Ghosts and Shadows: An Unconventional Conversation at Rancho Los Alamitos

Shadowed Landscape
Shadowed Landscape | Photo: Harry Harris | Flickr: Creative Commons License

Conversations at Rancho Los Alamitos on Bixby Hill in Long Beach have been going on for more than 2,500 years -- in the voices of the indigenous Gabrielino-Tongva, the Spanish and Mexican settlers who followed; the Bixby family and their tenant farmers, and now in ours.

We are the 21st century inheritors of an essential conversation about the place in which we live. It's a deeply shadowed landscape today, where peoples and cultures are often hidden in plain sight and where some "ghost" populations have been relegated to margins we rarely see.

The suddenness of development during and after World War II has conditioned us to think of the region as an archipelago of enclaves and not as the multi-cultural community that the region has become.

As far back as the 1930s, East Los Angeles was among the most diverse urban areas in America. Coastal Los Angeles County in the first half of the 20th century mingled ethnic Serbs, Portuguese, Japanese, Hawaiians, and Chinese communities, among several others. Today, the Long Beach Unified School District boasts of being one of the most diverse districts in the nation.

Even the blue-collar suburbs of the post-war period and the gated neighborhoods being built today are trending toward maximally hybrid places. According to the Generational Future of Los Angeles report prepared by USC's Sol Price School of Public Policy, "Barely 5% of children in Los Angeles are foreign born, and yet the majority of children (60%) have immigrant parents."

This new demographic reality means that wherever I go in Los Angeles County, I'm likely to be a minority in the community that lives and works there.

Story continues below

I'm exploring that reality at the rancho with academics, media critics, writers, and interpreters of Southern California through the Conversations in Place series that continues this month and ends in November. I'm co-moderator of the series with Claudia Jurmain, the director of Special Projects and Publications at Rancho Los Alamitos.

September's conversation at the rancho brings together Gustavo Arellano, editor of the OC Weekly and best-selling author; Professor Philip Ethington of USC, historian and cartographer of the "ghost" landscapes of Los Angeles; Susan Straight of UC Riverside and this very same blog on KCET, a best-selling novelist and boundary trespasser between white and black communities; Professor Wendy Cheng of Arizona State University, a cultural critic and investigator of the San Gabriel Valley's Chinese diaspora; and Professor Oliver Wang of CSU Long Beach and KCET's Artbound, a sociologist, a DJ, and archivist of Asian hip-hop culture.

What brings this diverse assembly to the rancho is, I think, a shared understanding that places do matter and that the history of our place in Southern California isn't altogether past.

Against the over-hyped images of mythic Southern California stand everyday lives sheltered in our homes, in our public spaces, and in our neighborhoods to which I return again and again to give scale and value to my experience. There, I find the capacity to reconnect the region's past and present. There, I've found my "sense of place."

Others are finding their "sense of place" as well. They're discovering, as I have, that connection to community and neighborhood isn't a matter of sentimentality or mere nostalgia, but rather the means for understanding how the place they call home intersects through time with lives, history, and meaning.

Where a sense of place might take us in the future will be the subject of a final conversation at the rancho in November. It will be a look back at the Olmsted-Bartholomew plan for a greener Los Angeles and forward to the forces that are reshaping how we live, work, and play in Southern California today.

Southern California is being refigured by the imaginations of all its interpreters. "Ghost" inhabitants are making their historical claims. The shadows are being illuminated by a new generation of authors, academics, and cultural critics.

Conversations at the historic rancho today contain more about us and what we find familiar and what we yearn for. They don't describe a perfect place or a paradise. But they do acknowledge that making our home in Southern California is a collaborative work and possibly redemptive.

Rancho Los Alamitos
Rancho Los Alamitos | Courtesy of Rancho Los Alamitos

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