LA: A human city

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By KLA4067 via Flickr

We Angelenos were never supposed to be here.

In an 1868 essay that was taught to schoolchildren for a century, writer Henry George predicted that California would become one of the most prosperous places on earth. San Diego would eventually be an international destination. San Francisco, he wrote, would become perhaps the greatest city in North America, without a rival “for a thousand miles north and south.”

And Los Angeles?

George never mentioned the place.

Post-Civil War Los Angeles was small and lacked a natural harbor. No sensible person would think that such a place could have a grand future. And yet we—more than 10 million of us (and that’s just counting L.A. County)—are here and not going anywhere, a hard fact to which much of the world still hasn’t reconciled itself.

I thought of George’s essay as I visited “Becoming Los Angeles,” a highly anticipated new 14,000-square-foot exhibition at the Natural History Museum in Exposition Park in the heart of L.A. It has many fascinating artifacts, like slapstick comedy director Mack Sennett’s camera, and it is full of important information about our land’s history. Cattle had a big role; cows should love the exhibit.

But for anyone looking for a coherent narrative of L.A., “Becoming Los Angeles” is a disappointment. It offers a familiar litany of events—first the Indians, then the Spanish, the Mexicans, the Americans, the railroad, oil, Hollywood, aerospace—without connecting them to today’s city. The exhibit focuses on big, non-human factors—geography and animals and big machines—but it fails to explain the special appeal the place has had for one very important animal: humans.

“Becoming Los Angeles” dispassionately lays out the history in a way that serves a fashionable narrative: that Los Angeles is unnatural. We’re told that cow poop spread non-native plants, that oil extraction polluted the land, and that boosters somehow convinced people to settle on the land. This all raises the question of whether the place is, in the faux-profound adjective of this era, “sustainable.” And we know what the answer is supposed to be. Just bring up L.A. in a café built on landfill in earthquake-prone San Francisco or in a bookstore on that overpopulated flood plain known as Manhattan, and you’ll learn that Southern California is doomed.

For decades, we’ve been reading variations of the arguments that Los Angeles has been ruined because of sprawl and overdevelopment and that L.A.’s demographics make it too hard to find the consensus to fix its problems. No one ever seems to admit that today’s reality keeps proving the doomsayers wrong. As Los Angeles has grown larger and more diverse, it has become—by all statistical evidence—safer, less polluted, better educated, and more livable. If the rest of California could stop chanting “Beat L.A.”, they might learn something from us as an example of a diverse region investing in the future. Angelenos keep voting to tax themselves to pay for billions in new schools and train lines for generations to come.

A better L.A. narrative shouldn’t ignore our many flaws – or the fact that we’re a city of losers. All of the booms covered in “Becoming Los Angeles”—railroads, agriculture, oil, aerospace—ended in bust. We have high unemployment and high rates of bankruptcy. The marvel is that we stick around anyway.

Why should developing a coherent narrative about a place so rich in human story be so hard? We could stake a claim to being The Enduring City, in the good and bad senses of that word. Or perhaps The Surprise City, since we weren’t supposed to be here.

But the best choice would be The Human City, a true reflection of our species in all its artifice and ambition: complicated, irrational, creative, crazy, grandiose, glorious, sublime, corrupt, maddening—and still too much a stranger to itself.

Joe Mathews wrote this Connecting California column for Zocalo Public Square.