City of Quartz: On the “Idyllic” life

So from its beginnings, L.A. after it was forcibly brought into the union was a place for the rich, by the rich, all of whom wanted to sell Los Angeles to…the rich. Mike Davis examines a couple of major institutions and their forerunners as follows:

“I begin with the so-called ‘Arroyo set’: writers, antiquarians, and publicists under the influence of Charles Fletcher Lummis (himself in the pay of the Times and the Chamber of Commerce), who at the turn of the century created a comprehensive fiction of Southern California as the promised land of a millenarian Anglo-Saxon racial odyssey. They inserted a mediterraneanized idyll of New England life into the perfumed ruins of an innocent but inferior ‘Spanish’ culture. In doing so, they wrote the script for the giant real-estate speculations of the early twentieth century that transformed Los Angeles from small town to metropolis. Their imagery, motifs, values and legends were in turn endlessly reproduced by Hollywood, while continuing to be incorporated into ersatz landscapes of suburban Southern California.”

Here, I don’t have to look far to find the ‘comprehensive fiction’ Davis describes, as memorabilia of L.A.’s “idyllic” lifestyle are abound:


Free Harbor and Glorious Southern California are brought to you by the L.A. Public Library, while California this Summer was found through the California State Library.

In Free Harbor (1899), the L.A. ports of 1899 are overseen by a flock of little white angels, who promise great things to come for the land neighbored by the ocean and overseen by triumphant sunlight. In similar fashion, Jubilee‘s trumpet signals the rise of an American dream in California’s ports, from which freedom and eloquence naturally follow.

California This Summer (1934) makes similar gestures, as the poster captures a world with a little bit of everything, including a state of beaches, lush and green hills, and even mountaintops to quietly conquer as the fair lady with the sunhat does. Life in the portrait looks simple and untainted by the dirt of cities and the congestion of crowds. A perfect summer vacation. Never mind the Native people who once made their lives amid such mountains.

Glorious Southern California (1907) exhausts the point. On one side, the ocean waves signal the life of unchartered waters, while below, the life of cacti and other plants serve to welcome dreams of real estate and other property in an open frontier.

As Davis notes, all of the posters promise Anglo-saxon or white purity, making no allusion or reference to the Spanish-speaking brown cultures which gave California its name, nor the pockets of indigenous civilizations throughout the state which were pushed out to make way for the influx of newcomers. Instead, real estate moguls figured out that depicting a world of endless sunshine and openness would be a draw, and they were absolutely right. As Quartz reveals, such images of Southern California would be endlessly reproduced in Hollywood throughout the decades that’d follow, and well into the present.

It reminds me of a similar trend in my neighborhood at the moment, where apartments are sold as real estate agencies as being based in Silver Lake, when in fact they’re actually located in ‘East Hollywood.’ As a neighbor pointed out to me recently, “when out-of-towners arrive into their new apartments from Seattle and other parts of the country, they’re surprised: there’s no lake, and the apartments are much smaller than they thought, so they just leave, and the cycle starts all over again.”

With more soon,

City of Quartz: Oh man,

Another great part of finally landing my hands on Davis’s Quartz is digging through all of the beautiful things that others have written about The City before The L.A. Storyteller. From the pages of Davis’s excavation, I draw from one of his quotations to share with J.T., which he takes from Morrow Mayo’s Los Angeles of 1933!

“Here is an artificial city which has been pumped up under forced draught, inflated like a balloon, stuffed with rural humanity like a goose with corn…endeavoring to eat up this too-rapid avalanche of anthropoids, the sunshine metropolis heaves and strains, sweats and becomes pop-eyed, like a young boa constrictor trying to swallow a goat. It has never imparted an urban character to its incoming population, for the simple reason that it has never had any urban character to impart. On the other hand, the place has retained the manners, culture, and general outlook of a huge country village.”

…And it’s so precious to meet the words of another soul fascinated by The City, through which time and space collapse for the timeless and spaceless realm of love; love for one’s surroundings, and one’s understanding of a world beyond them. I could have been born in Paris, or Mexico City, and I would have treasured it all the same. My affection for the place I call home is merely a human affection, for life that’s been around long before J.T., and which will remain long afterwards too.

In the meantime, however, it’s so great to see that L.A. was dealing with a ‘drought’ as far back as 1933. The truth is that the terrain on which The City was founded has always been a dry land, but that somewhere along the way either people forgot about the natural dry spell or flat out denied it in their insistence on living here. Los Angeles is indefinitely something of a living dream this way, or a fantasy that people hold onto because it’s better than ‘real life’ elsewhere.

For Mr. Davis and other writers, such ‘holding onto the dream’ marks L.A. as one of the last frontiers of late capitalism, where all of the fantasies of high living culminate into one great and strange experiment of freeways, beaches, individualism, and the sense of starting over and away from America, and even the rest of the world.

This assessment is fair enough, but for those of us who were born and bred in this city, L.A. is not the last, but just the first world of many more like it to come, where at some point in the process of living through a fantasy as people are living through a ‘drought’, people don’t just hold onto, but fight for their dreams. 

And if the last one hundred and twenty something years of L.A. show anything, it’s that no matter what society or year it might be, people will always need their dreams, as a life without them is meaningless. On the one hand, this is scary, since there are real and not fantasized issues that trouble L.A. like any other part of the world. On the other hand, it’s what keeps the great fight going, and I’ve got to be honest: I love a great fight. As Mayo, Davis, Fante, and countless other souls before me have fought with their words to ‘wake up’ The City, and as others will fight to do so after my time, it’s an honor to bring J.T. into what might most appropriately be called The Battle of Los Angeles.

With more soon,

Daydreaming in Los Angeles

I know that this is a place which people all over the world dream about getting to one day. I like to think of it as a modest stretch of land populated by humble working people, but I can see how to someone looking from the outside in, L.A. is a place that’s almost mystical, made of stardom and glitz, where dreams go to be lived.

To consider such an idyllic version of the town at the same time that I walk through its colder, less polished concrete is a fine balancing act. It is also an aberration, like the very sight of a pedestrian through the sidewalk in Los Angeles itself; most people pay little attention to it.

Few drivers who sit through L.A.’s traffic jams long enough are even remotely interested in what the city might actually be other than an endless waiting game amid stop lights. In the same regard, few of the mass of hard workers who maintain the city while maintenance gets harder each day could be expected to be concerned about the culture their work creates.

Even among many of L.A.’s young people, when all they see about Los Angeles is the limited stretch of concrete and asphalt they’ve known in it since time immemorial, it matters little if their parents may have come here viewing it as a beacon of opportunity in a world where opportunities were mostly scarce.

In each case, I wonder if this sense of longing, or the human tendency to feel incomplete, is at the heart of why cities exist. There are people who wait their whole lives to make it to places like L.A., while others like the city’s natives can only dream of getting out. Yet this is how the idea of the city survives. In acting like colonies, constantly churning the exit of one mass while opening the doors to another, cities retain their positions as places of opportunity when those who leave also leave legacies behind which those newly arriving hope to remake. Until the next churn.

I am somewhere in between, but I know I’m not alone. I love the place that I was born in even if it’s not quite the place so many movies and musicians and other marketing campaigns promised it would be. My hand goes out to everyone with a dream to recreate themselves in L.A., as well as to everyone who is ready to leave their old selves here.

Through it all, I’ve found that for me the land is mostly inward. That is, that it’s in myself where the dreams live. But rising from those dreams to the sunshine of Los Angeles is quite dreamy as well. I am right where I belong.