Mythos and Cliché: The Fractured History of Los Angeles

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In his seminal study of Los Angeles in the boom and bust years from 1920 to 1940, Carey McWilliams memorably called Southern California “an island on the land.” Mostly he was talking about the weather. An area of approximately 275 miles, Southern California is often described as possessing the only Mediterranean climate in the United States. McWilliams disputed this; he found the region’s extreme temperateness “a freak of nature”—like nowhere else on earth—and “climatically insulated, shut off from the rest of the continent.” Alas, this insulation no longer holds: While ever a land of “sky and air and ocean breezes,” Southern California is being changed by the climate crisis just like everywhere else. Sea level rise is eroding its beaches, and, away from the coast and sand, the weather is no longer as mild, so fire season has become a year-round prospect. (This past winter was among the three driest on record.) In a globalized world undergoing a global catastrophe, nowhere is really an island after all.

Regardless, the long-held image of the place as somehow exotic and distinct from the rest of the United States remains. For the writer Rosecrans Baldwin, Southern California—and Los Angeles County in particular—seems more like a sovereign nation. In Everything Now: Lessons From the City-State of Los Angeles, Baldwin proposes that the key to understanding LA is by seeing it as a city-state along the lines of those in ancient Greece or Renaissance Italy, or even present-day Singapore. California’s economic prowess—a favorite talking point of Governor Gavin Newsom during the Trump administration—does rank it among some of the most powerful countries in the world, and Los Angeles has the second-largest GDP in the nation, just behind New York’s, at roughly $1 trillion. Apart from financial strength, some of the other loose criteria that Baldwin lists for city-statehood include “a large port…guests from overseas who bank money in local investments…multiple languages spoken in good restaurants serving alcohol, and an ambition to host the World Cup.” Check, check, check, and check.

Of course, the comparison is understandable. But it’s also odd, given the fractiousness of Los Angeles’s governance, which more than a city-state resembles a series of fiefdoms. The jurisdiction of city versus county can be confusing: What may seem like neighborhoods in the city are actually “unincorporated areas” ruled by the county. These range from wealthy enclaves like Marina Del Rey to Florence-Firestone, where many residents live close to the poverty line and public services are scarce. To complicate matters, apart from LA itself, there are 87 other cities within Los Angeles County, all with their own mayors, city councils, and police departments. (A number of these, like Maywood and Bell, have suffered from grift and serious corruption over the years.)

A book delineating the history and nuances of this peculiar set-up might be fascinating—if a bit wonky—but Baldwin’s interests are much more sweeping and don’t seem particularly attuned to local politics. Given a tip from the historian Mike Davis that the city-state idea could be useful as a metaphor if applied to the county’s five elected commissioners, who each represent more than 2 million people and wield immense power, Baldwin fixates on the word “metaphor.” In fact, it’s the metaphor of the city-state, not the fundamental workings of one, that Baldwin is after, and even then he carries it only so far. “The great city-state of Los Angeles” becomes more of a quasi-poetic refrain than an organizing principle for his book, and one that can begin to feel wearying. Even if half-hearted, the portrayal of LA as a city-state also occludes the way it actually functions (and regularly dysfunctions) as a city—albeit an atypical one. It’s difficult to pinpoint from Baldwin’s book why the analogy would make a place already so deluged in cliché any more comprehensible.

Perhaps the need for some other designation to understand LA speaks most to Baldwin’s own grappling with the notoriously difficult and unique place in which he lives. A journalist and the author of two novels, Baldwin moved to Los Angeles in 2014 after living in Paris (about which he’s also written a book) and New York, in part to find work in Hollywood as a screenwriter. While I adore Los Angeles’s eccentric architecture, embrace of outré roadside culture, and population of free spirits, I don’t share Baldwin’s feeling that LA “is just so much weirder than other U.S. cities.” It’s hard not to relate, however, to some of the extremes he sets out to explore in the book’s seven chapters. Not least of these is the city’s severe (verging on surreal) inequality. Confounded as well as inspired by this—in addition to more nebulous sentiments such as how, in Los Angeles, “history is happening all at once” and “conversations tend to feel more wide-open”—Baldwin sets out to log the miles, read the appropriate literature, and speak with the residents about their lives.

Mainly he seeks out writers and academics, but also survivalists, cult leaders and victims, professional witches, immigration activists, gambling actors, firefighting surfers, amateur geographers who chart the city’s proliferate public staircases, and vector control officers fighting its incipient mosquito invasion. Baldwin is a good reporter, and his clear, engrossing retelling of other people’s stories is the strongest aspect of his book.

In a chapter that ambitiously moves along parallel narratives about pollution, Japanese internment, and homelessness and ties them together with the theme of “planned obsolescence,” Baldwin introduces us to a woman named Suzette Shaw. A former human resources manager who worked in Silicon Valley for two decades, Shaw decided to return home to Arizona after a transitional moment in her life in order to save money to purchase a house. Instead, she was kicked out by her family with only a one-way ticket to LA. She arrived at Union Station one evening in 2012 with her possessions in a duffel bag and from there went to live on Skid Row, an area of about 50 blocks in downtown LA that by some accounts hosts the largest homeless population in the United States.

