Introduction Welcome to LA A place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it, loves it so radically that he remakes it in his own image.
-Joan Didion, The White Album
When I got off the plane at LAX three decades ago, I knew exactly two people in Los Angeles. One was a college buddy writing spec scripts for Star Trek: The Next Generation, the other a family friend working for the National Enquirer on the Michael Jackson-and-Bubbles beat (Bubbles was then Michael's boon companion, and a chimpanzee). I had moved west for grad school, and for the first six months I couldn't tell what I thought about my new hometown. I bought a Volkswagen with an underpowered diesel engine from two Germans who needed to fly back to Berlin the next day. They started at two thousand dollars and settled for the five hundred bucks I had on hand. Two weeks later, I was the third car in the queue to make a left on yellow-okay, when I was ready to turn, it was red-and an LAPD motorcycle cop pulled me over. He looked straight out of central casting. Peering at my New York State driver's license through mirrored sunglasses and over a luxurious mustache, he said unsmilingly, "Welcome to LA. You'll learn." He was right.
I learned that Los Angeles fascinated me on every level, from the way the last bit of sunlight flares out on a summer night behind the Santa Monica Mountains to how people on the West Coast wear their learning more lightly than I was used to. I learned the ways that constant good weather alters the psyche. I learned that the place I'd moved to, hoping it would have so little history that I might have a chance to make some myself, instead rewarded constant digging and curiosity. I learned that the Formosa Caf, a bar on Santa Monica Boulevard, still had a floor safe under one of the tables, installed by famed gangster Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel. I learned that there'd been a utopian socialist commune in the Antelope Valley desert near Palmdale a century ago, and that there are cloistered nuns just below the Hollywood sign. I learned that the novelist John Rechy penned one of the first great novels about male hustlers out of his experiences in downtown's Pershing Square, and that the anarcho-communist Flores Mag—n brothers fomented rebellion in their native Mexico from Edendale, a long-forgotten neighborhood now absorbed into Silver Lake and Echo Park. I learned that Southern California has a wealth of architectural intelligence deployed on single-family homes and an anemic system of public parks, and that these two facts are not coincidental. I learned that San Francisco's Summer of Love could have taken place in Los Angeles if the cops and the sheriffs hadn't railroaded the city's best musicians out of town in the midsixties. I learned that John McLaughlin, one of the great hard-edged LA abstractionists of the 1950s, created such uniformly sized paintings because he bought all his canvases prestretched from the art department at Sears.
At forty, I learned how to surf.
I learned that the more I thought about what made Los Angeles unique, the more unique it became to me. I co-organized a conference on how space itself can be scripted and ended up leading bus tours of the city that tried to decipher those scripts. I taught a seminar on rebranding Los Angeles. I spent a year at the Huntington Library going through the archives looking for tissue that would connect everything I was learning. I came to realize that the only way to understand the city, at least for me, was to weave stories about it and, like Scheherazade, to keep weaving as if my life depended on it.
The stories that follow reimagine Los Angeles, creating a series of internal connections between the disparate, but also around common themes. Each chapter is a narrative unto itself, but there are threads that connect one essay to another. Characters return in different guises, landscapes get retraced, familiar locales take on new attributes, correlations build. The web works of Los Angeles-based artist Pae White have been an inspiration. White would search her grandmother's garden in Pasadena for the largest, most labyrinthine spiderwebs she could find, slide colored paper behind them, spray them with fixative, and frame the results in a spare, modernist style. Like alchemy, White's simple process transmutes nature into culture and reminds us that nothing stands in isolation, that connection is the way of the world.
The old line about Hollywood-the-Industry-scratch the phony tinsel and you'll find real tinsel underneath-has tended to apply to too much writing about Los Angeles-the-Place. LA is a real place, after all, not just a back lot, with real stories that are more complex, contradictory, and compelling than anything that ever made it to the screen. These are the stories that follow, and they are for the people who live in the city, but also those who don't but are drawn to its legends.
