Wednesday, July 25, 2007

House Adventure Part II


(Photo of free door,
after much stripping, sanding and painting)
I learned about the joy of getting stuff for free at an early age. When my Dad lived in a tiny studio apartment on Paloma Court in Venice in the mid-70's our family frequently checked out the neighborhood Free Box (similar in concept, not scale, to this) a few blocks away and came away with cool toys, useful household items and clothing. People in the neighborhood would leave items they no longer needed but which were still usable in the box for others to take and use. Someone in the neighborhood had put a wooden box, the size of a small trunk on the sidewalk in front of their home, with a note that read something like "Take what you need, leave what you don't" Even as a 6 year old, I was well aware that this was definitely NOT how things usually worked in our society. I remember the thrill I would get as we walked down the street toward the weathered box, wondering what treasures we would find when my Dad lifted the lid.

I still love gettting stuff for free and giving stuff away. I am a member of Freecycle and am so happy when I can pass along useful items to other folks. I am looking forward with much aniticipation to an upcoming event that a friend is organizing, a women's clothing swap party where a bunch of us are bringing clothes that no longer fit us to exchange with one another. I often leave items out on the curb for the scrap metal collectors who cruise our neighborhood on trash day. And I can now justify my freebie-mania, knowing that I am practicing the three R's: reducing (my consumption of the earth's resources, the amount of stuff going into landfills, the amount of my income that goes to multi-national corporations, etc.) recycling, and re-using.

Of course, my Dad was the most influential conservationist in my life, he taught me how to mend socks, make flying toys out of popsicle sticks and re-purpose old furniture. His conservation ethic and skills at reusing found materials probably came both from his experience growing up in a poor family, especially his grandparents immigrants from rural Mexico and also from the vocational training in the building trades that he got from his instructor, an older man from New York whose family had emigrated to the US from Eastern Europe and lived through the Depression.

So, no one was more thrilled than my Dad when my husband and I started picking up old house parts from the streets and sidewalks of LA to use in our remodelling project. He literally shouted with joy when we brought home an amazing, turn of the century solid sugar pine door with original bevelled glass and a matching screen door ("before" photo at right). He grinned from ear-to-ear when we brought home the 800 lb "built-in" china cabinet (photo below), salvaged from a house being demolished near Chinatown. And he was truly impressed to hear how my husband and a friend had taken two pry bars, a few screwdrivers and a small pick-up truck to the doomed house and returned to deposit this treasure on our front lawn, where it rested until we could get enough strong hands to move it to the back patio. (And he didn't laugh, when we later learned that to install the "free" front door and move the china cabinet into the house, we'd have to spend big money to tear down the front wall and reframe the whole thing to current-day standards!) He happily lent his pick-up truck, shovel and muscle power as we made multiple trips to various construction sites around town to pick-up loads of arroyo river rocks that would become garden edging, and the dry river bed arrangement that would solve one of our drainage issues.

I am proud that my spendthrift ways make me the latest in a long line of conservationists, though my impoverished ancestors would probably just call my habits being smart or making do. We have gotten a lot of joy from the freebies we have used to rehab our house. Every so often, I look at the front door and recall the unmistakable sweet and fagrant scent that the nearly 100 year old sugar pine gave off when we sanded it down. Not only do we have high quality, historically appropriate pieces for the house, some made from material no longer available, we have the satisfaction of finding, hauling and, in some cases installing these things in our home ourselves. And each of these house parts provides us a cool story to share with guests and connects our house to a place or event in recent LA history. On top of all this, we have the memories of working together in this project with my Dad and the image of his broad, infectious grin and expressions of disbelief (Man, how do you find these things?!) over each one of our finds--things that you just can't buy at Home Depot or Lowe's!!

Monday, July 23, 2007

House Adventure Part I

This is the first in a series of posts that I plan to write about our 1909 house ("Before photo, at right), which holds so many memories and stories. I will add posts and photos as time permits.
"This house is going to be a showplace"

Our home-owning adventure began in early 2001 when my husband bolted upright one morning and announced "We're buying a house!". He had grown tired of being woken up at 5am most mornings by the sound of our neighbor's concrete mixer right outside our bedroom window.

