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Re-reading LA: 'A Tenderfoot in Southern California' from 1918

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Selling L.A. | Photo by the author

Sunshine, geraniums, and fleas. Lots and lots of fleas. Also potholed streets, eccentric residents, and a culture of aggressive salesmen. In the popular literature of Los Angeles at the turn of the 20th century, it's already the city we almost know.

In 2011, Christopher Hawthorne, architectural critic of the Los Angeles Times, began a yearlong read of Los Angeles through a collection of nearly 30 books about the city. The Los Angeles that emerged was by turns fabulous, monstrous, and profoundly ordinary. Hawthorne began with Louis Adamic's "The Truth About Los Angeles" from 1927.

Adamic's essay -- actually most of the books on Hawthorne's list -- took as universally understood that Los Angeles is, in Morrow Mayo's 1933 summation, "not a mere city. On the contrary, it is, and has been since 1888, a commodity; something to be advertised and sold to the people of the United States like automobiles, cigarettes and mouth wash."

That kind of selling had been underway for a generation when Mina Deane Halsey, a transplanted New Yorker, began a series of sketches about life in Los Angeles that were initially self-published in 1908 as "A Tenderfoot in Southern California." In successive editions* through 1918, Halsey edited, rearranged, and added to her impressions of the booming city and its region.

What she saw was always from the comfortable perspective of the city's Anglo ascendency.

"A Tenderfoot" falls on the gentler side of the satires that even Los Angeles residents enjoyed at the turn of the century, since the humor came from the contrast between uninformed tourists and savvy Angeleños (themselves only a little beyond the same "tenderfoot" condition). Interspersed among the jokes are scenes of Southern California's natural landscape before the rest of us arrived.

For some writers, the look of Southern California was exotic verging on alien. But even as she mocks Angeleños and their enthusiasms, Halsey rhapsodizes about the beauty of the city's landscape in the best booster language. Roses and geraniums bloom in the winter. The unbuilt hillsides of Echo Park and Silver Lake are covered in California poppies. Oranges glow in the winter sun. The air is pure.

Cawston's Ostriches
Cawston's Ostriches | Photo by Bing

We might not find our Los Angeles in Halsey's domesticated paradise, but our Los Angeles is recognizable in other ways. Artisanal food trucks were preceded by the tamale wagons on every street corner. Halsey didn't pause to explain what a tamale is or how it's eaten. She expected her readers to be familiar with Mexican street food.

Instead, a clueless tourist, asking about tamales, is told with a very straight face that they are a kind of indigenous bird.

As in 2015, the streets in Los Angeles in 1918 are pocked with potholes. "There are little holes and big holes, long holes and short holes, holes you fall in all over, and the kind you pull in after you, on your way down," Halsey complained. "There are mud holes, water holes, oil holes, dust holes, in fact ... every known variety of chuck holes you ever thought of, can be found in and around Los Angeles."

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In 1918, rents were high and accommodations were meager and hard to find. Landlords were grasping penny pinchers. Real estate changed hands at a dizzying pace. And everyone had something to sell or swap. Nothing unusual there. Nor was drought. Angeleños then and now anxiously waited for the winter rains and didn't complain, as Halsey does, how furiously the rain could sometimes come down.

Halsey even includes an early product placement with mention of a local candy -- "a mixture of popcorn, cocoanut (sic) and honey, and will shut up a snarling kid, and take the kinks out of a mean disposition, at the first bite." It was called Zee-Nut and famous by 1911 (at least to collectors) for its baseball cards.

Los Angeles tourists have always been urged to see the sights. Lest the idea of excursions by trolley and steam launch seem too tame, Halsey makes the obligatory trip up the incline railway to Mt. Lowe and by sea to Catalina Island seem like thrill rides (and not in a fun way). Less thrilling were the city's ostrich and alligator farms, the last of which lingered in Buena Park until 1984.

Halsey's choice of other sights to see -- Ocean Park, Venice, Playa del Rey, Santa Monica -- might be on a contemporary itinerary too, although perhaps for other reasons. Hollywood gets a disdainful mention because the pre-movie town, a separate municipality until 1910, was run by teetotal busybodies who, she says, would arrest you for drinking a root beer. (Los Angeles County before World War I was a patchwork of "dry" and "wet" jurisdictions that made getting a drink something of a guessing game.)

Besides the lack of convenient saloons, Los Angeles and its suburbs were less than tourist friendly for two reasons complained of by every writer since Richard Henry Dana in 1840. Tourists fought fleas and lamented fogs.

Los Angeles still gets foggy, but dense fogs -- almost like the Central Valley's daylong black-outs -- are not part of the basin's climate anymore. Fog's disappearance has been pinned on urbanization, a process that began at the turn of the 20th century with the draining and subdivision of the wetter parks of what is now west Los Angeles. The drying out of L.A. took a while, but the heavy fogs that disappointed Eastern tourists finally cleared.

The decline of the city's legendarily aggressive fleas is somewhat harder to explain. Fleas thrive here year round (few killing frosts), and there are plenty of warm-blooded hosts. Some flea experts expect restoration of the flea population because of dryer and warmer conditions in the basin. Let's hope they aren't the descendants of the cannibal fleas of 1918.

"A Tenderfoot in Southern California" tracks another flaw in our presumed paradise, and we hope it's on the wane. Halsey, through the persona of a sixty-ish New York farmer spending a long winter in Los Angeles, is comfortable with casually racist observations on the city's Latino, Chinese, and Japanese residents. Italians are named with an ethnic slur. The diversity of Los Angeles, even then, was a threat.

After 1918, satires of the narrow mindedness of the city's mostly Midwestern and lower-middle-class newcomers replaced Halsey's comic complaints about boarding house meals and the price of trolley tickets. The men and women Halsey mocked as unsophisticated rural characters would be recast as grotesques in the carnival of folly and excess that was to be the new image of Los Angeles.

 

*Halsey upated her comic sketches through several editions of this popular work. This essay draws on the first and last editions.

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