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I talk Philip K. Dick on USC’s Bedrosian Book Club Podcast

USC’s Bedrosian Center on Governance and the Public Enterprise (a part of their Sol Price School of Public Policy) does a monthly podcast called the Bedrosian Book Club, which has so far discussed books like Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century, Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, and Joan Didion’s The White Album. This month — thanks, I believe, to my City in Cinema essay on Blade Runner — they’ve invited me on to talk about Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

You can listen on the Soundcloud player just above, or you can download it from iTunes or the Bedrosian Book Club’s site. You can find my other recent media appearances on the about page here.

Los Angeles, the City in Cinema: Crash (Paul Haggis, 2004)


Crash drew great acclaim, up to and including an Academy Award for Best Picture, as a searing and incisive examination of racial tension and prejudice in Los Angeles, yet I’ve never met an Angeleno who likes it. Its indictment of the city — not, of course, a “real” city — as a tinderbox of incomprehension and resentment had genuine currency before the 1992 riots; it just had the bad luck to come out in 2004. But maybe viewers fifty years hence will look past all this overdetermination, overacting, and general overreaching to see how the film truly illustrates the great violence done to our society not by racism, but by the automobile.

The video essays of “Los Angeles, the City in Cinema” examine the variety of Los Angeleses revealed in the films set there, both those new and old, mainstream and obscure, respectable and schlocky, appealing and unappealing — just like the city itself.

Diary: The Gardens of Little Tokyo

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I had lunch not long ago with Geoff Nicholson at Mr. Ramen, Little Tokyo’s finest perpetually reggae-soundtracked noodle shop. He reminded me of the existence of the James Irvine Japanese Garden, a fixture of (and fairly well-known wedding venue at) the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center. Built to the side of the JACCC’s not-particularly-loved gray concrete building (complete with “windswept plaza”) where I take Japanese classes each week and open to the public most days (although not the ones my classes happen on), it counts as one of the many features of downtown Los Angeles that you wouldn’t know about unless you knew about.

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Though built below ground level, the James Irvine Japanese Garden garden doesn’t let you forget where you stand. A bank, a senior-housing high-rise, the JACCC’s also-concrete-y Aratani Theater: these and other visible modern structures keep downtown present, no matter how well-curated the east Asian plant life that partially obscures them. And in an urban Japanese garden, I want exactly that: the contrast between timeless botanical virtue and the starker claims of the slightly aging built environment.

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By no means do only Japanese gardens pull this off. The low walls of the Lan Su Chinese Garden, located right in downtown Portland, allow in just enough of that city’s often low-rise but nevertheless highly reflective towers that I don’t mind paying its entrance fee. (Portland’s Japanese Garden, while nice enough, sits up in the hills as an escape from the city — not something for which I yearn.) But you can appreciate the Japanese gardens of Little Tokyo at no charge; the James Irvine Garden makes it explicit, while the garden on the third floor of the Doubletree Hotel works that way de facto, if not de jure.

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The Doubletree dates from Japan’s property bubble of the 1970s and 80s, which resulted in a great many downtown Los Angeles towers built or bought with Japanese money, and has gone through a few names: when I moved here it was called the Kyoto Grand, and before that the New Otani. Through it all, its garden has remained, and remained accessible: sure, the signs say it’s for guests only, but just walk through the lobby (itself, despite an apparent renovation or two, something of a bubble-era time capsule) like you belong there and take the elevator to the garden level. (I still haven’t figured out which stairway leads there.)

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The Doubletree’s vantage offers not just the contrast between garden and city, but between garden, city, and city to come. Newer buildings surround it, some so new that they’re still under construction. Several exemplify the “mixed-use” model, with retail and offices on the bottom and apartments and condos on top, that has finally gained traction here. I fear that the architectural blandness of many of these projects (though not necessarily the ones in Little Tokyo) will one day give mixed-use a bad name, but I still think about living in one of them in my next stint in Los Angeles. Hell, skybridges now have a bad name too, but whenever I visit the Doubletree’s garden, I leave by the one that connects it to the equally 1980s Weller Court; that way, I can go straight to Kinokuniya and browse their issues of Free & Easy. Could any mixed-use building I end up in, no matter how urbanistically sound, offer an amenity like that?

Los Angeles Review of Books Podcast: Sam Sweet, “All Night Menu”

Colin Marshall talks with Sam Sweet, who has written on a variety of subjects, especially ones having to do with Los Angeles, in the New Yorker, the Paris Review, and Stop Smiling. He’s currently writing and publishing All Night Menu, a series of five 64-page books on “the lost heroes and miniature histories of Los Angeles.”

You can stream the conversation just above, listen to it on the LARB’s site, or download it on iTunes.

