Photos by Ted Soqui
THE DECISIVE QUESTION TO ASK ABOUT the opening of The Grove at Farmers Market is, Why? The question was asked, in other forms, years before construction began on the 575,000-square-foot shopping center that now looms over Third Street, near Fairfax, like a penitentiary wall. Why build a mall less than a mile and a half from the Beverly Center and the Beverly Connection? Why impose Nordstrom, Abercrombie & Fitch, J. Crew, Gap, Gap Kids, Baby Gap and Gap Body on a commercial district — oh, hell, let's call it what it is, a neighborhood — of small shopkeepers whose clientele of tough Polish bubbies and wannabe boulevardiers and panhandling clochards do not wish to live life shrink-wrapped into S-M-L-XL? Why, above all, invite mercantile giants through the gates of one of the few unchained, no-name-brands spots in L.A.? Too late to ask. The Grove at Farmers Market is open for business — is there anything else? — making these objections frivolous, or at best quixotic.
Then again, why not indulge in a bit of grousing? Farmers Market, along with the nearby strip of Fairfax with its Jewish bakeries, Russian delicatessens, cigar shops, swap meets and nightclubs, is worth saving. Not as a museum, but as a hangout on a horn-honking, jaywalking, battered, littered, insouciant, though occasionally polite, street. Just what L.A. needs, and craves. But another mall? To paraphrase the French philosopher Claude Lévi-Strauss, what can the so-called escapism of shopping do but confront us with the more unfortunate aspects of our lives?
Something already has been lost. The mall occupies land that had been a remnant, a parcel from old Los Angeles. Before Caruso Affiliated Holdings' graders arrived, you could wander the back acres of Mordigan's nursery on the eastern edge of the Market, and pace off the basin and range of the Gilmore Drive-In. The screen was gone (it came down sometime in the early 1970s), but the lumpy parking lot that aimed your windshield toward the giant outdoor images was intact, an archaeological layer coated in debris cast off from the Market and fissured by the roots of boxed trees that had never sold. This detritus was only the latest sediment, covering what had been Gilmore Stadium (whose wooden bleachers were built for 18,000 fans of midget-car racing and later the Hollywood Stars, the Pacific Coast League baseball team). The wasteland in a densely populated part of the city had a reassuring, informal decrepitude to it, like an old home gone to pot. It was a buffer, a lung, and the opposite of all the ambitions that surrounded it. It was a rebuke, of sorts, a patch of tumbleweed desert stubbornly holding out. The kind of marginal space cities need. But all that well-heeled developers and wealthy landowners — Caruso and the Gilmore family — could see in this bereft patch of dirt was sterling demographics. Hank Hilty, the scion of the Gilmore Oil fortune and owner of all that undeveloped acreage, couldn't countenance the blank spot. Asked, Why not give the land to expand the Pan Pacific Park next door? as Major G. Allan Hancock, another oil magnate, had done with the La Brea Tar Pits, Hilty replied, “We are in business to make money, not donate land.”
Same as it ever was: Pie and doughnuts
That settled it. Down came the Gilmore Bank, an earnest 1950s modern. Mordigan's moved and downsized. Then, one by one, the wreckers backhoed their way through the outbuildings of the Market itself, tightening the noose around what was left. The fall of these scattered structures — with all of their built-in inefficiencies and, no doubt, subpar health standards — robbed the Market of some of its distinctive laxity and openness.
Among other things, a piece of what a London cabdriver calls “the Knowledge” was scraped off the map. There were those of us who used to drive through the parking lot of Farmers Market, day or night, as if it were our personal escape route from the traffic jam at Third and Fairfax. We had it down. We knew how to zigzag through there, barely touching the brakes. You had to pace your run to avoid the shuttle bus that always stopped at the bottleneck created by the edge of the Dell, as it was called, where the post office and Kip's Toyland had been, and the old warehouse, the two-story structure with immense trussed spans of clear-grained Douglas fir and those New Yorkstyle steel chutes that connected the loading docks to storage areas in the basements below. You had to time your squeeze through that little strait, and you had to know what to expect: a 1973 Coupe de Ville, or worse, one of those white Pontiac Grand Ams — a dead-giveaway rental car! — tentatively chugging along, its driver uncertain whether the right place to park was in that lot between the Gilmore Adobe and the kitchen-prep buildings or in the lot near CBS.
It was a mental game for itinerants, and the Market was the turf with the ever-changing set of circumstances that made the run worthwhile. Try harnessing the 3,500-space parking structure at The Grove to that cockeyed purpose. Or the new, validated-only parking lot at the Market. You can't. Ogden is a dead end. Parking is in defined rows. And kiosks with wooden arms forbid quick escapes.
With the stubbing out of Genesee at the foot of an eight-story parking structure and the disappearance of Gilmore Lane — the extension of Ogden that fronted Gilmore Bank — the roads leading to the drowsy oasis at the Gilmore Adobe have also vanished. An easy link of past to present has been ruptured. The Adobe was the last vestige of the 256-acre Rancho La Brea, and all you had to do to see it, and to sense the 19th-century landscape of L.A., without even knowing what the Adobe was, was to saunter or cruise by. Cut off from this informal audience, it has been reduced to a reliquary object, a slice of the city entombed.