Shaw’s story illustrates how thin the line between housed and unhoused is in the United States, and her resiliency and openness are impressive. Even while homeless, she was organizing resources for other women living on the street. She also shares her battles with depression and says that reading psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score, about the physical and mental effects of trauma, gave her insight into her own condition. By the time Baldwin meets her, she’s working as an advocate on behalf of other Black women and still lives in the neighborhood surrounding Skid Row, although now in an apartment. Shaw describes Skid Row not as a containment zone but as “a living community.” Clearly, to her, the work of eradicating homelessness is about more than just putting a roof over someone’s head. (The point seems particularly crucial now in light of a federal judge’s injunction this year that Skid Row is akin to a crime against humanity and must be cleared by the fall.)

Baldwin quotes a New York Times article that neatly lays out how homelessness could be eradicated—with more housing: “Congress could shift billions in annual federal subsidies from rich homeowners to people who don’t have homes.” And yet, in what seems de rigueur for much of nonfiction these days, the quote is followed by another long quote instead of the author’s own analysis. Baldwin’s busy, breezily written chapters, with sections broken into numbered fragments perhaps meant to evoke the fractured landscape of LA itself, don’t always provide enough opportunity for reflection.

The reasons for homelessness in the city, the prongs of its possible solutions, and the direct connections to Southern California’s housing crisis, which was inflamed by the subprime mortgage fiasco and the 2008–09 recession, are not really explicated here. Of course, there’s a terrible irony to a place whose urban design was so powerfully shaped by the suburban fantasy of home ownership—as well the business of home loans and home construction—now becoming, as UCLA professor Dana Cuff tells Baldwin, a region that “schoolteachers can’t afford to be.” Baldwin also doesn’t much consider how the challenge of affordable housing might square with LA’s future development. The city is becoming, and undoubtedly will have to become, more vertical. Meanwhile, current construction is often tied to the subway that LA is spending billions on, but Metro ridership continues to go down.

Baldwin can also be insightful on the nature of “home” in Los Angeles. He rightfully recognizes the impact that Latinos have had on its urbanism, speaking with an urban planner named James Rojas who describes how the Central and South American plaza gets translated into city neighborhoods through a sense of “social cohesion” and “street-facing aesthetics.” Rojas explains that “a sofa on a porch, table and chairs in the front yard…promote social interaction similar to café-seating on a Paris sidewalk.” This is why the predominantly Latinx Eastside can feel so different from the whiter Westside, and unlike the stereotypes of LA as a place without street life. (And also why horizontal fencing—a signifier of gentrification in the city—is not only ugly but asocial.)

Baldwin visits the writer D.J. Waldie, who’s lived in the same home in the city of Lakewood, near Long Beach, since his parents purchased it in 1946 and finds the area vastly more diverse now. Erected as a monument to homogeneity, with a limited menu of home styles one could choose, Lakewood has diversified in terms of both its residents and their aesthetics, becoming somewhere “Filipino families, Latina families, and Chinese American families” live. And they “exhibit the same signs as the rest of L.A.”: Dodger flags and Laker decals. The shifting demographics of Inglewood are also noted, though the change here is less positive. Inglewood, a place where African Americans families once faced endless harassment before the era of white flight, is turning into yet another site of Black exodus. The enticement of high property values leaves many with few better options than to sell and join the shrinking number of Black people in the county, now down to below 10 percent.

Housing appears in Baldwin’s book as just one of LA’s numerous afflictions. He reports on a problem with human trafficking so insidious that law enforcement has taken to installing warnings signs in multiple languages in the bathrooms at LAX with the numbers for the National Human Trafficking Resource Center and the California Coalition to Abolish Slavery. Then there are the aforementioned effects of climate change—extreme, unprecedented fire—as well as the eternal threat of earthquakes (not to mention water access). In a particularly harrowing account, Diana Charles, a resident of Santa Barbara, shares the events of the night a mudslide demolished her home. The heavy rains followed the Thomas Fire in 2017, at the time considered the largest in California’s history, burning for nearly six months (though it has now been replaced in magnitude by the August Complex Fire of last summer, which will surely be overtaken by another blaze in the near future). Exhausted by the recent disaster and in a wheelchair, Diana decided to ignore the evacuation orders on the night of the storm. “The earth was trembling,” she tells Baldwin. “Here was mud cascading…. I remember thinking, I know I might die here, but I never thought it would be this way.” She and her husband barely escaped, making their way into the woods and then to the cottage of a kind, elderly man who offered Charles his “dungarees” because she wasn’t wearing any pants.

