Sunday, June 25, 2017

This Angel's Getting Its Wings Back

Our little miniature incline railway on Bunker Hill in Downtown LA, known as "Angels Flight," has had a tough time of it in the 116 years since it was built.

circa 2012

It hasn't been consistently open and operational at least since I first heard about it seven years ago. It was closed in March 2010 when I first tried to ride it, open in February 2012 when I finally did ride it, closed again seemingly for good in 2013, and still closed—officials citing safety concerns because of a pesky derailment or two.

circa May 2017

Appearing abandoned, the twin cars of the funicular were left exposed to the elements and fell victim to vandals, who left their tag behind—and, as a result, created a sense of urgency to protect them from further damage.

It was shortly thereafter that Mayor Garcetti vowed to reopen Angels Flight by Labor Day 2017—and it appears that he's making good on his promise.

Scaffolding is a good sign, as is a good coat of white primer paint.

It's a spooky effect, though temporary.

But Angels Flight, by nature, is ever-evolving. It's changed hands between seven different private owner/operators since 1901. It was moved a half a block down from its original location to where it stands now, across Hill Street from Grand Central Market. And while it was once a traditional funicular with its tracks laid directly on the grade of the hill, it now runs along an elevated rail.

Of course, we have plenty of movies and TV shows to thank for keeping Angels Flight in people's hearts and minds—even after all this time, even if they've never come to LA or tried to ride it themselves.

But I've been keeping my eye on it for more than seven years now—and especially in the four years since it last ran. It's not much of a commuter solution for me, but riding it up and then right back down is a major gigglefest.

The sight of those two cars, the top station, and the bottom archway now in that white primer is just heavenly. That means this "flight of angels" will be back soon enough.

Related Posts:
Up and Down Bunker Hill on Angels Flight
Photo Essay: Bates Motel, Vacant and Whitewashed

Gathering of the Sun Worshippers Upon Summer Solstice

There's at least one day (maybe two) out of the year when your religion doesn't matter.

You can consider yourself Christian, Jewish, or Muslim—but on the Summer Solstice, we're all pagans.

In the third week of June—usually on or right before the 21st—we all revert back to our pre-Christian, pre-Judaic, pre-modern European roots to celebrate the longest day of the year, the short "midsummer" night.

While some would-be modern-day Druids may flock to Stonehenge to watch the sunrise as it aligns perfectly with the monoliths, and young Germans may still light bonfires and guzzle wine, there's really just one place for Californians to celebrate the day that the sun aligns with the Tropic of Cancer—and that's in Santa Barbara.

Since 1974, Santa Barbara has hosted an annual Summer Solstice parade...

...which, though it began as a birthday celebration for a local beloved mime and artist...

...has evolved into a three-day festival.

Every year since 1979, paraders have designed their floats, props, and costumes around a central theme.

In past years, it might've been circus or even sci-fi...

...but this year, the Santa Barbara Solstice Parade took a leaf from the book of the Rose Parade and set its sights upon "Celebrating Unity."

That meant that this year—perhaps more than ever—anything goes.

For some people who march, it's clear that it's just a chance to dress up silly and ham it up.

For others, maybe it's something like performance art.

And yet when you lost past all the ridiculousness, you catch a glimpse of what ethnic religions look like in modern society...

...with a real reverence for long-standing folk traditions...

...and deep-rooted meaning in every headdress...



...and movement.

The people who walk in the non-motorized parade (some literally pushing floats) make everything by hand...

...and some have a lot of fun with it...

...choosing more whimsical representations of their paganism...

...from faeries and other sprites to unicorns and other beasts of antiquity.

But these differences don't really matter, at least not on a midsummer day. After all, in California there's one thing that unites us—and that's our worship of the sun.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: Pasadena Doo Dah Parade 2014
Photo Essay: ¡Viva la Fiesta! Santa Barbara's Historical Parade El Desfile Histórico

Sunday, June 18, 2017


Last night at 8:07 p.m., I wasn't supposed to have been watching the sun set in Long Beach.

I was supposed to have been back in San Pedro by then—actually, by a full 37 minutes before that.

When I booked myself on a late afternoon sailing excursion on one of LA's tall ships—the brigantine known as "Irving Johnson"—I didn't expect to find myself in the Port of Long Beach, stranded at sea, until nearly 10 p.m.

But that's not the only unexpected glitch in my sailing excursion last night.

It had taken me a year to get onto the Irving, having literally "missed the boat" the first time I tried to go.

Around this time last year, I couldn't find the berth from which the tall ships were supposed to depart. I'd bought a ticket but never received any instructions or confirmations other than a receipt for the financial transaction.

I drove in circles around the Ports O'Call in San Pedro for over a half hour, on the verge of tears, trying to milk some signal out of my phone and finally departing in defeat.

I emailed my sob story to the Los Angeles Maritime Institute, the non-profit that runs the tall ships excursions—who, objectively, had failed in getting me to the meeting spot and was mostly to blame for my wild goose chase. And, fortunately, they agreed to honor my ticket for the same sail this year as the one I'd missed last year.

