Days of the Dead: Frozen Bodies, Real Martyrs, and the Quest for Immortality in the City of Angels

By Peter LunenfeldAugust 11, 2020

Days of the Dead: Frozen Bodies, Real Martyrs, and the Quest for Immortality in the City of Angels





THERE IS A frozen creature in Southern California that will not die, an Indomitable Snowman straining against his glacial cocoon to claim his rightful place among the superheroes, villains, and shape-shifting chimeras cranked out by entertainment conglomerates from Anaheim to Burbank. This creature is their spiritual godfather, (Walter Elias) Disney on Ice. His body is, of course, not cryogenically preserved beneath Disneyland’s Pirates of the Caribbean, as urban legend would have it and was in point of fact cremated and then interred at Forest Lawn Cemetery. But no matter. Disney’s frozen head is tailor-made for metaphor. Uncle Walt was an animator, bringing to life the insentient and making delightful the impossible. With a wave of his hand, brooms danced and mice sang. Playing with mortality is the secret sauce ladled over his corporate oeuvre. Bambi’s mother, Dumbo’s father, both of Cinderella’s parents, deer, elephant, and human — all dead. Yet mortality’s sting isn’t as fatal in Disney’s realm as it is in our own. Snow White eats a poisoned apple and undergoes a sleeping death, only to be reanimated by “love’s first kiss.” Disney understood Hollywood’s maxim that if something works once, it will work again. Thus Sleeping Beauty, where yet another young girl succumbs to the machinations of yet another evil older woman, falling into a state closer to a coma than to sleep, only to be awakened by another one of those kisses. Eros and Thanatos were never so colorful, nor so well scored.

Disney’s obsessions mirrored those of the region. Southern California was the first place on earth where human bodies were frozen with the specific intention of later being thawed out and then — what? Cured? Saved? Reanimated? In 1967 the first cryonaut, retired psychologist Dr. James Bedford of Glendale, California, transitioned into the icy unknown. The freezing process was overseen by the president of the Cryonics Society of California, Robert Nelson, an Los Angeles–based television repairman later reviled for the “Chatsworth Disaster,” concatenating comic atrocities that included the cramming of two, three, or even four bodies into capsules meant for one and the abdication of the moral and financial responsibility to maintain the liquid nitrogen at minus 196 degrees Celsius. Nelson’s charges putrefied, as meat — even of the human kind — will do without proper refrigeration. The Valley News reported that “the stench near the crypt is disarming, strips away all defenses, spins the stomach into a thousand dizzying somersaults.” Should we be surprised that the man behind this debacle in the San Fernando Valley mortuary turned out to be the creator of the myth of Disney on Ice? In the Los Angeles Times, Nelson claimed — without offering any corroborating evidence — that in the short interval between Bedford’s freezing and Disney’s death a few months later, the master’s personal secretary had contacted him to inquire about cryonics. “If things had worked out differently,” went Nelson’s dubious claim, “Walt Disney could have been the first man frozen.” There is a poetic logic to rumors of cryogenesis swirling around an animator obsessed with the future. Disney worked with rocket scientists to promote space travel, featured a “Tomorrowland” in each of his parks, and oversaw plans for EPCOT, the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, a utopian city he envisioned as the jewel of Florida’s Disney World. Why shouldn’t an imagination this capacious have embraced technology to escape death?

So many denizens of the Disney empire can be counted among the undead. Take Mickey Mouse. Copyright on this signature rodent has been extended twice, first in 1976 and again in 1998, with the magnificently named Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act. While Disney’s corporate lawyers have done a great job of suing preschools and day care facilities for putting up unauthorized Donald Duck murals, they are occasionally slapped down for overreach. And when it comes to cultural sensitivity to appropriation, it turns out that entertainment conglomerates could stand to be a bit more woke, especially when dealing with those who have gone to their eternal rest. In 2013, as a then-untitled Pixar film went into production, Disney set to work pre-protecting the corporation’s intellectual property. The animators were tackling a new subject, Mexican folklore, and so on May 1, the corporation’s lawyers filed an application with the US Patent and Trademark Office to trademark “Día de los Muertos,” as well as “Day of the Dead.” There are places in the United States where this lawyerly hubris would not have had much impact, but Southern California wasn’t one of them. It’s not just the Mexican and Mexican American populations in the region; it’s the fact that even non–Latinx residents understood that what the House of Mouse was attempting fell somewhere between trademarking a religious sacrament and invading the Yucatán Peninsula.

