Art of Photography as Social Commentary

Family, friends and fans, a new arrow in my quiver. In addition to my planning and design commentary City Observed on 97.5 KBU FM heard Saturdays locally , and on radiomalibu.net everywhere, there is Arts and Entertainment Observed, a new broadcast feature heard Sundays. The first focused on the art of photography as social commentary. It follows:

At the Skirball Cultural Center off of the 405 a particular searing pictorial commentary on one of the more shameful, egregious –it is hard to find the appropriate word for it –outrages of World War Two. And sadly perpetrated by United States, replete with cloying rationale by President Roosevelt.

The incarceration of tens of thousand of United States citizens, men, women and children, –who happened to be of Japanese descent — in a barren dust bowl 220 miles northeast of Los Angeles for no other reasons other than they looked Japanese, was a flagrant violation of civil rights and the constitution.

No matter, following the attack on Pearl Harbor, they were ripped from their homes and possessions. Of local note this included several Malibu families who owned nurseries in the civic center area.

They lost their land that probably would have made them among the largest landowners in Malibu today, and we would no doubt have something very different than the crass clutter of shopping centers.

Lending particular note to the exhibit is that most of the photographs were taken by the already then renown Ansel Adams, best known for his stunning landscapes.

He was asked to document the outrage by no less then the camp director, a friend from the then and still progressive Sierra Club. The photographs are captivating, as are the artifacts documents and newspaper articles of the day, reflecting the prejudices and hysteria of the that prompted the incarceration, and the artifacts of coping within the camp.

Also shown are photographs by Dorothea Lange and Toyo Miyatake. A recognized and respected photographer, he had worked with Edwin Weston, and was nonetheless incarcerated.

Another incarcerated artist but at a camp in Utah was Mine’ Okubo. Her sketches and paintings from that trying time are shown in another gallery at the Skirball , and is entitled Citizen 13660.

That was her family’s assigned camp number, and the title of her subsequent book depicting the harsh life in the camp.

Okubo later participated in a redress action that extracted an apology and reparations from the U.S. government.

The exhibit at the Skirball runs to February 21st.

Coincidently, at the nearby Getty, also running to Feb. 21st, are the photographs of Ishiuchi Miyako, entitled Postwar Shadows.

Included are haunting images of objects that survived the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, and despondent post war scenes of life under the American occupation.

Also at the Getty is an exhibit entitled The Younger Generation, Contemporary Japanese Photography.

All of the artists are women , which is interesting in respect to the subject matters, but also from the perspective that Japan is very much a male chauvinistic society. It is known there as “girl photography.”

 

11.15.15

 

 

L.A. River Continues to Roil

My latest commentary for 97.5 KBU, heard everywhere on radiomalibu.net. and can be read on cityobseerved.com:

The L.A. River continues to roil, as it has since several months ago when it was revealed the irrepressible and much honored Frank Gehry had been surreptitiously anointed to master plan the entire 51 mile expanse of the mostly raw water way.

Seemingly ignored by the powers that be – namely the city’s star struck Mayor Eric Garcetti and the LA. River Restoration Corp. ‘s cipher Omar Brownstein –that the celebrity architect had not been even remotely involved in the last 40 years of dogged grassroots efforts to improve the river, and is known primarily for his singular structures and definitely not city planning nor landscaping.

That the mayor mistakenly identified Gehry the Olmsted of L.A. –he is a legendary landscaper –even embarrassed the usually imperious Gehry, who recently was feted by the equally imperious Getty that once rejected him. How the wheel turns in a capricious L.A. of short memories.

Even as a critic of Frank’s past failures of form over function   –how buildings look rather than work – I warily welcomed him with the hope his involvement might bring needed attention, and funding, to the river.

And optimistically, perhaps he and his noteworthy team, including a famed Dutch hydrologist, might generate some interesting design iterations. Though instead of looking at computer models, I suggested maybe they should tour the river, that if it is to be revitalized, it will happen in a series of small, contextual site sensitive projects.

But Frank apparently just could not be content with the Getty honors, a cluttered of a warehouse of models  exhibited at LACMA, a career-crowning, celebrity studded book by the critic now fawning biographer Paul Goldberger, and the constant veneration of peers and the public.

