City of Angels/City of Faith
By D. J. Waldie
(Note from Frank Gruber: In Monday’s "What I Say" column I quoted from excerpts the L.A. Times published from a talk author D. J. Waldie gave in December at the Los Angeles Public Library. (The talk was part of the Zocalo "Public Square" lecture series; for more information, go to: http://www.zocalola.org/.) As one might expect, the Times’ excerpts did not capture the entire meaning of Mr. Waldie’s presentation, particularly those parts that are more hopeful. Mr. Waldie has graciously permitted The Lookout to post the entire address, which follows.
The essay speaks for itself (and should be required reading so far as I am concerned), but I will add one note about Mr. Waldie that the audience hearing him would have known but which may not be known to all Lookout readers, namely that Mr. Waldie is a lifelong resident (and municipal employee) of Lakewood, which, like Santa Monica, is a small, independent city in the County of Los Angeles. Therefore, he and we Santa Monicans share the same relationship to the words "Los Angeles" and "Angeleño.")
At the end of the movie Chinatown – at the end of all the false leads that Jake has doggedly run down – at the end of our patience with Jake’s mistaken convictions about himself and his city – when Jake’s partner pulls him back from the sight of Evelyn Mulwray’s shattered face, and the Asian faces of the gawking bystanders crowd the frame – when the clueless private eye is told, "Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown." . . . in the end, the story of Los Angeles has dwindled to a conclusion we are powerless to affect, like a landscape watched in the rear view mirror of a car fleeing a crime scene.
At the end of our story, Los Angeles is Chinatown – only Chinatown – and we’re only along for the ride.
As Joan Didion has said, "We tell ourselves stories in order to live . . ." In Los Angeles, we tell ourselves that an elderly John Huston stole the water of the Owens Valley in 1934 (just as Chinatown proved, although that isn’t the way it happened). We tell ourselves that a cartoon Dr. Doom and General Motors shut down the beloved Red Cars to make way for the freeways (just as Who Framed Roger Rabbit? showed, although that is isn’t exactly true, either).
Because we’ve seen True Confessions and L.A. Confidential, Lost Highway and Blade Runner, we are certain we know what Los Angeles is. "Any reasonably intelligent American knows," say the authors of the satiric guide L.A. Bizzaro!, "that Los Angeles is a rotten, stinking dump."
You and I can recite the city’s defeated beliefs about itself like a catechism lesson for the regretful. "What is Los Angeles?" Los Angeles, for those lucky enough to get out, is a rite of passage and a fable of broken dreams.
William A. McClung writes in Landscapes of Desire that the fable of Los Angeles – of illusions bought and expectations disappointed – is a "moving, entertaining, and stylish story" of a peculiar city, "reached by a long journey, enjoyed, railed against, and ultimately rejected for all that it lacks" . . . an absurd place whose climate, geography, architecture – even its landscape – are contemptibly insubstantial yet perversely resilient.
These highly charged images compose what French geographer Jérôrme Monnet calls "vernacular geography" . . . our internal, fallible map that we mistakenly consult instead of the Thomas Guide. The uniform urban grid of Los Angeles, which should be seen as a spectacle of democracy, leaves too many of us bewildered.
We can’t see past the iconography of sunshine and noir that conceals everyday Los Angeles. There, in the shadow of the billboard that advertises the city and its desires, is the place that too many of us regard as "alien, troubling, menacing, and cut off."
We made our narratives for the freeway’s fluidity, but that’s mostly gone now anyway, and our stories get lost in brown neighborhoods on the city’s flatlands and break down in cul-de-sacs and among mini-malls that all look alike, with signs written in characters that are meaningful only to someone else.
But for the gridlock, a lot of us would prefer to be passing through Los Angeles – where we are perpetual tourists and never citizens – on our way to newer and brighter suburbs in Montana or Las Vegas or to internal exile behind the gates of a guarded subdivision or behind one of those signs that promises "immediate armed response."
Perhaps, as historian Dana Cuff has suggested, the city’s hyper self-definition has made it difficult to see the texture beneath the ephemeral surfaces. Those surfaces are, in Cuff’s apt metaphor, "convulsive," a landscape twitching with big ideas about building the next utopia here on the demolished premises of the last one.
What’s broken in each convulsion isn’t just ground; it’s a thread of narrative. And it’s these broken threads that make too many of us homeless in Los Angeles, even if we have a house.
