If only I enjoyed all prize-winning books a fraction as much as this one by Paul Beatty. I laughed out loud reading this on the long plane journey home, and I needed some laughter for that journey back to a wintry reality far from my family. Now this is the LA I love — complex, mixed up, full of chickens and kitchen gardens and farms too, hell of segregated, violent, funny, and pretty damn woke.
LA always hurt like hell too.
All that, and then there’s the language, oh the language.
When I was ten, I spent a long night burrowed under my comforter, cuddled up with Funshine Bear, who, filled with a foamy enigmatic sense of language and Bloomian dogmatism, was the most literary of the Care Bears and my harshest critic. In the musty darkness of that rayon bat cave, his stubby, all-but-immobile yellow arms struggled to hold the flashlight steady as together we tried to save the black race in eight words or less. (11)
That might just be my favourite passage, though tinged with jealousy because I always wanted a Care Bear and never did get one.
So later on he’s smoking up some homegrown (those names for his gardening genius elicited a lot of laughter I can tell you) in the Superior Court, amazing, and hello Clarence Thomas:
All I know is that the sour-faced Justice with the post-racial chronometer won’t stop looking at me. His beady eyes fixed in this unblinking and unforgiving stare, he’s angry that I’ve fucked up his political expediency…
There he is, Chamaeleo africanus tokenus hidden way in the back among all the shrubbery, his slimy feet gripped tightly around the judicial branch in a cool torpor silently gnawing on the leaves of injustice. “Out of sight, out of mind” is the black working-man’s motto, but now the entire country can see this one, our collective noses pressed to glass in amazement that he’s been able to camouflage his Alabama jet-black ass against the red, white, and blue of the American flag for so long. (20)
Oh shit, that is beautiful. Beautiful, and yet it gets even better (though maybe just because I’m obsessed with these lines, with the geographies of life, belief, language, opportunity):
You can assimilate the man, but not the blood pressure, and the vein pulsating angrily down the middle of his forehead gives him away. he’s giving me that crazy, red-eyed penetrating look that back home we call the Willowbrook Avenue Stare, Willowbrook Avenue being the four-lane river Styx that in 1960s Dickens separated white neighborhoods from black, but now, post-white, post-anybody-with-two-nickels-to-rub-together-flight, hell lies on both sides of the street. The riverbanks are dangerous, and while standing at the crosswalk waiting for the light to change, your life can change. Some drive-by homie, representing some color, clique, or any one of the five stages of grief, can stick his gauge out the passenger-side window of a two-tone coupe, give you the Negro Supreme Court Justice glare and ask, “Where you from, fool?” (22)
Damn, ‘the Negro Supreme Court Justice glare’? And ain’t that something about how these dividing lines stay with us, long after they’ve been rendered invisible by the flight of wealth and resources.
I was talking with my friend Debbie Humphrey, doing an about how writing fiction compares with writing a thesis on racism and struggle. An interesting question I’m still thinking about, probably will always be thinking about, but in trying to describe what this novel means to me…well. It does things academic work could never do, plays with possibilities and with feelings. Plays with how you might recover a community’s pride and identity through just drawing a line — and how that might be a positive thing, not a violent turf thing. Interesting question in LA because turf…I fucking hate so much how LA is full of lines, dividing up identity and the drug trade, our youth defending territory to the death. And so many of them die. They die in this novel.
I loved that awkward shaky paint line and that fake freeway sign reclaiming Dickens after white planners had erased it from the city’s official landscape.
It plays with that idea (and who hasn’t heard this idea?) that everything was actually better back in the day, when segregation kept all classes living close together. When segregation meant that everyone knew damn well they were all in it together, and kept them fighting for the race as a whole. Plays with the idea that something was lost when some of segregation’s walls came down, and everyone with a nickel fled. What it might look like if some sleight of hand were to make it seem as though it were being recreated as it once was. A trick highlights segregation’s continued reality and shows that its existence requires clarity to inspire resistance. It asks hard questions (without actually asking questions, because, you know, this is fiction with a story to tell and a lot of satire along the way) about what so much struggle has actually won, and where we’re at now. Asks questions about the nature of change itself, what steps lead to liberation and what steps to a new form of old oppression.
It plays with the power of making a ubiquitous and politically correct racism visible again, naming it, showing it for what it is by insisting on a (faked and slightly half-assed) return to older, harsher forms whose clarity made it easy to know what you were fighting and have inspiration to fight. Slavery. Official white-only schools. Hominy (that name!) demanding he be considered a slave, demanding regular whipping — it embodies so many of the costs of racism, and shit, the Little Rascals? So vile and yet, this is where fame and money and work as an actor were to be found… The opposite side from the Nicholas Brothers of the damage done to artists through Jim Crow. Damage that continues in carefully colorblind language and tokenisation.
Yet the solution to this need to be whipped? Hilarious, and gives me some faith things are a bit better. Because, you know, there are places you can go for that, and no one will judge.
It plays with urban farming and self-reliance. With the trials of being raised by a political father. With the good and bad of philosophy, activism, struggle. It manages a lot of pain and knowledge, reflections on life and our heritage and our responsibility.
