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Landscape Desired 

Los Angeles, past and future

Wednesday, May 3 2000

As I attempt to trace the origins of my rather tortured love for this city, I go back to two afternoons on Santa Monica Boulevard. The first occurred two months after I moved here from New York — two infernally parched, smoggy late-summer months in which I indulged without shame or self-consciousness in all the clichés of an Easterner’s loathing of Los Angeles. To my great relief it had rained the day before. Driving east, I turned the bend in the boulevard in West Hollywood and saw before me in the distance, in a sky for the first time cleared of haze, the freshly snow-topped San Gabriels crowning the horizon, and realized that once upon a time L.A. had been a beautiful place.

The second afternoon fell a year and a half later in East Hollywood, as I rode my bike home from work down Van Ness. Stopped by the light on the corner of Santa Monica, I looked west down the boulevard and was fully shaken by the beauty of the view — not of majestic mountaintops, but of the setting sun struggling to shine through the smog, casting the long-suffering palms and charmless cinderblock mini-malls of auto parts stores and panaderías in a dreamlike golden haze. I had fallen in love, not with an imagined land of purity and grace, but with a living city, soiled and cruel.

William Alexander McClung clearly shares my affection, though I suspect he lives in, and loves, a different Los Angeles than I. His Landscapes of Desire: Anglo Mythologies of Los Angeles analyzes the myths through which “the Anglo imagination” has viewed the city between roughly 1850 and 1985 via literature, architecture and the arts. It is also, in large part, a defense of this much-scorned town, but is notable as much for its complacency and its blind spots as it is for the occasional sharpness of its insights.

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McClung argues that “anglophone Los Angeles sought to reconcile two contradictory visions of ideal place and space: an acquired Arcadia, a found natural paradise; and an invented Utopia, an empty space inviting development.” If one can stomach letting him get away with such a simplistic vision of “anglophone Los Angeles” (his definition of Anglos covers all “people of, for the most part, European descent whose first language was English or had become English by the time they had reached the Pacific Ocean,” which presumably would include Jews and Italians as well as WASPs, and which floats over class differences as slickly as it does over cultural divides), McClung’s model does yield some interesting results. “The imaginative history of Los Angeles,” he writes, “is a record of efforts to improve upon Arcadia without acknowledging that to interfere with a found or given natural paradise is to introduce an element of dissatisfaction that can be eradicated only when the transformation to Utopia is complete.” This dissatisfaction shows itself in the imagined pasts shared by Helen Hunt Jackson’s Ramona and Spanish Colonial Revival architecture, as well as in the paradoxical outrage of many of the city’s critics that L.A. had failed to live up to its admittedly false Arcadian promise.

Despite the good use to which he puts this model, rescuing the city once again from the gathered clichés of a century’s worth of writing by snooty Easterners and Europeans, resuscitating L.A. “as adequate to meaningful, heroic, and even tragic experience,” little of this will be unfamiliar to readers of Angeleno historians from Carey McWilliams to Kevin Starr to Mike Davis. But McClung for the most part neglects to mention what other historians have documented well, something one would expect to find in any analysis of the Anglo imagination: the extent to which Anglo mythmaking depended on the exclusion, both actual and metaphorical, of non-Anglos from mythic L.A. It’s telling that McClung finds the source of “Anglo L.A.’s bad conscience about its origins” only in the despoiling of the environment and in the city’s “original sin” of stealing water from the Owens Valley. Missing are the forced labor, the lynchings and the race riots that over a century ago gave the Ramona myth the rank taste it retains today, a taste that can also be found in some of the contemporary work McClung praises most highly, in the studied corporate cool of Edward Ruscha or David Hockney.

One of McClung’s more abiding points is that Los Angeles has been imagined as Eden befouled almost from the moment of its incorporation. The Arcadian myth of a once-unblemished-but-recently-defiled L.A. has survived intact to this day — visible now in the rhetoric of the champions of the Ballona Wetlands and the Los Angeles River — “despite complaints at almost every stage since 1850 that paradise had already been lost.” A more concrete history of the basis for that myth, the last two century’s transformation of the Los Angeles Valley from land of plenty to overgrown parking lot, can be found in Blake Gumprecht’s excellent monograph published last spring, The Los Angeles River: Its Life, Death, and Possible Rebirth.

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