Diary: Luminaries of Korean literature come to town

IMG_0091I had the chance last week to interview Bae Suah and Cheon Myeong-kwan, two well-known Korean writers, when they came to Los Angeles under the auspices of the Literature Translation Institute of Korea to make an appearance at UCLA. Not one to miss a podcasting opportunity, I packed up my recorder and rode over to where they were staying, a medium-size “design hotel” on Melrose I’d never once had reason to notice before. Incidentally, its name, Palihotel, gives me something to talk about with my Korean-English speaking partner: why isn’t it “The Palihotel”? And more interestingly, why do I keep wanting to call it “The Palihotel”?

Adult English-learners, no matter how advanced, endure an eternal struggle with articles. I’ve spent hours at a time trying to break down what we mean when we say “I ride a bus” versus “I ride the bus” — and why we never, ever say the version that naturally occurs to them first, “I ride bus.” It doesn’t help that, unless we’ve thought about it before, we rarely understand the distinction between articles with any clarity ourselves. As one young lady in the Literature Translation Institute’s crew said, “One always just feels right.”

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Though born and mostly raised in Gwangju, this staffer spent ages seven through ten in Austin, Texas — a period formative enough to somehow leaver her with a more convincing American accent than I hear from many American-born Koreans. She interpreted during the podcast recording, translating my questions into Korean and the writers’ answers into English. That skill, like sight-reading sheet music, never ceases to amaze me, and I found myself all the more impressed by it when I understood enough of the original language to follow the answers as the interviewees gave them.

My own Korean hasn’t yet reached a level where I can interview anyone directly, or even have prolonged conversations of much depth — when I miss a word, it tends to be the most important one in the sentence, and when I can’t think of a word, I tend not to know any substitutes for it either — but this experience did help fill out my sense of what podcasting my fast-upcoming life in Korea might make possible. The prospect of some kind of multilingual project gives me another reason to study even harder (as if the threat of falling too far in with the English-only, culturally apathetic section of Korea’s foreign population wasn’t motivation enough). But if I want to accomplish that, I’ve got my own articles to master — or, rather, particles.

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Students of Japanese might wince at the painful memories this dredges up of struggling to grasp the differences between は and が, but the finer points of Korean’s 은/는 and (especially) 이/가 make even less intuitive sense to the English-speaker. You can sometimes get by, more or less, leaving them off entirely, but the aforementioned speaking partner warned me that when Koreans want to act out a “dumb foreigner” stereotype, the first thing they do is drop the particles. (Though we, of course, do the same with English articles: “I ride bus.”) Another Korean friend let me in on something else stressful: when his countrymen see a Korean interacting with a foreigner in Korean, they pay close attention indeed — more with an eye toward evaluating their fellow Korean than the foreigner, but still.

I experienced that yesterday when, biking down Wilshire, I happened to spot Cheon Myeong-kwan having an after-lunch smoke outside (of all places) one of the westerner-oriented Korean barbecue joints outside Koreatown. As we chatted about his brief experience of Los Angeles during the trip (too brief, as all trips to Los Angeles are — the flea market fan Bae Suah won’t even have had a chance to experience the Melrose Trading Post, let alone the Rose Bowl) and my own plans in his homeland come November, a Korean family passed by. They heard us talking, then stopped in their tracks and simply stared for a while — taking notice of my particle problems, surely, but Dr. Johnson, dogs, hind legs, etc. I wonder what they would’ve thought if we’d been podcasting.

All my pieces for the Guardian’s History of Cities in 50 Buildings

The Guardian just finished putting up its series A History of Cities in 50 Buildings, seven of which I wrote about. I come out of the experience with few regrets indeed, though I do wish I’d written up something in Los Angeles; my friend Nate Berg honorably beat me to the out-of-the-box idea of approaching the city’s four-level freeway “stack” as a building. I might’ve also relished the chance to to do a piece on Kisho Kurokawa’s Nakagin Capsule Tower (which I did write a bit about for Boing Boing) in Tokyo as well — but then, when I live in Asia, I’ll surely find plenty of excuses to get over there and convert its structures into words.

The Home Insurance Building, Chicago

Chicago’s Home Insurance Building may no longer be standing, but it utterly changed the way we design cities, in ways that were previously unthinkable.

Pruitt-Igoe, St. Louis

From its fanfare opening in 1954 to its live-on-TV demolition three decades later, the St Louis public housing project remains a powerful symbol of the social, racial and architectural tensions that dogged America’s cities in the mid-20th century.

Levittown, New York

This postwar housing project’s mass-produced homes still stand as something more complicated than a monument to the glory – or bland conformity – of the American dream.

Southdale Center, Edina

The 1,100 suburban malls inspired by Southdale may be the epitome of car-bound consumerism – but this first fully enclosed, climate-controlled shopping centre was dreamt up by a socialist, pro-pedestrian Jewish refugee.

