Books Review

Looking for Los Angeles

Charles G. Salas, Michael S. Roth (edited by)
"Looking for Los Angeles"
Getty Research Institute
Los Angeles 2001
pp. 330, $ 45.00
(text in English)

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The volume, edited by Charles G. Salas and Michael S. Roth, stems from the Getty Research Institute's 1996-1997 scholar year devoted to the topic "Perspectives on Los Angeles: Narratives, Images, History". It collects essays written by passionate observers of the city who, each from his own particular standpoint (a novelist's, an anthropologist's, a geographer's, an artist's and architecture and film historians'), "explore the symbolic and historic terrain of a city that resists easy definition".

The first of the eleven contributions is by the Dutch novelist Cees Nooteboom. It is 1973 and he gazes down on Los Angeles from an airplane window seat at 2,000 feet, searching for the signs of a city. His beguiled tourist's eyes see "houses from horizon to horizon, blue shards of swimming pools, plenty of green in cabbage and lettuce tones". And also when he returns to LA fourteen years later, in 1987, and rides the bus in Hollywood, drives the freeways and walks Sunset Boulevard in search of something resembling his European sense of what a city should be, he encounters instead a city that not only "moves itself - breaks itself down, builds itself up again, displaces and regroups itself - but also a city in which movement, freedom of movement, is a strong premise of life". 

Downtown Los Angeles high-rises, 1989 (photo: S. Sassen, Amsterdam).

In Philip J. Ethington's essay on "Ghost Neighborhoods" and in his evocative digital photomontages we can appreciate the historian's deliberate attempt to see the history streaming through sights of the city and his ability to materialize pieces of the urban mosaic that have been rendered invisible and are lost today. "Specters are haunting downtown Los Angeles", he warns us while taking us on a ride down the exit ramp of a freeway, "a ride back to earth - to society as it exists in history".

Philip J. Ethington (digital photomontage, 1999), four-level interchange at its 1953 opening (center) and in the engineering model of 1948 (inset).

Historian Becky M. Nicolaides looks at the working-class suburbs which, between 1900 and 1940, sprang around the nodes of industry, mostly south of downtown. "Indeed, the evidence from Los Angeles - and elsewhere - suggests that working-class owner builders were central actors shaping early-twentieth-century suburbanization, and they reshaped the suburban landscape of Los Angeles in the process. On the modest suburban plots of land, the working men and women of Los Angeles found their havens, built their homes, and created their own version of the American dream".

Urban historian Dana Cuff examines urban planning and redevelopment in Los Angeles during the 1940s and 1950s and focuses especially on the early neighborhoods that were destroyed to make way for the rational, massive development projects that sprung from the modernist architect's drawing board. It is for example the case of Aliso Village, a public housing project designed by Frank Lloyd Wright's son (Lloyd Wright) to replace a modest L.A. neighborhood which was expediently considered by planners of the day a "slum". "Then a futuristic symbol of efficiency and scientific rationality, the stripped-down modernism of "the projects" that embodied the progressive, community-planning concept of its time has now come to stand for the failure of public housing". And so, pretty soon, many of the public housing projects of this era turned into a new generation of slums slated for redevelopment, thus becoming the problem they were meant to solve in the first place.

Site map of Aliso Village, drawn over map of previous neighborhood (map: Sylvia Darr, Los Angeles).

Anthropologist Susan A. Phillips takes the reader on a personal journey into "the projects" in South Central Los Angeles to meet gang members and their families today. She conducts her fieldwork in exactly the kinds of public housing projects whose origins are described by Dana Cuff in the previous essay.

Artist Robbert Flick proposes a 16-page color photo essay of a drive south on Alameda Street, from Union Station in downtown LA to the harbor. The montage of slightly overlapping individual frames extracted from his digital drive-by film offers a common streetscape of warehouses, junkyards and rail lines as we would perceive it passing at 35 mph. It is a sort of "continuous narrative" to be read from left to right and top to bottom, "much like pages of text", as he tells us in his introduction; it is a way of reading Los Angeles in the original, as Reyner Banham would say, the observer scanning the landscape from an automobile on the move.

Segments from a "continuous narrative" of the east side of Alameda Street and Harry Bridges Boulevard in Los Angeles (© 1997, Robbert Flick).

Frank Lloyd Wright, Broadacre City model, 1934 (© 2000, The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, Scottsdale, AR. Photo: Robert C. May).

