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A City as Envisioned by a Newspaper

March 19, 2000|Michael Ventura | Michael Ventura, a novelist and essayist, is working on a book about John Cassavetes

The 21st century began as an embarrassment for Los Angeles. All day we watched as, time zone by time zone, the other great cities of the world celebrated with a raucous pride in themselves, pride not possible unless citizens felt a share in both their city's identity and its claim to glory. But when midnight struck in Los Angeles, we made hardly a peep. Los Angeles, survivor of riots and earthquakes, the city with the greatest ethnic diversity of any city anywhere at any time in history; center of the world's TV and film industries, where Hollywood has defined glamour for a century; city of moguls and lowriders, New Age hooey and surfboard daredeviltry, where wave upon wave of people come to invent and live out their dreams--Los Angeles could not find in its heart any shared pride or glory to celebrate.

New Year's Eve 1999 revealed us to ourselves as an encampment of loners posing as a city, where most feel stuck in the traffic jam of everyone else's ambitions. "What do we do together in this town?" I asked a friend, soon after New Year's. "We drive the freeways and we read the L.A. Times," he said. He thought he was being sarcastic, but as he said it, he realized he was right.

We watch 100 different channels, we go all over the world on the Net, we listen to dozens of niche radio stations, read dozens more niche magazines and our neighborhoods are segregated by income and race and ethnicity, but the one constant from the desert to the sea is the L.A. Times. A fact that apparently was not a cause for celebration but a fact, nonetheless.

"Before there was a city, there was a paper," Gore Vidal said last week, when discussing the Los Angeles Times. Other cities generated their newspapers, but the Chandler family's Los Angeles Times can be said, without much exaggeration, to have built this city. A century ago, when this was an out-of-the-way town unimportant on the map of America, the powers behind the L.A. Times had a grand and greedy vision: a West Coast city to rival any in the world, if only you could steal enough water, build a harbor, attract industry and exert sufficient control from the top to let that industry have its way. Relentlessly, the L.A. Times, and the money it represented, pursued those goals and built that city. Yes, it got a large break when moviemakers congregated here circa 1914, and a larger break from World War II, which brought big industry and hundreds of thousands of laborers to settle here. But without the infrastructure and power structure created by the Chandler empire and its circle, those developments would not have been possible.

When the city became important enough to be self-conscious about its lack of culture, the L.A. Times empire spearheaded the buying and import of culture, and any culture it didn't recognize and get behind, like the brilliant music scene of Central Avenue in the 1940s or the Latino art scene of the last 20 years, was often marginalized. Needing heavier national political clout after the Second World War, the Chandler circle looked for a champion and found one in a young, brilliant and unscrupulous candidate for Congress, Richard M. Nixon. It's unlikely he would have risen without L.A. Times support. Whether one agrees with their vision or not, the Chandlers had one, they pushed it and they made it stick.

They didn't do it pretty. They generally rode roughshod over many a more generous vision of what Los Angeles could be, and they could make life miserable for anyone who got in their way. If they can take credit for the very existence of the city, they must also take the blame, and shoulder not a little shame, for its inequities, its lack of identity, its well-deserved reputation for expediency. Saying that, it must also be admitted that city-building is rarely an edifying sight when looked at closely. Robert Moses in New York, and the role of the New York Times from the 1930s through the 1960s, aren't sweet examples of democracy. City-building is about power, and power is, to put it mildly, not nice.

What's different about Los Angeles is that much of the power to make the city work was generated, for better and worse, from its major newspaper. As a result, its reportage was, shall we say, suspect. But in the last 35 years, conscientious journalists brought the L.A. Times within range of the New York Times and the Washington Post, as one of the few significant papers in the country. If it has frustrated us by never having quite fulfilled its promise, it has engaged us by having a promise to fulfill. And when the paper focuses on a subject, its level of in-depth coverage is as high as anywhere.

Certainly, it's undeniable that The Times has cared deeply about Los Angeles--within the realm and limits of its interests, surely, but that can be said of any of us.

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