That’s the problem with history, we like to think it’s a book–that we can turn the page and move the fuck on. But history isn’t the paper it’s printed on. It’s memory, and memory is time, emotions, and song. History is the things that stay with you. (115)
Amazing to manage all of that, and still…be full of laughter. There’s more I should say, so much more here, will be so much more waiting for me when I re-read it, but now I got some rewrites to do. One more blog and that will be me for a while.
I love that LA is one of the case studies in Kevin Lynch’s The Image of the City (see his broader arguments in parts 1 and 2). It was almost disconcerting realising that this was written in 1960, when LA was such a different place. Bunker Hill still there, Pershing Square still a proper landscaped square not a barely functional ugly unwelcoming space covering a parking lot. But this is also a city I know very well through personal experience and study, so could bring both to bear, and this offered a good perspective on the limitations of the book.
This description of (white, professional) views of downtown are also startling:
The general image is remarkable for its emptiness east of Main or Los Angeles Streets, and south of 7th Street, except for the extension of the repeating grid. The central area is set in a vacuum. This L-shaped center is liberally sprinkled with remembered landmarks, chief of them being the Statler and Biltmore Hotels… But only two landmarks were described in any concrete detail: the ugly, black and gold Richfield Building and the pyramided top of the City Hall (35).
Wow — first, city hall makes sense but the Statler Hotel? Not a landmark I would have given, and one now torn down (for the story, see the great blog from Paradise Leased).
Second, the Richfield Building ugly? I confess I didn’t actually know this as the Richfield Building, but I did know the building itself and quite love it:
Third…this is such a white view of downtown LA — as Lynch himself shows later. So to look at the white map of downtown LA:
In describing the areas, Lynch writes:
Bunker Hill is not as strong an image, despite its historical connotations, and quite a few felt that it was “not in the downtown area.” Indeed, it is surprising how the core, in bending around this major topographic feature, has succeeded in visually burying it (36).
I suppose that made it much easier for them to tear it down, that and the way it was full of poor people and people of color, which as later findings on LA seem to show means such areas are erased from mental maps of those in power. I am still mourning Bunker Hill.
Then there is the shock of Pershing Square being a decent public space….though given his list of its uses, it’s very clear why the city council should have destroyed it.
Pershing Square is consistently the strongest element of all: an exotically landscaped open space in the heart of downtown, reinforced by its use as an outdoor political forum, camp meeting, and old people’s rest. (36-37)
So now we get to why I should bring race into things (if you were not already on board with that and wondering):
Broadway was perhaps the only path which was unmistakable for all…Although conceded to be the core, if anything is, yet Broadway was not a shopping area for most of these middle-class persons. Its walks are crowded with the ethnic minorities and lower-income groups who living quarters ring the central section. the subjects interviewed regarded this linear core as an alien one, looking at it with varying degrees of avoidance, curiosity, or fear. They were quick to describe the status differences between the Broadway crowds, and those to be seen on 7th Street, which, if not elite, is at least a middle-class shopping street. (38)
Yes, Lynch did, in fact, only interview professional white folks working in the downtown core. It is the ‘ethnic minorities’ and ‘lower-income groups’ whose living quarters form the ’emptiness’ of the white maps, their streets the ‘no-go’ areas. This is a vision of the ‘other’ with a vengeance, the alien. It is not one that is taken up or questioned. It is just left there. Broadway is highlighted as a landmark mostly because it was the corridor for street cars rather than buses — streetcars! The destruction of public transportation networks and fear generated through racism…a pretty good explanation of what happened to LA.
What is curious, though, is that even for these white respondents fearful of Broadway, Olvera Street was special. That surprised me, but perhaps its mixture of genuine history and culture with a facade of touristy Mexican-ness rendered it palatable. Lynch writes of the courtyard at its South end:
Not only is this small spot visually very distinct, but it is the only true historical anchor-point in the city and seems to generate a fierce attachment (39).
When asked to describe or symbolize the city as a whole, the subjects used certain standard words: “spread-out,” “spacious,” “formless,” “without centers.” Los Angeles seemed to be hard to envision or conceptualize as a whole. An endless spread, which may carry pleasant connotations of space around the dwellings, or overtones of weariness and disorientation, was the common image. Said one subject: “It’s as if you were going somewhere for a long time, and when you got there you discovered there was nothing there, after all. (40-41)
This note on trying to find something to hold on to is interesting.
Another frequent theme was that of relative age. Perhaps because so much of the environment is new or changing, there was evidence of widespread, almost pathological, attachment to anything that had survived the upheaval.
Yet they kept tearing things down. Bunker Hill was just about to go…Another thing I am so sad I never saw:
In Los Angeles, on 7th Street at the corner of Flower Street, is an old, two-story gray wooden building, set back some ten feet from the building line, containing a few minor shops. This took the attention and fancy of a surprising number of people. One even anthropomorphized it as the “little gray lady.” (81)
In Los Angeles there is an impression that the fluidity of the environment and absence of physical elements which anchor to the past are exciting and disturbing. Many descriptions of the scene by established residents, young or old, were accompanied by ghosts of what used to be there. Changes, such as those wrought by the freeway system, have left scars on the mental image. (45)
LA as a city of ghosts.
