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Into the Labyrinth of Los Angeles Historiography: From Global Comparisons to Local Knowledge

by Philip J. Ethington

There are many ways to structure a historiographic essay on a given city, each driven by some stated or unstated goal. Why would we seek knowledge of Los Angeles? Each answer to this question indicates a different path through the city: through its ethnic communities, its religious institutions, its architecture, its politics, its economy. As a byway of the larger "Essay" I have composed here ("Los Angeles and the Problem of Urban Historical Knowledge"), this bibliographic essay is written in the spirit of introduction for the neophytes, and in the spirit of reflection on the problem of ascertaining the significance of Los Angeles in a world-historic context.

Major scholarly and critical discourse on Los Angeles has been concerned with its significance in a family of U.S. and world cities. This perspective is rather new in the scholarship of U.S. cities, in which the relative importance of cities is usually not at issue. The vast literature on Chicago and New York City does not typically take as a primary theme the way those cities represent forces or trends that serve as a window on the condition of world history; nor do these works seem compelled to assert the historical presence of their cities--such is usually taken for granted. This distinctive theme is ironic because in comparison to other world cities the historical literature on Los Angeles is very thin and very young. Claims about the great importance of Los Angeles have been vastly out of proportion to the knowledge base.

Landmarks of serious scholarship on Los Angeles have always raised it out of the local, insisting that this city needs to be recognized on the global stage. This tradition begins perhaps with Anton Wagner's Los Angeles: Werden, Leben and Gestalt der Zweimillionenstadt in Sudenkalifornien (1935), translated as Los Angeles: The Development, Life, and Form of the Southern California Metropolis.[1] Wagner, who studied with the cultural geographer Oscar Schmieder (1891-1980), is recognizably in the German landscape-and-society tradition of Friedrich Ratzel (1844-1904). Fascinated by this apparently new breed of city, Wagner engaged in constant comparisons with European cities. It would be wecome now that environmental history has finally returned to vogue, but it had simply no impact on English-language scholarship.

In 1946 Carey McWilliams published what remains the deepest and also widest-ranging inquiry into distinctive features of Los Angeles: Southern California County (later retitled Southern California: An Island on the Land). Another attempt to take stock of the city's development did not appear until Robert Fogelson's The Fragmented Metropolis: Los Angeles, 1850-1930 (1967). But alas, decades after Fogelson's study, few thinkers recognized Los Angeles as a major world city, and the weight of the scholarship itself seemed to support the idea that it was exceptional in many ways: it was Western, built rapidly, with little foresight, at the far edge of the United States, by different rules. It is the enduring achievement of Mike Davis, in his profound but idiosyncratic City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles (1989), to have established beyond cavil that the history of Los Angeles articulates in highly revealing ways the major forces transforming global society in the late twentieth century. Davis broke what Roger Kiel calls the "exceptionalist narrative" of Los Angeles. His writings, along with the ghastly spectacle of the 1992 "uprising"/"riot"/"civil unrest," served to fix the gaze of many scholars on Los Angeles.[2] The result has been several collections of great value, especially Roger Waldinger and Mehdi Bozorgmehr, eds, Ethnic Los Angeles (1996), and Allen J. Scott and Edward J. Soja, The City: Los Angeles and Urban Theory at the End of the Twentieth Century (1996). Dolores Hayden's nuanced and place-specific The Power of Place: Urban Landscapes and Public History (1997) is the product of years of community-advocacy/research by a feminist architectural historian, and in many ways it outclasses all the synoptic histories that have come before it. Although largely a reflection on the wider issues of the politics of public history, Hayden's graphic-rich book is a genuine innovation and model for future work.

The works mentioned so far are all "synoptic" because they purport to encompass the entire city in their gaze. But these synoptic histories have only been implicitly comparative in their effort to establish the special significance of Los Angeles. Once the significance issue is raised, even if only implicitly, the imperative of comparison is immediately imposed. This imperative demands: How would we know if Los Angeles is so significant? Only by attempting to raise similar claims about other cities. It is surprising that only two major studies have attempted to place the metropolis into explicit comparison with other great cities: Janet Abu-Lughod's New York, Chicago, Los Angeles: America's Global Cities (1999), and (to a lesser extent) Peter Hall's Cities in Civilization (1998). Abu-Lughod's study is a welcome and instructive departure. She carefully delineates the terms of comparison, and then (typical of her historical sociology), sets about to assemble comparable knowledge on these lines. Abu-Lughod's method is to construct a narrative of U.S. history within global history, and then to place New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles within this context in order "to differentiate between global and local causes" (p. 4). Her concern is from the start to make visible the work of history. In order to isolate distinctive features of each city, she first sets them into spatio-temporal motion, so that we might see the commonalities first. Her effort is intended to illuminate both the ontology of the "global city" phenomenon, and the unique qualities of separate cities. After long and remarkably detailed local histories, she attempts to "sum up the cities' comparative histories to explore the question of how much of the variance is due to globalism, how much to context, and how much to the unique qualities of the three" (p. 398). Abu-Lughod's thesis and conclusions raise considerably the stakes of the problem of urban historical