Día de los Muertos, a holiday consecrated to venerating the dead, dates back to the pre-contact period. Its best known North American variant developed in Mexico, melding Indigenous and Catholic idioms. Traditions include decorating cemeteries and creating ofrendas, or altars, commemorating family and friends who have passed on. The ofrendas can be as simple or ornate as their builders wish, often lit with candles, covered in the Aztec marigolds known as cempasúchil, and embellished with skulls made of sugar. An ofrenda usually has two or more levels. At the bottom are the “down-to-earth” elements, such as small chairs and woven mats, so the souls of the departed can rest. The middle level holds candles, food, and especially drink, tequila or mescal in particular. The top displays photos or other keepsakes of loved ones, to keep them in memory. Families in the United States practiced Día de los Muertos at home until the 1970s, when Los Angeles pioneered public celebrations that have expanded across the country, transforming the holiday into a cross-cultural, ecumenical celebration. In the new millennium, Día de los Muertos — packaged and merchandized as Day of the Dead — has become, like Halloween, another opportunity to stoke the desire for carnival, which translates into spending money, this time not on “sexy nurse” or Iron Man costumes but on those evoking the dapper skeletons La Catrina and El Catrín.

Given the Día/Day’s new ubiquity, the audacity of Disney’s legal team came off as particularly offensive. Nor, of course, would it be the first time the powerful attempted to strip the people of ownership of something no one had previously assumed could be owned. Cartoonist Lalo Alcaraz, for one, was furious. He created a poster for an imaginary film titled Muerto Mouse, which starred a Godzilla–sized, skeletal Mickey rampaging through the city’s streets, with the tagline “It’s coming to trademark your cultura!” Twitter mobs and the churning online outrage machine sprang into action, generating petitions signed by more than 20,000 people and garnering mainstream media attention. As CNN observed in its coverage, Disney might do well to note that, its claim to ownership aside, the Día/Day had been listed, as far back as 2003, among UNESCO’s “Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.”

But Disney didn’t become the most influential entertainment conglomerate in the world without learning something about “community outreach” and crisis management. Its PR department set to work calming the Twitterverse, reining in the lawyers, and transforming the embarrassment into a triumph of multicultural marketing. One of its masterstrokes was to invite into its realm stakeholders and critics, including Alcaraz, as “cultural advisers.” When “The Untitled Pixar Movie About Día de los Muertos” was released as Coco in 2017, the outrage had dissipated and the lawyers’ cold hearts, one presumes, were warmed by the film’s Academy Award for Best Animated Feature and the almost $1 billion in revenue generated worldwide.

Another of these cultural advisers was the master altarista Ofelia Esparza. A lifelong resident of East Los Angeles, Esparza learned the art of constructing an altar from the women in her family, a tradition she passed on to her own daughter, the artist Rosanna Esparza Ahrens. In 2018, they created the Alter to el Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de Los Ángeles, which is on permanent display at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County . The el Pueblo altar is more than a dozen feet wide and features almost 300 images and objects representing the city, ranging from Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers to Jesse Valadez’s famed Gypsy Rose lowrider to a small Mickey Mouse Disneyland souvenir, festooned with sugar skulls and skeletons.

Just to the right of Mickey is an image of a stamp that the US Postal Service issued on April 22, 2008. The face on the stamp may not register instantly, but the name, “Rubén Salazar,” and the legend, “during Chicano protest rally in East Los Angeles,” might take some people back. During the 1960s and ’70s, Salazar was the most important Latino journalist in the United States and for many their first introduction to what became known as El Movimiento, or the Chicano civil rights movement. Without the memory of Rubén Salazar, the Day of the Dead as we know it — not to mention Disney’s Coco — might not exist.

