Perfect year for a slay ride (L.A. Times feature, 2006)
January 26, 2006 - LOS ANGELES NOIR - Perfect year for a slay ride
The 1947project finds grisly fun in revisiting the scenes of long-ago L.A. crimes. By Cindy Chang, Special to The Los Angeles Times
When a tour bus pulled up to the curb at Central Avenue and 85th Street and disgorged a load of passengers one recent Saturday, the locals stopped to stare. This corner in South Los Angeles, with its fish market and shoeshine store, isn't exactly a magnet for tourists.
The group of about 50 gathered in front of a green stucco duplex with rose bushes thriving incongruously in the dirt front yard. What was so remarkable about that little structure? Had someone famous once lived there?
These days, few Angelenos have heard of Rochelle Gluskoter, but for a brief period in 1946, she and that green house were the epicenter of a media feeding frenzy. The 6-year-old girl was staying there with a neighbor when she got into a black convertible with a strange man and was not seen alive again.
After hearing a tour guide tell of Rochelle's eventual murder, the group piled back onto the bus. As passengers on the inaugural Crime Bus -- a tour which grew out of interest in an Internet blog called "1947project" -- they had other places to go before the afternoon was up, more scenes of long-ago murder and mayhem to survey.
The tour would culminate at the vacant lot, now a neatly groomed front lawn, where the dismembered body of Elizabeth Short, otherwise known as the Black Dahlia, was found on Jan. 15, 1947, almost 60 years ago.
The blog, a day-by-day blotter of 1947's more lurid moments, and the tour, which visited crime scenes from that and other years, offer a peek at Los Angeles then and now, seen through the lens of acts horrific or quirky. They also reflect a continuing fascination with all that is sinister under the perpetual Southern California sun.
"I've always been a crime buff, but I'm less interested in gruesome crime and more interested in social and cultural history," said Kim Cooper, founder of 1947project. "Crimes are where the reality of a place bubbles up to the surface and explodes."
Crime and Los Angeles have been intertwined in the national imagination since Raymond Chandler's moody detective fiction and noir films like "Double Indemnity" used the city's deceptively placid streets as a contrasting backdrop to the twisted things that happened there.
Los Angeles in the 1940s also had its share of real crime. The city was expanding rapidly, with a volatile mix of recently returned GIs, wannabe starlets and Dust Bowl refugees all struggling to make it in the land of palm trees and snowless winters.
Part crime blotter, part history lesson and part preservationist lament, 1947project memorializes the tragedies of that era and stamps them with a reminder of what time has wrought in the intervening years. Most entries are in two parts: one, a narration of a crime that occurred on that day in 1947; the second, photos and text describing the crime scene today.
"What I was interested in personally about 1947 Los Angeles was that it was like the tumblers of a lock falling into place," Cooper said. "Women were being pushed out of the workforce as men were coming back from the war and dealing with the women's independence, post-traumatic stress, a changing city."
THE five daily newspapers of the time ferociously competed to chronicle grisly crimes, with many of the most sensational cases involving the torture and murder of female or child victims: the Lipstick Murder, the Red Riding Hood killings and, most famously, the Black Dahlia.
In contrast to the Examiner and the Herald-Express, the Los Angeles Times was a family newspaper: The Black Dahlia was only Page 2 news when the story broke.
But because of its searchable online archive, The Times is Cooper's main source, not just for splashy crimes like the Dahlia but for more offbeat tales like that of the stillborn baby who later turned out to be alive. (He died after being handled like a corpse for seven hours, and his parents sued the doctor and nurse who delivered him.)
While Cooper combs the newspaper files, co-blogger Nathan Marsak handles the "what's there now" aspect. He has logged about 10,000 miles since the blog's inception in March, motoring -- always on surface streets -- to crime scenes from San Pedro to the San Fernando Valley.
The two met as undergraduates at UC Santa Cruz and each went on to earn a master's degree in art history. Both are in their late 30s, with vintage-flavored sartorial tastes, Cooper in printed dresses and Marsak in suits and old-school ties.
When he isn't traveling to crime scenes, Marsak is renovating his 6,000-square-foot 1907 Tudor Craftsman in Highland Park or cruising around town in a red 1949 Packard. A Saturn station wagon is his car of choice for blog expeditions, as the Packard is more stylish but more liable to break down. He also has a buttoned-up side, working part-time at his family's oil and gas company.
Marsak's bursts of preservationist outrage are familiar to regular readers of the blog, who number in the hundreds, by Cooper's estimate, and whose ranks have swelled by a spate of media attention after the blog's debut.
But Marsak says he stopped expounding on one of his pet peeves -- the stuccoing-over of yet another Craftsman bungalow -- after he realized he was starting to sound repetitive.
"L.A. is a bright and sunlit place but it has its deep, dark shadows," he said. "You go somewhere where the kids are in the street playing, there are people mowing their lawns and the laundry is hung out to dry. You think, 'Hey, that's where three teenage girls were carved up and put into trunks. I wonder if I should tell them that?' "
Cooper, the less outwardly eccentric of the '47ers, is a third-generation Angeleno who edits an underground culture magazine called Scram and has written or co-edited several books about music, including one about "the dark history of prepubescent pop."
As 1947project approaches its first anniversary, Cooper and Marsak have plans for a successor blog, drawing on crimes for a different year, though they are not ready to reveal which year.
A walking tour of downtown crime landmarks is planned for early April, and Crime Bus tours of the South Bay and San Gabriel Valley are also in the works.
The two Dahlia weekend Crime Bus tours sold out quickly at $24 a seat. With rapid-fire narration from Cooper, Marsak and blog contributor Larry Harnisch, a Times copy editor and Black Dahlia researcher, the bus steered past old-time crime spots like the Gluskoter kidnapping as well as more recent scenes like the corner of Florence and Normandie, where Reginald Denny was pulled out of his truck and beaten by an angry mob in 1992.
AT last, the tour that began on Hollywood Boulevard and wound through Echo Park and South Los Angeles arrived at a small, nondescript house on a quiet block in Leimert Park.
In 1947, the neighborhood was still undeveloped. A young mother pushing her baby daughter in a stroller spotted the naked, bisected corpse of 22-year-old Elizabeth Short, known as the Black Dahlia because of her jet-black hair and penchant for dark clothing, face up in a weedy lot.
Harnisch pointed out the spot on the front lawn where Short's body had lain, her arms and legs posed at angles like a marionette. The murder has never been solved, providing a blank slate for novelists, screenwriters and amateur detectives to speculate on how she met her tragic end.
The litany of ordinary lives blossoming into tragedy that the Crime Bus riders had been bombarded with over four hours didn't seem to cast a pall over them. Rather, some said, it was a way to get a handle on the vast, sprawling city and remember those who would have otherwise been forgotten.
"This has taken me into part of the city that I don't normally go into, that middle-class white kids don't go into," said Jillian Tate, 27, who works in advertising and reads the blog regularly. "It's not just a gruesome gory crime, but there's a human side to it."
Cindy Chang may be reached at email@example.com.
On the Web