Posts by Katharine Rudnyk

Photo: AHBE Landscape Architects

On Sunday, my husband Adrian and I enjoyed a ride on the 100 year old funicular in Downtown Los Angeles. Like trains, elevators, escalators, and monorails, Angel’s Flight is a different form of transportation – one unique to Los Angeles. The cable rail car travels precariously up a steep incline onto fashionably urban Bunker Hill. But for four years the rail car has been closed. Recently, Angel’s Flight was reopened again to carry happy tourists upward and downward this small slice of Downtown Los Angeles (like the group of fun-loving Italians that we met enjoying Los Angeles on an early Sunday evening, captured below).

All photos above and below except when noted: Katharine Rudnyk

Sure, you can get some exercise and take the stairs, or walk up one of the many steep streets to the top of the hill. But why would you suffer the slog when you can quickly travel from the multi-cultural food mecca of Grand Central Market up to the California Plaza next to the Omni Hotel via funicular? The experience is like riding a self-driving Tesla, sans driver. We watched the two rail cars pass each other with ease and without any issues. Just imagine experiencing that for the first time in 100 years ago!

Riding Angel’s Flight reminds me of the cable cars I once boarded to soar over and across Barcelona – an experience better and more thrilling than flying over the landscape using Google Earth. The aerial journey over the Spanish mountains, the city, then finally onto the beach is truly unforgettable. Admittedly, Angel’s Flight is a slower moving rail car than an aerial tram suspended from cables. The distance is only a few city blocks, but it is just as rewarding as flying overhead across Barcelona in my opinion! It’s amazing just how many unique spaces you’ll pass while riding Angel’s Flight. Both rides across Barcelona and Los Angeles can be frightening, especially when the car stops mid-flight; all you can think to yourself is, “I hope the brakes work!”. You can find yourself eyeing escape routes in silent concern.

Entering Angel’s Flight can feel like entering a dollhouse. Everything seems tiny, yet also spacious! As the rail car begins to move along the Angel’s Flight’s path, riders get a glimpse of the bones of what was once a beautiful urban park shuttered since 2012. The closed public space gives tourists and residents alike a brief moment of “what if” as they’re whisked away across the sky. I kept imagining how relaxing it could be enjoying a meal from the crowded Grand Central Market underneath the shade of a Platanus racemosa (Western Sycamore). Looking at the park today, you would never know how beautiful and representative of Los Angeles it really once was.

One day while walking by the park after a meeting with Evan Mather, ASLA – one of our firm’s principals – I inquired about the original designer of the shuttered space. Even closed, the site still retains a spirit of possibilities, a special corner of Downtown awaiting revival.

Evan informed me it was in fact AHBE Landscape Architect’s own Principal Calvin Abe, FASLA, who designed the project. Please read more about it here.

As Angel’s Flight riders move further up on the rail line, they’ll pass an area that has been kept tidy by goats. Currently barren, the open space will inevitably become another victim of redevelopment. On the other side, a secret urban garden patio is visible, a stark juxtaposition of once public versus private outdoor spaces.

Once at the top, riders are required to pay 50 cents with a Metro pass, gaining access to hike around the California Plaza. A very clean amphitheater surrounded by skyscrapers, manicured plants, and a large food court welcome visitors, alongside the occasional bored hotel guest from the Omni, a jovial security guard, and few romantic couples strolling and enjoying the view. So many cool plants are found here – from ornamental grasses and a majestic Lagerstroemia (Crape Myrtle) on the plaza’s deck, to a huge houseplant-like Ficus lyrata (Fiddle-leaf Fig). The fiddle-leaf fig has gone fun-lovingly rogue in the shady corridors, attributed to the location and being very well-cared for by horticulture professionals.

After hiking though the site, visitors are invited back to pile back into the rail car to gracefully descend back down the hillside. On the right side, before approaching the platform, you can see the back of an apartment building filled with a community garden where a perimeter of the property hosts a healthy growth of nasturium (Tropaeolum).

As the funicular slows, you realize the journey is coming to end. The serenity offered above is replaced by a more dangerous streetscape below, complete with a mix of unsavory street characters, forgotten plants inside a shuttered park, and a generous amount of flashing neon lights emanating from across the street. Angel’s Flight has such a precarious connection to the natural world, yet the world above was really compelling, calling to me to stay just a little longer.

I am sure in short time urban development will engulf and surround what is left of the natural world in Downtown Los Angeles. Angel’s Flight represents a small oasis and a missed opportunity to appreciate the joys of nature within a busy city.

