ON A COOL and sunny Wednesday afternoon in December 2013, I pulled into a massive parking lot in Inglewood, California. My plan was to photograph Hollywood Park Racetrack before it closed forever. At the time, I was a portrait photographer and had spent many years capturing the subtleties of facial expressions, watching carefully how happiness, sadness, anger, fear, and surprise unfold in the muscles of the face. The work of portraiture is exhilarating but also profoundly exhausting, and I was interested in shifting my attention to buildings, particularly buildings that had been lived in and well worn. I liked the idea of working with less, and also working alone, and I was curious, too. What does a building reveal? How is a building like a face?
Growing up in Los Angeles I had spent many evenings right next door to Hollywood Park. I watched Lakers games, basketball at the summer Olympics, and countless rock concerts at The Forum. Although the neighboring track was enormous — 300 acres, a capacity of 80,000 guests — I had never paid any attention until now.
The central building was exactly what I’d hoped for: full of scars and personality. I knew then that Hollywood Park Racetrack was a perfect subject. The interior design was so contradictory it was hard to tell what era I’d landed in. The 1950s? The ’60s? The ’80s? It was as if dozens of different aesthetics were battling each other. Limestone walls led to tartan carpets, which led to elevators with gilded dials. There were hallways painted pink, lined with cracked mirrors, and hallways painted cream with gold-flecked wallpaper. The flooring was patterned carpet, then green-and-teal-checkered linoleum, then concrete. The Turf Club elevator had an old-fashioned perch for the operator. Every stairway, restroom, and alcove featured a different color palette. There were framed oil paintings of horses, wall-sized murals of horses, and signage in ornate gold lettering. A midcentury beauty salon was dressed up in chrome and white vinyl, and a rustic wooden bar looked like it belonged in a Belgian alehouse.
There were no races scheduled that day, so the building was practically empty. Maybe because of the emptiness, it felt heavy with secrets and faded grandeur, as if ghosts were lingering in the air. I walked down a curved, wood-paneled hallway once used by horses to enter the track. I imagined the sound of hooves clomping and jockeys murmuring. I pictured the thousands of empty red plastic arena seats filled with people — cheering, winning, and losing. The sixth-floor press box was strewn with old newspapers and racing forms. Beside the floor-to-ceiling windows, there were faded phone lists and beige telephones, the kind with thick, coiled cords and a red button that lights up. Everything sat lifeless, coated with dust, but with no effort at all, I could imagine it as a busy, frantic hub — phones ringing, the bugle starting a race, people shouting as they watched the track.
That first visit reminded me of a house I used to play in when I was a child, a friend’s grandmother’s house. The house was elegant — modern furniture, a sunken living room, a curved staircase, and a huge glass window that looked onto a Japanese garden. But then the grandmother died, and the house felt transformed. Without its inhabitants, it felt frozen in time. Once the house was no longer the backdrop to my friend’s family’s life, I realized it had its own story. I had often thought of this house as an architectural version of the Velveteen Rabbit, the stuffed animal from Margery Williams’s classic children’s tale. In the story, the rabbit receives so much affection it comes to life. Hollywood Park seemed under the same spell as the rabbit.
The next time I visited the track, it was a race day. I was surprised to see the building teeming with activity. There were dozens of employees — waiters, bartenders, shoe shiners, security guards, clerks accepting bets and making payouts — and enough patrons to make it seem busy, although apparently not busy enough. It was widely known that the track would soon be demolished, and it seemed to me that people behaved with extra intention, doubling down on their habits and traditions: watching monitors, placing bets, serving hot dogs, ignoring the inevitable.
The visitors represented all the diversity of Los Angeles. Some seemed to belong to the track of another era, dressed up in well-preserved clothing from decades past. Others looked contemporary and sporty. There were people of all ages, and sometimes multiple generations, visiting together. I watched a young hipster couple dressed in vintage clothes gamely chaperoning a great uncle to his final Hollywood Park race. I noticed a couple dressed in black-tie finery, the wife wearing a fur coat and lipstick the color of orange meringue. Across the room, there was a worker who seemed to have come directly from the job site, his clothes splattered with paint from head to toe. Some people had driven for hours to get there while others lived across the street. I met more than one guest who remembered attending Hollywood Park’s summer camp in the 1950s. The visitors expressed the romance and melancholy of the impending demolition as energy and excitement; everyone had a program in hand.
I got to know some of the regulars. Racetrack Betty, a neighborhood local, charged a small fee to collect winnings for people so they didn’t have to report them to the IRS. Lawrence had been the maître d’ of the Turf Club and planned to retire in Brentwood when the park closed. Dick, employed for longer than most, had worked as an usher for 65 years. The bugler was named Jay, and his uniform was like that of a circus ringmaster, with a cropped green jacket and tight jodhpurs. His bugle signaled the start of the race. In between races he worked the crowd, tipping his top hat and posing for pictures. The announcer, Vic Stauffer, sat in a small room on the roof to get the best view, and kept binoculars and statues of horses on his desk.