He succumbed to that constant equation that for me explains much about our celebrity obsession, that personalities in the public eye are the sum of an equation of megalomania, divided by paranoia.

Agreeing to an interview by my alma mater, the ever august New York Times, the paper of record, Gehry proceeded to dismiss criticism of his involvement, and further denigrated its his critics, telling them to “grow up.” He also suggested that if they wanted to help the revitalization they should become worker bees, with the assumption he would be the queen bee.

Meanwhile, Gehry might happily have had a filter put on his mouth, but the diatribe unfortunately keeps echoing.

The long time river advocates no doubt he was referring to include I assume Lew McAdams, who selfless efforts have been absolutely vital to raising the awareness of the river. He is definitely not a jerk; vain maybe. Neither is Mia Lehrer, the river’s principle professional designer to date. She may be covetous, given the convoluted city politics. But not a jerk.

If Gehry needed to identify the jerks to date, let me suggest the vain glorious Mayor and his sycophants, an ever development and headline hungry pack of river rats. As if the revitalization of L.A.River did not have enough challenges.

10.31.15

 

For an Independent Malibu School District

In that thin strip of a seaside rural village labeled Malibu where I live, the struggle continues to nurture an idiosyncratic identity., and the subject of my latest KBU commentary

No, I am not referring to Measure W, and whether the city should impose constraints on proposed development in its fractured civic center.

As I have commented in the past, planning and development in Malibu has been politically vulnerable, bureaucratically bungled, and frankly haphazard. Major surgery is needed. Not band aids.

More critical and immediate in my opinion is the future of our public school, whether enough signatures can be collected by November First to advance the drive for a separate school district. 4,500 signatures are needed.

The group known as AMPS, advocates for Malibu Public Schools, will be circulating petitions for signatures all this week and next weekend at the shopping centers. Or you can sign on–line. Just contact them at www.ampsmalibu.org. or call 310 734 2021.

The 20 miles of beaches may lend Malibu an identity; the ocean sunsets a touch of romanticism; the backdrop of mountains drama; a resident celebrity a hint of enigma.

But it is the public schools, Webster, the Point, Cabrillo, Malibu middle and senior highs, that are the soul of the city, where one senses its egalitarian spirit. Democracy perseveres here.

Yes, there are problems– I like to think of them as challenges –but more pervasive is their vitality.

My opinion is Influenced by being a parent of four children who all attended public schools, be it in New York, Santa Monica, or for the last several decades, Malibu.

Wherever, the schools were integral to our sense of community.

They were our principle concern; their ranking, their scores, the buzz among parents: All weighed heavily in finding homes in select neighborhoods. In our case, it was north of Wilshire, 30 plus year ago, Point Dume nearly 20 years ago..

Beyond the personal, there are many reasons for an independent Malibu School District:

It will prompt local accountability.

No longer will Malibu be a step child to Santa Monica, separated by a long stretch of the PCH.

No longer will Malibu at best be represented by only one member on the local school board.

And studies have shown that it will actually improve the financing of both districts: NO increase in tax burdens for either city; NO increases in school operating costs

A separate Malibu School District also should have a special appeal to the real estate community, the exclusivity giving them yet another sales point. It most certainly can be expected to give prices a boost.

It’s a rare win win for all, especially the children.

 

 

Traffic Continues to Challenge Misanthropic Malibu

In my half century plus of journalism that has included the NY Times, LA Times, NPR, Fox News and others, I found the more local the news the more reader response. And so it is with my weekly commentary on 97.5 KBU and radiomalibu.net, which I’m also posting here:

Traffic concerns continue to be an issue on my Point Dume neighborhood, as they are in most, suburban and exurban communities.

Here in misanthropic Malibu, the City Council was primed to approve a street paving contract, until local radio KBU raised concern. These included why humps for certain streets and not others, and whether they are the best solution to the Point’s traffic woes.

It appears that the city was responding to petitions gathered on select streets from residents concerned about speeding, in particular the cul de sacs Grayfox and Wildlife, where not incidentally there is gated access to the hallowed beach below.

Presumably the traffic was locals with keys or meeting people with keys, looking for parking or ferrying people. Ah, the blessing and curse of being on a beach key street.

Not on the list for speed control measures were the more traveled and perilous Dume and Cliffside drives.

