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Leo Politi painted scenes of Bunker Hill before its Victorian mansions were demolished.
Images courtesy of the Italian American Museum of Los Angeles

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Capturing the soul of the city he loved

Celebrated street artist Leo Politi chronicled a changing Los Angeles

When the city began bulldozing the Los Angeles neighborhood he loved—the neighborhood he lived inLeo Politi protested in the only way he knew how.

He made art.

Bunker Hill had captivated his imagination from the moment he arrived from Fresno in the mid-1930s and set up his easel on Olvera Street, sketching portraits of tourists to make a living.

Once city officials won the right, in the early ’60s, to clear out over 130 acres of the Downtown neighborhood they deemed to be slums, he trained his paintbrush with an eye toward preserving what soon would be gone. Holding out to the last minute, he and his wife relocated nearby to 415 East Edgeware in nearby Angelino Heights, where he lived until his death in 1996.

Bunker Hill, 1960, by Politi.

The curator of a new exhibition of Politi’s work at the Italian American Museum of Los Angeles says it’s not by accident that she zeroed in on the artist, who grew up in and was educated in Italy, now.

Marianna Gatto, who also serves as the museum’s executive director, says Politi’s work is timely and relevant, and echoes a number of conversations currently taking place in Los Angeles—conversations about “changing communities, who belongs, and how we balance development with the preservation of history.”

Those same issues were on Politi’s mind as he made his way around his beloved adopted hometown of Los Angeles on foot and with mass transit, often with his wife Helen by his side. He never owned a car, says Gatto, which allowed him to experience the area, and the people in it, more intimately.

The author of more than a dozen children’s books, Politi was awarded a Caldecott medal in 1950 for his Song of the Swallows, set in Mission San Juan Capistrano and became known, Gatto says, as the “Italian Dr. Seuss.” He was revered for capturing a diversity of people, children in particular.

The Watts Towers (left) and fireworks, a Los Angeles tradition, over Downtown (right).

His paintings of buildings and neighborhoods were imbued with the same reverence he showed for humans.

“Not only did he see the soul in people, he saw the soul of a house,” says his son, Paul Politi, “Once he painted a house, he wanted to know the history of the house and the people who lived in it.”

That’s perhaps most evident in a series of paintings he made that became the 1964 book, Bunker Hill, Los Angeles: Reminiscences of Bygone Days.

Each of the paintings in the book celebrates one of the architectural wonders that were about to be destroyed in order to redevelop the neighborhood, as well as the people who lived in them.

In 1965, the Los Angeles Public Library acquired more than 20 of those paintings for $3,000. A library spokesperson says Politi’s art was last publicly displayed in 2015.

Politi illustrated children marching over a now-shuttered pedestrian bridge that spans Echo Park Lake.

To his son’s lament, none are on view at the Italian-American Museum. But the show Gatto has assembled, up through May 19th, includes some pieces that have never been seen before.

One watercolor and gouache painting from an unpublished book, circa 1968, depicts The Pike amusement park in Long Beach, demolished in 1979.

Also represented are places that still remain but have changed with time. Gatto points to Politi’s painting of a long-ago Lotus Festival in Echo Park, where a parade of people walk over the pedestrian footbridge, a structure contemporary visitors know has been shuttered for years.

Bits of Politi dot other parts of southern California. His 1978 mural, The Blessing of the Animals, can be seen at the Biscailuz Building just east of Olvera Street.

A mural he painted at the South Pasadena Public library for a $200 commission in 1957 still remains, as does a bronze sculpture of his that sits outside its entrance.

An elementary school in Koreatown bears his name, as does the corner of Sunset and Echo Park Boulevards, and a picnic area in Elysian Park.

To see his work on the walls of the museum in the oldest part of Los Angeles, near where Politi once worked, it’s hard not to imagine this handsome man with a broad smile and a paintbrush, capturing the buildings and people around him as a time capsule of a bygone era.

“What little value this work may have,” he wrote in 1964, “it has been a work of love and also of protest.”

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