Becoming Los Angeles: My Speech at the Natural History Museum's Exhibit Opening

Becoming Los Angeles: Ribbon Canopy and 'Trigger' Cases
Becoming Los Angeles: Ribbon Canopy and 'Trigger' Cases | Photo by Karen Knauer, courtesy of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County


The new permanent exhibition Becoming Los Angeles opens on Sunday at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County in Exposition Park. I had a small part in the press preview on Wednesday and got to say a few words about what "becoming" might mean to Angeleños:

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Visitors come to this museum for different reasons. To be informed, of course. To be entertained, if only a little. To daydream (my favorite reason). Or to quicken the imagination

These are "good enough" reasons to visit the Natural History Museum. And today we have an even better reason.

"Becoming Los Angeles" is an exhibition that is informative, entertaining, and stylishly imaginative. But it has a more ambitious reason to claim our interest: "Becoming Los Angeles" will help us find ourselves.

We've been lost in these latter decades, ever since the mythologies of 20th century Los Angeles ceased to be very believable. We've been waiting for something better to take the place of the romantic myths and the menacing ones that said our Los Angeles was really some other place.

Some place other than the flawed semi-paradise we've made, but instead a fantastical place -- a bright city to answer all of our desires, no matter how extravagant or the noir city of regrets and blighted dreams.


WPA Model: Pershing Square
WPA Model: Pershing Square | Photo courtesy of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County


We no longer can afford to lose Los Angeles in the glare of its glamorous sales pitch or out of despair for what we've made of it or -- worse -- because of our willful amnesia about its history.

If we're to be sustained by the place where we are, we need to see Los Angeles from a perspective that has more of us in it and more of our ordinariness. It needs to be a perspective more encompassing than allowed by nostalgia, forgetfulness, or irony.

What we need is a long view -- a view of our place that necessarily extends from the Native American Tong'va to the immigrant Cambodians who live on my block and a view that necessarily includes nature as an actor in our crowded landscape with its own historical claims.

Wes Jackson, founder of the Land Institute, insisted that Americans had not yet become "native" to their land. His subject was rural life. This exhibition focuses on the Los Angeles region. But the question is true for both places and true on the same terms: How do we become "indigenous" to this place?


Becoming Los Angeles: Rancho Era
Becoming Los Angeles: Rancho Era | Photo: Art Gray, courtesy of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County

It seems to me only by deepening and widening our imagination. Built-out, transformed into the northernmost capitol of the tropics, maximally diverse, more urban, and more grown up, Los Angeles requires imagination to extend one's understanding across its tragic, sacred, human, and humanizing body.

Easy contempt for Los Angeles as the "capitol of sprawl" -- as an illegitimate place -- has obscured the region's complicated history in which geography, nature, and the presence of all of us are in continual dialog. With the deepening and widening of our imagination, we acquire a "sense of place." But for many of us a "sense of place" is elusive and perhaps for that reason not even desirable.

Yet that sensibility is the hardest won achievement of living in Los Angeles. With a "sense of place," we become implicated in history and in the memories that narrate our individual stories and the stories we have in common.

Those stories aren't perfect. They're necessarily flawed. But in them are answers to how others have made their home here and how we might achieve a durable home in Los Angeles.


Souvenir from November 5, 1913: Owens Valley Water
Souvenir from November 5, 1913: Owens Valley Water | Photo: Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, courtesy of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County

"Becoming Los Angeles" is crowded with stories that remind us that Los Angeles is not an unmixed Eden, that indigenous people were active figures in the landscape changing it even as we still do, and that the past resonates and insinuates itself into our lives, going underground like the Los Angeles River and returning to the surface to water new hopes.

One of the vitrines in "Becoming Los Angeles" contains a small, nondescript bottle. Inside is water that was snatched from the millions of gallons that poured through the newly opened gates of the Los Angeles Aqueduct on November 5, 1913. Called on to say some dedicatory words as the water cascaded down, William Mulholland - the project's master builder - is supposed to have said, There it is. Take it.

"It" isn't just the water of the Owens Valley. It might be all of nature. It might be the conflicted hybridization of landscape and people from which our place is made. It might be the city of Los Angeles: Colonial city. Captured city. City of edges. Mestizo city. City of utopias. Anxious city.

And it might be the place we've will find at last to be our home.

"There it is. Take it." Taking was how we formerly understood the idea of Los Angeles. This exhibition shows us becoming Los Angeles.

There it is. Courageously, imaginatively, knowingly, perhaps even joyfully, I invite you to become all of it.

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