When I first came to Los Angeles, three years and change ago, I read a lot of books about the city. I read them in an attempt to understand what made Los Angeles seem like seven cities in one, how it could be so different in so many places. I had expected a city with no history, except the recent past, and I got a city than has a different history for every perspective. So I started reading to try to grasp all those perspectives, all those pasts, all that collective memory that seemed so fragmented. And I have a shelf full of books I thought I should start sharing.
This week’s book isn’t mine though. Last weekend, I picked up a large, thin, photo book from the shelf at the Popular section in the Central Library. It is called simply, “Los Angeles”, and is published by Whitecap Press. And I’m sorry to say it’s a Vancouver company. I can only assume that this book was published for consumption overseas, because it focuses on nothing but the top-line tourist attractions. In fact, I had to check the publication date to be sure it wasn’t put out in the 80s, because except for the Disney Concert Hall, there’s nothing of twenty-first century Los Angeles.
It seems a bit harsh to judge a book by what’s not in it – but I don’t understand why this book would be put out. It promotes the top line attractions of Los Angeles, with pretty photographs, and topline facts:
The Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Los Angeles Master Chorale perform in the Walt Disney Concert Hall. Designed by Frank Gehry, the exterior of this 293,000 square foot architectural marvel is fashioned from 22 million pounds of steel.”
That’s well and good, but what matters to me isn’t on that page. What matters to me is the state park on the roof, with the trees that were chosen from the gardens and yards of Los Angeles by the landscaper who designed it. Or the way that Charles Phoenix calls the Disney Hall the “Cinderella’s Castle of downtown Los Angeles”. Or how it represents a revitalization of downtown Los Angeles, a continuation to build new cultural landmarks, such as a fantastical concert hall with a magical exterior – and really good acoustics inside.
Once a flourishing community of 3,000 residents in 1890, Old Chinatown fell into disrepair in the early 20th century. In the 1930s, a new Chinatown – located less than a mile from its predecessor – was developed with a focus on tourism and entertainment.
That’s not even what happened! Old Chinatown fell into some disrepair – but it was bulldozed and replaced! New Chinatown has wider streets without the spaces for prostitution and opium dealing that Old Chinatown would have had. That’s why Old Chinatown is now Union Station, and many of the descendants of the Chinese who were forced out live in the San Gabriel Valley. It wasn’t disrepair – it was eminent domain and the WPP!
This isn’t really about the book itself. This is more about what the book represents and what it feeds. This book is a topline about Los Angeles, written with the minimal effort and next to stock photographs. I can’t imagine who would buy this, or read it, and feel Los Angeles was a different place than the city they had been presented with in popular culture. It tries to present the multiculturalism of Los Angeles – but is this how it should be presented? Should the cultural mosaic that makes up the city be presented in topline, without depth or perspective, just to show the wider world that its there? Or do books like this Disneyfy Los Angeles, whitewashing history and making Los Angeles seem, well, flat?
Next week, I will write more about a book that covers different angles and ways of looking at Los Angeles. I’m not sure what it will be yet, but I’ll pull one off the shelf.