Los Angeles Plays Itself

In this land of constant reinvention, a longtime resident walks the streets to understand what the city was and what it’s becoming.

David L. Ulin | Sidewalking | University of California Press | October 2015 | 41 minutes (8,144 words)

 

“I want to live in Los Angeles, but not the one in Los Angeles.”

— Frank Black

 

One night not so many weeks ago, I went to visit a friend who lives in West Hollywood. This used to be an easy drive: a geometry of short, straight lines from my home in the mid-Wilshire flats — west on Olympic to Crescent Heights, north past Santa Monica Boulevard. Yet like everywhere else these days, it seems, Los Angeles is no longer the place it used to be. Over the past decade-and-a-half, the city has densified: building up and not out, erecting more malls, more apartment buildings, more high-rises. At the same time, gridlock has become increasingly terminal, and so, even well after rush hour on a weekday evening, I found myself boxed-in and looking for a short-cut, which, in an automotive culture such as this one, means a whole new way of conceptualizing urban space.

There are those (myself among them) who would argue that the very act of living in L.A. requires an ongoing process of reconceptualization, of rethinking not just the place but also our relationship to it, our sense of what it means. As much as any cities, Los Angeles is a work-in-progress, a landscape of fragments where the boundaries we take for granted in other environments are not always clear. You can see this in the most unexpected locations, from Rick Caruso’s Grove to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where Chris Burden’s sculpture “Urban Light” — a cluster of 202 working vintage lampposts — fundamentally changed the nature of Wilshire Boulevard when it was installed in 2008. Until then, the museum (like so much of L.A.) had resisted the street, the pedestrian, in the most literal way imaginable, presenting a series of walls to the sidewalk, with a cavernous entry recessed into the middle of a long block. Burden intended to create a catalyst, a provocation; “I’ve been driving by these buildings for 40 years, and it’s always bugged me how this institution turned its back on the city,” he told the Los Angeles Times a week before his project was lit. When I first came to Los Angeles a quarter of a century ago, the area around the Museum was seedy; it’s no coincidence that in the film Grand Canyon, Mary Louise Parker gets held up at gunpoint there. Take a walk down Wilshire now, however, and you’ll find a different sort of interaction: food trucks, pedestrians, tourists, people from the neighborhood.

Perhaps only in Los Angeles would this feel like a revolution: a street with a culture unto itself. But then, L.A. may be unique among American cities for having lost sight of its boulevards as public space. Its self-image has long been one of cool containment: the lone driver, moving between home and work and leisure, the autopia of Reyner Banham and Cees Nooteboom. This is a city where the most basic cornerstones are understood to be private: private life, private architecture, a city Louis Adamic once described as “the enormous village,” where the single-family house is the essential heart. And yet, in contemporary Los Angeles, that is changing, as population growth forces our hand. What is the great civic project of the twenty-first century? Light rail, subways, bike lanes, a transportation network in which the one-car-one-commuter ethos is replaced by something more inclusive, less about how the city may once have seen itself than what it has become.

The irony, of course, is that this is (has always been) encoded into L.A.’s history, which means that we look forward by looking back. A hundred years ago, the Pacific Electric Railroad, better known as the Red Car, offered the world’s largest interurban public transit system, with a thousand miles of track and more than two thousand trains, stretching as far as San Bernardino and Redlands. It’s been half a century since those trains ran anywhere other than a mile-and-a-half tourist loop at the San Pedro waterfront — I rode them there once, with my children — although there has been noise for almost a generation now about bringing some version of them back to downtown. As recently as 2006, the now-defunct Community Redevelopment Agency was doing feasibility studies about running vintage cars “to create a tourist attraction of historical significance which would also provide an additional means of transportation much like the cable cars and the Market Street Railway in San Francisco,” which averages 20,000 riders daily, many of them visitors from out-of-town, travelling between Fisherman’s Wharf and the Castro on a fleet of throwback cars. Some of those San Francisco trolleys, PCCs from the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, are painted to look like L.A. Red Cars: another irony, since the downtown trolley, if it ever gets completed, will no longer be a vintage line. Go to the project’s website, and you’ll find a computer-generated image of a hyper-modern car, green and blue, streamlined as a bullet, with the tower of the Marriott in the background, and a cyclist, wearing helmet and backpack, passing alongside. Here we have a vision of the new Los Angeles, eco-friendly and sustainable, in which downtown is transformed into an emblem of the future and not of the past. Is it cynical of me to say that this is only as it should be, yet another example of the city’s faith in reinvention, the idea that the past is a blank slate and the future its own kind of dream? “Nothing dies in California,” the poet William Everson once observed; “it is the land of non-death. … There is no intrinsic knowledge in the sense of locality — our graveyards have been built within living memory.” Our graveyards, and our cities too. The current downtown revival is at least the third since I first started coming to L.A. in the 1980s, and if it looks like it is taking hold this time, it is not without its stumbles, its false steps. The downtown trolley may end up being one of them: underfunded, behind schedule, it remains something of a conditional project, more than a desire if not quite a plan. Click through from the website and the only links are to Facebook and Twitter, neither of which have been updated, in any serious way, for months.