Edmund Teske, Front of Hollyhock House, mid-1940s, gelatin silver print (Courtesy Edward Teske Archives, executors Lawrence Bump and Nils Vidstrand, Los Angeles; building by Frank Lloyd Wright).
Architect Harold Zellman and sociologist Roger Friedland look at Crestwood Hills, the largest modernist residential cooperative ever attempted in America. Its origins are traced back to a dinner party in L.A. where three musicians, fascinated by Frank Lloyd Wright's utopian vision of a planned residential community (Broadacre City), laid the foundations for this communal dream: "a racially integrated community in a racist and effectively segregated city", "modernist architecture in a city suspicious of modernism", a community to be built cooperatively "in a city bound up with private developers".

Architectural historian Thomas S. Hines traces Frank Lloyd Wright's impact on Los Angeles through his influence on the life and career of photographer Edmund Teske who, after moving to Los Angeles in the early 1940s, eventually came to live in a studio on the Olive Hill estate commissioned by Aline Barnsdall to Wright. Hines's essay is illustrated with Teske's photographs and well captures the sense of community many Angelenos enjoy: "not a planned community based on proximity, like Aliso Village or Crestwood Hills, but a contingent one based on individual connections and accidental meetings, a community of friends and like-minded acquaintances associated with one another though they may live in disparate parts of the city".

Film historian Robert Carringer looks at the Hollywood industry and at postwar films that have Los Angeles as their setting. He identifies two recurring paradigms according to the way the film addresses and reflects sentiment towards the city: the commodified Arcadia, typified for example by The Graduate (1967), in which Los Angeles is depicted as a "rarified world in which anything and everything can be had for a price" and the pathological cityscape, evident in John Boorman's existential thriller Point Blank (1967), in which ordinary spaces of the city are coded as sites of the anxiety of the unseen menace.

Film historian David E. James observes cinema in Los Angeles from a different vantage point. He doesn't look at the city as the setting for Hollywood feature films, but focuses on working-class films produced in the late 1960s and early 1970s in the service of the revolution rather than capital. He is addressing the question posed by Communist film critic Harry Alan Potamkin who, in the 1930s, wondered if it would ever be possible "to create a proletarian cinema in capitalist America", given the resistance which lay "in the very nature of the film, the complications involved in making pictures, the expense of making films and the monopoly vested in Hollywood, Hays and Wall Street". And in fact James's story of attempts to create a workmen's cinema in Los Angeles is a tale of great effort and failure in a city whose film culture is subject to corporate interests and whose working class is divided by ethnic difference.

French geographer Jérôme Monnet takes into consideration the everyday imagery depicting metropolitan Los Angeles that can be found in the city's popular culture. Maps, postcards, advertisement, newspaper photographs, book and brochure covers, T-shirts and so on constitute only a portion of the vast body of representations of the city. The author's analysis is, in fact, referred solely to those pictorial items that offer "a spatial view by means of drawing, painting, cartography or photography (including video)". Despite the spectacle of democracy displayed by the uniform urban grid, as represented on L.A. street maps, one discovers by reading his essay that there exists, in fact, "a form of iconographic apartheid" since the city's poorest neighborhoods do not appear in the garish images of Los Angeles as seen on tourist postcards. They are "largely invisible in popular imagery", thus becoming "alien space - unknown and menacing".

The "Los Angeles icon" on a postcard purchased at Pico Rivera Plaza (Postcard by Scenic Art, Temecula, CA. Photo: Shinji Imoto).

After reading the thoughtful essays that comprise the book (elegantly presented with a graphic layout by Bruce Mau Design) and appreciating the rich photographic documentation that accompanies the text, we can start to understand better Los Angeles and go far beyond the clichés of sunshine and noir. And the book's reaching back into the 19th century and early 20th enriches our knowledge of a city that is mistakenly believed to have no back history. It is a new Los Angeles that is captured by the viewpoints assembled in these pages: a Los Angeles worth looking for.

Paola Giaconia

Paola Giaconia, Architetto (Ordine Milano), graduated with honors from the Politecnico di Milano in Italy. Recipient of a Fulbright Scholarship, she received her Master's Degree in Architecture from SCI-Arc (Southern California Institute of Architecture) in 1999. After working with such architectural offices as Morphosis (Thom Mayne) and RoTo (Michael Rotondi) in Los Angeles, she founded A.polis with partner Gregory Taousson. She is the author of the recently published book "Los Angeles. Città unica", released by Testo&Immagine in December 2001.

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