There’s a joke I’ve sometimes told, a sort of Bechdel test for people who want to talk about Los Angeles: if you want me to respect your cultural analysis of this city, you need to go at least five minutes without mentioning Hollywood, celebrities, or the entertainment industry. Nothing marks a hack writer from out-of-town like an opening that remarks how L.A. doesn’t live up to the “glamorous” image suggested by movies; that trope was old by the time Raymond Chandler was churning out novels. In a city as vast and dynamic as Los Angeles, Hollywood is such a small part of it that most people here don’t spend any of their time thinking about it.
This is a test that City of Ghosts effortlessly passes with flying colors. Of the thousands upon thousands of depictions of Los Angeles in film and television and video games and music videos, City of Ghosts is one of the few examples I can point to and say, “yes, that is L.A.” The Los Angeles of this show is the one I know from my day-to-day life: the Los Angeles of fruit carts, of little Art Deco movie theaters, or rolling hills and hidden staircases, of uneven sidewalks, of kids running down the street, of constant change, of people. Of all the city’s people and all their stories, the personal histories that coalesce into narratives that tell of deep-rooted communities, all of which fly in the face of the city’s maligned reputation as superficial and individualistic.
City of Ghosts, an animated series distributed by Netflix, follows a group of children who live in Los Angeles and learn about the history and various communities of the city by meeting ghosts. The ghosts are all charming, friendly, and happy to share their stories. Crucially, the ghosts are all voiced by actual representatives of the communities being depicted in the show’s photo-realistic backgrounds, adapted from actual photographs, lending the series a quasi-documentarian nature. The plot of each episode is very light-hearted and suited for children, generally revolving around a low-stakes mystery that involves a ghost, yet the show is also willing to touch on more serious matters like gentrification, racial discrimination, and colonialization. That the show can make such topics approachable to children, and without centralizing them to the extent that they overshadow the triumphs and vitality of these communities, is a testament to the skill and consideration of the show’s creators. These are not victims to be mourned, they are people to be celebrated.
Released in March of this year, City of Ghosts came onto our screens at a crucial moment for us here at Transiting. After an entire year of being stuck inside, having to moderate our movements and living in fear of engaging directly with the people around us, the show reminded us of the beauty and joy to be found in exploration and engaging with the city. Places we had spent a year avoiding were being presented to us just as we remembered them, and it was like being greeted by old friends. Where countless writers and cultural commentators have tried and failed over the decades to capture the “essence” of Los Angeles, Elizabeth Ito and the many other creators of City of Ghosts succeeded in six short episodes of animation.
Thus, we are very pleased to be able to share an interview we conducted with Elizabeth Ito, the creator of City of Ghosts, as well as a guide to the locations seen in each episode, which we’ve interspersed throughout the interview. Enjoy!
Growing up in Los Angeles, what parts of the city were you most familiar with?
Ito: Probably a lot of Westside areas: Santa Monica, Culver City, Venice. I was born in Santa Monica. My parents lived in the Crenshaw area and they still live there in the same house. But my mom taught on the west side of town, in Santa Monica. The school that I went to for elementary school, that she taught at, is I think the second-oldest schoolhouse in LA. It had a bell tower in the library because it used to be a one-room schoolhouse and it ended up just being a library. But at any rate, I just remember it being a big deal when you were in, I think in 5th or 6th grade, you got to go ring the bell when school let out. I think it’s not on a rope anymore, I’m pretty sure it’s just a button, if they do it at all.
And I had family that was in various parts of LA, like my mom’s parents moved around a bit but for the most part they were in Mid-City and then Marina del Rey. But they went to church in Koreatown, they were part of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church. Sometimes we’d go to Gardena because there’s a lot of Japanese people there. Honestly, some of Boyle Heights too because we’d go to the cemetery there to visit relatives that were in there, and a lot of relatives that were in Keiro, I don’t know what it’s called now, I think it’s something else, but an assisted-living place that was predominately Japanese American. It’s right next to another place where my grandpa ended up called Hollenbeck Palms, that’s another nursing home right next door. There’s some beautiful older buildings there. Like every part of LA, there’s some part that’s like that where it’s either old apartments or old houses. Like even Hollenbeck Palms, the buildings there felt very old.
It was just all of these places that were, because it’s LA, kind of far apart from each other, but not really that far apart. It’s really hard to describe when people don’t come from LA.
What got you interested in LA history?
