Archive for Los Angeles Public Library

Time Regained: Reading Józef Czapski in Billings, MT (about Marcel Proust, the Gulag, and reading as salvation)

Posted in ALOUD, Art and Culture, Crooked Mirror, history, Human Rights, Literature, Poland, social justice, translation, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 30, 2019 by Louise Steinman

IMG_7018 (1)

[from THE NOTEBOOKS OF JOZEF CZAPSKI, Polish limited edition]

I WOKE UP around 5:00 a.m., disoriented in an unfamiliar bed. I did not know east from west, up from down, where I’d find a floor to take the weight of my body. The hazy proportions of the room gave no clue; curtains blocked the winter light. In the moment my eyes opened, I lost my connection to those essentials that are, as Proust assures his readers, held fast by our psyches during sleep: “[T]he sequence of the hours, the order of the years, and the worlds.”


My disorientation went beyond the geo-gravitational. One era of my life had ended, and the next had not yet begun. If I lived in a traditional society, I’d have been standing on the threshold of the hut listening as a priest beat drums and stirred strong potions, a state the anthropologists call liminality.

Just six weeks before, I’d been fired from my job of 25 years. It was a job I’d loved, that had drawn on my love of literature and my delight at convening people from across Los Angeles to engage with the issues of the day, to ask questions of innovative thinkers, to practice agreeing and disagreeing in a public forum. The events at Central Library, the hearth of the city, were free; homeless patrons sat next to lawyers and teachers and students to listen to Christopher Hitchens talk about religion or Ta-Nehesi Coates discuss reparations. They came to hear local poets read Walt Whitman translated into Farsi and Spanish; to celebrate novelists like Colson Whitehead and his re-imagining of the Underground Railroad, to learn from naturalists like Terry Tempest Williams, primatologists like Frans de Waal. Hundreds of literary luminaries — Susan Sontag, Toni Morrison, August Wilson, W. G. Sebald, Margaret Atwood, Adam Zagajewski, Ursula LeGuin — all presented their work on our stage over the years. At our last event, Nelson Mandela’s granddaughter read from her grandfather’s just-published prison letters. One evening, during his sound check, Cornel West pulled me aside to say, “You know, don’t you, that this space is sanctified?” I did.

Now I was untethered from the satisfactions of my job and as well, from the scaffold of responsibilities that had, for so many years, structured the rhythms of my life. I was past the tearful stage, but I was still heart-torn, grieving. Luckily, I had been granted a writing residency that fall at an arts colony on a ranch outside of Sheridan, Wyoming, and Susan — my soul sister-in-art — had been awarded a residency there as well. Perhaps some time away would open a way to re-focus, to pick up the thread of my own writing life.

As a way to jumpstart our adventure, Susan and I schemed a rendezvous, picking a town on the map that neither of us knew at all — Billings, Montana — simply because it had an airport and decent airfares from Los Angeles, for me, and from Portland, Oregon, for Susan.

Susan rented us a car and a two-bedroom Airbnb bungalow in Billings. We planned to cook simple meals together, drink good wine, catch up on stories about our lives, plan collaborative projects, and, at the end of the weekend, drive the 70 miles to the Crow Reservation to spend some daylight hours at the Little Bighorn Battlefield, then travel the final stretch to the Wyoming ranch and our official residency.

At the last moment, life tectonics shifted. A mutual friend — jazz musician David Ornette Cherry — suffered a medical emergency. He couldn’t breathe, barely managed to call 911 from his Portland studio before he suffered a cardiac arrest. David was “gone,” the paramedics said, for four whole minutes, and was now in an induced coma, on a ventilator in a Portland hospital, in the limbo of the ICU, where machines bleated heart rates and IV bags dripped nourishment into human veins, between life and death, this world, that world, with Susan by his bedside. He had no family nearby. He was going to need a lot of support to pull through.

I wholeheartedly supported Susan’s decision to stay behind, to forgo the residency if David didn’t recover soon. I realized as well that it was too last-minute and too costly to redirect my itinerary.

Which is why I woke up alone, in a strange bed in a strange house in Billings, Montana, where I dreaded spending the weekend alone.

MORE. READ ENTIRE PIECE, as published in Los Angeles Review of Books, May 21, 2019

Resister in Sanctuary: We Won’t Go

Posted in FRIENDS, history, Human Rights, Life and What about It, Los Angeles, Peace and social justice, social justice with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 14, 2018 by Louise Steinman

Joe Maizlish at Induction Refusal, 1968 Black and white photograph/L.A. Resistance Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

In one glass case, what first draws my eye is a REMEMBER JOE MAIZLISH bumper sticker identical to the one I affixed to the bumper of my dad’s Ford Mustang in 1968. Yes, I do remember Joe Maizlish. Decades ago, I wrote to him in while he was in federal prison, where he served two and a half years of a three- sentence for refusing induction to the draft. Joe, now a psychologist and mediator, in present-day, is my neighbor in Silverlake.