And there was no mention of Grasswood, where residents had testified before the city and circulated petitions not about speeding, but how parking on beach days there made the street impassable, in particular for emergency vehicles. Apparently they did not get enough signatures.

But who is counting? As I stated before, as a planning professor, practitioner and commentator, public safety should NOT be a political whim, certainly not traffic.

Voters do not set speed limits. Politicians should not proscribe parking rules. Traffic controls should not be mandated by petitions. (What, the more signatures the higher the humps, or bumps?)

That is what traffic engineers do, at least good ones, based on voluminous studies, site appropriate paradigms and time tested field experience.

Unfortunately, Malibu city government and our city council do not have a history that inspires confidence.

You do not have to be for or against Measure W, to question the associated traffic studies accepted by the city; we as a city did not have to go the brink to save the trees on PCH, if Caltrans had been asked, as I did, couldn’t instead the highway just be narrowed by a foot?

Why did we have to rely on a developer’s consultant? Where was ours? Amiable as a few members are, this council just does not have the chops.

And so, at the last meeting despite the concerns of residents, including a petition, the council focused on the paving contract and went for a compromise. It approved the paving with humps for Wildlife and Grayfox, and threw a bone to Pt. Dume by calling for an open meeting to consider traffic issues.

It also asked staff and the city’s traffic consultant to review applicable traffic calming items, and to unearth a traffic study that was once done for the Point.

I recall the study being presented to the Point’s Resident Association and then being buried alive, by the then Barovsky dominated council.

It will be interesting what will happen, and not happen, at the yet to be scheduled meeting, and will it, or should it, make a difference,. Stay tuned.

 

Malibu City Government Hits a Speed Bump

 

Unfortunately our sluggish city bureaucracy and hapless City Council just do not seem to get things right, even when they are apparently well intentioned and not being held sway to special interests or specious reasoning.

The City Council is poised to approve next Wednesday the funding of a pavement contract including 26 speed humps plus , –for a total of $427,000 –supposedly requested by Point residents.

As a traffic-calming advocate, generally in favor of speed humps, I am perplexed. That there are traffic problems on Point Dume has long been evident to anyone who lives or drives in Malibu, on PCH obviously, but also on local streets.

There is speeding everywhere, mostly on the straight aways of Dume and Cliffside drives. Parking also is a problem, in particular around the Village Center every day and Grasswood Avenue where on select days it actually makes the street all but impassable for emergency vehicles.

As I have written in the past, I consider these safety issues, subject to professional planning reviews. They should not be grist for political motivated actions by municipalities. Certainly not Malibu’s which in the past has not been very perspicacious.

If you might recall, a gaggle of Grasswood residents went before the city’s Public Safety Commission, asking that something be done to make their street safe. The item was placed on its agenda; the commission took testimony –noting that it was the largest turnout in memory –and directed the city to come up with several alternatives.

The city came back with a temporary proposal to stripe the street to allow for through traffic, confining parking to the edges where possible. It was subsequently approved. Then came the poison pill,

Heeding the concerns of Laura Rosenthal, city manger Jim Thorsen said that before acting, a consenting petition was needed from a majority of the street’s residents, though how many was not specified. Neither the city nor the residents took the initiative, and nothing happened.

Then out of left field comes the proposal for the speed humps. Talk about being blind-sided.

If approved, the humps are to be installed on Fernhill, Portshead, Selfridge, Grayfox and Wildlife, forthwith. Not mentioned were the particularly afflicted streets of Cliffside and Dume drives, and not Grasswood.

And where exactly are the speed bumps or humps going, and the signs required to alert drivers?   They tend to vary greatly, depending on posted speeds, views corridors, street widths, that if not precisely sited could be the basis of law suits. As too often, is the city going to depend on a low bid private company to make the necessary design decisions?

As a concerned resident of Cliffside, I was not petitioned, nor to my knowledge were my neighbors. Neither did I read about it in the locals papers nor on the usually informative Next Door Neighbor website.

It is interesting to note a decade or so ago we had petitioned the city for speed bumps, but the proposal was voted down by the council, then led by an intractable mayor.

To repeat, I am in favor of anything that will slow traffic down.

BUT it seems to me that the council once again is acting autocratically.

A traffic calming plan for all of the Point is needed, including its main streets of Dume and Cliffside drives, The city’s planning process needs to be more broader and transparent.

