I Just Look Like Lou Grant

December 9th, 2014

Edward Asner is probably best known for his role as the ornery news manager Lou Grant, a character he portrayed on the 1970s comedy series the Mary Tyler Moore Show and later on the television drama Lou Grant.

Letter from Jesse Helms to Ed Asner

Jesse Helms, the five-term Republican Senator from North Carolina,
supported the contras in Nicaragua as well as the right-wing government
of El Salvador. Edward Asner Papers (Collection 2177)


Asner-Watson letter

Tribute To A Champion – letter from State Senator Diane E. Watson to Ed Asner, March 23, 1982, Ed Asner Papers (Collection 2177)


Beyond his acting career, Asner is a passionate social activist and has been an ardent supporter of numerous social justice and political causes. He was an outspoken critic of the Reagan administration’s policies, particularly regarding foreign affairs, and the Bush administration’s policies, especially regarding the Iraq War, the Patriot Act, and American foreign policy in general. He is an advocate of labor unions, gun control, campaign finance reform, and animal rights, and an opponent of the death penalty, having made many public appearances to protest the death sentence of Mumia Abu-Jamal.

Items from Edward Asner’s papers are presently on view in our flash exhibit case. The collection is currently in process.

Julie Graham
Accessioning Archivist
UCLA Library Special Collections

Back to the Future: The Aesthetics of Digitization vs. the Aesthetics of Administration

November 20th, 2014

The Los Angeles Aqueduct Digital Platform (LAADP) is situated within larger efforts, both at UCLA and beyond, to develop digitally-based means of organizing, presenting, and analyzing historical source material. These strategies go by many names – digital humanities, digital collections, OpenCourseWare, etc. – but they share the aim of developing a new informational aesthetic with equal emphases on dynamism, engagement, and centralization. This “aesthetics of digitization”, a scholarly appeal of our age, is implicitly positioned against a more culturally-entrenched form of informational presentation, the “aesthetics of administration”, a bureaucratic affect primed on ordered rows of archival boxes under fluorescent lights, amidst no-nonsense architectural décor, containing documents upon documents without clear hierarchical distinction. Defined by the historian Benjamin Buchloh in his 1990 essay, “Conceptual Art 1962-1969: From the Aesthetics of Administration to the Critique of Institutions”, the administration-aesthetic, as a cultural phenomenon, reached its apotheosis in the postwar culture of the 1950s-1970s, amidst the bureaucratic onslaught spurred in part by various interdisciplinary initiatives and think-tank models. Tellingly, this aesthetic found its purest life in new modes of art practice during that era, termed “Conceptual art” for their emphasis on process, idea, and information over visually compelling form.

Los Angeles City Municipal Archives: Entrance

To be clear: the aesthetics of administration is historical opponent to the aesthetics of digitization. It is inefficient, banal, ugly, disorganized, sprawling, unwelcoming, overwhelming, at times inhumane. It plays the barren labyrinth to digitization’s sleek and ever-new skyscraper of knowledge. And its sense of space is entirely alien to the laptop screen in more literal ways: think windowless buildings, monumental in the bad way, containing mostly “behind-the-scenes” storage warehouses complemented by charmless and cramped reading rooms.

We might thus be tempted to dismiss, with gratitude, the obsolescing of these older places, and of the taxing research protocols they demand. Certainly this is the implicit call of many recent university-based research initiatives – a model of totally linear progress, with the new emphasis on speed, mobility, and convenience signaling an upgrade over the archive-behemoths of old. But accepting such narratives would be a mistake, a willful overlooking of the ways that sited and digitized, real-space and virtual-space, old-fangled and future research methods coexist and intermix within our scholarly Zeitgeist.

L.A. City Municipal Archives Building: View from Union Station

Take, for example, the LAADP in the archival context of Los Angeles institutions. In-depth engagement with the Platform’s digitized original source material and scholarship provides a framework for understanding the historical, cultural, social, political and economic context of 20th century L.A. water infrastructure, but in order to realize that framework’s full potential one must follow research cues that lead elsewhere, and perhaps historically backwards – to the spaces of the administration-aesthetic. Which is to say, the story that the LAADP tells – of a vast engineering endeavor undergirded by a complex civic and bureaucratic apparatus – is necessarily a sited story. It takes up space. And it is still actualized, in part, within the halls of administration.

