At Occidental College, a Center to Study Los Angeles
By Scott Holleran
Los Angeles is the focus of new scholarship at LA’s Occidental College in Eagle Rock. Jeremiah Axelrod, founder of the Institute for the Study of Los Angeles (ISLA), was recently interviewed in the campus quad. Dr. Axelrod, an Occidental College Adjunct Professor of History, Art History, Urban & Environmental Studies, and Cultural Studies since 2005, previously taught film and history at University of California, Irvine, where the Southern California native received his Ph.D. in American History. Professor Axelrod is author of Inventing Autopia: Envisioning the Modern Metropolis in Jazz Age Los Angeles (University of California Press, 2009). He lives with his wife and twin daughters in Pasadena.
Scott Holleran: What was the impetus for the Institute for the Study of Los Angeles?
Jeremiah Axelrod: Initially, sharing knowledge within Occidental College. At some point, it occurred to me that we need to share resources and connect [with the community]. As I was doing projects through Occidental College’s special collections library with community partners, such as Highland Park Heritage Trust and Eagle Rock Valley Historical Society and Lummis Day Community Foundation, they kept making more connections and collaborations, so I found that there’s this rich network, which I thought should be shared and focused.
Scott Holleran: Is the institute a non-profit organization?
Jeremiah Axelrod: No. It’s part of Occidental College under the umbrella of the history department.
Scott Holleran: Will there be an emphasis on Occidental College and its alumni, such as President Obama, Brazil director Terry Gilliam and the late Congressman Jack Kemp, and recent news, such as the attack on the 9/11 flag display?
Jeremiah Axelrod: Absolutely. All those topics are fair game. There’s also an attempt to become an important catalyst for discussion about LA. We had a conference on arts and gentrification, for instance, which was controversial. We’ve been working with the Historical Society of Southern California, which has been been around since the 1880s. Our mission is to bridge the gap between students and community members over our shared heritage with a focus on northeast Los Angeles.
Scott Holleran: Is controversy part of legitimate collegiate discourse?
Jeremiah Axelrod: One would think, but we’re in such a polarized era. I would like to see discussion instead of falling back on being in a bubble. But we do hope to get people who disagree with each other into a conversation.
Scott Holleran: What’s your background?
Jeremiah Axelrod: My family came to Los Angeles in the 1920s and lived in Boyle Heights, kept there by restrictive covenants because we’re Jewish. My grandfather came from Montgomery, Alabama. Compared to Alabama with the Ku Klux Klan, which drove [my ancestors] out of Montgomery, Los Angeles was the promised land. After World War 2, it became easier for us to move to other places in LA, east and west. I think everyone should understand that, at different times, different groups have been in different power relationships and there isn’t only one way that this place works. Los Angeles was a far more unjust place 30 years ago, let alone 70 years ago, so why is Los Angeles better [now]? Is it progress? Yes, because people made alliances and fought and made it better. Let’s not forget that. We get so dispirited if we just constantly criticize and don’t think. It goes back to discourse that’s only bemoaning instead of also celebrating.
Scott Holleran: What do you love about Los Angeles?
Jeremiah Axelrod: There’s so much I love about Los Angeles. The things I loved about Los Angeles in one part of my life were different later on. For instance, when you first learn to drive when you’re sixteen, the freeways are liberating. You can get out into the world. Then, when you’re older, and you’re commuting on those freeways, they don’t seem so liberating. Now, I have young children and, suddenly, I am interested in parks in a way that I hadn’t been.
Scott Holleran: What are the top five things to do and/or see in LA?
Jeremiah Axelrod: The Watts towers because they’re a work of art and also a multi-ethnic community expression by an Italian immigrant who gave the property to a Mexican American neighbor in an African-American community. Los Angeles has always had this multi-ethnic [aspect] and an ability to look beyond race to find fellowship. Disneyland because it’s a [kind of] representation of LA. If you look at the Midwesterners starting in LA in the 1920s—Henry Huntington, Charles F. Lummis, Walt Disney, who was born in Chicago and came from Marceline [Kansas]—it’s Main Street, USA. Lummis walked to Los Angeles in 1884 and became the first city editor of the LA Times—he basically wrote the LA Times for a couple of years—and he helped establish Southern California as this booster destination—the land of sunshine out West. In 1898, he decided—with this nice house in what’s now Jefferson Park near USC—that he really loved the Arroyo because it was the frontier version of LA that he first experienced when he came here, so he bought a chunk of land and started to build a house by hand. So he built the house out of the rocks of the Arroyo Seco, which is an actual river, though we call it seco, it floods and brings boulders down from the San Gabriel Mountains. Lummis built this house from what I think is the best embodiment of the arts and crafts—or Craftsman—style which was all about doing it yourself. So it’s handmade. And so much of [the] Southern California [ethos] is that self-reliance and individualism. It’s part of this tapestry that can transcend but also represent heritage. The observation deck of City Hall, which people don’t go to often enough—you get to see the transformation of downtown Los Angeles, you get a sense of the ambitions of Los Angeles—and it’s very paired with Union Station. For so many years City Hall was by law the only skyscraper in Los Angeles—it was supposed to be—it was in the late 1950s that they struck that [law] down. And I would add the beautiful nature and hiking spots.
Scott Holleran: What is an unknown fact about northeast LA?
Jeremiah Axelrod: Eagle Rock was a city of its own. Or look at Highland Park, which was also its own city and drew upon the [Christian] temperance movement. They were concerned about honky tonks in Sycamore Grove.
Scott Holleran: They were Puritanical in Highland Park?
Jeremiah Axelrod: They weren’t Puritanical enough. These Iowans had come [to northeast LA] and couldn’t remake Highland Park’s culture, so they decided to get annexed by LA. Then, part of the deal was to tear down all the roadhouses in Sycamore Grove and turn them into a park, which, of course, was done and then we ran a freeway through it. So the park is hard to see but it’s still there in various ways. John Philip Sousa played in the band shell therehe was a regular—and it was a kind of lawless place. In order to get rid of all that fun, they incorporated. A similar thing happened in Venice with a fight over whether to allow dancing on Sundays. Eagle Rock is particularly interesting because it was saved by activists. You know, the 134 [freeway] was going to go right down Colorado Boulevard. Think about what that would have done to Glendale and Eagle Rock. The folks here got the hillside [freeway] route built. If you’ve ever wondered why the exit where Figueroa and Colorado come together is this four-lane exit, that’s why—the freeway was just going to go down Colorado Boulevard.
Scott Holleran: Is it true that Occidental College was founded by Presbyterians?
Jeremiah Axelrod: Yes. It was originally in Boyle Heights. Then, it burned down and moved to Highland Park. The campus there was too cramped—they had a rail line going right through it—they had to pause classes for the trains—until a real estate developer said ‘bring your campus to this new Eagle Rock subdivision and we will give you the land’ and Occidental College came and built bungalows and a college at the intersection of two streetcar lines.