The council continues to baffle. When will it ever learn, if ever.

 

10.10.15

 

 

 

THE SEARCH FOR THE SOUL OF CITIES CONTINUES, ABROAD AND HOME

My search for what I label the soul of cities, continues, abroad, and home.

For me, these are the prime public places, the existential life of the city, its genius loci.

These are the places people experience and take pride in. Varying in form from city to city, layered with tradition, these places are what I feel lend a city and its people that evanescent quality of soul.

My trip to old haunts included the La Rambla in Barcelona, Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, and the museumplein in Amsterdam.

Others places with rich memories come to mind: Luxembourg Gardens in Paris, the piazza del campo in Siena, and Washington Square park in my hometown of New York.

As for my public Malibu, where I have lived for the last several decades, not so.

To be sure, there were select communal times with the kids on Westward Beach, on the Pt. Dune elementary school lawn, and in the play area edged by the picnic tables in the country mart.

More recently with the kids sadly gone but happily self sufficient, out with my sociable Corgi and irrepressible Shih Tzu, the Trancas Canyon Dog Park and its transient pet lovers have for me lent Malibu a rare sense of place — except when its too hot, or it rains. .

The search goes on, especially with civic center overrun by tourists and luxury outlets catering to their indulgences, and that of Malibu’s one per centers in their weekend safe deposit boxes.

However, take heart, a few miles west are two promising places that I feel lend hope for a more friendlier, public Malibu.

It just is some chairs and tables. a few comfortable couches, in a small field stone apron, centered on a modest fountain, and edged by the clubby Bank of Books, in the Pt. Dume Village center. But, increasingly it is populated by locals, enjoying family, friends and tolerating leashed dogs. Umbrellas and plantings help.

Add to this the venerable Lilly’s and an array of other eateries, and you have, a sense of place, where more often than not you see a neighbor, smiling hello.

It is reason enough to frequent the stores there, if only you could grab a parking space without having to circle the lot several times.

Also coming into its own is the Trancas Country Market, thanks in particular to a friendly Vintage Grocers and its Friday night concert series.

A recent offering there drew an estimated 300 locals, many walking from West Malibu, and turning a modest lawn into a celebratory space, if only for a few hours.

An attraction no doubt was Lenny Goldsmith, a long time Malibu resident and accomplished rock and roller, whose many gigs include the Tower of Power. Here before a hometown crowd he performed with a band appropriately named the New Old.

For me, it was great to hear Lenny, but also see friends and neighbors. It made me feel after a long trip abroad, very much at home, and that is what a public place is suppose to do.

 

 

Enjoying and Learning From Amsterdam

I am back, in Malibu, after a month plus of extended stays in select cities abroad; revisiting some favorite haunts of my maverick past, seeing a few new one, while gathering grist for several writing assignments.

But mostly with my ever curious learned wife enjoying the cultural life and public places of what I consider the soul of the cities.

And, yes, for KBU.FM and the website City Observed. com filtering observations for possible lessons for a more a livable Malibu:

First stop, a most amiable Amsterdam, specifically to experience a restored and rejuvenated Rijksmusum, but also take in several more museums, and of course a performance at the famed Concertgebouw.

Helping was sunny mild weather and diverting, the once every five years tail ships regatta in Amsterdam harbor.

Other than the weather, Malibu it is not.

But there are livable lessons, most apt, traffic. In Amsterdam it is a melange , actually at first glimpse, a crazed crush of cars, trucks, trams, bicycles and pedestrians jamming streets, and sidewalks, going every which way, though somehow, amazingly, flowing smoothly.

If there was a particular unconscious orchestration that turned every street of a very crowed city into a ballet tof sorts, was the alertness of pedestrians, the skill of bicyclists, and the reduced speed of vehicles, all yielding of course to the clang, clang of the constant trams.

Me with my ailing legs loved the convenience of the trams. But in particular I was impressed by the cautious crawl of the all the vehicles, and polite swarm of the pedaling bicyclists, not riding tandem and talking on cell phones as they tend to do on the PCH.

Traffic is not going to be reduced, in Malibu, however new devlopments are restricted or better planned. It just going to keep increasindg, no matter what development consultants say.

But it can be slowed down, by lowering and enforcing speed limits, and in the civic center creating an attractive pedestrian zone.