After scouring the streets of Northeast LA looking for a house with the right mixture of historic character, affordability (there was such a thing in early 2001) and potential, we found our current house. I fell in love with the place from the curb. One look at the wraparound porch, dormer windows and arroyo stone foundation and I knew in my bones that this was the place for me. That the place was only a mile from where we had been renting a 1906 carriage house that had been saved from demolition, moved and rehabbed by a local preservation group and , in the community where I had spent much of the past 15 years, was the deal closer. I was not dissuaded when we got a chance to look at the home's interior and saw just how much repair it would need. (At right, one of the "before pictures" of our home)

Growing up, I had gone with my Dad to jobsites-condominiums and old houses undergoing remodelling-when he couldn't find a babysitter, which was most of the time. I spent many hours doing homework under his work lights, growing accustomed to the hum of the circular saw, the rhythm of nails going into 2 x4s, and the fresh and clean smell of sawdust that still reminds me of my Dad. And, as a young adult, I had helped my Dad rehab our North Hollywood bungalow, finding solace in the routine tasks and tangible results of making the place sparkle again-removing decades old wallpaper, and sanding and hand-rubbing the finish on the dry and worn oak floors- during what was one of the most difficult times in my life. I had just quit a job where I had been assaulted and the management refused to discipline the guy who assaulted me. I had also left college because of financial and emotional pressures and was uncertain how I would be able to fulfull the potential that all the adults around me claimed I had.

So when I walked into the 1909 bungalow that would become our first home and saw the poorly repaired plaster on the walls, the doors that were out of square, the rotted windowsills and the cracks in kitchen and bathroom tile, I didn't see quite how badly neglected the place had been, I saw an opportunity to make my mark on the place.

My Dad didn't discourage us from buying the major fixer-upper though he probably saw what an overwhelming task we had taken on. He did not have money to help us, so he gave us what he did have: his skills, patience, and hard work. For nearly three years, he spent almost every weekend working on the house with us. He taught my husband how to use tools, he mediated our disagreements over large and small issues, and he debated design ideas with me. He took pride in our progress, beaming his happiness to all around when we'd sit on the porch for our lunchbreak, enjoying his favorite root beer, deli sandwiches from the corner market, and the breezes from the southwest that reached the porch with just enough velocity to cool us off. With a sparkle in his eye, he would take a look around at our progress and tell us "This house is going to be a showplace".


True to his character, on his last visit before his sudden death, he had made up a list of the tasks we needed to tackle in the kitchen and ranked the items in order of importance. He handed me the list after a particularly spirited exchange where we had debated the merits of various schemes for shaping up the kitchen (Photo of kitchen in progress, with free door, at right). Before he left, I realized that my tiredness and frustration about the long project of remodelling the house made me short with him. So as I walked him to the door, I stopped him and gave him a hug and said "Thanks, Dad. For everything." By everything, I meant not only his work on and excitement about our house, but also the love, patience, and guidance he had given me throughout my life that was epitomized by his participation in our house adventure. That was the last time I would see him alive and I still remember how it felt to hug him that day , with the sunlight streaming in through the kitchen windows, the breeze coming in off the porch and the feeling of being protected and nourished by his unconditional love.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Landscaping America exhibit explores the stories of ordinary people who have helped create the LA aesthetic

An exhibit that opened this weekend at the Japanese American National Museum in Little Tokyo caught my eye. The press release at the exhibit website says: “Landscaping America: Beyond the Japanese Garden explores those dimensions of Japanese American gardens and gardeners that are not immediately or generally visible. Gardening and gardens involve physical labor, artistry, community relationships,” explains exhibition curator Sojin Kim.
(Author's photo of the gardens at Self Realization Fellowship Lake Shrine Center in Pacific Palisades)

The japanese garden aesthetic can be found all over LA and Southern California, in formal, public gardens, office buildings and all kinds of private homes, especially many mid-century structures. .This JANM project recognizes the aesthetic, cultural and economic impact of a group of immigrant laborers working in a low paying, low prestige job. These folks are the true, unrecognized creators of southern California culture, as much as any high profile film or television writer, director or producer.

I still have fond memories of the landscaping at the mid-century redwood apartment complex that I lived in as a child in North Hollywood. At the time I didn't know that the finely textured plant with red berries that I admired was a heavenly bamboo or that it and the pebble paving were inspired by Japanese style gardening. I just knew that I enjoyed the feel of that paving on my bare feet as I got out of the pool and that the pavilion-like stucture that held the mailboxes made collecting the mail everyday (one of my chores) fun.

