By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
QUICK, NOW: WHAT'S L.A.'S STORY?
Not: "What are some L.A. stories?" Every city has stories, but they can't be added together and averaged out. I mean: Come up with a brief description of what our city is about, that captures it over the flow of time, that encompasses, say, both the "industry" and the Latino working class -- all in one neat, thematic bundle.
Challenging, huh? Nothing so simple as Detroit (cars and race wars) or San Francisco (left-bohemianism and gateway to Asia).
I confess I didn't have much of an answer either, when I was popped the question while sitting on a panel at last month's "Los Angeles at the Millennium" conference at USC. Prompted by such eminent L.A.-ologists as Mike Davis, Kevin Starr and D.J. Waldie, my fellow panelists and I approached the question of Los Angeles' "meta-narrative" from a range of perspectives -- but approaching isn't the same as answering.
And answering that question is no mere academic exercise. Suddenly, stunningly, it is altogether urgent. In six months' time, Los Angeles may well become the first city in American history to be sundered by secession -- and our inability to tell (or even identify) the L.A. story has some causal connection to this idiocy.
The secessionists have their line down pat. They will sing the praises of mini-localism, offer odes to smallness and speak wistfully of recapturing the Valley's golden past -- so golden that it never actually existed. The anti-secessionists can take one of two tacks (or both). They can demonstrate everything that's wrong with this fool's-gold panacea: It doesn't alter the school district; it creates shaky new cities and unsustainable old ones. Bill Carrick, one of the nation's ablest campaign consultants, is sure to dramatize these themes in a torrent of television spots and mail. The other approach is to evoke what's compelling, appealing -- dare I say, magical -- about Los Angeles, as reality but also as symbol and idea. But for a city without a shared narrative, that's very tricky. And if you think it poses a challenge for Carrick, imagine Jim Hahn (or, for that matter, Richard Riordan) trying to evoke the L.A. vision that appeals to us all. The problem here isn't simply the nonexistent rhetorical skills of our present and former mayors. More fundamentally: What is that vision?
I know of only one precedent of a U.S. political leader trying to forestall secession (and worse) through the force of his words. On March 4, 1861, Abraham Lincoln took the oath as president and delivered an inaugural address devoted entirely to persuading those Southern states that had not yet seceded to stay, those that had seceded to return, and, above all, those that had either left or stayed not to go to war against the Union. It was a long, at times legalistic speech, but there was nothing legalistic about Lincoln's conclusion. "We must not be enemies," he said. "Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature."
So -- when the author of the greatest speeches in our nation's history made his supreme appeal for union, what did he evoke? "The mystic chords of memory." But what does that mean to Los Angeles? Glancing over to my L.A. bookcase, here's Norman M. Klein's brilliant study of civic unconsciousness in Los Angeles, The History of Forgetting: Los Angeles and the Erasure of Memory. And moving down the shelf for a minute, we find Mike Davis' groundbreaking essayistic history, City of Quartz; a Russell Sage Foundation study of the Los Angeles economy, Prismatic Metropolis; and Robert M. Ferguson's history of L.A. from 1850 to 1930, The Fragmented Metropolis. I'd be surprised if any of these authors favor secession (at USC, Davis spoke forcefully against it), but these titles and these books -- like the vast majority of thoughtful writings on Los Angeles -- describe a city hard-wired for fragmentation, if not secession. The Los Angeles of these studies is not only a city with no common memories, but a city that cannot be described without first having to note the relativity and subjectivity of perception itself.
So we have a problem here: Can a city without a story long endure?
ALONGSIDE THE FRAGMENTATION OF LOS Angeles is a newer problem: the fragmentation of the Angeleno identity. The centrifugal character of the city proper, after all, is old news. It's long characterized our government (with its unnavigable network of ineffectual duchies and agencies strewn across the county), the spatial arrangement of our economy (with its small downtown and its far-flung work clusters of aerospace factories and film studios), and our politics (with its underdeveloped party system incapable of yoking the city together). Only in the last decade, however, has the Angeleno identity split utterly asunder. If you think I overstate, try answering another question: What is a typical Angeleno?