UHP 401: Los Angeles Invention of a City was a very interesting and intellectually stimulating experience that not only allowed me to become more knowledgeable about the city around me but have a greater appreciation for it as well. From the discussion of California’s Spanish fantasy past, to Los Angeles depicted in literature, the rise of suburbia, and the four ecologies of Los Angeles, as discussed by Reyner Banham, to the many texts assigned in this course, and most importantly the blog project, I have truly received a well-rounded analysis and depiction of Los Angeles that has really affected and changed the way that I now view this historical and significant city.
Studying California’s Spanish fantasy past and the booster’s attempt to sell California to Midwesterners and other travelers was probably the most shocking thing for me, as I never knew that California’s Spanish past and mission system were so influential, especially in driving people to move to and live in California. I also really enjoyed Carey McWilliams’ book Southern California: An Island on the Land as it really homed in on and focused on the various groups of people who moved to California, such as Iowans, and gave in-depth explanations about when they arrived and where they settled in Southern California. While I already had somewhat of a knowledge about California’s strategy of marketing itself as the land of sunshine and healthy living with orange groves for miles, as well as the place where dreams come true, I never knew the extent that those factors helped to drive people to California along with California’s Spanish past. The idea that the boosters cultivated this identity of California’s missions serving as an oasis of civility within a world of “savage Native Americans” where Natives entered into the mission system and ultimately left “saved” is not only really intriguing, but I believe showcases the continual disregard for minority groups within California, especially Native Americans. Additionally, this marketing strategy, I believe, not only highlights the boosters’ attempt to create and sell a mythic past of California, but also reveals the ambiguous nature of Americans’, especially Southern Californians’, fascination with other cultures, while erasing them at the same time. This is present with the creation of Olvera Street, created by Christine Sterling Young, which showcased and seemed to celebrate Mexican heritage, and idolized young Mexican women, while at the same time relegated that culture to the small area of Olvera Street and reinforced the idea that “Mexicanness” was a product of the past and could no longer exist in the age of modernity. This notion is reiterated with the many other minority and ethnic groups that settled in the Los Angeles area, like with Young’s creation of Chinatown.
The topic of literary representations was really interesting to me as it dove into the depiction of the city as a place of evils, which I believe is still applicable to modern times. This was surprising to me because of how quickly the city went from being as the beacon of modernity, as portrayed and promoted in California’s Spanish fantasy past, to a place of crime, minorities, and mischief. John Fante’s Ask the Dust was excellent at depicting the realities of Los Angeles during the Great Depression, illustrating it as a place of poverty, ethnicity, and a place where dreams don’t always come true, as Arturo Bandini struggles with becoming a successful writer and begins to question the California Dream and if it even is achievable. Fante’s work also helped establish the noir genre, which furthered this notion that the city was a place where crime flourished, communists lurked, and where women were portrayed as sexually promiscuous and often violent, as seen with Camilla Lopez and Vera Rivken in Ask the Dust.
The presentation and discussion of the growth of suburbia in Southern California, and the numerous texts such as Becky Nicolaides’ article “‘Where the Working Man is Welcomed’: Working-Class Suburbs in Los Angeles and Eric Avila’s article “Popular Culture in the Age of White Flight: Film Noir, Disneyland, and the Cold War (Sub)Urban Imaginary,” was undoubtedly the most impactful and interesting section of this course that I felt really changed my perspective of Los Angeles and the greater metropolitan area surrounding it. Discovering and analyzing the inherent racism and discrimination behind the growth of the suburbs, intending to keep minorities out of all-white suburban neighborhoods, as well as how the suburbs served to be a safe space from the threat of communism and the atomic bomb, or the “evils” of the city, was really fascinating to me as I feel that I can connect with suburbia the most. I felt this connection, because I live in the suburbs myself, like most Southern Californians, and because Southern California is defined by suburban life and culture. Some of the arguments about the evils of the city, such as the presence of communists and minorities, seem to parallel a lot of the arguments and criticisms of modern Los Angeles, with the homeless crisis and crime. Furthermore, I was really fascinated by this topic, as my grandparents were a part of this move to suburbia as they first lived in Signal Hill and then moved to the “safe” suburbs of Orange County, settling in Santa Ana where they still live today.
I was also surprised that the suburbs led to frustration for a lot of people, as they seemed like an improvement from the city to me. Understanding why it did cause frustration, caused my perceptions about Los Angeles to change. I was mainly shocked because living in the suburbs seemed like a nice and relaxing time before taking this class. I now realize that my judgement of the suburbs is mostly biased from watching old movies or television shows such as Leave It To Beaver or Father Knows Best that promoted the notion of an ideal American lifestyle within the suburbs, where the father would go off to work while the mom took care of the home and raised the children. After taking this course, I feel that I now really understand why the suburbs are so prominent in Southern California and why they have defined the culture and our way of living, ultimately giving me a greater sense of understanding about the area in which I live.
I thought that Reyner Banham’s book Los Angeles: The Architecture of the Four Ecologies was a nice end to the course, as mentioned in the discussion, as it seemed to encompass everything that we talked about; specifically with the foothills, like Beverly Hills, which we have been talking about since the rise of Hollywood in helping to promote the California Dream and persuade travelers to come to California. I also thought his analysis of the new surf and skate culture taking over the beach communities within Los Angeles County in the 1970s and how the traditional “Beach Boys” lifestyle of the 50s and 60s with palm trees swaying and constant sunshine, was pushed into Orange County and established within places like Newport Beach and Corona Del Mar, was very interesting as it changes my previously held beliefs about those beach towns being organic places. Similarly, I always perceived Manhattan Beach and Venice Beach as upper-class and luxurious areas, but my perception changed after reading Banham as these areas only became these upper-class neighborhoods after the 1970s, where youth culture flourished. I really enjoyed seeing the photos of the youth beach culture and especially the car culture of Van Nuys in the summer of 1972 as I believe it really shines light on some aspects of Los Angeles history which I believe are never really talked about and seem to be lost pieces of history, as this is the first time I have ever really discussed and analyzed them.
