Below the Majestical Roof

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Out last-minute Christmas shopping with my daughter Julia, tired of the chains, we headed for one of the last independent experiences to be had in Old Pasadena, the entrancing The Majestical Roof, where everything is handmade.

One way to get into the tucked-away place is through an entrance just below the southeast corner of Holly and Fair Oaks.

That’s co-owner Yvonne Russo, above, standing below the coolest public-art project I’ve seen in a long time, hundreds of magnifying glasses hanging on monofilament from a high trellis, as hung by Pasadena artist Dave Lovejoy (www.lovejoyart.com) in a project that received a generous grant from the Pasadena Cultural Affairs Division.

Check it out!

The alleyway back there is set to start swinging with a new bar to replace McMurphy’s, the traditional grandness of the Old Towne Pub and more little shops and local rather than franchised experiences …

The Wednesday column on public art

When it comes to art, only one thing matters: Is it any good? (More matters than that — way more. But they are quibbles, either major or minor, and I’ll get to them.) Style doesn’t matter — I can, and do, revere a Chris Burden conceptual piece in which he sits on a wooden ladder in a pool of water filled with live electrical wires, as much as that lovely visiting Vermeer in the Norton Simon. Period doesn’t matter — if you only like contemporary art, or only like Impressionist art, or only like 15th-century Burmese carvings, you don’t like art: You just have a fetish. Beauty, creepiness, good taste, perversity — none of these things matter, or, they don’t matter when it comes to whether art is any good.

And sometimes there can be a style of art one can appreciate the skill involved in, but never really love.

In the matter of the public art proposed for the front entrances of the new and greatly improved Pasadena Convention Center surrounding the properly hallowed Civic Auditorium on East Green Street, it is, as always, a matter of the art first, quibbles next.
Except that in the matter of sculptural pieces in a public plaza — “plop art” is the derogatory generic term — quibbles can be deal-killers.
All three artists selected by an Arts & Culture Commission panel have impeccable reputations in their fields. Light-and-sound artist Hans Peter Kuhn makes work of mystery and beauty; Dennis Oppenheim was a major figure in early earthworks and later conceptual art; the L.A. muralist/graffiti artist known as Man One is huge.

As to their proposals: Kuhn’s proposed kinetic sculpture of waving stalks of light would be gorgeous and ethereal. Oppenheim’s “Thinking Caps,” a humongous fedora, sun hat and baseball cap, is unspeakably ill-conceived, tacky in its rendering, derivative in style and not worthy of the site. (This from someone who loved much of his early work, especially “Reading Position for a Second Degree Burn.”) As to One’s mural: well, it would be inside, which is a good thing for me, at least, an appreciator of graffiti-style skill but not an aficionado.

Thus the art; now the big quibbles. The critics are entirely right about the need to protect the sight lines in front of the Civic. We spent decades fighting the godawful Plaza Pasadena and its blocking of the carefully planned view axis between the Central Library and the auditorium. For decades as well the lousy Brutalist-style bunkers flanking the Civic for meeting rooms were embarrassing neighbors to Cyril Bennett’s timeless Italianate monument. At long last, Fentress Bradburn Architects’ new flanking buildings are both contextual and very fine. Now we want bad 30-foot hats in the way? We do not. No, they’re not smack in the middle of the axis; still, the arguments of those who want massive public art not to block classic views need to be heard. This isn’t a fight between philistines and the high-minded, or one about style; it’s about guaranteeing that the great art and great architecture we deserve respect each other instead of working at cross-purposes.

Charging admission at the Huntington

In my Sunday column about the “Beauty of Science” exhibit at the Huntington Library, I made an offhand comment about attendance being strong at the San Marino bastion of Anglophilia and high culture despite the recession and despite its several years ago instituting an admissions charge, which I called a “formerly controversial decision.”

An old friend begs to disagree. As he wrote me without giving permission to use his name with his comments, I won’t, for now. If he writes back and gives me the OK, I’ll do an update, as I prefer unanonymous commentary. His side of the story:

“As far as I am concerned, it is still controversial that the Huntington charges admission.

“The trust language required admission to be free.

“Go ahead and ask the Huntington to send you a copy of the original trust. They won’t do it.

“That is not exactly the story of transparency that renders the issue ‘formerly’ controversial.