I'd chosen this particular excursion—a social media-friendly cruise geared towards photographers—quite carefully, since most of LAMI's sailing time is spent educating youth. The two tall ships—the Irving and the Exy—are "teaching boats," so most of their offshore time is spent with kids camps or family cruises.

But when I arrived (late, of course, but not too late this time), something seemed amiss. Boxes of pizza were piled up on a table. Cases of beer were being ravaged by a group of young people—all of whom seemed to know each other. No one had cameras. And at least half of them were dressed as pirates.

The captain explained to me that there were, in fact, two groups on the boat: the photographers and a graduation party. Out of 55 total people (including crew), I only counted myself and one other women (and her young niece) among the photographers. Everybody else was there to celebrate their completion of med school and the doctors they would soon become—and much of their celebration involved drinking like sailors.

I tried to make the best of it. I really did. I asked the captain to show me the cannons that they always kept on board, and he actually mounted one for me—though there was no gunpowder to be had to fire it off.

I took as many photos as I could.

And I tried to get chummy with the crew.

But I was insufferably an accidental party crasher, and I was too old and too attached to my camera to fit in.

I love a good party, but I was utterly unprepared for the drunken mayhem that ensued. And since no one offered me a slice of pizza or a snack—and it wasn't until much later than anyone offered me a drink—I just tried to stay out of the way, backing up against whatever surface I could find, fighting seasickness, hunger, and thirst all at once.

It was a beautiful night for a sail. I could acknowledge that.

And I might have even survived the two-and-a-half hours that the private party had chartered the boat for.

But our return time had come and gone, and we didn't seem to be anywhere near the Ports O'Call docks.

I saw one woman throwing up over the side of the boat. Many others were stumbling and spilling, their faces red from the wind and the booze and the laughter.

And while the day had started off in the midst of a heat wave, it was getting cold and blustery—and the only reprieve we got was when the boat stopped moving.

"There are some really great shots you can get from over there," one of the crew members offered while I sat shivering, arms crossed, desperate to get off that boat. "I just want to go home," I said. "What's going on?"

"We're fixing the engine," she said, explaining that if we didn't get moving soon—and the sails weren't enough to help us drift back—we'd have to offload onto a rescue boat in order to get back. "And how long will that take?" I asked. Another crew member who was walking by just then grumbled, "I wouldn't hold your breath."

I try to be flexible with whatever life throws at me. I try to believe that whatever happens is for a reason, and that even if something is unpleasant or uncomfortable, it's probably the canoe I need to take to get to the other side of the river.

But this boat ride had me second-guessing myself. Maybe there was a reason why I'd missed the boat that first time a year ago. Maybe I should've stayed home with my cat, as I'd been inclined to do earlier that afternoon—and as I'd wished I'd done when I hit traffic upon traffic on the 405 and the 110 on my way to San Pedro.

Maybe I should've made sure I got there earlier, so I would've had the chance to change my mind and turn around and go back home once I'd found out about the private charter that had crashed my photography cruise.

I would've avoided having to explain myself over and over again to curious partiers who couldn't figure out who I was or who I knew or why I was there.

Had I just been in San Pedro and seen the tall ship and decided to join? Had I gotten on the wrong ship? Did I want to take photos of the party for them?

No and no and no.

I just wanted to get off that boat. I wanted to be in my car, driving to the 9 o'clock show in Hollywood I'd also (foolishly) bought a ticket for, thinking an hour and a half would be plenty of time to get there.

I wanted to become invisible so I could stop feeling awkward and out of place. I may be an extrovert, but I can be incredibly introverted—and I just did not want to have any part of a pirate graduation party with a bunch of would-be doctors getting their ya-yas out.

Maybe I could've blended in better. Maybe I could've made some friends. Maybe I could've gotten drunk, crashed at a surgical professor's house for the night, and kissed someone inappropriately.

But all I'd really wanted was a nice, civilized time at sea on a historic boat that I might enjoy photographing.

Sure, I got my pictures. It was a nice sunset. And we eventually got back to San Pedro safely—without having to offload onto a rescue boat.

But I guess this type of situation—which I characterized at the time as a "disaster" though nothing broke and no one died—is what I risk by making adventure my hobby.

It doesn't always work out. It's not always amazing.

And the only thing I can really say after the fact is, "Well, at least I tried."

Related Posts:
All At Sea
The View By Boat
Photo Essay: USS Iowa, The Last of the Battleships

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Photo Essay: How to Grow a City, From the Ground Up

As much as Orange County was once known as the "Orange Empire," you don't see many signs of that today.

All the orange groves—and orchards of other citrus fruits—seem to have given way to real estate developments.

And for that, you can blame the very same family (and company) that created such a massive agricultural enterprise in the first place: the Irvines.

Those who started out gangbusters as citrus-growers (shifting the area's land use away from ranching, grazing, and lima bean farming) ended up growing something far more profitable than any fruit: a city.

And while Irvine has already shown tremendous growth—from the ground up—since the late 19th century, it doesn't show any signs of stopping.

