Waitin’ for the train, yeah
Take me, yeah, from this lonesome place
“you have rented space in the imagination of the city”
-- Joseph Giovannini, Architect
Preface: Why is it that every LA story seems to have a seamy side? OK, I have to admit that’s part of the charm of this city. Maybe a seamy side of New York or Chicago is just so…expected. But something about the image conscious city, the glitterati, the posing and the California dream (one of plentiful orange groves, palm trees, bikini clad babes and idyllic beaches)…is the perfect setup. All is not as it seems. It seems appropriate to quote Jack Nicholson playing Jake Gittes in Chinatown here "You may think you know what you're dealing with, but believe me, you don't." Noah Cross (John Huston), 1974
Foreword: The ink is not yet dry on my post on the recent demise of the South Central Farmer’s Garden, when another chapter of LA History (featuring doomed gardens) has captured my imagination. Oddly enough the Annenberg Foundation features a role in both garden stories. This story is one about corn…or at least I thought it was about corn when I started to write. I now know it is a story about politics, prejudice, perseverance, and …the railroad.
Beginnings: The story begins a long time ago in a far away place. It was San Francisco in 1870. Southern Pacific was going to build a railroad and they needed cheap labor. Enter the Chinese immigrant. They came by the 100’s and then by the 1000’s and they laid track and they built that railroad and they didn’t stop until they reached Los Angeles. And when they were done, tired and broken, the idea of a return passage to the old country was a cost prohibitive dream. So what did they do? Well, the ones who could farm leased land and grew vegetables, and those who could not, set up shop. Those shops ran the gambit from mysterious apothecaries to illicit dens of opium.
And so was the birth of the first Los Angeles Chinatown. By 1890, a community of 3,000 Chinese lived in a 15 block neighborhood with over 200 businesses.
It began with a train and it was to end with a train although that was to be some sixty years later. It was 1933 when the demolition began. Southern Pacific railroad had brought them there and now it was Union Pacific that wanted them out. So eager were they to begin construction of what was to become Union Station, that they actually began the demolition a week before the City Council approved the action.
The story of where the people went is at least a book chapter in itself. A story well told by Lisa See in her book “On Gold Mountain”. The short version (so that we can get on to the corn) is that a new Chinatown was established in it’s present day location, in 1938.
The Present: this is not a cornfield?
First there is a mountain, then
there is no mountain, then there is
---There is a Mountain, Donovan
In May, 2006 I moved into my new place in Lincoln Heights. On arrival, I complained about the neighborhood, the gangs, the graffiti, the dirty sidewalks. Fearing I was missing something very special, my visionary landlord (and favorite architect), wrote to me:
“I see the area as a jambalaya of industrial, residential and commercial properties with a mixture of communities (Chinese, Hispanic and artist/gentry), and urbanistically, as the junction of the Arroyo and LA River (and therefore the oldest settled part of LA, occupied for millennia by the Indians), and the birthplace of modern LA, because of the railroads”. He continued:
“I actually prefer this grit to suburbia…I don't see the area for the stereotypes but for the infrastructure because it has the depth of history and the making of diversity.”And the truth was that as I looked more closely…I did become captivated with my neighborhood. Every day I drive across a bridge over the Los Angeles River, past old railroad yards. To my left, an old warehouse just purchased by a local nonprofit and now adorned with bright green and yellow leaves, and to my right an… old … ugly … patch of land. Or is it? (Look closely Pamela).
Sometimes it is hard to hear the whispers of history when looking at something as bleak as 32 desolate acres of mud, gravel and weeds. And maybe I wouldn’t have listened…if it weren’t for the artistic inspiration of Lauren Bon. Looking at that same land, where I saw an ugly strip of dirt, somehow, Lauren conceived of something quite different…She envisioned corn…and a lot of it. And she turned that vision into a reality, first forming a limited corporation, NotaCornfield, LLC., then garnering a grant from the Annenberg Foundation (okay it probably doesn’t hurt that she was an Annenberg granddaughter and a trustee of that foundation), but funding opportunities aside, this artist brought the necessary public attention to the land that would herald the ground breaking of what will soon be an urban park.
My father took this shot of the Los Angeles skyline when we walked through the corn last August:
I don’t know if I can describe her project…I mean… it IS a cornfield, it’s NOT a cornfield, it’s a “living sculpture”, it’s a “potent metaphor”, it’s “land art” blah blah blah. Maybe I’d better let Lauren (or her web writer) say it:
Extending environmentally, socially, and spiritually engaged art practices of the late twentieth century into the specific circumstances of contemporary Los Angeles, Not A Cornfield operates in a controversial arena where still-cherished assumptions regarding the nature of art as a pursuit devoid of practical or social goals, and of the artist as a singular, disconnected, image-maker, are being powerfully challenged. To cite the writer Gablik, this is an arena where artists are performing a "new interpretation of the relationship between artist and society, based on a sense of ethical responsibility toward the social and environmental communities."Huh? Okay, I admit it, I picked that quote on purpose. Let’s try an easier one, this from the site as well:
a transformation of a 32 acre industrial brownfield in the historic center of Los Angeles into a cornfield for one agricultural cycle. This temporary project is located just North of Chinatown and South of Lincoln Heights on a large stretch of land well known as “The Cornfield."Had enough? Alright, now I’ve given her version. Here’s mine: 32 acres of corn was planted, allowed to grow up, opened to the community for artistic endeavors and then cut down (not eaten because the ground is contaminated) and recycled (don’t know what they made out of all that corn but I’m sure you can find out on their website). I have to admit that despite my skepticism, all that corn did make an impression.
But hold on, about that space for community artists…The project was advertised as “open” to community artists. At least that’s what Aaron Landy thought when he showed up to film “a dancer in a colorful, flowing gown near a row of cornstalks”.
Leave it to Angelinos, they can’t resist a good pun…or a really bad one for that matter. So it wasn’t too surprising when LA Times staff writer Bob Pool went cornball, by starting his coverage on the Aaron Landy scandal with the following line: “It was an accusation of porn in the corn that aroused Aaron Landy's scorn.”. I don’t know if he wrote the matching title, or if we can blame that one on the editor, but the headline read: “Porn Talk Stalks L.A. Art Project”. Stalks? Get it? (Rim shot) Maybe we’ll never know if Aaron was clandestinely shooting pornographic films as alleged, or just a misunderstood artist with every right to be there (as he alleged). I can live with that.
Was it after that incident that they put up the “Corn Cam”? Probably not, it was probably just someone trying to make the security camera part of the art project, or maybe part of the web cam that let web users watch the corn grow? How high is it today I wonder? As high as an elephant’s eye?
Art Imitates Life: This wasn’t the first time an article ran on the illustrious topic of porn and corn! On November 1, 1991 “Lawmakers from Western states abandoned Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) in droves Thursday, accepting a "corn for porn" deal that preserves grazing subsidies in exchange for keeping new anti-obscenity restrictions off federal arts grants”. Do you think Lauren might have known about that? A deal that swapped corn to save the arts? You never know do you?
 Los Angeles Chinatown Business Council Official Website
 On Gold Mountain: The 100-Year Odyssey of a Chinese-American Family, 1995 Lisa See
 Private correspondence, Joseph Giovannini
 Porn Talk Stalks L.A. Art Project Managers of a temporary cornfield say a filmmaker was shooting adult films on the site. He denies the charge.By Bob Pool, Times Staff Writer, November 15, 2005, LA Times