knowledge: "My argument throughout has been that common forces originating at the level of the global economy operate always through local political structures and inherited spatial forms. They are therefore always manifested in particular ways that differentiate cities from one another and that militate against the facile generalizations that have hitherto been made about a class of cities called global"

(p. 417). Abu-Lughod's New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles should shape our next phase of Los Angeles scholarship. It is a challenge to begin documenting the proliferated claims about the significance of the city. But a fascinating thing happens when we attempt to follow her example. Her detailed account of Los Angeles is fully dependent on a huge labyrinth of local knowledge, but those sources actually cited amount to few more than a hundred titles.

Composing a comparative narrative of Los Angeles requires familiarity with the vast terrain of topical studies of the metropolis. These are far more difficult to summarize, but several major categories have accumulated over the decades. One of the earliest topical fields to develop was ethnic history, and it is now perhaps the most developed. The city's Spanish-Mexican origin strongly suggested this approach, and the rise of the "new urban history" in the 1960s laid emphasis on the ethnic-group experience. Richard Griswold del Castillo's study The Los Angeles Barrio: 1850-1890: A Social History (1979) and Ricardo Romo's East Los Angeles: History of a Barrio (1983) laid the groundwork as social history. These were followed by even more nuanced explorations of the multi-racial conflicts and exchanges, in Douglas Monroy's Thrown among Strangers: The Making of Mexican Culture in Frontier California (1990) and Lisbeth Haas, Conquests and Historical Identities in California, 1769-1936 (1996). George Sanchez's Becoming Mexican American : Ethnicity, Culture and Identity in Chicano Los Angeles, 1900-1945 (1995) and Monroy, Rebirth : Mexican Los Angeles from the Great Migration to the Great Depression (1999) set this field on a new plane altogether, with a mixture of the new cultural history and older urban sociology of immigration. George Lipsitz has led the development of a topical field that might be characterized as urban "borderlands" or "hybridity" studies, beginning with his influential "Cruising around the Historic Bloc" essay in his Time Passages: Collective Memory and American Popular Culture (1990). Raul Homero Villa's Barrio-Logos : Space and Place in Urban Chicano Literature and Culture (2000) pushes Chicano Studies beyond its Sixties roots toward postmodern methods. A steady stream of more traditional scholarship on Latino (especially Mexican-American) history continues to increase. Rodolfo Acuña's Anything But Mexican (1996) continues a nationalist Chicano narrative he has pursued since the 1970s, and adds to his remarkable output of very useful topical knowledge (see esepcially A Community Under Siege: A Chronicle of Chicanos East of the Los Angeles River (1984). Edward Escobar's recent study Race, Police, and the Making of a Political Identity : Mexican Americans and the Los Angeles Police Department, 1900-1945 (1999) and Mary Pardo, Mexican American Women Activists: Identity and Resistance in Two Los Angeles Neighborhoods (1998), show how this literature has deepened to the point where facets of the topic receive close analysis.

Compared with the great riches of Latino Los Angeles history, the literature on African-American Los Angeles is almost nonexistent. Lynell George's No Crystal Stair: African Americans in the City of Angels (1992) is the closest thing to a serious scholarly book on the African-American experience in Los Angeles, but although helpful it is not a major monograph. The best studies at our disposal are still dissertations and journal articles. J. Max Bond's "The Negro in Los Angeles" (PhD dissertation, University of Southern California, 1936) and Lawrence de Graaf's "The City of Black Angels: Emergence of the Los Angeles Ghetto, 1890-1930" Pacific Historical Review 39 (1970) are still the most important starting points for historical knowledge of this topical field. Fragmentary works of great value do appear, however, and these are symptomatic of the birth period of a field. Clora Bryant, et al.'s Central Avenue Sounds: Jazz in Los Angeles (1998) is a rich compilation of memoirs by participants in the jazz scene that thrived along Central Avenue from the 1930s to the 1950s. Serious work in oral history and archive-development has been under way for some years, but it is still in a formative stage.

