How to look at Los Angeles: A conversation with D.J. Waldie, Lynell George and Josh Kun

Los Angeles is a city swaddled in blanket pronouncements. It has been hailed as a natural paradise and derided as a traffic-clogged urban mess. It has been touted as Shangri-La for the creative classes, even as it serves as a symbol of the apocalypse with its combination of fires, drought and occasional biblical rains. It has been hailed as utopia, and it has been described as the end of the line for the American dream.

Why is Los Angeles frequently viewed in such exaggerated terms? Why does so much of what is written about it fail to capture its scale, its diversity, its complexity and its ordinariness? What is the best way in which to look at this sprawling concrete carpet of a city?

I invited a group of L.A. writers to consider those questions: essayist D.J. Waldie, author of the genre-busting SoCal memoir "Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir," Lynell George, journalist and author of the essential cultural history "No Crystal Stair: African-Americans in the City of Angels"; and Josh Kun, a professor of communications at USC who has written extensively on the city's food, music and cultural landscape, and who most recently wrote the book and curated the exhibition "To Live and Dine in L.A." at the L.A. Public Library, a show that examines the city's social, political and food history through the library's extensive menu archive.

Over the course of the past several weeks, George, Kun, Waldie and I batted around our various ruminations about Los Angeles via email — discussing how the city is seen and how we think it should be seen. Collectively, we touch on California's fantastical origins (it's very name hails from 16th century Spanish fiction), the city's realities (one in which the Midwestern transplants' narrative is being supplanted by narratives about immigrants who hail from Latin America and Asia) and how a city that was built on tropes, to some degree, is still defined by them.

Miranda: In preparing for our chat, I thought it’d be fun to poke around the New York Times archives a bit for some early writings on Los Angeles. Certainly, L.A. was a very different place in the 1860s (mainly, a collection of ranches surrounding a town with a spectacular crime problem). But it’s interesting to see how the area is characterized.

"Nature has done everything for it and man very little," wrote one correspondent of Los Angeles in 1867. "Beneath the wide verandas the people sit, and about two-thirds of the population seem to spend the day smoking in front of the hotel and going in for 'drinks.' " That same author then went on to catalog the region’s agricultural bounty in great detail: "the richest gardens, vineyards, orange groves, and lemon, fig and olive plantations which can be seen in America."

The town and the people generally receive little sympathy, while the landscape takes all the praise. To some degree, I feel as if it almost parallels some of the coverage we see today: where writers sing the praises of the balmy weather and the easygoing lifestyle, but then cut right to the lines about yogurt as culture and right turns on red.

What is the most inflated trope you see written about L.A.? And why do you think it keeps getting repeated?

Waldie: The problem with California begins in locating California.

California is a place that was imagined before it was any place. It was imagined in the 16th century by the Spanish chivalric author Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo as the island of Queen Califia, who was said to be rich, buxom, dangerous and with many fierce daughters — all of whom might be tamed by romance and a certain amount of violence.

California’s rough suitors have assumed that whatever indigenous resistance they encountered, they would prevail because they assumed that California (in order to be California) required their presence. California is Queen Califia's terrestrial paradise, lacking only our presence to perfect it. And after, it became our ruined paradise and our home.

Arriving at a not-quite-real place, falling in love after a sometimes brutal wooing, and love's disillusionment, is the briefest and truest history of California.

I was reminded of Queen Califia’s island when I read Justice Antonin Scalia’s dissent from the Supreme Court’s ruling on the constitutionality of same-sex marriage.

"Four of the nine [justices] are natives of New York City," he wrote. "Eight of them grew up in East- and West-coast states. Only one hails from the vast expanse in-between. Not a single Southwesterner or even to tell the truth, a genuine Westerner (California does not count)." 

Justice Scalia, like other critics, re-maroons California off the shore of the American experience. His view looks peevish and trivial. It isn’t.

Historian Kevin Starr, observing the state in "Coast of Dreams: California on the Edge, 1990-2003," asked himself: "Was California an aberration, a sideshow, or, worse, a case study in how things could go wrong for the United States? … I had invested most of my professional energies in California in the belief that the history of California was mainstream American history … Had I made a terrible mistake?"

If Starr’s fear about the relevance of the California experience is real, then Justice Scalia’s spirit of disunion makes the image of California exemplary, but only as a curiosity.

George: For me it is this notion of infirmity — whether it is stated directly or implied. The assumption is that you have to be a little off-balance to even consider embracing Los Angeles seriously. The dismissive “La-La Land” tropes that assert a simplistic, inconsequential, disposable city — the idea that all the loose pieces roll West. It’s not just vexing, it’s lazy.

