So This Is History: Lessons Learned in Presenting the Past

Monogram Pictures Studios, 1946
A 1946 photo of Monogram Pictures studios, located on 4376 Sunset Drive in the Los Feliz - East Hollywood area. It would later become part of KCET's Sunset Boulevard studios from 1971 to 2011 | Photo: Bruce Torrence Historical Collection, Pacific Federal Savings

I've never really considered myself a historian. I've always been interested in history, though.

Many of us know history as a set of dates, names, events, and places: Ancient Greece. The Ming Dynasty. Montezuma. 1776. Teddy Roosevelt. Hiroshima. The March On Selma. September 11. At least, that's how history is usually taught to us in school.

Though history was one of my best subjects, I never really learned anything about local history until well after my K-12 years in the L.A. Unified School District. Aside from the California Missions, there was very little for us to learn about the place we lived in. I learned our local and regional history on my own, from newspaper articles, to The Fedco Reporter, a publication sent out to members of the now-defunct membership department store chain, which put state and local history items in between its sales catalog listings.

When KCET tapped me to manage this 50th Anniversary website, it was both an honor and a huge responsibility. I have been a contributing writer of KCET's blogs for nearly two years, writing columns like Transpacific Routes covering the local Asian/Pacific Islander community, and Concrete and Chaparral, a city-dweller's perspective on appreciating nature and the environment. In addition, I've pursued history locally, as a neighborhood docent conducting tours of my native East Hollywood for L.A. Commons' Trekking L.A. program, and have passionately researched other local history facets on my own, from L.A.'s long-gone streetcar systems, to our indigenous Tongva/Gabrieleño people, to the Los Angeles Aqueduct.

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Incidentally, one of my greatest sources of history education helped prepare me for the task, and it was none other than KCET itself: Programs like 1991's "Los Angeles History Project," Ralph Story's "Things That Aren't Here Anymore" from 1995, and of course the various episodes of "Videolog," "Visiting..." and "California's Gold" from the late, great Huell Howser not only gave me the local history lessons that my LAUSD education never gave me, but also instilled a curiosity to learn more about this place I was born and raised in, and continue to live in. Most importantly it gave me a solid bedrock of appreciation for my hometown.


Additionally, the in-house resources of KCET's staff, some of whom have worked here since the late 1970s, as well as former staff, were added to my arsenal. KCET CEO Al Jerome, who has amassed an archive of his own from his 18 years here, has also been an indispensable resource as well, providing me with the manuscript of an unpublished KCET history book written some 14 years ago. Constructing our 50-year timeline has at times involved some major sleuthing and puzzle-fitting, but it's well worth the effort.

KCET has been a part of my life for around 80 percent of our half-century of history. Certainly KCET's PBS Gen-X childhood staples such as "Sesame Street," "The Electric Company," and "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" taught me how to turn the UHF dial. Other PBS shows broadcasted by KCET from that period changed my life: "3-2-1 Contact" piqued my interest in science, "Songbag with Tony Saletan" most likely made me into a musician, and "Zoom," well, I just liked those striped shirts for some reason. To parallel that, I personally bore witness to some of our local history during that time as well, from attending 1984 Olympics events, to seeing my own neighborhood being set ablaze during the 1992 Riots.

Constructing this website's 50-year interactive timeline involves combining the history I already knew with the history that I wanted to know, and more importantly the history everyone should know.

A few weeks ago, while doing research on KCET's shows, I viewed a tape of the program "Citywatchers," a show hosted by a pair of L.A. Times writers who presented various glimpses and perspectives of Los Angeles. For those of us unfamiliar with the show, it was Huell Howser before Huell Howser.

One episode covered the issue of redevelopment in Venice Beach in the early 1970s, and presented the controversy of the day, pitting business and homeowner interests with residents who rent property, centered on a large residential development that was planned there. The development was never built, and the Venice depicted in the episode, around the canals, looks not too much different than the Venice of today. History can show us how much things have changed, and it can also show us how much things haven't changed.

Through the years, through researching history in various forms, I've learned that history isn't merely a rote litany of dates, names, events, and places. It's stories, memories, and perspectives. Yes, they can and will conflict. Yes, they can and will overlap. But that's actually the beauty of history. There are so many layers and perspectives of history. It's always been multi-faceted, diverse, and complex. It's what history has always been.

I've never really considered myself a historian. But maybe I should now.

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