Ito: Honestly, I think it is just loving the older parts of LA that I didn’t know why it was like that. Like the first one I think of is Leimert Park, cause I remember my parents had friends who had an apartment there, and I think after we had gone a couple times to her apartment, I had asked them, these apartments seem really nice. They kind of reminded me of some of the apartments in the Wilshire district and around there, and I just thought, it’s really weird that it doesn’t seem like this area is as rich for some reason as the area close to Wilshire. And I don’t know why that is, because these buildings are just as cool. And I remember my dad mentioning, yeah, it is really similar and there are a lot of really, really nice apartment buildings in Leimert, it’s just that people don’t feel as safe in this area so they haven’t moved in. This was a while ago so I think it’s changing, but it is just that fascination with the beautiful old architecture in LA that I never got a full explanation from anybody about why it’s like that there.
“The Sort of Japanese Restaurant”
The first episode of City of Ghosts explores the Eastside neighborhood of Boyle Heights, focusing on the Japanese community that used to live here. Given the almost exclusively Latino makeup of the neighborhood today, it often comes as a surprise that Japanese Americans played such a big role in the history of Boyle Heights. Establishing shots of the neighborhood show Mariachi Plaza, with its distinctive gazebo and colorful, shell-shaped entrance to its underground Metro station; Hollenbeck Park just a few blocks south, with its lake and splendid view of the Downtown skyline; and the bustling intersection of Cesar Chavez and Soto.
The main setting of the episode is Chef Jo’s new restaurant, which occupies an empty commercial building at East 4th and Fresno Streets, just west of the scenic Lorena Bridge. This building wasn’t chosen at random: although it’s empty today, it once held the Fuji Cafe, a Japanese restaurant mentioned as a frequent haunt by the ghost in this episode.
The Fuji Cafe may be gone, but one Japanese restaurant still thrives in Boyle Heights: Otomisan, at 2506 1st Street (just one block east of Soto). In fact, the voice of the ghost in this episode is Judy Hayashi, the daughter of the owner of Otomisan, and you owe it to try their pan-fried gyoza highlighted in the episode. Another special reminder of the neighborhood’s Japanese community is the large Japanese section of Evergreen Cemetery, which you can enter from Evergreen Avenue just a little ways up 1st Street from Otomisan.
All of the Boyle Heights locations are easily reached by the Metro Gold Line, which runs under 1st Street through the neighborhood, stopping at Mariachi Plaza, 1st & Soto, and Indiana between 1st and 3rd Streets.
What role have ghosts played in your life?
Ito: Oh, a big one! From a really young age I saw one, like when I was five or six-ish. I’m pretty sure it was my great-grandma, my mom’s grandmother, cause it was on a leap year and she wasn’t alive anymore, and it was one of the first leap years after she had passed. I was a very imaginative and anxious kid, like I would get nervous going to the bathroom at night by myself cause I’d get scared of flushing the toilet (laughs), which is really silly, but I just remember being afraid of it for that particular reason. And then this one night I happened to look out in the hallway and I thought I saw this foggy shape. And my dad confirmed that he saw the same type of thing the next morning even though they didn’t come out to help me (laughs). I think there are some spaces that feel as if there’s something present in them. Sometimes I’ve had dreams where people appear in them and I don’t know if that’s a chemical imbalance or if it’s real so I think I just choose to believe it’s all connected and real and there’s some sort of energy there.
So how did you transition from that spooky feeling of encountering a ghost to the idea that they have something to teach us or tell us or they want to help us out?
Ito: Yeah, I think for me personally, naturally-speaking, I’m scared too. If somebody told me some place was haunted it wouldn’t be my first instinct to go check it out (laughs). But I think when I thought about it in regards to relatives or people that you miss, I really did think about, why do I instinctively avoid it? Like if somebody told me that place is haunted but then maybe if they added, “It’s your grandma,” I would think, oh, I want to see my grandma again! So I think in that respect that show is a little bit me trying to drop that fear and think of it more like, it would be nice to sometimes talk to these people. Even though the concept of a ghost is a scary thing, it’d be nice to set it aside to just be able to be like, “Hey, what’s up? What do you want to talk about? Why are you back?”
How did you come to work for Netflix? And could you tell us a little about the conception of City of Ghosts?
