Thursday, November 02, 2017

The Rocks: A Little Piece of Shangri-La in L.A.

The Rocks: A Little Piece of Shangri-La in L.A.
Daniel Cano


     Now that the Dodgers are in the World Series, I see a lot of blue and white L.A. baseball caps moving along the sidewalks, in stores and restaurants (nobody takes his hat off indoors anymore). Yet, L.A.’s a big place, from San Gabriel Valley to Sylmar and over to Chatsworth, way across to San Pedro and the edge of North Long Beach, Watts and back to the eastside . Man, that’s a lot of city. So, when somebody says, “I’m from L.A.,” what does that mean?

    As a kid, my L.A. had boundaries. Raised on L.A.’s Westside, close to Sepulveda and Santa Monica boulevards, we kids considered anything east of the Mormon Temple in Westwood, the Eastside. A Sunday trip, in the 1950s, to visit  relatives in Alhambra was like going to Arizona.

    Santa Monica bordered us on the west. Though, truth be told, many Westside families like mine moved back and forth between westside towns. My mom’s parents bought their Santa Monica home in the early 1920s. My dad, born in Fontana while my grandfather worked the Riverside rock quarries, called Sawtelle home, or as the old-timers pronounced it, Sotel. Two uncles lived in Venice, one near Oakwood Park, the other in an apartment on the Venice Canals. Another uncle took his brood to Culver City. My parents bought their home in W.L.A., right across from my childhood Shangri-La, Stoner Park, in 1952.


    Unless, we were visiting my grandmother, Santa Monica was a pass-through town, a way to go to the beach, Pacific Ocean Park, or shopping at Sears, J.C. Penny’s, and stores, like Europa, on the outdoor promenade where everything went dark after 9:00 P.M., nothing like the promenades of Pasadena, North Hollywood, or Santa Monica today. My grandmother finally left her beloved Santa Monica and moved to West L.A. in 1962.

    One old-timer, Bart Carrillo (RIP), a Westside native and founder of Carrillo’s restaurants, told me, “In the 30s, going ‘downtown’ meant taking the bus to Santa Monica. Going uptown meant taking the streetcar to Los Angeles.”

    A few miles south of Santa Monica, next to Ocean Park, Venice was a lonely outpost, an outer  suburb of L.A., and famous only for Muscle Beach. Today, it's probably just as popular as the one in Italy. We'd go to Venice to visit relatives and friends, or during the summer swimming at Hoppy Land, where we frolicked in thick, dark water in a place appropriately dubbed Mud Lake, just above Washington boulevard, the Marina today. Few people visited the canals. They stank, were full of oily water, and mostly poor people, beatniks, and artists (my uncle’s wife was an artist) lived there among the weeds and trash. No one could imagine buying a place on the canals. Who knew, right?

    Another part of L.A., out to the south, towards the oil wells up in Baldwin Hills, lay independent Culver City and L.A.-owned Palms, funny little towns, a lot of open land and movie studios, the home of the Little Rascals.

    The Chicanos, like the Lopez family, who worked the fields and the back-lot studios, lived up on a hill everyone called Little Chihuahua. So, the story goes, before relocating to one of the camps during WWII, a Japanese family, who originally bought a ranch from the Machado’s, sold the ranch to the Lopez family, who turned the land into a gold mine, especially after the various Westside real estate booms. Swimming in pieces-of-eight, they were.

    In the early 1960s when the new 405 displaced the people who lived in the Cotner barrio of Sawtelle, the families moved to Culver City, into new tract houses that covered the vast bean fields, out to Howard Hughes' place. As the years passed, some of the kids from Culver City forgot their W.L.A. roots, and found themselves in fights with their own cousins. The way they found out was when they showed with black-eyes at family gatherings.

    Then there was the north side or Brentwood, just above Wilshire Boulevard. Even in the 1940s and ‘50s, working class families had settled there. But make no mistake about it. San Vicente Boulevard was the proverbial “other side of the tracks”. To those of us in the basin, anybody who lived north of San Vicente was rich, even the names sounded rich, Pacific Palisades, the Santa Monica Canyon, Kenter Canyon, Tiger Tail, Bel-Air, Trousdale Estates, and Beverly Hills. Nevertheless, kids, both rich and poor, all found their little Shangri-Las.

