this is what history means to me

I went to the West L.A. library today, and found that they have twice the local history books available as my local Mar Vista branch does. Including three cardboard cover bank-commissioned booklets, all dating to 1928. The year before the Depression started. A year in which American Los Angeles barely dated fifty years back. 1928 is not that long ago, but when you are talking about the history of a city that has none, suddenly 1928 becomes primary source material. Which is a little disturbing, when you juxtapose it with the primary sources I worked with in college, none of which antedated the turn of the twentieth century.

Up until this point, I have been something of a dilettante about my history research. I have skipped between topics, scattered myself across the city’s history. I have focused somewhat on the late nineteenth and early twentieth century incarnations of Los Angeles – it seems that most negative events or trends date to after the Second World War – but I have not been particularly coherent in my research.

If I am to complete the project that I am working on, it will require me to break down my studies into two areas:

  • narrative of the city itself and
  • themes and perspectives

    For example, it is one thing to study the twentieth century relations between the Mexican and Latin American populations and the controlling Caucasian power base, but it’s another to look at it when you put it in perspetive against the human migration patterns that gave us the Californios in the last century. We look at the Mexicans as immigrants, as invaders, as people who are to be given menial jobs and serfdom as punishment for being interlopers, as reward for being allowed into America. But it was less than fifty years between the time that Los Angeles transitioned from being Californio to American…and when the waves of modern-day Mexican immigration started in the 1930s, as labor to pick fruit.

    Things like that.

    And this is my project, and my challenge, and what I want to accomplish before I leave the city. I want to be able to write the paper – or the book – or whatever it turns into, in which I am able to explain to myself, and to the world beyond the city, Why Los Angeles Is What It Is and What We Have Forgotten.

    But every time I answer a question, five more areas of research come up. I haven’t even touched the area of Black L.A. I haven’t gone near the Noir, the world of James Ellroy’s quartet. I haven’t explored my own heritage in Jewish L.A., or really tried to understand the David Hockney-ized 1980s image of Beverly Hills and Malibu backyards with swimming pools, a pastel wonderland that I believe, somehow, is directly related to white flight. I haven’t even really put together the story of the communities around me, of Venice and Santa Monica and Culver City, all towns that grew for their own independent reasons, and ended up being swallowed by Los Angeles.

    So I am working on this in earnest now. I will start with research for the first hundred-and-nineteen years of the city, from inception to Americanization. I will go through the years of the American city, in which Los Angeles had the greatest public transit in the world, and compare it to the growth and mentality of the growing Eastern cities at the time. And I will start by reading the three soft-cover books – booklets, really – that I found in West L.A. today, so old that they had library punch cards still in them, booklets dating to 1928.

    I will handle these booklets carefully, as survivors from a past that accidentally fell into West L.A. I will read them, and as I do, I will apply what I learned at UBC. What else was happening at the time this was written? What motivation did the author and publisher have? What accidental references are they leaving in to a bigger trend in the city, in the country, in the world?

    These are the questions I need answered, so I can understand – where did this city go wrong? Is there any way to figure that out, to fix it, to make this city into the alternate-universe version I sometimes see around corners? Is there a way to keep my home cities, Seattle, Vancouver, even tiny Victoria, from making the same mistakes?

    Isn’t that what history is for?

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