Alumnus documents LA’s hidden gems

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Tom Carroll ’08 sees beauty in unusual places.

Take his favorite memory of Occidental, for example: When he was a first year, a massive rain storm flooded the campus and knocked out the power lines for three days, leaving the entire campus without power, internet and even access to the Marketplace. Yet when some students may have despaired over the lack of amenities, Carroll described it as a “dream.”

“For three whole days, it was honestly like summer camp — such a blissful time,” he said. “That memory will stay with me for a while.”

Now, the young alumnus is channeling his zeal for hidden gems into a passion project: a YouTube series called “Tom Explores LA,” in which he showcases forgotten or commonly unseen sites in the city. Since the series began in 2011, it has gained over 9,400 subscribers and over 400,000 views.

The show, comprised of more than 30 videos, has covered locations ranging from Eldred Street — the steepest street in California — to the abandoned LA Zoo in Griffith Park. He credits his first forays into the city to his father, a history teacher who took him on excursions to LA museums and famous landmarks. (Carroll, incidentally, is a fifth generation greater LA resident; his grandfather, a carpenter, lived in the arts district as far back as 1893).

But Carroll reserves his highest praise for Occidental. He was an Art History and Visual Arts (AHVA) major with a concentration in studio art. In addition to his studies, Carroll devoted much of his time to KOXY, where he was a DJ his sophomore through senior years. At the time, the organization put on small concerts, as it does today, and the members even attended college radio conferences. And though he notes that the station’s stream was nonfunctional over half the time, Carroll reflected fondly on the intimate and down-to-earth KOXY community.

When it comes to inspiration for his popular web series, Carroll cites his favorite former AHVA professors Amy Lyford (now associate dean for curriculum and academic support) and Mary Beth Heffernan. Lyford, in particular, gave Carroll some of his first books on LA history and pushed him to study the subject in detail.

“I owe a lot to her,” he said.

Still, this passion for LA history did not concretely manifest itself immediately after graduation — Carroll became a sign artist for Trader Joe’s, a job that he continues today. It wasn’t until he went through a “quarter-life crisis” and took a class on new media at Pasadena City College that the interest was channeled into “Tom Explores LA,” born out of a class assignment. When Carroll received positive feedback from family, friends and strangers, he started to see the series as a project sustainable beyond the classroom.

Carroll said that one of the best parts of the making the show — which he does alongside director Derrick DeBlasis — is that strangers now approach and talk to him about their passion for history. Indeed, about half of the “Tom Explores LA” episodes were inspired by tips from fans.

The Occidental graduate named previous experiences as a park ranger in the Los Angeles State Historic Park and as a tour guide for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art as quality training for becoming a video host. In order to make an engaging episode, he said, dual narratives are key — not only talking about the location itself, but using it as a starting point to dig deeper in history. In a video on the abandoned Hawthorne Mall, for example, Carroll discussed the history and origin of malls alongside the story of the site.

Lyford added that Carroll had a bent for research and investigation from his early years at Occidental, something she believes contributes to the high quality of his films, in addition to his sense of humor and irreverence — both beneficial characteristics of an artist. As a scholar primarily interested in the unknown and the underlooked, Lyford appreciated being able to connect with a student who shared her desire to uncover unnoticed stories.

Carroll’s future is still yet to be decided — he hopes to continue “Tom Explores LA,” though it is currently on hiatus as he searches for funding. Meanwhile, he is developing a piece for local NPR affiliate KPCC on the relatively unknown Octavia Butler, the only scientific fiction writer to win a MacArthur Genius Grant. And he continues to spearhead a collective effort to revitalize the Triforium, a six-story, shimmering public sculpture located in downtown LA, largely ignored by both LA City Council and Angelenos alike.

“I’ve always found it kind of beautiful,” he said. “It was built in ’75, and it very much looks like it was built ’75. It hasn’t aged particularly well. There’s a beauty in its ugliness, I guess. ”