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Los Angeles has plenty of history, if you look for it

History in L.A. doesn't hit you in the face like it does elsewhere. Often you have to go exploring to find it, but sometimes it's as obvious as the Hollywood sign.

April 22, 2012|By Leo Braudy, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Author Leo Braudy.
Author Leo Braudy. (Philip Channing )

Growing up in Philadelphia, I could hardly avoid history. Virtually every semester in grammar school, we would be packed on to buses to visit all the approved historical stops: the Liberty Bell, Ben Franklin's grave, Betsy Ross' house, then lunch and back to improper fractions.

Southern California was different. When I first arrived in the 1960s, all I could see was the absence of the East, no overhanging past, no famous history. There were palm trees and open spaces, as well as a fair number of buildings. But I still had the Easterner's view of the coast, the frontier, the jumping-off place into emptiness.

Several summers later, teaching at UC Santa Barbara's embryonic film program, I began to appreciate the charm of a world so close to nature that history was a mere facade, such as Santa Barbara's reconstructed Spanish Colonial downtown. It was nothing like Betsy Ross' house on its narrow 18th century street, or Franklin's grave, covered with pennies tossed through the iron fence.

My view changed when my wife, Dorothy, and I moved to Los Angeles in 1983. She and her mother had been born here, although when Dorothy was 9 they moved to her father's Kentucky hometown because the real estate fortune he had hoped to make in L.A. had never materialized. So there was a personal history in Southern California, if not the kind of history with a capital "H" I was used to from Philadelphia. We settled in Los Feliz because we wanted a house that looked like those we had seen in movies, particularly film noirs like "Double Indemnity": a Spanish Colonial with citrus trees and a pool in the backyard.

Across Los Feliz Boulevard was a water fountain my Uncle Ken told me was on the site of a spring where he used to come from the San Fernando Valley to refill his jugs. This story later turned out to be an urban myth, according to the Department of Water and Power, but it added to my growing sense of a richer history than I had previously believed existed, as did the plaque near the entrance to Ferndell that announced it was the former home of a GabrieleƱo village.

So I became an amateur of Los Angeles history, a lover of the ins and outs and tangles of the urban world. Driving to and from USC, I often decided to get lost, taking turns I knew were not the best way to get where I was going but that led me into fascinating neighborhoods and overlooked places with virtually every style of domestic architecture in American history, as well as a few types that existed only in Los Angeles.

My sense of L.A.'s secret places became even more acute when I wrote a book about the intertwined history of Hollywood and the Hollywood sign. Here was something I saw every day in my own neighborhood, so familiar that it seemed to need no introduction, and yet it turned out to be full of mysteries.

As a newcomer and then a long-time resident, I had steeped myself in books about Los Angeles and even taught hard-boiled fiction in one of my classes. But engaging with the complex history of the Hollywood sign took me to another level. Turning over the fading pages of the minutes of the Hollywood City Council from a century ago, searching through microfilms and online archives of the Los Angeles Times, I realized I was becoming a Los Angeles historian.

Los Angeles history is short compared with that of New York, London or Paris, but it is dense and so compounded with the movie version of the city that its real life is often submerged beneath its fictional image. But once you start to look beneath the surface, bygone days come out in rich detail. Sensational murders such as that of the Black Dahlia, can offer a narrow passageway to the past, but I was more interested in the city's normal life and the way Angelenos woke up to their past, a comparatively recent phenomenon. The Los Angeles Conservancy, committed to historical preservation, dates only to 1978.

Even with the destruction of so many old landmarks, fostered by the scorched-earth redevelopment urges of the 1960s, so much remained to be discovered. So I trolled through the streets of Hollywood, spotting old houses and looking them up on Zillow to check their ages. How wonderful it would be if there were an interactive map that would show what structures remained when you plugged in a date. On it would be the living history of Hollywood, from its growth as a wealthy suburban enclave to the worldwide symbol it is today. There among the narrow streets of the Hollywood Hills and the flats that stretch south could be found deep roots into the past.

Still, newcomers and transients continue to proclaim that Los Angeles has no history. Perhaps it suits them to be dismissive because it protects them from this city's allure. I see the plans for development in Hollywood, and I worry that more of the past will be erased, as before, in the name of progress. But what real progress can there be without understanding where you have come from?

Braudy, a USC professor, is the author of "The Hollywood Sign: Fantasy and Reality of an American Icon."

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