Home and History in the Fiction of Los Angeles
By Sarah-Jane StratfordOctober 24, 2014
LOS ANGELES does not, perhaps, get enough credit for feeding the imaginations of science fiction writers. Our original cinematic visions of imagined futures — often dystopian wastelands — were shaped by their film locations on what was then undeveloped land outside Los Angeles. Even the futuristic worlds on soundstages called back to Los Angeles, a city whose rapid growth was multi-pronged and haphazard. But despite the sprawl and isolating car culture that fueled dystopian fancies, the city has certainly not been a dystopia. When we talk about the pace and occasionally impractical results of LA’s development, often conducted without long-term considerations, we tend to overlook the beauty, inventiveness, and quirky charm of so much of LA’s architecture. It’s no wonder Los Angeles has long been a home to writers who found comfort, space, and privacy to let their minds wander through the thicket of human experience.
Some of LA’s most inventive residents, like Ray Bradbury, attempted to use the conduit of literature to prevent LA from actually becoming the dystopian world it had helped people envision. But while LA’s isolation and tension, and excessive concrete, may themselves not have been a problem, they are being met with a new difficulty: mansionization. And as this trend gains apace, the city is in danger of inadvertently creating exactly the sort of desolate society it has excelled in rendering as entertainment.
Plenty of people knew that for over 50 years, Bradbury lived in the peaceful enclave of Cheviot Hills, nestled in West LA, but it was only when photos of his home were published prior to its sale this past June that admirers were able to revel in the writing sanctuary he’d carved for himself in the basement of the comparatively modest 1937 home. The story and photos were seen and discussed in newspapers around the world, and for a moment, people felt connected to the mechanics of story-making. Literature touches us, offers guidance as we wend our way through life’s daily labyrinth, and when a door is opened onto the business of its creation, we can’t help but feel awed and grateful, both for the work and the privilege of understanding its physical origin, even if we can’t — and shouldn’t — access the emotional nucleus. Bradbury’s house offered a glimpse not only of his own writing process, but also of the magical space that LA can make available to writers.
But Ray Bradbury’s house may yet become a victim of Los Angeles’s willingness to trample its own history. Cheviot Hills is one of many neighborhoods that has seen much of its smaller, older, and even iconic houses, no matter their architectural or cultural provenance, razed and replaced with McMansions. While other cultural meccas such as London and New York regularly place plaques on houses boasting architectural interest, or having once given someone of significance a space to live or work, LA — perhaps in deference to privacy, or because so few people walk — lets many of its homes remain anonymous, the history available only to those who make an effort to learn it. It’s not that it’s impossible to have Bradbury’s house considered for designation of historic interest, and even to receive one of the city’s rare plaques, but there is no report of anyone having submitted the request. When I spoke to the real estate agent overseeing the sale, he could offer no specifics about how the house would or would not be preserved. So everything from the simple exterior down to the bookcase-lined basement where Bradbury worked could be sent to landfill, should the new owners so desire.
The house itself is not arresting, though it still boasts most of its original features along with its interesting ghosts. But Cheviot Hills as a whole, a small neighborhood of about 1.54 square miles, comprising some 1400 homes, has historically been described as a hidden treasure, looking little different from its 1920s birth when it was filled with English cottages followed by, in LA style, Spanish and Storybook houses and California bungalows. The neighborhood is named for a Scottish mountain range, and that association carries over in many of the names of its hilly streets: Bannockburn, Dunleer, Troon, Ayres. The words “charming,” “quaint,” and “unique” are used liberally — even by the real estate agents who have been fruitfully colluding with the developers to fiddle the prices and fudge details of buyers so that an original house ends up with the developer, who then mows it down to replace it with a speculative mansion that is the very antithesis of charming, peaceful, unique, or even homey.
Cheviot Hills has done a poor job of marking its own history. Stan Laurel, Buster Keaton, Phil Silvers, and Lucille Ball all once called it home, though none of their houses are marked. Some of its architects, such as Edmond Aiken and Robert Byrd, are considered masters of their form, their names touted in listings, but even some of these houses have fallen to developers eager, they say, to give modern buyers what they “need” — homes as large as 5,000 square feet, on a lot that once held a house half that size, or smaller.
The facelessness of the mansions, the ruthlessness with which they are built, along with the cheap, often plastic, materials that comprise them, and their propensity to swallow front and backyards alike, even uprooting longstanding but now inconvenient trees, makes them feel like the architecture that comprises the sort of dystopian world Bradbury described so trenchantly.