Amsterdam to be sure has diverting attractions — the streets and canals are engaging, the architecture respectful, the museums marvelous, and so is the beer.

And I also should add the wine, a free glass of which was given to those attending a performance at the Concertgebouw, as if one needed an additional enticement to enjoy one of grand venues of the world.

Malibu doesn’t have a concert hall, or a rich cultural history as Amsterdam.

But it has its beaches, benign weather, and is my home. If only the traffic could be better controlled and calmed,

Jf only.

 

 

 

 

Can the L.A. River Surmount the Current Rising Tide of Bullshit?

Frank Gehry’s anointment to spearhead a new iteration of the master planning of the L.A. River continues to muddy the waters.

I had previously commented that Gehry’s involvement in the river was disturbing for several reasons: his lack of planning experience could be calamitous: further, his recommendations could undermine pending funding, and not the least, his star architect ego and servile supporters could corrupt the river’s hard wrought cooperative spirit.

But some reasoned river advocates are urging Gehry be given a chance; that he could bring needed attention and prompt needed private funding; and he, or more likely the competent team he has assembled, might add something to the effort. So what if there is already an approved master plan that took a decade to craft; it can be improved.

OK, I reluctantly agree, especially if there is a chance it might benefit the river’s revitalization. Let’s see what he does, if anything.

And having observed Frank for nearly 40 years, if his effort doesn’t match expectations, consistent with his m.o. he’ll probably just blame politics, the river corporation, FOLAR and the unappreciative community, someone in his office, and of course the carping media. Anyone but himself.

But I do feel compelled to lend some perspective if not a little needed churlish candor to the prospect of Gehry’s attempt at planning, taking to heart a cue from another commentator, Jon Stewart, who declared in his popular television program’s finale, beware of bullshit.

This is good advice certainly in the current political burlesque, and also I would add in the current planning and design arena. Prompted and polished by a gaggle of marketing and public relation pros, our celebrity architects and their wannabes do seem to have down the crowd-pleasing catch phrases.

Now clichés to the discerning, these include the absolute imperative for design to be “sustainable,’ “user friendly,” and “contextual.” (For how they are used in sentences just audit any urban planning confab.

You have to listen carefully what they are saying, but more carefully look at what they are doing or designing. Sometime it is just the opposite. That is what I liked when I moved on to become a television reporter, where the adage was, don’t tell me, show me.

I remember too well Gehry during the intense competition for Disney Hall hyping his design as the city’s living room, and how it would be open to the community and energize the adjoining streets.

It was one of the reasons why as the critic then for the L.A Times I championed the design, only to see the public garden sited a poor inaccessible three stories up, the critical First Street frontage an unfriendly wall hiding a private patio for the patrons, and the corner stairs a stage for automobile commercials. Street access and egress is compromised, as is the lobby.

Still, the hall is a striking piece of sculpture, an iconic design popular among tourists for selfies and for those who can afford tickets to be seen. Its urban design is not very urbane.

Also I have to be wary of Gehry’s dependence on technology, in particular touting his team’s 3D mapping of the 51-mile waterway, and how it could aid a sweeping master plan vision.

I personally hope Gehry and his entourage spends a little less time at their computers and at self-congratulating conferences, and more time experiencing the river and its adjoining communities.

I am reminded of a lesson from a landscape architect I once worked with, Dan Kiley, who when I rolled out the maps of a park restoration project, suggested instead we walk the site. “Listen and look and it will tell us what needs to be done. Not some images on paper. Beside it always good to get out of the office.” Good advice

 

Gehry shallow dives into the L.A. River

To be aired 8.15 on 97.5 KBU, and streamed everywhere, on radiomalibu.net

 

To advocates of the revitalization of the L.A. River, as I am, the disclosure that star architect Frank Gehry has been presumptuously retained to master plan the 51 mile expanse of the waterway has to be disturbing.

To observers of the L.A..’s parochial political and celebrity stricken design scenes, as I also am, the disclosure and the blessing by a haughty City Hall and its synchopants, is not surprising.

This after all is Hollywood obsessed L.A., where style over substance prevails; where indeed the allure of Gehry’s international eminence, and promise of photo ops tends to stupefy an increasingly vainglorious Mayor Garcetti, as well as the celebrity dazed herd.

