From the aqueduct centennial to several major museum exhibitions, Los Angeles spent much of 2013 looking back -- an exercise informed and enriched by the archival collections of L.A. as Subject member institutions.
Aqueduct Centennial. The controversial, 233-mile aqueduct between the Owens and San Fernando valleys has never been far removed from the public discourse about the city's history. But upon the occasion of its centennial, the city gave a long, hard look at the aqueduct's story. A relaunched Boom: A Journal of California -- now helmed by journalist and UCLA historian Jon Christensen -- devoted an entire issue to the subject. In Claremont, KCET contributor Char Miller teamed up with Honnold/Mudd Library's Lisa L. Crane to present an exhibition about the landmark project, while earlier in the year public radio's Alex Schmidt broadened the story's temporal horizon with her story about the irrigation canals used by the Owens Valley's indigenous people, the Paiute. Lauren Bon and the Metabolic Studio staged a 100-mule procession along the aqueduct's route. And on November 5, a costumed reenactment of the 1913 dedication ceremony sent water splashing down the Sylmar Cascades, prompting Mayor Eric Garcetti to tweet: "There it is. Conserve it."
Songs in the Key of Los Angeles. We have USC professor Josh Kun to thank for the year's most imaginative reuse of archival materials. Songs in the Key of Los Angeles -- a multi-platform project centered around the Los Angeles Public Library's sheet music collection -- offered a musical portrait of a historical Los Angeles. The project manifested itself in many forms: it was a book, a library exhibit, a concert, a Web video series, and much more.
Pershing Square. The renewed community interest in remaking the city's oldest park, Pershing Square, reminds us of the enduring power of archival images. Postcards and photographs from the early 20th century show a lushly landscaped public commons where hardscape and empty benches dominate today, inviting unfavorable comparisons. These images of the past have inspired visions of the future. In August, the office of city councilmember Jose Huizar formed a task force to study the matter, and the design and architecture firm Gensler offered its own reimagining of the public space. Esotouric's Kim Cooper and Richard Schave, meanwhile, launched a petition drive to "restore" Pershing Square by simply reverting to John Parkinson's classic 1910 design for the five-acre parcel.
Mobsters. Bookending the year 2013 were two Hollywood projects set in L.A.'s postwar criminal underworld. January's "Gangster Squad" retold -- with great creative license -- the long struggle between crime boss Mickey Cohen and the LAPD. The film was a critical and commercial disappointment, but the December debut of TNT's "Mob City," based on John Buntin's 2009 book "L.A. Noir," met a more favorable reception. Though their fortunes differed, both projects brought visions of midcentury Los Angeles -- complete with Pacific Electric trolley cars in shiny red paint -- to life on the screen.
Exhibitions. Architectural drawings, transportation planning reports, and other archival materials played a leading role in several major museum exhibitions over the past year. The Getty's "Overdrive" and the Architecture and Design Museum's "Never Built: Los Angeles" both drew heavily from L.A. as Subject member collections. And in July, the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County unveiled its new permanent exhibition, "Becoming Los Angeles," which tells the city's story from prehistoric times to the present day.
Books. Published this October, "Trees in Paradise" explores the complicated relationship between California's human residents and their vegetable neighbors. At once an accessible read and a prodigious work of scholarship, the book by environmental historian and former Huntington-USC Institute fellow Jared Farmer focuses on four types of trees: redwoods, citruses, eucalypts, and palms. "Trees in Paradise" will serve as the authoritative work on its subject for decades to come, but this year saw the rebirth of an already established classic: Doug Suisman's "Los Angeles Boulevard." Now available from Hennessey + Ingalls in a 25th anniversary edition, the book -- long out-of-print and hard-to-find -- tracks the historical development of the very structure of the city. Finally, this past year saw the release of a biography of motion picture star Ann Dvorak by L.A. as Subject's very own Christina Rice. Provocatively subtitled "Hollywood's Forgotten Rebel," Rice's book tells the life story of a rising star who challenged the studio system -- and lost.
Other books of note: "The Courthouse Crowd: Los Angeles County and Its Government, 1850-1950" by Tom Sitton; "Railtown: The Fight for the Los Angeles Metro Rail and the Future of the City" by Ethan N. Elkind; "Iconic Vision: John Parkinson, Architect of Los Angeles" by Stephen Gee; "Miracle Mile in Los Angeles: History and Architecture" by Ruth Wallach; "Never Built: Los Angeles" by Greg Goldin and Sam Lubell.
L.A. as Subject is an association of more than 230 libraries, museums, official archives, cultural institutions, and private collectors. Hosted by the USC Libraries, L.A. as Subject is dedicated to preserving and telling the sometimes-hidden stories and histories of the Los Angeles region.