As much as any cities, Los Angeles is a work-in-progress, a landscape of fragments where the boundaries we take for granted in other environments are not always clear.

But wait, don’t get me wrong: This is precisely the tension that draws me to downtown, where the new and old cities circle back on one another, like an ouroboros devouring its own tail. I am pulled, in other words, by the way history exists here just below the surface, a set of hieroglyphics we have to teach ourselves to read. For a long time, downtown was an enigma to me, an emblem of the dreamlike, floating quality of Los Angeles. On one of my early visits, five years before I moved to California, I spent a week with a friend and, every day, was driven somewhere in his convertible — to a restaurant, to a bookstore, to the movies, to the beach. That passive framing is essential, since I had no agency. I would sit in the passenger seat, staring at the soft parade of streets and structures, the bungalows and palm trees, the postage stamp lawns and stucco storefronts, all of it as indistinct as a film set, as if joined to no underlying narrative. I remember I kept asking where downtown was, as if this might somehow root me; little did I realize that for many Angelenos, downtown (then and even now) glittered in the distance like the Emerald City, city center as illusion, as the place we never reach. Half a decade later, on my first foray as a resident, I set out to cross an empty boulevard (Grand Avenue? Olive Street? I have a vague memory of passing in front of the Biltmore, by the big front doors where the Black Dahlia was last seen alive) against the lights and was berated by another pedestrian; “Oh, I see,” she called scornfully, “we’re playing by New York rules today.” And if I am to be honest, it was the New Yorkiness of these streets, with their turn-of-the-last-century architecture, ten and twelve storey buildings of brick and cornices, that was part of the attraction, a cityscape that was (at least) visually recognizable, even if the sidewalks remained as empty as the aftermath of a neutron bomb. Or no, not only that, this wishful familiarity, but also the exoticism of a city that didn’t fit my preconceptions, that played by different rules. In the film Wolf, we watch as Jack Nicholson wanders down lower Broadway in Manhattan, only to find ourselves, once he steps inside his company’s headquarters, on an altogether different Broadway, in the lobby of the Bradbury Building in downtown L.A. It is, to be sure, a clumsy bit of movie magic, especially for anyone familiar with both locations, but at the same time, perhaps, it suggests a metaphor, a way of reflecting on place and how we interact with it, a lens on what it does and does not mean.

The Bradbury, after all, is one of Los Angeles’ finest landmarks, a five storey gem of a building erected at the corner of Third and Broadway in 1893, when the city’s population was something in the range of sixty thousand, although downtown was already (relatively) urbanized. In an 1889 photo, taken to mark the opening of the Downey Avenue Cable Railroad, we see Broadway four years before that: a wide street, somewhat sleepy, pocked with trolleys and horse-drawn carriages, horizon tapering off to flatness as the edges of the city assert themselves. Little more than a decade later, a 1902 shot of Spring Street looking south from First (the current location of the Los Angeles Times building) reveals a cityscape transformed. In the foreground, the Hotel Nadeau sits across from Western Union, and the pavement is cluttered with electric streetcars, at least seven I can count. There are horse-drawn surries and hansom cabs, but now we see the first intrusion of the automobile. Buildings of five and six storeys are not uncommon, and the sidewalks are dense with people walking, people standing, people talking, loitering, mostly men but a few women here and there. By 1909, a panoramic map reveals the configurations of the modern city: blocks of taller buildings (ten, twelve, fourteen floors) framed around the city center, factories and rail yards along the river; by then, more than three hundred thousand people lived in L.A. The original name of Broadway, when it was still a dirt road in the years before Los Angeles began to play itself, was Eternity Street; it led, fittingly enough, to a cemetery. Such a resonance represents an almost perfect symbol for the city and all its layered meanings, the way past and present intertwine at the level of forgetting, like a nineteenth century graveyard in which the few remaining monuments insist that we remember we are part of something bigger than ourselves.


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That’s true, of course, of any downtown, any city center, this interplay of present tense and history. One of the ideas I want to argue against is a sense of Los Angeles exceptionalism, that this city is fundamentally different from any other, although in many ways it is. Sound like a contradiction? Well, yes — which is also part of the point. Los Angeles continually evades us (or evades me), forcing us to rethink what we take for granted about how it, how any city, works. This is why I both love and hate the place, source of my fascination and my resistance, my efforts to remake L.A., or my experience of it, on something resembling my terms. Downtown is a perfect case-in-point. Once a year, I lead a group of students on a walking tour designed to get at these very oppositions: not negations, exactly, but complications, struggles, inconsistencies. It is why, in a consideration of walking, we are just now getting around to walking, for like everything else in Los Angeles, pedestrianism comes with its own context, its own set of crisis points. Walking is a joke, a punch line, the lyric to a bad pop anthem: “Nobody walks in L.A.,” sang Missing Persons’ Dale Bozzio in 1982. Walking is a conundrum, a question mark. When I first began to think about walking in Los Angeles, a friend asked, “You’re not going to make the case for L.A. as a walking city, are you?” It’s an excellent question, one that (again) highlights the complexities, the ongoing tension between hype and what, for want of a better word, let’s call reality.