During the first weeks of this course, when all of the assignments were explained, I was most interested in the blog posts, but a little nervous as well. I wanted to get out and visit historical places within the Los Angeles area, as I believe that you appreciate historical things more when you actually go and see that history in person. I discovered that my view connects with Banham’s argument that the old architectures of the city, as well as the tearing down and construction of new buildings, really conveys and highlights the history within an area, especially Los Angeles. While I wanted to get out and explore for my blog posts, I ended up writing two of them about some of the art on campus, since I lived on campus and did not have a car. I was not thinking about it at the time, but I was directly affected by what Banham described as the autopia ecology and the fact that Southern California revolves around car culture affected me as I was not able to go out and explore the areas I wanted to. Nevertheless, I was still able to learn a lot about my immediate surroundings on campus by finally understanding the backstory of some of the art pieces that I used to walk by almost every day. Through my research for the blog posts, I discovered that the California International Sculpture Symposium of 1965 occurred on campus at CSULB and brought many of the sculptures that still sit there today, such as Now by Piotr Kowalski and Duet (Homage to David Smith) by Robert Murray.
This course has also influenced the way I watch and think about movies depicting Los Angeles and the area surrounding it, as was present with my third blog post for Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time… in Hollywood. Before taking this class, I never really thought about the tropes of Los Angeles and Southern California, like the fear of the city driving people, especially middle- and upper-class white Americans to the suburbs out of fear of the city. This was present in Once Upon A Time… in Hollywood as the Manson family represented the evils of the city and the crime that it brought with it. The realities of the California Dream, similar to those expressed in Ask the Dust, are also present within the movie, as the main character, Rick Dalton, struggles with achieving the stardom he sought after. Overall I thought the blog posts were really entertaining and interesting assignments that allowed me to get out of the classroom and to go see some of the things we were learning about in person, even though I really only wrote about the sculptures on campus. I was planning to go visit the area of the St. Francis Dam disaster that tarnished William Mulholland’s reputation, but due to the coronavirus pandemic, I was no longer able to. Regardless, this was still a great assignment that I really enjoyed.
With everything we went over in this course, I think that my feelings toward Los Angeles have greatly changed. While I always appreciated the history, that I knew of, about Los Angeles and occasional visited the city, I now really appreciate the city and how lucky I am to live so close to such a historical and influential space that I can visit whenever I want. I feel that sometimes, as a native Southern Californian, I’ve taken living by this magnificent city for granted and never truly appreciated its rich history and culture. This course has motivated me to want to go visit the city more and explore the areas Bandini traversed, such as the old May Company Building, now the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, as well as where the Alta Loma Hotel and the Bunker Hill area once stood. I also feel that this course has helped me become more aware of the inequalities and discrimination minority groups faced in the destruction of their neighborhoods for urban renewal, such as the destruction of Chavez Ravine for the construction of Dodger Stadium, as well as the discrimination they faced when trying to move into the suburbs, with the use of redlining, restrictive covenants, and occupancy laws. Learning about the discrimination within suburbia has allowed me to better understand why certain neighborhoods are the way that they are, as some, even today reflect a lack of diversity. I always knew about racial discrimination within Los Angeles, but I never knew the extent to which the federal government aided in it, with redlining by the Home Owner’s Loan Corporation.
A lot of what I hoped to learn about Los Angeles, coming into this course, was covered and I am really glad that I now have a better understanding of the city around me. I was really looking to learn about the creation of Los Angeles as a city, which was accomplished when we went over the Spanish fantasy past and the boosters’ attempt to market California to travelers and Midwesterners especially. Learning about the boosters’ tactics in marketing, such as promoting the Spanish missions, orange groves, and warm climate of Southern California was pretty impactful for me as I realized how I’ve always taken for granted these things while living in Southern California and never realized how influential they were for Midwesterners and other travelers to move to California, even today. Some other areas that I would have liked to have covered were organized crime, with Mickey Cohen, and overall corruption seen within Los Angeles, especially within the Los Angeles Police Department, as well as more political history of Los Angeles. While we touched upon these briefly in the discussions about the noir genre depicting Los Angeles, it would have been nice to see a more in-depth discussion of these topics.
Additionally, an overall suggestion I have for future courses, is to possibly use the PowerPoints that were available to view on Beachboard, as classes shifted online, during in-class discussions since it made it a little easier to take and organize notes. Other than that, I really enjoyed all of the class discussions and all of the pictures that were constantly shown during lecture to help us really visualize the space and time period, instead of having to imagine it in our heads.
UHP 401: Los Angeles Invention of a City was ultimately a very impactful course that covered the complex and fascinating history of Los Angeles, especially focusing on the recurring theme of the fear of the city as a corruptible place, which seemed to be present in noir writings and helped fuel Southern Californians’ escape to the safety of the suburbs. Studying the city and the metropolitan area surrounding it, consequently made me more aware my surroundings and has caused me to appreciate the history and backstory behind it all. After learning about this rich history of California, I plan to go out and see it all for myself so that I can truly visualize this history and feel connected to this magnificent place.