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Landscape Desired

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.

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.

 

In 1768, when Gaspar de Portolá led the first Spanish land expedition into Southern California, there were 26 Gabrielino Indian villages within a few miles of the river, all able to survive without cultivating crops thanks to the bounty of a river that “meandered this way and that through a dense forest of willow and sycamore, elderberry and wild grape,” overflowing at times “into vast marshlands that were home to myriad waterfowl and small animals. Steelhead trout spawned in the river, and grizzly bear roamed its shores in search of food.” The vegetation covering much of L.A. was not the desert scrub and chaparral that today appears within weeks on lawns left untended, but “a sometimes impenetrable jungle of marshes, thickets and dense woods.” Much of Beverly Hills, it should come as no surprise, was a fetid swamp.

If the Spanish saw a “full-flowing, wide river” in a “very lush and pleasing spot, in every respect,” ideal for a settlement, by the 1850s “the once tree-covered plain was now barren and desolate.” The forests had been felled, the wetlands dried and the river diverted into a series â of irrigation ditches, often spilling over with “garbage and foul matter.” Though it once flowed plentifully near downtown all year long, by the turn of the century it had become a dry wash for most of the year and “the once-ample stream had become a local joke” that’s gotten no funnier in the intervening years. By the time the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had lined the river’s banks with cement, they were, Gumprecht writes, “closing the coffin on a river that was by and large already dead.” Today it is a river in name only: “Nearly all of the water that now flows in the river is treated sewage, authorized industrial discharges, and street runoff.” The Los Angeles River has become the world’s most grandly named sewage slough.

While tracking the river’s transformation, Gumprecht has produced an astoundingly well-researched environmental history of Los Angeles, as well as a detailed accounting of the political structures that have shaped the river’s, and the city’s, development. In the end, he expresses admiration for Lewis MacAdams and the Friends of the L.A. River’s quixotic struggle to restore the river to a more natural state, but stops short of joining them in their hope that the concrete can be peeled back and Eden restored.

Some more catching up: Also out since last spring is Michael Jacob Rochlin’s self-published Ancient L.A., a collection of three short essays illustrated copiously with Rochlin’s snapshots of L.A. cityscapes and period photos of the same. The first chapter asks “Why is our city the way it is? Why did it grow the way it grew?” and answers that its current population centers owe their locations to Gabrielino villages. “For proximity to sources of forced labor, Missions and Pueblo were placed adjacent to Indigenous Villages. Ranchos reoccupied the desolated sites. Boomtowns replaced ranchos. Grids filled-in open space and melded with adjacent grids.” Now downtown sits near the site of Yangna, San Pedro at Tsavingna, Redondo at Engnovagna. Trails from village to village became roads and, finally, freeways.

Rochlin’s passion for the city does not prevent him from decrying its failings: “Because of the violence of our transitions, our constant motions, our accelerated pace, our ignorance of our own nature, our blind eye to the past and our sacrifice of order for organization, Los Angeles has indeed become bleak — bleak, caught in limbo and without footing.” A second essay concentrates on Bunker Hill, condemning its contemporary incarnation as “a glass and steel projection of central power pasted atop a decapitated hill — a high-modern corporate utopia yet to match any part of the rich mystique and organic excitement its predecessor embodied.” The final chapter is an elegy to the survivors of bygone L.A.: “Old buildings, brick buildings. Old faded dusty cracking brick buildings.”

Ancient L.A. is a thoroughly good read, thanks to the wacky lushness of Rochlin’s prose, with its fearless alliteration and metaphor-mixing (“In limbo between iconoclastic paradise and vulgar wasteland, we commuter frogs ponder our pond atop freeway frying pans”), and to the gloriously uncaptioned, slightly out-of-focus photos. A section about Suangna, the largest of the Gabrielino villages, is illustrated by images of its likely location today: an Ugly Duckling used-car lot, traffic beside an oil refinery, neo-Nazi graffiti on a storm drain, an empty field. With their quiet contrast to the text, the photos force you into taking the long view, that “Our city is part of a cycle. Inescapably, it will soon be ruins, buried, and we, just as were the peoples before us, forgotten.”

LANDSCAPES OF DESIRE: Anglo Mythologies of Los Angeles | By WILLIAM ALEXANDER McCLUNG University of California Press 277 pages | $35 hardcover THE LOS ANGELES RIVER: Its Life, Death, and Possible Rebirth | By BLAKE GUMPRECHT | Johns Hopkins University Press 369 pages | $40 hardcover ANCIENT L.A. By MICHAEL JACOB ROCHLIN Unreinforced Masonry Studio | 236 pages $25 paperback

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