Park La BREA – finding the sticky

 Los Angeles Times, August 16, 1942. (LAPL online archives)   The design of the streets provides private courtyards.  

Last week I took two trips to Park La Brea.  I visited friends and I saw the memorial for Jose Tomas Mejia who was killed June 16 at the complex.  Whenever I enter Park La Brea, I am awash with strong feelings. It is hard to navigate the roads and walkways without bumping into ghost memories that come from living nearly twelve years in PLB (Park La Brea).  Going up the steps and into the mirrored lobby to visit my friend in a tower apartment and strolling past the succulents to the courtyard café to meet my other friend, I was tugged by the collected gentle, misty moments that I file under cozy mommy-land memories.   Of course, sentimental family memories are easy to tap by anyone and I am confident that my son’s own emotional spigot will flow like a river, if he should visit Park La Brea after my husband and I are gone.   Memories will be hard to resist for him, but for me it was the visit to Tomas’ memorial that accessed something bigger that I also hope is there in my son’s reservoir and that is the beauty and power of community. 

In 2002, my husband Charlie and I moved out of our huge apartment in the Hermoyne, one of the buildings built in the 1920s on Rossmore Avenue, that would almost be glamorous if not for its more celebrated neighbors, The El Royale and Ravenswood.  We left Rossmore and moved into a ground floor garden apartment in Park La Brea when our son was six months old.  I cannot lie that I felt the move took me down a notch in both square feet and specialness.  I had lived in the other apartment for ten years and took some silly pride when people visited and said, “Your place doesn’t feel like LA it is very NYC”.   But 1920’s buildings, with low windows, lose panache to a mother on the fifth floor when her baby starts to crawl.   Charlie and I feared the windows but we were not in the mood to do an intense search for a new apartment.   One day when our son was scooting with more and more determination, Charlie cut to the chase, “Let’s just call it a day and go to Park La Brea.”  I agreed and we landed in a garden apartment where we lived and thrived until 2013.   Even when we had the means to buy a place, we continued for years at PLB before finally purchasing our current home.   We stayed for a variety of reasons but  it is also hard to leave a shared backyard and a rich community life.    

Los Angeles Times (LAPL archives) January 3, 1949.    The launch of the towers.  

Park La Brea is a planned rental community within 160 acres in Miracle Mile, bordered by Fairfax Blvd (west) and Cochran Ave (east), 6th street (south) and 3rd street (north).  There are 10,000 residents who live in the low-and high-rise apartments in the PLB complex.   The history of the land that makes up Park La Brea speaks to the boom and bust of community cycles.   

Originally, like all of Los Angeles before the Spanish colonizers arrived, the PLB land was lived on by  Tongva-Kizh-Gabrielino  Native Americans.  The tar pits (just south of 6th) were important to the tribe villagers who would gather the sticky ooze and take it back to their community and use it for building materials and sealers for  boats.   No one village ‘owned’ the tar, it was a resource for all the people.   The pits served on some level for millennia as evidenced by the human remains found in 1914.  The La Brea Woman  was a young woman and is believed to be Native American.   She lived approximately 9,000 years ago and her controversial display at the Page Museum was removed in 2004.   Her skull has a fracture suggesting she died by a head blow which could mean that The La Brea woman, living her life fresh after the Ice Age, may be the first murder of Miracle Mile.   Besides the La Brea Woman, the other major remnant of Native American community in the PLB area is the foot trail that the Tongva took to the pits from both downtown and coast villages which is now Wilshire Blvd.   

Early 1900s.  Tar pool at the Hancock Ranch.  Oil derricks in background.  Security Pacific National Bank Collection/LAPL   

The arrival of the colonizers was destructive to the original inhabitants and their culture on so many levels, but the oozy tar (technically asphalt) continued to be a resource for the communities as it had been for the Native Americans during both Spanish and Mexican Los Angeles Eras.  In 1828, a Mexican Land Grant was awarded to Antonio Rocha, a young sailor, far from his home in Portugal who lived a full life in the early days of Los Angeles.  Rancho La Brea,  (Brea is the Spanish word for tar) included what is now Park La Brea.  While the huge rancho went to Rocha, in her book Los Angeles: Epic of a City, author Lynn Bowman notes that the power of community was important to the Mexican government who made clear that the tar on Rancho La Brea was to remain, “An inalienable right of the townspeople of Los Angeles.”    That free tar was used on the roof of many adobes as the town grew and prospered.  The ‘community first’ approach changed in the 1860’s after the Rocha family was sued by the United States, and they had to prove their ownership of the land.  They succeeded in court, but it left them broke and most of the rancho was sold to their lawyer Henry Hancock to pay their legal fees.   No longer in Mexico, the Rancho and tar became Henry Hancock’s private property and he engaged in the commercial industry of the asphalt.   After his death, Henry’s widow, Ida and his son George Hancock leased the mineral rights to a large oil company.   Oil wells covered what is now Park La Brea.  When I lived at PLB, I researched and found out that the closest capped oil well to our townhouse turned out to be about 500 feet from my front door ironically when we bought our home, I looked again and found a capped oil well even closer to our front door.   Such is life in an oil city.      

