Norman Klein is a pre-eminent L.A.-ologist and the author of the seminal The History of Forgetting (1997, Verso). He lives in Highland Park and is a professor of critical studies at CalArts. His fifth book, Freud at Coney Island and Other Tales, is due later this year from Seismicity Editions. He’s lived here since the ’70s and is originally from New York — of course. I spoke with Klein at his home.
L.A. Weekly:All right, I’m a native. Do natives have a better grasp on things than everyone else who just moves here? Norman Klein:Natives are no quicker to understand the layers of the city than anyone else. We’re all kind of ideologically conditioned by this idea that L.A. is basically not a city of neighborhoods, not a city of microclimates. We mistakenly imagine it’s a city dominated by the film industry and by Hollywood and by freeways.
That’s not true? Not at all. It’s sort of Kansas City with an attitude. Because of its history of boosterism, L.A. always feels like it’s not really smart enough, that it’s really faking it, and that it needs someone with class to come in and cover for it. So we’re constantly reaching for people from the outside, but in many cases, these people from the outside are . . . [spreads hands in typical L.A. gesture] whatever. That outside thing takes many forms. The crisis of the Getty [Museum] is a classic example — they tried to find a bean counter, who turned out to be an incompetent manager of money.
And wait for a local story like the Getty to turn up inThe New Yorkerbefore we take it seriously. There’s a kind of self-loathing built into Los Angeles culturally, even though the rest of the world is absolutely fascinated by this L.A. laboratory — for everything from ethnography and race to technology, media, even urban planning, believe it or not. The history of boosterism has left us in a very strange state of mind, and we never seem to get over it. For instance, we have subway stations so huge that you wonder why there’s only one subway running though it. Do we really think that if we have a fancy subway station, people will say, “Gee, it’s not going anywhere I want to go; it’s not doing anything I want to do. But look at that goddamned ceiling, it’s great! I’m going to stare at that ceiling every day and travel three hours by subway and bus to get to work!”
Why does L.A. always tend to think small? In the beginning, L.A. was small — until after about 1918, Western Avenue really was western. Then there were all these places like City Terrace that weren’t part of L.A. Some places joined, some places didn’t. That’s what “unincorporated” means — you forgot to join. It looks like the Holy Roman Empire, and it’s worse. A thousand versions of pre-Bismarck Germany. But think of things the other way. If there are 40 townships with 40 different identities that coexist, why is L.A. not a city of neighborhoods? You know when you’re living in Inglewood, or living in Westchester; they have their own downtowns, their own corruptions, their own microclimates. But L.A. is basically a community of 50,000 or 60,000 multiplied about a hundred times.
And what exactly is a “city of neighborhoods”? In other areas, like New York, if there’s a real estate boom, what changes are the key business streets. In L.A., the key business streets almost never change. Silver Lake becomes a place with million-dollar houses, and maybe 25 years later, some stores on Sunset Boulevard start to look fancy. You don’t have the little neighborhood shopping strip. It’s not, overall, a pedestrian-driven city, with people wandering. The downtown area essentially stopped growing after the ’20s. So the size of the city is actually only about one-fifth the size of Los Angeles. The energy went out like potato shoots, along Wilshire and other streets, this kind of strange lineal growth. There are parallels with other cities, though the model didn’t always work as well. London is kind of an Elizabethan Los Angeles.
We’re so new we’re old? But there are class issues and race issues that make the city perverse to deal with. The myth that L.A. is just in the car and out the car, that it doesn’t have layers and layers of urban complexity, is just completely false. L.A. does have neighborhood life, though it lacks the charm of a Chicago or New York, where you walk out of your house and there it is.
It has an energy, but you have to go find it. Yes, and it’s a much more horizontalized power structure, too. It used to be run by [Los Angeles Times magnate] Harry Chandler and his team of people, though that’s changed. But it hasn’t changed much. It’s, shall we say, horizontalized centralism — Eli Broad and those guys who cut deals and all that, and stand head and shoulders above the rest of us. They’re the archangels.
Is L.A., with all its flaws and social distractions, a pretty representative American city for the times? Along with Shanghai, L.A. is arguably one of the epic cities of this new emerging world. It almost parallels the horizontal nature of this new global economy. It’s also innovated, if you want to call it that, a version of this new urbanism — building fake cities in the middle of inner cities.
You mean like The Grove? The Grove is a phenomenon. [Grove developer] Rick Caruso is a phenomenon. L.A. has pioneered a way that you can be a permanent tourist in your own city, and with our obsessions with body, you can also become a permanent tourist in your own body.