How A Local Author Recreates L.A.'s Forgotten History, One Address At A Time
The history of Los Angeles doesn’t sit in the sidelines the way it used to. Local historians restore old public art. Restaurateurs bring back old bars. Culture’s gaze has focused in on Los Angeles as more than Hollywood, and it can no longer hide from its past. This focus in the rearview mirror is a new experience for the city; usually, L.A.’s history has always required constant detective work and a desire to let the city reveal itself to you, but only if you put in the time to see it. Now, with the fate of our growing city at the top of everyone's mind, the past has taken on new priority in L.A.'s collective consciousness.
Local author Sam Sweet studies the past by focusing on what history often overlooks. In his book series All Night Menu, Sweet explores forgotten stories of various L.A. addresses in order to paint a picture of the unseen stories of this city. The books display a mastery of developing powerfully emotional stories through ostensibly neutral writing, creating profound images of a city under constant change. While many addresses in Los Angeles stay the same, the buildings and locations housed in those areas eventually disappear and turn into a newer, shinier place. For example, an artist's enclave in 1970s Santa Monica now houses a Starbucks and the boxy buildings of tourism-friendly development. What effect does such a shift have on a neighborhood? On a city?
By creating these portraits, Sweet's books put a wedge in L.A.'s pattern of historical erasure. He shines a light on the past to illuminate the foundation of our future. Each volume covers five addresses around the city, and a total of five books will encompass 40 different locations. So far three have been released, with the fourth one to come in December 2017 and the fifth one set for mid-2018. He focuses on keeping production and distribution in L.A. County, so he chooses to sell physical copies of the books in small businesses around town like Skylight Books and South Willard (don't fret, though, they're also available in his online store).
(Photo courtesy of Sam Sweet)
The most recent edition in his series, Volume III, came out in 2016 and covers stories as broad as the rise and fall of Von Dutch and a legendary East L.A. handball court. He focuses on the worlds that operate away from the light of L.A.'s public image in an attempt to reveal clues about our city and its segregated identity. The stories don't cross over in subject matter, which parallels the L.A. geography of communities in isolation. When hundreds of isolated groups sit next to each other, and operate simultaneously, what type of world emerges? Perhaps there's no answer, and Sweet's series of books touches on this possibility. The search, though, and the attempt to discover it, might be the real existential heart of of L.A. We're always going to keep trying, seeking, and looking for an answer.
LAist: How did you choose the volume in which you'd place each story? Is it more related to geography or based on editorial reasons?
Sam Sweet: Each volume calls for a balance of time periods, subcultures, and sections of the city. By the end of five volumes, there should be a complete image of Los Angeles without bias towards any category. Once that objective balance is established, the rest is intentionally subjective. The stories in each volume should sit together the way a collection of fictional short stories sits together. There’s nothing better than when a set of disparate things creates a feeling of completeness for reasons that can’t be explained.
How did you come across the stories in Vol. III, before researching them further?
My curiosities always start generally and narrow over the course of investigation. Handball, pinstriping, and American Indians all appeared on a long scroll of subjects I drafted at the outset of the project. (Also on that list: Gardena; The Gold Cup; DJs; Lincoln Heights Jail; martial arts.) I didn’t know what the specific stories would look like, only that I wanted to see these subjects sit together in a portrait of Los Angeles. Over time, those general areas of interest gave way to more distilled character studies of Michi Nishiyama, Von Dutch, and Robert Sundance, all of whom appear in Volume Three. Handball led me to Maravilla, the site of the oldest court in the city. Why is Maravilla home to the oldest handball court in Los Angeles? What was its connection to a Japanese-owned grocery store next door? Why was the woman who owned the store a hero to Chicanos in East L.A.? Those are complicated questions, but the process of answering produces a complete story. Applying that process to a diverse list of subjects begins to answer the question I had when I started the project: What makes Los Angeles distinct from other places?
Closeup of the backside of Maravilla Handball Court. (Photo courtesy of Sam Sweet)
What addresses from contemporary Los Angeles would you write about if this series occurred 50 years from now?
I have a theory that the past needs 20 years to ripen before it can be properly savored. The 1990s are the chronological cutoff for All Night Menu not because the recent past interests me less, it's just that I can’t yet see it clearly. Unseen subplots usually turn out to be more important than headline news, which is why it will take time before we learn which bars gave birth to legends and which teenage rituals went on to change the world. That said, there are two events from the past few years that would make good All Night Menu stories. One is the police chase from April 7, 2016—on a drizzly day, two teenagers in blue shirts and a stolen blue Mustang convertible did donuts on Hollywood Boulevard in the middle of a two hour pursuit through the city. As they drove into south L.A. at the end of the chase, the streets were lined with people cheering them on. They parked in front of 1038 E 51st, greeted their family and neighbors, made a few cell phone calls, and calmly sat on the hood waiting for the LAPD to descend on them. The second is December 7, 2014, when an arsonist named Dawud Abdulwali burned down Geoff Palmer’s half-built Da Vinci apartment complex at 909 W Temple, right at the intersection of the 110 and 101. Both these incidents created accidentally iconic images. Within those images are stories that tell the truth about Los Angeles in the 2010s.
These books are limited-run and not sold in regular bookstores. What does it mean to make a history tangible but then make the physical entity elusive? Is this a purposeful decision?
I’ve been asked, “Why do you make the books so hard to get?” but that isn’t my intention. The unusual physical character of the books is important to me because it helps make a mythologized place more real. As a small operation there are limits to how much I can distribute and promote the work, but I’d love to see the books in as many stores as possible. Right now, you can get them at Skylight Books and South Willard, two high-quality storefronts that have championed my stuff since the beginning. When the five volumes are concluded, the stories will be collected in a more conventional book form and casual readers will be able to pick it up the way they pick up a David Baldacci book.
Do you think there can be a real commemoration of history?
Every time a person tells a story, it’s a commemoration of history. To tell the truth, to analyze, to entertain: All those objectives can be accomplished with a good story, well executed. Nothing else means as much.
I'm thinking of which addresses still retain some of the same ambiance/history of the story you wrote about. The studio in Santa Monica likely wouldn't be a good example because of how different the neighborhood has become since then, so I'm interested in if there are other addresses that still retain some of the same purpose as in your stories. Or maybe none of them do, in which case that's an interesting question in and of itself.
It’s a funny thing, but I feel history’s presence most strongly in places where all but a few traces of the past have been obliterated. Trying to hide something or make it disappear completely only makes it more present. No Indian bars or boxing gyms or fried shrimp stands remain at Third and Main, but once you’ve heard the stories, that invisible past manifests itself against the deep shadow of the Ronald Reagan Federal Building. Knowing the history of Chavez Ravine changes what you see when you drive on Academy Road. You see different things on the streets surrounding Obregon Park if you know the history of El Hoyo Mara. The past doesn’t depend on our plaques and preservations. It exists the same with or without our permission. The only thing that changes is how we relate to it. Hearing these stories isn’t a duty. It’s just a way to get a better view.