FROM Eric Avila
Identity in design: is Yamashiro kitsch or cultural appropriation? If you live in LA, you’ve likely heard of Yamashiro, the faux Japanese temple built into the chaparral-covered Hollywood hills. But this location -- to many visitors an innocent and charming example of LA’s love of stage set architecture -- did not play so well with Los Angeles Times reporter Frank Shyong. He tells DnA, “the temple is -- in the Japanese context -- a place where people think about their relatives and have quiet reflective moments. And so when we in America take these parts of these cultures, we should also think about what their contexts were.” Shyong recently published a fascinating meditation on the “authenticity” of Yamashiro, which is on the National Register of Historic Places. He asked whether it should be considered within the framework of “cultural appropriation” and he called it, quote, “an inauthentic fantasy of Japanese culture that has generated profits exclusively for non-Japanese people.” He added that longtime businesses in Little Tokyo meanwhile face displacement. As part of DnA’s series on identity in design we discussed these arguments -- with Frank Shyong; Eve Epstein, Hunker VP of Content; and Eric Avila, historian and professor at UCLA. We asked each of them, how should we evaluate objects and buildings that mean different things to different viewers? Epstein says she feels a personal connection to the hybrid building, due to her own heritage as child of a Japanese mother and Jewish-American father. On one hand she says she understands the concerns of cultural appropriation, whether in architecture, fashion or movie casting; on the other she says there is room for “camp” and for keeping a sense of humor when appropriate. “The truth is that America is always interpreting somebody else's thing. We were bound to be getting stuff wrong from the start.” She adds, “I don't think there's anybody who comes to Yamashiro and doesn't come away having a pretty good feeling about Japanese architecture and culture.” But should the National Register reflect the hidden, sometimes darker aspects to a building? Yes, says Avila, and points out that at the time Yamashiro was being built, “Japanese Americans and Japanese immigrants were facing a wave of hostility that surfaced through a variety of laws that were passed to restrict Japanese immigration and also to prohibit land ownership among Japanese people in California.” Shyong suggests preservationists could focus on ethnic communities as well as ersatz ethnic buildings. How about paying more attention, he asks, to buildings such as “the 100 year old French hospital that was Chinatown's only hospital” and has a “fascinating history of transitioning from French to Chinese to pan-Asian as Chinatown and that surrounding area has changed?” Or what about the restaurant in Chinatown where “the first dim sum was served? I think if we considered Asian American or Chinese American food history a part of our history, then that’s something worth preserving too.” A view of Yamashiro’s interior courtyard. Photo by Frances Anderton.
Boyle Heights gallery offers protesters “symbolic” closure A war of attrition against art galleries in the western industrial area of Boyle Heights has caused one to announce its closure and another, Museum as Retail Space, to offer up his artist-activist antagonists the “symbolic and actual closing of my gallery.” A coalition of groups including Union de Vecinos, Defend Boyle Heights and UltraRed operate under the umbrella BHAAD, or Boyle Heights Alliance Against Artwashing and Displacement. They argue the galleries bring in expensive housing and cause displacement of the low- income, majority Latino residents of Boyle Heights. UltraRed is a group of self-described activist-artists, who, according to their online mission statement “pursue a fragile but dynamic exchange between art and political organizing... around issues including AIDS-HIV rights, anti-racism, and participatory community development. The group emphasizes activism as performance through radio broadcasts, installations and “public space actions.” This mingling of art and activism has Robert Zin Stark, owner of Museum as Retail Space, or MaRS, pondering their motives. Museum as Retail Space (MaRS) is a contemporary art gallery located in the industrial western edge of Boyle Heights. Why, he says, do they target the galleries over, say, the 6th Street Viaduct replacement, a multi-million dollar product connecting the affluent Arts District with Boyle Heights? Zin Stark tells DnA he has come to the conclusion they are “a group of intelligent cultural enactors and they're working with symbols and symbolism and community more so than actual political aims.” And their tactics have produced results. One of the galleries, 356 