I wish the park at Angel’s Flight could reopen and remain an urban park – a garden-like legacy to the generations that rode the funicular decades before. Pondering security, it felt safer at the top. Perhaps it was a false sense of security, but one comforted by the illusion of visibility and uniformity. While walking the surrounding areas, I couldn’t help notice the city blocks are so devoid of natural. I believe integrating sections of nature across a city can help make it feel more safe and welcoming. But times are changing, with numerous Los Angeles projects reintegrating nature into the city. I, for one, am ready to welcome that change and all the benefits it may bring to Los Angeles.

Photos: Kathy Rudnyk

I’m honored to work at AHBE Landscape Architects, where I am able to share my multi-disciplinary education with other landscape design professionals, and work toward realizing a beautiful and sustainable vision of the future. I’m also glad I graduated from college before the introduction and adoption of iPhones. My pre-mobile device youth encouraged me to explore the great outdoors and spurred on a fascination of built environments.

Back in the late 80s, I still carried a pen, used left-hand notebooks (despite being right-handed), and talked on a “brick” phone. I memorized the Merck Manual as if I was still planning to attend med school. I’d often go to the laundromat with a daiquiri in hand, still religiously read the daily newspaper, happily rode a bike, and typed on an Apple Macintosh desktop.

In other words, I wear my Gen X badge with pride.

While attending Tulane University, I wanted to earn a multi-disciplinary degree. The goal was to create my own pathway during the four years I was there. Unfortunately, when I graduated reality set in. I was unsure what I would do with my American Studies degree to earn enough money to pay off my bills.

I know I was not alone way back when. Today’s students still face these same uncertainties and questions as they cross over from university life to a full-time working one. I believe it’s still okay to graduate without a clear career track. As for me, years later that degree in American Studies has provided more purpose and meaning than I ever anticipated.

While attending Tulane I was forced to explore landscape architecture beyond just a visual solution of plants framing a building. At the time our professor had a son who was completing the Harvard Graduate School of Design in landscape architecture; his son was willing to share with me a boatload of printed materials to review. One assignment required me to write about which landscape architect would become famous in 20 years. Even though I met a number of landscape architecture students from the United State and internationally while working at the Monrovia Nursery Company during my college breaks, I honestly had no idea what landscape architecture really was about until tackling this assignment.

Even though I had a busy life – working, running at the gym (while occasionally watching the boys play basketball), socializing with friends, and tackling a full course load – I thought I would just embrace the task and educate myself alongside my five other classmates. I found Los Angeles with a thriving creative industry with a booming economy motivated by an optimism in technology, alongside an amazing hotbed of talent in the realm of landscape architecture.

Unfortunately, even in the 1980s, Los Angeles was quickly losing cultivatable space for plants; it was completely inappropriate to graze animals in one’s Brentwood backyard, and unrealistic for massively sleek swimming pools (even though I have been to a few West Hollywood homes where there was only a swimming pool in the backyard and nothing more). That said, Los Angeles has never lacked in money nor in leaders with a strong creative spirit for landscape architecture!

Words may have earned me high grades, but it didn’t get me any further than the next Joe/Jane when it came to getting an interview. Creativity always dircted the dialogue during interviews for jobs out of college. To stand out in a dismal New Orleans economy, I pulled together a rudimentary portfolio of laminated images that I would bring to an interview. Most Tulane graduates crafted short resumes listing their recent degree(s) advertised at the top of the page. I knew that people in New Orleans would most likely be put off by the words, “Tulane University”, and also that the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson or Henry David Thoreau were enough without listing knowledge about a computer language. Perhaps it was my craftiness for printing, drawing, graphics, and visual imagery that worked for me in the end.

Understanding the client – my future employer – was more important than anything else. I spent my first year at Tulane studying fine art, and it helped me formulate how to share my artistic vision, and also how to listen to feedback about my artistic efforts for improvement. And because of these realizations, it was easier for me at a job interview to discuss my art than my research papers, making it even more relevant to a job in advertising or publishing. Those possible employers who did not share my passion for the creative mind…well…I clearly decided that they probably were a poor fit for me anyhow.

Technology has moved forward since then. I’ve come to discover I will never be able to extract my prose from the CPU-powered box shown up top. My Macintosh Plus may still welcomes me with a “ding” chime, a rather cool sound to hear even decades later, but its contents are no longer easily accessible. Lucky for me, I was better at creativity and merging it with my education in horticultural science and liberal arts than navigating obsolete technology.

I wish everyone attending university right now a rich academic experience, regardless of the career path they decide to follow. But please, print out and save your written work for later. There’s a good chance anything saved on a flash drive today won’t be easily accessible nor compatible with anything 20 years from now. And for all those who want to know who I selected, I can reveal she is still practicing today – a talent I believe who remains cool and famous in her own regard!