According to a 2014 report by SmartGrowth America and George Washington University, Los Angeles is becoming more pedestrian; although it tied for sixteenth (with Kansas City and Columbus, Ohio) among thirty metropolitan areas in regard to walkability, “[t]he future — of a walkable, transit-friendly Los Angeles — is being built right now.” The future, yes, and also the past. To live here is like playing an elaborate Situationist game of psychogeography, in which we displace ourselves by interposing the (psychic) map of one city over another city’s terrain. Sometimes, this is the city in which we were raised, the city that imprinted us, which is why I have created in Los Angeles a lifestyle more suited to New York or San Francisco, walking to the bank, to the dry cleaner, to the grocery store, to a restaurant or coffee shop, to the La Brea Tar Pits and the County Museum. Sometimes, it is the city this one used to be. Here we see the appeal of downtown, which because of neglect, perhaps, and now changing attitudes, holds the DNA of L.A., our collective heritage, at street level, if we know how to look. No, Los Angeles is not a walking city, to answer my friend’s question, and despite the promise of the SmartGrowth America report. Any city where you have to drive to a pedestrian district cannot be called a walking city, now matter how much we might want it to be so. At the same time, we create, or recreate, public space to suit ourselves, to mirror our interior, our private lives. If we do it right, this allows us to discover something not only about who we are but also about where we live, how it is and how it once was, and how, we hope or wonder, it may one day become.

Los Angeles continually evades us (or evades me), forcing us to rethink what we take for granted about how it, how any city, works.

And so, I walk. I start at the top of Bunker Hill, cleared and flattened in the early 1960s, derelict boarding houses and SROs making way for office towers and museums and concert halls. I start at California Plaza, with its terraces and dancing waters, workers eating in the shadow of the former Deloitte and Touche Building, Angels Flight gateway up a short curve of steps on the eastern summit of the slope. If I have students with me, we talk about the history of this hillside, first developed in the late 1860s as the residential heart of Los Angeles, home to the Victorians of doctors, lawyers, business leaders — the Beverly Hills of the nineteenth century. By the 1890s, apartment buildings had begun to rise among the mansions; you can see them in an 1895 photo taken from the tower of the old City Hall. Half a decade later, the city dug the Third Street Tunnel (which still looks as it did then more than a century later), and a year after that, Angels Flight opened, running uphill at a thirty-three degree grade for two blocks alongside the tunnel at the intersection of Third and Hill Streets, where it remained in continuous operation for sixty-eight years. “The World’s Shortest Railway,” it has been called, but in some sense it’s more potent as another symbol, an image of how Los Angeles doubles back upon itself. Originally built to enable Bunker Hill’s professional class to travel back and forth between home and work, it became a popular attraction when it was reopened in 1996, after twenty-seven years in storage, half a block south … a model, perhaps, for the unbuilt downtown trolley, by turns throwback and curiosity, a mechanism for tracing a through line between the present and the past. Or maybe not: In 2001, the funicular closed for nine years after a fatal accident, then closed again in 2013, because of safety violations. It has not returned to service since.

The same might be said of Bunker Hill. “No more perfect petrification of the ’90’s and early 1900’s could be found in any western American city, not even in San Francisco, where they cherish, even reverence, mustiness. In Los Angeles, the spanking new is reverenced, and Bunker Hill was only tolerated, for the most part ignored,” Timothy G. Turner observed in Turn Off the Sunshine: Tales of Los Angeles on the Wrong Side of the Tracks, published in 1942. This brings to mind John Fante, whose 1939 novel Ask the Dust remains as unrelenting a portrait of desire and desperation as exists in L.A.’s literature. “Dust and old buildings and old people sitting at windows,” Fante writes, evoking the desolation of Bunker Hill, “old people tottering out of doors, old people moving painfully along the dark street. The old folk from Indiana and Iowa and Illinois, from Boston and Kansas City and Des Moines, they sold their homes and their stores, and they came here by train and by automobile to the land of sunshine, to die in the sun, with just enough money to live until the sun killed them, tore themselves out by the roots in their last days, deserted the smug prosperity of Kansas City and Chicago and Peoria to find a place in the sun.” Early in Ask the Dust, Fante’s protagonist, a young writer named Arturo Bandini, describes seeing his first palm tree, that powerful, if false, emblem of Southern California’s exotic promise. (Only the California fan palm is indigenous to the region; every other species came from somewhere else.) “[S]ure enough,” Bandini tells us, “I thought of Palm Sunday and Egypt and Cleopatra, but the palm was blackish at its branches, stained by carbon monoxide coming out of the Third Street Tunnel, its crusted trunk choked with dust and sand that blew in from the Mojave and Santa Ana deserts.” A generation later, we find a similar sensibility in Kent Mackenzie’s 1961 film The Exiles, which evokes the last days of the old Bunker Hill, before the razing and the flattening and the renewal, before the reimaging of history as an expression of corporate space. The movie is a hybrid of documentary and drama, a night-in-the-life story of young Native Americans living in the neighborhood, and it offers, as Thom Andersen points out in his own film Los Angeles Plays Itself, “a remarkable record of a city that has vanished.”

