Los Angeles has always wrapped itself in myth. An example is the myth of a healthy environment. Trying to boost tourism and weak real-estate sales in the late 19th Century, Los Angeles business promoters advertised the Southland as a health paradise. Actually, the city's filthy water supply brought typhoid epidemics during the summer.
That 19th-Century self-deception is one of the myths cited in this valuable collection of seven essays that show how boosters, politicians and just plain residents always have preferred a fuzzy, pleasant, fictional version of the area's history to its more gritty and distasteful reality.
The book was published at an opportune time. Los Angeles is creating another myth: prosperous, happy, multiethnic, multicultural capital of the booming Pacific Rim. The reality is different. Areas of Third World poverty blight the prosperity. There's plenty of tension in our rich new mix of ethnic groups. And the Japanese might argue about our claiming capital status.
As editors Norman M. Klein of the California Institute of the Arts and Martin J. Schiesl of Cal State Los Angeles put it: "Los Angeles is entering a new epoch, and is being forced to reexamine its priorities, even the fantasies it promotes."
A central reality in the book is the racism that always has accompanied life in what's been advertised as a suburban paradise. The subdivisions that sprung up in the San Fernando and San Gabriel Valleys after World War II gave ex-GIs and their contemporaries a house of their own. But not everyone.
Accompanying Lonnie Bunche's essay on "The Afro-American in Los Angeles Since 1900" is a photograph of one of those early tracts, with the sign "This Tract Is Exclusive and Restricted." Restrictive covenants trapped Afro-Americans in an increasingly overcrowded ghetto along Central Avenue. Attempts to move out were resisted by whites. "As conditions worsened, racial violence occurred on the streets of Los Angeles," writes Bunche. White students rioted at Fremont High School in 1941 when black students enrolled.
Gloria E. Miranda's "The Mexican Immigrant Family" shows how the racist policies of the Los Angeles Unified School District deprived the Latino community of a generation of leaders. Another by Carlos Navarro and Rodolfo Acuna notes the difference between the activist Latino political community in San Antonio and Los Angeles' much weaker Hispanic politics.
A huge immigration from Mexico during the 1910 Revolution and civil unrest of the '20s swelled Los Angeles' Latino population. The immigrants, many of them from the country, worked in menial jobs. Neighborhoods were wiped out by redevelopment backed by Anglo politicians and developers. The school system shunted the immigrants' youngsters off to vocational courses. "Without a professional base upon which to build community leadership, second-generation Mexican-Americans had little hope for a better life in this society," Miranda says.
The fact that a generation of leaders was lost helps explain the political and economic weakness of the Latino community. Past racism continues to shape today's Los Angeles.
Exclusion led to violent protests. Some uncomfortable Anglos wondered why these militants couldn't be more like the Asians, the "model minority." That sentiment, masking a deep strain of anti-Asian feeling in Calfornia, is examined in the essay "Asian-Pacific Angelenos: Model Minorities and Indispensable Scapegoats" by Donald Teruoa Hata Jr. and Hadine Ishitani Hata.
The Asian-American past was shaped by bigotry--anti-Asian immigration laws, the destruction of Chinatown for construction of Union Station, the imprisonment of Japanese in detention camps during World War II. Racism toward Asians declined after the war, but, as the authors note, it's returning. "With many Americans out of work, a severe trade balance and our descent to debtor-nation status, there is a need for a scapegoat," they write. "The litany of loathsome epithets and propaganda images from our wars in Asia (from World War II to Korea and Vietnam) are circulating again. . . . "
Some of the essays are weak. I thought the piece on the Los Angeles Police Department, criticizing its police-state intelligence gathering, failed to take note of the great popular support the LAPD has in the neighborhoods. An essay on organized crime has too much Bugsy Siegel, Mickey Cohen and other mobsters of the faded '40s. And if there's a second printing, it should catch some editing errors, such as a misspelling of the name of one of the Southland's favorite gangsters, Tony Cornero, who ran gambling ships off Santa Monica.
These are small criticisms. The book is a well-needed dose of realism to mark the region's entrance into the many-cultured society of the Pacific Rim. The message of the essays is that Los Angeles residents, and policy makers, must deal with the reality, rather than view the new L.A. with the misty-eyed enthusiasm of spectators at the Olympics arts festival.
For an excerpt from "20th Century Los Angeles," see Opinion on Page 5.