The search for a useable story of Los Angeles – an everyday history – troubled this city a hundred years ago. "How do we become ‘indigenous’ to this place?" the anxious new Anglo residents of Los Angeles asked at the turn of the century. They were acutely aware that they lacked a story that would fit their American city into an unfamiliar landscape and one so recently appropriated from its Mexicano and California proprietors.
They answered what they lacked with a pageant, a history lesson on wheels drawn on wagons though the few big streets of the city. As William Deverell describes it in Whitewashed Adobe, the story of Los Angeles was going to be a parade with floats . . . La Fiesta de Los Angeles.
The lead floats in the 1895 edition of the parade illustrated "Aztec" daily life, followed by imported Native Americans enacting an Indian raiding party, then a float of mission padres bringing Western civilization, and then – in further slow procession – floats showing a typical scene of the "sleepy" Mexican town of the 1820s, a romantic scene from the era of the ranchos, and Sutter’s discovery of gold in 1849.
The parade marshaled a story of replacement. In each era – from the most distant to the present – one people supplanted another in Los Angeles, until both the parade and history ended with the triumphant Anglo city and its timeless countryside. Interspersed among the floats were the "other" Angeleños . . . among them, a team of Chinese dragon dancers whose presence in the parade was both fascinatingly exotic and deeply troubling to Anglo spectators.
The parade concluded with final float – an allegory of the future. It promised that Los Angeles would be the culmination of Caucasian civilization in a land of sunshine, with all of nature and all of human industry in harmony.
The harmony shattered almost at once . . . and the bickering over the point of the story began. The mission padres were found to be Catholic, of all things, and agents of Roman superstition, at least according to the sterner elements of the Protestant community. Those dancing Chinese and sullen Indians weren’t officially part of the American story anyway, even if the pageant clearly showed their subordinate status.
And the dashing caballeros on parade day – didn’t they become just Mexicans the day after?
In 1898, the Spanish-American War made it impossible to script a past that included a place for Spanish conquistadors. In 1902, the Latino descendants of the Lugos and Yorbas threatened to pull out and leave the parade without living proof of Anglo history: the replacement of one people by another.
The fiesta sputtered out in these unresolved conflicts and waning interest.
The Tournament of Roses in Pasadena flourished, perhaps because the Pasadena parade wasn’t a story but only an opportunity for looking at pretty flowers and pretty girls.
Maybe the fiesta’s organizing principle of history – a series of substitutions – implied that the final float wouldn’t always end the story with "Caucasian triumph," and that the Anglo supplanters standing on the sidewalk might themselves one day ride in a slow-moving historical tableau for even newer inheritors of the landscape.
Perhaps most troubling was the burden of having any history at all.
The parade’s spectacle of historical succession came with a presumption that the city’s past wasn’t safely "in the past," but was ready to break into the present and make historical claims that Anglo Los Angeles refused to understand.
The attempt to create a coherent story of Los Angeles had failed at its beginning.
Because of the region’s Catholic past, its capture in war and fears of Mexican irredentism, its dread of race mixing, its speculative cycles of boom and bust, and the seductive power of its extravagant sales pitch, the white city turned away from living memory and cast the shadow that remains the city’s "noir" double: the city of unmet desires – the city of willful amnesia – the disillusioned city that naïvely buys its own illusions – the city embodied in Phyllis Dietrichson’s house in Double Indemnity; sunny and phony on the outside and dark inside, a house for plotting a murder masked as seduction.
We buy so cheaply in Los Angeles and believe so easily; just take your pick of scriptures.
The story of Los Angeles is an elegy for a place of former perfection . . . a perfect place, once upon a time . . . and the time was just before your new, next-door neighbor arrived. That’s our history of regret.
Or the story of Los Angeles is a kind of pornography, in which every real estate cliché is a menace – the city’s climate is actually lousy (tornadoes today and drought tomorrow) and the landscape is lethal (when it isn’t burning with wildfires or shaking with earthquakes, it’s crawling with fauna with a taste for suburban white meat). In its contempt for its subject – in its belief that we’re just along for the ride – that story is our pornography of despair.
Or the story of Los Angeles is merely a spectacle of this uniquely intoxicated place and its intoxicated people.
"(T)he splendors and miseries of Los Angeles," Reyner Banham says in Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies, "the graces of (its) grotesqueries, appear to me as unrepeatable as they are unprecedented." If Los Angeles is the great "exception" – a city without a heritage or legacy, marooned off the continent of the commonplace – then its story may be glamorous, but it’s just another entertainment, best witnessed while slightly sedated.
