Reading L.A.: Louis Adamic and Morrow Mayo


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Southern California famously owes much of its growth and expansion over the decades to a dogged combination of boosterism, salesmanship and sloganeering. The Reading L.A. books we’ll be looking at today -- while sometimes a bit loose with the facts and clearly dated in their attitudes toward race and other subjects -- make clear that a certain tradition of caustic skepticism also has deep roots here.

Louis Adamic’s 64-page study “The Truth About Los Angeles,” published in 1927 by Emanual Haldeman-Julius as part of his “Little Blue Book” series, is energetically acerbic. Adamic, perhaps best remembered as a historian of the labor movement, finds plenty to poke fun at in Los Angeles -- which he calls “a young city, crude, wildly ambitious, growing” -- but saves his harshest disdain for its newest arrivals, the Midwestern refugees lured to Los Angeles by cheap rail fares and the promise of sunshine and leisure, many of them churchgoing retirees content, as he puts it, to “live in bungalow courts and eat in cafeterias.”


He goes on: ‘There are, of course, other kinds -- all kinds -- of people in Los Angeles, but the [Midwestern retirees] are the element that predominates. They are old and unwell, in body and spirit … and their presence alone imparts to the modernism of Los Angeles a gray, sickly color.’

Adamic (1899-1951) writes that the leading industries in 1920s Los Angeles are ‘real estate and the movies,’ with organized religion gaining fast. He notes that the tallest building in the city at the time, with City Hall still under construction, was the Bible Institute of Los Angeles headquarters at Sixth and Hope streets downtown, by the architects Albert R. Walker and John T. Vawter, which he calls “a veritable stronghold of Divine Truth, vast and invincible, its soldiers, male and female, ever on guard, ever eager to face the Devil and his forces and give them battle.’

As opposed to the imposing and starched formality of that 1915 Renaissance Revival building (since demolished), Adamic discovers a certain rough-around-the-edges poetry in Southern California’s low-rise vernacular and retail architecture. Around the Plaza just north of the present-day Civic Center he finds what he calls “the most interesting part of Los Angeles,” a parade of “dance halls, forlorn-looking hotels, bootleg dives, hop joints, movie shows, tamale stands, peep shows, shooting galleries, and stores selling rosaries and holy pictures.”

He stumbles on a similar kind of architectural energy in Long Beach, where below the oil derricks of Signal Hill he finds “a stretch of beach with huge hotels and a mammoth cafeteria; hot-dog stands, pop-corn machines, merry-go-’rounds, fortune-tellers’ booths, side shows, peep shows, leg shows, and freak shows; dance halls, penny arcades and curio shops; and a long pier extending several hundred yards into the sea.”

In those passages Adamic expresses an appreciation for the chaos of L.A.’s ad-hoc urban form that continues --among writers and architects alike -- to the present day. (It can be seen in much of Frank Gehry’s work, for instance.) Still, that low-rise commercial architecture, which would over time begin to dominate the Los Angeles cityscape, is for Adamic peripheral, overshadowed by architectural and personal propriety.

‘Los Angeles has been referred to as a city,” he writes, “but it actually is only a huge, exaggerated village; an Iowa or Kansas small town suddenly multiplied by five hundred and some of its Main Street buildings grown twelve stories high.”

Morrow Mayo’s 1933 book “Los Angeles” touches on similar themes, and with a similar tone, but in far greater depth. Its first chapters, on L.A.’s founding and the relationship among Spanish, Mexican and Native American settlements, are breezily anecdotal and not exactly politically correct. More useful for our purposes are later sections on real-estate speculation, oil, the development of the Long Beach port, fights over organized labor (including pitched battles between unions and the Los Angeles Times and the bombing of the Times building in 1910) and the effort, now infamous, to bring water to a thirsty city.

Like Adamic, Mayo is an admirer of kitschy retail architecture; his book includes a two-page photo spread showing “some of the bizarre restaurants and refreshment stands which delight the eye and tickle the palate of visitors to Los Angeles,” including buildings shaped like a tamale, an igloo, an owl and a giant boot.

Mayo, a roving journalist who lived in Los Angeles from 1925 to around 1931, also spends many pages chronicling “the city’s great campaign to acquire population from the Middle West” and its effects on the culture and the architecture of the place.

“Los Angeles has lured the yokels so rapidly by the ringing of a bell and the blowing of a horn that the town has never been able to catch up with itself,” he writes, echoing Adamic. “It has never imparted an urban character to its incoming population for the simple reason that it has never had any urban character to impart. On the other hand, the place has retained the manners, culture and general outlook of a huge country village.”

And later: “The attitude of the Angelenos towards their city is precisely that of a salesman towards his product, or a football cheering-section towards its team. Here is a spirit of boost which has become a fetish, an obsession, a mania. Everything else is secondary to it.”

For Mayo, modern Los Angeles was forged in the 1880s, a decade that saw the arrival of the transcontinental railroad and a subsequent population boom; myth-making books including Helen Hunt Jackson’s ‘Ramona’; the purchase and expansion of the Los Angeles Times by Harrison Gray Otis, whom Mayo condemns as an undereducated, deeply spiteful press baron but also calls “the chief figure in the whole history of Southern California”; and a real-estate frenzy that sounds rather like the one we just lived through.

By 1886, Mayo writes, “Everybody was selling land to everybody else .... Lunchroom waitresses, hotel bellboys, splurged their wages and tips on tracts and lots, sold them the next day, made more money than they had ever seen before, and plunged the profits into new speculations. Policemen on their beats stopped to sell a stranger a lot or buy one.”

Mayo’s book is perhaps most fascinating for the way he begins to define the sprawl and sense of private, fragmented urbanism that would become emblematic of postwar Los Angeles. Mayo notes that “Los Angeles County, when it was first created, in 1850, comprised all of its present vast area, plus all of San Bernardino and Orange counties, plus parts of Riverside and Kern counties. It was a county larger than the combined states of Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, and Rhode Island.”

New arrivals therefore discovered in Los Angeles a giant and mostly empty landscape -- an urban picture slowly and unevenly being filled in, not from the center out, as in older cities, but haphazardly, in speculative fits and starts. Mayo quotes the writer Harris Newmark, who observed in 1916 that by the 1890s L.A. County already had “enough subdivisions to accommodate ten million people.”

That vast physical spread, along with the city’s youth, produces what Mayo sees as a disconnected populace, and something like the opposite of a close-knit community: “Angelenos love their city with a great passion. They believe and know that Los Angeles is a city favored of God. Since four-fifths of them are comparative strangers, however, this emotion is naturally not the love a person might feel for the old ways, places, and things. It is rather the deep affection a man might entertain for a rich wife or a growing business.”

The preoccupations of the local population, Mayo concludes, were from the beginnings of Los Angeles not civic but almost entirely personal. “The newcomers,” he writes, foreshadowing an argument we will see in a number of later books, “arriving in paradise as a result of the Chamber of Commerce ballyhoo, were not interested in unions, or the Times, or in any Capital-Labor fight. They were interested in real-estate, in thawing out, in growing oranges ‘at a profit of $1000 an acre’; in getting ahead in this new country.”

-- Christopher Hawthorne


Reading L.A.: Introducing a year-long project