“I have learned that admission is about 15 percent of Huntington revenues. Important, but not make or break. They have been building and enlarging for years at the Huntington, while keeping the public out through exorbitant admission fees. Do you get a whiff of empire building, rather than public service?”

Isaac: Back in town

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I had heard late Tuesday night that Isaac Abdul Haqq had made an appearance at the Arroyo Seco Foundation’s awards gathering at La Casita del Arroyo.

Better known to Pasadenans as Councilman Isaac Richard before his conversion to Islam, Isaac was last in the news a few months ago when University Preparatory Charter School in Oakland, where he was the executive director, got into trouble after reports of alterations on standardized tests after students turned them in.

Because we had always — well, almost always — had a cordial relationship through the thick and thin of his fascinatingly tumultuous Pasadena years, he talked to me during that time, when the San Francisco Chronicle and the Oakland Tribune were accusing him of cooking the books.

He told me for our stories that the erasures were made by a consultant who got paid more when the school’s API scores were higher.

In any case, the school is closed now.

When our land line rang at home Wednesday morning, I handed the instrument to Phoebe, since that number is never for me. So I didn’t have the pleasure of hearing Isaac say what he has always said when I’ve picked up over the past almost two decades: “WILSON!”

He invited me out to lunch — Mi Piace, naturally, his longtime favorite haunt. He picked a place at the back of the room, he said, so I wouldn’t get caught in the crossfire if there were a drive-by. It’s been so long since he was out in public here that I can’t imagine what Old Pas property owner Jim Plotkin, Fire Department PIO Lisa Derderian and any others who recognized him thought — except you know that they were reporting the sighting back at their offices with glee. Isaac — brilliant, iconoclastic, and formerly way, way over the top — excites that kind of talk.

Except that now he has taken on a calm as profound as a ship stuck in the doldrums on the Sargasso Sea. As you can see in the picture above, in his chalk-stripe bespoke suit and fedora, he’s never looked better. He was down south here taking his high-school aged older son to a baseball camp at UCLA. He’s running a business that helps college students stay in school and an employment agency in Los Angeles, so that he gets down to these parts more often than he has since his years on the council

No more drinking, no more drugs — thanks to Islam, he says. He reads the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times and has some entrepreneurial musings about the future of the Internet and journalism’s place in it. He started out as a journo at PCC before heading to Pitzer and a Columbia business degree — “Black Panther with an MBA” was his motto.

Tumultuous for the city and its staff, those were the best of times for the newspaper –larger than life makes for good copy. In the aftermath of all that, it’s a pleasure to see Isaac as a survivor.

The trouble with a post office moving on

Pasadena has had its postal issues in recent years.

I ranted and railed, as did others, when the “Pasadena” frank disappeared from our mail after well over a century. Now everything we send is franked “Santa Clarita,” ’cause that’s where everything goes, even if you’re mailing a postcard across the street.

It was a sentimental plea, and it’s true that I’m against all things Santa Clarita; in any case, I didn’t succeed in saving “Pasadena.”

The move was in the interest of efficiency, same as having a Fed Ex package go through a regional hub even if that place seems far away, I suppose.

And I suppose that the press release from the USPS that led to our front-page story of today about the East Pasadena post office moving to a smaller facility several blocks down Colorado from its current location next month is right: The downturn in the economy is affecting the P.O. the same as everyone else.

Fewer pieces of mail are moving. That’s why lots of blue boxes on corners are either disappearing or having pickup hours cut back as well.

But, while many of you digiterati may pay your bills electronically and never need a stamp or a place to put an envelope that needs to get out by 3, I go to post offices all the time.

Well, I go to the one down the block from our Pasadena office, the Catalina branch, all the time. After many years, I know when to go in and not find a line. (Hint: Skip the entire month of December.) I know all the people behind the counter there. Real nice folks.

I went into a downtown Covina post office recently, and it was a mistake — long line of people mailing big things to Central America. But the service as usual in recent years was fine — one clerk came and worked the line to see if there were people doing simple things she could help them with.

But I am informed that there are complex federal regulations that have been in place for a decade governing steps that have to be taken before the USPS can just up and move from one place to another. And I have pasted those regulations below for all to see, if you’re interested.

Unless I’m mistaken and those regulations apply only to a city or area’s main post office, and not to anything that might be considered a branch office, then the postal service is doing this all wrong. It’s moving with just over a month’s notice to the public, and it’s not
getting local high officials involved or holding anything like a hearing. If you’re interested, you can judge for yourself if I’m right. If you’re someone from the P.O., and you think I’m wrong, please let me know in what way I’m wrong.