And so I took the cues; I read the scholarly ciphers for what I thought them to be. And sure enough they led me to vast warehouses, industrial yards, awkward architectural behemoths, file boxes without hierarchy, nondescript rooms under fluorescent lights, gray worktables. The itinerary had site-specific value: in these spaces, the history of the Aqueduct appeared richly elaborated yet urgently incomplete, capable of unfolding according to an infinite number of contradictions and sidebars. The peculiarity and difficulty of the experience underlined its potential, in other words.

Los Angeles Department of Water and Power Records Center: Context, with Records Center at Right

At the L.A. City Municipal Archives (set atop a vast police garage and auto shop on the fringes of downtown) and the L.A. Department of Water and Power Records Center (set amidst an East L.A. industrial yard bordering an emergent above-ground metro line), I studied the complete construction reports of the Aqueduct, administrative files from the various departments within the Aqueduct Bureau, the full run of reports by Aqueduct engineers to L.A. city administration, scrapbooks on early-20th century L.A. water culture. Within these archives, typewritten texts were annotated and amended by the pens of William Mulholland and Joseph B. Lippincott, key players in the project’s conception and execution. These documents summed not so much to a historical snapshot as a rough historical taxonomy. More firmly securing the categories of information according to their relative research-value would require further visits, driven by other questions.

What did these archives offer? They delineated an expanded cultural and physical geography of the city, forcing engagement with sidelined places that felt remote from the centers of official culture. They forced consideration of these places as essential to the city, substantial within its informational infrastructure. They delivered the sited experience of sited knowledge–both through the persons of the archivists themselves, and in the organization of the archival materials; these documents upon documents were not arranged solely according to the cold, rote logic of chronological or thematic structure, although they purported themselves to be. Organization was shown to be a form of knowledge-production within the archives, but also a form of criticism and historical analysis. No archive is neutral. Lastly, I arrived in the course of this work at a more deeply-registered sense of the Aqueduct’s oft-discussed scale (historical, infrastructural, physical, financial, administrative, archival). In its spatiotemporal span, the Aqueduct touched on many categories of socio-cultural production, articulating them along the path from one place to another and from then to now. The encounter in the archives was with the dimensions of that megaproject, in its historical situation relative to our own.

Los Angeles Department of Water and Power Records Center: Reference Room

By Nico Machida, Research Scholar for the Los Angeles Aqueduct Digital Platform in the Center for Primary Research and Training


Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow!

November 12th, 2014

Several wigs used in the television show Star Trek mysteriously disappeared…

Desilu Productions Inc. correspondence, from the Gene Roddenberry Star Trek Television Series Collection, 1966-1969 (Collection 62), UCLA Library Special Collections

The Desilu Productions Inc. memo from show producer Robert Justman to show creator Gene Roddenberry documents the high value of wigs and hair pieces used on the show to the show’s actors. Where did they go? And, were they ever returned?

The Gene Roddenberry Star Trek collection and the Robert Justman Papers offer a peek behind the scenes of one of television’s  most popular shows.

By Peggy Alexander

No More Leaders, No More State: Revolutionary Catalonia and the Spanish Civil War

November 4th, 2014

A recent exhibit in Library Special Collections drew on our rich collections of material related to the Spanish Civil War to explore the conflict within the context of its early revolutionary promises in Catalonia. The premise of this exhibit was inspired by my observations during a recent summer trip to Barcelona. Now back in Los Angeles, what remains with me is a jumble of impressions, collectively charged by the electric feeling of the city – observing the presence of cooperatives and squats, spotting anarchist graffiti, or standing in front of the graves of anarchist heroes Durruti, Ferrer and Ascaso in the sprawling Cementerio de Montjuïc, as a Balearic breeze ruffled the faded tributary flags and plastic flowers. Beside the official efforts made by the city to memorialize the conflict, the more ephemeral memorials on the city walls and streets, sprayed or wheat-pasted, sought to readapt its essential messages to the current situation. Some photo/graphic mementos from these experiences are included here.

Left: The grave of Buenaventura Durruti, flanked on both sides by those of Ferrer and Ascaso. The inscriptions read: “Ferrer! Ascaso! Durruti! Symbolize and remind us of the anonymous many who gave their lives for the ideals of freedom and social justice.” And below, a quote from Durruti: “We carry a new world in our hearts.” Photo by Lori Dedeyan.
Right: Paste-up poster in the Gracia district which reads: “WE ARE ANTIFASCISTS [added: AND FEMINISTS] BECAUSE WE ARE ANTICAPITALISTS. ‘When the Bourgeoisie sees that power is slipping out of hand, it raises fascism to maintain its privileges.’ – B. Durruti”. Photo by Lori Dedeyan.