Other topics addressed by Everything Now are perennial features in the history of writing about LA: the crass idioms of “the industry” (Hollywood), along with esoteric wellness fads and spiritual hucksters with less than holy motivations. Carey McWilliams wrote about Aimee Semple McPherson, who erected the Angelus Temple in 1923 at a cost of over $1 million as a showcase for her “theological entertainment”; Baldwin examines the more ominous self-realization group Mastery in Transformational Training, whose pricey workshops—including “psychological strip-mining” and constant incrimination—have resulted in multiple deaths. (Though, in a nice pairing in the same chapter, he also shows how the language of self-help was used by science-fiction writer Octavia Butler as a way to bolster herself for future success.)

But McWilliams was a seasoned skeptic, writing, in 1946, what can often read as a deconstruction. He kept his eye on the money, recognized the mythos of LA as so much advertising, and named names. Baldwin, while still pointing out horrific wrongdoings, takes a more conciliatory approach, striving to be neither “overly optimistic [nor] pessimistic.” The effect can sometimes read like an anthropomorphizing of place, as if the city’s trials were somehow endemic, as opposed to the results of discrete actions taken by a long list of individuals—be they water barons, real estate developers, morally malleable politicians, or the members of local government agencies whose incautious decisions have affected millions.

Baldwin is explicit in condemning the murders of the native Tongva and Chumash tribes by missionaries, the city’s extensive history of redlining and other discriminatory practices, even the current tendency of opportunistic real estate investors to start shopping before the rubble of a disaster (natural or otherwise) has been cleared. But when he says that “most of all, Los Angeles rapidly need[s] to address the breach between the wealthy and everyone else,” he might be more direct about who should do that addressing. Mayor Eric Garcetti, whose eight-year tenure is not evaluated here, is brought in only to confirm the city-state idea via the “polis” of politics. Eli Broad, who died this past April at age 87, is “the city-state’s Lorenzo de’ Medici,” but the cost of his philanthropy—and the sometimes predatory model of his housing empire, Kaufman and Broad—isn’t broached.

Los Angeles’s growth has been so accelerated that, inevitably, gaps remain between what is and what has yet to be told. Still, in light of the scores of books that Baldwin quotes here, and knowing the wealth of the local archives, it might seem there are few cities in the United States—perhaps even the world—that one could know so much about. There’s an argument to be made against metaphor when the actual history of a place is so readily available. And contrary to Baldwin’s claim that Los Angeles is “not the United States in miniature,” any story about LA seems most instructively read as one about postwar American life. An exporter of some of the nation’s major ills—freeways, suburban sprawl, military-style policing, large-scale carceral capitalism, the vapid adulation of celebrity, Disneyland—LA has also been, less infamously, at the center of much that could be considered vital.

It has bred significant social uprisings, from the Black Lives Matter protests (which Baldwin mentions) that took to the freeways last summer, to the Watts Rebellion—the six days of violence and racial and class reckoning in 1965—to the Chicano Moratorium, an anti–Vietnam War movement spearheaded by high school students in 1970. And before these, in 1950, it had the largest national gay rights organization in the country. Before austerity measures took hold, LA participated in the establishment of an excellent public university system. And modernist architects of the region, like Richard Neutra, designed extensive public housing plans before being thwarted by Red Scares. A persistent question that people discuss with Baldwin is essentially this: What has become of the good life—described here by writer Hector Tobar as “being comrades in relaxation gathered around barbecues and inflatable kiddie pools”—that LA promised for so many?

Others have given up on waiting for an answer. As recent Census numbers have shown, California’s population has dropped for the first time in its recorded history, with many saying that the cost of living and the lack of housing are precipitously high. Though he seems hopeful that LA is “probably the best place to watch America unfold before we all permanently move on to the Internet,” Baldwin doesn’t quite reckon with how Los Angeles might escape the fate of a different, more or less failed city he visits out in the desert—or give much confidence that it can.

While Mike Davis’s ever relevant exegesis of Los Angeles, City of Quartz, begins in the graveyard of Llano Del Rio—a socialist colony on the outskirts of the Antelope Valley that thrived for four years—partly to show what could have been, Baldwin ends his book with California City, a once fast-rising metropolis in the Mojave that’s now more of a ghost town, to exhibit what might still be. Baldwin calls this community “Los Angeles stripped naked.” After visiting it, he’s haunted by the “metaphor of what Los Angeles might become if it failed: not the ceaseless night of Blade Runner, but the brown noise of the desert, an echo of an interval briefly realized before cleansings by drought and time.” He went to California City, Baldwin writes, “to understand the city-state better and slammed my car into a wall of sand—how’s that for a metaphor.”

But it doesn’t seem likely that Los Angeles—with nearly 4 million people, and more than 10 million in the county—will go as quietly as California City. How and when LA burns out, or rather burns up, will also have global implications. Rather than the metaphor of LA as a city-state with infinite power, we might do better by representing it through the concrete realities of its relatively powerless. And the way the city, the county, and the country attends to this faction will spell the future—for not just LA but also the rest of the continental land mass it shares.


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