my own California Fool’s Gold — Exploring North Hollywood, The Gateway to the Valley.