One other Holy Land – Los Angeles Evaluate of Books
DECEMBER 3, 2020
A SECTION OF DJ Waldie’s new essay collection, Becoming Los Angeles, has a title that captures his haunted and gentle approach to the city that earned him die-hard fans over 20 years ago with Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir. The title is: “You are always somewhere.”
The essays in this section show a deep awareness of his hometown of Lakewood, California, and Waldie argues that a key principle of Lakewood (and Los Angeles as a whole) is self-construction and artificiality. People come here to create new life, and whether or not the landscape is “real” is a fair question. That aspect of Los Angeles reminds me of a set designer who once interviewed the American Theater about their set for a production of Enrico IV, the Pirandello tragedy of a man who believes he is a holy Roman emperor of the 11th century. Late in the play, the scenery pulls up and you see the stark, echoing rear part of the stage: concrete, curtain ropes, mold and dust.
The designer had to design that too. “You always see something,” he said.
Waldie’s talent for seeing what lies in front of his eyes in Los Angeles enriches these essays and turns the collection into a beautiful book – even if the pieces are sometimes as well related as the city itself. He has themed themed sections with poetic titles grouped – “Fandangos the Mythmaker”, “A Feel for the Landscape” – and short, elaborate paragraphs at the beginning of each section attempt to give meaning and unity to the scattered collection with mixed success.
“Los Angeles, whose geographic, psychological and perceptual limits have been reached, is at a turning point,” he writes in the introduction, and frankly I don’t know what that means. How does one define such boundaries for a metropolis and how does a writer plant a flag on such volatile ground? As a native LA American, I must be immune to most urban theory prose about the city. The language of “reading” an urban landscape has always sounded to me like a certain academic class trying to make up a pig. But Waldie is not an academic, even if he likes to conceptualize. As soon as he fixes Los Angeles in detail under his lens, his essays come to life.
“A Traveler Comes to a Bridge” describes how LA residents crossed the sand ditch known as the Los Angeles River in 1877.
At the narrowest part of the river, a wooden bridge with a paneled and pitched roof, illuminated with kerosene lamps, crosses. […] From the crest of Boyle Heights, all of this is visible – bridges, gaps, rivers, roads – even Catalina Island’s loom, like a ribbon of fog on the southern horizon. It’s almost the end of the day Los Angeles can be seen at a glance.
Bridges helped the city grow. In the 1920s and 1930s, the Department of Public Works built the Los Angeles collection of concrete bridges that are “convenient for the car” but stylish and deliberately great. The most unique is the Fourth Street Bridge, designed by Louis Huot as a memorial to the Gothic revival in LA, which serves as a viaduct and level crossing, as well as a bridge for cars. “Patterned with areas of sun-drenched brightness and panels of razor-sharp shadows,” the bridge expressed the city fathers’ ambition and hope – in 1931, the second year of the Depression – but their idealism ignored the poor neighborhoods around the bridge – some of which became later cleared of the city for a tangle of downtown highways. Now the Fourth Street Bridge looks strange, a quasi-European structure that crosses a paved flood canal that is not that different in tone from the Tijuana River, and over which there are ugly power lines. “The closed river below and the stylish viaduct above should be monuments to the Anglo triumph over nature and space. These are now compromised achievements, ”he writes,“ and they require a well-thought-out translation. “
He likes to tell stories that Los Angeles is telling about itself. At the beginning of the book, he dismantles Helen Hunt Jackson, author of the novel Ramona. This is perhaps too simple for a purpose. Most people fire them for the melodramatic annual play in Hemet, but Waldie examines how the story came about and how real estate boosters drew on the novel’s blockbuster hit at the turn of the 20th century to create a cheesy new take on Draw California. “Jackson’s goal was to spark support from progressive Christians for California’s Native American communities,” he writes, “but their narrative strategy sabotaged their intent. Readers sighed at the sad fate of Ramona and her murdered husband, Alessandro, but longed for it to be in the romantic landscapes described by Jackson. “
In the early 1880s she traveled to California to write a number of magazine articles on the disappearing Spanish rancho system and the growing Anglo cities. California was added to the United States in 1850 after the Mexican-American War, and the transcontinental railroad had found its way to the coast. Jackson loved the climate and the slow, Spanish-style way of life. But she was disgusted by the government’s treatment of Native Americans, and she intended Ramona to be something of Uncle Tom’s cabin of the west. “Jackson was unable to handle the substitutions that were ongoing in Americanizing Southern California,” writes Waldie. “The substitutions included fixed categories of ethnic and racial identity instead of the more fluid identities possible in pre-American California.”