Or the story of Los Angeles is – permanently – a blank . . . as Pico Iyer says, a "space waiting to be claimed by whatever dream or destiny you wanted to throw at it."
That’s our daydream of all our cities of the future, leaving the "now" of Los Angeles stranded as the locale of everything that is unsatisfying and incomplete.
Or there is no story of Los Angeles. The city has simply disappeared from the narrative, a victim of the régime of speed and erased by forgetfulness.
Los Angeles. . . Los Angeles . . . colonial city, captured city, city of fragments, city of edges, city of amnesiacs, anxious city – the poet Wanda Coleman calls it the "cruelest city" – this city of angels . . . of thoughtless belief and so little faith in itself.
Because none of those cities satisfies our longing, many of its citizens believe Los Angeles has one, last title: unnecessary city.
Pity them. And pity the city they think is unnecessary. Cities are not mere conveyances of public services. They have a moral purpose. The moral purpose of a great city is to shelter a maximal diversity of public settings in which citizens might acquire the ability to sympathize with the condition of others and act on those conditions by communal and political means.
A hundred years ago, Anglo residents of the city asked how they could become the inheritors of their unearned place, and they figured a story that satisfied no one.
Today, some Angeleños are answering a question posed by the writer and environmentalist Barry Lopez, who grew up in the San Fernando Valley. Barry Lopez asks, "How can we become vulnerable to this place?"
It’s a question of falling in love. I fell in love with Los Angeles through its history, and you could, too.
This is a "golden age" of great writing about the city and its region, mostly in the form of critical studies but also, if that seems too academic, in the form of memoir and new fiction and literary nonfiction.
A grid of stories is under construction in Los Angeles . . . my story appropriating some of yours, yours taking from the Korean woman who handles your dry cleaning, hers from the Oxacan who sells her fresh fruit, and his acquired in part from the Alabaman who sits with him on the overcrowded Metro bus.
A commitment to the shared stories of all these Angeleños – a commitment the city has always lacked – is a prerequisite for loyalty to this place.
Angeleños have something profound to tell each other. They also have a lot to forgive.
Demographically and culturally, Los Angeles in 2004 is nearly a refounded city, and like recently refounded nations, Los Angeles can acquiesce to its malign tradition of forgetfulness or benefit from a shared process of "truth and reconciliation."
Remembering is an act of courage in Los Angeles. Memory is sabotage against the city’s regime of speed.
Barry Lopez asks, "How can we become vulnerable to Los Angeles?"
His question can only be answered by those who have acquired "a sense of place."
Some Angeleños are finding a "sense of place" in the most unlikely of places. Downtown for one, where the blank "City of Quartz" described by historian Mike Davis is acquiring a human, if gentrified face. Call it "noir adjacent" for a niche market of hipsters, but also the return of a neighborhood economy to streets that an earlier wave of redevelopment stripped of everyday life.
The Los Angeles River is another place of memory, where, as the historian Jennifer Price has noted, the city’s environmental story almost comes full circle – from wild nature to industrial wasteland to restoration, if not exactly to nature.
The banks of the Los Angeles River are getting crowded. The Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority, and The Trust for Public Land have completed the first of a chain of small parks along the river. North East Trees is part of the project and is planting nearly 3,000 trees. TreePeople are planting more.
The 52-mile Los Angeles River greenway project, linking the river, new state parks, and the Arroyo Seco with bike and walking trails is moving forward. A project for a Los Angeles heritage trail, connecting all these sites and more than a dozen other "places of memory" in downtown and East Los Angeles, is being vigorously advocated, as is a Confluence Park at the juncture of the river and the Arroyo Seco. The green dots are being connected.
The largest of the open space projects is a pair of urban parks reclaimed from former rail yards that will give Chinatown a 32-acre park a few hundred feet from the river.
Two miles upstream, a 30-acre state park that could grow to 100 acres of trails, playing fields, and a wetlands restoration project.
Building parks on industrial brownfields won’t restore a lost Eden to Los Angeles. The river will always be a flood control channel, constrained by concrete to protect working-class homes like mine. The slow greening of the river is a sobering demonstration of the limits of environmental restoration in an urban landscape. But, it’s also a demonstration of how a perilously fragmented Los Angeles can pull itself together. As Jennifer Price notes, the river is at once "one of the most hopeless and hopeful spots in Los Angeles."
In the prophetic words of the old hymn, we shall gather at the river, because we have almost nowhere else to go in built-out Los Angeles. We shall gather on the river’s banks to restore it, not to nature, but to ourselves.