    My friends who lived near Santa Monica and Wilshire boulevards would head to the Soldiers’ Home (today the Veterans Administration) in 1960s, nearly 400 acres of hills, and trees. Their Shangri-La was the “Gulley”. They’d all meet there after school, ride down hills on torn open cardboard boxes, wade in the gulley, and search for polliwogs, frogs, and garter snakes. Who would ever consider this L.A., right?

    The kids around Cheviot Hills and Rancho Park had the Rancho Park Recreation Center and the golf course to explore, acres upon acres of grassy hills and trees, along with the railroad tracks, which were an adventure in themselves. If someone asked one of these kids where he or she was from, he probably wouldn’t answer L.A. He’d probably say, “Rancho Park.”

    Who ever heard of “play dates” in the 1950s or 60s? Like the Indians, whose blood many of us Chicanos carry, we lived by the sun and the moon. We came home from school as the sun moved west, had a snack, went outside, and headed to where we knew our friends would be waiting. When the sun set, it was time to go home for dinner and homework. Then if it was a warm night, it was back to Stoner Park, to play whatever sport was in season. Summer found us shriveling like raisins in the pool, every day, until dusk.

    The Rocks, our rite of passage, a lushly landscaped environment, officially the Japanese Garden, donated to the city of Sawtelle by the West L.A. Japanese community, was right next to the pool. The Rocks were dimly lighted at night, so you can just imagine, what we did, graduating from climbing over massive boulders as kids, to scurrying up giant trees, as adolescents, to entering our teen years and having our first beers and kisses.


    If we were playing football, and we heard police sirens, we knew something was up at the Rocks. In the 1950s and early ‘60s, when I was barely ten or eleven, I remember seeing my first gang fight. The gangs back then didn’t go by the names of their cities. Venice had the Dukes. Santa Monica were the Cobras. West L.A. were the Falcons. The gangs weren't necessarily neighborhood gangs. They were car clubs, associated with their high schools, University, Samohi, and Venice. Believe it or not, the gangs were multi-ethnic, a mix of white, Mexican, Japanese, and maybe one or two African-Americans, more like Rebel without a Cause than American Me. Even the kids from the hills hung out with the kids from the basin. Your school's reputation was at stake, not your neighborhood. That came later.

    Mostly, as my friends and I aged, the Rocks became a peaceful place. The police sirens vanished, and gentrification entered. I’d go to the Rocks, sit, and think. In college, I’d pull up to the curb in my van and read, maybe Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath, or Goethe’s Faust. For me, this Los Angeles was different than any other Los Angeles. When my adult children were kids, I’d take them to the park, and we’d always end up at the Rocks. I wanted them to know what it was like to jump from the giant boulders, climb trees, and play hide-n-seek instead of sitting in front of the television.

    My mom, 91, still lives in the house across from the park. When I take my grandchildren, the youngest 3 and 5, there to visit, we always end up at the Rocks. Nico feared climbing one of the taller trees. I remember climbing the same tree at his age. I urged him on. “Put your foot in the holes and pull yourself up. Feel with your fingertips for the rough spots. Hold on!” Triumphantly, he reached the top. Little Noemi, all of 3, watched. Not to be out-done, she too followed her brother, scampering up the tree, pushing past the tough spots, scraping her knee, but reaching the first main branch, her face victorious, a touch of Shangri-La.

    So, when I think of L.A., I think of little pieces of the city, parts where I've left bits of myself over the years. Yet always, even today, before I wrote this, I went to the Rocks, sat and listened to the breeze pass through the leaves. I noticed a full-grown Sequoia cedar. I’d never noticed it before. I imagine that L.A. means different things to different people, whether you’re from Boyle Heights, El Sereno, Pacoima, or La Loma, out near Dodger Stadium, where Chavez Ravine once stood. Each of us needs a Shagri-La, our own little piece of L.A.

1 comment:

antoniosolisgomez@fb said...

beautifully written account of a part of los angeles that i never knew till now.