Salazar was the first Mexican American to hold a full-time position at the Los Angeles Times as a reporter, and while he was always concerned with border issues and immigration, he maintained fairly centrist views throughout the 1950s and early ’60s. But in the later part of the decade, Salazar held two important positions, as a columnist for the Times, and news director for KMEX, the first Spanish–language television station in Southern California. Salazar was there as the political consciousness of Mexican immigrants and Mexican Americans crystallized under the pressure of endemic racism, law enforcement harassment, chronically underfunded schools, and the Vietnam War’s toll on the community’s youth, who suffered terrible casualties during the United States’ Southeast Asian incursions. African Americans’ struggle for civil rights was a paradigm for many other battles: women’s liberation, the battle for gay rights, the American Indian Movement for Indigenous peoples, and, throughout the Southwest, a movement of and for Mexican immigrants and Mexican Americans that identified itself with the idea of chicanismo. The term “Chicano” was originally a derogatory word for people who, while living in the United States and of Mexican descent, were not “fully of” either country. However, in the 1960s, activists seized upon the term. With his dual affiliation, Salazar was able to introduce Chicano activism to his Anglo–dominant readership at the Times, while giving those same activists television time on KMEX, in Spanish no less, to speak directly to their community, not all of whom were ready to embrace Chicano as a label or politic.

On February 6, 1970, Salazar wrote a now-famous Times column, “Who Is a Chicano? And What Is It the Chicanos Want?” In a region “where the country’s largest single concentration of Spanish-speaking live,” Chicanos are the people who “have no one of their own on the City Council.” As for what they want, Salazar was direct: “They want to effect change. Now.” For Los Angeles’ police, notorious for intelligence operations aimed at “subversives,” and for L.A. county sheriffs, responsible for patrolling (and, in those days, “controlling”) the unincorporated Mexican-immigrant and Mexican American part of the county known as East Los Angeles Salazar was the enemy — less a reporter than a mouthpiece for the young demonstrators whom they saw as insurrectionaries, if not full-blown communists or anarchists. Law and order fetishists saw Salazar as less of a neutral observer than the head of a fifth column supported by the Westside’s feckless, self-loathing left-wingers, whom LAPD chief Ed Davis sneeringly referred to as “swimming-pool Communists” rather than the more commonly disparaging “limousine liberals.”

The 1968 Chicano high school walkouts were a watershed. Kids demonstrating against the separate and entirely unequal treatment they received in East L.A. schools suffered brutally at the hands of the sheriff ’s deputies. Television, including Salazar’s KMEX, covered the way they were roughed up for pointing out that at high schools like Roosevelt and Garfield there was only one college counselor per 4,000  students, though there were more than enough military recruiters to hit up any Latino who wanted out of the neighborhood, even if by way of Vietnam or Cambodia.

The student walkouts were followed by ever larger demonstrations in Los Angeles and around the country, the largest on August 29, 1970, in East Los Angeles. Organized by the National Chicano Moratorium Committee, the antiwar protest drew more than 20,000 people, who marched down Whittier Boulevard to the green knolls of Laguna Park. What started out peacefully quickly escalated into what can only be called a police riot, with sheriff ’s deputies sweeping through the crowds, shields up and batons bashing. The most controversial incident was in a dark little bar called the Silver Dollar, at the corner of Whittier and La Verne. The sheriffs stormed the place after receiving an anonymous tip that something was going down inside. Despite the fact that a photographer for the Chicano Movement’s paper, La Raza — surprised by the near-instant massing of law enforcement around this otherwise quiet space — was there shooting pictures of the action, what happened next is still one of the most debated tragedies in Los Angeles history. What is undisputed is that Deputy Thomas Wilson fired a tear gas canister designed to pierce walls through the bar’s open door and that hours later authorities announced they had discovered Rubén Salazar dead on the Silver Dollar’s floor.

Salazar had stepped inside for a beer in part because he was concerned that he was being followed. One didn’t have to be much of a conspiracist to see this as the intentional murder of a journalist. As a foreign correspondent for the Times, Salazar had survived a stint in war-torn Saigon and served as chief of bureau in Mexico City during its worst social unrest since the revolution, yet he ended up lying in a pool of blood on Whittier Boulevard. There were contradictory reports from the very start, some claiming a bullet to the head, later ones coalescing around the tear gas canister delivering the lethal blow. There was a coroner’s inquest into his death and also a secret federal grand jury investigation, but neither identified enough concrete evidence to bring anyone to trial. Whether accidental casualty or victim of a targeted assassination, Salazar became a martyr to the Chicano cause. His body was displayed at Bagües & Sons Mortuary in Boyle Heights, and they handled the viewing as if it were a state funeral.