Ito: I came to work for Netflix because some executives I knew had seen my short from Cartoon Network that I did called Welcome to My Life that was about my brother. And I think initially we had planned for me to come there to try to turn that into a full show. But it was still basically owned by Cartoon Network, so when it became difficult to get the rights to that they were basically like, “Oh, do you have any other ideas you want to make into a show?” The thing that I came there on was called a “show-verall” which is a pun about an overall deal which is normally something where you’re brought into a studio to create stuff. And I think in this case they were bringing in a group of people where each of them was definitely going to make a show for them. And when I got there they kind of were encouraging people to come up with stuff that you couldn’t really make anywhere else or would help them build a studio that was built differently from every other place that existed. It is interesting to me because Netflix has the power to make shows that aren’t even format-wise exactly the same as what we’re used to, because they don’t have to show ads, they don’t have to show credits if they don’t want to, for the most part they don’t (laughs). Like you can skip the intro, so that was another weird thing. Yeah, so I think it was just being brought there to make something that I already knew somebody wanted to take a chance on, something that was different in a way that I wanted to do something different.
And then City of Ghosts was basically an idea that came up because I wanted to keep the same format of making something that was documentary-like but not exactly a documentary. And doing it about something where it expanded what I was talking about. Cause with my short it was easier for me to picture how it would all go because it’s my brother and my family. But with City of Ghosts I was like, well, I’m going to have all these people that I don’t know, about all these things that I don’t know about. I remember talking to somebody there about, well, if I can manage to make this show, City of Ghosts, then if I want to do another show that’s about family or something smaller then it’ll be a lot easier next time I try (laughs). So that’s kind of how that happened.
The focal point of this episode is the wildly popular Venice Beach Skatepark, situated right on the beach near the end of Windward Avenue. Right next to it are the remains of the “Graffiti Pit” referenced by the skateboarding ghost of the episode, where Venice’s skateboarding youth would show their stuff in an era before skate parks. The reputation of the pit was such that the city tore it up, removing the tables and cement top that skateboarders used and burying the rest of it under beach sand, although the graffiti-covered conical structures are still in place sticking out of the sand, and now officially deemed the “Venice Art Walls.”
Many of the features of the surrounding park show up in the episode, from the colossal sculpture “Declaration” (which looks like a giant compass anchored to the ground) to the brick-walled benches over by the handball courts. Just inland from the park, surrounding the intersection of Windward and Pacific Avenues, are the iconic Venetian-style arcades that adorn many of the street-facing facades along this block. The skate shop in the episode, Moomat Board Shop, is based on long-standing surf shop ZJ Boarding House, located way up at Main Street and Ocean Park Blvd in the Ocean Park neighborhood of Santa Monica.
The other primary location in the episode is the alley where the kids find the “creature” made from trash collected around the neighborhood. Although we couldn’t locate the exact alley, it is likely in the neighborhood of Oakwood, a quieter section of Venice between Abbot Kinney and Lincoln Boulevards north of Venice Blvd. Oakwood was once a predominately African American community, with black employees hired by Venice developer Abbot Kinney being among the first to settle in the neighborhood. Although it’s heavily gentrified today, it still has a lot of tranquil back alleys where you might stumble upon something beautiful. A couple of Oakwood locations make an appearance in the show: the Fox Swap Meet (formerly a theater, still with its distinctive sign) at 620 Lincoln Blvd, and the Oakwood Recreation Center, a local park and playground in the middle of the neighborhood at Oakwood and California Avenues.
The best buses for reaching Venice are the Big Blue Bus #1 and the Metro #33, which both run down Main Street just a few blocks inland from the beach, and both connect to the Expo Line station in Downtown Santa Monica.
Thinking of all the roles that everyone in the Ghost Club had, like the person who’s selecting samples, the photographer, the mapmaker, the interviewer, what role do you think you would have taken when you were a child?
Ito: I probably would have been the map person, honestly a little like Zelda, because I’m pretty exploratory like that. I don’t know about being in front of a camera though, because I didn’t like that when I was a kid, so I would probably say either the mapmaker or the artifact specialist, because I liked objects. It’s really funny though when we were trying to figure that out, like who each person would be, we talked about how it’s funny when you think about being in a club as a little kid, you would come up with these little groups with your friends and you would become the expert on something just because you happened to have a vague interest in it. Like if you liked to draw, you would be the guy who did all the flyers and be the artist of the group, even if you weren’t the only one that could draw, but they pegged you as that.
You clearly took pains to accurately represent places in Los Angeles that typically get overlooked in media representations of the city. But you’re also working with Hollywood, which is an industry that tends to reflect a pretty narrow understanding of LA. In working with that industry, were there any pitfalls you were trying to avoid in your depiction of Los Angeles?
