Playing Catch with Los Angeles

February 18, 2021   •   By William Deverell

City at the Edge of Forever

Peter Lunenfeld

READING PETER LUNENFELD’S KINETIC civic biography, City at the Edge of Forever: Los Angeles Reimagined, brought me back nearly a half-century. When I was in middle school, my friends and I attended Saturday football games at the Air Force Academy just outside my hometown of Colorado Springs. The stadium was shaped in a way that field goals or extra point attempts would sometimes sail into the stands. We’d catch one every now and then, and then we’d throw the ball back onto the field and trade high fives.


But when that grew dull, one of us devised a plan for mischief. We’d position our catcher in the usual spot. The rest of us would mill around behind the catcher, eight or 10 boys spread out haphazardly as if we weren’t paying attention. But we were. If the catcher was lucky enough to get a ball — there were other squads vying against us — we would immediately fall into a kind of disciplined conga line stretching backward, up to the stadium entrance gate. If everything worked according to plan, the first boy caught the football. He then tossed a lateral to the boy right behind him, who turned and immediately passed to the next one, then the next on down the line. Hurried, underhanded tosses done quickly, almost without thought. The second to last boy — our quarterback — then threw a long pass to the last of us, the boy who had raced out of the gate, legs churning toward the parking lot. If all went perfectly, he would catch that beautiful pass and run into the sea of cars to hide. None of us could yet drive. The rest of us would scram, thrilled by our game and how seamlessly we had moved that ball, so quickly and so far, lateral after lateral, carrying out our play on instinct.


It’s all that lateraling that I remembered when reading City at the Edge of Forever. Our every aim was to get rid of the ball as quickly as possible. Lingering risked apprehension. Just catch it, throw it, throw it, throw it, throw it, throw it, pass it, catch it, run. And so it is with this book: Lunenfeld, a UCLA design media arts professor, is a nimble lateralist as he takes us through this romp of a book on Los Angeles history and culture. The city is the football tossed about — not from boy to boy but from topic to topic. Stingrays to sushi. Sex cults to Case Study houses. Glamour to murder. Jets to the Chicano Moratorium. Sentences start this way and then dart that way; paragraphs end far from where they began. This is a strap-yourself-in kind of book, alternating between a rush and rushed.


Lunenfeld understands the ways in which the seductions of Los Angeles invite people who are looking for the main chance or maybe just a clean getaway. It happened to him: he arrived from New York, as so many have done, and — again, as is commonplace — made some pretty vapid early assumptions about whether or not people learned anything out here. There’s even the sadly obligatory line about all of the people with brains having moved here from elsewhere — a line I wish we could, at long last, put to rest.


There are nods to the familiar “re” processes of Los Angeles: redemption, re-creation (not to mention recreation), renewal, restoration. And there’s the “reimagined” part, inspiring the book’s subtitle. That one is left hanging a bit: Is it Lunenfeld who is doing the reimagining or his characters who race all over the place and page? Either way, what’s the history they are choosing to break from?


We get Jack Parsons, of course, the Pasadena rocket scientist who held occult sessions in his backyard. The topic of Jack Parsons feels tired, though Lunenfeld does write thoughtfully on the Cold War aerospace milieu that Parsons helped create. Here, Lunenfeld has a booster stage, adding the cultists behind the Topanga Sandstone Retreat and Project Synergy colony, with aerospace engineer John Williamson and his wife Barbara’s sybaritic, hedonistic, and sexualized response to systems engineering.


Lunenfeld is best on architecture and the built environment. Credit where credit is due: he has an eye. The book often feels as if it will sink beneath the author’s sheer exuberance for drama, scandal, glamour, and just plain oddities of life and persona in the far West. It is fun to read this as a tabloid off-to-the-races book, a kind of learned TMZ. I am not sure that the author wished more for it — he says so from time to time in these pages — but he’s at home in this lateraling breeziness, the famous and the notorious, from topic to topic, chapter to chapter. It’s the lesser-known stories that are most compelling here, though I wondered if they come together only as eccentric marginalia, the weird and spectacular set against a metropolitan backdrop where the sun shines just a bit too brightly to be comforting. The one-woman impetus behind the ubiquity of Los Angeles nail salons run by first-, second-, and third-generation Vietnamese entrepreneurs? Tippi Hedren, who, not long after her screen debut in The Birds, launched a mani-pedi niche industry in the wake of post-1965 immigration reforms. Who knew?


He’s a good enough writer that all the factual slaloming isn’t as exhausting as it might otherwise be, though he does box himself in by way of sluggish puns and first-person incursions from time to time. There’s something escapist in this read, especially in these times. Lunenfeld knows a lot about Los Angeles and its eccentric crosswise (dare I say lateral?) histories and personalities, myths and narratives. There are some errors in here — some dates are off by a few years now and again, that kind of thing: modest. The author is clever, if a hair self-consciously so. “The past is never dead,” he Faulkners, “especially when it comes to family recipes.”


The book’s jacket copy mentions the “lifestyle capitalism” of Los Angeles. I chased those words around my mouth and brain for a while, at first convinced that capitalism hardly needed an adjective and, if it did, “lifestyle” might not be the best choice. I even grimaced, as it felt tied to that “only in L.A.” sensibility that most of us bristle at. And then I mellowed and thought, actually, there’s something to this. People trading on their personas, whether true or, mostly, not, living way too large: this is the new way to refer to famous for being famous.


Lunenfeld has his own lineup of imagined teammates for playing his breed of Los Angeles catch: Eve Babitz takes the ball and passes it off to Jean Stein. Carey McWilliams tosses to Mike Davis. Charles and Ray Eames flip the ball back and forth to one another. Scotty Bowers laterals a pass through the window of Reyner Banham’s car. Now a quarterback, Banham parks his automobile, darts over to the Sunset shoulder and, improbably, lofts a long pass to Peter Lunenfeld, running west in the city on the edge of forever, looking for, finding, and telling eclectic L.A. stories.


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William Deverell is the director of the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West.