Sunday, July 21, 2013

California Research Adventure: Day 19

My California saga continues...

Day 19: Downtown Los Angeles

On the first day of my first weekend in Los Angeles County, I decided to take an early Metro into town (that is, downtown L.A.) from Pasadena. The train trip takes about 40 minutes from my part of Pasadena to downtown Los Angeles. I made my arrival at about nine in the morning on a Saturday, and began my adventure just a few blocks away from Union Station at the old Pueblo de Los Angeles.

View of the 1939 Union Station from the porch of the 1818 Avila Adobe in El Pueblo de Los Angeles

As any good historical tour of a city should, I began at the chronological beginning, in the Pueblo where the settlement of L.A. began in the late 18th century. But the oldest thing that still remains here—except, perhaps, for the plaza itself—is Avila Adobe, built in 1818.

Avila Adobe in El Pueblo de Los Angeles

In the courtyard of the Avila Adobe... just an old Spanish house in what is now Los Angeles. We saw much more impressive Spanish colonial homes in Peru, so, comparatively, this is nothing special. But I guess California was something of a frontier at the time, and people didn't live in the same luxury as they did in Peru.

Inside the Avila family home

I looked for signs of Hawaiian history here at Avila Adobe, and I didn't find much, one of the rooms was a big pile of cow hides. The interpretive material at the casa said that the rooms were decorated circa 1840-style...during the Mexican, not Spanish, period. And this was also the period of the famous "hide and tallow" trade along the coast of Mexican Alta California. We know that at least some Hawaiian migrant workers labored in this trade, skinning and cleaning cattle hides. The presence of these cow hides in Avila Adobe then paint a picture of El Pueblo de Los Angeles's connections with transoceanic trade, despite being a good ten miles or so inland from the ocean. These hides would have been sent down to the coast and onto foreign ships headed for Boston or New York. And it is possible that Hawaiian seamen handled these hides. It's all within the realm of possibility: a little Hawaiian labor history, perhaps, right here in the Avila Adobe.
Cattle hides—"California bank notes," as they were called—piled up in the Avila Adobe, El Pueblo de Los Angeles

When you step out of the Avila Adobe, you're on Olvera Street, which at least since the 1930s has been stylized as a sort of Mexican marketplace. I got a few chocolate-filled churros for my breakfast. Can you blame me?

Olvera Street in El Pueblo de Los Angeles

Across the plaza from this bustling marketplace (or, tourist trap, if you will) lies La Placita, the oldest church in Los Angeles, dating back to 1822 (which puts it right on the edge of the transition from Spanish California to Mexican California).
La Placita, in El Pueblo de Los Angeles

I did not enter the church. As you can see in the photograph above, there was a wedding taking place, and while some tourists intruded, I did not feel comfortable doing that. Instead, I walked around back and found some interesting interpretive panels about the old cemetery that used to be next to the church. Normally this wouldn't interest me much, except that just the past week I had been playing around with the Huntington Library's Early California Population Project Database, and I have (so far) found evidence of at least twenty Hawaiians who made contact with the Spanish missions during this period. I did not find any Hawaiians who interacted with the Catholic Church right here in Los Angeles, but elsewhere Hawaiians were baptized and some even buried in mission cemeteries across Alta California. So, while it may be a long shot that there are any Hawaiians here in this cemetery, it is not out of the question. On this point, it is important to note that when L.A. was founded in the late 18th century, apparently the forty or so people who founded El Pueblo were of Spanish, African, and Indian ancestry... a mixed bag. L.A. has always been ethnically diverse.

The cemetery at La Placita, in El Pueblo de Los Angeles

The back side of La Placita

At this point, even the churros could not satiate my hunger, so I wandered off from El Pueblo to the new downtown. The city hasn't shifted too much since the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. City Hall is now just a few blocks away from the old Spanish plaza, but the center of skyscrapers—the financial district—is a good mile away. But I began to wander.
Walking near City Hall I came across a Justice for Trayvon Martin demonstration.

Justice for Trayvon Martin demonstration, downtown Los Angeles

Then I continued wandering into Little Toyko. There I found what I was looking for: the Aloha Cafe. A little bit of Hawaiian cuisine right here in the heart of L.A.!
Tuna poke and mac salad. ʻOno, just like in Hawaiʻi nei. 

After lunch I then wandered into the financial district... heading towards the Metro stop at 7th Street, with a little help from the Angels Flight.

Angels Flight. Perhaps one of the shortest railways in the world. It travels just a little over 300 feet in each direction, transporting folks up and down one small hill in downtown L.A. With my Metro card it cost just 25 cents to ride.

