In the months leading up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, I believed that my patriotic duty was to give up gasoline, so I stopped driving a car for a while and picked up a bike. I live in Los Angeles, a city known for traffic, freeways, and smog. But it’s a perfect place to ride a bike, too. The weather is beautiful and the streets are wide and mostly flat. Biking gave me a new perspective. I’d lived in Los Angeles for a decade already, but the city didn’t really snap into focus until I saw it from the saddle of my father’s 1968 Realm Rider 10-speed.
I saw things I’d never noticed, but most of all, the city stunk. Riding down the street was an olfactory deluge. The leaden stench emanating from automobiles and buses wasn’t the half of it. That was tolerable and expected, like the hamburger stands, donut shops and fried chicken franchises. What surprised me were the scents of cologne wafting from pedestrians, air freshener drifting from car windows, and sudden clouds of jasmine or roses. In addition to sudden stinkiness, I started to see what was hidden right there in front of my eyes. What was a blur at 35 mph is tack sharp at bike speed. Getting off the freeways and into the neighborhoods unveils the mystery of how the city is physically connected. Using two wheels is refreshingly linear. A street can wind from the hills to the ocean, and along the way is an entire universe.
Before I took to my bike, I was jaded and burnt out and full of road rage. Now, I was jubilant and excited and I welcomed the newness of every day. At the time, I was commuting 11 miles from South Pasadena to Los Angeles City College, where I taught photography. My route wound down Monterey into Highland Park, across York to Eagle Rock Boulevard, south on Eagle Rock to Avenue 38 and then over the hill, descending into Silver Lake via Fletcher and then Glendale to Silver Lake to Sunset to Santa Monica Boulevard. I went through three microclimates and arrived to class sweaty.
It was in these early salad days of bicycle adventuring that I started noticing the tiny businesses on the sides of the road. Blink even at 12 mph and you might miss them.
The first small business that captured my imagination was the Botanica on York Boulevard. It took a while before I even saw it: a small green building, it was casually askew from the road and looked to be the perfect size for a customer, a shopkeeper, and some merchandise. In the hours I passed by, I never saw it open, but the paint seemed fresh and the window was clean and it certainly didn’t look abandoned.
I photographed the Botanica on a Sunday morning, early, when the light was casting in from a low angle, and the building seemed to glow from within. I used a 4”x 5” field camera. The nearly square format mimicked the building’s squat dimensions. It was a photograph instead of a snapshot, but it was also a document of a place that was compelling for its modest size. The aesthetics were important. Vertical lines in the frame were parallel. The building was photographed from a slightly oblique angle so two sides were visible, making the proportions of the business clear to the viewer. The composition was formal — a 4”x5” allows its operator to raise the lens to allow more sky in the image without tipping the camera back and changing the perspective. I printed the photographs large.
The Botanica wasn’t the only tiny business in Los Angeles. Others emerged in the miles I passed daily, revealing themselves to me slowly. Strip malls are endless repositories for the entrepreneurial spirit, but I preferred the buildings that had four walls exposed to the elements. The free-standing small businesses stood literally apart from the rest of the city, modest monuments to individualism and self-sufficiency. I saw these places as an architectural equivalent to myself, a cyclist subsumed into a sea of passing vans and SUVs.
After I photographed the Botanica in the winter of 2003, I was hooked. I kept track of small businesses in my path and started seeking out others on different paths. The rules were simple. Businesses are free-standing, but not mobile, and the “business” takes place within the four walls. This excludes small restaurants with take-out windows and outdoor seating, auto sales offices where the cars reside on a lot, and taco trucks. There are exceptions to every rule of course, and some that violated the rules were too attractive to pass up. And there are those which appear to violate the rules but technically don’t. Hillary’s Caterer, in London, is a coffee cart with wheels, but a concrete curb built around it makes it immobile.
The longer I’ve been with this project, the more changes I see in the city and in the businesses I have photographed. Some seem to be hanging on by a thread; others are for lease or for sale. A few are gone. Dos Burritos on Hollywood Boulevard was demolished a few weeks after I took the photograph to make way for an upscale development. The business has relocated to a strip of shops across the street. Statues By Ray was painted a bright yellow; before I had a chance to photograph the new paint job, the store was completely destroyed by an SUV and became a pile of rubble. Ray sold his statues out of a van for more than a year before building himself a very plain beige stucco box. The Banner G-Co shop is completely gone.
Small free-standing businesses are the proverbial canaries in the coal mines, the first to go when gentrification comes knocking. They are the businesses most sensitive to economic shifts, riding a delicate wave in the landscape of commerce. Individualistic, anachronistic, sometimes quizzical, always compelling, these spaces between places provide anchors of sanity and ingenuity in an increasingly homogenized landscape. • 6 August 2007