My neighbor recently lent me a wonderful book titled Nuestro Pueblo: Los Angeles, City of Romance (Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston 1940). Written by Joseph Seewerker and beautifully illustrated by Charles Owens, the book is a compilation of their popular weekly column, also called Nuestro Pueblo, which appeared in the LA Times between 1938 – 1940.
Seewerker’s short essays, each accompanied by one of Owens’ black and white sketches, cover a wide variety of subjects. Some focus on a building or landmark, such as one titled “The Tree that Grew with Los Angeles,” which tells the story of a large palm tree found at the entrance of Exposition Park. Interestingly, Los Angeles Magazine recently published an article about the same tree, which still stands where Seewerker and Owens described and sketched it. You can see Owens’ drawing below, followed by a photograph of the same general scene captured by Google.
Other essays in the book tell colorful tails of local characters, such as one titled “A Blacksmith who Scorns Horses.” In that piece, we are introduced to John Pitts, who ran the Blacksmithing Service Company located at 413 Garey Street in what is now the downtown Arts District. According to Seewerker:
Pitts is happy at his work of shaping iron. He sharpens tools and forges jobs for near-by shops, finding variety enough to make life interesting for a master mechanic. He has been a blacksmith for years and is proud of it. But he has no time for horses!
Besides describing a local craftsman and his work, Seewerker juxtaposes the ancient profession of blacksmithing and the “modern present” as represented by City Hall. Owens does the same in his masterful sketch that accompanied this story by depicting City Hall through the wide door of the smithy, filled with the tools of a trade that dates back centuries.
Aside from the stories themselves, what I particularly like about this book is Seewerker’s colloquial, literary writing style that in and of itself transports you back to another era. This is old time storytelling at its best and it’s highly effective at capturing slices of life in the City of Los Angeles before it began the rapid transition from a largely agrarian, rural community to the urban metropolis we know today.
Equally as compelling is the way in which Seewerker and Owens capture the essence of Los Angeles – its energy, openness to change, continual motion, diversity, and experimentation. In his introduction to their book, Lee Shippey recognizes the unique qualities that define the city, as well as the skill with which both author and illustrator capture those qualities in words and pictures.
As he so eloquently wrote:
I have never known any other city that offers such infinite variety as this ever-growing, ever-changing laboratory, in which the newest and most revolutionary is continually being grafted on the old, the traditional, and the historic. Therefore I am sure that this book, which is a work of art and an informative revelation of the many sidedness of a city to which all the world contributes its art, its ideas, its dreams, and its hopes for a better future, will arouse great interest, not only in the American Southwest but everywhere.
Although this quote was written some 73 years ago, it’s striking how the description of LA still resonates today. Nuestro Pueblo is the product of people who clearly loved Los Angeles and, as such, they feel like kindred spirits.
If you want to experience first-hand Seewerker and Owens’ prose and illustrations, I highly recommend finding a copy of their book. While Nuestro Pueblo is long out of print, you can likely check out a copy at the Los Angeles Public Library or at a library affiliated with a local university, such as UCLA or USC. Used copies are also available online for those who’d like to own the book.