In looking at the specifics of how the city space works, Lynch writes:
…more abrupt directional shifts may enhance visual clarity by limiting the spatial corridor… one was prevented from sensing the vacuum in which central Los Angeles is placed by the grid shifts which close off the outward view. (56)
Once again, let us remember that the ‘vacuum’ consists of the homes and neighbourhoods of poor people and people of colour. Maybe I shouldn’t be, yet I remain astonished at the lack of self-reflexivity in these statements. The degree to which the book and this kind of scholarship is rendered shoddy by a lack of questioning such constructions, and the reality that as part of a privileged group, Lynch is completely unable to see, much less understand, how other groups move through and understand the city he is studying. To end with perhaps one of the most insightful points Lynch makes (without quite realising it I think):
The psychological distance between two localities may be much greater, or more difficult to surmount, than mere physical separation seems to warrant. (85)
More on building social spaces…
and even more…
Looking at cities can give a special pleasure, however commonplace the sight may be. Like a piece of architecture, the city is a construction in space, but one of vast scale, a thing perceived only in the course of long spans of time. City design is therefore a temporal art… At every instant, there is more than the eye can see, more than the ear can hear, a setting or a view waiting to be explored. Nothing is experienced by itself, but always in relation to its surrounding, the sequences of events leading up to it, the memory of past experiences. (1)
I love this nod to the overwhelming — and mostly pleasurable — nature of the city, the ways it works in both space and time, and like Lofland, Whyte, Cullen, Gehl and others, he is clearly writing as someone with an appreciation for city life. It is a life that is in many ways collectively constructed:
Not only is the city an object which is perceived (and perhaps enjoyed) by millions of people of widely diverse class and character, but it is the product of many builders who are consonantly modifying the structure for reasons of their own… No wonder, then, that the art of shaping cities is an art quite separate from architecture or music or literature. (2)
In The Image of the City, Lynch’s focus is primarily looking at what he calls the ‘legibility’ of the cityscape — how we read cities and how understanding that can help us (re)build better cities. Why is legibility key?
A good environmental image gives its possessor an important sense of emotional security. He can establish an harmonious relationships between himself and the outside world…(4)
I love this quote even more…
a distinctive and legible environment not only offers security but also heightens the potential depth and intensity of human experience. Although life is far from impossible in the visual chaos of the modern city, the same daily action could take on new meaning if carried out in a more vivid setting. (5)
This is not to go against the many authors who write about the unknown, Lynch emphasises that this not to deny the value of labyrinth or surprise, but under two larger conditions — where there is no danger of losing basic
orientation, of never coming out. The surprise must occur in an over-all framework; the confusions must be small regions in a visible whole…. Complete chaos without hint of connection is never pleasurable. (6)
Another important qualification, the power of human beings to shape the urban environment:
The observer himself should play an active role in perceiving the world and have a creative part in developing his image. He should have the power to change that image to fit changing needs… what we seek is not a final but an open-ended order, capable of continuous further development. (6)
So to understand how this all works, he book tries to get at the ways people understand and read cities, the
‘public images,’ the common mental pictures carried around by large numbers of a city’s inhabitants… (7)
I love maps, and so found this a fascinating way to examine people’s relationships to the urban form, splitting it into useful divisions to be examined:
The mental maps that are shared of streets and landmarks. These are analyzed in terms of identity (its recognition as a separable entity), structure (the spatial or pattern relation of the object to the observer and other objects) and meaning (for the observer, whether practical or emotional). (8)
Above all in understanding legibility is this:
imageability: that quality in a physical object which gives it a high probability of evoking a strong image in any given observer. It is that shape, color, or arrangement which facilitates the making of vividly identified, powerfully structured, highly useful mental images of the environment. (9)
A highly imageable (apparent, legible, or visible) city in this peculiar sense would seem well formed, distinct, remarkable; it would invite the eye and the ear to greater attention and participation. The sensuous grasp upon such surroundings would not merely be simplified, but also extended and deepened. Such a city would be one that could be apprehended over time as a pattern of high continuity with many distinctive parts clearly interconnected. The perceptive and familiar observer could absorb new sensuous impacts without disruption in his basic image, and each new impact would touch upon many previous elements. He would be well oriented, and he could move easily. He would be highly aware of his environment. The city of Venice might be an example of such a highly imageable environment. (10)
Venice again, but I think this is definitely how a city works best, and this imageablity is the center of his study of Boston, LA and Jersey City. What follows is a really interesting way of mapping out perceptions of the city through surveys and interviews. The maps are brilliant:
Particularly interesting is the look at problems, as in the ‘Problems of the Boston image’ (p 24 — though you won’t be surprised to find that Boston has fewer problems than the other two):
This marks what Kevin Lynch describes as the
confusions, floating points, weak boundaries, isolations, breaks in continuity, ambiguities, branchings, lacks of character or differentiation. (25)
Of course it beats both Jersey City and Los Angeles hands down as a memorable, enjoyably walkable and legible city. I do myself have a great soft spot for Boston. I thought I’d go into more detail on LA in a second post, as it is my own city after all. It also highlights Lynch’s limitations, but there is much to be mined from the book.
First, what development has done to the US city centre:
There is the same piling-up of blank office structures, the same ubiquity of traffic ways and parking lots (34).
This has made them almost indistinguishable from one another, Lynch notes Jersey City as the least distinguishable of all — funny that what people most loved about it was the view of New York’s skyline on their horizon.