Ito: Yeah, some of them weren’t even immediate thoughts of “I need to avoid that.” But if I think of a specific example, the 6th episode, the one about Koreatown and the Oaxacan community, I remember when I started that episode just trying to figure out what the idea was going to be for it. I was talking to my supervising director, Luis, and the idea I had was something where the person who hears the ghost was a security guard working at a swap meet, and late at night he’s been whistling and he thinks he saw Chepe the Ghost. Korean culture has a superstition that you shouldn’t whistle at night because it’ll attract, I don’t know if it’s demons or, I think it’s snakes or tigers, but something will come out of the dark and get you if you whistle at night. And I had also concurrently heard about this whistling language that they have in Oaxaca. So I thought, okay, maybe this is how I combine these two things. And I remember Luis was very adamant, “Can we not make the Latino character a security guard or a janitor or anything like that? Can we make sure that we’re really consciously making these characters people that we don’t normally see depicted this way?” And so we came up with, well we came up with it because he actually was a professor, but we met Felipe. And Felipe and Gala and then the Maqueos family, none of them had anything to do with things that people typically show Latino characters being in a lot of media. We tried to make efforts in that way of, “what’s some way that we are used to people showing these cultures in Los Angeles, and how can we subvert that with who we’re presenting as the authorities and who these characters are?” So I think stuff like that was important.
I think with Leimert too, the first time I remember seeing my neighborhood when I was watching a movie was in Boyz in the Hood. They were driving down Crenshaw and I remember being like, “Hey, that car dealership is close to my house!” There was some point too where my mom said something like, “No one ever says it, but I have this feeling that some of your friends’ parents don’t want them to come over here because we live too close to this part of town that they don’t think is safe.” I remember it made her feel kind of embarrassed. I think I always had this sense of, it would be nice to show this area where we’re not necessarily talking about gangsters and shootings and things like that.
The heart of Leimert Park is a compact business district formed by the triangle of Crenshaw Blvd, Leimert Blvd, and 43rd Street, with nearly all of the locations in this episode set along a charming two-block stretch of Degnan Blvd in the very center of the neighborhood. Leimert Park Plaza sits at the southern end of the street, right around the corner from an under-construction Metro station on the future Crenshaw Line. It’s still the heart of the neighborhood, with its grassy lawns and picturesque fountain, although as the episode notes, its vitality was somewhat undercut when the city installed a fence around the park. On the north side of the park is the Vision Theater, with its iconic sign towering over the building.
Just a block up Degnan Blvd is the Hot and Cool Cafe, a local Black-owned coffee shop and vegan cafe, as well as the main setting of the episode. As the poetry reading in the episode demonstrates, the cafe hosts a lot of art and music events. Just a few doors up the street is the Ride On! Bike Shop/Co-Op, which shows up in a establishing shot of the neighborhood, and at the end of the block is the Barbara Morrison Performing Arts Center, identified by one of the children as the place where she learned to dance. Barbara Morrison herself appears in the episode, lending her voice (and singing talent!) as an ambassador for Leimert Park. The arts center is also serving as the current home of the California Jazz and Blues Museum featured in the episode (appointments required).
In the near future, Leimert Park will be directly served by a new Metro Rail line. But in the meantime, the neighborhood is served by the frequent Metro #40, #105, and #210 buses, with the #210 being just a short ride to the Expo/Crenshaw station on the Expo Line.
I heard that one of the ideas considered for the show was an episode about Metro and public transit. Could you tell us anything about what you had envisioned for that episode?
Ito: Yeah, it was actually the one that turned into “Bob and Nancy.” Cause I knew about how the Atomic Cafe had been in that building that, I think at the time they tore it down it was like Senor Fish or something, but it was this old brick building and I remember hearing that they said you could buy this building for a dollar, but you would be responsible for the cost of relocating it to preserve it. And I think I read it and I was like, oh, it’s like one of those CD clubs where you pay nothing for the first thing you get and then you have to buy however many more. Hearing that, I thought, well, they’re tearing it down, I wonder if there’s a way we can do a story where it’s about this station and it’s Atomic Nancy’s ghost is there causing a ruckus.