I hope to get to this exhibit while it's here, especially to see the japanese style garden installed indoors on the second floor of the museum. I have yet to be dissapointed by an exhibit at JANM. The Heart Mountain exhibit was really moving and thought provoking. The Boyle Heights project (see link in Father's Day post) was one of the best in-depth treatments of LA neighborhood history that I have seen. It inspired my own work on neighborhood history a few years later on “From Generation to Generation: Making a Life in South Los Angeles, 1940–2005” a community history project at the Southern California Library for Social Studies and Research (see link at right). It was also great fun, my Dad and I went together on opening night and he later brought several relatives who had also grown up in the area. The Noguchi exhibit was beautiful and enlightening.

Monday, June 18, 2007

"that kind of mexican"

While browsing Loteria Chicana, I came across this blog post at jenn's journeys that resonated with my own experience growing up in the San Fernando Valley as a third generation Mexican-American whose first language was English. I also heard the comment that I wasn't "that kind of mexican". When I read this, I first felt an odd sense of relief to learn that I wasn't alone in hearing such comments. Then I was angry that I wasn't the only one to have to deal with this kind of thing on top of the usual confusion and conflict of adolescence. This kind of thing doesn't end once we're safely past puberty. I can recall hearing similar comments more than once as an adult, though adults are usually -but not always -more careful with their choice of words.

Jenn writes:
that kind of mexican. i knew what he meant. he meant that i wasn't a working class mexican. i didn't take the bus from the other side of town. i didn't dress like them. i didn't talk like them. but if i wasn't that kind of mexican, certainly my cousins were. certainly my parents used to be. my family. and they are part of me.

It's worth the time to read the whole post. Thanks to Loteria Chicana for the link and for her thoughtful post about Chicana identity and how we are judged by others, Chicanos and Chicanos alike.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Father's Day on the Freeway

“Go play on the freeway” my uncle Victor would jokingly tell me and my brothers, when, as children, we would complain about having nothing to do. In June 2003, my family celebrated our last Father's Day with my Dad by doing just that. My family, along with thousands of people from across Southern California walked, biked, strolled, and skated on the Arroyo Seco parkway, known to most locals as the Pasadena Freeway (See more photos on For this one morning, the freeway was closed to cars for the ArroyoFest, a celebration of the communities that flank the freeway organized by locals and Occidental College. I was a volunteer on the steering committee that planned and organized the event. When I started working on this effort, the date of the event was uncertain, and I could not foresee that the event would take place on Father's Day nor that my Dad would die suddenly 4 months later.

In a way, spending the day on the freeway with my Dad was a very ordinary experience for me and my brothers. After our parents split up, we logged many hours crossing the city for our weekend visits with our Dad in Venice and later, the Valley. Because of my Dad's devotion to our extended family, we often spent holidays on the road, visiting great aunts, uncles, cousins, second cousins and godparents, relatives who, to our childish minds, were connected to us only in vague, mysterious ways. Though I could not tell you the addresses or zip codes of my family members, I can still recite the routes we drove and the freeway exits we took to see family spread out across the LA area in Sun Valley (the 10, to the 101 to the 170) , Baldwin Park, City Terrace, Norwalk and other communities. These journeys are deeply etched in my brain and make up a large part of my own personal geography of Los Angeles.

Some may see my memories of time spent on the freeway as evidence of the toll that sprawl takes on Angelenos. And, some days, especially when I recall the times that Dad's old '64 Ford pickup or later, his beloved '69 Mustang that he called Geraldine, stalled halfway to our destination, I would agree. Other times, I recall the timbre of his voice each time we passed Kent Twitchell's Old Lady of the Freeway mural on the side of a building visible from the 101 in Echo Park when he said “Man, that is a cool mural”. I remember him sharing his memories of walking with his father from their house in Van Nuys to visit family in East Los Angeles via San Fernando Road and Riverside Drive, in the days before the LA freeway network would make this journey easier while also forever altering the landscape of East LA and the lives of those displaced. As he described it, traveling this distance was a big adventure, made more arduous by the fact that my Dad walked a lot of the way, since my grandfather couldn't afford the streetcar fare for both of them.