Common themes between the cities:
…people adjust to their surroundings and extract structure and identity out of the material at hand. The types of elements used in the city image, and the qualities that make them strong or weak, seem quite comparable between the three…
In terms of broad themes, the key favourite aspects of all cities were space and views:
Among other things, the tests made clear the significance of space and breadth of view (43) … there was an emotional delight arising from a broad view, which was referred to many times. …
The landscape features of the city: the vegetation or the water, were often noted with care and pleasure. (44)
Also a deep sense of the spatialities of class (race is not discussed at all, except in an oblique way, a truly blindingly un-scholarly way which the post on LA will deal with more)
Quite as apparent is the constant reference to socio-economic class: the avoidance of “lower class” Broadway in Los Angeles, the recognition of the “upper class” Bergen Section in Jersey City, or the unmistakable division of Boston’s Beacon Hill into two distinct sides.
Space and time:
… the way in which the physical scene symbolizes the passage of time… (45)
So in broad strokes, there is a lot to think about here… the next post gets into the nitty gritty of design elements and physical space.
[Lynch, Kevin (1960) The Image of the City. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press]
More on building social spaces…
and even more…
Oath of Fealty is one of the more vile and viciously right wing novels I’ve read, though to be fair I haven’t read many of them at all. But this is something like Ayn Rand – wig askew and on her 13th pink gin fizz – going off on a paranoid scree about the muggers and rapists who are all out to kill her. Because she’s so rich and talented and beautiful and they just can’t handle that so she’s bought 10 attack dogs and built a concrete bunker.
It’s all about taking the gated community to the next level, making it a maze of about a cubic square mile with about a quarter of a million people. It towers like a monstrous black cube in an area essentially burned down by its own residents – I would guess Watts or Compton. It’s powered by hydrogen, fed through pipes from ‘a complex of nuclear breeder plants in Mexico’.
Ah, the outsourcing of risk and contaminants.
It calls itself Todos Santos – All Saints – why do white people in the Southwest always call their high-end real estate developments nice things in Spanish? A patronising nod to the people they stole the land from? Easier to pronounce than indigenous phrases for ‘Pretty View’ and ‘Mountain Hills’? But the authors aren’t being entirely metaphorical in calling the residents saints. Apparently you can pick them out of a crowd of poor old Angelinos, they are the shiny beautiful people who move in a certain way, speak in a certain way. They are a new kind of person.
THINK OF IT AS EVOLUTION IN ACTION.
I thought at first this rather chilling slightly fascist slogan must be ironic or a nod to the dangers this kind of project could raise. But no. These really are a ‘better kind’ of people, helped by those who commit suicide or get themselves killed. They like this slogan, paint it on walls, put it on stickers and huge banners like a big F-you to L.A.
We’re running a civilization, something new in this world, and don’t bother to tell me how small it is. It’s a civilization. The first one in a long time where people can feel safe’ (18).
Constantly watched, constantly surveilled and monitored. But the many guards are their friends. They don’t arrest people for being too drunk the way the terrible LAPD does, they walk you home. What is better than being safe after all? We know that the real danger is from criminal poor people who are all on the outside, hopped up to their eyeballs on drugs and trying to shoot down helicopters.
Todos Santos is of course trying to be completely separate from Los Angeles – the crime, the pollution, the drugs, the poor people. There’s a lot of anger in this book about how the government forces all of us to become accountants to pay our taxes, and the pain of collecting receipts and things. A whole lot of anger. Familiar tea party sort of anger. Trump kind of anger. Taxes in Todos Santos don’t go to welfare and they are part of your mortgage payment to the company – kindly saving you from wasting any thought on them at all. It’s a bit feudal, yeah, but they had some good ideas back then. Oath of Fealty rendered, everything else taken care of. Awesome. Of course, I can’t quite understand how this fits with America, Land of the Free in their heads, or their hatred of big government…I mean, my opinion is that these fit together because the residents of Todos Santos don’t see poor people, particularly poor Black and Brown people, as real Americans or as any kind of people they can cooperate in a democracy or a community with, sad facts that have forced them to secede and build something new. Something they may one day conquer and colonise outer space with. But I don’t think they think that, or at least, openly admit that.
Instead the book tries to show it’s not racist by trying to admit that some discrimination exists but it’s less than you think, and making one of the high executives Black. Well. Teak colored in the book’s own words. He’s a bit estranged from other African-Americans and admits there are only maybe a hundred among a quarter million, but his homies break him out of the L.A. prison he gets sent to after he kills a couple of kids pretending to be terrorists and becomes a hero to the population. That’s a long story I won’t go into, who’d want to give away such a sparkling plot?
The kids are sent in by activists to test the defences, because that’s what environmental activists do, right? Use kids without remorse. Make unreasonable demands. The civil rights movement made some unreasonable demands too, which is how they lost the support of the white community
We did care once. A lot of us did. But something happened. Maybe it was the sheer size of the problem. Or watching while everybody who could afford it ran to the suburbs and left the cities to drift, and complained about taxes going to the cities, and—Or maybe it was having to listen to my police explain why they’ll only go into Watts in pairs with cocked shotguns and if the Mayor doesn’t like it he can damn well police that precinct himself.
