Ocean Park

When we started work on the photo project, dealing with thousands of photos and negatives that covered fifty years, we didn’t realize how vast the project would be. We thought it would give us a view of the radical movement over the years from the unique perspective of someone who had generally always carried his camera. And we have those photos — A.J. Muste, Norman Thomas, Martin Luther King Jr., Bayard Rustin, Norma Becker, and many others. I think Ruth Benn, Ed Hedemann and Virginia Baron and I have found much of value and interest.

But, as you can see, there are also photos from Ocean Park dating from the 1950s. And those photos represent a sliver of history now gone. Ocean Park and Venice, now so developed, and expensive, were then inhabited by very lower income Jews from the East Coast, drawn to Southern California, and the poor from the Middle West who had been driven from their homes by the dust bowl. They also provided housing for a few UCLA students. Of which I was one. And as I tried to write these notes I realized how important Ocean Park was for me.

I had been a lonely student at High School with few friends. It was hard for me to come to terms with my homosexuality — remember, the 1940s were light years from where we are today. It wasn’t just that the matter was illegal, it was not talked about, except in whispers. We had no role models.

In 1947 I entered UCLA and sometime soon after, based on a radical bit of writing of mine in the student paper, the campus socialists looked me up and invited me to a party in Ocean Park. My courage is minimal at best and I needed all of it to drive my Model A to the event. I knew that, being radicals, they would be drinking and I was still in the Prohibition Party (another story). They would be engaged in sexual escapades, and I would be the very odd man out. But I was lonely, and so I went, with a six pack of cokes. Knocking on the door, I was met by Maggie Phair, sort of the youthful Mother Bloor of the campus socialists. She gently took the cokes from me and said “David, some of the folks coming won’t know anyone, so can you stay by the door to welcome them? I’ll put the cokes in the refrigerator”. I had entered a small pocket of Bohemians. In the kitchen a little group was learning to dance the Hora (at that time all of the left was strongly pro-Israel). In the main room several people were talking politics. And in the last small room others were listening to one of the first records of Edith Piaf, just being discovered in the US.

I was accepted. A world of radicals where no one cared what your sexual problems were (some were as confused as I was). It was a world of poetry, politics, foreign films and a little cheap red wine. Everyone was poor. I moved to Ocean Park in 1951, on my return from Europe, renting a shack at 132½ Ashland Ave. ($7 a week, no hot water, no shower). I paid my way working a night shift at a hot dog stand. Our furniture was what we found in the streets. A mattress would be aired out for several days in the sun and then became a place to sleep.

Our doors were not locked — we had nothing to steal. (Though someone did walk off with San Novit’s gift of Mahler’s Symphony #4 on the old 78s). We often put up guests from out of town. One could always be sure of a place to sleep. And for a bath I walked over one block to Maggie Phair’s little house, which boasted a bath tub.

Our radicalism was not for show. Several of our group went to prison for draft resistance. My mentor, Vern Davidson, spent two years in prison. I was lucky — I was arrested but the case was dismissed on a technicality. Our lives were lived in the shadow of nuclear war, of the Korean War, the rise of McCarthy, the knowledge our phones were tapped by the FBI. But oh what grand parties we had! One Hallowe’en one woman came in a costume of real bunches of grapes – and the men spent the night plucking them.

We were, I concede, children of the middle class, rebelling against our parents as much as against the bland cultural landscape of the time. Howl had not yet been written, nor had On the Road. But we had each other. I fell in love with the grimy alleys of Ocean Park, touched at night by the fog that came in from the ocean. I bought a camera — a simple box camera which hasn’t been manufactured for at least fifty years. I tried taking pictures with it, but one night, wandering the alleys, the police stopped me — who would be carrying a cheap box camera at midnight? — on the assumption I was on a sexual prowl. They came back to my shack, shocked to see a poster advertising a meeting of Bayard Rustin. One of them said, “Look, we keep that bar open for you people (a wonderfully notorious gay bar called The Tropic Village) but if you are out in the back alleys again we will arrest you”.

We had our stars — Stuart Perkoff, the poet (who later served a prison term for drugs); Lawrence Lipton, a writer, author of The Holy Barbarians (his son does TV shows in New York now). We had Marsha Berman at the piano, her brother, Harvey, an aspiring dancer. We even had a couple of men who could easily have passed for fraternity guys — one of them we renamed Jack Armstrong. There was Edward, who claimed (probably truthfully) to have survived the last of the Warsaw Uprising, when Stalin held back his troops until the Nazis killed almost all brave Polish Nationalists.

Berman, Bobby Blatt (whose husband, Johnny, was part of our group), and Maggie Phair organized a fifty year celebration of Ocean Park. By then the beach had been gentrified. My old shack at 132½ Ashland replaced by towers of concrete and steel.

But my own life, my radicalism, my pacifism and my socialism were formed there in Ocean Park. It was a gentle, very poor Bohemia which gave each of us time to find ourselves. The photographs here of Ocean Park and Venice were where I first learned to use a camera, and where I made friends for life, and in a real way found my own life.  Click to go to photos.