1920 Aerial View of Fairfax & Wilshire facing northeast.  Rogers Airport in view as well as oil fields covering modern day Park La Brea/The Grove and Hancock Park.  Diagonal railroad tracks is future San Vicente Blvd.    USC Digital Library Collection.  
Green space off PLB Curson Café.   June 2021. 

When peak oil production faded, George Hancock donated the tar pits to Los Angeles County (1939) which later built LACMA and Page Museums.  He also donated the large parcel that would become Park La Brea to USC.   In 1940, Metropolitan Life, the Insurance company, bought the land with the goal of building a large garden city complex of moderately priced apartments.   In 2019, CurbedLA published a long piece filled with lots of details about the vision and goals of Metropolitan Life and Leonard Schultz and Earl Heitzschmidt who designed the property on a French Baroque pattern.

  “This focus on serene, private outdoor spaces was one of the main tenants of the Garden City Movement, which was adapted by Southern California developers in the 1930s and ’40s.”     

The CurbedLA piece also focused on; the need for housing, the push back from the local homeowners and how the developers were able to continue construction during WWII (a rare event).   PLB was built in stages with garden townhouses opening first in 1943.   This was an era of redlining and exclusionary practices, so it is, sadly, no surprise that PLB was not open to all.  In the book To The Golden Cities: Pursuing The American Jewish Dream in Miami and L.A.  the author, Deborah Dash Moore writes, “Several Park La Brea buildings of the Metropolitan Life Insurance Project didn’t accept Jews.”   In the very small  Park La Brea blog,  the author (which may be a non de plume), Alston Edmonston, indicates the first Jewish PLB resident was accepted in 1944 through efforts by B’nai Brith. The blog also shares that the first African American resident did not rent a unit until 1963, twenty years after PLB opened.   Luckily there was an evolution of attitude because during our time at PLB, the neighbors on my block were Indian, Korean, Jewish, Latinx, African American, Catholic, Muslim, gay, straight, old, young, married, single, with and without children.   It was a robust community from all walks of life that grew even more inclusionary when PLB finally allowed tenants with dogs. 

Future Site of PLB.  Dick Whittington Studio. 1940.  USC online collection.  

My family experienced the green serenity that the designers planned, sixty years after they broke ground on PLB.   Our back door opened on to a huge, handsome lawn.  When I took our baby out onto a blanket, my neighbor told me we were the first family in the quad in years after a long era of older widows.   Soon after we arrived, more and more neighbors with children moved in.   In that shared yard, our children learned to walk, run, slip and slide, hang on the swing attached to the mature Ficus tree, lose balls in the bushes and play in everyone’s houses.   Our son was an only child and what he lacked in siblings he made up for with his Park La Brea village.   My son and his friends had cozy connections at our backyard table.  Playing board games, doing art or going with his nanny who would gather the kids for trips to the pool and across 6th street to play on the hill of the Page Museum or go inside it to look at the wooly mammoths and the saber tooth tigers that once were the community that roamed PLB.   Of course, there were also squabbles and hurt feelings that come with any village of children and parents, people no longer talking to one another and backdoors that used to be open, closed.   But with time, issues would usually smooth out or people would move, and new villagers would enter the community.   What makes PLB different than other neighborhoods is that the residents are not bound by culture, race, religion, career or economic standing which usually connects other communities or groups.   Paying the rental fee is the only common ground. However, the renter could have a high paying job, own property elsewhere, have a fat retirement savings, or maybe they are living on a fixed income and have a modest savings.  Or maybe they have a roommate or partner to share the rent.   They all have different means and different histories, but they value the connections in a shared environment.  In that space, care for others who don’t look like each other emerges.  “Let me help you.” “How did your appointment go?’  “I’m going to the market can I get you something?”   The oil was gone, the tar now fenced in a pit but the sticky ooze that connects one human to another flourished when we lived in Park La Brea and after my visit I confirmed it continues to flow.  

Jose Tomas Melia – Memorial PLB June, 2021.  

Jose Tomas Mejia joined the janitorial department in 2018, five years after we left PLB.   I did not know him, but I understood the community’s pain when Jose Tomas was killed.  By all reports he was loved by both members of his union (SEIU) and the PLB village, in particular Tower 33 where he worked.   His story of leaving El Salvador when he was 17 and eventually finding his way to California where he built his life from the ground up is like many immigrant stories in Los Angeles  including Rocha, who owned Rancho La Brea two hundred years earlier.   On the afternoon of June 16, while cleaning Tower 33, Jose Tomas was confronted by an angry young man who apparently wanted to harm someone he knew in one of the apartments.  The police believe the suspect wanted Jose Tomas’ keys.   Jose Tomas was stabbed multiple times and the 50-year-old husband and father was found in the stairwell on the 5th floor bleeding to death.    The suspect was arrested at his home outside of Park La Brea and his lawyers believe he may not be competent to stand trial.   I had plans to see my friend at one of the towers before Tomas’ death.  I was not surprised when I saw PLB residents choking back tears on the news.  I got it.  I went to see the memorial for Jose Tomas after I visited my friend. 