The item, along with posters in fonts of various degrees of psychedelia, is on exhibit at WE WON’T GO: The L.A. Resistance, Vietnam and the Draft (at the Central Library’s Getty Gallery until August 19). Curated by Winter Karen Dellenbach, an L.A. Resister, together with Ani Boyadjian, Research & Special Collections Manager for the Los Angeles Public Library, this inspiring display of civil disobedience was drawn from the Los Angeles Resistance Archives, acquired by the library in 2014. The collection includes letters, posters still and moving images, diaries, mimeographed newsletters, draft cards and other ephemera donated by members of the L.A. Resistance and their supporters. Essentially, this is a chronicle of the non-violent anti-draft activities of the L.A. chapter of the Resistance, a nationwide movement.

I recognize a black and white photo of General Hershey Bar, with his signature plastic B-52’s worn as medals. The real General Hershey, a Nixon advisor, was head of the Selective Service, and General Hershey Bar was a familiar sight at anti-war rallies in the ’60s. “Fixin-to-Die Rag” (Country Joe and the Fish) cues in my head:

Well, come on all of you big strong men
Uncle Sam needs your help again
Got himself in a terrible jam
Way down yonder in Vietnam
Put down your books and pick up a gun
We’re going to have a whole lot of fun”

MORE on Los Angeles Review of Books


Paradise on Hope: On the 25th Anniversary of the Central Library fire

Posted in ALOUD with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 29, 2011 by Louise Steinman

“I have always thought that Paradise was a kind of library.”
-Jorge Luis Borges

On a November morning, a crowd soaks up the wan sun in the Maguire Gardens in front of Central Library. The lucky ones sip coffee out of paper cups, others slump in the stupor of the unslept. A black feral cat slinks out of the shrubbery to forage. At a quarter to ten, the waiting throng jockeys for position at the three entrances to the Central Library: Flower Street, 5th Street, and Hope. At 10 AM, a Library security officer unlocks the tall copper doors, swings them outwards. The crowd surges inside in a race to reach computers, magazines, warmth, chairs, public restrooms.

I’ve worked at Central Library for sixteen years now, yet the urgency of this morning ritual never fails to move me. After all, this is no mad rush for rock concert tickets or wide-screen TV’s. These people are hurrying into a library. This library is many things to many people—a place where scholars do serious research, where parents read aloud to their children, where jobseekers polish resumes. In the Literacy Center, volunteers tutor adults in reading, in the Popular Library commuters peruse audiobooks and in the public restroom near the 5th Street entrance, homeless women brush their teeth.

In the Mark Taper Auditorium, where I curate a lecture and performance series, Angelenos gather to listen to a physicist discuss black holes or a novelist extol “the human fidelity to beautiful ideas.” We’ve presented Zen archers and hiphop poets, a panel of bloggers and journalists helped us envision the rocky future of the Los Angeles Times.

The Central Library was built in 1921 during one of LA’s boom cycles. It may have been a time of shoddily constructed subdivisions, but the Central library was built to last. The building was a collaboration among the architect Bertrand Grosvener Goodhue, the painter Dean Cornwell, and the German-born sculptor Lawrie Lee. Goodhue’s intent was to mimic Egyptian architecture: topping the library roof is a pyramid tiled on all four sides with images of the sun. At its apex is a golden hand circumscribed by the Serpent of Knowledge and holding aloft a torch: “the light of learning.” The Goddess of Civilization, flanked by two black marble sphinxes, presides over the grand staircase to the rotunda. On her crown is a tiny replica of the library. Her staff rests on the back of a tortoise. On her the bronze breastplate are images of Romulus and Remus, the Egytian pyramids, the winged bull of Babylon, the goddess Shiva, a Minoan temple, a Phoenician ship, the Cathedral of Notre Dame, a Conestoga wagon, an American bison, and the Liberty Bell. From the facades of the building, bas reliefs of great philosophers and historians— Herodotus, Virgil, Socrates — peer down at all who enter.

The old building was a civic treasure; but it was stuffed to the ceiling with combustible material, lacked a sprinkler system, adequate ventilation and storage space for the collection. Recommendations on fixing the outdated building were doomed with the passage of Proposition 13 in 1978. On April 29, 1986–an arson fire that originated in the Rare Books Room of Central Library sent smoke billowing into the afternoon sky. It took over 360 firefighters from sixty companies to subdue the stubborn blaze.

smoke billows from Central Library, April 29, 1986 photo: LAPL Photo Collection

In the days and weeks that followed, many librarians joined the salvage effort, working in foot-deep toxic stew of soot, mold, and melted debris without protective gear. Many contracted a wicked chronic bronchitis from these efforts. (The perpetrators have never been apprehended.) Nearly 400,000 books were destroyed, but the disaster did have a silver lining, mobilizing the public and civic leaders to rally behind the Save the Books campaign to raise funds to rebuild Central Library.