After getting back on the Metro, my next step for the afternoon was Exposition Park

Entryway to Exposition Park, Los Angeles

The park apparently began in the late 19th century as an agricultural fairground, then in the early 20th century took on new character as a bunch of museums and gardens were put there, and then in the 1930s the Expo Grounds were host to the Olympic Games. My first stop was the Los Angeles County Natural History Museum.

The original facade of the Los Angeles County Historical and Art Museum (1913). But at some point the Art Museum split off... (more on that in Day coming soon)... so now it is just a history and science museum.

Inside the museum I began with an exhibit titled "Becoming L.A." Interestingly, it presented a sort of environmental history of Los Angeles. And by linking L.A.'s natural history with its human history, it did what few Natural History Museums do very well, which is talk about humans in a way that treats both history and nature as dynamic, unstable, and contingent forces. I thought this was a great exhibit, and I wish the stuffy old American Museum of Natural History in New York City would do the same and put together a "Becoming N.Y.C." exhibit, linking the nature of New York City with its human history.

For example, the exhibit began with a few objects of the Chumash people, explaining their use of natural resources in the Channel Islands...

Chumash material culture

Similarly, the room dedicated to the Mexican Period (1821-1848) focused on the role of cattle ranching in not only changing Alta California's orientation towards transoceanic trade, but also disrupting ecological relationships in the countryside and fundamentally altering the lives of California's Indians.

A Corriente breed... apparently the kind that was most common in Mexican Alta California. When we imagine Hawaiian migrant workers interacting with California cattle, this is the kind of cow we should imagine.

Other aspects of the "Becoming L.A." exhibit did not really bring nature into history. But a few other objects were fascinating enough to catch my eye:
A sword used during the Mexican War of Independence (date on sword says 1813). It says on the blade: "Death to Spain, Long Live Guerrero." Very cool.

A Mexican-era table (sewing table?) imported from China. Evidence of trans-Pacific trade in Mexican Alta California.

 I just love the way these rifles were exhibited. Two rifles used during the Mexican-American War (1846-1848), pointing at each other with the word "War" in the middle. This design clearly draws the visitor inward, engendering a curiosity—"What War?"—that is much needed, being as it is that so many Americans know nothing about the Mexican-American War!

Finally, I found objects that directly related to Hawaiian labor history: hide scrapers.
Vaquero technologies, including hide scrapers (see center right) used for scraping the "grease" off of cowhides. Go back and re-read Richard Henry Dana, Jr.'s Two Years Before the Mast. He describes the process of "grease scraping" beautifully, and he explains how Hawaiian workers engaged in this labor.

And of course, it is not a visit to any Natural History Museum without seabirds. And I did find some. And not only seabirds, but sea otters, too! That makes two important 19th-century industries that involved Hawaiian labor: the trans-Pacific fur trade and guano mining.
An imaginary scene along the coast of California: gulls, guano (all that white stuff), and two playful sea otters in a kelp forest.

 And here, more of an equatorial Pacific Island scene, with two albatrosses, two frigatebirds, and, flying above, a tropicbird.

Well, if that isn't enough, I also made my way to the California Science Center, another museum just next door to the Natural History Museum.

Entrance to the California Science Center, Exposition Park, Los Angeles

There were two things of note here, and if not for these two things I might have gone mad, for there were thousands of screaming, obnoxious children running through the museum the whole time I was there. And children never look which way they are running, either, so I kept tripping over them. The Science Center, unlike the Natural History Museum, seems to believe that the way to make science interesting is to make everything hands-on. I, however, feel that children will learn a lot more at the Natural History Museum by just looking at inanimate objects and using their imaginations rather than what goes on at the Science Center where they run, hit, slap, throw, bounce, and otherwise violently interact with objects while their brains do absolutely nothing.
Redeeming quality #1: The U.S. spaceship Endeavour. It really was pretty amazing to see this object close-up, although first we had to sit through a mandatory video introducing us to the object which consisted of heart-wrenching music and patriotic flag waving and images of proud Americans crying. I couldn't quite understand why we should feel so emotional about this object. I mean, it's not the Cold War anymore, so what does this object even mean anymore today?

 Redeeming quality #2: The aquarium. Just nice to sit and watch the animals in the tank, and to watch the animals watching the animals in the tank.

This was followed by a visit to the center's IMAX theater. (I have no photographs because it is not nice to take photographs inside an IMAX theater.) Then I took the Metro back downtown and had udon soup and hot sake at a nice little restaurant in Little Tokyo. From there, back on the Metro to Pasadena, and I was in bed by 9 p.m. :)

Next up, Day 20 (a visit to the neighborhood known as Mid-City)...

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