There was that idea, and there was some idea that we do one that’s multiple parts, where one part would be about the Red Car, one part would be about the current Metro, and then I forget what the other component was. I think one thing was we just weren’t sure about the Red Car aspect of it because it was so in the past that we were sort of like, I wonder if this will be as universal as something dealing with the current Metro. The other part of it was I think we checked in before writing a whole idea with Metro about what it costs to photograph or to film or to do these things at the station. And it looked like it was going to be kind of expensive, so we were like, oh, well if we’re going to have all of this stuff where we have to photograph it and get all these permits and do all this stuff, this just might not be affordable for our production. I think at some point we were like, maybe we can wrap in Union Station and that was a whole other part of it because I think they have their own whole filming requirement because it’s so historic. So I was just like, “Uh, you know what, maybe we can find a simpler idea that we can afford on our budget.” (laughs)
Well even if there isn’t a full episode devoted to Metro, I do have to complement the transit that does appear in the show. Like the Boyle Heights episode, where you can see the Mariachi Plaza station entrance and a bus, and Atomic Nancy’s story. I appreciated how transit was represented as part of the culture and landscape of Los Angeles.
Ito: I’m glad you noticed! My editor on the show, Hugo, we went to junior high and high school together, and I know a lot more about public transit because he’s never had a car the whole time he’s lived here.
Do you have an experience riding transit that you want to share that was really memorable for you?
Ito: I can’t think of a specific day, but there’s been various points in my life where I’ve tried to avoid commuting by car. I remember at one point I was living in Pasadena but I was working in Sherman Oaks. I think the studio I was working at was literally in the Galleria. So the commute was just really starting to get to me a lot, because there’s certain junctures on the freeway where it just ruins your day to have to deal with. So I had started trying to take the, I think it was the special commuter buses that are kinda plush inside, to the studio that I was working at. And I also had tried to combine it with riding a bike, so I bought this expensive folding bike because I didn’t want to leave it outside, cause I kinda had bad experiences leaving bikes outside. So I bought that bike and I would ride the bus to the closest station, and I really enjoyed doing that and I enjoyed even the moments where at certain times it was unenjoyable but funny. Like I remember there was a junior high-aged kid who rode by on a little bike and he saw my folded up bike and he was like, “Woah! Where did you get that bike? How much was it?!” And I told him, it was about $2,000, and he was like, “That’s a lot of money! Why didn’t you save that to buy a car?” (laughs) So I was just like, “I…I don’t know, man. I don’t have an answer for you, I guess I just wanted this bike. Okay, see ya.” And I was kinda amazed that you can still get burned by someone in junior high when you’re an adult.
Another thing was just the pleasantness of, I guess it’s kinda eavesdropping, when you’re listening to the bus driver talking to somebody that rides all the time that sits in front. I enjoyed listening to that, hearing that banter. So that worked for a while, and then I changed studios and I wound up going from Pasadena to Culver City, and that commute was also… not great (laughs). I think before the Metro line that goes out there opened, I was trying to do the thing where I rode my bike to a certain point and then ride the bus from Union Station to Culver City. Definitely had a lot of experiences where the bus was so crowded that I’d start sweating before I got to my stop, because I’d worry about having to shuffle through all these people with my folded up bike and upsetting people. So I was really glad when the Metro created a line going through there. It was so much better, I don’t get stuck in traffic with everybody when I’m on the train. But yeah, I’ve always really looked forward to trying to combine things like riding a bike with taking the train or the bus. And also now that I have kids, I remember my son ended up going to Amsterdam with my husband for a trip and they kept talking about going on this yellow train or something. And I think he thought they were leaving before the trip was actually happening, so I sort of said, “Well, let’s try riding the yellow train that’s here, the Gold Line, we’ll go take that.” And he was really happy about that.
This poignant episode takes place in a set of parks and green spaces across Central Los Angeles, where Angelenos reconnect with nature and, as illustrated in the episode, with those who enjoyed the land before us. The opening shot of the episode is of the 101 Freeway as it cuts through Downtown near Union Station; this isn’t merely to set a contrast with the serene settings of the rest of the episode. This particular section of freeway covers the site of what was once Yaanga, the largest of the known villages of the native Tongva people.
Most of the episode takes place in Vista Hermosa Natural Park, off 1st Street just west of Downtown. The park is beautiful and a joy to explore, with grassy meadows, picturesque views of the Downtown skyline, a little waterfall and stream, and a playground with play features modeled after native animals, like a slide wrapping around a giant turtle and a snake emerging out of the ground.
The other main setting of the episode is the Los Angeles River, particularly the scenic Glendale Narrows section between Glendale and Elysian Valley. This is one of the few stretches of the river that has trees growing in the river bed, since the water table is too high here for it to be covered in concrete. A bike path runs along this section of the river, giving you a chance to enjoy the scenery and admire the resilient wildlife. The stretch along Frogtown south of Fletcher Drive is particularly scenic, with a couple of cafes along the bike path and a handful of parks, including another playground with snake and turtle sculptures in Marsh Park just off the trail.
