Los Angeles specializes in its own brand of architectural amnesia. We like to level Craftsman neighborhoods in favor of freeways and bulldoze stately Victorians in the name of “urban redevelopment.” But artist Diane Meyer wants to restore the city's collective memory of our built environment — and she plans to do it with a squashed penny.
Meyer first had the idea to memorialize demolished neighborhoods in 2009, while producing her project Without a Car in the World: 100 Car-less Angelenos Tell Stories of Living in L.A.. As she photographed 100 Angelenos without autos, Meyer herself surrendered her car and started walking, biking and relying on public transit. And she found herself craving more history of the streets where she ventured.
“It makes you slow down and think about where you are. You can process places in a different way when you're not speeding past them,” she says. “I realized that I took things like the freeways for granted. You don't really think about the fact that they've displaced something that was once there.”
She began discovering places like the Bradbury Mansion, a gargantuan Queen Anne mansion built downtown in 1887, where Civic Park is currently being constructed. With the help of a penny-pressing machine — yes, the same machine you might find at a cheesy roadside attraction — she's turning L.A.'s erased environments into souvenirs. It's a project she calls, appropriately, Flattened Los Angeles.
In 2010 an artist fellowship from the city of Santa Monica helped fund Meyer's acquisition of the penny-pressing machine, which she bought used (brand name: Coin Crafters). Over the next few years she did research to select the neighborhoods and prepare sketches of various lost landmarks. Three interchangeable plates were ordered from the manufacturer with her custom designs, and placed inside the machine.
It works just like you remember. Insert one cent, choose the design of your choice, turn the crank, and voila: scenes from L.A.'s most famous vaporized neighborhood, Bunker Hill, in the palm of your hand. (You can see see gorgeous color photos of Bunker Hill — as well as some of the demolition — over at the On Bunker Hill blog.)
The plan is to station the machine somewhere on Bunker Hill, where the concreted California Plaza is a far cry from the turreted estates that watched over the city until the 1950s. Meyer's looking for a place that can host the machine for at least a month (the ticket booth for Angels Flight seems like a natural choice) so the public can engage with L.A.'s recent past.
That part should be easy: The machine itself is a Steampunk-esque marvel that feels like it's from another era. Meyer wants people to approach the machine as if it were a vintage souvenir machine, and be puzzled by the fact that the pressed penny features a landmark that's nowhere in sight. “I think having it mimic a real souvenir of something that doesn't even exist anymore will jar people into thinking about where they are and the fact that this place has a history that has been taken apart and demolished,” she says. The website address posted on the machine will have information and maps about the neighborhood currently featured on the penny designs so the audience can learn more.
Other neighborhoods Meyer wants to feature are Chavez Ravine (how about having that one at Dodger Stadium?) and an African-American neighborhood in Santa Monica that was destroyed when the 10 freeway was built. She's interested in other losses like the Ocean Park Pier in Santa Monica and destroyed programmatic architecture — restaurants that looked like their names, like the Brown Derby. But she also wants to illustrate important cultural touchpoints for the city, like a series she hopes to do of blacklisted Hollywood directors, who were steamrolled in a different way.
I could see a project like this being championed by the Los Angeles Conservancy or Esotouric, both groups that aspire to preserve L.A.'s existing landmarks while organizing events that celebrate their historical context. Flattened Los Angeles could even draw attention to buildings on the brink of extinction: The machine could be stationed outside a building slated for demolition as a way of signaling its endangered status and allowing locals to learn more about the building's history. Don't let this building become a souvenir!
Ideally, Meyer says, the penny-presser would travel the city like a time machine, popping up in various neighborhoods to illustrate what has been lost by our irresponsible development. “I want people to think more about how the city fits together,” she says. “This is something people can stumble upon that will have them question their own relationship to the built environment.” And, hopefully, it will make Angelenos think about what they want their neighborhood to look like — before it's too late.