ONE SECTION OF D. J. Waldie’s new essay collection, Becoming Los Angeles, has a title that captures his immersive and soft-footed approach to the city, an approach that earned him die-hard fans over 20 years ago with Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir. The title is, “You Are Always Somewhere.”
The essays in this section show a deep awareness of his hometown of Lakewood, California, and Waldie argues that a main principle of Lakewood (and Los Angeles as a whole) is self-construction, artificiality. People come here to create new lives, and whether the landscape is “real” or not fails as a valid question. This aspect of Los Angeles reminds me of a scenic designer who once gave an interview to American Theatre about his set for a production of Enrico IV, the Pirandello tragedy of a man who believes he’s an 11th-century Holy Roman Emperor. Late in the play, the scenery pulls up, and you see the stark, echoing rear of the stage: concrete, curtain ropes, mold, and dust.
The designer had to design that, too. “You always see something,” he said.
Waldie’s talent for seeing what’s in front of his eyes in Los Angeles enriches these essays and transforms the collection into a beautiful book — even if, sometimes, the pieces hang together about as well as the city itself. He’s grouped them into thematic sections with poetic titles — “Fandangos of the Mythmakers,” “A Feeling for Landscape” — and short, artful paragraphs at the front of each section try to bring meaning and unity to the scattered collection, with mixed success.
“Los Angeles, whose geographic, psychological, and perceptual limits have been reached, is at an inflection point,” he writes in the introduction, and honestly I don’t know what that means. How does anyone define such limits for a metropolis, and how does a writer plant a flag on such fickle ground? As an L.A. native, I must be immune to most urban-theoretical prose about the city. The language of “reading” an urban landscape has always sounded to me like a certain class of academic trying to paint makeup on a pig. But Waldie’s no academic, even if he likes to conceptualize. As soon as he fixes Los Angeles in full detail under his lens, his essays come to life.
“A Traveler Comes to a Bridge” describes how L.A. residents crossed the sandy ditch known as the Los Angeles River in 1877.
A slab-sided, pitch-roofed, wooden bridge lit with kerosene lamps stolidly crosses at the river’s narrowest point. […] From the crest of Boyle Heights, all of this is visible — bridges, gap, river, roads — even the loom of Catalina Island, like a band of fog on the southern horizon. It’s near the end of the time when Los Angeles can be taken in one long glance.
Bridges helped the city grow. In the ’20s and ’30s, the Department of Public Works built Los Angeles’s collection of concrete bridges, “comfortable to the automobile,” but stylish and consciously grand. The most unique is the Fourth Street Bridge, designed by Louis Huot as a Gothic Revival monument to L.A., built to function as a viaduct and a rail crossing as well as a bridge for cars. “Patterned with areas of sun-struck brightness and panels of knife-edged shadow,” the bridge expressed the city fathers’ vaulting ambition and hope — in 1931, the second year of the Depression — but their idealism ignored the poor neighborhoods around the bridge, some of which the city later cleared for a tangle of downtown freeways. Now the Fourth Street Bridge looks odd, a quasi-European structure crossing a paved flood channel not so different in tone from the Tijuana River, laced overhead with ugly power lines. “The contained river below and the stylish viaduct above were intended to be monuments of Anglo triumph over nature and space. These are compromised achievements today,” he writes, “and need thoughtful translation.”
He likes to puncture stories Los Angeles tells about itself. Early in the book he dismantles Helen Hunt Jackson, author of the novel Ramona. This is perhaps too easy of a target. Most people dismiss her because of the melodramatic annual play in Hemet, but Waldie examines how the story came about, and how real-estate boosters at the turn of the 20th century relied on the novel’s blockbuster success to paint a kitsch new image of California. “Jackson’s goal was igniting support among progressive Christians for California’s Native communities,” he writes, “but her narrative strategy sabotaged her intention. Readers sighed over the sad fates of Ramona and her murdered husband Alessandro, but they longed to be in the romantic landscapes Jackson described.”
She traveled to California in the early 1880s to write a series of magazine pieces about the vanishing Spanish rancho system and the growing Anglo cities. California was added to the United States in 1850 after the Mexican-American War, and the transcontinental railroad had found its way to the coast. Jackson loved the climate and the slow, Spanish-inflected way of life. But the government’s treatment of Native Americans disgusted her, and she intended Ramona as a sort of Uncle Tom’s Cabin of the West. “Jackson was unable to manage the substitutions underway in the Americanization of Southern California,” Waldie writes. “The substitutions included fixed categories of ethnic and racial identity in place of the more fluid identities possible in pre-American California.”
