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42. What we don't know

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Greg Hise, a professor of history at the University of Nevada Las Vegas and author or co-author of several books on Los Angeles, was thinking of what we don't know about the city. He laid out a prospectus of what we're missing in a talk he gave late last year as part of the Aloud series at the downtown Los Angeles Public Library. He titled his lecture "Ground Truth "? How We Talk about Los Angeles and Why That Matters."

We don't know the archeology of the city, Hise pointed out. Digging down through the layers of the past has illuminated urban history is plenty of cities in North America, but not very much of Los Angeles has been unearthed.

We don't know the mechanics of investment in the rapidly urbanizing city of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. There are institutional histories, of course, but they tend to be paid-for biographies of "great men" who financed the making of Los Angeles. They're not very useful in finding out where the money went (or where it came from).

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We don't know much about the most important artifacts of our living here "? the home we live in. Again, there are plenty of local histories filled with nostalgic photos and elegies to a vanished past, but little in them reveals how our houses were made, what choices their builders discarded in favor of what we have, or how Los Angeles was tied to national issues surrounding home building.

What else don't we know? We have books on freeways, railroads, and streetcars, but we don't have a comprehensive history of transportation in Los Angeles. We have good histories of Bunker Hill and Chavez Ravine, but we don't have anything like a history of the Community Redevelopment Agency or its politics. We don't have much of anything on the remaking and reworking of the city's neighborhoods by less formal means and by other institutions.

The city operates daily in hundreds of ways (cranky sometimes, smoothly other times), but all we seem to talk about is traffic. And schools.

We don't have a pattern of the city. A mental map of its body, as we would have of a lover's.

The image on this page is by Michael Ward. It was used by permission of the artist.

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