AP Photo/Jae C. Hong

Is it a stretch to look for all this underneath the glittery surfaces of a water court? The answer, I believe, is yes and no. Yes, because how much does the past, really, infuse our experience of the present? And no, because this is perhaps the only way meaning accrues. What does it mean that Los Angeles has a history we can walk through, albeit a history also that few seem willing, or able, to recognize? On the most basic level, it restates the tension between L.A. as concrete and as elusive, between the city as a real place and as a kind of fever dream. I confront the residue of this conflict everywhere; I don’t even have to look that hard. This is the story of Angels Flight, which was shuttered, moved, and then reopened — with no sense of dislocation, or even irony. It is the story of Chinatown, razed to make room for Union Station and then moved to its current location, where in 1938, it re-opened as “China City,” described by Leonard and Dale Pitt, in Los Angeles A to Z, as “a block-long reconstruction of a street in China — as imagined by Hollywood.” It is the story of Olvera Street, the Mexican marketplace built on the site of the original Los Angeles Plaza, which purports to offer an authentic taste of the old pueblo, although it was actually created in 1930 as a tourist site. Illusions all of them, fakes, replicas … except that now they have become a part of L.A.’s history as well. 1930 was a long time ago, on the distant edge of living memory, which means that the simulacrum has its own inherent value, that it is part of the fabric of the city, that it tells us something about where and how we live. I think about this every time I wander down the eastern slope of Bunker Hill, on those steps adjacent to the raised rail bed of Angels Flight, holding my nose as I sidestep puddles of urine, looking over to the concrete stanchions that support the two cars, Olivet and Sinai, of that ghostly railroad, locked in the stillness of entropy. This is the part of the walk my students hate, and to be honest, I’m not fond of it either, although it also tells us something about who uses this space, and how, about the hidden fabric of the city, about the ways humanity and landscape intersect.

At the bottom of the stairs, I emerge onto Hill Street, once known as Calle de Toros, or Street of the Bulls. Then, I cross over to Grand Central Market, since 1917 Los Angeles’s largest public market, a cacophony of lunch counters and produce stalls. Originally developed to serve the professionals who lived on Bunker Hill (hence its proximity to Angels Flight), it has become, over the last century, increasingly Latino, not unlike much of downtown itself. On the other side of the Market is Broadway, Eternity Street, now the most significant mercado in L.A. And yet, this too, is changing, as all around us, different eras of the city overlap. Over the last few years, the Market has been upscaled, gentrified. In 2012, plans were announced to bring in new vendors, keyed to a younger, more affluent constituency — the residential population of the Central City area, which has risen, the Los Angeles Times reports, “from an estimated 18,652 residents in 1998 to nearly 50,000, according to the Los Angeles Downtown Business Improvement District.” Of course, it was ever thus. Grand Central Market occupies the site of the old Ville de Paris, which was, at a moment before any of us were breathing, the city’s finest department store, while the building is a nineteenth century landmark: Southern California’s first steel-reinforced construction, erected in 1896. In the early 1990s, as part of the second wave of downtown redevelopment, Ira Yellin restored it and the adjacent Million Dollar Theater, reconfiguring the upper floors, where Frank Lloyd Wright worked in the 1920s, as residential space. For a couple of years, a friend of mine lived in a condo there, in what had been William Mulholland’s office; at night, she said, she could smell cigar smoke, hear the low murmur of conversation, and sometimes, if she were sleeping, feel the weight of people sitting on the bed. When I asked what it was, she said the place was haunted by the ghosts of the St. Francis Dam disaster, in which hundreds (thousands, maybe) perished after a dam Mulholland designed in the Santa Clara Valley failed, flooding Castaic, Fillmore, and Santa Paula before reaching the Pacific near Ventura. This effectively ended his dominion over the Bureau of Water Works and Supply, and in its wake, he went into seclusion. There is, however, something wild and vivid about the notion that three quarters of a century later, the specters of his avarice, his negligence, might still come around to bother him for recompense.

Or there is, at least, to me. I love this story more than almost any story I can tell about Los Angeles, love it because I don’t know whether to believe it, even though I do not doubt my friend. I love its whiff of mystery, of spirit, love how it plays with (or against) one of the city’s most prevalent creation myths, the promise (There it is. Take it) Mulholland improvised four years before Grand Central Market opened, as the water of the Owens River Valley began to cascade through the pebbled concrete channel of the first Los Angeles Aqueduct in the Newhall Pass. The history of L.A. is encoded in such a moment, a history of rapacious capitalism and vast infrastructure projects, of the men — and they were all men — who by their influence over various institutions (the Times, the Bureau of Water Works and Supply, the Pacific Electric Railway) used public resources for private good, building the city in the image of their greed. “From an airplane,” Morrow Mayo noted in 1933, “Los Angeles today resembles half a hundred Middle-Western-Egyptian-English-Spanish communities, repainted and sprinkled about. Its population is about 1,4000,000. It is, and has been for ten years, the largest city in America in area, and people often wonder why. The answer is Water.” This was Mulholland’s dream, although it also illustrates how the city pushed beyond itself, expanding its nineteenth century boundaries to embrace the sprawling distances we navigate today. “With abundant water on its way via the Los Angeles Aqueduct, smaller entities lined up to join the big city. Colegrove/Hollywood/East Hollywood came on board in 1910, and after 1913, big chunks of land expanded the city dramatically: the huge, 169-square-mile San Fernando addition opened up the Valley in 1915, and Westgate brought in 48-square-miles of West L.A. in 1916,” Glen Creason, map librarian of the Los Angeles Public Library, wrote in 2013 for the website of Los Angeles Magazine. This part of the drama is familiar; indeed, it is rooted into Los Angeles’s image of itself. Speed and light, the intersection of money, real estate, and technology: As early as 1917, it inspired Mary Austin’s novel The Ford (although she changed the setting to Northern California), and later would infuse Cedric Belfrage’s 1939 novel Promised Land and Robert Towne’s 1974 movie Chinatown. No need here to spend time falling down that particular rabbit hole, except to point out that it was in Mulholland’s office, at this very intersection in downtown L.A., that the entire narrative was dreamt up, bought and paid for, which is why the ghosts meander back to exact their price.

It is this I used to resist the most when I first moved to Southern California, as embodied by the oppressive midday glare in which the buildings bleach white against the pavement, reflecting nothing except the starkness of the semi-desert on which the city stands.

The point of all this, perhaps, is that stories ground us, even (or especially) when their currency remains in doubt. They offer a depth, a context, which becomes particularly important in a city built around a faith in reinvention, where the sun and lack of shadow — in addition to what we might refer to as a pervasive cultural mythology — lull us into imagining that we exist in a never-ending present tense. “I miss seasons,” the director Peter Bogdonovich once said to Lawrence Weschler about Los Angeles, “and I hate the way the light of the place throws you into such a trance that you fail to realize how time is passing.” He goes on to quote Orson Welles: “The terrible thing about L.A. is that you sit down, you’re twenty-five, and when you get up you’re sixty-two.” I know just what they mean. I think of Raymond Chandler in The Little Sister: “I smelled Los Angeles before I got to it. It smelled stale and old like a living room that had been closed too long. But the colored lights fooled you. The lights were wonderful. There ought to be a monument to the man who invented neon lights. Fifteen stories high, solid marble. There’s a boy who really made something out of nothing.” It is this I used to resist the most when I first moved to Southern California, as embodied by the oppressive midday glare in which the buildings bleach white against the pavement, reflecting nothing except the starkness of the semi-desert on which the city stands. I remember, during my first few months here, staring at billboards, storefronts, apartment buildings, thinking how ephemeral they all looked. Even the streets, laid down in what appeared to be large, individual slabs of asphalt, seemed as if they could come apart at the merest touch. Not knowing the place, I misread it, thinking it suggested something about transience. Now, I understand I was mistaken, that what I was seeing was, on the most basic level, a trick of the light.

Part of what brought me to such a reckoning was walking; if nothing else, it slowed my pace. I could make connections, or fail to make connections, could assess the city on my own terms, contemplate how my impressions (such as they were) did, or did not, cohere. I could speak a language in which I was fluent — that of the sidewalk, of the walker in the city — and apply it to a territory written in a different tongue. I could start to find a place, a narrative, to peel back the surfaces by which Los Angeles too often allowed itself to be defined. “Mysterious there prowl at the walker’s heel,” writes Robert Walser in The Walk, “all kinds of thoughts and notions, such as make him stand in his ardent and regardless tracks and listen, because, again and again confused by curious impressions, by spirit power, he suddenly has the bewitching feeling that he is sinking into the earth, for an abyss has opened before the dazzled eyes of the thinker and the poet. His head wants to fall off. His otherwise so lively arms and legs are as benumbed. Countryside and people, sounds and colors, faces and farms, clouds and sunlight swirl all around him like diagrams; he asks himself: ‘Where am I?’”

Where was I indeed? The answer I liked best was that I had come to the end of the line, the place where the myths of possibility and reinvention butt up against the edges of the continent, and the vanishing point of the horizon becomes the vanishing point of the known world. Another fantasy, of course, another dream, this sunshine/noir dialectic, flip side of the cult of reinvention, which I never believed in, anyway. Maybe a hundred years ago, a hundred fifty, when you left your family on the east coast, in Japan or Europe or Mexico, and never saw them again, living thousands of miles from home, across inhospitable, dangerous terrain. Even in New York, we had learned about the Donner Party, but that was just another story now. By 1869, the transcontinental railroad had been completed; three years later, a spur line to Southern California was in place. Little more than a decade later, the “completion of the Santa Fe line,” as Carey McWilliams observes in Southern California Country: An Island on the Land, effectively changed everything, leading to a rate war in which fares dropped to a dollar per ticket, “precipitat[ing] such a flow of migration, such an avalanche rushing madly to Southern California as I believe has no parallel.” This is another of the region’s essential creation myths, although unlike the one about the water, it undercuts itself. Cheap fares, abundant access (“In 1887,” McWilliams tells us, “the Southern Pacific transported 120,000 people to Los Angeles, while the Santa Fe brought three and four passenger trains a day into the city”) … what we are seeing is the demystification of distance, the collapse of far away. “West of the west,” Mark Twain famously labeled California, and he was right, in terms of mores, social vision, population, culture, style. Still, at the heart of such an assessment remains this fact: California had become available, which means that people could come and go with ease. A hundred-plus years later, that’s only more the case; during my first decade in California, I went east several times a year. Los Angeles, then, is no longer distant or exotic — no longer exceptional, in McWilliams’ meaning of the word. “And surely we no longer can afford to erase our home out of forgetfulness, or worse, a willful amnesia,” D.J. Waldie argued in 2000, “and imagine, as many want to, that we live in a historyless city, a placeless region, a Los Angeles devoid of contrarian surprises, an L.A. devoid of us and our sacred ordinariness.”

