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A New Place in History

A boom in scholarly research is drawing attention to the city's dynamic past and bringing it new respectability as an urban center.

March 01, 2000|BRENDA REES | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Los Angeles, the city that isn't supposed to have a past, has suddenly become the darling of history scholars.

Observers say record numbers of academics, working on dissertations, journal articles and mass-market histories, are scattered around Southern California, their labors aided by several improvements in archiving and historic preservation.

"Los Angeles has become one of the hottest topics on the table for scholars," said Tom Andrews, executive director of the Historical Society of Southern California. "Los Angeles no longer resides in a historical vacuum, reduced to a sentence or two in history classes or journals. People want to know how this city grew and

developed."

Gloria Riccu Lothrop, professor of history at Cal State Northridge, said, "We finally have the proper perspective to look back. Given its relatively recent beginnings and explosive growth after World War II, Los Angeles is the most obvious and perfect postmodern city."

Chicago was the typical American city to study in the 20th century, but the academic buzz now focuses on Los Angeles as the prototype for the 21st.

"L.A. is where things happened," including the suburbs and the freeway system mimicked around the world, Lothrop said.

The historical society's activities are a good illustration of the boom in scholarly work. In the 1960s, the society printed 22 institutional and biographical histories relating to Los Angeles, but from 1985 to 1999 it issued more than 100. The increase has been helped by the John Randolph Haynes and Dora Haynes Foundation, a private organization that in 1997 began funding a program for scholars researching and writing on Los Angeles and Southern California.

"Once the word was out, we were contacted by students and PhD candidates from all over, including places like Wisconsin, Minnesota, Georgia and Colorado," said the historical society's Andrews, whose organization administers the program. Diane Cornwell, administrative director of the Hayes foundation, said she has seen an 80% increase in the number of historical study proposals in the last 10 years.

Other studies are being published by distinguished university presses such as Johns Hopkins, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Temple, focusing on subjects that include the Los Angeles River, Monterey Park and the role of the automobile in the city's history.

This newfound interest in Los Angeles does more than elevate the city's prestige.

"These books and studies help raise the national consciousness about Los Angeles," said Doyce Nunis Jr., a history professor emeritus at USC and author of more than 60 books and 100 articles on the history of L.A., California and the West. "Books published about Los Angeles before World War II were so divisive and awful, and that's how people across the country viewed the city.

"Los Angeles is now not just seen as cuckoo land. I am sure that is why we're seeing more venture capital companies starting up businesses here. This academic attention helps us get rid of the myth of Los Angeles as so utterly unique and far-out: We are a city like any other, and we are to be taken seriously."

Ethnic diversity, a hallmark of L.A., is one of the scholars' most popular subjects. Author George Sanchez often can be found in Boyle Heights, a neighborhood east of downtown L.A. and his boyhood home, conducting interviews and recording oral histories for a new study, "Reexamining Boyle Heights, Making Community: Multiethnic Interpretations of Neighborhood Life."

"Boyle Heights has been the place to go and live for a lot of different ethnic groups," said Sanchez, who also teaches history at USC. "It was the first suburban community for Japanese Americans and, of course, the Jewish community. Later, the 'White Russians,' or Russian Molokans, came, then a small community of African Americans, Armenians and Greeks. Finally, Mexican Americans arrived there."

Sanchez has been investigating the ethnic communities' living conditions, children's education and social interactions. He plans to turn the study into a book, and part of it will be included in an exhibit on ethnic interaction in Boyle Heights, being prepared by the Japanese American National Museum.

"There is something unique about this area because so many civic and community leaders came from Boyle Heights," he said, citing Ed Roybal, the former Los Angeles city councilman and U.S. congressman; Harold Williams, former head of the J. Paul Getty Center; and Mike Garret, Heisman trophy winner and current USC athletic director. "The neighborhood is home and continues to be considered home even for people who left it 40 years ago. The neighborhood is also unique because it's probably the only community of its size that has five freeways running through it."

Study of Chinese Americans

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