Last year a friend of mine mailed me an issue of National Geographic from October 1962. Like more recent issues of the magazine, this one included a wide range of stories, from a piece profiling “Western Samoa: The Pacific’s Newest Nation” to another about sending “Robots to the Moon.” But the main attraction for me, and the reason my friend sent it, was the cover story, which was all about Los Angeles, or as it was described in the heading: “Colossus on the western shore, Workshop of the Space Age, Babylon on the freeway, and California’s City of the Angels.”
As I leafed through the magazine’s pages, reading the 50-page cover story and looking at the dated, text heavy advertisements, I wondered what was going on in the world at that time. Not surprisingly, quite a lot.
In October 1962, the world held its breadth as the United States and the Soviet Union faced off over Moscow’s decision to install missiles in Cuba. Those frightening “13 days in October” are often described as the closest the world has come to nuclear war. That same month the Beatles released their first single, “Love Me Do,” and Johnny Carson became the new, permanent host of the Tonight Show on NBC.
Against that backdrop National Geographic published Robert De Roos’s article about Los Angeles. Interestingly, his story and the historic events mentioned above are related.
In the early 1960’s LA was a major center of the nation’s military industrial complex – a place where thousands of workers manufactured the weaponry that would be used in a conflict with the Soviet Union. De Roos writes about the region’s aerospace prowess, unaware of the threat of nuclear war looming right around the corner. As for the Beatles, they released their music in the United States via Capitol Records, which is based in Hollywood and occupies an iconic tower, while Johnny Carson moved the Tonight Show from New York to LA in 1972.
While De Roos spent much of his youth in Los Angeles and visited many times over the years as an adult, he professes to have had “no firm concept of the complex city” prior to writing his story. He therefore set out to cut through the clichés and hearsay and capture the essence of “…the friendly, sprawling, gaudy city…” that was then the third largest in the nation. He was after the facts.
De Roos spent four months preparing to write his article. He explored the city’s neighborhoods, visited local businesses, cultural venues, restaurants, amusement parks and educational institutions, met with civic and business leaders and talked to people on the street – all in an effort to understand what makes LA tick. He found “…the facts tremendously attractive and always exciting.”
De Roos’s extended visit to LA was bracketed by disasters that Angelinos experience with some regularity. The first was the Bel-Air fire that destroyed 484 homes over three days in November 1961. The second was the flood of February 1962, which closed local schools and forced hundreds from their homes.
Despite the destruction and dislocation associated with those disasters, De Roos sees past them and paints a rosy, upbeat picture of the city.
“Los Angeles is a subtropical metropolis, and the trees and flowers of the world have been borrowed to make it bloom. Long lines of palms, masses of bougainvillea, and other exotic flowers brighten the rows of gleaming white stucco bungalows. Contemporary architecture, some of it very good, gives the growing skyline a taut, electric look.
Cultural life is rich: concerts, chorales, outstanding art exhibits, and the world’s leading motion-picture industry. It is a center of intellectual ferment, inspired not only by great universities but also by a tremendous influx of scientists to its space industries.”
Much of De Roos’s prose reads like dated promotional copy produced by the local Chamber of Commerce or tourism bureau. Take this passage found in a section of the article titled “City of Smiling Strangers.” De Roos writes that when he asked a stranger on Wilshire Boulevard why he lives in Los Angeles, the man replied:
“I live a thousand feet from the sea and five hundred feet above it over a beautiful sandy beach. Every morning I get into my 12-cylinder Ferrari and drive to work. It takes me 20 minutes. Every weekend I spend on the beach. If the weather at the beach is not good, I drive to Palm Springs, where the weather is always good. That’s why I live in Los Angeles.”
Who talks like that? It’s hard to imagine anyone speaking those words, let alone someone stopped on the street by a stranger.
While the article covers a lot of ground and paints an expansive portrait of the city, it only tells part of the story. Like many of his white contemporaries, De Roos ignored minority communities living in and around LA. We learn nothing about the African-Americans, Latinos and Asian–Americans who call Los Angeles home. From our contemporary vantage point, this is a glaring omission and one that leaves a gaping hole in the story.
In that sense what De Roos produced is a snapshot in time viewed through a single lens. The article is a grab bag of impressions and observations that capture one face of Los Angeles at work and at play. Anyone who has read similar accounts of other places will recognize this sort of selective narrative. It is both familiar and jarring at the same time.
What would De Roos say about Los Angeles if he were writing today? I’d like to think he’d attempt to capture the rich cultural diversity that makes Los Angeles such a vibrant, international city and bring a more critical eye to his work. I would also want to see him build on the works of others who help us understand Los Angeles’ multifaceted nature, either through their fiction (e.g. Walter Mosley, Nina Revoyr, Tom Wolfe, Joan Didion, and James Ellroy just to name a few), or their socio-political analysis (here I’m thinking about writers like Mike Davis, Edward Soja, Kevin Starr, and Luis J. Rodriguez).
In some ways this blog is my own effort to accomplish De Roos’s impossible mission. Fortunately for me, I don’t have to try and capture the totality of Los Angeles in a single article. Rather, post-by-post, I attempt to explore parts of the great metropolis that exist outside and apart from the common conceptions that many have of the place – beyond the clichés of shallow people, horrible traffic and smog tinged skies. It’s a slow process, like chipping away at a block of marble, that reveals truths and perspectives heretofore unknown – or at least not widely known. What emerges is a rich tapestry of people, places and culture that I find irresistible. It’s what I love about Los Angeles. It’s what compelled me to create this blog, and it’s what drives me to continue exploring the city and sharing what I find with you.