Instead of sparking outrage at anti-Native racism, or the decline of an older, more Spanish way of life, Ramona created a “theater of sentiment” for the newer, more American one. The result was a lasting fascination with California among restless Midwesterners and ass-freezing Easterners, who started moving to Los Angeles. Twenty years after its publication, the novel’s popular success inspired a “faux-Spanish Revival in art, design, advertising, architecture, landscaping, and even urban planning that Anglos mistakenly adopted as the truest expression of what Southern California meant.”
Waldie not only takes down poor Mrs. Jackson with a velvet shiv, he also kneecaps the whole notion of a “traditional” L.A. aesthetic.
I should mention that Waldie never uses the term L.A. For him the city is “Los Angeles,” or nothing. He discusses the odd word “Angeleno,” which is misspelled Spanish, though it’s not clear from historical records whether the original was meant to be Angeleño or Angelino. The Real Academia Española, in any case, has made the word Angelino official in modern Spanish, possibly as a back-formation to express what people here call themselves in English.
Waldie also investigates ultra-fake Los Angeles: the “programmatic” and “mimetic” buildings, which include buildings that look like things they want to sell. “Once upon a time in Los Angeles, you could get a hot dog from a hot dog and a tamale inside a tamale. You could get a bowl of chili while sitting in a chili bowl.” The Brown Derby, Randy’s Donuts, and Tail o’ the Pup belonged to an era of rapid expansion, when some business owners had no time or taste for fine architecture. In a desert atmosphere charged with Hollywood fantasy — where D. W. Griffith had built his Babylon set for Intolerance on the public corner of Sunset and Hollywood, where it sat for most of World War I — some business owners must have figured, Hell, why not? Architectural critics, visitors from Europe, Nathanael West (who was eloquent and biting), all hated these cheap fantasies. But Waldie isn’t wrong:
Objections to the inauthenticity of Los Angeles architecture mistook what was fundamental about the city. Traditional architecture styles — a department store decorated like a Venetian palazzo, a bank that looked like a Roman temple, a church that pretended to be Gothic — were as inauthentic in Los Angeles as a tire plant in the form of an Assyrian fortress.
Accordingly, in one of the phoniest of L.A. neighborhoods — Lakewood — Waldie turns intimate and sensual. He grew up there; he knows how strange it is. Joan Didion has described how developers punched out houses like license plates in 1950 to create a subdivision north of Long Beach, where workers for Hughes and Douglas and Rockwell could raise the kids. “A new foundation was excavated every fifteen minutes,” she writes. “Cement trucks were lined up for a mile, waiting to move down the new blocks pouring foundations.” Lakewood belonged to a midcentury vision of Los Angeles as Tomorrowland, where high tech and the American Dream could fuse in the suburbs to become a whole new lifestyle, in a great spasm of stucco and chlorinated water. It lasted one generation. Aerospace declined after 1990; the neighborhood faded with the Cold War.
Didion arrived in 1993 to write about the Spur Posse, a pathetic but sexually predatory teenage clique at Lakewood High. They went on trashy talk shows, where the term “white trash” was mentioned, and Didion noted the quick, sharp drop from the middle-class dream. Waldie worked as a public-relations officer for Lakewood at the time. “Naïvely,” he told her, “you could say that Lakewood was the American Dream made affordable for a generation of industrial workers who in the preceding generation could never aspire to that kind of ownership.” In her book-bound edition of the piece, “Where I Was From,” Didion expresses a retrospective admiration for Holy Land, which came out three years after her original New Yorker report.
Waldie still loves Lakewood, without delusion. He doesn’t drive, so his essays about the suburb describe his quiet walks — to work at City Hall, or to Mass on Sundays, past sprinklered lawns and public parks. They mention “immigrant squirrels,” brought to California from the Midwest, probably after the Civil War. They note the population explosion of garden snails, first imported by Basques who just wanted a taste of home. He considers tumbleweeds, a Russian import, which rolled across the Great Plains from either North or South Dakota and arrived in California by 1885. “Crows,” he writes, “brought themselves.” Waldie appreciates the tame green fury of nature in Lakewood without pretending it could have existed before the plumbing or the sprinkler systems (no cement trucks = no lake and no wood). But somehow thousands of people have lived, suffered, and died in this artificial place. “When I stop in the middle of the sidewalk at dusk and pivot slowly to take in the whole sky above the rooflines, I also know that the wheeling contrast of the lighter clouds against the blue-black sky is an artifact of the reflected glare of the basin’s tens of thousands of streetlights.”
Exactly: You always see something. The challenge is to grasp what it is.
Michael Scott Moore is the author of a best-selling memoir, The Desert and the Sea, as well as Too Much of Nothing, a comic novel set in Los Angeles. He was born in Los Angeles but lived in Berlin for over a decade.