The City of Angels

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The City of Angels

The official slogan for the city of Los Angeles (L.A.) is "Los Angeles brings it all together." Its unofficial name is "The City of Angels." In the first instance, reality belies the motto in that Los Angeles' most salient feature is its diffuse layout. In the second, it is difficult to think of someone saying "The City of Angels" without a Raymond Chandler-esque sneer. But that, too, is L.A.; duplicitous, narcissistic, and paradoxical. Perhaps no city has been loved or abhorred with such equal vigor, or typified by so many contradictions. For postmodern philosophers (especially Europeans) who study the city as they would a text, the city fascinates with its sheer modernity—a tabula rasa over which the thick impasto of America's aspirations and proclivities has been smeared. Viewed from the air, the city terrifies with its enormity, but one can discern a map of sorts, a guidepost pointing towards the future.

From its very beginning Los Angeles has existed more as a sales pitch than a city; a marketing campaign selling fresh air, citrus fruits, and the picturesque to the elderly and tubercular. In the 1880s, when Los Angeles was little more than a dusty border town of Spanish Colonial vintage, attractively packaged paeans to sun-kissed good-living were flooding the Midwest. Pasadena was already a well-known summer destination for East Coast millionaires, and the campaign sought to capitalize on a keeping-up-with-the-Jones sentiment calculated to attract prosperous and status conscious farmers. Behind the well-heeled came the inevitable array of servants, lackeys, and opportunists. The farm boom dried-up, and the transplanted, oftentimes marooned mid-westerners sat on their dusty front porches wondering where they went wrong—a dominant leit motif of L.A. literature along with conflagrations, earthquakes, floods, crowd violence, and abject chicanery.

Until the film industry invaded in the early 1910s, Los Angeles could offer few incentives to attract industry, lacking a port or even ready access to coal. The only way civic leaders could entice businessmen was by offering the most fervently anti-labor municipal government in the country, and Los Angeles developed a reputation for quelling its labor unrest with great dispatch. L.A.'s leading lights were as canny at pitching their real estate holdings as they were ruthless in ensuring the city's future prosperity. To insure adequate water to nourish the growing metropolis, founding father William Mulholland bamboozled the residents of Owens Valley, some 250 miles to the northeast, into selling their water rights under false pretenses and building an enormous aqueduct into the San Fernando Valley. In 1927 the embittered farmers, having witnessed their fertile land return to desert, purchased an advertisement in the Los Angeles Times which read: "We, the farming communities of the Owens Valley, being about to die, salute you." The publisher of the newspaper, General Harrison Gray Otis, was a major investor in Mulholland's scheme. Even back then, irony was a way of life in Southern California.

Fate was kind to Los Angeles. With the film industry came prosperity, and a spur to real estate growth. But beneath the outward prosperity, signs of the frivolity and moral disintegration L.A. was famous for provoking were apparent to those with an eye for details. Thus, Nathaniel West, author of the quintessential Los Angeles novel, Day of the Locust, could write of a woman in man's clothing preaching the "crusade against salt" or the Temple Moderne, where the acolytes taught "brain-breathing, secret of the Aztecs," while up on Bunker Hill, a young John Fante would chronicle the lives of the hopelessly displaced Midwest pensioners and the sullen ghetto underclass from his cheap hotel room overlooking downtown. Across town, European luminaries such as Arnold Schoenberg, Thomas Mann, and Bertolt Brecht found the leap from Hitler's Germany to palm trees and pristine beaches a difficult transition to make. The contrast between the European exiles and their American counterparts was as plain as day, and illustrates the contradictory schools of thought about the City of Angels. The Europeans regarded the city as a curiosity to be tolerated, or wondered at, while West, Fante, and their better known brethren were almost uniform in their strident denunciations of what they perceived as overt Philistinism. British novelist Aldous Huxley oscillated between condemnation and approval. These foreigners perceived the myriad contradictions of Los Angeles: The beauty of its locale and the crassness of its people; the film industries' pollyanna-like flights of fancy and the bitter labor struggles that accompanied their creation; the beauty of the art deco style that Los Angeles adopted as its own, and the eyesores (building shaped like hot-dogs, space ships, ginger-bread houses) constructed alongside them.

For obvious reasons, L.A. became a center for the defense industry during World War II, and the factories springing up like mushrooms on the table-flat farmland attracted the rootless detritus of the Depression, who only a few years back were regularly turned back at the Nevada border by the California Highway Patrol. The great influx of transplants flourished in their well-paid aerospace assembly line jobs, enjoying a semblance of middle class living. It became the clarion call of a new sales pitch—the suburban myth. The suburbs marketed a dream, that of single family homes, nuclear families, and healthful environment. Within a few years, pollution from the legions of commuters who clogged L.A.'s roadways dispelled the illusion of country living. Another recent innovation, the shopping mall, while invented in Seattle, was quickly adopted as a native institution, to the further degradation of downtown Los Angeles.

The veterans had children, who, nourished on their parent's prosperity, became a sizeable marketing demographic. The children took to such esoteric sports as surfing, hot rodding, and skateboarding, fostering a nationwide craze for surf music and the stylistic excesses of hot-rod artists such as Big Daddy Roth. For a time, Los Angeles persevered under this placid illusion, abruptly collapsed by the 1965 Watts riots and the Vietnam war. In a city without discernible boundaries, the idea of a city center is an oxymoron. Downtown Los Angeles, the nexus of old money Los Angeles, slowly withered, crippled further by urban renewal projects that made the downtown ghost town something of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

This, then, is L.A., a heady mixture of status and sleaze, weirdness and conformity, natural beauty and choking pollution. Los Angeles is indeed the most postmodern of cities, a city with more of a reflection than an image, and where the only safe stance is the ironic one. In the early 1990s, L.A. was hit by earthquakes, fires, and another riot of its black populace, this time provoked by the acquittal of policeman accused of beating a black motorist more briskly than usual. Los Angeles once again managed to recover, refusing once again to be crippled by its inner contradictions. With its limited array of tropes, the city trots out its endgame against any natural limitations to its growth. As the city evolves, postmodern theoreticians stand by rubbing their palms together, predicting the city's inevitable denouement while the sun shines mercilessly overhead.

—Michael Baers

Further Reading:

Davis, Mike. City of Quartz. New York, Verso, 1990.

——. Ecology of Fear. New York, Metropolitan Books, 1998.

Didion, Joan. Slouching Towards Bethlehem. New York, Washington Square Press, 1981.

Fante, John. Ask the Dust. Santa Barbara, Black Sparrow Press, 1980.

Klein, Norman. The History of Forgetting. New York, Verso, 1997.

Lovett, Anthony R., and Matt Maranian. L.A. Bizarro. Los Angeles, Buzz, 1997.

Pynchon, Thomas. The Crying of Lot 49. New York, Lippincott, 1963.

West, Nathanael. Day of the Locust. New York, Random House, 1939.

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The City of Angels

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