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Bait and Switch

D.J. Waldie, a Lakewood city official, is the author of "Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir."

The only true paradise is a paradise lost.

-- MARCEL PROUST

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It is the power of books (when they are good enough) to give readers an experience of an entire life. William Alexander McClung’s “Landscapes of Desire: Anglo Mythologies of Los Angeles” is a book more than good enough. The reader gets a sense of the author’s life with the idea of Los Angeles (dense with images and citations from the literature) as well as a map through the vast, imaginative work that is this city.

On its grid, McClung orders for our sympathy the vanished longing for repose and meaningful labor that tubercular Midwesterners, semiretired orange growers and evangelical land promoters brought to the vacancy they experienced in Los Angeles a hundred years ago. What these white, aspirant middle-class Americans made, mostly through the labor of brown and black and immigrant hands, is the equivocal L.A. in which we now live. Having shaped our landscape to successive Anglo desires and tragically failed to reconcile the contradictions in them, these self-made Angelenos have dissolved into our troubled and pluralist megalopolis.

“In Los Angeles’ secular religion of place,” McClung writes, “hundreds of thousands of people for about a century could imagine that the envelope of their lives, replicating ancient imagery of timelessness and fulfillment, was, if not Paradise, at least its antechamber, a Promised Land, to exist in which was proof of the road well traveled and the job well done. Perhaps one of several competing cultures in the region, probably neither especially Protestant nor European in its roots, will succeed in rediscovering such a vision. For the culture of Anglo desire, it has nearly vanished.”

McClung is a Southerner, and the South’s habit of mind to see the shape and narrative line in history, he says, propelled this critical elegy for a “romance of place” that is over.

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Anglo L.A. aspired to a narrative that was as unambiguous and as reconciled as the label on a 1918 citrus crate. Here is, says McClung, “virtually a diagram of a Southern California of idealized juxtapositions.” The label shows “four approximately equal zones, starting at the mountains, which are wilderness (the land as it was and can, without damage to profits, be allowed to remain), and progressing to the citrus groves, an orderly and proper exploitation of nature. A boulevard next announces a modern city and its technological panache, displaying the imagery not of mass (i.e. rail) but of leisured transportation,” including a touring car. “Finally a lady appears on foot, hatted and handbagged, as if going to pay a call.” None of these distinct categories of place contradicts the mythologies of Anglo L.A. Wilderness, farming, virile technology and feminine high fashion, all of nature and all of civilization, “are perfectly in scale” and the pace of the imagined city in which they coexist “is simultaneously that of the motorist and of the pedestrian.”

The crate label only coincidentally sold lemons. It really marketed a novel idea about subdividing a presumed paradise. “Los Angeles did not so much grow, as sell itself into existence,” notes McClung. The selling required a sales pitch implying that, in acquiring a lot, you acquired the entire landscape. The city today reflects this early bait-and-switch. Los Angeles has fewer acres of parkland per capita than any other large city in the nation, and large parts of the suburbanized city look, from the middle distance of a passing car, nearly as green and unbuilt as a park.

Because this is L.A., the boulevard connecting Arcadian and Utopian metaphors on the lemon crate label is--in reality--a detour. L.A.'s highways lead to the dissolution of Arcadia’s domesticated wilderness (by consuming it with house lots) and frustrate Utopia’s ordered unity (by dispersing the city to its fringes). McClung cites Joan Didion’s appraisal of a 1923 plan by Harry Chandler (former publisher of The Times) for a system of motor parkways to replace Henry Huntington’s increasingly inefficient system of light-rail mass transit. Chandler used the scheme to imagine, Didion wrote, “a new kind of city, which would seem to have no finite limits . . . that would eventually touch the Tehachapi range to the north and the Mexican border to the south, the San Bernardino Mountains to the east and the Pacific to the west. . . .” This Utopian project of the Anglo imagination, “annexing space to the limits imposed by geography,” is nearly the city we have, but it moves at a pace fit neither for pedestrians nor for motorists, neither Arcadian nor Utopian.

Road, park and wilderness are three of the categories McClung proposes for a taxonomy of Anglo mythologies of L.A. The others are countryside, village and acropolis. These provisional landscapes tried to arrest a furiously developing L.A. after 1900, with the failed hope of creating an ideal city of structures in a garden, variously realized as orange grove villas, bungalow courts, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Hollyhock House and Richard Meier’s Getty Center. The unstable synthesis of these fabricated landscapes--unresolved in space as well as in time--gives the city its essential unease. As McClung notes, Anglo Angelenos had the hallucinatory skill of simultaneously imagining one city in which to live while actually inhabiting another. It required the ability, which this city still teaches residents, to reduce its alien presence to a few simple elements (like a David Hockney painting) and expand them into an image of desire.