Graffiti photographed in the Gracia district. Anarchist, anarcha-feminist, and squatters’ symbols, respectively. Photos by Lori Dedeyan.

The region of Catalonia, with Barcelona as its pulsing heart, has always maintained an insistently individual identity, with a distinct language and culture. It is, in addition, the largest industrial center in Spain, with an accordingly developed workers’ movement that was led, in the early twentieth century, by anarcho-syndicalists. These factors made it a natural epicenter of resistance prior to and during the Spanish Civil War and a subsequent target, in the years of the Franco regime, of suppression through a rigorous campaign of forced cultural assimilation. These memories can explain the questions of identity that today still seem to hang in the air.

“Barcelona, July 19 [1936]. Barricade raised by militiamen on Calle Hospital, in the Catalan capital.” Del Amo Foundation Spanish Civil War Collection (Collection 2012), UCLA Library Special Collections

As the event itself has receded in time and its historical narrative constructed and then reassessed, there have been efforts to reintroduce the seminal revolutionary influence of the anarchist movement and workers’ trade-unionism to a historical discourse that has seen it overshadowed by the conflict between the Communists and Fascists. In Catalonia, the National Confederation of Labor (C.N.T.) and the Iberian Anarchist Federation (F.A.I.) were representatives of this movement.

Poster from 1936 issued by the CNT-FAI, from “Carteles De La Guerra 1936-1939: Coleccion Fundacion Pablo Iglesias” (Barcelona : Círculo de Bellas Artes : Lunwerg Editores ; [Madrid] : Fundación Pablo Iglesias, c. 2004).

“Barcelona, in August [1936]. Medical Unit, under the auspices of the FAI (Iberian Anarchist Federation), leaves for the Aragon front.” Del Amo Foundation Spanish Civil War Collection (Collection 2012), UCLA Library Special Collections.

Pamphlets and newspapers form a large part of the exhibit, as they have traditionally been the formats of choice for the dissemination of news and propaganda. They were used particularly in the decades of anarchist activity and outreach preceding the Spanish Civil War. As Diaz de Moral wrote in 1923, “Reading was unrelenting by night in the farmsteads; by day in the ploughed fields, during (smoking) breaks the spectacle was always the same: some worker reading and the rest listening very attentively…Farm laborers carried some pamphlet or newspaper in their knapsacks along with their lunches. Any one of the trade unionist villages received hundreds of copies of the like-minded press, purchased even by those who could not read.” During the conflict itself, pamphlets were also used for critique or to rally support abroad. The pamphlets here are international in scope and varied in perspective, including commentary by notable anarchists such as Rudolph Rocker. They are primarily from the years 1936-1938.

Various pamphlets from Communist and pro-Fascist perspectives. Collection of Socialist and Labor Movement Pamphlets and Books (Collection 932) and Collection of material about the Spanish Civil War (Collection 205), UCLA Library Special Collections.

Pamphlets meant for international distribution; notably, anarchist pamphlets published in the United Sates and Scotland. Collection of Socialist and Labor Movement Pamphlets and Books (Collection 932) and Collection of material about the Spanish Civil War (Collection 205), UCLA Library Special Collections.

Pamphlets from the Ricardo Donoso-Cortes y Mesonero-Romanos collection of literature de kiosko (Collection 1855), UCLA Library Special Collections.

German anarcho-syndicalist publication; the FAI is featured prominently next to the Spanish peasant with his scythe. Collection of propaganda material from Europe, North America, and Latin America (Collection 1274), UCLA Library Special Collections.

Newspapers from the Collection of Newspapers Published by Latin American Labor Movements (Collection 1425), UCLA Library Special Collections.

This exhibit features a copy of George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia from the library of Susan Sontag. Orwell fought in Barcelona during the earlier stages of the war, as a member of the International Brigades. In an article for the New English Weekly in mid-1937, he wrote: “The fact which these papers have so carefully obscured is that the Spanish Government (including the semi-autonomous Catalan Government) is far more afraid of the revolution than of the Fascists…By January [1937] power had passed, though not so completely as later, from the Anarchists to the Communists, and the Communists were using every possible method, fair and foul, to stamp out what was left of the revolution.