How do we become vulnerable to this place? Hunger for memory is one way, Take delight in the city’s stories. Find yourself in its history. Long for a sense of place. Fall in love. But what would inspire your allegiance to Los Angeles?
Our indifference to that questions feeds on eighty years of technically "good" government in Los Angeles based on professional expertise and public disinterest, thirty years of timidity by the city’s mayors and council members, who countenanced the spirit of secession to get secessionist votes, and on a generation of Proposition-13-inspired "taxpayer revolts" against the idea of a common good that cruelly remade the citizens of Los Angeles into mere consumers of municipal services.
This city has failed to give its residents what they critically need – reasons to be faithful to each other that go beyond the politics of shared grievances. This city has not inspired faithfulness because it had not offered much that stood against the easy belief that no shared loyalties are possible at all.
But even that is changing. Los Angeles is in the midst of a half-finished political revolution that began with city charter reform in 1999.
Rather than break the political geography of the city into pieces – which was a very real possibility in 2002 – Los Angeles voters broke power in the city into new configurations . . . including the system of Neighborhood Councils and Area Planning Commissions. Those were compromise choices. More radical changes, including a much larger City Council or a system of boroughs, weren’t put before the voters.
Some of the early results of the reform charter have been unruly and easy to misread as the old bickering in new a setting. But something alive is breaking through the dead mask of the city’s unaccountable system of governance.
Members of the neighborhood councils say they feel empowered, that they have access where they didn’t before. They have been included in drafting the city budget; they rose up against the technocracy at the DWP and won a remarkable, if symbolic, victory.
That’s a start for creating genuine stakeholders in the city, who might acquire, over time, the vision to see Los Angeles whole. More should be done.
The city spends just two dollars per resident in support of neighborhood councils; Seattle, Portland, and Minneapolis spend from thirteen to twenty dollars per resident.
The city doesn’t do enough to coordinate the flow of information to the councils; the councils are not structurally linked to the area planning commissions. If only elementary and middle schools could be governed as neighborhood institutions . . .
Despite its flaws, a revolution of popular desire is unfolding in Los Angeles to reanimate the dry husk of city government with hope.
Angeleños hope for a community of solidarity where their diverse interests might be reconciled in ways that satisfy them intimately and, in reconciling them, promote the common good.
Marjorie Gellhorn Sa’adah’s prose poem "Only Heaven," is about Broadway’s mercado of dreams – the free advice of a verduras vendor, the one-man-band who plays on tin cans tacked to his belt, and "a hundred girls, on their way to try on a hundred shiny wedding dresses." "Down here," Gellhorn Sa’adah writes, "it is hope on parade."
That hope is brown . . . to use Richard Rodriguez’s color of complicity, hybridity, and admixture. There’s another word for this city’s story, just beyond the gated suburb.
It’s mestizaje – the promiscuous amalgamation of Hispanic, African, Asian, and Native American peoples that is characteristic of a mestizo civilization . . . our civilization.
"Brown" doesn’t mean just a Latino demographic majority, but a weaving together of Manila, Lagos, Bakersfield, Ho Chi Minh City, New York, Tenochtitlán, Teheran, Phnom Penh, and Long Beach – not a place of exception and illusion but of the commonplace – the place where we necessarily find love and hope.
We are not yet vulnerable to that Los Angeles, and too many of us cannot embrace the consequences of seeing our whiteness as another shade of brown.
Wes Jackson, the founder of the Land Institute, insisted that Americans had not yet become "native" to their country. For Angeleños, becoming fully native to this place will require a fearful transformation, because it requires that we become a mixed breed, a creole of colors and new allegiances of the heart.
I’ve asked you tonight to consider how you and I might gain what could be called a "moral imagination" the means to write ourselves into the story of this city and its redemptive mix of tragedies and joys.
Something genuine and encumbered could come from the process of making such an imagination – a refigured story that contains more about us – what we find familiar, and what we yearn for.
It’s not Roman Polanski’s "Chinatown."
We yearn for home – at least some of us do.
Los Angeles is a ruined paradise, I agree, and in desperate need of us.
It was the fate of Los Angeles . . . I almost said the grace of Los Angeles . . . to be the paradise we’ve ruined and, as a consequence, now our home.____________
Lakewood’s story can be found at www.lakewoodcity.org
W. W. Norton will reprint D. J. Waldie’s Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir in 2005. Mr. Waldie is also the author of Where We Are Now: Notes from Los Angeles (Angel City Press).
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