By Julio Panisello
It’s Monday, August 20th, 2018. I'm reaching the end of the packed newsletter that Carolina Miranda at the LA Times sends out weekly, and I read this: Parker Center Gets Demolition Date, Monday, August 20th. She posts the reference link.
I know the building. I pass by it frequently, almost daily at one point. It's slick and sexy in a subdued mid-century way. In the afternoon, as the sun goes down, the three braided palm trees on the front corner playfully doodle shadows on the brutalist rectangular facade. The prospect of demolishing such unique site brings hasty feelings of voracious and greedy developers getting rid of anything that’s old, no matter how architecturally significant.
Late Monday afternoon I drive by it. It’s still there. The grass on the front yard is a bleached yellow ochre, and a premonitory fence is closing in its fate. Building demolitions are always sudden, sad. They sneak in unannounced, quietly and swiftly, as if the buildings were going to the slaughterhouse.
In the late evening, we summon a roofless situation room meeting of the sorts. We’re doing it. We’re going to plant our easels the next morning and paint the Parker Center from life before it gets pulverized. Perhaps we’ll see a wrecking ball. What if it gets detonated? We’re determined to immortalize it. Tomorrow may be too late. It’s on.
At that point, we knew the building had been the subject of a long battle between two main factions: the conservationists and the local community. We were on the side of the conservationists, of course. The building brings imaginary memories of a romanticized 50s time when Marilyn would bet booked late into the night and then drive to Palm Springs in the early morning to get some drinks with Frank and the boys.
By the end of the painting session, as we were finishing with our last strokes, we had a completely different take. We learned of William H. Parker, the police chief of the LAPD at the time. His racist, sexist, and homophobic views turned the public force into a paramilitary gang. The friction turned to street war against the community, and by "community" we mean all the different minorities who called it home but were treated as third class citizens. The black community moving to LA from the South in search of better opportunities and struggling to find jobs. The Japanese-American community still rebuilding its cultural identity from the ravages of post-war expropriation. The LGBT community, struggling to keep the doors open of the very few safe locales left in DTLA. The Latino community preemptively questioned by the assumption of not belonging. The unrelenting harassment culminated in the infamous LA riots of 92. Hard to believe the building still bears the police chief's name.
We also learned how the land where the building stands was seized from the Japanese-American community after the war. That scar hasn’t healed yet among the longtime residents of Little Tokyo. We learned of teary hearings where neighbors/survivors retell stories of abuse, violence, injustice. They don’t want the preservation of the site that housed those horrors to be a reminder of that dark history.
As we go on painting, we start meeting the people who once worked there. The adjacent buildings host new police facilities, and some senior workers moved there from the Parker Center. They tell us about the rats, the asbestos, the cracks on the walls. The filing cabinets were at one point so heavy with files that the floors would cave in. The building itself is tilting. Its stability is compromised. It hasn’t been retrofitted to bear quakes. The building has never had an AC system. People working there tell us of bad things going on, but also of good things.
It seems like the mood is of surrendered sadness among the people we talked to, regardless of the understanding of its sealed fate.
Now we don’t know how to feel about our paintings. Are we immortalizing a building? Are we betraying a community? Welton Becket, the architect who designed the building before it was renamed after Parker, also designed the Capitol Records building and the Encounter structure in LAX.
Our feelings are now entirely split. This building is an architectural piece of art. Perhaps if we make a distinction between a dwelling and a monument, could we then rationalize saving one and razing the other? We’re thinking of all the colonial architecture built on confiscated territory around the world and throughout human history as a means to institute power over people. Why single out just this building?
As we leave the site, our conversation continues. We’re happy we painted there, mostly because of the conversations we had with the people who live and work there.
However, we don’t know what side are we on now.
Check out our paintings here.