Invisible No More: The Place Called Los Angeles

By Fireman, Janet R. | The Historian, Fall 2004 | Go to article overview

Invisible No More: The Place Called Los Angeles


Fireman, Janet R., The Historian


PARTLY BECAUSE OF ITS geographical setting and Mediterranean climate, partly because of its size and concentrations of wealth and poverty, Los Angeles has been undervalued and misjudged. Los Angeles history has been practically invisible to many people, western historians among them. Some parts of California, such as the Sierra, are considered more western than others, but Los Angeles--the city, county, or greater metropolitan area--is mostly excluded or ignored from the community called the West.

Those of us who live out here on the West Coast believe we are in the West. We think and speak in local terms; we identify ourselves via region, which is variously described as a multistate area (the Southwest), or just the state of California, or through the chafing delineation between northern and southern California. Most frequently we define region as the megalopolis, but the sprawl's boundaries vary according to the moment and the message. It could be the city of Los Angeles, where the 2000 census counted 3,694,820 people; or the county of Los Angeles, which contains eighty-eight incorporated cities and almost ten million people. Or sometimes the region is defined as a five-county area (Ventura, Los Angeles, San Bernardino, Riverside, and Orange), containing 16,373,645 people.

Los Angeles history and identity have been partly subsumed by the region's association with the entertainment industry and popular culture generally. Movies have constrained historical understanding of Los Angeles: It has been difficult for people to separate stories about Los Angeles from the movie stories Los Angeles tells about itself as well as about the rest of the West, and the world. The familiar concepts of movie magic and dream factory interrupt an orderly perception of the region. One result is the widely circulated assertions that Los Angeles has no sense of history; that it is a godless, dissolute, noir dead-end of a place; that it is a brainless, addled, sunlit highlife kind of place; and that it must pay for its sybaritic excesses with "natural" disasters of flood, mudslide, earthquake, and fire. (1) The historical reality is surely no single one of these tropes, but a subtler and more complex scenario. What is as clear as the crystalline horizon on a paradise day in this place is that there are many subjects to cultivate and nurture, and finally harvest in the field of Los Angeles history.

The last decade's frenzied activities among historians and other scholars have made the region's past more accessible and have enabled Los Angeles to come into focus more clearly. Individuals, cohorts of scholars, and particularly Los Angeles libraries and museums working in new ways and in new partnerships have unearthed the previously invisible history of the region. The yield is a bumper crop of a million opportunities for new learning, a thousand points of new understanding, and hundreds of connections between Los Angeles and the world around it.

In Los Angeles of the present and of the past, there are countless stories that are invisible until someone revives or revises them, and I see many signs of people engaging in the creation of new place-worlds. (2) Today, place-world creation has the advantage of being connected not only to particular places, but also to historical documents, photos, visual arts of all sorts, and even sound recordings. These new histories are related to the "natural" environment; the way the land, the air, and the water and all biota were before people came; and as Indian cultures developed, and later, when Spaniards, Mexicans, and Americans arrived. Of course the way the Los Angeles region was way back when is invisible today because it has been completely covered over, refashioned, and styled and dressed in twenty-first-century clothes. How is one to uncover the fabric, peel back the layers, and disrobe the busy city to expose that invisible Los Angeles?

Once rooted in place, you can begin with the published works of historians. …

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