The City With No History

Before I moved to L.A. a couple years ago, I thought this was a city with no history. Or rather, a city with limited history due to its fractured nature, without a collective narrative beyond the Hollywood publicity and the tourist board imagery that gives the rest of America its one-dimensional image of L.A. Even though my family has been here for sixty years, since my grandparents and infant mother moved from Brooklyn to Boyle Heights, I never really thought about Los Angeles as a city with a history. Maybe that’s because Mom grew up in the new, white-flight based suburbs, Westchester, Studio City, Sherman Oaks. And then, on family vacations, our experiences were limited to staying in Santa Monica with my grandparents, or going to the Beverly Center, but always staying out of the older parts of the city. So I always saw Los Angeles as being more like the L.A. Story L.A….and I know you meant well, Steve Martin, but you limited L.A. to a post-war city, without a hint of the pre-war era that formed it.

But I’ve learned a lot about Los Angeles history since coming here. And one of my favorite live-action sources has been the L.A. Conservancy‘s walking tours. And they throw one hell of a party, too. I went to the wake for the Ambassador last night, and it was fascinating. OK, so open bar makes anything fascinating, but hearing the speakers and their memories gave me a much better picture of the area as it would have looked then, in its heyday, before white flight really kicked in. Two of the older women spoke of ghosts in the hotel, of being able to sense history within its walls. And I loved reading the blowup of the original Ambassador ad from 1921, describing the hotel’s setting, halfway between the ocean and the Sierras.

My mother used to go dancing at the Cocoanut Grove on dates, back in the sixties. But she didn’t have any emotional attachment to the Ambassador. I asked her what she called that part of town in her day, what’s now K-Town, and she said, “oh, we just called it downtown L.A.”. So maybe that’s part of the problem. If people living in a decentralized Los Angeles can’t see the history and the neighborhoods clearly, how can we expect to convey that history, or that character, to the rest of the world?

And now I’m out for Critical Mass for now, especially since it’s our one year anniversary party tonight. But is anyone going to the Chinese New Year parade tomorrow? If so, I’ll see you there. I’ll be the really tall girl muttering about how no real Chinatown has space for parking lots.

7 thoughts on “The City With No History”

  1. My parents moved to LA as children from Mexico. They grew up in Boyle Heights and Lincoln Heights. I was (and still am) a really curious kid and loved going through their Garfield and Roosevelt High School yearbooks. I knew there was something about the city I didn’t know when I saw lots of Japanese students in their classes and didn’t see any Japanese people when I visited my grandparents in East LA.

    I’ve taken a class on LA history. There are a lot of books out there that capture some of the city and region’s history.

  2. I actually have a shelf of a dozen or so L.A. history and sociology related books, including “Los Angeles and the History of Forgetting”, “East Los Angeles, History of a Barrio” and the classic “Southern California: An Island on the Land”. Where did you take the course on history? I’m still waiting to find one of those outside of SMC.

  3. Hey Cindy, my parents also grew up in LA, my Jewish mother grew up in Boyle Heights, when it was a middle class immigrant neighborhood. I wonder if she is in your yearbooks… email me about that.

  4. aww my grandparents stayed at the ambassador for awhile when they relocated here from buffalo. but they soon moved to burbank so my grandfather could be close to what would be a 25-year career playing trumpet on the lawrence welk show. ha ha!

  5. Jim, you were everywhere I was on Saturday. Except I didn’t have the patience to watch the whole parade. Was it just me, or was it the slowest ever?

    Thanks so much for sharing the pix, too – much appreciated. I’ll post my friends’ when they send them to me.

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