The awnings of a new era

The Flapper

I was walking at night, near my home, in what the LA Times apparently calls “Mid-City,” and found myself strangely transported by the spirits of the stucco and Spanish-style 1920s houses on these nice blocks. It is this architecture that feels most “Los Angeles” to me, though admittedly perhaps largely simply as an artifact of where I have lived during my fairly brief sojourn here.  Accompanied by my dearest native informant, thoughts started to swirl in my mind, about the people whom these houses first saw, and what in turn these people saw, and how they would see this neighborhood now.

My quandry, in this case, was mostly technological, if you can perhaps extend “technology” to encompass that part of it that concerns the social and political organization and regimentation of people themselves.  Michel Foucault is always relatively dear in my thoughts.  Grabbing an average American, but not necessarily an Angeleno per se, from 1925, what would he or she think of 2009 Los Angeles? …Obviously, my question is a fairly familiar one in fiction, largely but not only “science fiction,” modulo the dates forward or backward that a time traveler or long-sleeping subject might travel.

It seemed to me that there are a couple sorts of surprises.  On the one hand, there are those striking changes in degree or form that might be immediately visible but that pose no huge conceptual barrier.  The houses certainly had more lights on in them than they would have in the 1920s, but electric or gas lighting would be a familiar experience for our transport.  The parked cars would appear surprisingly numerous and oddly shaped. Helvetica has assumed a surprising dominance in signage since its 1957 creation. Still, none of that would seem terribly difficult for our prohibition-era friend to reason about. Nor, I suppose, would the prevalence of liquor stores. My informant suggested the changes in landscaping have been dramatic since the 1920s, which seems true but also not “hard to digest” in a fundamental way. I think the neighborhood is a bit more integrated racially/culturally than it would have been during the heyday of Jim Crow, but only by a bit (perhaps far less than our Progressive 1920s friend might have guessed).

The thing that struck me most in this imaginative fancy, on nighttime streets, was the glow of television sets showing through many front windows. At a first glance, this is just another bluish light, but often one can also see the full screens of moving images and the residents glued to or half-ignoring the narratives thereon. Film also captured motion (though not yet sound) in a generally similar fashion back in 1925, but there seems something fundamental about its transposition to every ordinary household. Had I gone inside these houses, I might have seen more of computer and telecommunications technologies, but little was apparent (outside the remarkably powerful computer that I carry in my own front pocket) through curtained windows.

I wonder though if there is something else fundamental that my 21st century eyes just don’t see through the glaring familiarity of some technological presence. Do readers note such items?

5 Replies to “The awnings of a new era”

  1. Great post! Diane Keaton has a beautiful book,
    appropriately entitled “California Romantica,” about L.A.’s heritage of Spanish style homes, and she is doing her best to preserve them (even offering to help pay for restorations). And that Life Magazine cover must have been quite risque for the time. Love the font, definitely not Helvetica! I also notice the plethora of tv screens at night. I’m not sure if it was the 20s or the 30s when radios hit mass market, but perhaps people were sitting around the warm crackling glow of their radios.

  2. Something I think we take for granted is the proliferation of fences….boundary lines and borders weren’t as delineated back then…and certainly no grates on windows (don’t know if there are any in your neighborhood, but they are a fact of life in many communities).
    Plastic: Everything then would have been made from wood or metal..with the emphasis on wood. No trash burner in the back yard (then); outdoor barbeques…..no air conditioning…not everyone had phones (even landlines!)….windows were covered by window shades as much as curtains.
    Bare light bulbs (no glass fixtures)….smoking stands (freestanding ashtrays). Mailmen (and men only) walked from house to house, carrying a large leather bag full of mail. The mail to be delivered was gotten from mailboxes which existed only for processed mail, presorted at a local station. The mailman knew almost everyone. EVeryone wore hats when they went out; only men wore pants.
    I really liked the movie True Confessions (De Niro & Duvall) for the details in the LA exteriors and sense of place.

  3. Interesting thoughts. A 25er would notice changes in the trees, wonder about the smell of asphalt and the missing smell of horse shit, be afraid of cars blasting Hip-Hop, question the obvious smog and pollution, wonder if “The Great Gatsby” was still on the shelves, ask about the Pittsburgh Pirates and tell you to buy 3M stock. A 25er might wonder why none of the driveways were two strips of concrete, or why guys were riding around on noisy little carts to mow their lawns. He would love and be aghast at women’s dress. She would finger flip her lighted cigarette into your street. Both sexes would be intrigued at the sound of air conditioners and not want to leave anywhere that was. They would miss people not sitting on their porch swings and amazed at the speed, color and boldness of it all. For god’s sake, don’t let ’em inside. Tell them those flickering bluish lights are from the aliens that took over in the 50s.

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