In 1993, the expanded, renovated, technologically updated building opened to great fanfare. I began working for the Library Foundation of Los Angeles that same year, with a mandate to create public programs. In my dreams that first year, I noted in my journal, Central Library often appeared as a maze, “with many secret areas as yet unopened to the public.”

Every Thursday morning school groups visit Central Library. I watch the second graders sitting cross-legged on the marble floor of the Rotunda under the Zodiac chandelier. Their high-pitched voices blur in the vast hall. They look upwards with wonder and curiosity at Dean Cornwell’s forty-foot high California history murals that cover the vaulting walls. Cornwell, a magazine illustrator, completed them in 1932. The murals are visually delightful and—if you’ve read much California history—intellectually distressing. Cortez steps ashore. Muscular heathens kneel at his feet, heads bowed, offering gifts of beads and pelts. “ A chubby eight year old asks, “How did he paint it?” During Cornwell’s lifetime, a newspaper called the Central Library murals “the largest ever executed by one man since Michelangelo decorated the Sistine Chapel.”

Fragment, Central Library mural by Dean Cornwell

The docent crouches down next to the boy, who is the same hue as the kneeling Gabrielino. She points out how there are over three hundred figures, each one outlined in pale blue. “Look, those are the padres, they are holding the building plans for missions. They walked the length of California.”

And I am back in my own fourth grade classroom at La Ballona Elementary in Culver City, melding flour, water, salt for my relief map of my home state. We constructed California missions out of popsicle sticks and learned that the Indians were grateful to be clothed, fed, and educated by the good padres. It wasn’t until my thirties, working on a documentary film about Ishi, the last Yahi Indian in California, that I learned the uglier side of California history—the forced conversions, repression of native languages, the official state bounty on Indian scalps the plunder of resources Indians needed to survive– all painfully symbolized by those subservient figures in Cornwell’s murals. I sit on the floor of the library and stare up at the Zodiac, thinking of Ishi— in his skins and seared scalp, mourning for his family.

There are plenty of books on the library’s shelves that tell about the rich culture of California’s indigenous peoples. I wonder if those second graders will someday possess the curiosity to seek them out and read them.


The library is open to all and, as the Great Recession tightens its grip, a growing number of L.A.’s homeless seek haven there during the day. The untreated mentally ill are among the regular visitors, ranting, sitting and staring, making entrances and exits through the lobby. A few weeks ago, a man attempted suicide in the library atrium. An email from the City Librarian went out to all staff: “A man jumped at 11:45 AM.” No one could agree from which floor—some said the third, some the fourth. A librarian in the Literature Department caught the motion out of the corner of his eye. Some said he took a running leap, others that he stepped over the railing without hesitation. Without a doubt, he fell onto the Atrium Lower Level 1, where the first security officer to reach him was Officer Kyles, who I happen to know can speak in tongues. Damage was done, blood spilled, bones askew. Officer Kyles stayed by his side. “Did you pray for him?” I asked later. He nodded somberly. “He wasn’t going to die on my watch.” The jumper did live, surviving surgery and a tenure in the ICU at County Hospital. Officer Kyles says they’re trying to find his family.

Recently, as part of our lecture series, the Surrealist poet Andrei Codrescu spoke about his Posthuman Dada Guide. During his talk it occurred to me that our jumper may have considered himself already in the posthuman world, that he’d moved on to the phase when one can exist half human, half bird.


There’s a charming tiled fountain flanked by tangerine trees that I walk past every day en route to work, after climbing the stairs from Hope Street. It took years until I finally noticed the quote chiseled in the marble: “WISDOM IS THE RIPE FRUIT OF MUCH REFLECTION.” The converse is now etched into my mind as well: ignorance is the unripe fruit of much inattention.

After all, for years I exited the library onto Hope Street at the end of every work day, without realizing this was the same Hope Street inscribed on my birth certificate. It wasn’t until Cornerstone Theater mounted a site-specific production of “Candide” (re-titled “Candude, the Civil Servant”) in the Central Library that I made the connection. At the climax of the play, the actors lead the audience on a journey through one of the library’s underground tunnels and, at the finale, the hero Candude flung open the doors onto Hope Street. “Hope!” he cried, “here it is.”

Hope Street, where I was born, just six blocks away from Central Library. I haven’t come far from my origins. Perhaps that’s why the idea of Central Library as a hearth of the city resonates so deeply with me. This life-quickened repository of wisdom, an un-virtual world where we daily interact with serpents of knowledge, goddesses of civilization, scholars, bodhisattvas, poets, madmen, would-be suicides. Where every morning at 10 AM (while there’s still the budget and the public will to keep it open), the eager crowd rushes in.

[Written 2009, published originally in The Devil’s Punchbowl: A Cultural & Geographic Map of California Today, Red Hen Press, 2010]

%d bloggers like this: