Taking space in Los Angeles has been of increasing concern for this blog and its author, making it crucial to research what the process of taking social and political space in the city has looked like in the historical periods before this one.
To this end, Black and Brown in Los Angeles: Beyond Conflict and Coalition (2013) has served as an engrossing read on the complicated ways that people have taken space from one another, alongside one another, and through one another’s influence in Los Angeles.
Edited by USC’s Josh Kun and the University of Oregon’s Laura Pulido, Black and Brown is comprised of nearly fifteen different feature-length essays which set out to establish a lasting conversation on some of the most meaningful interactions between Black and Latino Angelenos during the last seventy years; the post World War II era, the Immigration And Naturalization Act in 1965, and Reagan’s Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, for example, are just a few eras discussed by several featured authors.
Reviewing each essay would prove worthwhile for readers of JIMBO TIMES, but it’s also true that a moment with just one of the essays should still give readers a strong sense of what to expect from the rest of the book’s analyses. For this, I’d like to reflect briefly on a few excerpts from Gaye Theresa Johnson’s essay, entitled Spatial Entitlement: Race, Displacement, and Sonic Reclamation in Postwar Los Angeles.
Johnson discusses a period that previously seemed folkloric to The L.A. Storyteller: L.A. in the 50s. She foregrounds her discussion with an important note on the construction and destruction of housing for Black and Latino communities in the U.S. following WWII:
“Between 1949 and 1973, scores of Black and Latino communities were destroyed to make way for the postindustrial, suburban sensibilities that would characterize the modern U.S. city. Between the Housing Act of 1949 and 1967, 400,000 residential units were demolished in urban renewal areas across the nation, while only 10,760 low-rent public housing units replaced them.”
One might think of this forceful taking of space during the post WWII era as a 20th century version of gentrification. But instead of avocado toast symbolizing the inevitable modernization of urban cores housing ethnic communities, it was the dawn of the freeways that promised “overall improvement” of the city. The irony, of course, was that freeways spelled immediate and irreversible losses of housing for working class communities of color. Johnson cites an earlier L.A. historian, George Sanchez, on what displacement for the sake of modernization would suggest in historic terms:
“Sanchez has argued that local and federal officials used ‘applied social science research, fiscal policy, and direct intervention,’ to justify the evisceration of neighborhoods like Boyle Heights [for the development of the East Los Angeles Interchange] and, in the process, redefined postwar terms of racialization through the suppression of interracial spaces.”
So, just what does it matter anyway, if freeway development and car culture in L.A. were established nearly 70 years ago? As recently as 2015, nearly 70% of people who drove to work in L.A. drove there alone. This is significant because in a city where people spend so much time in a car by themselves, only to spend the next portion of the day at work, before getting back to the freeways in their insulated vehicles once again, the infrastructure steers people away from ‘the soul’ and character of its culture. Or, as Johnson’s analysis implies, the infrastructure not only disconnects us, but it actually erodes the possibility of more democratic ‘public spheres.’
“A common sphere of congregation, what Jurgen Habermas has referred to as the ‘public sphere,’ can be a crucial site of discourse among community members, where private interests are set aside and democracies are enacted in order to determine collective good.
Taking ‘social and political space’ in this context therefore entails a process of people making a claim to the environments around them by whatever means available to them. ‘Collective good,’ by extension, can be thought of as a complement to the African proverb that ‘it takes a village,’ in that it takes a village in democratized communication to determine collective good. As a result, when people are denied access to such spaces by forces of state power and its local subsidiaries, they get creative. Or, they get active.
“Scholars of working-class resistance have argued that ‘subaltern counter publics’ are sites where oppressed groups assert their humanity and refine their articulated opposition to dominant discourses about citizenship and social membership.”
Nearly eight months ago, when the Back to School Party made its way through El Gran Burrito, the ‘driving force’ of the event’s planning was the idea that for a community which was often overlooked and passed over for the city’s more vogue terrain, that community deserved to have a space, even if the space was unconventional, temporary and limited in other ways. Just as important was that it was crucial to put together the event for the neighborhood precisely because it was difficult to do under normal circumstances. Thus, when Johnson describes how L.A. city officials took both time and space from predominantly working class ethnic communities for ‘the greater good’ of the city’s freeways, it becomes clear how much of Los Angeles has always been in what might be called “space wars.”
“…In Los Angeles, the zoot suit violence of 1943, the eviction of whole communities from long-standing vibrant neighborhoods, the relocation of Japanese citizens during World War II, police repression of interracial spaces, and systematic segregation facilitated by federal mishandling of the Fair Housing Act were enduring reminders that public spaces were, at best, contested terrain. Though segregated Black and Latino communities in L.A. during this period were expanding, the symbolic place of these groups in postwar Los Angeles was diminishing. Therefore, claiming and enacting social space, both material and symbolic, was an important measure of the limits and possibilities of social membership.”
Moreover, the postwar era in Los Angeles would see Blacks, Latinos and Japanese treated as marginalized groups encroaching on the dominant order, therefore leading them to face some of the first modern waves of ‘multicultural’ institutionalized racism in modern U.S society, which was also a key shift away from the more historic Black vs White racism seen more generally across the country at the time:
“Gerald Horne has argued that L.A. displayed a ‘rainbow racism…not solely or predominantly of the typical black-white dichotomy that obtained elsewhere. In the immediate pre- and postwar era, studies revealed that in factories where Mexicans were categorized as ‘colored,’ Blacks not only worked with them but were also given positions over them. In other plants, Mexicans and whites worked together. Further research indicated that white workers often accepted Blacks and objected to Mexicans; still another pattern was found showing that white workers accepted Mexicans but objected to Japanese.”
Johnson goes on to point out that while the state sought to keep the groups contained in the workplace, the airwaves of the radio were coming into formation; as a result, despite de jure segregation in more formal settings, 50s Jazz and Blues rhythms would spark the way towards space for youth of all backgrounds to coalesce; at shows, White, Black and Brown kids danced together in some of the only instances of proximity with one another throughout The City. Strangely, the state would attempt to contain this phenomenon as well:
“…local politicians and municipal arts administrators created the Bureau of Music in order to encourage patriotic citizenship, prevent juvenile delinquency, and promote acceptable music. But it was too late: the Blendells, Willie G, the Soul-Jers, the Jaguars, Joe Liggins, Don Tosti, the Premiers, Johnny Otis, and many others had already created a soundtrack of spatial claims concomitant with the articulation of other forms of spatial entitlement. What resulted were new visions of social membership among working-class people, whose basic citizenship rights were relentlessly compromised by the repression of working-class coalitional politics and the growth of white suburbia.”
As 1950s containment gave way to the radical 60s, teenagers in Los Angeles would discover some of the first sound-waves of interracially influenced rhythms; similarly to the way Chicanos in the 40s were inspired enough by Jazz players and their Zoot suits to fashion the look into “Pachuco” suits for themselves, Chicano musicians in the 1960s would be influenced by Black soul during the decade prior. The result was Pachuco soul, which was a key achievement for both Black and Latino audiences:
“By celebrating the sociopolitical and cultural identities that both Blacks and Chicanos identified with, the creation of Pachuco soul and its performance became a means to project an alternative body of cultural and political expression that could consider the world differently from a new perspective: its emancipatory transformation. This sonic legacy reverberated in Thee Midniters’ ‘Whittier Boulevard’ in the 1960s.”
Once again, the discussion reaches close to home; I think about the creation of POC Today in 2017 as a platform for people of color to portray themselves as opposed to only being portrayed, which was also a form of celebrating these communities, or what can be thought of as self-love turned love for the collective whole. The media project has been on hiatus, but POCT’s intention will continue to take space in the days to come.
As Johnson makes clear, the process of crafting a world through the airwaves with all of these projects will follow in the legacy of similar claims of space by people in prior generations, with hopes of achieving, once again, extraordinary value for future generations to look back on.
“These articulations of spatial entitlement, sonic and symbolic, were often articulated in moments when the loss of space meant devastating losses of wealth for communities of color, wealth that was rarely regained. Considering the unrelenting efforts to keep Black and Brown people from recognizing their mutual stakes in a just future makes these spatial claims all the more remarkable.”
In that regard, Black and Brown in Los Angeles: Beyond Conflict and Coalition is an excellent read that gets the full nod from this Angeleno. Readers can order a copy through the web, or, as I do, see if the Los Angeles Public Library can lend it to you first!