A story about a story told by Aimee Semple McPherson might be just the right way to finish here. Sister Aimee, as she was known, was the most famous woman in 1920s America, and without doubt the most famous resident of Los Angeles not working in the movie business. A white Pentecostal preacher who lost her first husband while evangelizing in China, who spoke in tongues, faith-healed the sick, and rode a motorcycle onstage to preach the gospel, Sister Aimee was a hellion who enraged the more genteel elements of the city, as well as other pastors, when she preached racial harmony on the radio and fed the poor of all races and nationalities from her Angelus Temple, just below Sunset Boulevard with a grand view of Echo Park Lake.
One day in 1926, she disappeared while visiting Venice Beach. Her mother hired divers to search for her body, her followers were devastated, and the city went through one of its longest periods of true mystery. Five weeks later, the miraculous occurred. Sister Aimee popped up in Mexico, having escaped from a trio of kidnappers-"Steve, Jake, and Mexicali Rose." She returned to be greeted by some thirty thousand jubilant Angelenos, unfazed by the fact that her desert captivity had left her neither bloody nor bowed and accepting of the fact that the hunky (and married) engineer of her radio show had disappeared and reappeared at about the same time, witnesses claiming they'd seen him and Sister Aimee canoodling in Northern California. No amount of shaming by the city's power elite and her fellow preachers, not even a grand jury inquiry, was able to rattle Sister Aimee. "That's my story and I'm sticking to it," she said.
So, too, is it with my stories about what is now as much my city as it was Sister Aimee's. And I'm sticking to them.1 The Alchemical City: Drive-By Punditry, Location Scouts, and a User's Guide to Elemental Los Angeles
There it is. Take it." So William Mulholland addressed the thirty thousand flag-waving people who'd hiked, driven, and arrived on horseback at the terminus of the Los Angeles Aqueduct. Deep in the dusty San Fernando Valley on November 5, 1913, the band played "Yankee Doodle" as the sluice gates opened and millions of gallons of water flowed down from the Owens River, more than two hundred miles away. Mulholland had engineered the marvel of the age, irrigating the Valley and quenching the city's thirst. His great public work performed an alchemical transformation on the landscape, transmuting a town into a metropolis as the arid desert around it blossomed into lush farmland. There is no question that Mulholland made the twentieth century possible in the City of Angels. A man of few words, Mulholland managed to be both laconic and ambiguous: "There it is. Take it." What is the "it" to which he referred? Many commenters take "it" as a simple description of the water, while others see "it" as a ceremonial offering of a marvel of infrastructure. There is, however, another way to understand "it" as something less material and more mythic: "it" was the future, the tomorrow that Los Angeles lives in the twenty-first century.
Like so many drawn to the edge of the Pacific Ocean, William Mulholland came in search of a new world, and so he created one. The place that he made possible is crowned by a road that snakes atop the Santa Monica Mountains and the Hollywood Hills. Just above the Hollywood Bowl, there's a vantage point from which, on a clear day, Hollywood, downtown, the Valley, the surrounding mountains, and even the Pacific Ocean are all visible simultaneously-one of the few places where Los Angeles coheres as a whole. This road is appropriately named Mulholland Drive, and when you look out from that point, you see, manifested in the city's present, the future toward which its greatest engineer pointed in the past.
Los Angeles County had a population of 3,530 in 1850, which grew to just over a half million people when Mulholland opened the aqueduct and to more than ten million today, with so many layers of history accumulating so quickly that the kinds of narrative arcs we use to explain the trajectories of older cities simply do not apply. The city expanded out of the historic downtown core to colonize sprawling Valley suburbs. Sleepy beach towns outgrew their origins to emerge as economic dynamos. Newcomers never stopped coming, scaling the hills, building houses on stilts, gridding out the desert, carving cul-de-sacs from cactus groves. As it flourished, Los Angeles fostered a uniquely creative spirit, its cultures reflecting a horizontal city rather than a vertical one, the width of new frontiers offering the opportunity to escape from top-down cultural hierarchies. In Los Angeles, all was change and novelty for a century, and the city's history was seen to be of little use to its future. There would be no end to it: Los Angeles, the city fated to be eternally at the edge of forever.