People think they’ve done enough. (126)
Note the use of the words ‘us’ and ‘people’ to mean white by default. Thinking you’ve done enough when you’ve done worse than nothing is an interesting contradiction noted by many. But let’s get back to the activists. They call people pigs even when they’re not cops – which is silly, cops have really earned that name. Activists are also almost always rapists apparently. Unless they’re women, in which case they are just sadistic and probably Lesbians. ‘She’s probably a Lesbian’ is a direct quote actually, as the ‘heroine’ imagines shutting her in a room full of rats to mentally survive the indignities of being kidnapped. The men probably couldn’t help raping her of course, they’re brutes and she is a stunning model-turned-business-woman who is powerful and talented and successful and rich and they obviously can’t handle all of that.
Anyway, I haven’t even cracked the surface, just released some of my bile. This is a story where you are supposed to cheer on the beleaguered community of alcoholic rich people who can only drink coffee if it’s Irish, creating their Utopia safely insulated from the nuclear power plants and the poor people who pick their lettuces and sweatshop workers who make their clothes and carrying out their own vigilante justice – which is ok, because they don’t kill people unless it’s absolutely necessary, they just paint them and tattoo them. There’s nothing about how the place stays clean or who makes the food etc, and it’s not the kind of fantasy story where house elves are a possibility though it is one in which things science fiction writers dream up are considered really cool and often become true.
The happy ending is the Black dude gets sent to Zimbabwe.
Until my friend Michael Harris gave me a copy of this (who has himself written a great American novel, The Chieu Hoi Saloon). Then I realised I had been encouraged to read John Shannon’s Jack Liffey detective novels by Michael and of course Gary Phillips, and I will now, I will. Mike Davis is a character, Ivan Monk pops up in there, they explore L.A. in ways that I love.
But that’s another series…this is a whole different thing. Compare it to Steinbeck or John dos Passos. It reads relatively quick for being so monumental in subject, a history of a century of American struggle over land, work and rights. A history of what was perhaps really at stake in the red-baiting that led to the destruction of so many lives, as well as the tangled relationships between socialism and working people in struggle.
It starts in the Owens Valley and ends there…there could be no better place. I wrote about it in a long ago blog post, it impressed me so profoundly. I was driving up through there with my friends Beverley and Jose, on our way to see Mono Lake. I knew something about the water and how it was stolen by LA (think Chinatown) but nothing prepared me for this landscape.
I found out that the people who farmed here had organised, had fought back, had dynamited the damn. They filled me respect.
Their saga is the first in John Shannon’s novel, wrapped in a narrative frame of a foreign journalist caught up in the search for redemption and the family histories of a friend of his, a third generation fighter who is no longer quite sure what he is fighting or how. It allows a step back from the intensity of the stories, a perspective Americans rarely get on histories Europeans rarely see. A clever conceit that works well for the most part (my only critique is that occasionally this feels confusing, a little labored, but looking back I’m still not sure what I think about it).
What struck me at first was not wealth at all. To grow up in a Europe of social democracy–whatever one feels about the accommodations the dream has made with privilege–and to arrive here suddenly is to be struck dumb by the experience of an entire subcontinent living, apparently, without a particle of social responsibility: the grandiose and tidy bank only a few meters from a trash-strewn lot inhabited by winos. (11)
The first story is that of Maxi Trumbull, fearless reporter covering Owens Valley and standing with the farmers. Her story is about the land and community, the complicated relationships we have with both. The importance of water to survival. The power of the city to destroy the countryside around it. Also, love. Loneliness. Commitment.
Her son is Slim Trumbull, raised in the valley but moving on to organise plants up in Detroit. His story is that of labour, fighting union machine along with the bosses, fighting across boundaries of race and loving across the boundaries of class — though he is less capable of such things than his mother. It is also the story of the gradual disillusion with communism. Something I see so strongly here in the UK, but confess to knowing no one in the US who had been through this:
…all Europeans defined themselves by when they left groups. After Hungary. After the failure of reform. After Euro-Communism. After Paris ’68. After Prague. After Poland. (270)
I discovered that there was a colour for model trains known as Tucson red. This makes me smile.
Her grandson is Clay Trumbell, and he drags the narrator back to where it all started — Owens Valley. Fighting gangsters making porn, investigating the death of a woman and the threats against her daughter. The curious silence of everyone still left. This is more noir, and a curious contrast to the first two but one I like I think. What are we fighting these days? There are no grand narratives any more in the US, no driving ideology. Perhaps he could have chosen Monsanto, Nestle, gentrification and mass displacement…is it only time that makes these struggles feel so different to me?
The mob leaves people just as dead.
A fine book, one you should find and read.
[Shannon, John. (1994) The Taking of the Waters. Culver City, CA: John Brown Books.]
“I think you said she was a Negro”
“I have no race prejudice–”
“I don’t mean that. Black girls are unfindable in this city. I’ve tried.”
— Lew Archer to client, encapsulating the city that racism has created in Ross Macdonald’s The Ivory Grin (1952).
