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Fire Shows a Community Covering Itself

By Eric Richardson
Published: Thursday, February 08, 2007, at 08:01AM

When I heard about Monday's fire it was 7am. I identified the corner from TV news coverage, found a photo of the building in my December Broadway shots and put up a quick post. I then threw on some clothes, grabbed my camera, and headed out the door. I got shots of smoke and LAFD, but was too late to see flames.

More interesting than the fire itself, though, was the way the Downtown community used the web to fill in the blanks and flesh out this story to a point where those who weren't there could really experience what was going on.

More after the jump...

Thumbnails above all all from the blogdowntown flickr pool. Images are by eecue, myself, cee3, eecue, and archie4oz.

Community generated coverage came in quickly. Even before I could get back to the computer and put my photos online bill m had used the comments to link to a shot he took of the blaze. A few minutes later my shots went online, and a bit after that eecue posted his photos. In the meantime Ken posted links to video he had shot of the flames out his window.

Showing the News Through Photos

As members of the blogdowntown flickr pool uploaded their photos of the fire and its aftermath the images in the sidebar took a fiery tone. With a bunch of fire shots at the top of the queue, images of the event weighed heavily in the twelve shots that show up here on the site.

There are now 50 members in the flickr pool, but I believe this may have been time several of us were taking shots of the same thing and contributing them in so quickly. It fascinated me to see images show up that I didn't recognize. Each new contribution showed some perspective on the same event. We all saw a burned building, but each shot looked at it in some new way.

Community-developed History

At the same time as the photos were showing up, the building's history was being refined in an equally collaborative way. Jen Mapes emailed me some basic historic facts on the O.T. Johnson building and I took that and found more in the Times archives. Jen and others found old photos of the corner in the LAPL Photo Archive and the USC Digital Archives. We began to speculate that the buildings were from roughly 1900, but couldn't yet be sure.

Early in the afternoon I walked back over to the fire location to take some shots. I knew what I was expecting -- to see an old building emerge from beneath an ugly facade -- but I think it was still surprising to see it in real life.

Armed with that visual confirmation it was easy to take the story to its logical conclusion, and at 4pm I posted about the architecture revealed by the flames. When the Times posted largely the same story the next morning there wasn't really much new to learn. We had already taken the story farther, in the comments starting to talk about the broader issues of Downtown that had caused this sort of change over the years.

Fulfilling Its Purpose

I think this story is a perfect illustration of what I've always wanted blogdowntown to be. The site was able to start a conversation and smart people around Downtown were able to chime in and give the post much more richness than I ever could have on my own.

In the end there's one criteria that I use for whether a story was good or not: does it generate comments that make this site not only interesting for me to write, but also for me to read? This story certainly did that.

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