Historically, Los Angeles has been seen (and, of course, was marketed) as a tonic, a cure for what ails you. The fix was rooted in the healing properties of the climate and the pace. It was beautiful, easy on the head and heart. Implied in that detail, however, is the notion that Los Angeles is the resting place for those who are not hardy enough to deal with the sharp elbows of a "real" city or the "serious business" that comes with high stakes or a harsh winter.

I suppose the trope sticks because L.A. still seems to function as some sort of "come hither" escape route — as the recent and oft-cited New York Times piece about the city being a cure for the creative class implies, a city where you can get your reboot and your dream-home rental during your stay here for a mere $1,250. That, of course, wasn’t accurate, but it didn’t seem to matter. It fed into what outsiders think they know about L.A., so it felt enough like right.  

There is a moment in John O’Hara’s novella "Hope of Heaven" when the screenwriter/novelist protagonist, Jim Malloy, suffers through a monologue by a wannabe novelist who is fascinated by L.A. — or rather this vision of L.A. as a place for the outlandish. 

"I’m writing a novel about Los Angeles," the wannabe tells Malloy as they barrel through downtown on their way to the Biltmore:

“The Angelus Temple … The Neon signs. The health people. No movie stuff. I’m going to ignore the movies … The really fantastic thing is the crystallization of the ordinary, cheap ordinary American. The people. The politics. The cultures. These Iowa people that come here and really assert themselves. They do what they wanted to do in Iowa but couldn't for various and sundry reasons. The crazy clothes they all wanted to wear back in Iowa. And of course it’s not city, except in population. Fantastically ordinary, cheap, commonplace. And I’m going to put it in a book, which is the reason I’ve been plying you … I want my book to be a success.”

That was 1938. And boy, does that feel like it was written not quite 15 minutes ago.

Kun: L.A., in its most recent iteration as a U.S. city, grew because it was more idea than actual place, that tiny rough-and-tumble Mexican town pitched as an American new world. Its existence has always been linked to how its representations have sold it to newcomers. So on the one hand I don't think we can get too cranky about the city being mis-sold through "inflated tropes."

We are a city built on inflated tropes, on selling dreams as if they were real, but not worrying about what would happen when everybody realized, like Arturo Bandini in John Fante’s "Ask the Dust," that you can't actually live on oranges, or like the aspiring big screen nobodies of Nathanael West’s "The Day of the Locust" that L.A. is a dream dump not a dream factory, or like the migrant Mexican father of Los Tigres del Norte's song "La Jaula de Oro," who already knows that the only gold in California is the gold that lines the cages it builds around its most vulnerable, its most desperate, its biggest and most vital dreamers.  

This is just one of many ways to interpret Mike Davis' famous "sunshine vs. noir" paradigm, which he articulated in his 1990 treatise "City of Quartz": the dialectic of a make-believe paradise and a lived urban struggle is in the city's DNA. Since the 1850s, L.A. has been a dream home staged by professionals and marketed to wide-eyed buyers fake-fat with faulty loans and bunk mortgages. I actually think most stereotypes about L.A. are true, and that's not only OK, it's part of what it means to live here. 

You have to learn how to live on a backlot, to accept façades and the structures they cover up, to dream big but also critique big, to not accept someone else's fiction as your own reality, to know that your favorite palm tree not only is not from here but might be a cellphone tower, to know to hit the beach but pack sunscreen, and to also know that somebody else's backlot could cut right through your neighborhood, setting up a green screen or a freeway right in front of a house your family has owned for generations.

That's not to say reporters and writers who don't get life here don't get it very wrong when they write about it. To write about Hollywood only as celebrity and not as an industry of multitiered labor, to write about Silver Lake as East L.A., to describe L.A.'s "creative economy" as new is simply bad reporting — the latest generation of lazy word-count chroniclers who don't do their own homework.

This most recent batch of writing about Brooklynites and Manhattanites realizing L.A. is where it's at has a particularly offensive charge of old-school colonial violence to it: Go West, young start-up, ride the neoliberal wagon train out to that unspoiled Eden where nobody has lived before you, and almond-milk lattes and artisanal cheeses await you.

The choice to not understand L.A. — and it is a choice — is part of what allows gentrification to happen, that willful arrogant ignorance that neighborhoods are just there for the taking, that there are no brutal social costs to opening a Whole Foods near skid row, to whitewashing (waxed beard and man-bun washing) Highland Park, to instituting what Guillermo Gomez-Peña once described (talking about similar transformations in San Francisco's Mission district nearly 20 years ago) as "multiculturalism without people of color."

But if L.A. has taught me anything, the territory, the ground beneath the city, the dust we should always ask so much of, always fights back, always regenerates, always finds a way to tell the stories that nobody reports.

