Finding a 'Sense of Place' at Rancho Los Alamitos

The Great Map
The Great Map | Courtesy of Rancho Los Alamitos

Among the half-truths that have become clichés of Los Angeles is its placelessness. Even those who have celebrated -- like Rayner Banham -- a boundless L.A. have been skeptical that places here matter very much. But to historic preservationists -- like Diane Keaton -- places in L.A. have a depth and persistence that matter a great deal.

You'll have a chance to test that assumption on Sunday (06/10/12) as Rancho Los Alamitos celebrates the opening of its new visitors' center and the restoration of its farm buildings.

Because Rancho Los Alamitos was a working farm until the 1950s, the sense of place here is unusually persistent and deep.

Slice anywhere into the 1,500-year history of the mesa on which the rancho stands and the evidence of daily life spills out: scallop and abalone shells of a Tongva midden, mission-era pottery and iron work, and bits of castoff machinery from the 1890s when the Bixby family worked the land with tenant farmers from Mexico and Belgium.

The ranch house is partly an early 19th-century adobe to which a Victorian-era home was later grafted and then made comfortably modern in the 1920s when the Bixbys' oil and real estate money brought in landscape architects and bought French Impressionist paintings. Hardly more than 200 feet away, however, are the the barns and stables of the Bixbys' award-winning Shire horses -- tall, broad chested draft horses that were the prime movers of L.A. agriculture.

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Barns and Rancho Center
Barns and Rancho Center | Courtesy of Rancho Los Alamitos

The farm buildings have been restored to their state in 1948 -- odd to think of the year of my birth as historical -- at the moment when "old," agricultural L.A. County was about to pass away. It's hard to think of any place -- except, perhaps, the grounds of the mission churches -- that gives such a visceral sense of time's passing and place's continuity.

Change upon change can be measured at Rancho Los Alamitos and still it remains.

There is a map on the floor of the main room of the new Rancho Center that covers nearly all the available space. The map picks out boundaries and places current and past, rivers and sloughs, and the cities on the plain you see from the prow of the mesa on which the rancho stands. I like that map very much.

In disorienting L.A., you can know exactly where you are up at the old rancho.

Ranch Los Alamitos Entrance
Ranch Los Alamitos Entrance

D. J. Waldie, author and historian, writes about Los Angeles on KCET's SoCal Focus and 1st and Spring blogs.

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