The Spanish Civil War was notable for its internationalism, which it still seems to inspire today. Below are stickers I photographed on the headstone of Buenaventura Durruti’s grave, originating in Austria, Chile, France and Mexico.

Grave stickers. Photos by Lori Dedeyan.

The early stages of the Spanish Revolution, which saw the formation of workers’ and peasants’ cooperatives, along with the degree of success with which they administered their affairs, still maintain a hold on the popular spirit and imagination. Personally, handling these archival materials and recalling their contemporary analogues in Barcelona reinforced the notion of how we sift through the documents of history for the relevant lessons that will help us interpret where we find ourselves now. The past and present both are made in the image of the other.

An article about Barcelona’s food collectives from “Volunteer for Liberty” publication (New York : Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, [1949]), juxtaposed against the logo of the Casa Can Masdeu, a contemporary squatted cooperative and community garden on the outskirts of Barcelona, as well as a banner hung on the façade of Kasa de la Muntanya cooperative, near Parc Guell. Photos by Lori Dedeyan.

By Lori Dedeyan

The Great American Novel and Not a Word in It: The Graphic Novels of Lynd Ward

October 28th, 2014

Detail from “Storyteller Without Words: the Wood Engravings of Lynd Ward” (New York : Abrams, [1974]), UCLA Library Special Collections

Readers may be forgiven for assuming that the graphic novel form began with the publication of Art Spiegelman’s 1992 Pulitzer Prize winning Maus. This assumption is wrong by several decades.

The American graphic novel debuted in 1929 with God’s Man: a Novel in Woodcuts by Lynd Ward (New York: Jonathan Cape and Harrison Smith), published just as the stock market crashed. Often referred to as a wordless novel, the only text to be found in the book, aside from publication information, are chapter headings.  Each image is presented as a separate plate which literally makes the novel a page turner. In an interview with the Library of America, Spiegelman said, “Ward was way ahead of his time, a visionary, in understanding the importance of the book as an object, as a container of a kind of content. His books were made with great attention to the container and he worked within it as precisely as a concrete poet works with language.”[i]

God’s Man was so original and innovative that it inspired a parody almost immediately.  He Done Her Wrong by Milt Gross (Garden City: Doubleday, Doran Company, 1930) not only lampoons Ward’s refined concept – Gross’ book is subtitled The Great American Novel and Not a Word in It – No Music, too – but  Gross puts heavy borders around cartoon caricatures in a satirical homage of  Ward’s fine art style.  Ironically, Spiegelman was led to Ward by Gross’ book. Spiegelman , too, pays sly homage to Ward and his meticulous craftsmanship by through his illustrations for The Wild Party (New York: Pantheon Books, 1994), Joseph Moncure March’s jazz-era poem.  In a break from his typical comix style, Spiegelman animated the poem with scratchboard drawings evocative of Ward’s woodblock prints.

Lynd Kendall Ward was born in Chicago in 1905; he studied fine art at Columbia Teachers College.  But, it was while continuing his training at the National Academy of Graphic Arts and Bookmaking in Leipzig that he chanced upon the work of Belgian artist, Frans Masereel whose woodcuts would prove highly influential on the evolution of Ward’s style of working against the wood’s grain in a method known as wood engraving. Spiegelman noted that “Ward’s works are rich and they make you realize the ways in which a book can be something unto itself that doesn’t have to do just with information content.”[ii]

In addition to his pioneering re-envisioning of what a book could be, the thematic content of Ward’s wordless novels is equally progressive. Ward’s stories emanate from a proletariat that fights to live dignified lives under bleak circumstances. Ward presents their collective struggles with sensitivity and compassion – insights informed by the lifework of his father, Harry F. Ward, an activist Methodist minister and lawyer whose grass-roots advocacy included serving as one of the founding chairpersons of the ACLU.

In a Ward novel subject and illustration are expertly integrated to showcase the working class through carefully observed, finely wrought detail. Ward likewise varies both the size of his blocks, and the point of view within them, for maximum dramatic impact as in these panels where Ward depicts the mundane exploitation of unemployed men to work as strike breakers. Ward illustrates the desperate poverty of the men through their finely engraved gaunt faces in contrast with the corpulent jowls of the corporate goon. The depiction of the weary, slouched figures on their way to do the boss’ dirty work poignantly conveys the sad shame of men compelled to compromise themselves simply in order to subsist. Direct. Profound.