Passing certain personal landmarks while getting around the city keeps me connected to the self I was as a child, who learned to see the world through the eyes of a remarkable man who taught me all he knew. The smell of roasting chiles--so strong that it would burn your eyes and throat if you weren't passing by at 6o mph-- from the salsa factory near the intersection of the 5 and 10 freeways on the eastern edge of downtown Los Angeles always reminds me of sitting next to my Dad in the front seat of his old truck, listening to Bob Dylan, jarocho , or Bill Withers on his 8-track player. From that vantage point, I learned to appreciate the landscape of our hometown, from the most humble apartment house to the much photographed facade of City Hall. He pointed out places that members our family lived- in the belching shadow of Interstate 5 in the City of Commerce, in Boyle Heights near the 2nd street off-ramp- and worked-chrome plating facilities, lumber mills and garment factories. The most fantastic story he shared was about the location of our family's famed buried treasure, hidden under the paving and earth behind the modest shop that once housed a great uncle's landscaping business, a short distance off the Cahuenga exit of the 101. When I look out at the lights of downtown LA from my house in Highland Park, I remember the view from the westbound 10, and the joy shining in my Dad's eyes as he said “Look at that, Lex” pointing to the skyline behind City Hall, “Isn't Los Angeles purdy?” Today, when I see that view, I think to myself “Yes, Dad, it is.”


This is the fourth Father's Day since our family made LA history and fond memories by walking together on the freeway. As my husband and I prepare to celebrate our first Father's Day with our 9 month old son Elias, I struggle to figure out how to best deal with the heavy sense of loss that deposits a knot in the pit of my stomach whenever a holiday or birthday without my Dad looms on the calendar. I am angry that my Dad is not here to tell my son all about LA, and that my son will never hear the joy in my Dad's voice as he narrates his knowledge of our hometown. And, on nights when I'm kept awake by these emotions churning in my brain, I toss and turn as I think about how the untreated high blood pressure that contributed to my Dad's death was likely aggravated by the stress he dealt with, growing up poor and Chicano in the 50's and 60's and later as a single father with a high school education trying to earn a living and raise a family in this city.

The best way that I've figured out is to share the stories and the joy that my Dad gave me with the rest of the world and to keep applying my professional skills, education and passion to the goal of making LA a more livable place. And I know that one of the most important ways to connect my father and son is by making sure my son knows and experiences the natural environment, landmarks, culture, festivals, food and people that represent the richness and promise that LA can offer.

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Across Two Generations: A Love Affair with Los Angeles

I originally wrote this piece in Spring 2004 to memorialize my father, Tony Moreno. At the time, I shared it with family and friends who said it brought back memories of his smile and his stories. I'm posting this here with the hopes of keeping his stories alive and sharing his unique perspective on LA.

It is a clear spring day, the sunshine and a spectacular view of the San Gabriels behind the downtown skyline dazzle me as I drive north on Main Street, on my way home from work. My thoughts wander as I pass grim-faced garment factories, sidewalk paleta vendors and the crowds that line the sidewalks of Skid Row (or Gallery Row, as it has been christened by the neighborhood council).

Taking in these scenes of L.A. urban life, I feel joy and gratitude that I live in such an exciting, beautiful, and even contradictory place where the breathtaking natural features are within view and driving distance of all the colors and classes of people who make this place their home. In my mind’s eye, I see my Dad’s wide grin and sparkling brown eyes, and hear the words he would often say on days like this: “I LOVE Los Angeles.”

I, too, LOVE Los Angeles. I feel a sense of belonging and rootedness that is not often shared by newcomers or even long-time transplants, portrayed in movies or examined by the many academics and others who attempt to describe and dissect this place. My Dad, Tony Moreno, has passed on to me his deep love for this place. This inheritance is priceless and has allowed me to build a rich and meaningful life in a place that is derided for its rootlessness and shallowness.