His memory still resonates. Laguna Park is now Ruben F. Salazar Park. He is featured in murals everywhere from The Wall That Speaks, Sings and Shouts in Los Angeles to Lincoln Park in El Paso, Texas. Chicano music giant Lalo Guerrero closed his corrido “La Tragedia Del 29 De Agosto” with “Que no haya muerto en vano Rubén Salazar,” a plea that the martyr should not have died in vain. In Frank Romero’s wall-sized painting Death of Rubén Salazar (1986), a stylized phalanx of deputies shoot projectiles-cum-fireworks over the roof of the Silver Dollar, just next door to a movie theater whose marquee reads “La Muerte de Rubén Salazar.” Romero was a member of Los Four, who were among the first Chicanx artists to show at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. He was also associated with Self Help Graphics & Art (SHG), an Eastside institution founded in the early seventies by the Franciscan nun Karen Boccalero and artists Carlo Bueno, Antonio Ibáñez, and Frank Hernandez . It was there that the most enduring, yet least recognized tribute to the martyred journalist began. Three years after Salazar’s death, and as the white-hot moment of the Chicano movement cooled, SHG decided to do something public that drew upon their own cultura but that would make an impact on the city and beyond. They invited altaristas to build ofrendas and folks in the neighborhood to parade in costume through the streets, thereby staging the first modern, public iteration of Day of the Dead in the United States — all to commemorate Rubén Salazar.


Even though we might wish it otherwise, we often remember the powerful better and longer than we do the legends of those who fight them. So it is that Los Angeles offers far more lasting memorials to Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, two Angelenos who rose to power specifically because they promised to wield the cudgel of law and order against the incursions of the “counterculture,” that is, what and whom Salazar was perceived to represent. Nixon’s presidency from 1969 to 1974, followed a mere seven years later by Reagan’s, from 1981 to 1989, can be identified as the two decades in which Southern California’s political influence over the nation was at its height. Both men claimed to speak for the forgotten and the voiceless, but their “silent” majorities were not at all silent when it came to denouncing any challenge to their status. Organizing that majority into a reliable, reactionary voting bloc required money, which Southern California plutocrats — including aerospace’s Howard Hughes, publishing’s Walter and Lee Annenberg, retailing’s Alfred and Betsy Bloomingdale, and manufacturing’s Earle and Marion Jorgensen — were more than happy to supply. What all these very rich people shared was a certainty that the “other” had to be battled tooth and claw (Nixon’s preferred feral style) or, alternatively, via sunny guile (the Reagan approach).

These divergent styles are immortalized in Nixon’s and Reagan’s respective presidential libraries. No other metropolitan area can boast of the presence of two presidential libraries, Nixon’s in Orange County’s Yorba Linda, Reagan’s in Ventura County’s Simi Valley, two of the most reliably conservative bastions in Southern California. Presidential libraries are compelling because they straddle the line between celebration and history. The British warehoused notable kings beneath Westminster Abbey, the French created a secular mausoleum for national heroes in the Panthéon, and, since 1924, V. I. Lenin has been on display in Red Square, outlasting the USSR itself. For more than half a century, the trend in the United States has been to entomb presidential corpses in presidential libraries. But their primary purpose is to house official papers and, secondarily, to provide gathering places for the faithful.

In Nixon’s case, the presentation of legacy has been particularly complicated. After resigning the presidency under threat of impeachment in 1974, Nixon boarded a plane for La Casa Pacifica in San Clemente, his Western White House, to receive a pardon from his second VP (his first had resigned for tax fraud), to watch Watergate coconspirators like G. Gordon Liddy go to jail, and to write his memoirs. The first of those came out in 1978, and the long and laborious road back to something like respectability began. A dozen years later the president and his wife, Pat, presided over the opening of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum on land that once belonged to his family. Privately funded by the same plutocrats who had backed his political career, the new institution faced a crucial question: how to craft a narrative of the immoral, the illegal, and the unethical? For more than two decades, the Nixon Library muted these issues, diverting attention to Nixon’s diplomatic achievements. The place is littered with bronze statues of the man interacting with other bronze statues — Prime Minister Churchill, President Charles de Gaulle, and, naturally, Chairman Mao Zedong to celebrate the “opening” of China. The statues are life-size and placed on the ground, which unintentionally diminishes them, making you understand why Napoleon was always immortalized atop a horse. After two decades of this institutionalized amnesia, a mandate from the federal government forced a reckoning with the difficult historical realities, and the story of Nixon’s fall is now told with greater detail and accuracy. But the new exhibits on Watergate and the resignation did not sit well with Nixon partisans, who resigned as docents and board members and drafted hundred-page letters of complaint. Perhaps they were mollified by a statue added more recently, in the newly recreated Lincoln Study. In this incarnation, Nixon reclines on an easy chair, feet propped on an ottoman, a pen in one hand, a legal pad in the other. The scale and lighting humanize him, showcasing him in his role as lifelong student of history, one of the best writers to emerge from the office, even if he did so in extremis, forever the embattled Nixon Agonistes.

