Dreams money can buy

Los Angeles, it should be understood, is 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. - Morrow Mayo

Christopher Hawthorne, the architecture critic of the Los Angeles Times, has embarked on a one-year marathon read. The subject is Los Angeles, "a slippery place to get a handle on" he aptly notes. His guide to the city will be 25 (maybe more) book-length examinations, beginning this month with The Truth About Los Angeles by Louis Adamic (1927) and Los Angeles by Morrow Mayo (1933).

The boosters and the debunkers faced off in 1920s Los Angeles, and Adamic and Mayo were two notable debunkers, dissecting the city's extravagant sales pitch and its many ironies. Other writers had equally bleak assessments of the city in those years, but it's Mayo and Adamic who pointed the way to the noir tradition in Los Angeles.

Raymond Chandler is Mayo's crime novelist double, but Hawthorne - wisely, I think - doesn't have fiction on his L.A. reading list. What he has is a fine balance between writers who followed the debunkers - Mike Davis, Marc Reisner - and writers whose hearts have not been entirely broken by the city - Rayner Banham, David Brodsly, and William Alexander McClung. Hawthorne will encounter them "chronologically and posting a series of brief essays as I go." He'll also "pause along the way for posts considering how essayists, novelists, poets, screenwriters and playwrights have treated the built landscape of Los Angeles." (My memoir is on Hawthorne's list, in company with more scholarly works about suburbanization.)

Hawthorne's large ambition is a reassessment of the stories we tell ourselves about Los Angeles. Those stories - gaudy, embittered, besotted, or despairing - need new interpreters in every generation.

Hawthorne begins with an assumption, that Los Angeles is not Los Angeles any more - or not the place that even 20 years ago it was. And if it's not, what new stories of the city do we require to make this place our home?

Here is Hawthorne's full list of books by month:

January: "The Truth About Los Angeles," by Louis Adamic (1927) and "Los Angeles," by Morrow Mayo (1933).

February: "Southern California: An Island on the Land," by Carey McWilliams (1946) and "Five California Architects," by Esther McCoy (1960).

March: "Eden in Jeopardy: Man's Prodigal Meddling With the Environment," by Richard Lillard (1966) and "The Fragmented Metropolis: Los Angeles 1850-1930," by Robert M. Fogelson (1967).

April: "Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies," by Reyner Banham (1971) and "Guide to the Ugliest Buildings of Los Angeles," by Richard Meltzer (1980).

May: "L.A Freeway: An Appreciative Essay," by David Brodsly (1981) and "Richard Neutra and the Search for Modern Architecture," by Thomas Hines (1982).

June: "Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water," by Marc Reisner (1986) and "City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles," by Mike Davis (1990).

July: "Heteropolis: Los Angeles, the Riots and the Strange Beauty of Hetero-Architecture," by Charles Jencks (1993); "Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir," by D. J. Waldie (1996); and "The History of Forgetting: Los Angeles and the Erasure of Memory," by Norman M. Klein (1997).

August: "Blueprints for Modern Living: History and Legacy of the Case Study Houses," edited by Elizabeth A. T. Smith (1999) and "Magnetic Los Angeles: Planning the Twentieth-Century Metropolis," by Greg Hise (1999).

September: "Eden by Design: The 1930 Olmsted-Bartholomew Plan for the Los Angeles Region," edited by Hise and William Deverell (2000) and "The Drive-In, the Supermarket, and the Transformation of Commercial Space in Los Angeles, 1914-41," by Richard Longstreth (2000).

October: "Glitter Stucco and Dumpster Diving: Reflections on Building Production in the Vernacular City," by John Chase (2000) and "Landscapes of Desire: Anglo Mythologies of Los Angeles," by William Alexander McClung (2000).

November: "Reluctant Metropolis: The Politics of Urban Growth in Los Angeles," by William Fulton (2001) and "Form Follows Libido: Architecture and Richard Neutra in a Psychoanalytic Culture," by Sylvia Lavin (2005).

December: "Making Time: Essays on the Nature of Los Angeles," by William Fox (2006) and "Reinventing Los Angeles: Nature and Community in the Global City," by Robert Gottlieb (2007).

The image on this page was adapted from a photograph taken by flickr user mcatalena. It is used under a Creative Commons License.

Story continues below

We are dedicated to providing you with articles like this one. Show your support with a tax-deductible contribution to KCET. After all, public media is meant for the public. It belongs to all of us.

Keep Reading