The other location of note is Elysian Park, which provides the spectacular views of the city used in several establishing shots and the closing of the episode. Grand View Drive, in the northeastern corner of the park, is where you’ll find the view of the river and the adjacent Metrolink train yard seen in the show, and on a clear day you can see the mountains in all their glory. Elysian Fields, in the very center of the park, is where you’ll find the large meadow where the picnic at the end of the episode takes place, and it has a great view into Dodger Stadium and of the Downtown skyline beyond.
Vista Hermosa Natural Park is a short walk from stops on Metro #14 on 1st Street and Metro #10 and #92 on Temple Street, although you can also just walk on 1st from Downtown for more transit options. Metro #96 and #603 are the best for reaching the Los Angeles River, with #96 running parallel to the river along Riverside Drive and #603 crossing the river on Fletcher Drive. Elysian Park is a lot trickier, since no transit directly serves the park; your best bet would be to take Metro #2 or #4 on Sunset Blvd to Echo Park, and then hike up to the park from there.
What are some of the other places you wanted to include in the show?
Ito: Oh, man… I mean I wish we had gotten to do one on the Santa Monica Jewish community center that I went to when I was little. I’m trying to think what places we didn’t get to do, like Elysian Park and Dodger Stadium. I dunno, there’s so many that I forget about it and then I’ll be driving through there or walking somewhere and go, “Oh yeah, this place too.” Lately, I thought about all the places with stairs that people exercise on. I know in Santa Monica, right by the elementary school that I went to, there were these stairs that went from Santa Monica Canyon up to the bluffs and the park. I remember people would work out there all the time, so those were interesting. But there were a lot of other stairs like that.
Honestly, I think Glendale a little bit, because there’s an Armenian community out here that I still would love to know more about. I know a little bit, but not as much as I would like to. Maybe even more than specific areas it’s almost just cultural things that I didn’t really get to incorporate into the show. That would be nice to have a few more episodes to talk about. I don’t know, one of the areas I thought of, but I guess it’s not really within “close” LA, is San Pedro and the harbor, especially with all the stuff happening right now, where there’s a lot of things that are backed up there right now.
Given how much history LA has, how did you decide what you wanted to portray?
Ito: A lot of what I wanted to show was really trying to find stuff that you could present to kids. Like Elysian Park, for example, that one was difficult because we wanted to have an optimistic show. And also it’s technically harder on my side of things to pitch ideas to studio execs where it’s not very cheerful. We were trying to figure out a way to talk about houselessness and just what that is here, and I think that would have been a little difficult for many reasons, cause it’s hard to find people to talk to who have lived that life. I’m not sure but you never know how to get people to be willing to share their story and whether they’re comfortable with it and making them into a figure that’s viewable on a show.
Something I find very admirable about City of Ghosts is the universalism of the premise. You could literally set this show in any city in the world, because every city has ghosts. Every city has stories to be told. So, if you had to set a season of the show somewhere besides LA, what city would you like to explore?
Ito: Somebody had started a poll on Twitter asking the same thing, I think. Initially I would say the Bay Area, cause it’s just the second-most familiar city for me. But then another person brought up New Orleans, and I’ve never been there, but I would really like to go there and it’s fascinating to me because it’s just so distinctly different than LA. I thought about that, I thought about maybe even something that’s adjacent to LA but not within LA, like a suburb or, like what if there was a Ghost Club in Palm Springs? And that one is selfish to me because anytime I’ve been to Palm Springs or any sort of community that’s like that, where a lot of it has to do with people just visiting there or vacationing, I’m always really curious about what is life actually like there for people who live there all the time. Same for whenever I’ve gone on a road trip up to the Bay Area or up to northern parts of California, I wonder that all the time about the places that you stop and get gas, like what would it be like to grow up here as a kid or live on a farm or stuff like that.
What’s your favorite memory from making the show?
Ito: There’s so many! So many really fun things. I really enjoyed this session we did with JMD, the drummer from the Leimert episode. I had kind of always had it in my head, once we knew what the episode was going to be about, that it would be cool if there was a way we could get his drumming as a rhythm to the show and combine that with poetry. In the show, it’s written by Eva, but I was really excited that it came together for Kirikou to read the poem that she wrote and then have JMD drum along. So I think one of my favorite memories is definitely JMD coming to our composer’s studio and they did a session where we played the animatic and he drummed along and we did a few takes and we just kinda jammed on it. And then ultimately we got Barbara Morrison to come do singing on it, and I think all of those moments combined was this really awesome thing that I’ve never experienced on another show, where we got this cool jazz singer to come. It was only a couple lines that she sung, but it was just so fun. It was all these relatively improvisational things that we came up with that all came together for a really good vibe.