Over a year ago, I began feeling a little worried after reading renowned Cal Tech semiologist Dr. Lucy Jones’ prediction about the catastrophic earthquake that is bound to strike Southern California one day – or as Angelenos refer to it, “The Big One”. I was specifically concerned about all of the surrounding dams located in the San Gabriel Valley holding back extraordinary amounts of water.

Photo: Big Dalton Dam – Library of Congress, HAER CAL, 19-GLENDO 1-11

When I first moved to California, my uncle and I drove to see the Morris Dam in Azusa. I told him that I had never seen a dam before; in northwest Louisiana water just runs about everywhere, filling up an impressive network of locks and bayous. After our tour of Morris Dam, I realized what an amazing engineering feat it was to build such an impressive structure between the mountains of the San Gabriel Valley.

Big Dalton Dam – Library of Congress, HAER CAL, 19-GLENDO 1-15

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All photos: Kathy Rudnyk

As an American citizen, we are periodically called to serve as jurors in a court of law – a civic duty I recently fulfilled. It’s a duty requiring ample patience and a willingness to sit quietly amongst a group of strangers from all walks of life for hours on end. And beyond a few moments on the phone to catch up on news, texts, or work, or to escape out onto the sun-kissed patio of the Los Angeles Superior Courthouse in West Covina, serving jury duty can be quiet and lonely.

During my breaks I would find my way to a leaf-covered patio – complete with a mismatched set of Kmartplastic stacked patio chairs and a table.  The only plants growing in the patio are a Plumbago auriculata (Plumbago) and a bright green groundcover, the succulent Aptenia cordifolia (Red Apple).  The sky blue flowers on the rambling Plumbago look great, even though the only water the evergreen shrub has ever probably captured is the occasional run-off from the roof or a passing rain shower.

None of my fellow thirty-five jurors ever attempted to enter the patio. Why would anyone?

For those who know me, they’d recognize the isolating and difficult challenge of being surrounded by strangers and immersed in quiet for hours on end. My laughter is generally heard at miles distance.  The courtroom is a sanctuary. Yet a court can feel devoid of spirit, a space where criminal and civil court trials unfold under the duress of urgency stretched out for hours, days, weeks, maybe even months by procedure – stressful – and not just for the person(s) charged.

The tension of the courtroom only broke when an elderly juror fell asleep and began to snore loudly inside the jury room.

The long hours of sitting and walking around during jury duty did permit me ample time to imagine the possibilities for integrating more nature around the grounds for jurors, lawyers, clerks, law enforcement, judges, and even the accused, to enjoy. I began imagining a therapy garden.

I also made an effort to observe the public’s behavior in and around the mid-century era courthouse in the mornings.  It was rewarding to smell the sweet fragrant perfume of Lonicera japonica ‘Halliana’ (Hall’s Honeysuckle) along a brick planter where everyone sat while waiting. Unfortunately, Tulbaghia violacea (Society Garlic) was planted along the entryway sidewalk, perfuming the air and patrons’ clothes with the pungent smell of garlic. Thankfully the bailiff noticed me, and called me to enter from the back of the building just as the combination of bold scents nearly overpowered me.

To enter the courtroom, visitors  walk by a procession of planter boxes facing the West Covina Police Department, each filled with an eclectic collection of houseplants that have clearly outgrown their decorative indoor containers and monuments dedicated to fallen officers.  A warm bench sits underneath a Pyrus sp. (Pear), offering little real shade, resulting in a noticeable amount of early morning grumbling and bad attitude. My theory is that bad attitudes can lead to bad decisions by all.

Also, I noticed the distinctive smell of fresh cut grass pungently perfumed the air, its source initially a mystery. I left my bench to discover the source of the scent.

This large mid-century modern civic complex includes the West Covina Police Department, West Covina Branch Public Library, City Hall, and the West Covina Superior Court of Los Angeles County – the entirety surrounded by turf grass!  Over a mile around when walked, I discovered the unnaturally green lawn was maintained by a riding mower, a gardening tool I had not seen since my dad bought one for our acre lot in Louisiana.

Looking south from the courthouse, I spied a floating building facing the noisy 10 freeway and invisible to the passerby, cloaked by an apron of conifers. Completed in 1969 by the late architects, Donald Neptune and Joseph Thomas, this space-age structure serves as the West Covina City Hall. Neptune and Thomas designed not only the West Covina City Hall and the Los Angeles Public Library of West Covina, but local landmarks such as the Annandale Country Club and Avon Headquarters in Pasadena, Haugh Performing Arts Center on the Citrus College Campus, and Glendora High School.

