A Redlands alumnus reflects on the May Term class he taught on the history of L.A.
by Ian Baldwin ’08
Close your eyes and think about Los Angeles. Using a single word, what do you see? Sprawl. Smog. Fame. Traffic. These are a few of the responses I received from students on the first day of my History of Los Angeles May Term class. This first assignment was designed to get the clichés on the table. While they had not seen Steve Martin’s L.A. Story (they would by week three), these students nonetheless echoed the film’s take on a metropolis comically out of control: L.A. as dystopian wonderland.
Others envisioned something else. Beyond Hollywood and the freeway, they thought immigration; diversity; community; acceptance; opportunity: L.A. as progressive trendsetter, home to the American dream.
These divergent narratives have long divided academics, observers and residents of America’s second largest city. Over the course of four weeks, our class surveyed these competing takes on L.A. and Southern California. In the end we discovered a region simultaneously obsessed with nostalgia and reinvention.
Teaching this class in Redlands offered an opportunity for historical and personal reflection. Most participants, including myself, were Southern Californians. Though only a few were actually “from L.A.,” we nonetheless considered ourselves provincial Angelenos (after all, when asked by an outsider to locate Riverside or Redlands, how many of us answer, “Near L.A.”?).
Our familiarity with the region presented a challenge; it can be difficult to critique the sites of our past since they are often entangled with our memories. This was most true when we explored Disneyland, the amusement park par excellence constructed by a man who embraced the freeway and suburbs as an antidote to perceived urban blight and chaos. For many students the park housed precious childhood memories that made critical analysis challenging. For instance, why did Disney build Aunt Jemima’s Pancake House, a plantation-themed restaurant which featured an “authentic” Mammy host, within his park? In Frontierland, why did he insist on portraying the American West as a place of ingenuity and national destiny, but not one of conflict or complexity?
Applying criticism to such a revered site threatened to complicate personal memories. By the time my students were going to Disneyland, Aunt Jemima was long gone, but the plantation remained (now renamed “River Belle Terrace”). Many had eaten there. After some reflection, several felt Frontierland had negatively influenced the way they thought about the American West. It’s not at all surprising that Walt’s remarkably successful experiment in nostalgic history telling, his clever mix of “fact and fancy,” was built in Southern California. The region has long been the subject of an intense narrative project.
From Olvera Street, to Dodger Stadium, to Riverside’s Mission Inn, Southern California bears physical evidence of a city and region on the move, desperate to maintain control of its story and destiny. To be sure, this reflects the larger history of the American West, the only region of the nation except the South that has been given persistent meaning. Angelenos have searched for such meaning with startling intensity.
On a trip to Downtown L.A., the students—who had written reports on different sites—revealed tangled webs of the city’s past. Union Station, built to legitimize the city, was constructed on the site of the Old Chinatown. Pershing Square, the largest public space in Downtown, was once a lush park frequented by political radicals and gay men in search of companions and community. In the 1950s, it was paved with concrete to allow for better policing. When we stopped at City Hall, students explained that the modernist gem stood on the site of the original Native village of Yang-Na. More irony. Our final stop was Olvera Street, a site many tourists (and some locals) believe preserves L.A.’s Spanish and Mexican past. Designed in the 1930s by socialite Christine Sterling and funded by Los Angeles Times publisher Harry Chandler, Olvera Street created a fantasy past for tourists to consume. In Southern California, Disneyland had many precursors.
Toward the end of the course, I asked students to complete another impromptu assignment. Take out a blank piece of paper and draw a map of Los Angeles. Unlike the word association exercise, they now knew something about the city’s complexities. The maps they produced did not disappoint. One student’s Downtown core was surrounded by “$” and “Rich People” while her suburbs were tightly contained within gated clusters. Gentrification and suburban disinvestment. One map was dominated by beaches, retail and Hollywood. Region of leisure. Another displayed a large area sliced to pieces by numerous lines and divisions. Freeway metropolis, community displacement. Still another connected L.A. to regions beyond with pipes “in search of water.” Environmental catastrophe. Finally, one student drew “East L.A.” surrounded by “Border Control.” Diversity, immigration, policing.
In the end, despite all the claims of the boosters, we came to see Los Angeles and Southern California as far from Eden. But was that such a bad thing? In search of control and identity, we decided, Angelenos had inadvertently burdened themselves. The organic and often unpredictable elements of the region and its inhabitants have long been more interesting than anything a booster could dream up.
About the author: Ian M. Baldwin graduated from the University of Redlands in 2008 with a B.A. in history. He recently completed his Ph.D. in history at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas where he studied urban, sexual and American Western history. He has been an adjunct lecturer of history at Redlands since 2015.