In recent years publications like the L.A. Weekly and Los Angeles Magazine have continued to produce lists of the best Los Angeles books, movies, songs, albums and other representations of the city expressed artistically. The city's explosive creative energy only seems to snowball each year. This week L.A. Letters brings you the best from Interdisciplinary Los Angeles, covering two recent iconic works to add to the list.
"My Los Angeles" is from the prolific UCLA Professor of Urban Planning Edward Soja. Beginning with his landmark work "Postmodern Geographies" in 1989, Soja has been known as one of the most insightful observers and theorists on space and place in the region. Soja's newest book is a sweeping account that collects all of his ideas, experiences, and theories about the past 50 years in Southern California.
Born in the Bronx, Soja came to L.A. in 1972. During his years at UCLA a radical shift began in the nature of the urbanization process. Soja was one of the first figures to explicate the transition of the urbanization of suburbia, the global spread of industrial urbanism, and the new regionalism evolving in Southern California. Soja deciphers terms like urban restructuring, and connects the dots between "Blade Runner" and Occupy L.A. In many ways the book is Soja's intellectual autobiography.
One of the first points Soja makes is that Los Angeles is now the densest urbanized area in the country. Noting that most observers always considered L.A. as lower density suburban sprawl, Soja deconstructs the regional development of Southern California to show how all the separate parts come together. "Its magnetic force is illustrated by the fact that, over the past hundred year or so, more people (nearly seventeen million and growing) have moved into the region of L.A. than into any other urban region in the United States and probably anywhere else in the Western industrialized world," he writes.
Soja also uses lens like Disneyland and the Bus Riders Union to examine different landscapes within the region. He also goes back to the Cold War era, and shows how the city came to where it is. He uses the Watts Riots of 1965 as a starting point, stating that the growth and decline that happened at this time led to both reindustrialization and deindustrialization. "Massive job losses and factory closures were occurring in Los Angeles," Soja writes, "but unlike most of the rest of the country, there was also rapid job growth and what would later be called 'reindustrialization,' the initial stages in the formation of a more flexible, global, and information-based New Economy."
Dating back to the 1980s, Soja was one of the first to understand these changes. Following the 1992 Riots, dozens of writers addressed these shifts. Soja briefly notes writers from the past and present, like Mike Davis, Carey McWilliams, Norman Klein and Reyner Banham, that his work shares currents with. He discusses the Los Angeles school of writers, architects, and urbanists: "It does not matter whether or not there is an L.A. School. What does matter, however, is the recognition that an unusually large and influential literature on Los Angeles has emerged over the past thirty years, changing the image of Los Angeles from bizarre exception to one of the most evocative, representative, and trendsetting urban regions in the world."
Soja's interdisciplinary approach also discusses the role of murals, public art and activist groups, like The Living Wage Campaign and Justice for Janitors. He documents the rise of grassroots organizing across the region, paying tribute to the activists and artists, especially marginalized groups and women leaders. "Nowhere else in the country were local activists so avid to return to grassroots organizing and innovative coalition building," he writes. "In what had become one of the world's most culturally and economically heterogeneous cities, coalition building was necessarily multicultural, multilingual, and powerfully shaped by the huge agglomeration of immigrant working poor who had occupied the urban core of Los Angeles, another major factor in the emergence into leadership positions of radical women of color."
Soja's prescient vision also connects the dots between the city's influential historical and sociopolitical events and their concrete manifestation. Soja uses images of three Mear One murals to discuss Occupy L.A., and connects the contemporary mural movement back to David Alfaro Siqueiros, tracing the role of political art and murals in activism. Soja briefly pays tribute to both the legion of street artists and the rapidly growing movement of bicyclists: "Recently, graffiti writers and bike rider Cache and Eye one have been instrumental in organizing, respectively, the very popular CicLAvia monthly bike ride through nine mile of closed city streets and the Midnight Drag Race through the Second Street Tunnel in downtown." Soja's "My Los Angeles" is a prolific analysis of the city in 2014.
Another writer with an equally perceptive understanding of Los Angeles is Michael C. Ford. Though Ford is a poet, he's been active in the city's literary scene for 50 years, address the geography of Southern California through his poems. His knowledge is on full display in his new 11-track poetic recording. On "Look Each Other in the Ears," released this week on Henhouse Studios, Ford's vocals are accompanied by Ray Manzarek on keyboard, Robby Krieger on electric guitar and John Densmore on drums; for those that do not know, they are the original members of the Doors, minus the late Jim Morrison of course. Not only is the record one of Manzarek's final recordings before he passed last year, it marks 50 years of collaborations between him and Ford, who was almost the fifth Door back in 1964.
I've briefly told the story in this column before about how Ford met Jim Morrison and Ray Manzarek at UCLA film school in 1964. Listening to this album, one can hear a marriage between the Doors, Laurel Canyon and jazz influences. The first track, "For Openers," begins as a catalogue poem, with Ford calling out lost jazz bars and coffeehouses from the late 1950s and early 1960s. What's more is that he was actually at all of the venues he names back in the day. Ford's timbre is very iconic and sounds better than ever at 75. The infectious bouncy track melts with Ford as he calls out long lost clubs: "Club Alabam, The Hillcrest, The Summit, Ivy's Chicken Shack, Jack's Basket, the Surf Club, Strollers, The Cloister, Tiffany Lounge, the Trade Winds, the Hi-Hat, the Parrot Cage, Memory Lane, the Downbeat Club, the Dunbar Hotel, the LA Jazz Concert Hall, Concerts By the Sea? What was full has become a baleful cavity in the tooth of music." Venue after venue, he calls them out with perfect timing. Whether or not you know the clubs, his method of recording the era makes for a potent recording.
Ford's shared his words on hundreds of stages internationally, dating back to his first reading with Jim Morrison and Norman Mailer in 1969. This 11-track record showcases his unique phrasing, vocal skills, and overall Los Angeles knowledge. One of the record's last tracks, "Whatever Happened to the Orange Groves Grandma," is a surreal meditation on growing old and the transformation of Southern California. Ford speaks:
Eucalyptus trees peeling and weaving in a suburban cemetery dance of the living dead. The rotten Goodyear tire-swing is gone replaced by fiberglass illusions, Formica jungles, pastel quads and television lobotomy. Oh, you sun-pocked, smog-drenched din of silence! Trapped in the tract! Stuck in the stucco!
Ford knows Southern California and is equally comic and scathing. Weaving through geographical landscapes backed by a surreal soundtrack, Ford's latest audio recording is one for the ages.
As noted above there is no shortage of great books, records and other works emerging from the creative landscape of contemporary Los Angeles. Salute to Edward Soja and Michael C. Ford for these powerful new projects; representing Interdisciplinary Los Angeles, these two figures are leviathans of L.A. Letters.