“Bob & Nancy”
This is the goofiest and most lighthearted episode of the series, and also the one that has the fewest locations, with only a couple to note. “Atomic Nancy” Seikizawa steals the show, telling of her old haunt, the legendary Atomic Cafe in Little Tokyo. Opened by her parents in 1946, this diner became a popular hangout in LA’s punk rock scene from the ’70s onward, until its closing in 1989. The building was later demolished to make way for the new Metro Rail underground station in Little Tokyo, currently under construction.
The primary location for this episode is the Bob Baker Marionette Theater at York and Avenue 50 in Highland Park. A beloved puppet theater that’s been entertaining children for decades, the theater had just moved from its original location near Echo Park to its new digs at the York Theater at the time of the episode’s release. The theater was in danger of closing down as a result of the pandemic, but thanks to a successful fundraising campaign the theater managed to stay open and the show is still going on. Additionally, there’s a really wonderful playground just across the street, with an elaborate slide shaped like a snake, if you take your kids to visit. (Coincidentally, the old location of the Bob Baker Marionette Theater was across the street from Vista Hermosa Park, where the snake sculpture in the show is.)
Since there are so few locations in this episode, we might as well take this opportunity to mention the one that shows up in nearly every episode: the Central Library in Downtown, where Ghost Club holds their meetings. Besides the wealth of information and entertainment you have access to, the library is a beautiful building with lots of art and stunning architecture to explore. Admire the colorful chandeliers in the atrium of the Tom Bradley Wing, and head upstairs to the second floor to see the stunning rotunda in the original building, with its painted ceiling and globe chandelier.
You can reach the Bob Baker Marionette Theater on the Metro #182 bus, which runs along York, or by the Metro Micro service in Highland Park. The Central Library is just two blocks from 7th/Metro, the busiest Metro station in the entire system and served by dozens of bus routes.
Has the pandemic affected your view of Los Angeles?
Ito: Not really. One thing coming out of it that I think is a different point of view than I had before was that, as somebody that drives mostly, I think driving is something that people need to practice (laughs). Because when we were first in it there was no traffic for a while, which was amazing. And then there was traffic again, sooner than I was ready for, I didn’t expect it. And then driving felt different, it was like, oh, people are still freaked out or something, because people are driving, I dunno, just differently. So that was one thing that changed my perception of LA a little bit.
I don’t know, it was such a wild time. Coming out of it, I think some stuff that made me really hopeful was that I saw a lot of my friends banding together to help people. I saw Zen and Nancy and a lot of people I just knew from life, they all came together in Little Tokyo to help people charge their devices and to offer them food and various things and they’re helping to protect unhoused people from a lot of the violence of their stuff getting swept away. So it was interesting to me personally because it was all of these people that I didn’t know and knew each other, coming together to do this thing and then realizing this place, even though it’s sprawling, the community itself is pretty tight-knit and looks out for each other. So that was nice.
I got a kick out of the indie theaters making a really nice effort to, I mean I guess it’s for their survival, but I remember the Gardena cinema started doing a drive-in thing for a while. They might still do it, but I remember thinking this is really nice, it’s really nice that people are still finding ways for us to get out and do things that help us feel not trapped.
What do you see for the future of Los Angeles?
Ito: I mean, I don’t know. I want to be hopeful, but there’s parts of it that are… like, I don’t know how they’re going to reverse it. Like the number one thing on the top of my head is rent. Rent is incredibly high. For the most part, houses are out of the range of average people to own. My hope is that we get better at solving that problem, and I don’t know how to solve it, obviously (laughs). But I had a lot of friends that were hoping to find houses during the pandemic or towards the end of it. And even people that I knew, where they’re not broke, but they still can’t afford to purchase houses at the same rate as whoever it is that’s scooping them up. I don’t think it’s regular people getting them, I think it’s developers and people like that. I think my ultimate hope is that somehow LA becomes less developer-driven and more driven by us trying to have a really solid and supportive community. Even saying it out loud there’s some voice in my head going, “Yeah, right.” (laughs) But I think that would be my hope for where it goes, I just think there has to be something that happens with the cost of living here, where it has to somehow go down, otherwise people just legit are not going to be able to live here.
