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227 candles for L.A.

It's the city's birthday, but in a place that rarely looks back, how many of us remembered?

September 04, 2008

Happy birthday, Los Angeles. El Pueblo de Nuestra Senora la Reina de los Angeles de Porciuncula would have 227 candles on its birthday cake today, if anyone had thought to bake it a cake. Or even to remember today's anniversary.

On Sept. 4, 1781, 44 settlers walked nine dusty miles from the San Gabriel Mission to what is now Olvera Street in downtown L.A. and began the city's history, at least as far as European settlement was concerned (the basin had been settled by the Tongva centuries earlier). Angelenos can be forgiven for not knowing about this, because no trace of what these pioneers built remains. Olvera Street was reconstructed in the 1920s as a tourist attraction, based on conceptions of what a mythical old-time pueblo might have looked like.

So where do L.A. natives go to reconnect with the city's history? Not Chinatown; though the city did indeed have an enclave for Chinese immigrants in the 19th century, it was razed in the 1930s to build what is now Union Station. Today's Chinatown, like Olvera Street, is an ethnic theme park conceived by downtown business interests. How about the Ambassador Hotel? One of the most iconic structures in Los Angeles, it was known worldwide both as the site of Robert F. Kennedy's assassination and the location of the Cocoanut Grove nightclub, the center of gravity for mid-20th century movie stars. If you want to see it, get a book of old photos. Like the Brown Derby and the Red Cars, it has vanished with barely a trace.

Much has been said about L.A.'s uncomfortable relationship with its history, or lack of one, and not all of it is entirely fair. Los Angeles is still a land of reinvention, where the future matters much more than the past, but it does have a preservationist movement that grows stronger as the city ages, as well as heritage groups such as Los Pobladores 200 -- descendants of L.A.'s original settlers who help organize an annual reenactment of the walk from the mission to Olvera Street.

In a place with so little history left to preserve, the efforts of preservationists can sometimes seem comical, like the crusade to save an architecturally generic Tower Records store on Sunset Boulevard because some famous rock stars used to sign albums there. Nonetheless, such battles are welcome in a region that has paid a price for its headlong obsession with modernity. The lack of a common narrative about the past contributes to the sense of L.A. as a collection of communities in search of a city.

So sombreros off to those pobladores of old. Maybe next Sept. 4, we'll work on that cake.

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