Mission, has just announced it will close next month. The founders, Laura Owens and Wendy Yao, told the LA Times it was not directly because of these protests. But Robert Zin Stark says the attacks on MaRS and the other galleries, which involve trolling online, boycotts and protesting openings, are draining and are turning the gallerists into pariahs in their own community of artists, dealers and arts journalists. So he has decided to respond to performance with performance. He has sent an invitation to Union de Vecinos, Defend Boyle Heights, UltraRed and BHAAD “to offer the ceremonial closing of my gallery to contextualize the relevance of your cultural enaction.” Elizabeth Blaney, co-founder of Union de Vecinos, in front of the group’s office in Boyle Heights. Photo by Avishay Artsy. DnA also talks to Elizabeth Blaney, co-founder of UltraRed and member of the BHAAD coalition, about their tactics. She says the galleries are just one target of many in their anti-gentrification fight but that the “stubborn and noxious and arrogant gallery owners” have “refused to analyze and acknowledge the negative impact they have on the residents who live around them.” Many residents of Boyle Heights are nervous about displacement and gentrification. But some supporters of tenants’ rights question the tactics and credentials of the activist- artists. After all, BHAAD has also targeted longtime arts nonprofits in Boyle Heights, like Self Help Graphics. Eric Avila, professor of history and Chicano Studies at UCLA, says he detects “a certain degree of urban ventriloquism going on in which certain groups or certain actors speak through the voices of people who are positioned or perceived to be more authentic or more connected to the kind of ground level social struggles.” But he acknowledges that the strategy “brings attention to a bad situation that is getting worse, particularly with regards to housing.”
What will freeways look like in the future? Is the High Desert Corridor the last gasp for freeways? Or will they always be part of our lives? Seleta Reynolds heads LA’s Department of Transportation and says that as transportation changes -- with the advent of electric vehicles, driverless cars, and drone delivery -- we should change how we think about freeways and their costs. “If we don't figure out a way to optimize what we have, which is a huge massive capital maintenance burden, then I'm not sure I'd buy that freeways will be here in a hundred years, because we won't have the dollars to continue to invest in them and maintain them,” Reynolds said. She points to some projects that are re-envisioning the freeway structures, such as the Hollywood Park project to create a park and deck the freeway at the 101 in Hollywood. Another project would rework the stub of the 2 freeway in the Silver Lake and Echo Park area. Landscape architect Chris Reed worked with his students at Harvard on a concept to turn the spur of this unfinished freeway into an elevated park filled with plants, paths for cyclists and pedestrians, and a rainwater capture system. Stoss Landscape Urbanism's proposal for the 2 Freeway spur includes paths for pedestrians and bicyclists and a rain capture system. (Chris Reed / Stoss Landscape Urbanism) He says that in addition to separating communities and spewing pollutants, freeways also exacerbate storm water runoff. “It was an exciting speculation to say, look, let's just take a piece of infrastructure and turn it on its head and allow it to become this vibrant space for ecology, for culture, for people in ways that just aren't possible right now,” Reed said. But could interventions like this steer us away from freeways in the future? “It's hard to imagine L.A. without the automobile and without the freeways because L.A. is a 20th century city and the automobile is a 20th century invention,” said Eric Avila, author of “The Folklore of the Freeway.” “In so many ways the identity, the politics, the economics, the landscape, the environment of L.A. is based upon the automobile.” Bridges and Walls is supported in part by the California Arts Council , a state agency. And special thanks to NPR’s Story Lab. Follow this series at KCRW.com/BridgesandWalls