I am hopeful that there’s various groups that are striking, and one of the big ones for LA is the IATSE union. I really hope that’s effective in at least helping some people make as much money as they should be making, for the kind of things they’re being asked to do, and they stop asking people to do ridiculous things for the sake of these movies that are really expensive. I think seeing how that goes, seeing how all the other various labor disputes go, I think that’ll mean a lot for what trajectory we’re on.
Fittingly, the establishing shots for this episode are of the Koreatown sign at Olympic Blvd and Oxford Avenue (just a block east of Western Avenue), as well as the Olyford Plaza shopping center just across the street, one of the many two-story strip malls full of wonderful local businesses typical of the neighborhood. Two other locations from the episode are just around the corner up Western Avenue: Western Comics, a comic book store in a strip mall between 7th and 8th Streets, and IB Plaza, a former shopping center in an old parking garage just south of 8th that has an imposing, multi-tiered façade with Art Deco detailing (unfortunately, it is currently fenced off and undergoing redevelopment).
Koreatown is a mix of different cultures, and this episode focuses particularly on the local Oaxacan community centered around the southern edge of the neighborhood. The Oaxacan music school in the episode is the Maqueos Music Academy at 2833 W. Pico Blvd, just a block west of Normandie. This stretch of Pico is lined with many Oaxacan businesses, so much so that it’s sometimes referred to as the “Oaxacan Corridor.” The other major Koreatown location appearing in the episode is Soot Bull Jeep at 8th and Catalina, the popular Korean barbecue restaurant that turns out to be the haunt of Chepe, a colorful Oaxacan spirit.
Lastly, though far from Koreatown, it’s worth mentioning the office of Felipe Lopez, the language professor who helps the Ghost Club find Chepe and translate for him. His office is on the UCLA campus in Rolfe Hall, which sits directly behind the iconic Royce Hall in the very center of campus. Fittingly enough, Rolfe Hall is home to the university’s Center of World Languages in real life.
Olympic and Western is a fairly short walk south from the Metro Purple Line station at Wilshire/Western, or you can take the frequent Metro #28 bus down Olympic. Pico Blvd is served by the frequent Metro #30 bus. Soot Bull Jeep is an easy walk from the Vermont/Wilshire Metro station, where you can catch the Red and Purple Lines.
Do you have any future projects in the works?
Ito: I’m working on a short film (that I’m hoping becomes more) with Chromosphere that’s about shopping malls. Our first short is about a Mongolian barbecue restaurant, and the specific one that the people are from is the one in the Burbank mall. But that project I’m excited about, because during the pandemic one of the documentaries I watched that I really enjoyed was Jasper Mall. It’s about a dying mall, but a legit real mall with real people. And I just started thinking that I actually miss shopping malls, especially because we were all trapped in our houses. And there was so much stuff that happened in malls for me as a kid and as a teenager that I think it’d be cool to just revisit that and hear those kinds of stories that other people have of shopping malls.
We kinda went on a scouting thing to look at different malls. We’re making the project through Unreal, so we’re trying to use something that’s normally used to build video games to build this short, and it’s been really exciting. But we went to visit some so we could get a picture of what kind of mall we’re talking about. And it was really interesting to see some of them are dying, but some of them have reinvigorated themselves. Specifically, I’m thinking of the Santa Anita Mall that we went to, where I knew I had gone there at least ten years ago and it felt really sleepy, and then when I went this time I was like, “Wow, this is a happening place now! What happened?!” (laughs) I think we talked about it a little because my producer from City of Ghosts was helping on that project too. And she had had experience in Asia and she was like, “This is like I’m just in Singapore, this is crazy, this mall.”
Lastly, where would you take someone visiting Los Angeles?
Ito: Somebody asked me this before and I think I said, and this is still true, that it would depend on what they were into and how quirky they are. One place that I really miss that I haven’t actually been to in a while was the Museum of Jurassic Technology. Honestly, I still really love the Observatory. I’d probably take someone to the Griffith Observatory because it’s pretty cool there and the hikes around there are really neat. So, depending on their fitness level, I might take them on a hike up to the top, because it’s pretty inspiring, it’s cool to see all the different little nooks of Griffith Park, like the Old Zoo and Amir’s Garden. A lot of the places that I like to take people, Huell Howser has gone to, so that’s a really good list of things that he’s visited. I’m a big fan of Philippe’s, the French dip restaurant, so I might take them there. I think that would be a good starter pack. Oh, and if they were into Old Hollywood, I would probably go to eat at Musso and Frank with them, because that’s a very Old Hollywood-feeling bar and place to eat.