As early as 1897, after the death of the first James Irvine (a.k.a. James I), James II began giving away some parcels of the family's expansive Irvine Ranch. Those donations created wilderness areas, open spaces, and—in the case of Irvine Regional Park (then known as Orange County Park)—a gigantic, 160-acre playground for picnics and other recreation that's also Orange County's oldest park and California's first county park.

Over the course of the 120 years that followed, the quiet canyon park grew to a total of 477 acres—preserving many historic coast live oak and sycamore trees, some more than 500 years old, throughout the "little hollows and gullies" of the diverse ecosystems that range from native oak and riparian to coastal sage scrub.

The county park remained pretty wild for the first 10 years of its existence; but in 1913, its officials dredged the spring-fed marsh and banked it to form a lake. A year later, they added a boathouse and, in 1928, rechristened Orange County Park as Irvine Park.

It wasn't until the 1930s, though, that the Works Progress Administration contributed the picnic tables, BBQ pits, and Craftsman-style structures—like the hexagonal "Exhibit Hall" and the restaurant, both designed by Santa Ana architect Frederick Eley.

Those buildings are now used today as a ranger station and a nature center.

And, fortunately, there's still a lot of nature to be had at Irvine Regional Park—including a cacophony of birds—even though it spent years during World War II as a military training facility called Camp Rathkey (and a while even as a tuberculosis camp).

The most efficient way to get to know this historic park—and brush up on your Irvine history—is to take a ride on the Irvine Park Railroad.

Over the course of 12 minutes, you'll learn more about the park's centuries-old trees and poison oak grove than you ever would on your own.

The current 1/3 scale railroad didn't open until 1996 (as a venture to save the bankrupt county and inject some cash into the then-failing park)...

...but it recalls the bygone days when park visitors used to ride the rails upon a tiny train, back in the 1920s to the 1950s

The propane-powered train itself is a miniature replica of an 1863 C.P. Huntington mini at locomotive, manufactured by Chance Rides in Kansas.

It chugs along at a leisurely 7 mph...

...with a horsepower clocking in at 60.

The meandering, three-quarter mile ride transports you as much back in time as through the park.

While some of the Irvine-donated lands went to other good, non-commercial causes (like the UC Irvine campus), the Irvine Company eventually evolved from large-scale citrus growers to real estate developers.

And so once that train ride is over, and you eventually have to leave the park, you're catapulted back into modern-day Irvine—a corporatized city of massive shopping centers, master-planned residential communities, and other real estate holdings of The Irvine Company that seem to be in a never-ending phase of new development.

The Irvine Spectrum outdoor mall, for example, opened in 1995 and added a modern (but vintage-inspired) carousel in 2001. Manufactured by Barrango from South San Francisco—which has only part of carousel culture since the 1980s—the carousel at Irvine Spectrum certainly isn't the first one to have been plopped down into a shopping center.

But its placement there is interesting nevertheless, with a Spanish-themed design that matches the aesthetic of the plaza it's in—itself inspired by the Alhambra in Granada, Spain.

Among its 32 figures are fiberglass horses... well as other menagerie animals that represent the designs of many of the renowned carousel carvers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

There's the flying mane horse...

...which was originally sculpted by M. C. Illions and Sons Carousel Works (1908-1927)...

...steed horses (sculpted by D C Muller Brothers, 1890-1928)...

...and armored horses...

...which were sculpted by Brooklyn's own Charles Carmel...

...a former carver for Charles Looff.

Carmel was also responsible for the design of the jeweled horses found here.

Among the menagerie, there's the not-very-Spanish camel design by Allan Herschell, as well as a white tiger, a cat with a fish in its mouth, a wild boar, an ostrich, a bear, a jackrabbit, and a deer by Gustav Dentzel.

And as though Irvine Spectrum hadn't gotten big enough already, The Irvine Company added a ferris wheel just one year after it had installed the carousel.

Not just any ferris wheel, either—but a "Giant Wheel" that rises 108 feet high off the ground.

Although made in Italy by Westech Limited, its dangling gondolas have been named after cities in Spain—like Madrid, Ronda, and Pamplona.

From up there, more than 100 feet off the ground, you can catch just a glimpse of what's become of the Irvine family's land empire: now totaling 93,000 acres, more than 1/5 of present-day Orange County. That includes nine miles of coastline and 22 miles inland.

And you can also see how the Irvine Spectrum continues to add new stores, restaurants, and parking structures—with active construction sites clattering away as that big wheel keeps on turning.

Of course, it's not all retail, residential "villages," and workspaces. Irvine Regional Park isn't even the exception when it comes to open spaces.

The Irvine Company has permanently preserved more than 60 percent of Irvine Ranch, carving out 57,000 acres for wilderness and wildlife so they won't fall prey to paved roads or any traffic other than that of the foot.

Look at it as The Irvine Company saving themselves... from themselves.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: The Ranch That Built An Empire of Oranges
Photo Essay: The Dead Mall of the Carousel
No Single Riders
Photo Essay: The (Temporary) View from Above Vegas
Video of the Day: From the Ferris Wheel