Such sacred ordinariness implies a sense of what has come before, which is one of the stories downtown tells me. It is readable in the line of the streets, the quick passage from Bunker Hill through Grand Central Market and out to Broadway, where the Bradbury building is both landmark and commercial space. This is it, the double vision, the layering that, increasingly, I see everywhere. When you look at the Bradbury, what do you imagine? I think of science fiction, which, to some extent, got its start right here. That means Edgar Rice Burroughs and L. Frank Baum, writing in Tarzana and Hollywood in the decades after the railway wars, but even more, the Los Angeles Science Fiction Society, which met at Seventh and Broadway, Clifton’s Cafeteria, starting in the 1930s, and counted among its members Ray Bradbury and Forrest J. Ackerman. Then, there is the Bradbury itself, the interior of which, open corridors and iron latticework arranged around a skylit central atrium, was inspired by Edward Bellamy’s 1887 utopian novel Looking Backward, science fiction before science fiction was invented, genre before it had a name. “It was the first interior of a twentieth century public building that I had ever beheld,” Bellamy writes about a third of the way through the book, “and the spectacle naturally impressed me deeply. I was in a vast hall full of light, received not alone from the windows on all sides, but from the dome, the point of which was a hundred feet above.” The description fits the Bradbury to a T. What it suggests is that this is not just one of the last buildings of the nineteenth century but one of the first of the twentieth, and even, perhaps, of the twenty-first, all those ages, all those centuries, collapsing on top of one another, since it is also where the 1982 movie Blade Runner unfurls its dystopian vision of L.A. circa 2019, a city broken, shattered, disconnected, and distinct from history.

To walk in L.A., then — if, that is, we accept Jackson’s account as both accurate and endemic — is to return to the beginning, to before the beginning, to reconceptualize the city as not just urban but also psychic space.

By now, just a few years before the future flashpoint it imagines, Blade Runner has grown dated, irrelevant, clichéd. By 2019, remember, the downtown trolley is scheduled to be in operation, but even if that doesn’t happen, there will be light rail from Santa Monica to Metro Center, and the Red Line will run along Wilshire Boulevard to UCLA. It is not, in other words, the world of Blade Runner we inherit, but more that of Norman Spinrad’s rock ’n’ roll science fiction novel Little Heroes, in which characters travel by subway beneath the streets of the twenty-first century city. Once again, back to the future, or back to the past, or forward to a place in which past and future blend together, and we can set aside the myths and the projections: Los Angeles as rootless, Los Angeles as fallen, a trope first imposed back in the 1880s, when Helen Hunt Jackson, like Bellamy a fantasist from Massachusetts, published her overwrought and sentimental novel Ramona and kicked off Southern California’s mission craze. Jackson was a visitor, the first of many to try to read the city for us, although part of what she found here is astonishing in its consistency. “They seem to have been a variety of Centaur, these early Californian men,” she explains in “Echoes in the City of Angels,” published in a magazine called “The Century” in 1883. “They were seldom off their horses except to eat or sleep. They mounted, with jingling silver spur and glittering bridle, for the shortest distance, even to cross a plaza. They paid long visits on horseback, without ever dismounting. Clattering up to the window or door-sill, halting, throwing one knee over the crupper, the reins lying loose, they sat at ease, far more at ease than in a house.” To walk in L.A., then — if, that is, we accept Jackson’s account as both accurate and endemic — is to return to the beginning, to before the beginning, to reconceptualize the city as not just urban but also psychic space.

In recent years, of course, Los Angeles has begun to participate in such a process itself. Walk three blocks north and east from the Bradbury and you’ll find evidence: the former Cathedral of St. Vibiana, built in 1876 on the corner of what is now Main and Second, catty-corner to the new police headquarters and a block from the Los Angeles Times. It’s a building that predates nearly everything, one that, red-tagged after the Northridge earthquake, has since been renovated and re-opened as high-end event space. You don’t need to be an Angeleno to appreciate the irony — consecrated ground reconfigured as a place of spectacle, the moneylenders in the temple, as we always knew they would be in the end. And yet, why not? L.A. has long been a city where faith and money wash each other’s hands. “Here is the world’s prize collection of cranks, semi-cranks, placid creatures whose bovine expression shows that each of them is studying, without much hope of success, to be a high-grade moron, angry or ecstatic exponents of food fads, sun-bathing, ancient Greek costumes, diaphragm breathing and the imminent second coming of Christ,” Bruce Bliven wrote in The New Republic in 1927. I love this, even though it over-simplifies. It was in Los Angeles that Sister Aimee Semple McPherson made herself a superstar, dedicating her Angelus Temple (it’s still in use, in Echo Park), with its vaulted dome and five thousand-plus seats, on New Year’s Day, 1923. It was in Los Angeles that Billy Graham became, in realest sense imaginable, Billy Graham, spending eight weeks in the fall of 1949 preaching in a series of revival meetings that drew more than three hundred thousand followers to a circus tent erected at the corner of Hill Street and Washington Boulevard. “From 1850 to 1870,” Carey McWilliams grumbled in 1940, “Los Angeles was ‘the toughest town in the nation,’ but it became the most priggish community in America after 1900. A glacial dullness engulfed the region. Every consideration was subordinated to the paramount concern of attracting church-going Middle Westerners to Southern California.” There’s more to the story than that, of course, but McWilliams, in his fashion, nails it, tracing another creation myth that lingers just below the level of the city’s streets.

McPherson played a significant role in this, although she is largely forgotten today. In her moment — which began before her arrival in Los Angeles in 1918 and ended, effectively, on May 18, 1926, when she faked her own kidnapping and disappeared for five weeks in the company of the Angelus Temple’s former radio operator Kenneth Ormiston, a married man with whom she was having an affair — she was among America’s highest profile personalities, her visibility comparable to that of Charles Lindbergh, Jack Dempsey, and Babe Ruth. H. L. Mencken, no lover of Southern California, reported on her trial for obstruction of justice; “The Rev. sister in God, I confess,” he mock-lamented, “greatly disappointed me.” She also appears, in one guise or another, in a slew of novels from the 1920s and 1930s: Upton Sinclair’s “Oil!,” Sinclair Lewis’ “Elmer Gantry,” Evelyn Waugh’s “Vile Bodies,” Nathanael West’s “The Day of the Locust;” Aldous Huxley’s “After Many a Summer Dies the Swan.” In his magnificent “The Flutter of an Eyelid,” Myron Brinig uses a sex-crazed McPherson stand-in named Angela Flower to embody L.A.’s desolate hypocrisy. (Among her proclamations? “Jesus is even in the scotch.”) All this makes her is, in many ways, a quintessential figure in the Los Angeles of her era, a city, in Huxley’s pointed formulation, “of dreadful joy.”

How does a city obliterate, or ignore, its past? Again, I think, it has to do with walking, or the lack of walking, the inability to still our gaze.

At the same time, when it comes to McPherson (as is also true of Southern California), “[t]here are more things in heaven and earth … [t]han are dreamt of in your philosophy.” For proof, we need look no further than her connection to another subterranean piece of L.A. history, the Asuza Street Revival that began in April 1906 and went on for nearly a decade; it was from the Revival’s dispersed faithful that she began to build a congregation of her own. This is ground zero for the American Pentecostalism, right here in Little Tokyo, a tiny dogleg stretch that extends for barely a block or two from San Pedro Street around to Second. On the San Pedro side, there is a small historical marker; “Cradle of the Worldwide Pentecostal Movement,” it reads. But this, too, is overlooked, forgotten … or more accurately, disregarded, since, for many of us, it’s as if it were never there. How does that happen? How does a city obliterate, or ignore, its past? Again, I think, it has to do with walking, or the lack of walking, the inability to still our gaze. In The History of Forgetting, Norman Klein cites Walter Benjamin: “In certain cities I noticed a real atrophy of the sidewalk. In Los Angeles, for example, on La Cienega, which is lined with bars, theaters, restaurants, antique dealers and private residences, the sidewalks are scarcely more than side-streets that lead customers and guests from the roadway into the house. Lawns have been planted from the façades to the roadway of this luxurious avenue. I followed a narrow path between the lawns for a time without meeting a living soul, while to my right, cars streamed by on the road; all animation in the street had taken refuge on the high road.”

If that is true of a major thoroughfare such as La Cienega — and it is, it still is; just a few weeks ago, I walked home from the Expo Line at La Cienega and Jefferson, thirty-five minutes through the industrial flats of Mid-City, radio stations and big box stores and party rental places and not another pedestrian, another walker, within sight — what then, of the intersection of Asuza and San Pedro, which is not even an intersection in any real sense, just the mouth of an alley in which something important happened in a different century? How can it be more than just another misbegotten reminder, relic of a historyless history? This is what I ask my students when we end our walk here, at the intersection of San Pedro and Asuza, of the present and the past. Evangelism remains big in Southern California, although its center is now Orange County, and a neon “Jesus Saves” sign still lights up the night sky over downtown, a last vestige of the old Bible Institute of Los Angeles (reinvented as Biola University in La Mirada), founded in 1908 by Lyman Stewart, who also founded Union Oil. I don’t know what it means, this confluence of God and fossil fuel; clearer to me is the hipster irony of that “Jesus Saves” sign blazing out across the city from the roof of newly renovated United Artists Theatre building on lower Spring Street, which also houses the Ace Hotel. In a postmodern world, everything is up for grabs and all periods, all eons, blur. The never-ending present tense again, that curse and blessing of Los Angeles, enhanced by our reliance on the car. And will this change, has it already, with the rise of public transit and bike corridors? Or is it just another pitch, another come on, another instance of the boosterism for which L.A. has also long been known?