The edges blackened by the hallmarks of skateboarders.

The building has a futuristic-brutalist architectural style softened by a white exterior.  The building is raised off the ground, featuring a cool, dark breezeway directing the eyes into a sunlit terraced garden of shrubs and intoxicatingly lush green grass. I sat and ate lunch peacefully alone on the ledge of an abandoned planter box, avoiding tables positioned directly into the sun. I must have seen over a hundred employees within the entire spaceship-like complex, but never anyone coming in or out of the building, a rather disturbing observation.

The Los Angeles County Superior Courthouse in West Covina, CA, and its surrounding campus plan, is a truly fractured site with real potential for desired solace. Designed by celebrity “starchitect”, the late Maurice H. Fleishman, the building’s indoor/outdoor design is timeless, and the campus has the bones to integrate horticulture and the nature it attracts as a functional feature of anyone assigned to be present within court.

Since jurors are not permitted to eat lunch inside the courthouse, I sat awkwardly here. While munching away on my peanut butter and jelly sandwich, I noticed the grass being watered with a hose and tiny sprinkler. Do water regulations apply to a civic complex?

Wasting precious clean resources and taxpayer’s monies feeding, manicuring, and watering the grass as if it were a formal living room – complete with white carpet that nobody would dare walk on – was a mystery to me.  For the city workers facing the decorative green space, the sunken terraced landscape must appear as if it were art work that no one could ever deface.

To mitigate the noise and pollution of the 10 freeway, Juniperus chinensis ‘Torulosa’ (Hollywood Juniper), Pinus canariensis (Canary Island Pine), and a signature Cedrus deodara (Deodar Cedar) are surrounded by Hedera canariensis (Algerian Ivy) and a morning glory type of weed that butterflies found rather desirable.  Throughout the entire campus are hedges of Lantana camara ‘Confetti’ (Confetti Lantana) that have been heavily sheared.  Butterflies such as fritillaries, western tiger swallowtails, sulfurs, and monarchs danced around flowers before their eventual hedge clipping.

Sitting there for hours on end, I completed a nature site analysis. How could I enhance a space celebrating the natural world, specifically, West Covina reimagined as a significant butterfly migration and feeding pathway?  These butterflies need all the help they could get!  I inventoried over 30 butterflies during my first day of jury duty. By day two, I included more transient natural wonders, such as hummingbirds, songbirds, and insects like honeybees in my count. With this new assignment, I felt a sense of calm and respite from the pressures of the courtroom. Even though it was clearly over 100 degrees outside, I really didn’t care.  It was rewarding to observe insects and birds moving across the campus without concern, or imagining re-engineering a barren rooftop into a working green roof that would act as a bridge for these traveling natural living jewels.

Deciding a stranger’s future – guilty or not guilty – within a court of law is a serious and difficult responsibility.  Fortunately, the gravity of my situation was counteracted by the great outdoors, its presence offering a calming respite…my very own therapy garden that provided hopeful perspective in an otherwise grim environment.

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The bench in front of the Engelmann Oak at the Los Angeles Arboretum. All photos by Kathy Rudnyk.

Just as my family tree in the San Gabriel Valley has changed over the generations, the various native plant communities within the same area have also been compromised. None more apparent than Southern Oak Woodland.  This community includes principal trees such as the Engelmann Oak (Quercus engelmannii), Coast Live Oak (Quercus agrifolia), Black Walnut (Juglans californica).  Of those three, the Engelmann Oak has suffered the greatest impact, but it has the treasured opportunity to be recognized for its beauty and unique distinction to San Gabriel Valley.

Once found throughout the San Gabriel Valley, the Engelmann Oak has most recently suffered greatly from insect and fungal pathogen damage, followed by poor cultural practices like overwatering. Urbanization and stress caused by drought and fires have also posed a greater threat to these legacy trees. The population has also been afflicted by a lack of availability in the trade until now. I was so inspired by seeing beautiful Engelmann Oaks at The Huntington Botanical Garden, Los Angeles County Arboretum, and this year’s Theodore Payne Annual Native Plant Tour, that I wanted to learn even more about its roots within the Southern Oak Woodland native plant community.

On the right: A young Engelmann Oak at the Huntington Library Botanical Garden.

For some unknown reason, my family and I have always enjoyed learning about our ancestors. Maybe it’s because we are all scientifically and oddly inquisitive – a family of nerds right at home in the land of JPL, CalTech and SpaceX. And we are all also surprisingly of sturdy stock like an oak tree.

