City of Angels

My GPS decided it was time for a prank, and sent me onto Figueroa at the south end of the street, slap bang in the middle of the harbor. It just so happens that the City of Angels has an unusual definition of ‘street’. Figueroa, named after an early XIXth century general who secularized the California missions, is thirty miles long.

Child’s play, I hear you say. After all, Sepulveda Boulevard goes on for forty-three miles.

The drive uptown takes you through some pretty dubious neighborhoods, the darker side of LA. Not quite Compton, but I still enjoyed it―though it made me late for my appointment at the University of Southern California. It was early Friday morning and the traffic was already heinous.

The first thing you notice about USC is the beauty of the campus. Not just the carefully tended grounds, in the bright So Cal sunshine, but the buildings themselves―the office space is utilitarian, which distinguishes world-class universities from Fortune 100 companies, but the façades are architectural  accomplishments.

It’s a private entity, not state, and proudly entitles itself a research university. About six hundred million dollars are provided annually in research grants, and both Steven Spielberg and the chairman of Sinopec sit on the board of trustees.

The School of Cinematic Arts at USC.

When you dig a little deeper, you understand why this is a top educational institution. Its forty thousand students pay an equivalent sum each per year for tuition fees, which would bring in over one billion dollars. Because of scholarship programs, and other financial incentive schemes, USC gets a mere six hundred million. Added to grants and endowments, the university can rely on well over one billion a year to play with.

With all that, competition among applicants means that there are twenty candidates for every place offered―for one hundred and ninety two majors. Apart from certain constraints, staff can pretty much teach what they want. Academics are renowned for eccentricity; if a professor proposes a course on the sex life of the inside of a ping pong ball, so be it. Cal Tech, where Nobel laureate Richard Feynman worked, is even more eclectic. If you don’t remember, Feynman was the guy who figured out why the first space shuttle blew up―the whole of NASA was stumped.

The key point is that this crazy system works: it attracts the smartest young people on the planet, teaches them to innovate, and builds tomorrow’s brave new world.

USC received a Chinese delegation recently―the visitors wanted to know how to build a world class grad school. Accustomed to five-year plans, a command economy, and a gerontocracy, they could not understand how this kind of organized chaos could be successful. Actually, it may be defined in one word―freedom.

And then there are the little things…

A brand new building has just gone up, donated by alumnus George Lucas. A mere one hundred and twenty five million dollars for the School of Cinematic Arts, to make the point that movies are now a profound art and science, not some lightweight add-on. On opposite sides of the Andalucian-style courtyard, two buildings duel: one bears the name of Spielberg, the other of Lucas himself.

Onward toward the John Williams music school, following the Star Wars route, and suddenly there’s a change of pace. On a wall, going up as far as the eye can see, are all the original gold records that Frank Sinatra ever won. Donated by his daughters. Photographs of the great man abound, and in a display case, the Oscar awarded to Ol’ Blue Eyes for the movie ‘From Here to Eternity.’

From here to eternity: Sinatra’s gold records project skywards in The Eileen Norris Cinema Theater Complex at USC.

The apocryphal tale is that Sinatra secured the part through Mafia contacts―the Hollywood producer was made an offer he couldn’t refuse, delivered by way of a horse’s head. In Mario Puzo’s thinly disguised tale, the singer is Johnny Fontane, his boozy sidekick Nino Valenti a carbon copy of Dean Martin.

Of course, the Sicilians didn’t have a monoply on organized crime. A good deal of it, in fact, came from Jewish hoodlums, who were particularly active during prohibition, and up to the Second World War.

The corporate structure of the Jewish gangs was less formal than the Mafia; it probably made them lose the battle for consolidation, but groups such as Detroit’s Purple Gang were legendary. Mostly children of Russian Jews, some of them originally shipped through Bremerhaven, the immigrants lived in the utmost squalor―poverty, disease, and discrimination are the building blocks of crime.

The Purple Gang is thought to be responsible for over five hundred murders―by comparison, Al Capone looks like a choirboy. This was more on the scale of Bashar Al Assad. In the US, the rest of the world passes you by, and while I blinked the euro dropped five points. Perhaps Angela has become president of Europe, who knows?

The dress code for murderers was somewhat different in the nineteen thirties. The excellent site Gangsters Inc tells us of one fellow called Eddie Fletcher (probably Fleischer) who:

…dressed in a dark gray Chesterfield overcoat, pearl-gray spats over patent leather shoes, wide-brimmed gray fedora and snazzy mauve double-breasted suit, whose lapels where made from pale purple satin. To finish off the outfit, he had a four carat diamond stickpin securing a yellow silk ascot in place.

Fletcher was found murdered in late November 1933, his arms around Abe Axler. The two killers were known as the Siamese twins. Professional assassins probably wear flip flops to work these days. Ugh.

As the heat increased, crime moved west, looking for opportunity, in a new kind of gold rush. Nevada was the first choice, the heyday of casino development. It’s probably fair to say that a large part of Las Vegas was built with criminal income. Members of the Purple Gang moved to Los Angeles, and points in between. In  Palm Springs, Al Wertheimer built what is now the Colony Palms Hotel. In its day, it was a celebrated speakeasy and brothel. Nowadays it sports the Purple Palm Restaurant.

As you approach Palm Springs, traffic thins, and the mountains rise up from the desert. You are reminded of how things must have been, and you can picture the mobsters’ Cadillacs and Lincolns speeding across from LA on the old road.

Highway to sustainability. Wind parks in the desert separate the mountain from the motor car.

On the outskirts of the city, a Swiss-built tramway offers a trip to the mountains. In ten minutes, you go from the searing desert heat to a cool eight thousand feet―an alpine landscape  complete with cougars and mountain lions.

Are you with the party in front, the ticket girl asks, or the people behind?

“Neither,” I reply, “I’m on my own.”

She seems lost for a moment, then her eyes light up.

“Oh. You’re with Jesus!”

The India Road QR links for smartphones: point your camera and click.

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