And old post from the old blog (17 July 2008) that for some reason I wanted to preserve separately from this one, but I just finished Raja Shehadeh’s Palestinian Walks, and it reminded me of all these old things I had been thinking about, especially this. I haven’t had time to blog this wonderful book yet, but thought I might repost this on a lazy Sunday with only a tweak…
I was thinking today how the city changes…and I find it extraordinary how quickly you get used to changes in the physical landscape around you. I knew downtown L.A. full of parking lots and old buildings full of people. And now it has been built over, it is full of huge new shiny buildings and it is full of all new people. The empty buildings that once contained friends of mine mostly still stand, they are monuments to so many conflicting things: greed, pain, hope, love, struggle…and they stand as anachronisms, though once each was one building among many such. But for all that is now gone? Memory goes with them, I cannot remember what used to be underneath the lofts. I go through my photographs and try to reclaim my own memory of downtown before money claimed it as its own and rebuilt its landscape. I hate not only that they profited so easily and well, but also that I cannot remember what was there before. I hate that we could not manage to force them to build on the beauty and strength that was already there, while working to improve and grow and increase the number of people and services. Everyone has lost, though the ones who destroyed will never know how much, and the people they pushed out know it all to well.
I was thinking today too about how I change…and I find it extraordinary how quickly you settle into the new outlines of your mind and forget what its thoughts were before. You hope to be always expanding, growing greater and wiser and stronger as you learn, I fear I might contract if I ever stopped growing…some people do, you see their minds steadily narrowing and fearful of change. And yet suddenly it worried me as loft construction does, how hard it is to remember what you thought before, how you felt before, what it was to be yourself before. It seems to me that to truly grow you must build upon all that you were, and recognize and remember the building. That way you have a hope of bringing people with you, and understanding people who are where you once were — especially in terms of political consciousness. I think too many of us destroy what we discard and do not recognize it as a piece of the foundation and a step to where we have come and a link with those behind. That is too linear a metaphor all together, but the best I can do at the moment…I shall have to create a new metaphor to stand upon the old one and remember how it came to be. As for the dragon boat races…well! The Molinistas were destroyed and there was much jubilation. Here are the boats: I am sure that we won as everyone followed the required ritual to grant us victory This is wishing pain to your enemies (damn Gloria Molina, damn her, he is saying! You came to Belmont highschool and promised things and did jack shit about it! You lie Molina, I can’t believe you are still one of the most powerful women in L.A.! But not in the dragon boat you’re not!), and you impart this wish to your paddle so that it strikes angrily through the water…you then have to commune with your paddle like so Do this and your paddle will know that you love it, and driven by this motivational combination of love and hate, it shall speed you through the water like a…platypus maybe. If you’re lucky an eel. But It shall make you fast, and you shall win. The fried plaintains were delicious, as was the iced coffee…the breakfast (and lunch) of champions. There were Koreans line dancing to Alan Jackson singing about the Chatahoochee on the main stage, it was the zen approach to enlightenment, the equivalent of getting hit alongside the head or your nose tweaked. And the lotus festival hummed and flowed and danced around the lake and I enjoyed myself.
Beatrice Griffith’s study of the Mexican ‘colony’ of LA in the 1940s is actually quite an extraordinary book. It’s written by a white and quite liberal woman–and I’m not such a huge fan of white liberals when they are writing about poverty and race. But in spite of the resulting prejudice and stereotyped ‘otherness’ and belief that Americanization is the answer that creeps in from time to time (and there is far less of that than most things I have read, especially from that time), this book manages to transcend a lot of that through its format.
Look at this cover, if only it were the version I read.
I need to look more into it, but what I’ve read so far claims for this a kind of pioneering role in sociology and ethnography in terms of combining typical sociological studies of a community (health, education, labour etc) with what she calls ‘fiction’. I am saddened, but not surprised really, that there is almost nothing on Beatrice Griffith herself to be found on the internet, though there exist a number of reflections on her work. Each topic is fronted with a story, and while she calls them fiction, they are essentially the stories that youth in the community have told her, and much in their own words. And they are rather wonderful. Because she was able to listen to them, there is a much deeper understanding here of racism and exploitation and the realities of things like police brutality and child mortality than I have seen in any white-authored book of the time (or today, sadly).
And the period she is in and studying? The period of the zoot suits (the retelling of the mobs of soldiers and sailors and regular white folks going after kids in drapes is rightfully horrifying, I hadn’t know before quite the extent to which it happened and the complicity of authority up to the mayor’s office). It is the period of pachuquismo, and while she doesn’t quite get it, man those kids can tell stories. I loved loved loved the stories. I loved too, how much of the slang is still around! And curious about some of her explanations, as to whether the slang has changed in meaning or whether she just got it wrong (and sometimes there are some things that I think she spells wrong because she doesn’t know what they mean), but mostly it’s all the same. The barrio names were awesome too, some of them are still around, but a lot of them are gone…
Definitely a great read, some wonderful illustrations (though so sadly no photographs), and the glossary in the back of slang is cool. Some good statistics too, this will definitely give you a great sense of the community in ways that other things can’t given the racism and active erasing that has been such an integral part of defining California and Los Angeles.
