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
For New York, this was just the political side of an emerging civic identity. In the first third of the 20th century, New York was where successive waves of immigrants not only brought their energy and cultures, but where all these groups combined to create something greater than the sum of their parts. New York came to signify an energy, dynamism and sharpness, unsurpassed anywhere else, identifying characteristics that had emerged from the competition and cooperation, the constant jostling, of diverse groups. This new identity belonged to all of them, but was distinct from each of their separate identities.
The New York story is anything but an unbroken account of successful civic synthesis. New York's been a city of racial tension and race riots for as long as anyone can remember. Synthesis, destruction and re-synthesis; immigration, resistance and reshuffling define its civic life. Without tension, there's no story. But we always know where we are.
Los Angeles has not yet created its own definitive synthesis of immigrant and native-born. We do seem to have had at certain periods an unusual ability to build cross-racial coalitions in advance of other cities. The rise of Tom Bradley's black-Jewish alliance at a time of racial polarization in other cities, and of Antonio Villaraigosa's Latino-labor-Jewish coalition in last year's mayoral race (even if it didn't rise quite enough) amply attest to that. But if we have a distinct integrative political model, we also have a distinct disintegrative model as well. It's not simply our history of anti-busing movements and white flight; that's part of the American way. But the fact that L.A. is the one American city to have had two great race and class riots in the past half-century is altogether distinctive. And yet, these ebbs and flows, these races and cultures coming together and coming apart like so many amoebas, are too disparate phenomena to have created something distinctly and identifiably Angeleno. Fragmentation trumps coherence. Indeed, our separate parts may not interact successfully; we may have no story but Balkanization and anomie; it may be that failure that ultimately differentiates us from New York.
Perhaps we are the city that cannot jell. Fragmentation, however, is less a narrative than an anti-narrative. Anna Deveare Smith's Twilight -- her depiction of 30 separate characters talking about the '92 riots -- conveys a series of separate portraits. It is not pointillism, where the dots connect to form a visible whole. There may be reasons why our civic chronicle can look at times like separate pages without a binding. But that kind of atomization negates the idea not only of a city but of a neighborhood. It may be post-modern, but it ain't no story. (Not to mention, applied post-modernism is just another word for unlivability.)
There's at least one historically specific reason why we're having trouble jelling just now, and it returns us to the question of what's behind secession. The fact that L.A. abuts an open border, that the flow of immigrants to L.A. is constant, actually makes it more difficult for a new civic order to emerge. This was not the case in New York: As a result of federal legislation, immigration to the U.S. -- and New York -- was halted from 1924 through 1965, which afforded New York a period of consolidation. Constant change does pose a challenge to a city.
But here's the rub: secessionists can withdraw from the city of Los Angeles but not its story. Whether the city line is at the far end of Granada Hills or along Mulholland Drive, none of the fundamental tensions and rifts in Los Angeles will go away -- not those of race, not those of class. The need for a resolution to these tensions will be no less urgent; inside or out of our separate cities, the need to cohere -- to have a common narrative -- will always be with us.
SO WE LOOK TO NEW YORK FOR SOME guidance on how to build a narrative about change, how to find some connection among all those people on the sidewalks and subways, arriving by ship, driving to Jersey. There's an impressive library to consult, and lessons to be drawn. Throughout much of the 19th century, a succession of New York writers (from Melville and Whitman on down) wrote of the immigrants (foreign and internal) and drifters pouring into the ever-changing city, and how they lived and quarreled and combined. But almost all those writers, spiritual exiles though they may have been, ineluctably told these stories from the vantage point of the native-born.
By the turn of the century, however, the Irish and the Southern and Eastern European immigrants were telling their own stories, first to their own people, then to other immigrant groups, and finally to the city at large. Over time, as second-generation immigrant artists and entertainers addressed themselves to the larger city, their collective voice became the voice to listen to if you wanted to hear the new New York.
But if there was a single moment when New York suddenly understood itself, and emotionally grasped its story, I'd argue it came, astonishingly, at the premiere performance of a non-narrative work of art. The story of New York, as it's been understood now for more than three-quarters of a century, was most definitively unveiled in George Gershwin's 1924 breakthrough piece -- Rhapsody in Blue.