Still, Farmers Market abides. In a way, you can live out your entire life in a day spent there. Wake up at Bob's Coffee and Donuts. Crack open The Weekly Standard at the newsstand. Soak in the sunlight, eavesdrop, gawk at the fashion victims gathered on the patio in front of the Gumbo Pot. Throwing a dinner party and want USDA Prime, shop at Marconda's Meats. The next day, the same, only different. Inside the Market, the mundane, the routine, thrives. Under the canopy that covers the area in front of Bennett's Ice Cream, on most mornings the old Yiddish custom of the street-corner debate, the dreidelagh, takes shape. Literally, a circle forms, comprising more opinions than members. At roughly the navel of the Market, and also at an early hour, beer from the tap sparks another kind of round robin, less rigorous, but no more fatalistic, than that of those elderly gentlemen in pursuit of a perfected cosmology. Meantime, off at Du-par's, the weekend crowds line up for an indulgent short stack, a true restorative. The pancakes, like the Market, are the anti-malaise.
You can sit and watch all of this, since the Market is fervently public, and like all great public spaces, it allows you to disengage, to idle. Like reading a novel, it transports you into the world of others. It engages your interior life, quickens your imagination. Or it doesn't — because at Farmers Market, the inconsequential is what really matters. No one expects you to pay for your seat at the table, so to speak. You can silently feed the English sparrows and be contented by their chirping song. You can take a seat upstairs, in the enclosed patio above Kip's, absently gaze out at the Hollywood Hills, and think nothing at all. You can watch as a grandmother engages in verbal sparring with her whiny granddaughter, who demands an ice cream cone. “Go ahead and cry. I can cry, too.” Farmers Market has been, and one can only pray that it will remain, the realm of the open-ended.
CARUSO AFFILIATED HOLDINGS' WEB-SITE BLURB announces, “Every 'Caruso Center' has become the gathering spot for the residents of the community — creating a sense of warmth, safety and neighborliness that has contributed greatly to the centers' popularity.” Rick J. Caruso, the company's president and the head of the Los Angeles Police Commission, says, “Our concept is to create a 'lifestyle' center — a place that is convenient, inviting, and meets essential needs as it offers interesting shops and restaurants in a safe, clean environment.”
Never mind that Farmers Market is neighborly — in the minute details of friendly and grudging interaction that can only spring up from the custom of familiarity, and can never be achieved otherwise, no ä36 matter how many times an official greeter says, “Welcome to the Gap,” “Welcome to J. Crew,” “Welcome to . . .” In fact, quite often at the Market, the merchants are unfriendly. They don't play at false bonhomie. It takes time for them to get to know you, if they so choose. But when they do, you encounter each other in a manner, and at a level of involvement, that is mutually acceptable. You, and they, can maintain whatever face it is you wish to assume, but you can be assured that it is your own. That is what keeps the regulars coming back.
And, it is refreshing to know, there is no special terminology for a cup of coffee or a corned-beef sandwich. “I'd think I'd like a cup of coffee” is a complete sentence. Language has not been perverted into proprietary gibberish.
No mall builder can genuinely appreciate the ineffability of this organic composition. It is city life, and it is incompressible and will not fit into the fortress walls of a development. Caruso can say, “The Grove is modeled after a grand old downtown,” but when the simulacrum is shuttered at night, it is revealed as yet another crypt. Its walls cannot speak, because the life that has passed through there has been so constricted as to have nothing to say. Which is why a mall must be tightly secured after closing. Even its most loyal customers would not care if it were looted — so long as the crime cost property, not life.
Farmers Market, by contrast, contains enough memory, with more piled on daily, that even when it is closed for the evening, it is alive. It is never really empty, because it exists as much in the hearts of its devotees as in the reality of its white clapboard siding and green asphalt roofing. A robbery here would be taken as a violation of the neighborhood, a shameful act. And so, on Friday nights, when bands play on the West Patio, the merchants lower green tarpaulins that any enterprising thief with long arms could reach around to swipe a piece of Littlejohn's English Toffee or a banana from the Fruit Company. But no one does.
The big worry, however, is that Farmers Market cannot coexist side by side with the vacuity of The Grove. What The Grove defends against is the way of life at the Market. Each effort at segregating the Market from The Grove will launch a more deadly new maneuver — as with any arms race, the more defensive your posture, the less secure you are. Each new measure — the spiffy new chain stores, the charges for parking, enforced enterprise among veteran vendors — will draw Farmers Market closer to its figurative rival.
Not that this bothers Rick Caruso. Asked about the relationship between The Grove and the old Farmers Market — specifically, what will become of the easy access to the Farmers Market, the drive-in, drop-in, hang-out atmosphere — he replies, “Those days are over.” Caruso sounds like a senator. His face does not move when he speaks. His white teeth, glistening like a TV news anchorman's, ideally contrast with his deep Acapulco tan. His white shirt remains crisp, even on this preternaturally hot February day. No beads of perspiration accumulate around the headband of his hardhat, labeled “Rick Caruso.” It is easy for him to issue a death sentence. Four words, without hiccup, as cool and collected as a . . . professional developer. He is without sentiment.
What of the rest of us? Shall we surrender our freedom, our gregariousness, our neighborliness? Or shall we defend Farmers Market by making it our ward? That ought not be a question. It is a plea.