City Without a 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?  

One could easily imagine the answer in 1950. Los Angeles then wasn't a particularly multiracial town; it was easy for pols, journalists and most of the white city to ignore the blacks, Latinos and Asians. Straight through midcentury, Los Angeles had the highest percentage of white Protestants of any large American city. It looked new and prosperous and surprisingly uniform. (In the '50s, American intellectuals worried about affluence and conformity.) As a result of the huge number of decent-paying unionized jobs in aerospace and other manufacturing industries, immense tracts of single-family homes were going up all over town. Home ownership and car ownership were increasingly common to both middle and working class, and income distribution in the land of smog and sun followed a classic New Deal bell curve.

Today, the bell curve is inverted, and any common economic destiny is a dim memory at best. Aerospace has up and left, unions have declined, and the middle of the L.A. economy has shrunk catastrophically. Today, roughly half of us are poor, while the wealthiest 10 percent of us have wealth and income soaring skyward, untethered to the fortunes of the rest of the city.

The greatest change, of course, is racial. The whitest big city in the U.S., straight through 1960, is now the least white. According to the 2000 Census, only 29.8 percent of Angelenos are white, while the percentage of Latinos hovers just under 50 percent. No major U.S. city has ever gone through so thorough a population transformation in so relatively short a time.

So it is necessary to state what should be obvious: This racial recomposition -- not declining services or the remoteness of City Hall -- is what secession is really about. If municipal services have now become an acute problem, when were they any better? According to the secessionists, they've been in decline since Sam Yorty's term in office -- but Yorty was only able to service the Valley by ignoring black L.A., which caused problems of its own (the Watts riots, for one). Have services kept up with the growth of the Valley? Of course not, but they haven't kept ä 26 up with the growth of any part of town -- and whose fault is that anyway? The same Valley homeowner groups leading the charge on secession led the charge in 1978 for Howard Jarvis' Proposition 13, a primary cause of chronic municipal insolvency in California.

There is no evidence whatever that city services have deteriorated just in the past few years -- the period of secessionism's birth and growth. Yet we are to believe that these concerns are what lie behind secession -- not the epochal transformation of L.A.'s racial and class composition, which is the one immense change that has coincided with secessionism's rise. Not the fact that the white, middle-class city that the Sherman Oaks Homeowners Association remembers (or re-imagines) so fondly has become a city that is heavily Latino working-class, and an underpaid working class at that. To be sure, the new valley city would have a plurality of Latinos, but 68 percent of its registered voters would be white. For the moment, in fact, secession may have a number of Latino supporters who mistakenly believe it will split up the school district and may even make it easier to build more schools. But at bottom, secession is nothing but white identity politics. Its message is: "We're not them; they're not us; we're outta here."

SO THE L.A. STORY OF THE PAST TWO decades is one of civic transformation on a scale that transforms the entire nation: America's future is happening here today, just as 100 years ago it was happening in New York. But this description of our city only takes us back to 1985 or thereabouts. Before then, L.A. was a huge center of growth, but that hardly distinguished it from a hundred other cities. For decades, we set the model for horizontal growth -- for sprawl -- but for the past 20 years, we've grown inwards as much as we've grown outwards: The density of many immigrant working-class neighborhoods rivals the levels in New York.

If there is a through-line to our story, it may be the cycle of immigration, resistance and re-invention. Yes, all American cities have been home to immigrants, but only N.Y. and L.A. can claim that immigration was central to their identity, and prefigured a new national identity. But other waves of immigration have also given them distinctive characteristics.  

Both cities have long been home to successive waves of internal immigrants, too -- blacks from the South Atlantic states to New York; Midwesterners, then Jews and blacks, to L.A. The writers, artists, musicians, actors and filmmakers so crucial to both cities came from all across the nation, and the world. Most important, it's been these two cities that have led, and helped, the nation in synthesizing new and old. New York was the place where the economic, social and political orders that encompassed the European migration were first built. For 20 years, the policies and politics of the New Deal were tried out in New York before Franklin Roosevelt took them nationwide.

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.

