The boosters are back

Matt Welch is The Times' assistant editorial pages editor.

MARK MY words: Southern California is about to suffer a major earthquake. Probably a catastrophic fire too. And certainly a real estate collapse.

How do I know this? Because the gods (or Thetans) who look down upon our patch of paradise do not appreciate hubris. Yet that’s exactly what we’re seeing now in the way the region regards itself, and especially in the way it dispenses with critics who do not share its suddenly rosy view of itself.

Back in the catastrophic early 1990s, the narrative was dominated -- and deservedly so -- by apocalyptic, Fontana-born Marxist Mike Davis, whose “City of Quartz” and “Ecology of Fear” portrayed and even predicted a megalopolis ripped apart by class and race hatred, developer greed and constant disaster real and imagined.


Davis’ compellingly nightmarish take, which still begins the L.A. discussion east of the Mississippi and across the Atlantic, took gleeful aim at the “booster” wing of Southern California burgherdom, especially the real estate hucksters and sunshine peddlers associated with the pre-Otis Chandler Los Angeles Times. But even while the rest of the world’s intelligentsia seemed to swallow Davis’ thesis whole -- washed down by such Hollywood bummers as “Short Cuts,” “L.A. Confidential” and “Falling Down” -- a curious and humble thing happened here on terra unfirma: The boosters bit back.

But not in the form of boosterism, at least not at first. After the trauma of the early ‘90s, even the most die-hard of California interpreters were left wondering, as state historian Kevin Starr put it in his introduction to “Coast of Dreams,” whether they had “chosen a dead end.” Joan Didion was licking her wounds back in New York. Jane’s Addiction and X stopped making records. Even Davis took off for Hawaii. But the people who chose to stay dug in their heels, joined the numerous historical societies that were springing up all over town and created a sort of “warts and all” school of regional inquiry and reassessment.

So D.J. Waldie wrote a poetic history of Lakewood’s unpoetic suburbs in “Holy Land” (1996); Don Normark immortalized soon-to-be-razed Echo Park neighborhoods in 1999’s “Chavez Ravine: 1949;” Sandra Tsing Loh satirized yet celebrated her dorky Valley existence in “A Year in Van Nuys,” while Kevin Roderick argued that the Valley was “America’s Suburb” (both books appearing in 2001).

L.A. architecture, long maligned by parachuting observers, saw an explosion of appreciation, as Mid-Century Modern was rediscovered with a vengeance, coffee-table book publisher Bernard Taschen moved to the Hollywood Hills in 1997 and the Los Angeles Conservancy became the largest local preservation agency in the country. Important new biographies appeared about such city fathers as Norton Simon, William Mulholland and Edward Doheny. Even the favorite butt of out-of-towner jokes -- the graffiti-marred concrete gash of the L.A. River -- received not one but three book-length treatments.

“In almost every aspect of the cultural history of L.A.,” Hollywood historian Marc Wanamaker told me a few years back, “whether it’s architectural or biographical or historical, a book is being written about it, or is coming out soon. And all of this has happened since about 1990.”

The post-Mike Davis regional history boom -- much of it a direct challenge or indirect response to his work -- found charm, or at least an interesting back story, in the area’s many flaws. “I think there’s a difference between being a booster ... and really valuing something for all of its texture. And I think that’s a lot more of what people are trying to do now,” Skylight Books manager Kerry Slattery once told me.

But that was five long years ago. Since then, it seems to me, the balance has tipped away from necessary correctives and a “yeah, but” spirit of counterpunching to the kind of lit-crit that carries all the charm and nuance of surfers’ “locals only” rules.

Novelist A.M. Homes, who is not from here, poked the hornet’s nest of boosterism when she published her 2006 novel “This Book Will Save Your Life,” which was set in a semi-apocalyptic, fully shallow Los Angeles. The book was shot out of the water by critics who just weren’t gonna take any more lip from East Coasters. Writing in The Times Book Review, Samantha Dunn called it an “inside joke for former New Yorkers who used to live between West 66th and 86th streets and L.A. Westsiders who rarely travel east of the 405 Freeway -- except to go to Century City, Beverly Hills, West Hollywood or downtown.”

I should declare my own interests here -- I’ll always take L.A. over New York, and I chafe easily at jokes about Southern California that were stale when Woody Allen first told them. I took to these very pages to slam the Oscar-winning movie “Crash” for its tone-deaf portrayal of a hyper-alienated city that bears no resemblance to the one I love. And I too like to make fun of my Westside friends.

But when our own Westsiders are lumped in with New Yorkers, you know that a line is being crossed. Instead of enjoying and grappling with criticism and fictions for what they’re worth, we’re now treating ZIP Codes like war medals and issuing the dreariest of literary jaywalking tickets, especially when the perpetrator has the bad manners to pine for bagels or thin-crust pizza.

So, former New York Times correspondent Charlie LeDuff gets criticized for doing a kayaking-down-the-L.A.-River story because, like, that’s totally been done before (he also failed to properly credit his predecessors, but that was a separate issue). Roderick, over at his valuable LA Observed website, busts the campaign staff of Barack Obama for misstating the nickname of Occidental College as “Occi” instead of “Oxy.” The Times’ Michael Newman (my boss, incidentally) pens an account of how the new L.A. Marathon route through downtown warehouses and freeway underpasses led him to conclude that “much of Los Angeles isn’t very pretty,” and the Daily News’ Mariel Garza goes ballistic about the “mid-level editors at the Times from Away who are so keen to tell Angelenos how crappy their city is.”

But much of the city is on the ugly side, my fellow L.A. patriots! Much of it is also, in Garza’s apt phraseology, “awesome.” (It’s a big place! Contains multitudes!) Those age-old complaints about traffic, smog, strip malls, shallowness -- all still true! Even if uttered by a Bostonian, as much as that hurts to admit.

There’s a difference between swatting down falsehoods from clueless New Yorkers and jumping down people’s throats because they happen to have a different opinion about the city and a funny-looking stamp on their birth certificates. If these people don’t like it, after all, they’ll leave. More room for us.

So enough already with the tribalism and pop-quizzes about how to pronounce “Leimert.” A regional commentariat’s true sign of robustness and self-confidence is thick skin, like the stuff that used to grow over our sunburns back when sunscreen was still called “tanning lotion.” It takes as little imagination to be an L.A. triumphalist these days as it did to be a defeatist in 1995. Come back, Mike Davis, all is forgiven!