But it turns out that the city's fate was not eternal. The result of all of Los Angeles's building and moving and wanting and failing and trying again is that even the edge of forever has developed a history, and the task of the present is to make that history legible. Treating Southern California as an ever-refreshing Etch A Sketch, a tabula rasa that could never be filled, freed generations to explore their own possibilities, but all of that worked better when history was thinner on the ground. Now those looking to build new and improved futures need to be familiar with what worked, what didn't, what was prohibited from being tried in the first place, and why.
Getting to the point of such knowledge, much less wisdom, requires more than purely political or social history. Carey McWilliams, Reyner Banham, and Mike Davis understood this and are responsible for the three most important and influential studies of Los Angeles. McWilliams was a civil rights lawyer and journalist who went on to become editor of The Nation. He wrote Southern California: An Island on the Land in 1946 to distill and disseminate some of the best reportage about the region. He concentrated on Southern California's explosive growth and the discombobulating, and sometimes amusing, social effects all this newness and change brought about. McWilliams also presaged contemporary views of LA as the premier polyglot, hybridized cultural space in the United States. In the seventies, Banham arrived in LA as precisely the sort of person-a British architectural historian and critic-one would expect to hate everything about the city. But his Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies became a classic specifically because it embraces the freeways, decentralization, and neophilia that set LA up in opposition to accepted standards of urbanism. Another two decades on, in 1990, Southern California-born Davis published his searing City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles. A Marxist, organizer, and urban theorist, Davis countered the twentieth century's real estate boosterism with a far bleaker portrait of how the city's working classes, and especially people of color, had been exploited and abused by racism, redlining, economic disenfranchisement, punitive policing, and even targeted environmental degradation. Davis juxtaposed sunshine and noir-boosters versus detractors-and showed a generation just how and why Los Angeles erupted during the civil unrest of 1992, which took place just two years after his book was first published.
When I moved to LA from New York decades ago, with the understanding that I was trading one great city for another, these three were among the first books I read. Despite their brilliance, however, they didn't fully evoke the spirit of the city as I was experiencing it. We import a word from German to describe the "spirit of the times": "zeitgeist." Less familiar may be a more recent neologism to describe the "spirit of the place": "platzgeist." Film scouts are perforce experts in platzgeist. Their job is to convey not just the visuals of a place but the ineffable relationships among natural geography and built environment, the quality of the light, the ambient soundscape, the people who live there, the ones just passing through. The interaction of these characteristics may not be comprehensive, but it is comprehensible. A vintner speaks of a wine's terroir, the specific attributes of taste, smell, and mouthfeel that can only come from a specific place. Similarly, a platzgeist should evoke a sensation similar to djˆ vu, even if one has never been to that place or if what's being described took place a century ago.
The spirit of a place is not static, and a platzgeist evolves as a place sloughs off attributes and attitudes assigned to it over time and adopts new ones, especially as its population swells and changes composition. Cities have the most complex platzgeists because they are where the most compelling culture is made. It's not that forests and deserts don't command attention; it's that they are most interesting for what humans observe, rather than create, there. The platzgeist of a village can be charming, but it's parochial, and while the platzgeist of a suburb can make for fascinating sociology, it will rarely inspire passion. The British historian Sir Peter Hall is admirably direct: "Every great burst of human creativity in history is an urban phenomenon." What makes charting a platzgeist for Los Angeles in the twentieth century so elusive is that during those dizzying hundred years the city didn't just expand in population; it exploded into global significance. There are many reasons for this, demographic, economic, and political, but I would argue that Los Angeles's eruption into worldwide prominence follows its ramp-up of the arts, architecture, design, cuisines, music, theater, and literary cultures, not to mention technical and scientific accomplishments, at a speed and with a reach unprecedented in human history.
Copyright © 2020 by Peter Lunenfeld. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.