Review

'LAtitudes' navigates the histories and cultures of L.A.

More than 20 essayists ruminate on L.A.'s many histories, cultures and communities in 'LAtitudes'

To drive in the Los Angeles of the 1980s invariably meant relying on a Thomas Guide map-book at some point. Whether tucked neatly into a glove compartment or, more likely, tossed atop snack crumbs and loose change on the floor, the spiral-bound Thomas Guides fractured the city into hundreds of gridded pages, each colored with pastel arrays demarcating various municipalities and neighborhoods. Determining driving directions meant new page coordinates awaited, like a cartographic "Choose-Your-Own-Adventure" novel. The Thomas Guide intended to simplify the city's sprawl down to a simple, geometric scale, yet it also made Los Angeles feel endless, as if each page would invariably point you to a new one.

The new anthology "LAtitudes: An Angeleno's Atlas" dives into that unruly geography with a concept inspired by Rebecca Solnit's own urban atlas projects for San Francisco ("Infinite City") and New Orleans ("Unfathomable City"). Editor Patricia Wakida invited more than 20 essayists to engage the spatial dimensions of L.A.'s polyglot histories, cultures and communities, and cartographer David Deis and illustrator Leighton Kelly create relevant maps to run alongside.

Especially as modern Los Angeles began to take form in the decades leading up to and through World War II, maps were an integral part of how the city pitched itself to curious tourists, opportunistic speculators and itinerant workers. As Glen Creason, map librarian for the Los Angeles Public Library, writes in the introduction, those promotional maps "helped the city grow physically, spiritually, and intellectually" by letting "the world know LA was a vital part of the American experience."

Maps have also literally defined the city for its residents, a point Rosten Woo makes clear in "Naming Los Angeles." Woo reviews some of the byzantine politics of place-naming, where the line separating Van Nuys from Sherman Oaks may be arbitrary but still influences real estate prices and community identities. The accompanying map tries to include every L.A. micro-hood, from Olive View in Sylmar down to Long Beach's Belmont Shore, but as Woo's essay shows, this is, at best, a snapshot of how L.A. names itself, not a permanent record.

In fact, if there's a common thread running among the authors in "LAtitudes" it's how each wants to scrutinize the influence of human intervention on the physical and figurative landscapes of Los Angeles. That includes investigations into long-erased Tongvan settlement sites (Cindi Alvitre's "Coyote Tours"), fishing holes for invasive species within the L.A. River (Andrew Wilcox's "Stalking Carp"), a murderer's row of questionable architecture (Wendy Gilmartin's "Ugly Buildings"). Missile silos, cattle pastures, family taqueros … these have all reshaped Los Angeles over the centuries, and "LAtitudes" highlights a dizzying array of points of interest that chronicle those legacies.

Ironically, the literal, horizontal shape of L.A. frustrates some attempts to bring that scope into better focus. "LAtitudes" is printed in a vertical format that forces some maps to zoom out to a satellite-level view, thereby sacrificing local details in favor of broad geographic inclusion. For an essay such as Josh Kun's whimsical accounting of songs written about L.A. neighborhoods ("Los Angeles Is Singing"), I wish its partnered map could have come as an insert to be unfolded across a table, AAA style.

In a few cases, the maps don't merely complement the article but extend on the essays' themes. For example, Laura Pulido's "Landscapes of Racial Violence" recounts specific sites of historical atrocities such as the lynchings that once took place outside of the city's early jail near Grand Park. The accompanying graphics include those locations but also add in visual information on where contemporary Superfund sites and areas of toxic chemical saturation overlap with Latino household density. Even if Pulido didn't address the latter in the essay, the map finds a way to expand the argument she begins.

For all the meta-histories in "LAtitudes," however, I found myself gravitating toward explorations of the city on a smaller scale. My current favorite is Charles Hood's "Orphans, Dwarfs, Strangers, and Monsters," which comes with a detailed walking tour of trees planted within a half-mile radius of Union Station. Not only does Hood guide one to all the Indian Laurel Fig trees in the area (there are three), but he links the city's arboreal history to newly arrived migrant communities, civic beautification campaigns and foliage fads that, for example, explain why an area prone to drought-driven wildfires ended up importing so many flammable eucalyptus trees. Hood suggests that "trees change as population regimes change" and cracks, "don't like the mix of trees now? Wait a bit longer and trends will change again."

In consciously directing readers down a series of proverbial paths less taken, "LAtitudes" belies that laziest of stereotypes of Los Angeles as a homogenous, undifferentiated mass. As the book makes clear, the city is both palimpsest and jigsaw puzzle, all layers and fragments. In his essay on the (il)logic of the city's deservedly ballyhooed freeway, Times' book critic David Ulin argues that the city's "driving tension" has always been "between what we can see and what we can never see, between the city that eludes us and the city that we know."

As such, "LAtitudes" re-creates some of the mystery of those old map-books where we trace the dense landscapes across the infinite city only to hit the edge of the page and wonder what lies ahead.

Wang is associate professor of sociology at Long Beach State and author of "Legions of Boom: Filipino American Mobile DJ Crews in the San Francisco Bay Area."

LAtitudes
An Angeleno's Atlas

Edited by Patricia Wakida
Heyday: 216 pp., $30 paper

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