Though he loved this city, my Dad understood its faults and the injustices endured by many here, including our own family. He introduced me to those too, by deciding that I was old enough at 14, to read and understand the Raymond Chandler novels that he passed along to me, by sharing his stories about growing up in East LA and the Van Nuys barrio, and the milestones of LA history, as he understood and experienced them. Born in 1949 at LA County hospital, my Dad spent his early childhood in Van Nuys with his paternal grandparents, Antonio and Balbina, who had emigrated from Mexico in the early decades of the twentieth century. During his 54 years here, he witnessed many key events in LA history: the development of the San Fernando Valley, the construction of most of the LA Freeway network, the Chicano Movement, the Sylmar earthquake, the 1984 Olympics, to name just a few.

Filtered through my Dad's intellect and love of storytelling, these LA milestones became part of his story. Joyous and generous by nature, he marvelled at the beauty of LA, despite his childhood experiences with segregation and unjust conditions in East LA. As an adult, he would praise the beautiful aspects of life here and proudly and happily share his stories and views with friends and family. He especially loved showing out-of-town visitors the things he felt make Los Angeles great: Venice Beach, the Griffith Observatory, Mulholland Drive on a clear night, the Great Wall mural in the LA River, Chinatown, the hills of City Terrace .

As a teenager, I cringed every time my father would tell us (for the umpteenth time) his stories: the chickens that his grandparents raised; his shock when he saw his grandmother kill one of the chickens for dinner; the time he painted the dog green to match the newly painted house; the way the relatives all lived in houses next to one another on Delano Street in Van Nuys or back to back, without fences so that the extended family was able to freely walk from one house to the next. He also spoke fondly about the farm fields and open spaces that still existed in the San Fernando Valley in the early 50s; running away from home as a child to the Sepulveda Dam, and running back home at dusk, driven by the fear of the hobos who--he had been warned-- would catch and roast small children to eat, walking miles (or so it seemed) in the mid-summer Valley heat with his uncles to have “tomato wars” in the newly picked tomato fields.

He had a story for just about every part of town we visited together: Boyle Heights and East LA, where he lived as a teenager, the garment district where he got his first job after high school, City Terrace, Dodger Stadium, Griffith Park, the site of the love-ins and be-ins he would attend with my mother. When I lived in Silver Lake in the early 90’s, he told me about going to parties in Silver Lake in the 60s and encountering openly gay Latinos for the first time.

After my parents split up, my Dad moved to Venice Beach, away from relatives and the places and memories that all his stories recounted. Here, he made new memories with his children, exploring a new part of town and discovering the things that made this place beautiful and distinct: the “free box” where Venice neighbors would put unwanted household items, clothes, books and toys to exchange with one another; the bike paths, the marina, the boarded up carousel on Santa Monica pier, Muscle Beach, the hand ball courts where men of every size, stature, and color gathered for pick-up handball games.

Only later, as an adult and urban planning student would I realize that these experiences with my father and his stories connected me to this place in a way that would bring meaning and structure to my life. As I go through my life without him in it, I often stop to remind myself that he is the source of much of the hope and energy that drives me in my efforts to make LA a more just place. Each time I share one of his stories or my own, or talk about LA history, I am sharing the legacy of joy, beauty and hope that he left me.

Seeing through my Father's Eyes: Musings about my Dad, and his view of our Hometown...Los Angeles

I began writing about my relationship with Los Angeles after my dad's sudden death in 2003. Grieving the loss of this important person in my life, I began writing as a way to name and hold on to the things that made my Dad unique and the ways in which he contributed to my world view, and especially the ways that he passed on his love for Los Angeles to me. I hope that writing these things down will keep them in front of me, the way that my talks with my Dad did when he was alive.

Sorting through my Dad's possessions after his death, I came across photos of our family in the early and mid-70's and found that most of the photos my Dad had taken of my brothers and me were posed in front of murals and other public art, the pavilions on the Venice Board walk and the Santa Monica pier, giving a distinct sense of place to those memories. My Dad's passionate interest in the features that make each L.A. neighborhood unique, and his documenting these things in family photos, were my first lesson in urban planning. Looking at those photos, it seems inevitable that I would grow up to study urban planning and L.A. History.

What I hope to convey through this blog is the many different ways that I've come to understand Los Angeles. This is my effort at presenting a holistic picture of Los Angeles, one equally influenced by my father and his viewpoint and stories as by the work of scholars, filmmakers, and historians and filtered through my own experience as an Angeleno, an urban planner, historian, community organizer, Chicana and a person passionately engaged with her hometown, Los Angeles.