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An adolescent city of angels : SUNSHINE AND WEALTH: LOS ANGELES IN THE TWENTIES AND THIRTIES by Bruce Henstell (Chronicle: $12.95; 132 pp.)

February 03, 1985|Sam Hall Kaplan | Kaplan is an author and The Times' urban design critic. and

I often think of cities as organic conglomerations, products of time and place, moving through history in various stages of development and decline while embodying particular characteristics of each period, very much like humans.

Thus, to me, New York in the 1970s was going through a mid-life crisis, to emerge in the 1980s as a confidant, middle-aged schizophrenic. I think of London as an aging, prejudiced gentleman; Paris, a courtesan of a certain age; Tokyo as a frenetic overachieving 9-year-old boy; Hong Kong, a woman in the throes of a difficult separation.

Judging from Bruce Henstell's well-illustrated, entertaining survey of Los Angeles in the 1920s and 1930s, the city then was an awkward, young adolescent, presumptuous and prejudiced, naive and brash, full of energy and promise, if anything, a candidate for a role in "Our Gang."

It is an adolescence for which the author obviously yearns, declaring in his effusive preface, "there may have been a better period in the city's history, but I doubt it."

Henstell goes on to note that it was a boom time for Los Angeles, with a steady stream of newcomers doubling and nearly redoubling the city's population to touch off a succession of real estate booms, punctuated by oil booms, accented by a general feeling of optimism and announced to the world by a variety of boosters embracing growth.

Booming also was the fledgling movie industry, bootlegging, get-rich-quick schemes, fads and scandals, each with its stars and scoundrels making great copy for the city's six competitive newspapers and shaping a national image of Los Angeles as the new Babylon, or at least, a city of exciting possibilities.

Henstell bounds from topic to topic in a terse, journalistic style that offers engaging anecdotes flavored with gossip, but little perspective. It is a view shaped in part by the book's wealth of illustrations, many of which were culled from the photo files of the old Daily News now housed in UCLA's University Research Library.

According to Henstell, the photographs capture "Los Angeles at her best, when she was all dressed up, the skies clear and wildflowers and orange groves everywhere. Los Angeles when the sun really did shine every day, wealth wasn't hard to come by, and good times were had by all."

Henstell does mention the Depression and devotes a few paragraphs to the city's notorious efforts assigning policemen to the state's borders to halt cars headed toward Los Angeles and to turn back persons who could not prove they had any means of support. And he does briefly touch upon such problems as traffic and parking, which plagued the city then as now.

But the emphasis is very much on the positive, "the pleasures, delights and joys of Los Angeles," as Henstell declares. No doubt, if published a half century ago, the real estate promoters and then very active local Chamber of Commerce and tourist associations would have loved it.

The survey is a pleasant remembrance, sort of like looking at photographs of one's youth in the family album and recalling the good times and forgetting the bad.

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