It's late 1931. The stock market crashed two years before, and President Herbert Hoover is still trying to manage the aftermath. He won't be successful. The worst years of the Depression are about to begin. The Jazz Age is over, although not everyone in Los Angeles knows it. In Hollywood, gaiety continues, as artificial as before, while the studios convert to the "talkies" (and turn out the silent stars whose salaries the studios can't afford).
Retired "folks" from Iowa and Indiana still crowd downtown's cafeterias and unorthodox churches, looking for a cheap meal in one and an hour of rest from fear in the other. But the sun still shines, and roses bloom in winter. Tourists from the East still go transcontinental to Southern California, although what they expect to see has changed.
Mina Deane Halsey's Los Angeles from 1918 -- flea bitten but beautiful in last week's re-read of "A Tenderfoot in Southern California" -- had been overtaken by 1931 by successive booms that books like Halsey's had helped to inflate. It's no longer possible on a spring afternoon to gather an armload of wildflowers from a hillside in Echo Park or Silver Lake. The drive out to Long Beach isn't to wade in the warm surf but to see a forest of oil derricks crowding Signal Hill.
Halsey's "A Tenderfoot in Southern California" wasn't a guide book. It's a satire of the unsophisticated encountering the unfamiliar. Lanier and Virginia Bartlett's "Los Angeles in 7 Days," published in 1932, is a thorough tour of everything Southern Californian. As a travel guide, "7 Days" verges on the exhausting. As an encounter with a city about to be convulsed in more problematic boomtimes, "7 Days" is almost heartbreaking.
The fictional Jones family -- husband, wife, and teenage daughter from "back East" -- get a meticulous account (almost building by building) of everything the Bartletts find notable about Los Angeles, starting with the Biltmore Hotel on Pershing Square. Bullocks Wilshire, the Hollywood Broadway, Robinson's and other big department stores are described (Mrs. and Miss Jones are dedicated shoppers) along with vanished specialty shops like A. E Little at 619 Seventh Street, stationers to the city's well-to-do since the 1890s; Ranshoff's at 279 Flower Street, importers of exclusive hats and gowns; and the Ruth St. Denis' Asia Bazaar at 8512 Sunset where, Mrs. Bartlett noted, "Oriental fabrics seem to spill out the shop in a flow of color."
Scores of other stores, hotels, restaurants, and theaters are briskly sized up too. (Did the Bartletts get a fee for their enthusiams?) But something else is going on in "7 Days." The Bartletts were part of a civic conspiracy -- managed by the Los Angeles Times and carried on by the Chamber of Commerce and the Automobile Club of Southern California -- to give Los Angeles a history and a sense of place.
Lanier Bartlett knew the product he was pitching, having been a Times reporter before World War I and a script writer in the early years of Hollywood. What distinguishes "7 Days" is Bartlett's lack of cynicism in his selling of Los Angeles. His city is more than a backdrop for Hollywood. He has genuine affection for the city's Latino, Asian, and African American pasts. To have any history at all, he implies, Los Angeles needs these histories too.
The city's post-1850 story may be shallow by comparison with other cities, hardly 80 years deep, but for the Bartletts the story is crowded with incidents that amuse, stir, puzzle, or sadden.
The Jones family would have preferred ogling the homes of movie stars. Instead, they get a panoramic view of Spanish and Mexican Los Angeles and its Catholic heritage. Some of the "romance of the ranchos" leaks into tour, but the Bartletts also include the dispossession of Mexican landowners in the years following 1850, the Chinese Massacre of 1871, and the faded elegance of the city's turn-of-the-century hotels and grand houses.
The Bartlett's show off Beverly Hills and Hollywood, but they also include Sonoratown, Chinatown, and Central Avenue. The tourists get out of the Bartletts' Model A sedan and actually walk around, getting a mass of dates and names in the process but also some idea of how these disparate places connect in Los Angeles.
The Bartletts think everything about the city matters. The Columbia-Eastern building at Broadway and Ninth (and now converted to lofts) is "beautiful, bizarre" and "shimmering (with) blue-green and gold glazed tilting," an "outstanding illustration of our Californian tendency toward color even in business edifices." The beach at Venice connects to miles of "every sort of jazz attraction" by a "funny little tram meandering through thick pedestrian traffic." The chowder at a shack in San Pedro gets an approving mention, as does the Mexican food in San Gabriel, the rotating counters at the Merry-Go-Round café chain, and Fradelis' Kosher Style Hungarian Restaurant. Regular tourist destinations -- Olvera Street downtown, Aimee Semple McPherson's Angelus Temple in Echo Park, and the recently built City Hall -- get even more background from the tireless Bartletts.
Those of us on the other side of the turn of the 21st century know that the city the Bartletts so eagerly show the Jones family was poised between its sunny past and its noir tomorrows.
The Depression would harden and coarsen the city. Well-to-do-tourists would come in fewer numbers and stick to a fixed route from downtown to Hollywood, through Beverly Hills, to Santa Monica. The old, unfashionable places at the city's margins the Bartletts made a point of visiting fell into further obscurity or were bulldozed away. Gaudy, human-scale, romantic, turn-of-the-20th-century Los Angeles, which the Bartletts and the Jones family could still visit, would be gone soon except for a few survivors.
The city the Bartletts loved is our city and yet it isn't. It's hard to recover the Bartletts' delight in what their city seemed. Some of it remains, today mostly unread, in their account of seven days in Los Angeles.