Yesterday, I received word that my fellow design writer, sidewalk devotee and Los Angeles advocate John Chase died early Friday morning. It was sudden, and shocking, and immediately obvious just how large of a hole his absence would tear in LA’s urban fabric. John was a tremendously outspoken voice in planning and politics, a larger-than-life fixture at architecture events, and honorary cheerleader for an entire generation of young writers and designers. At his day job, as West Hollywood’s urban designer, John was responsible for the design of some of Los Angeles’s most colorful and exuberant public spaces. But it was his colorful and exuberant parading through that public space—and his winking, knowing performances in the public eye—which made him an unforgettable Los Angeles presence. John, in so very many ways, was out there.
“Is West Hollywood urban designer John Chase the most flamboyant practitioner of California architecture?” I once asked breathlessly in my gossip column for The Architect’s Newspaper (a column, mind you, for which John would routinely slip me salacious tidbits, as well as links to other extremely NSFW information for my own “entertainment”). But John was also one of architecture’s most impassioned practitioners, fighting for world-class cutting-edge buildings with the same gusto that he carved out much-needed pocket parks. And he was an equal-opportunity rabble-rouser. Once he professed to me his outrage at his own city after a dismal Parking Day, when West Hollywood had ousted some activist groups converting parking spots into temporary parks. I wrote a piece on the debacle and the moment it was published John proudly sent word that he had used it as ammunition: He copied and distributed it to his office with a flourish in the hopes it would change their policies (it did).
In addition to his duties in WeHo—a job from which he was about to retire—John wrote a series of books and many articles celebrating LA’s unique brand of urbanism. But I was always amazed at the rate at which he seemed to read, comment on and forward everyone else’s work as well. As I look through the hundreds (and hundreds) of emails John sent to me over the years, it reads like one long, running urban commentary. Some are sweet notes in response to something I wrote, dashed off like little love haikus. [Update: As Tim Culvahouse just reminded me via email, “In most of the emails I received from him, the message was all in the Subject line; he tweeted before there was Twitter.” So true!] Some are joyous invitations to his many (many) speaking appearances, cced to 125 of the city’s biggest architectural names. Many are ranty diatribes on city planning decisions or otherwise unfortunate events, all chunky paragraphs, often angry, ALL CAPS, lots of exclamation marks!!! and One. Word. Sentences. All of it, every word, infused with the same urgency that was John’s insistent message to the local writing community: We can use our words to make LA a better place. And we will.
But it was not until the first City Listening event held at GOOD that I realized the power of John’s public persona. John strolled in wearing a pimp-tastic purple suit, orange shirt, and matching tie, topped off with an orange—orange!—fedora. All that was missing was a jewel-encrusted chalice—in fact, for the sake of this story, let’s say he had a jewel-encrusted chalice. A few sentences into his story “Sleeping with the Homeless”—a version of which can reportedly be read in his book Glitter Stucco and Dumpster Diving—the crowd had collapsed into the aisles, roaring with each detail of his racy (again, NSFW!) urban encounter. Like all of John’s stunts, he hooked the crowd with ribald humor, but there was a lesson here. “That’s why I love this story, it’s about public space!” He screeched over the laughter. “It’s about public space and having an interaction with people on the street!” And he was right, I thought, tears streaming down my cheeks. He was totally right.
At his double wedding celebration, with best friend Frances Anderton, John expressed his love to husband Jonathan Cowan (they called themselves The JCs) who was also dressed in a seersucker suit with matching Converse sneakers.
At an event that same year which was, I think, ostensibly about museums purchasing midcentury houses or something, I’m not even sure John was a panelist, but he delivered the night’s most rousing speech. Talking like he wrote, in those one-word sentence emails, with lots of exclamation marks!!!, John begged the crowd to produce braver LA design critics. “Where are they?” he cried. “Where are the passionate voices in architecture and design who can help make changes in this city?” As his words washed over me I was suddenly so energized I felt like leaping out of my chair and charging out into the street, going on a Reyner Banham rampage through the darkness of Culver City’s downtown. I told him this later, and that I thought I could do it, that I could be one of those passionate voices. “But Alissa,” he said to me with that knowing grin, lately framed with those woolly sideburns. “You already are.” That one comment alone was enough to fuel my freelance career for the next six months.
John was a very unique mentor in that he encouraged me just as much in my walking as he did in my writing. He walked to work most days, and we’d often compare stories about crosswalk etiquette or commiserate about which bus route needed to fix its potholes. He instructed me to create a pen name (A. Walker) and to write about my LA walking and public transit experiences, annotating them with photos. And so I did. I remember silently passing him once while both in our preferred modes of navigating LA, me on the 2 bus high above the street, he below, walking down Sunset Boulevard. He was impeccably dressed in a sharp suit on a swelteringly sunny day—and that hat, always that hat—looking more like he was headed for the Santa Anita horsetrack. In 1952. I remember thinking that he was a walking advertisement for his most famous book. As he wrote, as in practice, The Everyday Urbanist.
From the moment a group of us started co-hosting small events called de LaB to connect the design community, John was also incredibly supportive—and outrageously excited—about what we were doing, freely offering advice and contacts. Many people probably saw John for the last time a few weeks ago in one of his most triumphant performances, where in a single day he appeared on two panels at the Dwell conference and then delivered the stirring finale at our City Listening II event, with the entirety of his facial hair dyed royal blue. But what most people don’t know is that John graciously purchased VIP tickets to our event for himself and his lovely husband, Jonathan Cowan (even after we told him these tickets were comped), then went on to purchase four more tickets for friends, and donated a private tour of West Hollywood to our silent auction. He was as generous with his wit and wisdom as he was with his time.
The last time I saw John was only last Friday, just one week ago. We drank wine together on the lawn of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Hollyhock House, a place I saw him regularly these last two summers. It was, in many ways, John’s most ideal environment: glasses of fine rosé, held by civic-minded folk, in the glow of the city’s greatest architecture, and yes, in what is probably the very best use of LA’s public space. For some reason, after he came over to our blanket to say hi, I watched him for a long time as he walked away, his summery blue button-down fluttering in a cool evening wind as he bounced into conversations and bumped into old friends, soaking up every bit of energy in one of Los Angeles’ finest moments.
Other writers and architects claim to design for public space or understand street life or see their work within a larger urban context. John simply lived it. He epitomized it. Good luck naming a bench or a park in his honor, since he was responsible for so many of them already. Might I suggest this more worthy dedication: The John Leighton Chase Memorial City of West Hollywood.
We will miss you so much, John. I’ll never be able to fill your dapper, eternally-shined shoes. But I will do my very best to follow in your footsteps.
If you’ve written a story about John, please post the link in the comments or drop me an email (alissa AT gelatobaby.com). Thanks to everyone for your comments and links. I’ve posted many stories about John over at the DnA website, where Frances Anderton devoted most of today’s show to honoring his legacy. A memorial is scheduled for Tuesday, August 24 from 4pm to 7pm at Fiesta Hall in Plummer Park, 7377 Santa Monica Boulevard, West Hollywood. The invitation suggests to “dress as if John picked out your outfit.” Hope I gave you at least a few tips!
Get the John Chase map of West Hollywood, produced by de LaB and designed by Keith Scharwath.