In books. Because of books. Naturally.
Sixty Years in Southern California by Harris Newmark. Newmark’s memoir, published in 1916, is a revelation. Even more remarkable, it is an account of Jewish Los Angeles in the mid-19th century. Newmark’s city in 1853 - a dozen years after the American occupation - is violent and beautiful. The contradictions that still color what Los Angeles means are everywhere in the cowtown the city was. Horace Bell’s Reminiscences of a Ranger (1881) covers much of the same period much more luridly.
Southern California Country: An Island on the Land by Carey McWilliams. McWilliams’ interpretive history of Los Angeles, first published in 1946, still shapes how we think of the city. His themes are greed and ignorance in the sunshine (his parallel is novelist Raymond Chandler). Robert Towne’s screenplay for Chinatown is McWilliams rewritten.
Muscatel at Noon by Matt Weinstock. Weinstock's collections of newspaper columns from the Los Angeles Daily News, published in 1951, are mordant postcards from a city that had room (mostly on Bunker Hill) every form of washed-up humanity. Later, Jack Smith covered the same territory for the Los Angeles Times, but from a much gentler, suburbanized perspective.
Los Angeles A to Z: An Encyclopedia of the City and County by Leonard and Dale Pitt. The Pitts’ 1997 book is the essential reference. If you don’t have a copy, you really aren’t’ interested in the city, only in its illusions.
Eden by Design: The 1930 Olmsted-Bartholomew Plan for the Los Angeles Region, introduced by Greg Hise and William Deverell. Hise and Deverell’s republication in 2000 of the nearly lost Olmsted-Bartholomew plan (most of the few original copies were destroyed) offers an alternative-history Los Angeles, where parks and beaches and riverside walks bind together the county’s scattered landscapes. It’s too good to be true, however, and the plan was buried in the crash of 1929 and, as Deverell and Hise make clear, in the city’s fears.
The image on this page is A Valley Near Los Angeles, a landscape by Hermann Herzog (ca. 1880s).