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The education of Anglo desire began, appropriately, with the misinterpretation of a work of sympathetic imagination. Helen Hunt Jackson’s 1884 novel “Ramona” was intended to be another “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” a plea for the rights of the indigenous mestizo culture of Southern California and a indictment of the government’s wrongs to the region’s Native Americans. Jackson’s literary strategy was an identification of society with landscape, and she read back into the relatively stable qualities of L.A.'s climate and nature the intense sentimentality of her story of doomed indigenous lovers crushed by the Anglo onslaught.

Jackson’s reward was the internalization of her literary strategy, not her social values, by the same Anglo immigrants who were completing the erasure of the mestizo culture she defended. Anglo L.A. thoroughly displaced that culture by 1888 and immediately subdivided the landscape into the Spanish-themed Southern California that McClung (echoing other critics) calls “Ramonaland.”

“The key to this peculiar consciousness,” McClung suggests, “is the concept of ‘improvement,’ understood as both complementary to a past that must be preserved and yet contrary to one that must be superseded.” The Ramonaland of the Anglo imagination preserved the narrative of a bountiful and soothing past and denied the presence of those who could claim it as their own. In the myth-making of Ramonaland, the landscape became a kind of “ruined abbey,” available everywhere for contemplation by romantic Anglos. This mythology was an “improvement” on the landscape, in McClung’s terms, because it provided a structure from which Anglos could view it unashamed.

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Ramonaland longing filled L.A. with square miles of “mission-style” stucco houses and fake Spanish apartment blocks in the 1920s and 1930s, consoling Anglo Angelenos that they actually had inherited a liberating non-Anglo past because only they could narrate it. Those square miles formed a metropolitan region notable for a lack of hierarchy within the grid of its streets. Anglo L.A.'s indifference to sequence in space and time infuriated L.A.'s critics, then and now, who appropriated for other purposes Jackson’s metaphor identifying society and landscape. “The premises of this anti-Ramonaland rhetoric,” McClung says, “are either that the land and its climate are perverse, and that architecture extends or compounds that perverseness, or that the land is innocent or benign but is violated or betrayed by architecture and other ‘improve-ments.’ ” Peter Plagens (criticizing Reyner Banham’s evenhanded assessment of Los Angeles in 1971) called L.A. a “dung heap” and a “huge, shallow toilet bowl.” Mike Davis adopted both premises of the anti-Ramonaland rhetoric in “Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster” and re-imagined the landscape of Anglo L.A. as simultaneously violated and sadistically lethal.

Plagens’ and Davis’ contempt for the insufficiencies of the place that Anglo mythologies framed, McClung says, are “a kind of parable of the death of the heart, appropriate to L.A. particularly because of the dogged insistence of so many of its critics that the city either deliver the promised goods of paradise or acknowledge its fallen condition.” Like McClung, I can’t imagine L.A. doing either, and so the anti-narrative persists of an L.A. that is perfect in its failures to be perfect. “Because it is frequently moving, entertaining, and stylish, that story--of high ideals, disappointed expectations, cruel awakenings, and an absurd civilization--has shaped the received literary image of Los Angeles as a strange place, reached by a journey, enjoyed, railed against, and ultimately rejected.”

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Some of us who haven’t rejected L.A. for Seattle or Salt Lake City or some internal exile of the spirit still attempt "[t]o dwell in the common Arcadia and to build private Utopias,” the aspiration of L.A.'s Anglo mythologizers. We live in their houses. Drive on their streets. We turn again, hoping to see the vistas in the landscape they first pointed out. We indulge occasionally in the vice of nostalgia. In its root sense, McClung reminds us, nostalgia is a yearning not for another time but for another place. Anglo Los Angeles was an effort to satisfy a permanent homesickness by building an imaginary home.

What is the essential Los Angeles, to which McClung drills down through layers of assertion and self-deception in its Anglo mythologies? The task ends in elemental sunshine and dirt . . . and failure. We do not yet share a body of stories associating our lives here with all of L.A.'s past lives (real and imagined to be real). You do not have to believe these stories, as McClung attests, but you do have to feel the order of their narrative.

Contemporary Anglo narratives unravel in L.A. They’re made for the freeway’s contradictory fluidity and stability, as McClung suggests, but they get lost in the bad neighborhoods on L.A.'s flatlands and break down in cul-de-sacs and mini-malls that all look alike, with signs in characters that are meaningful only to someone else. Present stories of our L.A. disconnect because, if followed, they would not lead us home but to where we do not want to go. *


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