The scale of that statue, and even of the library itself, surrounded as it is by an inauspicious suburban panoply of car washes, dry cleaners, and fast casual restaurants, contrasts with the full-on monumentalism of Reagan’s spread, located in the hills, atop a winding road, at 40 Presidential Drive, the number less geolocative than symbolic, Reagan having been the 40th POTUS. The Gipper left office after two full terms, and his reputation has only grown. He is, without a doubt, 21st century Republicans’ favorite 20th century president. That means his scandals — including the failed arms-for-hostages deal known as Iran-Contra — get little coverage, and glossed over are the inconvenient facts about his private life. No mention of Alzheimer’s. No sign of his son’s ballet dancing (a career that prompted AIDS activists to spread rumors that Ron Reagan was gay). His first wife, the actress Jane Wyman, is given less wall space than that devoted to a “Just Say No” antidrug board game sponsored by second wife Nancy. What the library does offer in abundance, however, is pharaonic ambition. It is the country’s largest, and in 2004 it added a 90,000-square-foot glass pavilion housing the actual Air Force One that flew American presidents from Lyndon Johnson to George H. W. Bush around the globe. Nixon died before the pavilion opened, but one wonders how he would have felt looking at the very same plane that took him back to California after his resignation.

If thoughts of Tricky Dick invariably pull us over to the dark side, the Great Communicator’s blithe “morning in America” demeanor, so inspiring to his admirers, so infuriating to his detractors, is imbued with the evergreen radiance that celebrity occasionally confers on those it touches. It should come as no surprise that Reagan’s library was the first to embrace three-dimensional holography. As of 2018, the first exhibit visitors encounter is a tableau of the dead president reanimated and re-dimensionalized. Here he is forever fixed in time — on a whistle-stop tour, in the Oval Office, at his beloved Rancho del Cielo in Santa Barbara, his holographic golden retriever, Victory, trotting at his cowboy boot–shod holographic feet. To create this thanatopic spectacle, the producers composed the soundtracks out of spliced fragments drawn from the huge archive of Reagan’s recorded speeches. Then they found an actor whose mannerisms and body were close enough matches to make the digital suturing appear realistic. During the lengthy shoot, the actor wore one of Reagan’s own belt buckles, an actual saddle from the ranch serving as decor. The million and a half dollars invested in this endeavor, however, did not mitigate its unheimlich creepiness.

Reagan isn’t even Southern California’s most famous resurrected icon. That distinction belongs to Tupac Shakur, the rapper, poet, and actor who turned up at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in 2012 to perform with fellow hip-hop legends Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre. When a shirtless Tupac bounded onstage and bellowed, “What the fuck is up, Coachellaaaaa!” the audience erupted into cheers, delighting in Tupac’s return from the dead. They couldn’t care less that this victim of West Coast rap’s most famous unsolved murder had died 16 years earlier, three years before the very first Coachella. For that matter, Tupac wasn’t even “really” a hologram, being instead a version of a “Pepper’s Ghost,” an optical effect dating back to the 19th century in which an image is projected onto angled pieces of glass, which then reflect it back onto the stage, creating an illusion of embodiment for the audience. Many of the same people involved with the Tupac show later worked on the Reagan hologram. No matter that Reagan wasn’t exactly a rap fan, being a Great American Songbook kind of guy, or that Tupac once lamented of eight years of Republican rule, “under Ronald Reagan, an ex-actor who lies to the people, who steals money, and who’s done nothing at all for me.” However divided in life, the Teflon President and Makaveli (as Tupac came to call himself after reading Machiavelli’s The Prince in prison) are now united in virtuality. In Los Angeles, a city committed to forestalling death and fetishizing immortality, their differences are ignored as both are reborn as 21st century avatars of the 3-D afterlife.


