A century ago, we hear the same old Horatio Alger story: the humble beginnings, the lightning ascent, the prediction of a future of such breathtaking proportions that any eventuality is bound to pale in comparison. A century ago, Los Angeles is without freeways, diverted Colorado River water or a film industry. Nevertheless, the city is already betraying plenty of red-faced embarrassment over its rube origins, getting all giddy about its recent accomplishments, dreaming feverishly of an impossible destiny.
Then as now, Los Angeles is a place to arrive a mail boy and become a mogul; where a friend can let slip that he is “second-generation Los Angeles,” knowing the claim will carry as much weight as if his ancestors sailed into Massachusetts Bay a decade before the Mayflower.
For its Jan. 1, 1900, issue, in an essay titled “Social Conditions,” The Times was less preoccupied with the plight of L.A.'s poor than the city’s budding salons and garden parties, “the wealth, refinement and enlightened culture and intelligence” of its elite. Alas, marring L.A.'s imminent arrival in the company of great metropolises was a gnawing insecurity about its past.
“It is not very long ago since life in Southern California was supposed to be something of a frontier type, with social conditions somewhat primitive,” the anonymous author mused. “Half a century ago and this section of the state was spoken of derisively as ‘the cow counties of California.’ It was held to be fit only for pasturage, and the great sheep-walks stretched on over an empire of almost solitary space, and men plodded on all undreaming of its glorious future.”
Over the next hundred years, the region would provide fresh fodder for its detractors: pampered stars and thick-headed studio bosses; dust bowl refugees, Valley girls and Dick Nixon’s dirty tricks; est, Tae-Bo and tag-banging; O.J. Simpson, the Menendez Brothers and Stacey Koon. The refined East would continue chortling over this city, as if it were all a Li’l Abner cartoon against which they could measure their own superiority.
“What Greece and Athens, Rome and Egypt were to the old past,” The Times speculated so hopefully in 1900, “Southern California may be to the newer civilization and grandeur of the 20th century. We may build no mighty pyramids to front the ages, but we will build homes, and schools, churches, art galleries and libraries that shall be more enduring monuments of our greatness.”
A hundred years later, the houses by Richard Neutra and Frank Lloyd Wright and the gleaming travertine of the Getty Center justify The Times’ optimism, but Los Angeles has built just as many monuments to its infamy: the Belmont Learning Complex, a biohazard before ever opening its doors; poor historic St. Vibiana’s Cathedral, forsaken for freeway-adjacent digs upon a former municipal parking lot.
An octogenarian native of Boston or Chicago can wander through those cities and recognize the monuments, gardens and colonial or Beaux-Arts buildings of childhood. A Los Angeles native returning after a 10-year absence might take in the changed scenery with the slack jaw of a startled time traveler. Where is everything? Ship’s coffee shop? Gone. The Brown Derby? Gone. Schwab’s Drug Store? Gone.
It is this embrace of planned obsolescence that has made Los Angeles that quintessential exemplar of the “newer civilization and grandeur of the 20th century” The Times envisioned--a civilization that, in its lust for the new, bulldozes more furiously than it builds. The abandonment of a whole downtown for a brand new one on Bunker Hill; the incredibly short shelf lives of L.A.'s sports arenas under changing media and marketing realities; and the show-business relic that is Hollywood Boulevard are as much monuments to our era’s whirlwind instability as Rome’s Coliseum and Athens’ Parthenon are to the timelessness of classical antiquity.
Here, neighborhoods within a few years can be entirely transformed by new languages, customs, religions and aspirations as organic as the peoples who have recently arrived.
On Jan. 1, 1900, The Times could only hope that the infusion of Eastern settlers might eventually flood the city with enough borrowed sophistication to spare it further embarrassment. “The wealth, refinement and enlightened culture of the older cities of the country have been turning in this direction, and it has been vitalized by the change.” A century later, Los Angeles draws its vitality less from newcomers from other American cities (which are still sneering at us anyway), but from the interplay of a thousand cultures and ethnicities that have been drawn here from across the Earth--an interplay so subtle and dynamic that only people who have lived here a while can ever hope to sense it.
It is a Los Angeles where auto dealerships see a financial need to advertise their fluency in 24 languages; where the multilingual signs of bland mini-malls chart a constellation of the world’s cultures, luring passersby with promises of Moroccan Halal meat, Chinese herbs, Korean billiard supplies or kimchi, African literature, Pakistani videos and dresses for communions and Quinceaneras.
Someday, we may grow weary of the wild car chases and endless parade of grisly shootings on the evening news, just as the rest of the country may tire of its cartoon fascination with L.A.'s most boorish billionaires and conspicuous rogues; its knee-jerk glee when earthquakes, mudslides and fires fall upon us. We will open our eyes to the city’s kaleidoscope of cultures with the same enthusiasm that many of us have already developed for Vietnamese, Ecuadorean and Ethiopian cuisine.
We may find that, while our minds were occupied elsewhere, Los Angeles had, indeed, arrived.