Asian-American history of Los Angeles is about as developed as that of African-American history. Considering the impossible burden of the label "Asian" to cover everyone from the Philippines to Korea, Japan, China and Vietnam, it must be said that the history is far less developed than African-American history. History of Japanese-American internment has received the most attention, due primarily to the notorious "internment" of Issei and Nisei during the Second World War–the majority of whom lived in Los Angeles before the round-ups. This history was pioneered (primarily from the perspective of the anti-Japanese movement) by Roger Daniels, but it has now taken the Japanese-American community's perspective as the point of departure. Brian Masaru Hayashi, "For the Sake of Our Japanese Brethren": Assimilation, Nationalism, and Protestantism among the Japanese of Los Angeles, 1895-1942 (1995), and Lon Kurashige, "The Problem of Biculturalism: Japanese American Identity and Festival before World War II," Journal of American History 86 (March 2000), are both excellent introductions to this newer wave. One of the great strengths of emergent Japanese-American Los Angeles historiography is the prominent, well-funded, and highly organized Japanese American National Museum.

An obvious but also very difficult category to outline is "Hollywood," meaning the motion-picture industry and only sometimes its location in Los Angeles. Most works are not faithfully about Los Angeles the place, but rather, about a far-flung industry. They all are, nevertheless, about "Los Angeles" in some respect. Readers might start with two works that detail the historical process in which "Hollywood" came into being: Steven J. Ross, Working-Class Hollywood: Silent Film and the Shaping of Class in America (1997); Lary May, Screening Out the Past: the Birth of Mass Culture and the Motion Picture Industry (1983). Writing a history of "movies" within a social-historical context was pioneered by Robert Sklar, Movie-Made America: A Social History of American Movies (1975). More specific to the location of Los Angeles are Neal Gabler, An Empire of their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood (1988) (only lightly footnoted), and Otto Friedrich, City of Nets: A Portrait of Hollywood in the 1940s (1986). There is, to date, no history of the motion-picture industry that is also an urban history of Los Angeles. A stunning tour-de-force of antiquarian research, however, is John Bengston, Silent Echoes: Discovering Early Hollywood through the Films of Buster Keaton (2000). Bengston painstakingly identified Keaton's actual locations within Los Angeles and organizes a filmography around these locations, using archival photography and other records. He has thus transformed Keaton's opus into a historical document. On a loftier note, film scholar Robert Carringer is at work on a major study of representations of Los Angeles in American cinema, a portion of which is forthcoming in Michael S. Roth and Charles Salas, eds, Los Angeles and the Language of Images (2001).

Considering its notoriety as a city of suburbs and as a pioneer of the freeway, it is not surprising that another highly developed topical field is the study of transportation and the built environment. The work of Scott Bottles, Los Angeles and the Automobile: The Making of the Modern City (1987) and Martin Wachs, "The Evolution of Transportation Policy in Los Angeles: Images of Past Policies and Future Prospects," have set standards and posed the most important questions in this field. A more recent wave of research by Edward Dimendberg and Matthew Roth integrates the history of technology with cultural and political formations of modernity, and ties these formations to local facts on the ground.[3] Historians of architecture and development have long cultivated Los Angeles. Greg Hise, with Magnetic Los Angeles : Planning the Twentieth-Century Metropolis (1997) broke the myth of the unplanned sprawl of Los Angeles by showing how the polycentric structure of the metropolis had originally been planned in the 1920s around industrial clusters. Greg Hise and William F. Deverell have edited and republished a landmark in the planning history of Los Angeles: Eden by Design: The 1930 Olmsted-Bartholomew Regional Plan for the Los Angeles Region (2000). Richard Longstreth's City Center to Regional Mall: Architecture, the Automobile, and Retailing in Los Angeles, 1920-1950 (1998) and The Drive-In, the Supermarket, and the Transformation of Commercial Space in Los Angeles, 1914-1941 (1999) has now set the history of built form on the highest level of scholarship.