In The Politics of Violence, Sears & McConahay offer a detailed and academic study of the Watts uprising, sometimes known as the riots. Their goal in their own words:
This is a book about the political and social psychology of the Los Angeles Watts Riot of August 1965, an event that changed the course of American race relations. We shall attempt here to formulate, and to subject to rigorous empirical test, a comprehensive social psychological theory of urban mass violence. Two basic questions will be addressed: (1) Can riot participation rightfully be interpreted as a political act? (2) What were the major political effects of the riot? (vii)
The framing of this isn’t quite the way I’d go about it, but what it comes up with is very interesting. They follow these two main goals up with additional questions they believe are important, and that in themselves are insightful into the ways that the Watts uprising has been understand and the questions that it has raised for the wider society:
(1) Why did the riot happen in 1965, of all times, in the midst of what was apparently an unprecedented national civil rights effort, with the most sympathetic white public, President, Congress, and judiciary in history, and in the midst of great prosperity? (2) Why did it happen in Los Angeles, of all places, generally thought to be among the most pleasant, open, and egalitarian of American cities? (3) Was the riot politically meaningful in origin; that is, did it grow out of no longer tolerable social conditions that had to be reformed if further riots and miseries were to be avoided? Or was it a politically meaningless explosion, generated mainly by criminals, malcontents, or a few agitators, who managed to dupe hapless innocents? (4) What were the political consequences of the rioting? Did it lead whites to further sympathy for black people, and at long last spur them out of lethargy into remedial social action, or did it create a massive backlash that abruptly terminated the sympathetic consensus and thrust for civil rights progress? Did it horrify and terrify decent black citizens into a renunciation of all forms of confrontation, or provide for a general uplift in black pride and black solidarity, or fuel the advocacy of militant action and racial violence? Did race relations move into a more mature and realistic era, or regress into greater suspiciousness, hostility, and distance? (viii)
I liked this especially:
For simplicity’s sake, though, we have decided to use the term “riot” because it was used overwhelmingly in the media and by most of our respondents. Our data indicate, as will be seen, that it was more of a “rebellion” than a “riot,” but we will let our data speak for themselves and not try to prejudge the case by selecting a less commonly used word (ix).
Blacks in Los Angeles had been angry for a long time, perhaps since first Negro arrived and the Los Angeles Times began printing a column (c. 1880)entitled “News From Nigger Alley. Nevertheless, most whites were unaware of the extent and depth of black grievances until after the rioting of 1965 (55).
But their findings on whites are more interesting really. They write:
One consequence of these mild peculiarities of the early settlers, and of the life style they created for themselves, was a profound degree of black invisibility–both before and after the mass immigration of blacks to Los Angeles. By “invisibility” we mean an absence of blacks in the perceptual world of white Southern Californians. Whites were (and are) physically isolated from blacks (134).
In analysing the reasons for this, Sears & McConahay come up with a list of explanatory factors: ‘The Naive In-Migrant’, often from the Mid-West and unused to Black folks and believing the West was free of such problems; ‘Racial Isolation’, a disperse urban pattern and segregation kept them apart and interestingly this: ‘the uniquely retreatist or privatistic life style of today’s new American suburbs has flourished in Los Angeles for many years, further diminishing the opportunities for interracial contact (135); ‘De Facto Segregation’ both in residence, but also shopping patterns and lack of public transportation causes greater isolation; ‘Invisibility in the Media’ (there is an amazing graph on this).
I’m not sure I buy their analysis that L.A.’s version of racism was primarily symbolic–having researched and read enough horribly vile leaflets and letters against integration, and given the Klan’s popularity. This sort of nastiness most associated with the deep South (from whence many whites moved to L.A.) was alive and well alongside more puritanical judgements, fear of the unknown and etc. I don’t believe much tension arose from whites attempting to impose traditional puritanical mores onto different cultures, alternative values and lifestyles — Douglas Flamming’s work, for example, on African Americans in L.A. seems to show at least a large portion of the community were just as believing in hard work and striving for middle-classness as anyone else. Where it does make sense is this world view demanding belief that each individual is what they make of themselves with no allowance for racism’s structural features.
So it’s a interesting line they take, mostly using ‘Black invisibility’ to argue that whites just didn’t know what was happening. I’d say more that they didn’t want to know, but this is really interesting:
Finally, it is this combination of invisibility, indifference, and ignorance, on the one hand, and the moralism of symbolic racism, on the other, that evoked, we believe, one of the oddest and least expected aspects of the riot; namely, the widespread feeling among blacks that the riot was a demand for attention more than an effort to redress specific and concrete deficiencies in their lives (144).
And again, they refer to this spatial aspect in which L.A. is a prototype rather than exception for sprawling development:
In the near future, at least, it appears that the dominant suburban pattern will be traditional values and privatize life styles in an ethnically homogeneous retreat from blacks who are isolated in the central city (even when the retreat is homogeneously populated with Roman Catholics espousing Protestant virtues). In this sense, then, Los Angeles differs from the rest of America only in that it is the most American of all (146).
The racial polarization of local black and white leaders was duplicated almost immediately in the responses of the black and white publics, These descriptions of and feelings about the riot were as different as night and day and they formed the basis for a broad initial polarization over the issue of the riot, with blacks joined by a few liberal whites on one side, against most whites on the other….Most blacks perceived the riot as (1) a purposeful symbolic protest (2) against legitimate grievances, (3) designed to call attention to Blacks’ problems…When asked directly, a majority felt the riot did have a purpose or a goal, felt that the targets deserved attack, and agreed that the riot constituted a black protest. Also, when given a free choice of descriptive terms, a surprisingly large minority [38%] chose to talk about it in revolutionary or insurrectional terms… (159).
It continues: ‘Most though Whites had become more “aware of Negroes’ problems” and more sympathetic to them as a consequence of the riot’ (161). Also that ‘The blacks’ sympathies generally were with the rioters, not with the authorities. Disapproval of the rioters was not as common as it was of the riot itself’ (163).