In the end, perhaps, it makes no difference. In the end, perhaps, we have no choice. Part of what we see in downtown now is the assertion, or the reassertion, of community, a function of terminal gridlock, if nothing else. Spring Street, the downtown trolley, the arts district — talk about the reconfiguring of urban space — this is not Blade Runner, but Back to the Future, the story of a city looking through a convex mirror, reinventing itself in its own century-old image, which is fittingly, an image we no longer recognize. Even L.A. Live, with its floodlights and LED screens, is a throwback to the days of Aldous Huxley: “On every building,” he wrote in 1926, “the vertical lines of light went up like rockets into the dark sky. And the buildings themselves — they too had almost rocketed into existence. Thirty years ago Los Angeles was a one-horse — a half-horse — town. In 1940 or thereabouts it is scheduled to be as big as Paris. As big and as gay.” Huxley meant that as a put-down (so much of the early literature of Southern California is the literature of putdown) and yet, almost nine decades later, it offers a reminder of both the city’s hubris and its limitations, of the history that, if we excavate it, pay attention to it, opens up Los Angeles in unexpected ways.

Los Angeles continually evades us (or evades me), forcing us to rethink what we take for granted about how it, how any city, works.

There is a photograph I especially like, taken circa 1900, back in the half-horse days Huxley pokes such fun at, looking north on Spring past Third Street, with the Douglas Building in the middle distance, pavement dotted with horse drawn carriages, bikes, and trolleys, sidewalks loosely clustered with pedestrians. This is the image of a city in its infancy, but that’s not why it strikes me; rather, I am drawn by it as a kind of living memory. As it happens, I am familiar with the Douglas Building, or at least with the commercial space on the ground floor, which in the picture is protected from L.A.’s relentless sky and sunlight by a series of large striped awnings, of the sort that were then in common use. For a number of years, I used to drink there, in a sushi place called Origami; a couple of afternoons a week, I would walk down from the Los Angeles Times, where I was then an editor, just in time for happy hour. I had no idea of the legacy of the building, except in the sense that it fulfilled, for me, one of the great benefits of urban living: a place to go, within walking distance of one’s home or office, a neighborhood joint, a corner bar, a place where, even in the loosest sense, it might be said that you belong. Our experience of cities is built out of relationships such as this — informal, of the moment, unplanned and serendipitous … organic in the most fundamental sense of the word. Origami closed in 2011, but every time I walk by the Douglas, I am confronted by its memory. An imago, Norman Klein would call it, a memento mori, “an idealized face left over from childhood — a photograph, the color of mother’s dress in the day she took ill (the photological trace).” Yes, and more than that, as well. “If we concentrate,” Klein continues, “the imago seems to be waiting for us intact. … It remains where we put it, but the details around it get lost, as if they were haunted, somewhat contaminated, but empty.” Is it a stretch to imagine that he might be talking about all of Los Angeles? Is it a stretch to suggest that this is the challenge of living in such a place? Memory and meaning, collective and personal experience, it all gets blurred together, or at least for me it does, leaving me to look for recognition where I find it: in the movement of my feet across urban sidewalks, where the story of the city reveals itself in ghostly traces, in the spaces we might never think to look.

“Did I ever tell you about the ugliest place in Los Angeles?” Klein once asked me, apropos of nothing. “I decided it was in Van Nuys, at the intersection of Fulton and Burbank. I selected it because it wasn’t poverty; it was just ugly, retinal eye burn of an extreme form. On one corner was a place called Father and Me, which repaired cars. It was surrounded by rolls of barbed wire like some old lady’s hair. Across the street was a very bad trompe l’oeil lumberyard that looked like it was going to fall over. Then, there was this strange Middle Eastern restaurant in a dumpy building with a faded image on top of a man holding a chicken. It was like that in every direction.” Eventually, Klein discovered that beneath this desolate veneer of blankness were overlapping populations of Lebanese and Palestinians and Israelis, until a map of the Middle East emerged. “Little by little,” he concluded, “this was not the ugliest place in Los Angeles, it was just the best erased example of urban complexity. And I thought, Wow, this is one crazy city to have that much happening with so little heat you can actually see.”

***

Excerpted from Sidewalking: Coming to Terms with Los Angeles, by David L. Ulin. Copyright © 2015 by David L. Ulin. Reprinted by permission of Ulin.

David L. Ulin is the author or editor of ten previous books, including The Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time, The Myth of Solid Ground: Earthquakes, Prediction, and the Fault Line Between Reason and Faith, and Writing Los Angeles: A Literary Anthology. He is book critic, and former book editor, of the Los Angeles Times. Sidewalking was shortlisted for the PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay.

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