Instead of causing outrage over racism against the indigenous people or the decline of an older, more Spanish way of life, Ramona created a “theater of mood” for the newer, American one. The result was a lingering fascination with California with the troubled Midwest and freezing Easter that moved to Los Angeles. Twenty years after its publication, the novel’s popular success inspired a “faux-Spanish revival in the arts, design, advertising, architecture, landscaping, and even town planning that Anglos mistakenly adopted as the truest expression of what Southern California meant.”
Not only does Waldie defeat poor Mrs. Jackson with a velvet shiv, he kneels the whole idea of a “traditional” LA aesthetic.
I should mention that Waldie never uses the term LA. For him, the city is “Los Angeles” or nothing. He discusses the strange word “Angeleno,” which is misspelled Spanish, although historical records do not tell whether the original should be Angeleño or Angelino. The Real Academia Española has definitely made the word Angelino official in modern Spanish, possibly as a regression to express what people call themselves here in English.
Waldie is also investigating the fake Los Angeles: the “programmatic” and “mimetic” buildings, which include buildings that look like things they want to sell. “Once upon a time in Los Angeles, you could get a hot dog from a hot dog and a tamale in a tamale. You could get a bowl of chili while sitting in a chili bowl. “The Brown Derby, Randy’s Donuts and Tail o ‘the Pup belonged to an era of rapid expansion when some business owners had no time or taste for fine architecture. In a desert atmosphere full of Hollywood fantasy – where DW Griffith built their Babylon set for intolerance on the public corner of Sunset and Hollywood, where it spent most of World War I – some business owners must have thought, Hell, why not? Architectural critics, visitors from Europe, and Nathanael West (who was eloquent and biting) hated these cheap fantasies. But Waldie is not wrong:
Objections to the inauthenticity of Los Angeles’ architecture confused the essence of the city. Traditional architectural styles – a department store decorated like a Venetian palazzo, a bench that looked like a Roman temple, a church pretending to be Gothic – were as fake in Los Angeles as a tire factory in the shape of an Assyrian fortress.
Accordingly, Waldie becomes intimate and sensual in one of LA’s most phonic neighborhoods – Lakewood. He grew up there; he knows how strange it is. Joan Didion described how developers in 1950 cut out houses like license plates to create a subdivision north of Long Beach where workers for Hughes, Douglas and Rockwell could raise children. “Every fifteen minutes a new foundation was dug,” she writes. “Cement trucks lined up a mile, waiting to drive down the new blocks where foundations were being poured.” Lakewood was part of a mid-century vision of Los Angeles as Tomorrowland, where high tech and the American dream in the suburbs could merge into a whole new lifestyle, in a great spasm of stucco and chlorinated water. It took a generation. The aerospace industry declined after 1990; The neighborhood faded with the Cold War.
Didion joined in 1993 to write about The Posse Trail, a pathetic but sexually predatory teenage clique at Lakewood High. They went on trashy talk shows mentioning the term “white trash” and Didion noticed the quick, sharp waste from the middle class dream. Waldie was working as a PR officer for Lakewood at the time. “Naively,” he told her, “you could say that Lakewood was the American dream made affordable to a generation of industrial workers who in the previous generation could never seek this type of property.” In her book-bound edition of Where I Came from, Didion expresses a retrospective admiration for the Holy Land that came out three years after her original New York report.
Waldie still loves Lakewood without any deception. He doesn’t drive, which is why his essays on the suburbs describe his quiet walks – to work in the town hall or to the trade fair on Sunday, past sprayed lawns and public parks. You mention “immigrant squirrels” who were likely brought to California from the Midwest after the Civil War. They notice the population explosion of garden snails, which were first imported by Basques who just wanted a taste of their homeland. He looks at tumbleweeds, a Russian import that rolled across the Great Plains from either north or south Dakota and arrived in California in 1885. “Crows”, he writes, “brought themselves”. Waldie appreciates nature’s tame green fury in Lakewood without pretending that it might have existed in front of the plumbing or sprinkler systems (no cement trucks = no lake and no wood). But somehow thousands of people lived, suffered and died in this man-made place. “When I stop in the middle of the sidewalk at dusk and slowly turn to see the entire sky above the roof lines, I also know that the contrast of the lighter clouds with the blue-black sky is an artifact of the reflected glare from tens of thousands of street lights in the pool . “
Exactly: you always see something. The challenge is to understand what it is.
Michael Scott Moore is the author of the best-selling memoirs The Desert and the Sea and Too Much of Nothing, a Los Angeles-based comic novel. He was born in Los Angeles, but lived in Berlin for over a decade.