As we dug into our back pages to revive an early Esotouric sightseeing tour, John Fante’s Dreams from Bunker Hill (returning to the streets on Saturday, April 27), we got a hot tip about a new-to-us archive of Downtown streetscape photographs held at UCLA Special Collections, and booked a rare trip to the west side to have a look.
The writer John Fante, Colorado born, arrived in Los Angeles at the perfect time to forge his talents in the fires of economic uncertainty, boom town eccentricity, earthquake, redevelopment and the Hollywood hustle. Although he would find success and a happy home on the edge of Point Dume, Malibu, it was the crummy, crumbly, honest streets of his youth on Bunker Hill and Skid Row that resonated in his head. At the end of his life, blind and bedridden from the effects of diabetes, he surprised his wife Joyce by dictating a last novel, which was a return to the lost Bunker Hill he had loved.
Bunker Hill was redeveloped out of existence in America’s largest eminent domain land seizure, with 9000 people displaced and a charming neighborhood demolished. But there are yet some Downtown time capsules that still vibrate with the energies that fed Fante. We’ll visit them, including the incredible ruined speakeasy beneath the King Edward Hotel which features in his best-known novel Ask The Dust, on Saturday’s tour.
While Bunker Hill’s ill-favored redevelopment plan is widely known, Skid Row’s retail and cultural life was also erased in the name of blight eradication. Bunker Hill’s Victorians live on in popular memory, because artists and filmmakers rushed to capture views of the charismatic neighborhood ahead of the bulldozers. Nobody rushed to document Skid Row’s tattoo parlors, diners, XXX book stores, taxi dance halls, flop houses, rescue missions, pawn shops, laundries and slave markets (halls where skilled workers could snag a gig when they were on the wagon).
Well, not quite nobody. Art director Robert Luthardt (1917-77) came down to Main Street around 1967. He was ostensibly capturing settings that could be suitable for location filming—and he found the King Edward Hotel, which would be home to ABC television’s Beretta —but it’s obvious from what he shot that Luthardt was captivated by the street life, the faces, the signage, the layers of the old stone and marble Los Angeles underneath the neon and plastic new.
Today, urban historians study the failures of the Bunker Hill Redevelopment Plan, and laugh bitterly at developers’ attempts to reinvent the thriving Victorian coral reef that was an organic mixed-use, mixed-income, multi-generational community. But let’s spare a moment to lament the lost world of Skid Row Main Street, where generations of anonymous people found companionship, amusement, work, cheap goods, a haircut, trouble, something to eat.
In the 1980s, whole blocks of historic storefronts were demolished for parking lots, glorious neon signs tossed in dumpsters and aging shopkeepers closed their doors for good. Although public policy shaped these changes, there was no single incident like the removal of Angels Flight Railway or the demolition of the Melrose Hotel to galvanize public sentiment towards preservation. Unlandmarked, unpopular, under populated, disenfranchised, old Main Street simply melted away, like a sleazy sand castle.
Thanks to Robert Luthardt, we can visit this incredible lost part of Los Angeles. In these photographs, all taken near the iconic intersection of Fifth and Main Streets (“The Nickel”), you’ll find tattoo artist Captain Jim surrounded by his flash designs, the impressive monster mask selection at the adult novelties shop, and glimpses of a beguiling character we’ve nicknamed Knee Socks, the Soul of Main Street. Wouldn’t you love to hear his story?
If you dig these views and yearn to know more about old Skid Row, we’ll be going there Saturday on the John Fante tour, and in weeks to come on our Charles Bukowski and Tom Waits tours. And from now on, we’ll be walking in Robert Luthardt’s footprints, too.