The original Starbucks Coffee, Seattle

When the now-infamous chain first opened its doors in Seattle on 30 March 1971, its sign bore not a green mermaid but a (more anatomically detailed) brown one, and its mission was purely to sell freshly roasted coffee beans.

The Renaissance Center, Detroit

At the behest of car magnate Henry Ford II, the non-profit Detroit Renaissance organisation tried to kickstart the failing city’s economy by building the world’s largest private development. Now it stands as a symbol of how not to revive a downtown area.

Sampoong Department Store, Seoul

After a string of ill-considered decisions led to the collapse of Seoul’s luxury department store and the death of 502 people in 1995, the disaster continues to offers an important lesson to other cities urbanising at such an impressive pace.

Diary: Into the Monk Space

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On the Wilshire Walk I met Michael Lane and Jim Crotty, creators of Monk magazine, a journal of “travel with a twist” and subcultural phenomenon that ran between 1986 and 1997. During that whole time, Michael and Jim traveled America in an RV and put the magazine together using early desktop publishing software and every Kinko’s they came across. I can’t even imagine the logistical headaches that must have entailed, though now the project looks like a clear forerunner to what so many enthusiasts of 21st-century media do today: a combination of traveling, talking, writing, taking pictures, and publishing as you go — except Michael and Jim had to sell their own ads.

Though back then just a financial necessity, time has transformed those ads, like any that appear in magazines from an earlier time, into fascinating pieces of content in and of themselves. On one spread in their Los Angeles issue, the left page advertises Stereo MCs’ Connected (whose title track, incidentally, is one of my standard karaoke jams); the right, Björk’s Debut. For these and other reasons, the Monk archive constitutes an invaluable archive of 1990s American culture, although at the moment that archive exists in only in the form of hundreds of paper issues stacked on a shelf.

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I caught a glimpse of it when Michael invited me over to Monk Space, which he conveniently set up in Koreatown a five-minute ride up Western from my apartment, though he did it a decade ago, when that part of the neighborhood had fewer coffee shops and barbecue places and more homeless encampments and crumbling buildings housing a dozen Central Americans to the room. They run a few different audiovisual production facilities there, from a sound studio for mixing and dialogue recording sessions (though the occasional rapper also makes use of it, always with posse in tow) to a stage occupied, when I saw it, by a History Channel shoot. Weddings, too, make frequent and lucrative use of Monk Space. (I gather that whatever you do, if the wedding industry takes interest, you’ve got it made. Just watch out for bridezillas.)

Michael and Jim have stories about rolling into Los Angeles together in 1992, by many measures the city’s nadir: “the evil urban empire in our collective national psyche,” they wrote in their Los Angeles issue, “the land of riots, smog, uncontrolled gangs, congestion, ethnic rivalry, poor urban planning, and of course, police brutality.” But they wrote that in a piece titled “33 Reasons Why We Love L.A.” where they see a city “on the rebound. And in time the anti-L.A. myth will again give way to its more optimistic and enduring counterpart.”

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The value they saw in Los Angeles even then remains, to a great extent, the value it offers today: “At any time in this city there are dozens of radically different cultures and subcultures completely immersed in their own orbits. Rich to poor, Zulu to Kampuchean, Christian fundamentalist to Satanic cults, straight to gay.” “We have found more intellectually alive people here than in, say, New York, which prides itself on its intellectual superiority.” “L.A. is wacky. L.A. is frivolous. Yet L.A. knows how to really work hard. You can count on things being done right.” And best of all: “the Brits are drawn here.”

But things don’t all stay the same: the decentralization the Monks celebrate in not one but two of their 33 reasons to love the city has turned back inward (a highly desirable thing, to my mind), and I doubt many Angelenos would believe that “you can get around quicker in L.A. than in several East Coast cities” if you said so today. They’d have the heartiest laugh at reason number eight: “Parking is rarely, if ever, a problem.” But for increasingly many, especially relatively recent arrivals such as myself, Los Angeles has become a place where parking is rarely, if ever, a consideration. But as the city’s physical form develops, in some (especially non-car-oriented) aspects dramatically, I do hope it can hold on to the wacky, the frivolous, and the intellectually alive, all those cultures and subcultures, and of course, the Brits.

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Los Angeles Review of Books Podcast: Patricia Wakida, “LAtitudes: An Angeleno’s Atlas”

Colin Marshall talks with Patricia Wakida, editor of Heyday Books’ new LAtitudes: An Angeleno’s Atlas, a collection of cartographically organized essays on the real Los Angeles from such contributors as David L. Ulin, Glen Creason, Laura Pulido, Lynell George, and Josh Kun.

You can stream the conversation just above, listen to it on the LARB’s site, or download it on iTunes.