It took me a few minutes to get my baring.  I was never good about identifying each tower from another and in fact, the monotony of the towers and garden apartments is part of the criticism and why PLB is often dismissed by people.  It was one of my own hurdles that I would later realize was shallow.  I asked a worker in a golf cart for help, and she said I was heading in the right direction for Tower 33.   I was relieved that my inner compass still worked.   When I got to the corner, the summer sun was shining bright on the south facing steps and I saw no memorial, I walked around to the backside.   There in the shade of the building, under the trees, I found the memorial for Jose Tomas.  

Messages for Jose Tomas

A cloth draped on a table that held a framed photo of a smiling Jose Tomas.  The “Greatest Dad in the Universe” balloon fluttered behind another photo.  I read the handwritten notes, many said, “We love you and “We miss you.”   There was a poster with links to the Go Fund Me  asking people to help his family maintain the home Jose Tomas had recently purchased.    A white flower arrangement was on the table, I noticed a fallen vase on the ground with spilled flowers splayed on the grass.   As I bent down to put the flowers back in the vase, a door slammed.  

A woman in a uniform left the tower.  Was she working Jose Tomas’s shift now? Is there a janitorial dust rag that fixes a hurting heart?   A candle flickered behind the picture of a saint.   The Go Fund Me poster flapped in the breeze.   I thought about the PLB tenants who donated to protect the widow and children in their new house.  Many who will never own a home because they don’t have the means or don’t have the desire.  Would a house offer them community?   Tomas’ smile was youthful, I was angry, he died too young. His broad grin was the same as Abby’s, my son’s nanny who died in March at age 44 of a terrible cancer.   She was too young.   My friends from the PLB courtyard texted me when I told them the news, none of us still live in PLB but their kind notes of our shared time with Abby was a salve for my psyche trying to make sense of one more thing in an insane year that did not make sense, like the death of Jose Tomas.   A crow squawked.  I looked up, hoping to see the bird.  But he had flown off to join his crow community.   

I took one more look at the tender memorial put together by hands of a caring community.   The lavender fabric with the small candles reminded me of the ‘purple parties’ I threw every June for my son and his courtyard friends under the Jacaranda tree where everything we did was purple themed.  Painting, eating, drawing, it was all purple for no other purpose than to celebrate the trees that bloom for one short window.  Maybe we are all Jacarandas.   I had seen all I needed to see; it was time for me to go. 

As I walked back to my home, I thought about the Blue Zones where people live to be over 100.  Scientists know from researching these zones, that the three pillars of long lives are diet, exercise, and community.  What I learned about community in PLB still serves me today.   Successful communities are not free of problems or bumps but rather they provide a way to solve issues, soften roughness, celebrate each other’s successes all by connecting with others.   Patience, generosity of time and resources, looking for kindness even when it is hard, and discarding thin skins are some of the ways we invest in the connections that bridge us to other humans.   Community can be found and can be built upon, but it always needs nurturing.  Even if I moved a thousand miles away, I would look for and build that connection no matter where I lived.   I hope my son will remember his time in PLB and always find that tar, ooze and sticky that makes up community as he ventures forward in whatever is his Rancho Land.    

Jacaranda petals in PLB June 25, 2021 

Please donate to the Jose Tomas Go Fund Me, let’s all be a part of this kind community.

Tracy

8 Comments

  1. I love this, Tracy. Because I’ve lived in PLB for two years now I can attest to the accuracy of your storytelling and descriptive narrative!! You really nailed this place. And thank you for alerting folks to the GoFundMe for Tomas, who died a martyr and whose spirit is generating more and move love every day. I hope a lot of people donate. His family needs help. Love, Wendy

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    1. Thank you, WW. I am glad you liked the piece. I was happy to see some friends donated after I posted the piece and it has gone over 150k. Every dollar counts. xoxo

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  2. Wonderful article Tracey! My friend lived in one of the towers for years and I always loved to go visit. She had a wonderful sunset view. It always felt like a special community.

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    1. Thank you, Alyson. I am sure those west facing views were spectacular. I seemed to have friends with north west or north east views. One friend of mine lived at the top of one tower beautiful views and during the Northridge earthquake, her curio cabinet ‘walked’ to the center of her living room. Nothing broke in it. The towers are built on rollers.

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  3. Thank you for writing this. Park LaBrea was a labyrinth I avoided because I always seemed to get lost. It was nice to hear about its special community and history. Also heartbreaking to read about Jose Tomas and see his beautiful smile. I’m glad you honored him in this post.

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