Lured by the Local
CULVER CITY IS BOTH EXEMPLARY and unusual. It embodies many of the recent redevelopment tropes found at affluent urban nodes within sprawling horizontal cities across the country. It also is a singular place, defined by its history as a center for the cinematic depiction of America, part of the placeless “Hollywood,” at the end of manifest destiny. This year the Center explored ideas embedded in the land of Culver City in an exhibition called Into the Heart of Screenland: A Neighborhood Exhibition in Three Parts, which opened on April 22, 2011 in the Center’s main office exhibit hall, located across the street from downtown Culver City.
Though the Center’s mission encompasses the whole of the USA, its main office has to be somewhere, and it happens to be in the Palms district of Los Angeles, across from downtown Culver City. And although the Center has talked about elements of the neighborhood before, as part of larger regional programs, like the nearby oilfields, as part of the Urban Crude: Oil Fields of Los Angeles exhibit and tour, it has taken us 15 years to finally turn our attention to what is right outside our door–at least in a public way.
“The show feels a bit “Wizard of Oz-like,” said CLUI director Matthew Coolidge. “We spend most of our time physically and imaginatively all over the nation, especially this summer, touring our Centers of the USA exhibit all around the center of the nation, based out of Kansas. But for this project we found, indeed, that there is no place like home.” Even more so in this case, as part of this home is down the street at MGM, where they made The Wizard of Oz. Not in Kansas anymore, but in Hollywood’s Kansas. The end of the rainbow is MGM’s–and Culver City’s–pot of gold.
The charismatic and ambitious developer Harry Culver convinced Hollywood producers to establish studios here even before the town was built, taking advantage of open land, and creekside filming locations. So many film studios were based here by the 1930s that the official motto of the city was “Culver City: Where Hollywood Movies are Made.” After a settlement with the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce, including a “burying of the hatchet” ceremony, the current motto was developed and incorporated into the town seal: “Culver City: The Heart of Screenland.”
The CLUI exhibit addresses much of the landscape of film and television that dominates the history and economy of the immediate region, from the block-long Main Street’s famous and frequent use as a backdrop for Laurel and Hardy movies, to the former back lots that abounded in town, containing other towns and places, like Andy Griffiths Mayberry, Tarzan’s jungle, and Hogan’s Heroes Stalag 13, now an office park with temporary soundstages for TV productions like Cougartown, and Hell’s Kitchen.
The CLUI tour also looks at features of the physical urban landscape–the back alleys, street furniture, oilfields, communications, and traffic control, as well as some of the notable infrastructural failures that have occurred here. For example the 1963 dam failure in the hills above town, shown live on television from a helicopter, where 300 million gallons of water washed away dozens of houses, and the gasoline pipeline that blew up in middle of Venice Boulevard (half a block from the Center’s office) in 1976, killing nine people (and which is still there). Ultimately, though, the project is about the identity of this community, a place that has gone through rapid recent changes. In the 1950s, Culver City dissolved in a way, becoming part of the great postwar sprawl of the flatlands of Los Angeles, television, cars, and boilerplate modernism. In the 1990s, the city’s efforts to restore its downtown came together, beginning a rebirth of the Heart of Screenland. Over the next 15 years the core of the city would be substantially transformed by redevelopment projects, an influx of entertainment affluence, and a housing bubble that only partially burst here.
Today downtown Culver City is in some ways normal–it has a main street with a weekly farmer’s market, a Trader Joes, a fire station next to a police station next to a city hall, and perhaps a few too many fancy restaurants and movie theaters. In other ways though it is surreal and dreamlike–familiar in an idealized way. It is a place built up around an industry of veneers, props, surfaces, and facades. If it is the Heart of Screenland, Culver City is the epicenter for representational space–a place more like other places than most places, and in this way unlike any place else. ♦