Detail from “Wild Pilgrimage” by Lynd Ward (New York : [H. Smith & R. Haas], 1932), UCLA Library Special Collections

In his third book, Wild Pilgrimage (New York: Harrison Smith and Robert Haas, 1932), Ward is equally assiduous in coaxing more nuanced perspectives from the woodblock form.  He resolves a narrative problem – how to show the interiority of a character – with an elegantly straight forward solution.  Ward uses color to distinguish between subjective reverie (red and white) and objective reality (black and white). In the examples shown here, the sensuous curves that emphasize the protagonist’s romantic longings are contrasted with the blunt, angular lines of his rejection. The impact on the reader is visceral.

Detail from “Wild Pilgrimage” by Lynd Ward (New York : [H. Smith & R. Haas], 1932), UCLA Library Special Collections

Ward, who died in 1985, had a long, illustrious career as an illustrator; many examples of his remarkably varied work (including his drawings for children’s books) are held by Library Special Collections. However, his wordless novels are his greatest bequest to the art of the book, and by far his most influential achievement.

“To make a wood engraving,” Spiegelman noted in an essay for Paris Review, “is to insist on the gravitas of the image… Knowing that the work is deeply inscribed gives an image weight and depth.”[iii] Ward’s work epitomizes this maxim. He created six graphic novels culminating with Vertigo, (New York: Random House, 1937) an ambitious work of 230 individual engravings that required two years to produce. Thankfully, all of his graphic novels are back in print courtesy of a recent box set issued by the Library of America, and edited by Spiegelman.  Two years after a chance encounter with Ward in 1970, Spiegelman embarked on his own totemic work, Maus, which confirmed the importance of the graphic novel as vibrant literature, and, more importantly, continued the legacy of Lynd Ward’s tradition of the sublime artistry of storytelling.

By Lauren Buisson, Technical Services

[ii] Ibid

TEN Years of the Center for Primary Research and Training

October 21st, 2014

Curious? Come hear all about it.

This year marks the 10 year anniversary of the Center for Primary Research and Training! In celebration, UCLA Library Special Collections is hosting a half-day symposium on October 24, 2014 in the main conference room of Young Research Library from 1-5pm. A reception in Library Special Collections will follow. The symposium will feature presentations and remarks from nine current and former UCLA graduate students. Thai Jones, PhD History (Columbia University) and currently the curator for US History at Columbia’s Rare Book & Manuscript Library, will deliver the keynote address.

For a schedule, the complete list of speakers, and to RSVP, please visit http://cfprt.eventbrite.com. This event is free and open to the public, so please share widely. RSVPs are requested by October 17, 2014.

The Panama Canal: 1914-2014

September 30th, 2014

“Panama Canal. Gaillard Cut. Looking North from Contractor’s Hill. Jan 1915″, Photographs of Panama Canal (94/341), UCLA Library Special Collections

The idea of a canal across the isthmus of Panama had been around since soon after the arrival of the first European explorers in the sixteenth century. In 1819, the Spanish government authorized the construction of a canal and the creation of a company to build it, but nothing was ever built. Between 1850 and 1875 surveys of the area concluded that the most favorable route was across Panama, followed by a route across Nicaragua, and then a route across the Isthmus of Tehuantepec in Mexico. In 1881 a French company began construction of a sea-level canal across the isthmus of Panama, but by 1889 had gone bankrupt, having completed only about 40% of the work. On May 4, 1904 the United States formally took control of the French property relating to the canal, having helped Panama gain independence the previous year, and negotiating the control of the Panama Canal Zone on February 23, 1904. Initial work on the canal concentrated on improving construction infrastructure and salvaging and upgrading French equipment and buildings. It wasn’t until late in 1905 that a decision was finally made that the canal should be constructed with locks, rather than at sea level. Construction really began to make progress in 1906 as living conditions for workers were vastly improved, leading to a far smaller turnover in the work force, and infrastructure improvements allowed much more rapid and efficient work. By 1914 construction was largely complete, and on August 15, 1914 the Panama Railway steamship SS Ancon made the first official transit of the canal.

