by Dan Johnson
Beware of all exaggerations, hyperbole and superlatives.
Ours is the Age of Distortion. The water is rising, power is being consolidated, catastrophe looms. Yet we double down in the sanctuary of culture, which is nothing but the projection of identity on a white wall mortared in menace and cracked with a certain inarticulate fear.
Perhaps too late, a plenitude of voices rose in dissonant chorus this year to scream for honesty from behind the mask of media. By and large, they did not get it. The call for transparency can never be answered. Our world is too complex and ungainly for consensus. Maybe absolute truth awaits us all in death. Or maybe that too is tempered by the partitions of the great unknown.
In Barbara Kruger and Phil Mariani’s Remaking History, the authors ask this series of probing questions: “What administers the souls of the dead? What is the euphoria of the panorama? What is the neatly voluptuous plenitude which, arranging sequences and ordering events, locks in the world?” Their answer is history. Mine is bullshit.
If you need further proof that the world is built on bullshit, trot over to 6th St and Central Ave where the self-espoused “LA’s Best Deli & Café” dishes out a congratulatory mélange of breakfast foods and sandwiches that qualify as absolutely sufficient without transcending the ordinary.
Perhaps they know something we don’t. Perhaps the whole branding scheme was a hedge on a near-future apocalypse where that particular corner of the world is all that remains and the quick order cooks reign as gods.
The interior is cozy and drab, like an Akron VFW Hall. The food is mostly too expensive for my meager budget, like every material desire lusted after by the ranks of willing consumers we call America.
Two pancakes will run you $4.65. Two blueberry or banana walnut hot cakes clock in at $5.45. I took mine to go in a protective Styrofoam mandible so as to enjoy the abundant antioxidant stocked flapjack load in an unassuming if iconic corner at the heart of LA’s bull shit conundrum.
Thank you to everyone who has lent me their ears and time this year as I’ve explored forgotten geographies, lost cultures and cheap eats in Downtown Los Angeles. As 2016 comes to a close, journey with me one more time as we aim for the mushy, BS heart of our mysterious City of Angeles.
Los Angeles as a major city is an ocean tide of illusions. The hall of mirrors is enchanting and magnetic. It is laced with deceit and hidden opportunity. It will change all who come in contact with it because it too is in constant flux.
The Downtown we know today is changing rapidly. It swells and bellows like a volcano poised to erupt. If and when the proposed pyroclastic flow of prestige reshapes the City Center, it will take with it countless scenes and memories written on the walls of businesses and homes we took for granted.
If you ever get a chance, sign on to the Los Angeles Public Library online portal and dig into their collection of digitized Sanborn maps. Through the late 19th and early 20th century, the Sanborn Map Company and the Dakin Publishing Company surveyed cities small and large as a record for fire insurance. Today we can reflect on these documents to peel back the layers of soot and sediment separating us from the once bustling city upon which our own modest metropolis was built.
In Volume 2 of the 1906–June, 1950 edition of the Los Angeles City survey, we are treated to a diligently recorded blueprint of a 6th St and Central Ave that existed as a portal.
What is now “LA’s Best Deli & Café” was once the California Truck Rental Co. with a gas pump in the parking lot for good measure. As of 1914, the Southern Pacific Railroad hub on Alameda St closed and the Central Station at 5th St and Central
Ave replaced it. You wouldn’t know it today, but the Downtown of yesteryear was built to accommodate the onrush of dreamers, hopers and schemers that made their way into the Land of Sunshine from Central Ave.
The turn of the century surveys reveal a semi-industrial warehouse hub on Central Ave from 1st St to 4th St. There’s wood and upholstery and refrigeration—all the types of businesses you would expect for a track-bisected stretch of city where products were moved in and out by rail.
In 1906, the map even reveals the first incarnation of the long-enduring Young’s Market Company at the corner of Gladys St and Central Ave, almost a block away from their current HQ at 450 S Central Ave.
Up at Traction Ave and Central Ave, the present Angel City building was occupied by “John A. Roebling and Sons of California: Wire, Rope, Etc., Warehouse.” For those not hip, the original John A. Roebling designed and began to build the Brooklyn Bridge until his untimely death. His sons became specialists in suspension bridges, which goes a ways in explaining why the builders of the Golden Gate Bridge eventually turned to the firm’s LA Warehouse to get the massive spools of wire strung through that Frisco icon.
Work is one thing. Pleasure is another. The 6th St and Central Ave of the early 20th century was a haven of carnal delights. In many ways, it was a fringe neighborhood. Local housing covenants pushed African-Americans into that stretch of Central Ave between 1st St and Vernon. So it came to be that a collection of “restaurant” bar rooms came to host the city’s first generation of jazz.
Long-forgotten hideouts like Mrs. Dawson’s at 9th St and San Pedro St, The Waldorf at 4th St and Gladys St, the Triangle at 3rd St and Traction Ave and the Douglas Club on the 600 block of Central Ave all had their day in the sun. No place, though, had as much of a claim to fame as the Cadillac Club on Central between 5th St and 6th St. There, the once and future king of Jazz, Jelly Roll Morton, honed his Wolverine Blues in 1917.
The 1906-1950 survey reveals a neighborhood dotted with tiny restaurants. How many of these served liquor or dabbled in the nefarious is unknown, but the other trappings of the neighborhood suggest a level of impermanence that would lend itself to all the sweet delights of degeneracy.
The streets are dotted with “lodgings” in the form of little shotgun lots with rooms for rent. Whether these were mere rooms or houses of ill repute is unknown. Gladys, Stanford, Ceres, Towne, 6th and 7th streets are dotted with hotels. They all had unassuming names like the Lincoln, the Rossmore, the Union Pacific, the Regal, the Eagle, the McAlpin, the Alomah and the Ellis.
Most, if not all, of these old time rooms for let have gone the way of the dodo. Most were of wood construction with semi-grand open staircases connecting the floors. Amidst fire code updates in the mid-70s and post-Whittier/Northridge seismic retrofits, these witnesses to the past were torn asunder.
Until the mid-20th century, Los Angeles had the space, means and sensibility to continue expanding laterally toward unspoiled land. The old places where people lived, worked and got wild were traded in for new, shinier ones. Only today as we double back on the real estate of yesteryear do we come across some grim conclusions: the world we know is fated to disappear. Without properly documenting it, no one in the future will know the particulars of the way we live today. Our habits and assumptions and places are all so vital in understanding the mindset upon which we tending our world.
It’s worth pondering today as we acknowledge a “post-fact” world. How will we been seen in a hundred years? Who will tend our graves? How will we haunt the landscape? What snapshots do we leave and in what medium do we intend to transmit the senses that comprise our reality?
We can only hope for the best and assume, at very least, that what our descendants get will be bullshit.
With that wistful warning in mind, I award “LA’s Best Deli & Café” a “1” on the binary despite it being somehow lesser than Canter’s, thus nullifying its entire half-cocked brand.