The History of Cities in 50 Buildings: The Sampoong Department Store

Observers tend to describe the rise of South Korea as a miracle, and the actual story makes the word seem only a minor exaggeration. Having emerged an utter wreck from the Korean War in the early 1950s, by the 21st century the country had become a rich, infrastructurally impressive, technologically forward-thinking global economic and cultural force. But South Korea’s unprecedentedly rapid entry into the first world has taken its tolls, and no one event of its dizzying 20th-century period of growth forced as many of its people to face them as the collapse of the Sampoong Department Store.

Those who endured the hardships of the Korean War and its aftermath had to welcome whatever prosperity the future could bring, despite the repression of the dictators who oversaw it and the grinding nature of a national life rigorously dedicated to nation-building. But from the 1970s through to the early 1990s, even the most development-minded Korean couldn’t help but suspect that something had gone wrong. An apartment block falls to the ground, a hotel catches fire, a train station explodes, a bridge collapses: the built environment that had risen so recently and triumphantly around them had already begun to crumble.

From the beginning, South Korea has understood that development and urbanisation go hand in hand. In fact, it understands that almost too well, resulting in what ranks today as one of the most capital-centric countries in the world. The resources it has devoted to Seoul make the rest of South Korea seem almost like a mere support system for that 24-hour high-rise megalopolis of 25 million people, built over the rubble of the modest Japanese colonial city it had been before the second world war.

Read the whole thing at The Guardian.

 

Diary: Walking (All of) Wilshire

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I’ve long wanted to walk the length of Wilshire Boulevard, the closest thing the whole of Los Angeles has to a “main street.” The city does have a street actually named Main, which runs north-south through downtown all the way up to Lincoln Heights and all the way down to the port, but Main somehow never attained the iconic status Wilshire has. That, and the variety of well-known areas through which the boulevard runs — downtown, MacArthur Park, Koreatown, the Miracle Mile, Beverly Hills, Westwood, Santa Monica — make it the logical choice as the Los Angeles urban walking experience.

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A few friends have taken it wholly upon themselves to walk Wilshire before, all sixteen miles from Grand Avenue to the coast, but I guess I needed a more specific impetus. It came in the form of a group walk led by Tom Carroll, host of the Youtube series Tom Explores Los Angeles. I’d appreciated Tom’s videos for a little while already — at first because I’d never seen anyone so closely examine the Triforium, as I told Tom himself when we happened to be walking alongside one another for a mile or so — but didn’t hear about the walk until a couple days beforehand. One of the prime benefits of a flexible schedule like mine: if you want to spend an entire Wednesday walking down a street, you just clear the day’s calendar and do it.

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We set off as a group of about thirty from Grand Avenue at 9:30 in the morning, and ended up on Ocean Boulevard, after some fell away and some joined along the way, as a group of about twenty at 6:00 in the evening. We took an hourlong lunch break among the food trucks that line up outside the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and not long after that paid a visit to the Los Angeles office of GOOD Worldwide, on the seventeenth floor of a nondescript Miracle Mile office building, to refill our water bottles.

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I harbor a vague admiration for GOOD without quite understanding what they do. I mostly know them for their eponymous magazine, which re-launched a few months ago. They co-sponsored the Wilshire walk alongside something called Sambazon, a blended juice product of which we had several opportunities to grab free bottles out of coolers. I drank one while taking in the view from GOOD’s office windows, which offer a perspective on the built environment just north of Wilshire I rarely get to see. (Park La Brea looked really striking from there.) It seemed like one of those benevolent, Millennial-filled work environments, though I guess that’s the idea. An employee cranked up the chiptune electronic dance music on their office speakers as soon as we entered.

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Though Millennial myself, I didn’t fare quite as well, physically, as some of the group’s maturer members. While I did make it to the end, I’d started hobbling and fell to the back of the line halfway through Santa Monica. Every time I sat down while waiting for a red light to change presented a realer and realer challenge to my getting up again. Yet the sexagenarians, septuagenarians and (I couldn’t tell, maybe even) octogenarians who held out took it literally in stride. Maybe it’s all the power-walking older generations supposedly do to forestall decrepitude; most of my exercise comes from my bike.

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I kept thinking of The Long Walk, a dystopian and faintly homoerotic novel Stephen King wrote under the pseudonym of Richard Bachman (and, according to King himself, the first book he ever wrote) which, in adolescence, I read over and over again. In it, a hundred teenagers have to keep walking and walking until only one remains. (Laggards get shot by soldiers following in a half-track.) Supposedly the last boy walking gets whatever he wants most in the world, though the story’s ambiguous ending — not a technique I necessarily expect from Stephen King, under any name — stops short of revealing that promise as genuine or a sham.

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For our part, we Wilshire walkers got a carbo-loading afterparty — pizza, pita, fries, sweet potato fries, beer, chicken wings, all of which kept coming — on the roof of the Shangri-La hotel. We couldn’t resist taking the stairs. Having dragged myself up there, I pitched Tom an idea for next time: why not Pico?

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