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Remembering Our Forgets

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The room you've just left. It remembers. It haunts itself with memories of you lest you not return. The ordinary world, at least in part. It remembers the aspirations of the builder of that half-empty office building from the 1920s near downtown. It remembers passersby in the pattern of the terrazzo entry that, carpet like, occupied the whole frontage of a movie theater that's since become a Pentecostal temple. Even the landscape remembers, although its memories are harder to discern.We assume, as part of the city's dystopian mythology, that nothing remains of even the recent past in Los Angeles to draw us away from the insistent demands of the present. That's partly true, as this posting by Curbed LA illustrates (highlighting some of the recently demolished memories of the city).

But, as Cara Mia DiMassa points out in the Los Angeles Times, comparing photographs from 1951 and 2009, the resilient city also persistently remembers. It has its own deep time.

Because we experience Los Angeles as isolated drop off points "? landing zones of surface streets with the non-geography of freeway in between "? we miss the durability of places. We don't often notice, for example, that Los Angeles has two competing grid systems.

The grid of downtown streets repeats the 1781-1850 layout of a typical Spanish colonial outpost. The streets downtown are cocked about 36 degrees from the north-south grid of the American city that sought, unsuccessfully, to replace the colonial one. Drivers going west from downtown make the transition to a different conception of order as they approach Hoover, reorienting themselves to another imperial imagination. In Los Angeles, the streets remember this conflict while we rush to forget.

Other memories persist. DiMassa notes, "(F)rom atop City Hall, L.A.'s architecture looks anything but instant. Look closely and the layers show. There are the 100-year-old bank buildings on Main Street remade as lofts. There's the spartan parking structure on Bunker Hill that was supposed to be removed by now for a now-stalled mega-development."

And if you look beyond and through the relatively modern in the landscape, you'll see the relatively permanent in the form of structures and even neighborhoods that continue to remember what the city had been. But you have to come at these memories with a certain humility, at no more than the speed of a prowling car, and even better, at the pace of a walker.

Then the shape of things past loom. They reveal other aspirations than speed. They evoke a moment's daydreaming.

The black and white image of the Washington Boulevard bridge from the 1940s is from the UCLA Digital Library. The recent color image of the bridge is from The City Project. Both are used under a Creative Commons license.

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