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Preface

This web site--composed of images (still, panoramic, moving, and sequential), maps, short essays (epistemological, bibliographic, methodological, and conceptual)--is written as a totality; the verbal text and other media are meant to be encountered as a whole. It is "panoramic" in both a figurative and literal sense.[1] It attempts a broad "survey" of a vast metropolis, attempts also to provide deep knowledge about particular places, but frankly confronts all such attempts as exemplary of the intractable epistemological problems urban historians must encounter.[2]

The "Essay" explores the hypothesis that the key concept in the search for historical certainty should be "mapping" in a literal, not a metaphoric, sense. Readers can follow this essay as they would a traditional printed article, using menu bars and annotation to jump into the other media of the site. Readers can also encounter the concepts in that essay piecemeal, through links to its subsections in the "Concepts" page. But readers can also disregard the Essay altogether, because it is not essential to the site--only one of its elements.

The best analogy to "reading" this site is that of a newspaper: the reader's eye wanders between articles and images, relatively free from linear narrative. Readers should feel free to skip around from any starting point, using the omnipresent menu buttons on the top and left-hand side of each page. The most basic purpose of the site is to give readers an opportunity to explore Los Angeles in both overview and richness of detail, within the theme of the ultimate unknowability of any metropolis. How do we make sense of something so vast and historically mutable as a metropolis? Given the frequent claims that Rome, or Los Angeles, or São Paulo, or Paris, or New York, or Hong Kong represent(ed) important global trends, or that they stand/stood out as unique, how can we begin to sort out the certain and comparable knowledge assumed by these claims?

This web site is also an experiment in pursuing some empirical and interpretive strategies, in the hopes that we will soon move to a more productive stage of comparative urban historical scholarship. The unifying goal of this site is to exemplify the profound difficulties of performing urban history, given the daunting obstacles of scale, complexity, historical erasure, and postmodern skepticism--much of which has taken the urban condition as its touchstone. Without reading anything but this preface, readers should understand the following theme in all of the "locations" throughout the site: historical evidence in and about cities is inherently unstable, oscillating between the certainty that inheres in its mappability--its location--and the way specific evidence always raises consciousness of alternatives that were not identified or mapped.

The author believes that historians have a major responsibility in the contemporary crisis of knowledge to probe the claims made not only about specific cities but also about the possibility of certain knowledge. "It is scarcely possible to give a coherent historical account of an incoherent presence," E. P. Thompson wrote in another context, "but some attempt must be made."[3]

Acknowledgements and credits
About this web site
Bibliographic Essay
Users may also download the principal text files from this web site within a single Adobe (R) Acrobat file (PDF file).