Waldie: The past quarter-century has educated observers of Los Angeles, as Josh points out, in the ironies of the "sunshine and noir" polarity that Davis put at the heart of "City of Quartz." Still, the sales pitch that has always been substituted for history in Los Angeles continues to propel heedlessness about making this place our home.

Despite a usable tradition that goes back at least to the work of Depression-era journalist Carey McWilliams, most of the stories that are commonly told about Los Angeles are tragically inadequate. Willful amnesia is one of the preconditions for the past 40 years of failed public policy in Los Angeles toward immigrants, commuters, underrepresented communities, property owners, the homeless and working poor, retailers and taxpayers. 

L.A. is a "landscape of desire," just as author William A. McClung has said — an unsatisfactory landscape that fails to "deliver the promised goods of paradise or acknowledge its fallen condition."

In "Ecology of Fear," published in 1998, Davis makes a catalog of real and imaginary erasures of a city that fails to satisfy, either as a heaven or as a hell. The catalog includes "killer pulses" from a 9.1 earthquake, drought, wildfires, space invaders, hypertrophied crabgrass, man-eating mountain lions, Black Plague, Hantavirus, H-bombs, Texas-style tornadoes, deranged dirigible pilots and marauding survivalists. "The only true paradise is a paradise we have lost," Marcel Proust wrote, and one way to make Los Angeles true is to lose the city … over and over again. 

If L.A. is the "great exception" — a place without a heritage or legacy, shipwrecked off the continent of the commonplace — then its representation may be glamorous, but it’s just another entertainment, best witnessed while lightly sedated.

In its false representations, Los Angeles is preferentially the shrouded city of "treacherous unbrightness," in Faulkner’s bleak phrase: the city that always cheats on its lovers, that is always painted in the colors of smog, the city that is always seen from a height, from a freeway overpass, from a seat in a descending jetliner, the hapless observer always going under, down to a carcinogenic sea.

That imagined place frames issues of place in Los Angeles and the public policies intended to resolve them.

Miranda: To some degree, I feel that so much of the way in which Los Angeles is seen and in which it often sees itself comes from this East-to-West perspective that has everything to do with European migration patterns of the 19th century. As the novelist Carolyn See puts it: "The West Coast is the end of the road for the American Dream. We're up against a blank wall out here and we can’t go any farther."

This idea of California as the last chance America gives you is an idea that is alluded to regularly in stories I read. In that big feature the New York Times published about the drought back in April, the writer mentions the "California Dream" not once, but twice. (Because, as Steven Johnson writes, all calamity is somehow a moratorium on our very existence.)

Yet for me, as the child of South American immigrants, California was never the West; it was the North. And it was never the last stop. It was the first. It was the beginning. And in, my mind, it still is — as it has been for entire generations of Latin American and Asian immigrants for whom Los Angeles has served as entrance not exit. In my mind, the idea of California as the extreme reaches of the West sometimes feels like charming creation myth, one that doesn’t really apply to a room full of Japanese Peruvians eating acevichado rolls in Torrance.

Which brings me to a purely practical question: As we sit here and think about the ways in which we — and others — see our city, what practical advice do you have to offer on how to look at Los Angeles?

Waldie: One, acquire a new mental map of the city. The demographic bulk of its Latino population has unmade Los Angeles as the Pacific outpost of the Midwest and remade the city as the northernmost capital of the tropics.

Second, hear its new narrative. The myths of Los Angeles are slowly succumbing to a re-figured story that contains more about all of us and what we find familiar and what we yearn for.

As long as Los Angeles grew, it seemed ready to make good on the extravagant pitch that the city was actually somewhere else — Italy, Spain, utopia — and not where you actually lived. When in the 1970s the growth machine that turned the city into a subdivision of the American Dream stalled, that promise drained out of the sales pitch that sells L.A.

Los Angeles doesn’t know how to describe itself as a "post" city. It’s post-sprawl, where "sprawl" had been the clichéd label for the city’s multi-centered urban form. It’s post-diversity, where talk about "diversity" is both a sign of Anglo anxiety about the new people living next door and a word of self-congratulation about not being too anxious. Los Angeles is post "middle-class" as well, having been made into a city of struggling working-class aspirants below and a crust of oblivious wealth above.

What better "post" city can we imagine? What will describe a place that defined itself as "suburban," "middle-class" and "diverse" now that those categories no longer adequately describe where we are, but no other rhetoric is available to take the measure of Los Angeles?

Third, find reasons to be loyal to an imperfect place. We feel that the city is coming apart because we won’t accept anything that stands against the conviction that no shared loyalties are possible at all.

