It was possible to believe that Los Angeles was nearly perfect in mid-1950, that the elements of L.A. - its industry, suburban living, city life, remaining orange groves, tamed wilderness, and tanned residents - were proportioned exactly for a life that was both modern and whole.
And I can show you. (Click here to stream Los Angeles: City of Destiny from the PBS site "Inventing Los Angeles.")
Naturally, what I can show you is a sales pitch.
The Standard Oil Company of California produced a 40-minute short subject for theaters in 1950, compiling every lovely cliché the All Year Club and the Chamber of Commerce ever manufactured about Los Angeles: sun, beaches, palm trees, carefree natives, booming growth, Hollywood, youth, and beauty.
So much Technicolor beauty that it knifes into the heart. (The current LACMA design exhibition, part of PST, offers more.)
Presumably, Standard Oil wanted audiences in Midwest and East Coast theaters to drop their bags of popcorn and pack their bags for California, where they would buy Standard Oil gas for their obligatory car.
But that cynicism is as much a cliché as the boosters' ebullience. Something else is going on here.
Whatever ballyhoo that was said about us - what we said about ourselves - however mistaken the ballyhoo was about the lives of those - black, brown, Asian, Native American - we never noticed, the truth is that Los Angeles was beautiful (more than we realized or cared to consider).
I know . . . yes . . . Los Angeles is beautiful now - to those who arrived only yesterday, too - but in different ways. The past is not easy to explain, particularly when it is your past.
I am not a nostalgist (although you might not believe me). And I do not think the past was better than today. But it was beautiful, and I wish I could show you.
D. J. Waldie, author, historian, and as the New York Times said in 2007, "a gorgeous distiller of architectural and social history," writes about Los Angeles on KCET's SoCal Focus blog.
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