As a final example, the political history of Los Angeles is in need of much development, despite a few important studies. The urban politics of the Spanish, Mexican, and nineteenth-century Anglo periods is virtually terra incognita, except for antiquarian publications in the early numbers of the Southern California Historical Quarterly, and what can be gleaned from synoptic books written for other purposes, such as Fogelson's Fragmented Metropolis. The so-called Progressive Era (1890s–1920s) has attracted the most attention, in wide-ranging scholarship collected by William Deverell and Tom Sitton in two edited volumes, California Progressivism Revisited (1994), and Metropolis in the Making: Los Angeles in the 1920s (2001). Practically the only major work on the period since then is Raphael Sonenshein's Politics in Black and White: Race and Power in Los Angeles (1994), covering the electoral coalition-building that led to the long mayoralty of Tom Bradley.

The seeker of historical knowledge about Los Angeles has at his or her disposal vastly more title than the few mentioned above, and fortunately, about 15,000 of these have been collected into three major bibliographies: Los Angeles and Its Environs in the Twentieth Century : A Bibliography of a Metropolis, edited with an introduction by Doyce B. Nunis, Jr. (1973), with approximately 9,000 entries, and Los Angeles and Its Environs in the Twentieth Century: A Bibliography of a Metropolis: 1970-1990, compiled and edited by Hynda L. Rudd (1996), approximately 5,700 entries. The third is the forthcoming digital merger of these two bibliographies, with updates and a widening of scope: Philip J. Ethington, Hynda L. Rudd, and Lynn Sipe, general editors, Los Angeles: A Comprehensive Bibliographic Database (2001; www.usc.edu). The principal limitation of these bibliographies is that they are at present confined to the 20th century.

Of course, all that has been discussed so far is what we call "secondary literature," which calls to mind Herman Melville's "pasteboard mask." If we seek what lies beyond this mask, we enter the true labyrinth of Los Angeles historical knowledge, the primary documents, photographic images, motion pictures, audio and video tapes, and three-dimensional objects that repose in the vast archives of the metropolis. The Getty Research Institute for the History of Art and the Humanities recently completed a multi-year collective project by the L.A. as Subject Advisory Committee, to create a guide to these local archives, especially those that are lesser known: Cultural Inheritance/L.A.: A Directory of Less-Visible Archives and Collections in the Los Angeles Region (1999). This directory is also available on-line at the Getty Research Institute and will soon migrate to a new host at the University of Southern California.[4] It is apparent from someone who participated in this directory project that the amount of untapped original documentary material available for researchers of Los Angeles is truly staggering–especially for a city that is so young. Community-based cultural institutions concerned with archival development have been hard at work for longer than most scholars can imagine.

One could say that the pursuit of historical knowledge about Los Angeles must begin, simultaneously in the synoptic works with global perspective, and in local archives, such as the independent labor-oriented Southern California Library for Social Studies and Research on Vermont Avenue and Slauson, or the Western States Black Research and Educational Center, the Margaret Herrick Library of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the Regional Archives Center of the University of Southern California, the Oral History Collection of the University of California, Los Angeles, the Social and Public Art Resource Center, the Jewish Home for the Aging, the Los Angeles City Archives, and so on.

Knowledge of any city is necessarily radically fragmented. Apart from the personal experience and knowledge of a city that arises from long residence, we have at our disposal constructed sources that range from the most synoptic to the most specific, with hundreds of general histories strewn about the middle of this range. For Los Angeles, we can visit an encyclopedia such as Los Angeles A to Z by Leonard Pitt and Dale Pitt, read classics like Robert Fogelson's The Fragmented Metropolis or Mike Davis's City of Quartz, or some of the 15,000 compiled titles, such as Harvey Werner, "Folklore in the Los Angeles Garment Industry," Western Folklore 23 (1964). There exists no body of "survey" literature about most great cities, comparable to the "Western Civilization" or "American History" surveys written for classroom instruction. The closest thing to a single "comprehensive" treatment of a great city is the 1,350-page Encyclopedia of New York City (1995) edited by Kenneth T. Jackson, which required the labor of more than a thousand persons over a ten-year period. Even this, as Jackson would be the first to admit, is far from comprehensive. But the capacity of the scholars of New York to have constructed such a resource is indicative of the great depth of knowledge about that global city, against which Los Angeles compares very poorly indeed. It can safely be said that, compared with the depth of published research on Chicago, Paris, and New York City, the construction of historical knowledge about Los Angeles has not passed from infancy.