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How I Found Los Angeles

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I spoke the other day with Nathan Masters – historian, editor, and the producer of “Lost LA.” He raised the question (not this bluntly) why I write about the confluence of history and private life.

Which brought me back – not for the first time – to an explanation I groped toward in 2008 when I first began writing about Los Angeles for KCET. Now, almost eight years later, that explanation remains true enough.

Lakewood, 1954 – the author, D.J. Waldie (left), with his brother
Lakewood, 1954. The author, D.J. Waldie (left), with his brother. Courtesy of the author's collection. | Courtesy of D.J. Waldie

Then, I reminded readers-I-hoped-for that I had earlier written an account of the place where I live (“Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir”). I wrote about a lot of things in “Holy Land”: water, sin, carpentry, land use policy, the Laws of the Indies, and a dead cocker spaniel. This miscellany seemed, at the time, to be the description of a life, although I wondered if it was. I wonder still.

I had had a solitary conversation taking years, held mornings and evenings during my walk from my house to my office and from office to house, the predictability of each step eliding into the rhythm of each sentence. Eventually, the conversation turned public because the back-and-forth was essentially an argument. It was an argument initially over the folly of staying here (here = suburban Lakewood) and the folly of faith (faith = wanting to believe that so much ordinariness would add up to anything).

I finally decided that the argument was about falling in love. I found that I had argued myself into falling in love with the place where I am. I wondered if the same argument would work on you.

I found that I had argued myself into falling in love with the place where I am.

In writing about “falling in love” eight years ago, I started to add something about us. But I stopped because I have a bad habit of referring to us, of wantonly throwing you and me together as “we,” as if you and I were passengers on the same Metro bus, and as if our being together implied anything, particularly any obligation between strangers.

“We” remains a terrible abstraction in Los Angeles with reasons in our history and in our landscape – reasons worth talking about, hence many of these pieces. But standing against abstraction (and the distractions of Los Angeles) is an imagination – my imagination and, if I’m lucky, yours, too.

I think of it as a moral imagination, as the means by which I have written myself into the story of my place and its redemptive mix of tragedies and joys, negotiating my way from a flawed private life to the flawed – but sacred and humanizing – place that is Los Angeles. Or rather the bigger thing that’s L.A., of which Los Angeles is both a present and absent part. (You can be in L.A. but nowhere near Los Angeles.)

Lakewood (c.1960s) – Tomorrow's City Today
Lakewood in the 1960s, "Tomorrow's City Today". Courtesy of the author's collection. | Courtesy of D.J. Waldie

Uses of History

I have an old friend who collects stuff – lots of old stuff – about which he knows a great deal. You might peg him as a mere collector – assembling stuff for the sake of more stuff – but I know that his collecting enlarges his imagination. His beloved stuff takes him outside himself.

I have another old friend who photographs disregarded places and later paints them in a startlingly photo-realistic way. You might think his dingbat apartments and aging bungalows are merely ironic, but he renders their ordinariness as an incarnation.

I write about Los Angeles where, despite our desire for forgetfulness, the back-and-forth of past and present persists. Sometimes, two examples of vernacular architecture adjacent to each other are having a more serious dialog about where we’ve come from than you’ll read in any Los Angeles newspaper. Sometimes, the most commonplace stuff of L.A. resonates with unexpected intensity.

Writing history can seem like artifact collecting or landscape painting. Pessimistic Henry Adams (one of those Adamses from whom presidents came) wondered in 1905 what use writing history had at a time when Adams felt the past slipping away with ever greater velocity and the imaginations he observed had become weary of remembering except as an excuse for nostalgia.

Adams balefully regarded what he called “the acceleration of history” at the turn of the 20th century. I imagined at the turn of the 21st that Adams’ “acceleration” was like a speeding car in which the past is framed in the rearview mirror and we’re only along for the ride.

The erasure of topography – regrading on Fort Moore Hill in downtown Los Angeles
The erasure of topography – regrading on Fort Moore Hill in downtown Los Angeles in 1949. Courtesy of the L. Mildred Harris Slide Collection – Los Angeles Public Library. [source]

When I looked at the history of Los Angeles, I saw the effects of this awful regime of speed. I saw it in the landscape, in what Norman Klein called the “erasure” of the city’s topography in the rush to build a more perfect paradise. The leveling of the multi-ethnic neighborhood of Bunker Hill, for example, rendered downtown a sterile corporate island for nearly half a century. The channeling of the beds of the Los Angeles and San Gabriel rivers made both rivers nearly invisible.

And I saw how erasures of memory were preconditions for the last 50 years of failed local politics. In forgetting the conditions under which Los Angeles came to be, voters failed to see how callous and remote city government was becoming. Ignorance of the violent history of law enforcement in Los Angeles County gave cover to decades of corruption in the LAPD and the Sheriff’s Department.

L.A. poses large questions about the uses of history, and this bears on my question from 2008: can any part of our past be of any value to us except as nostalgia or irony?

There are Angeleños who don't want any history at all, with history’s resistance to simple narratives and its counterclaim to our ability to reinvent ourselves endlessly. They are content to be perennial tourists in an entertaining and lurid L.A. but never citizens of the place where we are.

There are Angeleños who don't want any history at all, with history’s resistance to simple narratives and its counterclaim to our ability to reinvent ourselves endlessly. They are content to be perennial tourists in an entertaining and lurid L.A. but never citizens of the place where we are. Because of its Catholic past, fears of Mexican irredentism in the 19th century, its speculative cycles of boom and bust, and the seductive power of its extravagant sales pitch, the place where we are is too easily misplaced for its noir double: a disillusioned city that naïvely buys its own illusions.

Wes Jackson insisted that Americans had not yet become “native” to their place. His subject was rural America; mine is L.A., but the question is true for both and true on the same terms. Every American place is a ruined paradise that demands a common effort to repair. L.A. is our ruined paradise and therefore our home.

Since I began writing these pieces, history-less L.A. has began to succumb to the moral imaginations of even more interpreters to tell a refigured story that contains more about us and what we yearn for. This is the public speech that the contemplation of my private life led me to, which is nothing less than the re-imagining of L.A.

That’s why I write about this place...because I found myself there.

Downtown Los Angeles in 1985
Downtown Los Angeles in 1985. Photo by Wayne Thom, courtesy of the Wayne Thom Photography Collection, USC Libraries. [source] | Photo by Wayne Thom, courtesy of the Wayne Thom Photography Collection, USC Libraries.

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