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'A People's Guide': New book gives a new view of L.A.

June 28, 2012|By Christopher Reynolds | Los Angeles Times staff writer
  • The former site of the Black Panther Party headquarters on Central Avenue in South Los Angeles, photographed in 2007, is mentioned prominently in the new guidebook "A People's Guide to Los Angeles."
The former site of the Black Panther Party headquarters on Central Avenue… (Wendy Cheng )

They paved Panther headquarters and put up a parking lot.

The Black Panther Party’s L.A. headquarters, that is. The two-story brick building stood at 4115 S. Central Ave., and it’s where Black Panthers and the LAPD’s then-new SWAT unit traded thousands of gunshots for four hours one day in December 1969, resulting in multiple injuries, multiple arrests and the collapse of the roof. Now it’s gone.

But Laura Pulido, Laura Barraclough and Wendy Cheng want you to remember it. In fact, these three professors want us all to know where the bones are buried in greater Los Angeles, why campaigns were launched, how the lines of segregation were drawn, where garment workers have been enslaved. And so they’ve collaborated on “A People’s Guide to Los Angeles,” published by the University of California Press in spring.

Imagine Howard Zinn, the late renegade professor who gave us “A People’s History of the United States,” kidnapping Huell Howser and rewriting your Auto Club TourBook.

The result, as the introduction says, is “a deliberate political disruption of the way Los Angeles is commonly known and experienced.” Pulido describes her politics as “far left.”

But you don’t have to agree with the authors’ politics to be intrigued by their work. Even though I’ve been working on an L.A. guidebook myself for the last 18 months, this “People’s Guide” taught me plenty.

Using a map-based format liked those in most travel guidebooks, Pulido and company turned away from the standard attractions to detail 115 sites and stories from the underbelly of L.A. history. Exploited workers, corporate polluters, immigrants, police, socialists, communists, African Americans, Asian Americans and Latino activists get particular attention.

Listings include the spot along the Santa Monica shores between Bay Street and Bicknell Street known as the Ink Well (Page 205). African American bathers gathered at this tiny patch of beach in the early 1920s when widespread segregation blocked their access to many of the county’s other beaches. It’s now marked by a plaque.

Another listing, on Page 88, is for 2614 N. Santa Anita Ave. in El Monte, the apartment complex where authorities in 1995 found 72 Thai workers who had been enslaved to produce garments for global clothing brands. The sweatshop, outfitted with razor wire, confined mostly female workers who had been smuggled into the country, then imprisoned to work 18-hour days. After a worker escaped and authorities staged a raid, the workers got their day in court and manufacturers and retailers were forced to begin taking more responsibility for the actions of their labor contractors. Seven sweatshop operators (Thai nationals, like their victims) were convicted of violating federal civil rights laws and dozens of workers, aided by the Asian Pacific American Legal Center, received settlement payments. Many of the enslaved workers have gone on to earn U.S. citizenship.

The authors have also arranged many sites into a series of thematic tours with titles including “First Peoples,” “Radical People-of-Color Movements of the 1960s and ‘70s” and “Queer Politics and Culture.”

There’s an excellent index. (And by the way, in the last 50 years, has there ever been a Southern California guidebook without an index listing for Disney?)

Also, because neither activists not tourists can live on bread alone, the authors have added dozens of restaurant recommendations. The result is a sometimes jarring juxtaposition between the battles in the streets and the pleasures of the table – but if Los Angeles isn’t about jarring juxtapositions, then what is it about?

Pulido, a professor of American studies and ethnicity at USC, said she began the project about 15 years ago at the suggestion of L.A. artist, activist and teacher Tony Osumi. The first site she wrote up was the old Panther headquarters, which she’d found while working on a previous book. Choosing the rest was not easy, nor was choosing a format.

“We struggled for years with different concepts,” Pulido said in an email.

“I feel like we really did create our own genre in some ways,” said Cheng, a photographer and former student of Pulido’s who is now an assistant professor of Asian Pacific American studies and justice and social inquiry at Arizona State University.

As the project took shape, the authors say, their relationships with the city changed.

Cheng grew up in San Diego, where scorn for all things Angeleno is approximately as common as sunny days, yet she says she soon fell in love with Los Angeles.

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