“Panama Canal: Culebra Cut from Cerro Luisa, Aug 1909″, Photographs of Panama Canal (94/341), UCLA Library Special Collections

These photographs are from a collection of 50 photographs documenting the construction of the Panama Canal and its early years of operation. It includes many photographs of the construction itself, including the locks, work on the Gaillard/Culebra Cut, and the dredges, steam shovels and other equipment used, as well as some of the town of Culebra, shop buildings and docks, railroads, the breakwater in Limon bay, and ships navigating the canal. A selection of the photographs are currently on flash display in the Library Special Collections lobby.

“Pedro Miguel Locks. Laying Side-Wall Culverts in West Chamber. March 3, 1910″, Photographs of Panama Canal (94/341), UCLA Library Special Collections

“Monoliths in Middle Wall, Upper Gatun Locks. July, 1910″ Photographs of Panama Canal (94/341), UCLA Library Special Collections

By Simon Elliot

In the News: The Last Passenger Pigeon—Centenary of an Extinction

September 8th, 2014

On September 1st, 1914, Martha, the last surviving Passenger Pigeon, died at the Cincinnati Zoo. Her remains were put on ice and sent to the Smithsonian Institution, where she resides and is displayed as perhaps the most famous individual member of an extinct species.

“The passenger pigeons or wild pigeon belongs to the order Columbiformes. Its scientific name is Ectopistes migratorius. Ectopistes means ‘moving about or wandering,’ and migratorius means ‘migrating.’ The scientific name carries the connotation of a bird that not only migrates in the spring and fall, but one that also moves about from season to season to select the most favorable environment for nesting and feeding.”

Encyclopedia Smithsonian

Because the UCLA Library licenses The Birds of North America Online by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the American Ornithologists’ Union, researchers may read David Blockstein’s species-specific monograph, which begins:

“Legendary among ornithologists and laypeople alike as a symbol of staggering abundance on the one hand and of human greed and indifference on the other, the Passenger Pigeon is arguably North America’s best known extinct species.” (Blockstein, David E. 2002. Passenger Pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Retrieved from the Birds of North America Online: http://bna.birds.cornell.edu/bna/species/611).

In recent days, numerous news media have recounted the story of Martha (Smithsonian Magazine) and why the once-ubiquitous species (NPR blog, 1 September 2014) went extinct (Audubon magazine, May-June 2014), as well as hopes to resurrect some traits of the species (National Geographic, 31 August 2014). The Wikipedia entry for the term (Passenger pigeon) blossomed with citation-supported details in time for the extinction centenary.

Project Passenger Pigeon, from the Chicago Academy of Sciences’ Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum,  includes news about its film documentary project (From Billions to None) as well as K-12 lesson plans and printable panels for an exhibit (A Shadow Over the Earth: The Life and Death of the Passenger Pigeon) by the University of Michigan Museum of Natural History.

An exhibit at the UCLA Louise M. Darling Biomedical Library for September 2014 starts with early-19th century depictions by Alexander Wilson and James Audubon, and traces the story of the passenger pigeon’s overwhelming presence to its demise, through books selected from the UCLA Library’s Donald R. Dickey Library of Vertebrate Zoology and Reese and Rosemary Benson Bird Books.

“Open the (Exhibit) Cases” opportunities to view the Wilson and octavo edition Audubon volumes close-up—along with Mark Catesby’s The Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands (1729-1747) and the reprint edition of Audubon’s double elephant folio-sized  Birds of America—will be held in the Biomedical Library lobby at 1:00p.m. on Fridays, September 19 and 26.

This exhibit is part of an occasional series, In the News, which draws on items from the historical collections to inform current events.

Russell Johnson
History & Special Collections for the Sciences
UCLA Library Special Collections

LA Aqueduct Digital Platform series: FoLAR: Creativity Conquers Concrete

September 4th, 2014

Having been involved for many years with communities of artists in Los Angeles, Washington, DC, and New York City, I am currently working toward a PhD in Geography here at UCLA. My master’s thesis was about artist organizations in Los Angeles, looking at their place-making activities and whether these activities align with a creative cities approach to urban planning and development. My dissertation will extend these ideas to encompass environmental advocacy alongside artists’ cultural and civic work. During this summer, however, I am processing the recently acquired records of the Friends of the Los Angeles River (FoLAR), an advocacy group that has, over the years, emphasized a creative, cultural approach when addressing urban environmental issues that pertain to the Los Angeles River.