To the extent architecture is mentioned in science fiction, it is typically in the shape of megalopolis cities, often characterized by cold, faceless, soulless structures, both informing and reflecting the denizens’ temperament. These cities are usually stripped of greenery and surrounded by wasteland. In the 1950s and 1960s, this scenario was primarily prompted by the images of nuclear devastation and fears of the Bomb. Brutalist architecture and pre-fab housing — cheap, fast, utilitarian — provided more fodder for a dystopian-inclined imagination. But even the elements that were widely hailed as improvements in the postwar era — the development of suburbs where there had previously been farms and forest, and the rise of electronic entertainment and other comforts drawing families indoors, rather than out amongst the community — gave authors much to think about when considering a future that seemed to be approaching more rapidly than ever before.
The short-term planning epitomized by urban mansionization and speculative housing is in effect an outgrowth of the sort of binary thinking that distinguishes much of the American psyche and culture. Today’s speculative housing — in the shape of corporate-designed, swiftly erected mansions — provides quick money to developers and perceived status to its buyers, with little regard for communal integrity or long-term infrastructure. It provides the wealthy a swift reward, furthering the already Gilded Age-like income inequality characterizing modern society. Speculative literature, on the other hand, is a way of criticizing binary thinking, in part by insisting on long-term thinking. It posits an idea of how current modes of operation might result if they carry on without alteration. It invites — even begs — us to think beyond the immediate and to consider the consequences of our actions. It intrigues and frightens us because it reminds us how fragile is the world we presume solid.
Great writers of speculative literature, such as Bradbury, Kurt Vonnegut, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Isaac Asimov, observe the past as much as the present when they contemplate the future, and ask us to consider not just who we are, but whom we have the potential to be. Their work asks us to pay attention to ourselves and the world around us as a means of avoiding dystopia, a place where we have lost so much of what defines the best of humanity.
Defenders of mansions replacing smaller, individually designed homes insist that these are needed, and if they can be paid for, why should they not be available? They are a reward, an entitlement; the natural product of both the confidence in the housing market and the inherent confidence of the American persona. But to some observers, the McMansion is less the natural culmination of a “man’s home is his castle” ethos, and instead the apex of American isolationism.
Loneliness and isolation are common literary themes, but science fiction traditionally takes them further, with dystopian societies characterized by societal fragmentation, forcible conformity, and lack of connections. Even the overpopulation that the dystopian world often depicts does not preclude loneliness, reflecting Kurt Vonnegut’s observation: “There are too many of us, and we are all too far apart.” Literature provides company and recognition as well as provoking thought, which is why totalitarian societies attempt to eradicate books — itself an eradication of the mooring strengths of history and ideas. In Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, the rationale is that books are burdensome and challenging, making us deal with emotions we would rather not feel, interacting with the deepest aspects of humanity and knowing our own frailties. Enormous indoor space negates the need for communal interaction, creating the potential for societal fragmentation.
The fear of a fraught future that so many sci-fi authors have seen pulsing under surface confidence and seized on as inspiration may particularly undergird the desire for a mansion to house a family with children. The more houses strip away outdoor space, tamping down nature at the doorstep, the more everyone — but especially children, so vulnerable to the world’s caprice — are encouraged to stay inside. With playrooms and game rooms, they don’t need to go out for their entertainment and are thus, temporally, “safe.” It’s no surprise that there are now houses in Cheviot Hills that look more like fortresses than homes, glaring down at their neighbors, forcing them into shadow, and offering a challenge to all who approach, rather than an invitation. They not only erase history, they reflect an image of ourselves as timid and made of weak matter, though determined to be seen as invincible.
It is a curious function of science fiction that, in using past as prologue, it subtly asks us to learn and treasure our history. However inadvertently, it calls for preservation, because communing with our physical history and the attendant ghosts shows us where we’ve been and provides emotional anchoring. The more we at least mark places that connect to something ongoing in our culture, the more bonds we create with the past.
One of the difficulties in talking about preservation is that dichotomous thinking continually forces itself into the equation. When I spoke to Adrian Fine of the LA Conservancy, he noted that they are getting away from the term “preservationist” because it has become so loaded, making broad — and even civil — discourse almost impossible. A bid for preservation is too often greeted with a cry of class warfare, of being an attempt of the upper class “bourgeoisie” at maintaining a status quo that suits them. (An irony when discussing mansionization, as by its nature it is tailored for the wealthiest among us.)
The Conservancy stresses, however, that it is not against change. Rather, it is attempting to help the city manage change, and allow for growth in a way that preserves communal integrity, if not each and every building in any given area. The Conservancy’s primary goal is, in effect, storytelling. What they have observed is that teaching local residents about their area’s history, its origins, past residents, architects, and actions, prompts them to become more invested in their homes and the larger community around them. Citizens are then more inclined to record that history along the streets, letting each house tell its story, even as the surrounding city moves forward into a future, and a genre yet unknown.
Sarah-Jane Stratford is currently writing a novel for New American Library about women in broadcast journalism during the early years of the BBC. She is the author of two previous works of historical fiction and has written for a number of publications, including The Guardian, Boston Globe, Bitch, Slate, Salon, BOMB, and Guernica.
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