Southern California’s cemeteries are big business, and like the entertainment industry that surrounds them and supplies their best-known clients, they must innovate or die. In 1917 Hubert Eaton, who vaingloriously referred to himself as the “Builder,” created in Glendale’s Forest Lawn what he saw as “a place for the living,” with art rather than relics, a “spiritual” rather than a “religious” space: “I shall endeavor to build Forest Lawn as different, as unlike other cemeteries as sunshine is unlike darkness, as Eternal Life is unlike death.” English visitors including Aldous Huxley and Evelyn Waugh could contain neither their contempt nor their guffaws at Eaton’s antiseptic necropolis with its bowdlerized art and flag waving patriotism, but the regular Folks of Southern California ate it up. Until Disneyland opened, it was Southern California’s most popular tourist attraction and the place Walt Disney’s parents most wanted to see when they came to Los Angeles to visit — and where, as noted above, Walt himself chose to be interred.

Another cemetery favored by the entertainment elite was Hollywood Memorial Park, which backs directly onto the Paramount Studios lot. Among the notables laid to rest there are director Cecil B. DeMille, actress/singer Judy Garland, and Mel Blanc, the voice of Bugs Bunny, whose headstone is inscribed THAT’S ALL FOLKS. It was also the final stop for gangster Bugsy Siegel, but that’s a longer, bloodier, story that pauses along the way at the safe beneath his regular table at the Formosa Café, a mile and a half west on Santa Monica Boulevard. Siegel was hardly the only shady character associated with the place. Jules Roth, its owner from 1939 to 1998, was a crook who sailed around the world on the company yacht, a head-scratching extravagance he supported by embezzling $9 million from the endowment care fund intended to maintain the grave sites in perpetuity. In 1974 the crematorium literally collapsed around the body of singer “Mama” Cass Elliot, and by the ’90s the cemetery itself went bankrupt.

When Tyler and Brent Cassity, two brothers from the Midwest, moved to Los Angeles to take over in 1998, there was much to be done. They immediately rebranded Hollywood Memorial Park as Hollywood Forever and committed millions to renovations. But they weren’t interested in mere upgrades. Like Eaton, the “Builder” behind Forest Lawn, their plan was to reinvent the category. One of their schemes was the creation of LifeStories video headstones, online tributes to the dead that resembled nothing so much as the “montages” that SoCal kids were feted with at bar mitzvahs, quinceañeras, and sweet sixteens. In promoting LifeStories, the Cassitys declared that the “ultimate way in this town to cheat death is to become famous” and that at “least with the tribute your memories are preserved forever.” Well, not exactly forever: the cemetery discontinued this service as DIY smartphone memorials became ubiquitous. More lasting has been the importation of actual films into the resting places of the people, famous and not, who made them. Since 2002, Hollywood Forever has been hosting open air summer screenings that draw up to four thousand Angelenos, who come to picnic on the grass, smoke weed, and enjoy the show. These evenings have reinvigorated the 19th century tradition of treating cemeteries as spaces to commune with the living as well as the dead. But for many, the real draw is the stars glittering overhead.


From the inception of the movie business in Los Angeles, the city has crafted infernal engines to produce “more stars than there are in heaven,” to quote the MGM Studios tagline. But mystics and string theorists tell us that there are at least as many heavens as there are stars. The connections made here from Mickey to Coco to Salazar to Tupac to Mama Cass are inspired as much by the city’s platzgeist, or “spirit of the place,” as by any trail of evidence, drawing less from the causalities so dear to the discipline of history than from the esoteric correspondences central to alchemy.

Alchemy’s great work had as its goal producing a philosopher’s stone that could perform miracles: the first, transmuting base metals into gold, and the second, granting immortal vitality. That fame could create infinite riches and everlasting youth remains one of the city’s animating fantasies. But as the sense of Los Angeles’s history deepens, the city that has been at the edge of forever can break through the screen and open itself both to multiplicities and multitudes.


From CITY AT THE EDGE OF FOREVER by Peter Lunenfeld, published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2020 by Peter Lunenfeld.


Peter Lunenfeld is the author of City at the Edge of Forever: Los Angeles Reimagined (Viking, 2020) from which this essay has been excerpted. He is professor and vice chair of the department of Design Media Arts at UCLA, where he is also on the Urban and Digital Humanities faculties.

LARB Contributor

Peter Lunenfeld is a professor in UCLA’s Department of Design Media Arts, and on the Digital Humanities and Urban Humanities faculties. Director of the Institute for Technology and Aesthetics (ITA), he is most recently the author of City at the Edge of Forever: Los Angeles Reimagined (2020). His website is


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