Sunday, May 01, 2005

1947project in the LA Times Magazine

The following appears in today's paper under a wonderfully moody shot of Nathan and I in the old cells at the Police Historical Museum in Highland Park, courtesy of the scarily talented Mark Edward Harris:

Man Shoots Wife, Dog . . . 58 Years Ago
  • Bringing noir L.A. to a computer screen near you

    Ahh, 1947 Los Angeles. Frank Sinatra was brawling at Ciro's. Returning GIs were mixing it up with a newly emancipated female workforce. And the hacked-up corpse of a would-be starlet named Elizabeth Short was dumped in a vacant lot in the Crenshaw district, a horror that achieved everlasting fame as the "Black Dahlia" murder. For those who missed this roiling moment in L.A.'s past or who wish to revisit it, SoCal natives Kim Cooper and Nathan Marsak have created "1947project" (, a day-by-day blog of the year's most lurid misdeeds, complete with photos and directions to the locations where they occurred and wry commentary on the spot's current architectural and preservation status (or, more often, lack thereof). The D.I.Y. critic-historians, both 38, recently reflected on L.A.'s seamy mid-century past and the aesthetic homicides perpetrated here ever since.

    How did you come up with the 1947 blog idea?

    Cooper: I started reading microfiche newspapers for various projects I was doing with museums, and I got to read all of 1904 and 1906 in San Francisco and the 1970s in Southern California, which was pretty great, but my own interest is more in the 1940s. So on my own dime I started reading 1947 under the assumption that because the Black Dahlia died in the beginning of the year [and] Bugsy Siegel died in the middle of the year, there was something really bubbling up in Los Angeles.

    Marsak: I started collecting newspapers and discarded postwar ephemera when I was 5. So when Kim thought this up, she shoulder-tapped me to add my two cents.

    What do you feel you learn by revisiting the sites of ghoulish L.A. crimes?

    Cooper: It's growing our mental maps of the city. I've always been the kind of person who, when we drive around with people who don't know L.A., or even people who do, will start going, "That used to be Gold Star Studios," and "That's where Bobby Fuller died," or whatever little fact I've managed to pick up. And we're just learning so much about these weird forgotten crimes that probably were the talk of the neighborhood for however many years until the people moved away, and now they've just been lost.

    Your entries on old L.A. crime scenes often seem more outraged about tacky design gaffes than about the crimes committed. Do aluminum siding or faux brick really rate as crimes against humanity?

    Marsak: Of course it's fatuous to say you can compare human misery with aluminum siding, but I'm not here to discuss human misery. I'm here to discuss what happens to our built environment.

    Why grisly murders?

    Marsak: Not all the crimes are grisly. We just uncovered this story about this drunk bus driver who has a bottle of wine and has refused to let anybody off the bus, and he's just driving around town.

    Cooper: And we're going with the vegetarian who freaked out and had to shoot a duck in Lincoln Park, because that's a wonderful story. I'm never going to be able to think about the ducks in the park the same way again.

    You connect the ambience of 1947 Los Angeles to tension between a newly mobile female workforce and returning GIs. Do you see the blog as something of a feminist work?

    Cooper: Absolutely, but I'm as sympathetic to the men dealing with the situation as I am to the women. Everybody got a pretty raw deal, and children probably most. It was not an easy time to be a kid.

    Marsak: We found a story about some kids who found four 40-millimeter howitzer shells in a cellar in Eagle Rock, and one blew up. What an interesting metaphor for the whole thing. Their fathers also have these unexploded bombs in their heads, so these kids have to deal with their dads who could go off at any minute, just as they're finding shells brought back from Okinawa or Dresden.

    So much drugs, crime and gore—is there anything positive to say about 1947?

    Cooper: People were remaking themselves. The city was on the verge of the prosperity that pushed our parents' generation along and helped us get master's degrees.

    Marsak: You could say that Googie's, designed by John Lautner and built in 1949, was probably being designed in '47. The aerospace industry was here, and L.A. was the center of the groovy new swingin' jet set, outer spacey, populux, whatever-you-want-to-call-it world.

    Give us your favorite noir sites in L.A.

    Cooper: Norton and 39th, the Black Dahlia site. Hollywood Boulevard. Broadway at night, with all the newly lit theater signs. In Chinatown between Gallery Row and Hill Street, there is an alley [that] looks like something out of the 19th century. There are cats eating food out of the trash cans. There are beautiful wooden fire escapes. It's so run-down and rickety and evocative and spooky, I love to just walk people there with their eyes closed and say, "Open your eyes. You are lost in time."

    What neighborhood best evokes the ambience of post-World War II L.A.?

    Marsak: The Mar Vista Tract or Lincoln Place in Venice—postwar housing [developments].

    If you could bring back any vanished L.A. landmark, what would it be?

    Cooper: Ponyland. The Beverly Center used to [be the site of] a wonderful little year-round carnival with ponies that you could ride. I went there when I was tiny.

    Who really murdered the Black Dahlia?

    Cooper: No one who's ever been claimed in a book to have done it.

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