Freeways used to symbolize freedom. Not anymore. Freeways were originally conceived as part of a vision for a better tomorrow. The Futurama exhibition at the 1939 New York World’s Fair “opened people's eyes in an unprecedented way to the possibilities of what was believed to be the future at the time,” said Alexandra Szerlip, author of a biography of Futurama’s designer, Norman Bel Geddes. “Traffic was a huge problem,” Szerlip said. “I think more people died on the roads in America from vehicular accidents than had than American soldiers had died during World War One.” Los Angeles went crazy for freeways. They enabled people to drive until they reached land where they could buy an affordable house and a large yard and they were embraced for several decades. Some people even found them beautiful, like the British architecture critic Reyner Banham, who wrote about the “autopia” of Los Angeles. Banham’s book “Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies” came out in 1971. A decade later a young man named David Brodsly published a book called “LA Freeway: An Appreciative Essay.” He wrote that the "L.A. freeway is the cathedral of its time and place" and driving along it offers an almost spiritual experience. But by the time “LA Freeway” was published in 1981, many Angelenos were losing patience with the system. Pollution and congestion were rising and in 1985 construction began on the region’s first subway. In 1994 photographer Catherine Opie exhibited a series of freeway photos, taken in early morning weekend hours. “And for me it's literally an iconic landscape, as much as Egypt is in relationship to the pyramids,” Opie said. But other artists made work to register their protest. UCLA urban historian Eric Avila teaches Chicana and Chicano studies and wrote the book “The Folklore of the Freeway.” He took us to Hollenbeck Park in Boyle Heights, which was divided by the 5 freeway. David Botello, “Wedding Photos - Hollenbeck Park,” 1990. Avila described the painting “Wedding Photos-Hollenbeck Park” by David Botello, made in 1990 (see image above). It depicts a photographer setting up a wedding party in front of a willow tree in Hollenbeck Park. “But the photographer’s using that willow tree to block the image of the freeway. Because a wedding party does not want a freeway in its official wedding portrait. But the painter is making the freeway apparent, and its unsightliness in Hollenbeck Park, even though the photographer is not,” Avila said. As early as 1957, residents of Boyle Heights spoke out against the construction of the freeways, which now cover 10 percent of the neighborhood. “It was targeted for its racial and ethnic diversity. It was described by the federal government as hopelessly heterogeneous, and in this report by the Homeowners Loan Corporation, it said this would be an ideal location for a slum clearance project, and that slum clearance project was highway construction,” Avila said. Eric Avila has spent many years studying how communities deprived of political and economic resources and opportunities turn to culture -- visual art, performance, music -- to express resistance. And he says that’s why freeways started cropping up in Chicano art. “The inclusion of the freeway in Chicano art is a reflection of daily life. But it's also an effort to domesticate or to make oneself at home in this inhuman landscape, this toxic landscape of freeways, to imbue the freeways with color, the kind of color that that reflects traditional patterns of Mexican culture, which is a sharp contrast to the colorlessness of the concrete that the freeways are built of,” he said.
Density, Development and the Battle for Hollywood Two skyscrapers won't be towering over the Capitol Records building any time soon. A local judge has sided with community groups and Caltrans, ruling that a $1 billion project will have to go through another round of environmental review.
Why Are Freeways the Site of Protests? The non-indictments of white policemen who killed unarmed black men and boys have led to continuing protests across the country. In California, that's taken the form of shutting down freeways. In LA and the Bay Area, Keith James and others have been bringing freeway traffic to a halt…long enough to create havoc for lots of commuters. That sounds like insanity, but maybe there's a rationale for such madness. That's according to Eric Avila, a professor of history, Chicano studies and urban planning at UCLA. His latest book is The Folklore of the Freeway : Race and Revolt in the Modernist.
Hua Hsu: A Floating Chinaman Author Hua Hsu stops by to discuss his book A Floating Chinaman, recounting the life of 1930's actor/writer H.T. Tsiang and his struggles entering the American literary world.
Terrorism in London: Lessons for the US This weekend’s terrorist attack in London left seven people dead and almost 50 injured. London police fatally shot the attackers, and ISIS claimed responsibility.
In 'Speechless,' Scott Silveri combines comedy, family & disability Scott Silveri has written and produced sitcoms for more than 20 years. In all that time, he never encountered a TV family that looked anything like the one he grew up in -- with a mom, a dad...and a brother with cerebral palsy. He changed that with his show Speechless on ABC. Silveri tells us about looking to his own past for stories, and why he was determined to make a family comedy and not just a "disability show."