The narrative of the Los Angeles River’s concrete imprisonment has become a rallying cry for environmentalists and urban nature lovers throughout the region. The Los Angeles River is an alluvial river. According to urban environmental historian Jared Orsi, the two principal river systems affecting the Los Angeles Basin - the Los Angeles and the San Gabriel – lose more elevation in their fifty-mile course to the sea than that American icon, the “mighty” Mississippi, loses in its entire route to the Gulf of Mexico. In the 1930s, flooding had catastrophic effects on the ever-growing built environment in Los Angeles; the resulting solution was to use concrete to channelize almost the entire length of the river. Below, the devastation wrought by the 1938 flood is documented in two small photographs by the American architectural photographer, Julius Shulman:

The 1938 flood in Los Angeles, Friends of the Los Angeles River records (Collection 1622). UCLA Library Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library

The 1938 flood in Los Angeles, Friends of the Los Angeles River records (Collection 1622). UCLA Library Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library

The historical construction project that is the Los Angeles River-as-flood control channel took approximately 20 years to complete. In the mid-1980s, the river became the object of another sort of construction project launched by FoLAR. The complexity of this project meant a careful dismantling of assumptions and understandings of the urban environment, in order to reconstruct the Los Angeles River as an object with symbolic, cultural, political, environmental, and civic significance.

The organization, Friends of the Los Angeles River (FoLAR), was conceived of as a 40-year art project and from its inception often proclaimed the river in cultural terms. One of the original founders of FoLAR, the performance artist and poet, Lews MacAdams, has identified Robert Smithson, the American earthwork artist; Joseph Beuys, the German performance artist associated with the Fluxus movement; and the American poet and environmental activist Gary Snyder as inspirations.

In FoLAR’s archives, we find reference to poets:

Los Angeles River Access Pass, Friends of the Los Angeles River records (Collection 1622). UCLA Library Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library.


Los Angeles River Access Pass, Friends of the Los Angeles River records (Collection 1622). UCLA Library Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library.

In FoLAR-generated educational materials, references to cultural representations of life along iconic “American Rivers” re-envision a Los Angeles River as one of natural and symbolic significance:

“Down by the Los Angeles River: Friends of the Los Angeles River’s Official Guide,” Friends of the Los Angeles River records (Collection 1622). UCLA Library Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library.

And, almost from FoLAR’s inception, we find river advocates’ vision of the river’s potential to provide opportunities for urban recreation:

“I ran the rapids on the L.A. River: Earth Day 1990″ bumper sticker, Friends of the Los Angeles River records (Collection 1622). UCLA Library Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library.

Kayaking on the Los Angeles River, Friends of the Los Angeles River records (Collection 1622). UCLA Library Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library.

In keeping with the vision of a culturally re-constructed Los Angeles River, the current site of the Los Angeles State Historic Park near Los Angeles’ Chinatown and the Los Angeles River was the site of an artwork, This is Not a Cornfield, using an historically and culturally significant crop – corn. Employing a reference to surrealist artist René Magritte’s Treachery of Images (this is not a pipe), art was the catalyst for a solution involving politicians, businesspeople, environmental advocates, and Los Angeles residents.

These few images are a small peek into the FoLAR records documenting the ongoing revival story of the river that has, in the past, been ridiculed as not-a-river.

This is Not a Cornfield, Friends of the Los Angeles River records (Collection 1622). UCLA Library Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library.

By Diane Ward

This Just In: Recently Acquired Gifts and Purchases

August 11th, 2014

Public health and hygiene broadside for children, Aleluyas de higiene general dedicadas a  los niños de las escuelas primarias (Madrid?, ca. 1930s)

A mini-exhibit of recent acquisitions in the History & Special Collections for the Sciences section of UCLA Library Special Collections is on display at the Louise M. Biomedical Library (4th floor public reading room) through September 2014.

These materials were acquired from aGatherin’ (West Sand Lake, NY), Deborah Coltham Rare Books (Sevenoaks, UK), Marc Selvaggio, Bookseller (Berkeley, CA), and eBay.

Items include:

  • A Spanish public health and hygiene poster for children (1930s)
  • Ink blotter advertisements (1930s-1950s)
  • Pay for a Summer vacation – sell your dental gold scrap (1934)
  • Children’s science books from the 1939 New York World’s Fair
  • Pharmaceutical trade catalog (1930)

Goldsmith Bros. Smelting and Refining Co. postcard, postmarked from the 1934 Chicago  World’s Fair

This exhibit is part of an occasional series, This Just In: Recently Acquired Gifts and Purchases.

Russell Johnson
History & Special Collections for the Sciences
UCLA Library Special Collections