My late grandfather respected the oak so much that he asked that the California Live Oak (Quercus agrifolia) be etched onto his tombstone. He also planted a White Oak (Quercus robur) close to his home. Exploring the genealogy of the Genus – Quercus and its relationships has helped me learn more about my own roots within Southern California.

Sadly, you can’t just go to Ancestors.com for answers about the roots of an actual tree. You need to go to a library of natural history. So off I went on a Saturday to the Los Angeles Arboretum. I culled the stacks and found a manuscript written by Bruce M. Pavlik titled, A Natural History of Southern California Oaks, with Emphasis on Those Occurring within the District.  After reading it, I hiked around the park for further inspiration about the Southern Oak Woodland native plant community.

Published in 1976, Pavlik’s manuscript shared many of the same concerns about the California native oaks within the Los Angeles district that are threatened today. Most significantly, he called for the protection of Engelmannn Oaks in response to the rapid urbanization of the San Gabriel Valley in the 1970s.  Prior to development, Engelmann Oaks were only threatened by horse and cattle grazing, which destroyed any opportunity for seedlings to flourish into trees around the valley floor. The young trees survived only along the ridge lines, because it was too dangerous for cattle and horses to graze upon their foliage.

Within its family tree/taxonomy, the Genus amongst California native oaks resides in the order of Fagales, consisting of the families Betulaceae and Fagaceae.  Birch (Betula), Alders (Alnus), and Hazelnut (Corylus) reside in the family of Betulaceae, and they are the closest of relatives of California native oaks.  Within the family Fagaceae are the Genus of oaks and their relatives, such as Chrysolepis, Quercus, and Lithocarpus.

The mid-sized, evergreen Engelmann Oak has the distinct characteristics of a California Live Oak, yet, instead of green leaves that are slightly serrated, it has vibrant blue-grayish-green leaves that are rather long in length and relatively unserrated edges.  The tree’s acorns have a slightly hairy underside on the cap. The acorns of this particular tree were harvested last by the native peoples for food, as acorns from other species like the Valley Oak (Quercus lobata) and Coastal Live Oak (Quercus agrifolia) tasted better or offered more nutrients.  Unfortunately for the Engelmann Oak, it was most preferred by the locals as firewood, as its wood seemed to burn the longest of all local hardwood trees.

An Engelmann Oak finds a few admirers during the 2017 Theodore Payne Native Plant Tour.

These impressive trees are rarely found north of Pasadena, and only along the northern side of a foothill, generally in thick stands within shallow soil supporting aromatic plants White Sage (Salvia apiana), California Buckwheat (Eriogonum fasciculatum), and California Sagebrush (Artemisia californica).  Along the valley floors and around mesas, Engelmann Oaks were surrounded by California Poppies (Eschscholzia californica) and Purple Needle Grass (Stipa pulchra) growing around the base of these majestic trees. I bet this was a very beautiful sight my ancestors enjoyed living in San Marino, Sierra Madre, and Monrovia prior to the mid-1850s. Engelmann Oaks were once spotted along a 50 mile wide beltway from Pasadena, all the way to Mexico, always at least 15 to 20 feet from the nearest coastline.

The Engelmann Oak shares the growth rate of the Coastal Live Oak, growing about 8’ in 5 years.  Of all the oaks, the Valley Oak grows the fastest at 15’ in 5 years. Lucky for us, the Engelmann Oak is now available to purchase from a local tree nursery, and it can still be found around growing within neighborhoods of Duarte, Pasadena, Azusa, and Glendora. The Los Angeles Arboretum and the Huntington Botanical Garden have a few that you can see, touch, study, and enjoy.  I really found walking through the tree’s dense pillow of foliage debris lining the way toward a bench underneath the massive tree at the LA Arboretum unlike anything I have ever done in Los Angeles.

Two Engelmann Oaks discovered in Pasadena using Google Earth.

I went onto Google Earth to continue searching for more EEngelmann Oaks within the area, looking out for a particular hue that helps identify the trees from others.  The Engelmann Oaks are fairly easy to spot based upon their color of foliage depicted on Google Earth.  It was like finding members of your family tree that you did not know existed. The activity made me want to look for even more Engelmann Oaks and determine how to enable further protection of them or build more colonies of these special trees unique to San Gabriel Valley.

Engelmann Oaks can help make the San Gabriel Valley a better and more beautiful community, while strengthening the native plant community of the Southern Oak Woodland. So hopefully everything I’ve shared above will compel others to appreciate and plant some of these wondrous native oaks.

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