Coming across the past in the city is usually to feel its pull, to envy its certainty. How solid life seemed once, how full of clarity and virtue.
Here for instance, is a house, an ordinary house from the late 1940s. It stands in a small, quiet, homely street just below Beverly Hills. The family buying it is drawn by its square, steadfast front: red brick, dull, almost boring. The basement is sturdy; great beams run beneath the floors in resolute spans. Built to last, people say of such a house--built in a time when men knew what was true, what was right. There is not one flourish here, not one fashionable gesture. And outside, with a whiff of Norman Rockwell, children play catch in the street, safe, unthreatened. Illusion is all.
And here is the title report that the family has just received: pages of old documents, in type so small that few people will read them. If all is well for the bank, all is well. The assumption is of good, that our forebears were honest in a simpler time. A flurry of concern about mineral rights, perhaps; a second's thought about side-yard restrictions. The rest is formality, for the house was built on solid ground, by solid folk.
This city's history is in these old, frayed documents: the tract subdivided in 1937 for these family homes, little gardens, polite neighbors. On the page, another part of history: The land was owned and developed by King Vidor, founder and first president of the Screen Directors' Guild. The stuff of legends: 40 years of film-making, silent films, sound, color, inspiration, action. From "The Crowd" to "War and Peace." "I see the Hand of Fate calling me to reform the World," read Vidor's diary in 1914, "I will start with the movies." Thrilling, is it not, to feel the passing of 50 years, to sense the presence in one's hand of a "better" world?
But in that old, barely legible document, among the waffling of deeds and grants, a paragraph suddenly leaps to the eye:
"That no lot in said Tracts shall at any time be lived upon by any person whose blood is not entirely that of the Caucasian race, and for the purposes of this paragraph, no Japanese, Chinese, Mexican, Hindu or any person of the Ethiopian, Indian or Mongolian races shall be deemed to be a Caucasian."
A moment of ghastly embarrassment, shame, revulsion. As if this square, reliable, unpretentious house with its image of quiet decency were now exposed as a whorehouse, a place of infamy. Fury and bitterness, too, that such documented racism could have existed. And pity the innocence--the stupid, blind innocence--that was surprised by it. How can we live in this world and know so little of what was, of what is?
Were these the perfect years, the ones of unquestioned greatness? Vidor himself, the man who was King, the artist who raised up for all time the poor black folks and poor white folks both ("Hallelujah," "Our Daily Bread," "The Champ").
And this man, whose very name is celebrated in a city street, felt entitled to this straightforward and meticulously defined racism. Are we to believe that he did not read the documents signed in his name by his attorneys? That, preoccupied with the grosses of "Stella Dallas," he simply skipped the small print, the detail stuff? Or, rather, that racism was so part of the city's landscape that Vidor could take to himself the power to cast a whole neighborhood?
The written page looks so harmless; just another paragraph, just another piece of legalese. We accept what is presented to us. We do not want to question. We embrace "the normal." And only 30 years before Watts, this polite and hideous racism was "normal" in our city.
Look again at the world we think back upon with such longing: the simple, clean time of righteousness. Those were unquiet days, as man's days have always been unquiet. 1937: the year Hitler marched in Europe, and King Vidor's land was developed for acceptable whites only.
But 50 more years down the road, when those who follow us stumble by accident across the proof of who we are and who we are not--how will we stand up to their scrutiny?
Let us look to our deeds.