Consider what the Rhapsody does. It takes a host of recognizably African-American and Jewish musical elements (blue notes and harmonies, glissandi both sensual and sad), a more traditionally "American" slow theme, and classic Western European forms, mixes in a propulsive beat and an exuberant brass section, and creates from these a new and modern New York sound. Some of the Rhapsody's musical themes came to Gershwin on a train ride from New York to Boston; the train's "steely rhythms," he wrote, inspired the work. "I heard it as a sort of musical kaleidoscope of America -- of our vast melting pot, of our unduplicated national pep, of our blues, our metropolitan madness."

Many contemporary music critics -- a fairly formal bunch in the '20s -- immediately appreciated the piece not just for its musical innovations but for its sociological significance. As Deena Rosenberg recounts in Fascinating Rhythm: The Collaboration of George and Ira Gershwin, Samuel Chotzinoff, music critic for the New York World, saw in the piece the "'stunning vitality' of the modern spirit, a national force that was ready to burst and was begging for artistic expression to make it comprehensible."

For other critics, though, what ä31 the Rhapsody made comprehensible was New York itself. The writer who most explicitly considered the piece to be a decoding of the city was Edmund Wilson, then just beginning his career as a literary critic. Wilson made this statement, however, in a work not of criticism but of fiction: his 1929 novel I Thought of Daisy. The protagonist, much like Wilson himself, is a Greenwich Village writer torn between worlds -- one of high art, Ivory Tower scholarship and a sense of tradition, the other of vitality, engagement, and the popular entertainment of the moment. Conveniently, he has two girlfriends who respectively personify these two worlds. There's Rita the poet (loosely modeled on Wilson's then-girlfriend Edna St. Vincent Millay) -- "brilliant but detached," writes Rosenberg -- and Daisy the chorus girl -- "vulgar but irresistibly vibrant and involved." The protagonist can't resolve his conflict, can't settle on a girlfriend, can't figure out how to fuse the old New York and the new. Throughout the novel, he keeps hearing snatches of a popular song that intrigues him for reasons he can't understand. The song is "Mamie Rose" by "Harry Hirsch." Finally, he hears the song in its entirety -- and from his description, it is clear that "Harry Hirsch" is George Gershwin, while the song that he describes sounds a good deal like one of the songs (most particularly, "The Man I Love") that Gershwin immediately derived from melodies and motifs of the Rhapsody.

Wilson writes: "What was original and unexpected was the repetition, in some sort of minor, of the pattern which had just gone before . . . [B]y breaking in that new accent, half agonized and half thrilling, he had enchanted the public . . . Where had he got it? The sounds of the street? The taxis creaking to a stop . . . some distant and obscure city sound? Or had he got it from Schoenberg or Stravinsky? -- or simply from his own nostalgia . . . for the cadence, half-chanted and despairing, of the tongue which his father had known?"

For Wilson, the thinly veiled Gershwin somehow had fused high modernism and Tin Pan Alley, an Edith Wharton townhouse with a six-floor walkup tenement to create something new -- a fresh sensibility that encompassed both the poet and the showgirl, that was simply and enduringly New York.  

PLAINLY, L.A. DOESN'T YET HAVE ITS own Rhapsody. If that work does burst upon us, though, you can bet on the kind of person most likely to produce it: a child of Mexican or Central American immigrants, born here, knowing in his or her bones the city's fault lines, its harsh light, the ghost convertibles that still cruise its boulevards -- the story of the new city that rose atop the already immense old one, and the story of the old one, too. There are some artists, fitting this description, who have told parts of this story: the comedy troupe Culture Clash, for one. But the bulk and heart of that story are yet to be told.

And we need it. We need it both to know who we've been and who we are becoming, to draw the connections and the conflicts between Sherman Oaks and Boyle Heights, to make from them and a thousand other connections and conflicts something definitively Los Angeles. Absent this story, this civic identity, all Sherman Oaks knows about Boyle Heights is simply that it wants to kiss it goodbye -- soon, this November, before we've even begun to describe the essential Angeleno and the city that, at least until Election Day, he calls home.

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