The following is an excerpt from the federal policy on P.O.s:

FACILITY RELOCATION REGULATIONS

39 CFR Part 241
Expansion, Relocation, Construction of New Post Offices

241.4 EXPANSION, RELOCATION, AND CONSTRUCTION OF POST OFFICES

(a) Application.

(1)This section applies when the USPS contemplates any one of the following projects with respect to a customer service facility: expansion, relocation to another existing building, or new construction, except when the project is to meet an emergency requirement or for temporary use. Emergency situations include, but are not limited to, earthquakes, floods, fire, lease terminations, safety factors, environmental causes, or any other actions that would force an immediate relocation from an existing facility. Temporary relocation of space is used for, but not limited to, holidays, special events, or for overflow business. Use of emergency and temporary space will be limited to 180 days in duration. Any additional incremental time periods of up to 180 days each must be approved by the Vice President, Facilities.

(snip)

(b) Purpose.

The purpose of the procedures required by this section is to assure increased opportunities for members of the communities who may be affected by certain USPS facility projects, along with local officials, to convey their views concerning the contemplated project and have them considered prior to any final decision to expand, relocate to another existing building, or construct a new building that is owned or leased.

(c) Expansion, relocation, new construction.

When a need is identified that will require the expansion, relocation, or new construction of a customer service facility, postal representatives responsible for the project will take the following steps in accordance with the time schedule shown:

(1) Personally visit one or more of the highest ranking local public officials (generally individuals holding elective office). During the visit, the postal representatives will –

(i) Identify the need and fully describe the project that is under consideration to meet it, explain the process by which the Postal Service will solicit and consider input from the affected community, and solicit a working partnership with the community officials for the success of the project.

(ii) emphasize that in meeting a need for increased space, the first priority is to expand the existing facility; the second priority is to find an existing building in the same area as the current facility; and the third option is to build on a new site; all within the downtown area, if possible.

(iii) ask that a Postal Service presentation of the project be placed on the regular agenda of a public meeting or hearing. If no such meeting is planned within the next 60 days or the agenda of a planned meeting cannot accommodate the project, the USPS will schedule its own public hearing concerning the project, and will advertise the meeting or hearing in a local general circulation newspaper.

(iv) give the local officials a letter describing the intended project.

(2) Notify the lessor of the affected facility of the project, in writing.

(3) Send an initial news release to local communications media.

(4) (i) Post in the public lobby of the affected post offices a copy of the letter given to local officials, or the news release, or, space permitting, both. If such information is available at the time, include in the posting a public notice of the date, time, and location of a public meeting or hearing at least 7 days prior to the meeting or hearing.

(ii) Except as provided in this paragraph, attend, or conduct, one or more public hearings to describe the project to the community, invite questions, solicit written comment, and describe the process by which community input will be considered. If it is believed at the time that the existing facility is not able to be expanded or that expansion is impracticable, disclose that fact and the reasons supporting that belief. If, during the public meeting or hearing process, a new development should occur to allow for an expansion of the existing facility, the Postal Service will make a good faith effort in pursuing this alternative. Under exceptional circumstances that would prevent postal representatives from attending a public meeting or conducting a postal hearing on the planned project within a reasonable time, and subject to approval of the Vice President, Facilities, the Postal Service may distribute a notification card to all affected customers, seeking their comments or other feedback. An example of exceptional circumstances would be a project in a sparsely populated area remote from the seat of local government or any forum where a postal conducted meeting could be held.

(iii) At any public meeting or hearing, advise local officials and the community of their appeal rights and the process by which an appeal can be made. Information provided must include time limitations and an address for the appeal.

(5) Review comments and notify local officials of decision. Not less than 15 days after the date of the most recent public meeting, or after receipt of notification cards, make a decision that takes into account community input and is consistent with postal objectives (e.g., expansion, relocation to another building, or construction of a new owned or leased facility), and notify local officials in writing. This notification must include information on the availability and terms of review under paragraph (c)(6) of this section. At the same time, post a copy of the notification letter in the local post office for the community. Take no action on the decision for at least 30 days following notification of local officials and the community.