I was free to roam wherever I wanted, and I did. I learned about worlds I didn’t know existed. There were the jockeys, for instance, who knew each other well — professional horse racing is a small world. Jockeys don’t often travel with a particular horse, and might not know about the temperament of the horse they’ll ride. Once they have their racing assignment they’re not supposed to interact with the outside world, so that they don’t make a deal and throw a race. The jockeys were sequestered in the “jockeys’ room” on the ground floor, and a manager named Charlie made sure no one came in or went out. The jockeys had their own chef, Alfonso, who wore a gray handlebar mustache and cooked anything requested.
The center of the track, the infield, was itself a destination. It had been beautifully landscaped, with exotic flowers and a series of lakes. There were flamingos and the remnant of a huge wooden goose that had floated in the water with a beautiful woman seated inside. She wore a dress reminiscent of the German fairy tale, and was called “The Goose Girl.”
I spent time on the “backside,” where the stables were. The backside was almost like a rural Western town, with barns and dirt roads. It felt surreal to be at once on a farm and in the center of Los Angeles. Some of the workers permanently lived in rooms above the horses, so the backside had all the amenities necessary to sustain a small community: cafeteria, minimarket, laundry room, game room. There was a veterinary office and a lounge where visiting trainers could sleep. Everyone on the backside woke up around 4:00 a.m., because the horses needed to run before the grandstand opened. By 7:00, most were in line for breakfast. Many of the workers were from small towns in Latin America where they had learned horsemanship since childhood. The highest-ranking position was the trainer, and the lowest was the hot walker, who walked horses after a race until they cooled down. The owner of the café, Debby, served three meals a day and in between drove a golf cart around, peddling chips and soda. Flypaper dangled from the ceiling outside the café and everywhere else.
Hollywood Park was ostensibly all about the horses, but I was originally drawn to the park as a structure. Then, it became obvious that it was a community too, warm and fragile, woven together like a loose-knit sweater. I couldn’t extricate the building from the people, and I was surprised that I ever thought I could. The resulting book of photographs contains no actual horses. Instead, it celebrates the existence of the track’s eclectic, harmonious group. Over the course of two weeks, I photographed not only the interiors of the track, but also more than 400 individuals who lived or worked there, or went to the races. I isolated them each against a dark backdrop and asked them to pose however they liked.
With each portrait sitting, I was consumed by the question of what would happen when the park closed. Where would each person go when they couldn’t go to Hollywood Park? Would they be lonely? Who would have a broken heart? Was I the only one thinking like this? The crowds began to seem to me like extras in an episode of The Twilight Zone, oblivious to impending doom. In the movie version in my mind, I imagined someone screaming: “Don’t you all realize this is ending … tonight … and you will never come back here again?” The room would be quiet for one slow-motion moment, a long pause, and then real time would click back in place and people would resume placing bets, ordering hot dogs, and cheering for the fastest horse.
It was almost impossible to stop taking photos, but finally, on December 22, 2013, at 11:00 p.m., my hand was forced. The crowd filed out for the last time as the loudspeakers played “At Last” and “Happy Trails.” Some people were crying, some were singing, some were nonchalant. Those trying to filch a little piece of history — a sign or a doorknob — were stopped by a security guard. When the last person exited the grounds, the gates were locked. The horses were loaded into trailers in the coming weeks and moved across town or to Oklahoma, New Jersey, or Kentucky. The auctioneers sifted through what was left, and then, in 2014, Hollywood Park was razed.
After 15 days of circling the grounds, hauling my equipment from place to place, I was 12 pounds thinner and had hardly seen my kids. I had taken 25,000 photos. It would be a year before I finished sorting through them. I wondered what I had fixed in time. The end of something? Evidence of its existence? The traces of time? I tried to keep in mind what an arborist had once told me — that it’s okay to cut down a struggling tree as long as another is planted in its place. I hope that the same is true of buildings.
With this book, my aim is not to provide a historical record, but to transmit a feeling of place, of existence, and of an ending. This book muses about a time that was, and an inevitable, foreclosing future, photographed during a rare period when the past, present, and future were all equally palpable.
Banner image: Michele Asselin, Molded Plastic Seating, Backside Cafeteria, 2013. From the series Clubhouse Turn. Courtesy of the artist.
Featured image: Michele Asselin, Green Pillars, Clubhouse Mezzanine, 2013. From the series Clubhouse Turn. Courtesy of the artist.
Michele Asselin is a photographer who lives and works in Los Angeles. Early in her career, she worked for the Associated Press in the Middle East while living in Jerusalem. Back in the United States, she worked as an editorial photographer. Her work has been featured in The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Esquire, Fortune, and New York Magazine.