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Students Learn to Separate L.A.'s Myth From Reality

Pasadena City College professors make stripping away misconceptions about the region a class requirement.

October 22, 2003|Peter Y. Hong | Times Staff Writer

Pasadena City College professor Krista Walter begins her course on Los Angeles culture by asking students to describe the region in which they live.

Typically, students express "a feeling and sense that this is a tropical, temperate place ... they think the palm trees are native," she said.

Those images mirror the marketing campaigns used to sell California as a tourist and residential destination in the early 20th century.

They belie a more harsh reality: the droughts, floods, fires and earthquakes in the region. And many students take for granted the natural environment's transformation by the hand of man through projects such as lining the channel of the Los Angeles River with concrete.

Walter and three other Pasadena City College professors are pushing students to look beyond stereotypes to the underlying complexity of Los Angeles through an ambitious program that combines history, literature, film, science and the arts.

Called "Los Angeles: Transition and Erasure," the program is a semester-long examination of how Los Angeles' past has shaped its present. Professors of various disciplines jointly teach the courses, blending their material to pursue that common theme.

Over 16 weeks, the 60 students enrolled in the program -- which encompasses a full semester's course load -- combine readings and film viewings with field work. They visit neighborhoods and historic sites in the Pasadena area and downtown Los Angeles. Twice during the semester, they travel to the Mojave Desert to camp and examine the desert environment at Harper Dry Lake, near Hinkley.

D.J. Waldie, author of the book "Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir," which traces the development of Lakewood and is one of the texts for the course, visited the students last year and will do so again this semester. The program addresses "One of the tragic qualities of Southern California life," Waldie said, which is a widespread "amnesia about the history and situation of Los Angeles."

Waldie said the Pasadena City College program reflects the growth in the last decade of Southern California studies as an academic field, with thriving undergraduate and graduate programs at area universities such as USC, UCLA, Cal State Northridge and Cal State Fullerton.

But Pasadena City College's program is "particularly appealing because it broadens a student's vision to include interdisciplinary study at a community college, where students might otherwise be on a conveyer belt moving them from one required class to next," Waldie said.

Now in its second year, the program begins with a critical look at the myths that have defined Los Angeles.

Students read selections from John McPhee's "Los Angeles Against the Mountains" and Mike Davis' "The Ecology of Fear," which take a critical look at the way Californians have built residential neighborhoods in hostile environments, such as those prone to floods and fires..

From these and other works, students gain a "sense of how constructed and managed the environment is," Walter said, and confront the tension resulting from "the inability to control nature and the desire to do that."

The desert camping trips give students a chance to make a stark departure from their man-made surroundings.

Harper Dry Lake "is a desert environment extreme to our region" said art professor Deena Capparelli, but is only a 1 1/2-hour drive from the college.

There, students experience the opposite of the lush, palm tree-and-blue ocean depiction of Southern California. They also sharpen their observation skills by finding the many forms of life in the seemingly bleak desert.

"At first they see nothing, then the see an incredibly rich place with all kinds of things going on," she said.

From encountering an endangered desert tortoise to finding old shoes and cans discarded by long-ago homesteaders, students become aware of the different life forms that inhabited the area.

Back in the city, students create maps of neighborhoods that depict the man-made and natural environments of the area as well as its current and former populations.

To create the maps, students research data including the income levels and racial makeup of specific blocks and streets and how they might have changed over time.

The architectural history of neighborhoods and past uses of existing buildings are also included in the maps. These projects examine issues such as the possible extension of the Long Beach Freeway through South Pasadena and its effect on neighborhoods along the route, while also obtaining the views of residents in surrounding cities.

The real-world experiences are supplemented with fictional depictions of Los Angeles communities, such as Chinatown in Lisa See's "On Gold Mountain" and South-Central Los Angeles in Walter Moseley's "Devil in a Blue Dress."

The faculty also designed the program to give students with different backgrounds, who come from several surrounding suburbs and Los Angeles, a sense of community and common purpose.

Students at the commuter campus work collaboratively on their projects.

"The students really, really connect ... they become a really tightknit unit" Capparelli said.

Jonathan Tran, 17, a first-year college student from Alhambra, had expected community college to be a drive-through experience.

But besides coming to a new understanding of a region in which he has spent his entire life, Tran said participating in the program has helped him form social bonds in a place where such connections can be hard to come by.

"You're seeing each other every day, taking the same classes and doing research together; you develop an intimacy and find you have a group of friends," he said.

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