And then there is the ever avaricious Gehry, who beneath his Canadian rooted modest airs, is very much the L.A. based competitive professional; and despite his 86 years, a hungry tiger pacing in a cage, waiting for the next piece of meat, the next commission.

This is particularly disturbing because, bluntly, Gehry has had little design success beyond his iconic singular structures, which for all their puffed up publicity in turn have shown scant sensitivity to context, climate and community use.

The urban design sensibilities demanded by the revitalized L.A. River is not Frank’s forte, as I have commented in past commentaries, nor has he displayed any flair for landscape architecture, particularly the profession’s increasing concerns for sustainability and public use.

His involvement also is disturbing because the river already has been scrupulously master planned in a long, arduous process, dating back a quarter of a century and involving myriad interest groups.

These have included neighborhood activists, committed environmentalists, public spirited designers and high minded citizens. The broad effort has been very much grass roots, democratic with a small “d,” at times awkward and clumsy but always transparent –something Gehry involvement on the L.A. River to date definitely has not been.

Despite statements to the contrary, Gehry has never shown the patience and fortitude needed to work with affected communities and public interest groups, preferring singular developers or elitist institutions. And he can be quite short with the media, especially if its critical

It is no wonder that the founding non-profit group, Friends of the Los Angeles River, declined to endorse the Gehry City Hall initiative, its respected Lewis McAdams declaring it “ the epitome of wrong-ended planning. It’s not coming from the bottom up. It’s coming from the top down.”

There also was real concern that whatever changes Gehry might wrought to the already approved Master Plan might confuse and splinter its hard won broad support, and jeprodise the critical federal funding pending in Congress.

That would be a tragedy, and something Los Angeles present and future cannot afford. Hopefully, the Gehry initiative will prove a stunt., the architect will withdraw to polite applause, to rest on his many laurels, and the revitalization of the river moe forward.

I’m Sam Hall Kaplan, and this is the City Observed, on 97.5 KBU, and radiomalibu.net

 

 

A Wolf in the Malibu City Hall hen house

If you live, and care about Point Dume as a community, and Malibu, as a city, if not just your property values, you have to be sensitive to the overt politics swirling in and above a confused City Hall.

I am, and so I said in my weekly commentary, on radiomalibu.net and 97.5 KBU. (also can be read on cityobserved.com)

The latest municipal machination has to be the surreptitious announcement late last Friday – not incidentally the preferred time for controversial press release – of the hiring of Chris Deleau as the city’s planning manager.

There was little question that the amiable Bonnie Blue was not up to the job in which she had been recently appointed; indeed was a deer in the headlights during the recent city conflagrations, as has been most of the skittish city staff.

But DeLeau for all his affability and, yes, planning experience, is a primarily a private sector lobbyist and a most questionable choice, coming as he does from the consultant firm of Schmitz and Associates.

Talk about a wolf being invited into the hen house.

The firm and its indefatigable director Don Schmitz has been very much a presence in Malibu, seen at almost every meeting of the City Council and Planning Commission, as well on the fringes of several task forces, ever ready with a quip and comment.

Principal among those he represents has been the sprawling La Paz development, which was one of the projects that prompted Measure R.

Very much also a presence acting as Schmitz’s gofer and echo through the protracted planning process has been DeLeau.

Recuse himself as he may, Deleau sitting behind a dominant desk at City Hall has to send a powerful message to staff as well as to the public.

In my opinion as a experienced planner and journalist, what we have with this appointment is nothing less than the politicalization of City Hall.

I was willing to give the city the benefit of the doubt over its mishandling of a confusing Measure R, which I fear will not be the best matrix to judge a large development, especially if well packaged as Whole Foods promises to be.

But then there was the pathetic abdication of the city council and city staff of its planning prerogatives to the slick consultants of developers; that is what triggered the last minute effort to save the hallowed trees at PCH and Cross roads.

Yes, they were saved, but a lot of aggravation would have been avoided if the city was doing its job.

Then there was the staff fumbling and the council’s feeble-minded embrace of the fabricated traffic studies, and once again showing little initiative.

There also is a history of the staff not responding to resident queries, and the council quick to denigrate anyone challenging their questionable judgment.

And now this appointment. Several weeks ago this commentary was taken to task for describing the city council as timorous. The phrase I would now use is inept.

Time for a recall?