(6) Within the time period identified in paragraph (c)(5) of this section, any person may request in writing that the decision be reviewed by the Vice President, Facilities, at Postal Service Headquarters. No particular format is required for requesting review, but the request must be in writing and identify the post office or location affected; and should identify the decision objected to, and state the reasons for the objection. The Vice President, Facilities, will obtain the views of the decision maker, review relevant parts of the project file, and if necessary request more information from the appellant. Upon review of the facts, the Vice President, or a representative, will issue a written determination, if possible, within 15 days. In no event will the Postal Service take action on the decision being reviewed until 15 days following issuance of the final review determination. If the determination on review is to set aside the decision, the project process will return to the public hearing stage of paragraph (c)(4) of this section.

(7) Advertise for sites and existing buildings, in accordance with existing postal procedures.

Trashing Brookside

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Tens of thousands of the 90,000-plus fans who came to the UCLA-USC game Saturday at the Rose Bowl tailgated before (and after) on the Brookside Golf Course fairways. Usually, a contracted crew of dozens of guys shows up to clean up the detritus and literally vacuum the course so that golfers can play at first light Sunday.

This time, they failed to show.

Sunday, all 36 fairways were covered in an incredible mound of trash — this blurry Heineken bottle one instance of it. Sunday night when I walked by after dark, a few guys were out picking up the trash. But all day Sunday, perservering golfers played through, as it were. One told me his Titleist ended up in a can of bean dip, and rather than fish it out of the gunk, he just gave himself a free drop with a new ball.

Charlie atop Cherry Canyon

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In the five or so years since the great trails above Flintridge’s Cherry Canyon were opened to the public through work by citizens, the city of LCF, Jack Scott and the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, Phoebe and I had still never hiked up there. We did just after Thanksgiving, with collie Charlie, striking a pose above. Amazingly steep trail we’d just come up, the Cerro Negro. Wouldn’t want to scramble down it. Fortunately, there’s a wide fire trail for the return flight to the parking area.

Wednesday’s column: Books and the Times

There might have been an ultra-competitive time in the misty past when I would have felt gloaty about the L.A. Times eliminating its book section, folding the reviews instead into the rest of its Sunday arts coverage.

That time is long gone. We’re in this together: All newspaper people, all newspaper readers, are diminished when we lose anything.

Times Book Editor David Ulin spoke to a group of scholars and journalists gathered at Bill Deverell ‘s and Kim Matsunaga‘s regular Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West brown-bag table Tuesday about the changes, about what a good review should be and about Southern California’s place in literature.

He said the perfect succinct thing about the critic’s main job: “Is this book worth five, eight, 15 hours of my time, at which point I will be that much closer to dying?”
It’s not just that, of course. Many of us read the criticism for itself: “Whether or not I ever go out and buy the book, I should be somehow enriched by the time I spent with the review.”

Book reviews are highly available online, or in other periodicals, noted Dr. Stephen Kanter, the Pasadena M.D. who is now a reader at the Huntington. True, replied Ulin: “But a newspaper is still a serendipitous collection delivered to millions every day.”

That’s exactly the point of many of us who lament the loss, particularly among the young, of the daily newspaper-reading habit. It’s not about staying in your own, safe, self-selected world, perusing only your Web favorites. The reading experience of allowing your eyes and mind to wander over something about which someone else is saying, “Here: This is important. You might find this interesting” is irreplaceable in a broad intellectual life.

Is there still an East Coast bias against the hinterlands? You betcha. Ulin came from New York City in the early ’90s. Back home on a visit as he edited his “Writing Los Angeles: A Literary Anthology,” he was asked by a friend, “So, what is that about — maybe three writers?”

To the contrary, Ulin saw how pleasantly horizontal was the So Cal writing world compared with the vertical Manhattan one. Back there, he said, you were either a poet, or a novelist, or a journalist. “Here, I met poets who were journalists who were writing screenplays,” he said. With interesting circles: “I was never going to go to Carrie Fisher’s birthday party, but it was fun to hang out with people who did.”

Ulin admits “a profound anger” about losing the standalone section, which could be edited as if it were itself a book with a narrative flow each Sunday. Instead of about 1,000 reviews a year, he now has room for about 900. One possible upside: “that we might possibly infect the uninfected” who didn’t always pick up the section but who at least leaf through the broadsheet pages.

Sure, there’s all kinds of room on the Internet for news about books. Still, “I’m an old print guy,” Ulin said. “I like the Web. But I worry about the noise factor, about the connection between reader and writer.”