A November 25th on Bunker Hill
That day we went to Bunker Hill there was a hush over the city. Work had come to a stop, and the traffic was light. The warm morning of a Los Angeles November brought out the local residents from the old houses and brick-walled apartment buildings, and they strolled along the quiet streets and gathered in small groups talking in hushed tones. I thought that the day was like a throwback to some earlier time. Few of the buildings south of Second Street had been removed as yet, except in the low section west of Hope Street. On top of the hill, we might have been walking through the 1930's, past corner groceries with nickle Cokes and two-cent papers. The feeling was appropriate, given the local population we encountered that day. The shabbily genteel folk of the neighborhood might have been the unemployed of that time, now aged and living on pensions in the Victorian buildings that lined the streets. Everything was suspended that day, in a hiatus between the changes that had come and the changes that would soon sweep the entire neighborhood into oblivion.
I remember looking at the vacant blocks north of Second Street, and the rising buildings of the Civic Center beyond them, and trying to imagine what it had looked like a few years earlier. I must have seen the old buildings that had occupied that space when I was younger, but I had no memory of them. I still see their ghosts from time to time, though, in old movies, especially the low budget film noir thrillers of the 1950's. But that day, the remaining half of the neighborhood didn't carry the feeling of film noir. It was like an echo of earlier Los Angeles, when retired people both of considerable and of modest means flocked to the city to enjoy their remaining years in its mild winters and cool summer nights. The last of that generation had probably gone by then, replaced by those who had arrived in the city when they were much younger, and maybe a handful who had been native born, and had grown old there, and had settled into these decaying blocks of buildings whose often ornate decoration, though worn and covered in layers of peeling paint, yet suggested a more resplendent history than its present citizens had personally enjoyed.
I remember being happy that day, despite the faint air of melancholy that surrounded me, and the tinge of sadness I felt at the imminent passing of this place which I had so recently discovered. I would have liked to have lived for a time in one of the old Victorian cottages squeezed onto narrow lots along the narrow street at the crest of the hill. I knew that this wouldn't be, and so I took pictures. I still have the negatives in a drawer somewhere, along with contact sheets I made in the school photo lab. They are small black and white pictures, two and a quarter inches square. In them that place and that day survive as silvery shadows, miniaturized, as though seen through the big end of a telescope. Almost from the day I developed them, those images have haunted me. I remember seeing them form under the rippling fluid in the dim light of the darkroom. Since then, I have come to associate the gradual appearance of the pictures on the paper with the vanishing from my mind of the reality they depicted. The pictures changed my memory as well as recalling it. They revealed to me that the pure moment of experience was gone, and irretrievable, as would soon be the place they depicted as well. The place is gone now, many decades, and even the land on which it stood is altered beyond recognition and covered in a mass of buildings as utterly different from those they replaced as something that might have been contrived by an alien civilization and dropped on the Earth as a harbinger of invasion.
I suppose there are few of us now who have any memory of that place in its last days. A few who then lived there as children might still harbor some nostalgia for quiet moments they spent in its shady yards and old high-ceilinged rooms. But most of the population of those last years was old even then, or of that class of the youthful or middle aged whose failures and limitations presage a life more brief than most. Within a few more decades, all living memory of old Bunker Hill will have vanished. Its distorted image will then lie only in old photographs such as I took, or in the flickering images of movies for which it was the anonymous setting, or a few drawings or paintings which may have been made by the handful of artists who took an interest in it.
A few weeks ago, Los Angeles opened its new concert hall which was built on one of those blocks which was already vacant when I first remember it. I find that I have no urgent desire to see the place.