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Bait and Switch

LANDSCAPES OF DESIRE Anglo Mythologies of Los Angeles By William Alexander McClung; University of California Press: 278 pp., $35

March 19, 2000|D.J. WALDIE | D.J. Waldie, a Lakewood city official, is the author of "Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir."

The only true paradise is a paradise lost.

-- MARCEL PROUST

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It is the power of books (when they are good enough) to give readers an experience of an entire life. William Alexander McClung's "Landscapes of Desire: Anglo Mythologies of Los Angeles" is a book more than good enough. The reader gets a sense of the author's life with the idea of Los Angeles (dense with images and citations from the literature) as well as a map through the vast, imaginative work that is this city.

On its grid, McClung orders for our sympathy the vanished longing for repose and meaningful labor that tubercular Midwesterners, semiretired orange growers and evangelical land promoters brought to the vacancy they experienced in Los Angeles a hundred years ago. What these white, aspirant middle-class Americans made, mostly through the labor of brown and black and immigrant hands, is the equivocal L.A. in which we now live. Having shaped our landscape to successive Anglo desires and tragically failed to reconcile the contradictions in them, these self-made Angelenos have dissolved into our troubled and pluralist megalopolis.

"In Los Angeles' secular religion of place," McClung writes, "hundreds of thousands of people for about a century could imagine that the envelope of their lives, replicating ancient imagery of timelessness and fulfillment, was, if not Paradise, at least its antechamber, a Promised Land, to exist in which was proof of the road well traveled and the job well done. Perhaps one of several competing cultures in the region, probably neither especially Protestant nor European in its roots, will succeed in rediscovering such a vision. For the culture of Anglo desire, it has nearly vanished."

McClung is a Southerner, and the South's habit of mind to see the shape and narrative line in history, he says, propelled this critical elegy for a "romance of place" that is over.

Anglo L.A. aspired to a narrative that was as unambiguous and as reconciled as the label on a 1918 citrus crate. Here is, says McClung, "virtually a diagram of a Southern California of idealized juxtapositions." The label shows "four approximately equal zones, starting at the mountains, which are wilderness (the land as it was and can, without damage to profits, be allowed to remain), and progressing to the citrus groves, an orderly and proper exploitation of nature. A boulevard next announces a modern city and its technological panache, displaying the imagery not of mass (i.e. rail) but of leisured transportation," including a touring car. "Finally a lady appears on foot, hatted and handbagged, as if going to pay a call." None of these distinct categories of place contradicts the mythologies of Anglo L.A. Wilderness, farming, virile technology and feminine high fashion, all of nature and all of civilization, "are perfectly in scale" and the pace of the imagined city in which they coexist "is simultaneously that of the motorist and of the pedestrian."

The crate label only coincidentally sold lemons. It really marketed a novel idea about subdividing a presumed paradise. "Los Angeles did not so much grow, as sell itself into existence," notes McClung. The selling required a sales pitch implying that, in acquiring a lot, you acquired the entire landscape. The city today reflects this early bait-and-switch. Los Angeles has fewer acres of parkland per capita than any other large city in the nation, and large parts of the suburbanized city look, from the middle distance of a passing car, nearly as green and unbuilt as a park.

Because this is L.A., the boulevard connecting Arcadian and Utopian metaphors on the lemon crate label is--in reality--a detour. L.A.'s highways lead to the dissolution of Arcadia's domesticated wilderness (by consuming it with house lots) and frustrate Utopia's ordered unity (by dispersing the city to its fringes). McClung cites Joan Didion's appraisal of a 1923 plan by Harry Chandler (former publisher of The Times) for a system of motor parkways to replace Henry Huntington's increasingly inefficient system of light-rail mass transit. Chandler used the scheme to imagine, Didion wrote, "a new kind of city, which would seem to have no finite limits . . . that would eventually touch the Tehachapi range to the north and the Mexican border to the south, the San Bernardino Mountains to the east and the Pacific to the west. . . ." This Utopian project of the Anglo imagination, "annexing space to the limits imposed by geography," is nearly the city we have, but it moves at a pace fit neither for pedestrians nor for motorists, neither Arcadian nor Utopian.

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