It breaks my heart to read the contrast:
The story told by whites and Mexican Americans was quite different. Many (especially those close to the Curfew Zone) felt fear for their own safety or for their families’ safety during the disturbance. The Mexican American respondents in our sample (all of whom actually lived in the Curfew Zone) were particularly frightened: 52 per cent reported feeling a “great deal” of fear. Fear among whites was greatest in Baldwin Hills and Leimert Park, two integrated communities on the edge of the Curfew Zone (35 per cent reported a “great deal”) but, even in affluent Pacific Palisades 20 miles from the riot, 12 per cent reported “a great deal” of fear.
Accompanying the fear was much serious thought about obtaining guns for armed counterviolence. Forty-two per cent of the Mexican Americans and 29 per cent of the whites said “yes” to the question, “Did you at any time consider using firearms to protect yourself or your family?” Also, 5 per cent of the whites and 7 per cent of the Mexican Americans reported that they actually had bought firearms or ammunition as a consequence of the riot (164).
Almost all Whites and Mexican-Americans supported the tough, uncompromising stand toward the rioters that chief Parker and the other California law enforcement authorities established. Both groups almost invariably praised the authorities or criticized them for not being even tougher…Whites and Mexican Americans did agree, in general, that it had been a black protest but they were extremely unlikely to describe the riot in revolutionary terms…Finally, then, it should come as no surprise to learn that whites and Mexican Americans thought the riot would have quite unfavorable effects for blacks (165).
The impact this had on perceptions and strategies for struggle in teh Black community are also revealing:
Thus, our hypothesis was that the junction of the New Urban Blacks and “Watts” would leave the younger generation (irrespective of background) more drawn to imaginative and unconventional strategies, particularly those emphasizing protest and violence.
Participation in the Watts Riot itself was one key indicator of this effect. We have seen in Chapter 2 that youth was a critical factor in riot participation and in Chapters 6 and 7 that it was not merely “animal spirits” that led the young into the fray. Rather, they engaged in the riot from the same sense of grievance as older rioters.
Willingness to engage in future protest demonstrations and preference for the use of violence in the future both showed the same effect. The young were much more drawn to both protest and violence than their elders.
Malcolm X, the continuing rise of the Nation of Islam, U.S. and the Black Panthers…hardly a surprise. The authors tie the riots into a rise in Black Pride:
‘a new and more positive conception of what it meant to be black emerged in the aftermath of the violence. The riot ideology was intimately involved with this post-riot increase in positive black identity. Specifically, it seems to have occurred as part of the interpretation of the riot as a collective symbolic protest.
And this is beautiful really, in spite of painfully moralistic language and class expectations:
We have seen repeatedly that local grievances, riot participation, and the riot ideology were not to be found merely in a few deviants, isolates, political “kooks,” or half-socialized idiots. They were to be found at least as often (and frequently to an even greater degree) in the best educated, most sophisticated, most completely socialized, most modern blacks in Los Angeles. And the same is true of positive black identity: it was, in the aftermath of “Watts,” truly a mainstream value in the black community (189).
The conclusion actually does recap in detail the entire argument, and contains this nice summary of the various theories also put forward to explain the Watts uprising–and demolished quite convincingly by this book:
We constructed and then rejected empirically one formal nonpolitical alternative to our politics of violence theory, “the random outburst theory”…We also presented the far less formalized “theories” offered by authorities and by the general public. We described the conspiracy, contagion, riffraff, underclass, family life breakdown, and southern newcomer “theories” and indicated that, with the exception of unemployed males, who were quite active, they did not fit the data…The most systematic alternative formulation we considered was Banfield’s (1970) “fun and profit” theory. We described and refuted empirically his three main propositions: that the rioting simply reflected greater propensity to violence among lower classes, southerners, and the young; that it was merely a rampage or foray for pillage, rather than being motivated by identifiable and genuine discontents; and that the riot ideology merely represented post hoc rationalizations. (201).
And then in a fairly damning indictment, they list all of the recommendations made by numerous commissions on violence and rioting beginning in 1919, that are almost word for word the same:
The recommendations invariably called for a reduction of unemployment, opening of the job structure to blacks, reform of education and of programs to improve the scholastic attainments of blacks, reform of the welfare system (to cut costs) and to give the recipients “who wanted to work” assistance in getting a job, improvement of housing quality and availability, and, finally, suggestions for future police strategies. With the exception of this last [Kerner Commission], none of the recommendations made since 1919 has been pursued with any vigor and most have remained entombed in the bound official reports to be resurrected after the next series of riots (292).
The authors go further than these ‘liberal’ formulations. Ones I think the course of histor since 1973 has challenged (along with their theorization of ‘symbolic racism’) but here they are:
Jobs, housing, education, anti-discrimination laws–all of these are necessary, but insufficient answers to mounting black disaffection. In addition, symbolic gestures are called for, to deal with symbolic discontents. That a presidential candidate or a mayor would walk through the streets of Harlem or Watts or that a President would use the phrase “we shall overcome” in a message on civil rights has a profound positive effect….
With these cautions we conclude our “recommendations.” It is obvious that America does not lack for recommendations. What she lacks is equally obvious and very simple: the will to implement them. Since we doubt that white America is on the verge of suddenly acquiring this will, we feel little compulsion to add further to the list of recommendations (205).