There is nothing like spending a weekend showing a friend the city to make me realize how much I’ve integrated myself into it, within the past year. I always knew Los Angeles would call me home. I’ve known it since I was fifteen. I think it’s why I was able to settle in so quickly, adapt and learn the city, cross-reference my mental picture of it with my mother’s memories and her family’s history. It doesn’t mean I have to stay here, but spending the weekend trying to convey the city, my city, to a visitor, means that I have to stop and think about how much the city has become part of my consciousness. It brings to the surface how much the city still makes my eyes light up.
As a result, I’m having one of the weeks in which I’m back in love with my city. I looked up tonight, at the palm trees that line Venice Boulevard, and my heart lifted a bit. I think of thecity, out there, miles and miles of it, “eighty-seven neighborhoods in search of a core”. I went on a history spree last week, and learned so much about the early city, how it grew so far so fast, how the suburbs I assume must be recent sprawl, were once actually connected to downtown by train. I thought places like Pomona, West Covina, Fontana, everything out to San Bernadino, that all the Inland Empire was just small, fruit producing towns that were recently intergrated by freeway within the last two decades. Not so. The streetcars that made the original city a cohesive unit went far further than I thought, and those suburbs were just on a par with the Valley just after World War Two.
And I didn’t realize that much of the city as we know it was in place by the early twentieth century. Much of it is postwar, of course – but it was just so much bigger and more populated than I realized, even by 1940. The streetcars were the most advanced public transit system in the world, and that, combined with Los Angeles’ focus on single family dwellings, made even the neighborhoods miles away from downtown part of the city and part of the city’s consciousness. For a city that really only became American in the 1890s, that’s amazing. Even though the Americans technically owned California after 1847, this town was still part of Mexico and the old Spanish empire for years. Mulholland, head of the water system, the “Father of Los Angeles”, started out as the zanjero – manager of the zanjas. Not the water deputy in charge of the pipes, but with the Spanish title and the Spanish terms. And within fifty years of that, Los Angeles had expanded as far as Sherman Oaks to the north, Venice to the west, San Pedro to the south, and the Inland Empire to the east, all integrated and connected by water systems and the streetcar lines.
This is my city, this is my history, this is what I came back to.
I’m watching Blade Runner. Which, of course, was set in Los Angeles, and filmed here. Of course, it has the Bradbury building, which was based on science fiction to begin with. And I recognize the neoclassical detail of the 1920s buildings downtown.
Why is Los Angeles home to so much science fiction? Is it that Southern California seemed so surreal, so limitless in its possibilities, that science fiction is just the next logical step? Or is it related to the influx of intellectuals that came to Los Angeles in the 1930s? Maybe this city has the science fiction undertones because CalTech brought so many scientists to the West Coast, because of the scientific community that grew out in Pasadena, the rocket scientists of the Arroyo Seco. It’s a minor facet, but it’s yet another way to view the city, as something out of slightly different reality. As science fiction, of its own type. Describe this city as if it was something in a 1940s thriller magazine, compare it to every sane city in America, and it does seem surreal. Social science fiction.
I learned today, while reading City of Quartz, that Pershing Square downtown was once called Central Park. How much of Los Angeles was meant to rival New York? How much of the characteristics of that city could possibly have been imprinted on someplace so drastically different? Manhattan is what it is because of its density; Los Angeles is what it is because of its sprawl. Because it has the social science fiction of a house for every family, single family dwellings built on prefabricated models before anywhere else in the country.
This city has pushed me to learn more, to study more, to understand more about the States, through the example of Los Angeles, than I ever thought about before. It is, somehow, the American utopia and dystopia, all in one. And I find that absolutely fascinating. Still.