Fourth, become more native to this place. For Angelenos, this will require a fearful transformation because it will require new allegiances of the heart.

Fifth, have courage. Built-out, more urban and more grown up, Los Angeles requires courage to extend the imagination across its whole, flawed, tragic, sacred, human and humanizing body.

George: How to look at Los Angeles?

This is a question I've been really struggling with of late — as a native of a place that doesn't quite feel like my place as much as it used to. Much of that change has to do with a feeling, a way of interacting with the city. I see traces of it still — the ever-so-rare thank you after a freeway merge — but it's difficult to find.

Not long ago, I taught a college writing course called "Telling L.A.'s Story." The goal was to try to get the students to travel deep into the city, both physically and via their imagination, to reach into Los Angeles beyond the clichés. It was a huge effort. Some students really struggled with the idea of pushing into the city itself. It was overwhelming, like trying to learn a new language in the moment.

We were reading a lot of L.A. writers for background and context, but what was most important to me was that the students try to define L.A. for themselves, and that meant to tell their own stories — what moved them, what angered them, what they felt defined the city for them, how the city had begun to define them.

Some of them wrote exquisite pieces about their here-and-now in Los Angeles. Others really struggled with the shadow of what they’d expected it to be — and what it turned out to be.

Many were feeling a sense of frustration because their stories didn’t connect up to some larger expectation of L.A., like "big screen L.A." There was this feeling that their stories about their family’s migration, or coming-of-age rituals, or personal stasis didn’t belong in the mix, when really those were the most important components — they were truly the L.A. stories.

That is ultimately the key. To let go of these expectations of what L.A. is supposed to be, supposed to fix, supposed to cure — all of the projections we’ve lived in and around for decades.

It seems to me that really seeing Los Angeles — what it truly is — is tied inexorably to the future of the city, it’s possibility. We have to ask ourselves, what makes us feel rooted here and why? What makes for a life here? That would require that we make an effort to consider what we need for a stronger, more cohesive city that has never really quite been able to just "be."

I think, like my students, we Angelenos need to become better students of our own city and get out into it, really traverse it. Of late, we have more public events and opportunities — CicLAviaL.A. Commons and The Big Parade among them. We need to avail ourselves of those and approach the region from different angles and points-of-view, to see it for what it is: shortcomings, disasters, dissonances and yes, its beauty.

On my long walkabouts around L.A., there's a Raymond Chandler quote, from "The Long Goodbye" that often loops inside my head, one that I think pays to revisit: "A city no worse than others, a city rich and vigorous and full of pride, a city lost and beaten and full of emptiness."

Life here is a paradox. It's always been about accepting those contradictions. I wouldn't want it any different.

Kun: Don't look at Los Angeles; look into it.

Look at Los Angeles not like a settler staking a claim, but like a reader staring down an aisle of library stacks. Los Angeles as an infinity of texts.

And look up, not to the sky, but up to the tops of buildings, especially if you are downtown, where the historic roots of the contemporary city grow up instead of down, where old marquees and signage remind us that it wasn't always like this, that other cities existed before this one did.

Look at it with doubt, with scrutiny, with caution. Temper dreams with drought, jobs with layoffs, polyglot hyper-diaspora Los Angeles with detention center Los Angeles. Tuck "A People's Guide to Los Angeles" into your backpack. Take Ken Gonzales-Day's self-guided walking tour of lynchings in downtown Los Angeles. Pay your respects to the Antonio Aguilar statue on Olvera Street and the Biddy Mason plaques off Broadway.   

Remember that after 1965, there was 1992. Remember that after Rodney King there was Ezell Ford. Watch "Chinatown" and "Blade Runner," but also "Dragnet" and "Sanford and Son" and "Killer of Sheep" and "m.A.A.d." and "Ni de aquí ni de allá" (‘Neither From Here Nor There’).      

And, of course, don't look only into Los Angeles, but listen to it, its crushing blues and glistening pop hooks and two-faced Laurel Canyon jingle-jangle and slow-motion 808 beats and all the corridos that have been recorded here since the 1920s that in their latest guises still run up and down the FM dial.

Translate Warren Zevon’s "Desperadoes Under the Eaves" into Zapotec, learn to speak K-Pop and then call in to Art Laboe and dedicate Heatwave’s "Always and Forever" to someone you've left behind, someone you miss, someone who's love is too far away, and get used to that feeling because it's a Los Angeles feeling, because as author Morrow Mayo wrote in 1933, "The City of Angels is on earth." 

Find Carolina A. Miranda on Twitter @cmonstah. And special thanks to Lynell George @lynellgeorge, Josh Kun @JDKun and D.J. Waldie @DJWaldie for indulging me in this discussion.

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