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States of Emergency: The Object of American Studies

States of Emergency: The Object of American Studies

By Russ Castronovo (Editor), Susan Gillman (Editor)

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Reconstructing Los Angeles: A Journey to the Other Side of L.A.

Posted on Oct 4, 2010
Mark Lamonica

By Deanne Stillman

(Page 2)

From 1884 to 1920, the population of Los Angeles had grown from 100,000 to 2 million. What Native Americans once called the Valley of Smokes (yes, for the frequent fires) was quickly becoming a strange whirlpool of progress where self-help ambassadors, evangelists, studio moguls, hoboes, flappers, real estate speculators, gangsters, stars and all manner of desperadoes waited for a break, big or small, on the back lot, in downtown flophouses, Malibu mansions or in their shiny new cars just off the amazing new assembly lines in Detroit. The concept of Los Angeles as a terrain was obliterated, and in the modern madness a new vernacular was born. L.A. was a cesspool of vice and corruption, said Raymond Chandler; it was a dystopia, said William Faulkner; it was a disease mutating itself upon the landscape, said all of the others, and the narrative didn’t stop at the end of a decade or era because nothing ever finishes so cleanly.

In fact, the narrative itself has replicated and continues through this very moment. Today, the official town crier of Los Angeles is a doomsday prophet. For this breed of scribe (Mike Davis, Peter Plagens, Joan Didion, Mark Reisner and others, including, from time to time, myself), the land is back, front and center, under the carpet, outside the window, everywhere—as a Messiah. Not only is the region plagued by vice and corruption, but it’s defined by the Old Testament, ready to deal out retribution in the form of wildfires, torrential flooding, mudslides, monsoons, offshore tsunami-producing canyons, and, of course, the Big Wednesday of earthquakes, waiting to rise up and give Sodom and Gomorrah one more wicked ride.

Who needs a disaster? The place has already been carved up, filleted and picked over in a literary deconstruction with no end in sight. But imagine another possibility. What if Los Angeles had another way of looking at itself? What if we put on a new pair of glasses? In the 1940s Aldous Huxley himself went to the Antelope Valley; he wanted to try the Mojave for a spell, and it seemed to suit him. In fact, during his sojourn, so bright was the desert’s light that the blind writer literally regained his vision, and for the first time in his life he was able to acquire a driver’s license. What if Angelenos were able to do the same—visit the desert and cast off our blinders? 

Here’s what I have come to see in the Antelope Valley: There are certain places that are still empty enough to give us a second chance, even as the empire of Los Angeles moves ever onward, making a reverse exodus into the region’s last frontier, reconstructing itself with every rev of the cement mixer, every blast from the bulldozer’s pipes (yes, even in these hard times, as the vast tracts of NOTHING DOWN McMansions lie empty, there is a renaissance going on, a massive transformation complete with a Laemmle theater and artist lofts, right in the heart of downtown Lancaster). This is what Mark Lamonica had predicted for the region years ago, when he first told me about the other side of Los Angeles. As Mike Davis wrote in “City of Quartz,” “The Antelope Valley is like a virgin bride, engridded to accept the future hordes.” 


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Indeed, the Antelope Valley is wide open, a giant bowl of sand waiting to be shifted into castles and dreams, ringed by mountains and buttes and punctuated by cholla and creosote and Joshua trees and junipers and occasional vast fields of golden poppy. To stand in the middle of the Antelope Valley in a grove of Joshuas and a monsoon of silence is to be rendered into string theory; there’s so much space out here that all memory of a previous life is blasted to smithereens. It seems perfectly natural to lie down like a lizard and let your eyes slide to the back of your head as you sink into the sand and let your body temperature adjust to the ground’s (or so it seems). Perhaps you’ll stay here forever, you think; perhaps, in close proximity to the creatures who flourish in the alluvial fans and at the reptilian base of your brain, you are home at last. The sun rises high in the sky and now, flush with the sandbox, you enter deep time and you see that our bride—like all desert regions—is a bit of a trickster; while she is bereft of skyscrapers and artificial monuments and things that denote history to those who have written L.A.’s narrative, she is nevertheless a rich repository of dramas that predate the official record.

These dramas involve all the great themes—births, deaths, betrayals, connections, suffering, endurance and truth, all backlit (as I imagine them while I bathe in the sand on the vast valley floor) by the happy desert sun or the sparkling high-altitude twilight skies, or festooned with a double rainbow that occasionally manifests after a desert storm, stretching across the bajadas from what seems like one geologic age to another.

Such DNA is hardly the stuff of L.A.’s fabled disconnect, and in fact those who continue to berate the region for having no history should know this: Southern California—including all of what came to be known as Los Angeles—began to appear about 1 billion years ago. Obviously, this predates the Old World and in fact makes where we live the really really old world, devoid of cranky people though it may be (though I’ve always felt that road rage gives the lie to this particular notion). According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the first components of So Cal were not freeways, the studio system or gated communities, but materials that eked their way through Earth’s crust and mantle, or accumulated from rain and biological activity in the oceans, or were swept in as ash or dust from the atmosphere, whispering of the Big Bang, God’s click of the fingers, a mythical Liberace’s frenzy across the universal 88s, or perhaps of nothing.

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By insectsurfer, October 7, 2010 at 2:53 am Link to this comment

Great article, been to the Devils Punchbowl several times, Sadleback Butte has always tantalized me from seeing it from atop Angeles Crest Highway…
Stillman is one of Los Angeles’ best writers !!

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By rollzone, October 5, 2010 at 3:45 pm Link to this comment

hello. having lived in the high desert area for a few
years, the borax odor, combined with local large
scale cement mining, makes most sunrises a gag fest.
a desert is a desert. you do not want to live there
for four months of the year. the rest of the year is
bearable, and a couple of winter months can be
pleasant. you will be desperate to notice any
enjoyable wildlife, as the most attractive aspect of
the landscape are whitening bones. rock formations
are so fun. LA is a cesspool, and the high desert is
an escape: into purgatory. oh joy, there goes another
big blowing weed. pass the pipe.

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By Peter, October 5, 2010 at 1:22 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

It’s a start versus the abject complacency we’ve seen in the years past. It also shows
that plenty of Americans are not in the Palin/Beck Klan of haters, that was a point that
needed to be clearly stated.

In America, we drink coffee not tea!!!

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Napolean DoneHisPart's avatar

By Napolean DoneHisPart, October 5, 2010 at 12:24 pm Link to this comment

Yeah I was going to say that whomever reads this may be apt to invest in California, or at least come out and ‘discover’ the California outside HollyWeird and LALA Land.

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By ghostofwatergate, October 5, 2010 at 12:01 pm Link to this comment

Not sure what to make of this article; as a lifetime resident of Los Angeles, I’ve been aware of the existence of the Mojave since a child - we used to go camping on the high desert, under crystal clear midnight skies. Very impressive. Also dangerous.

Right now I am watching the local news, which is rehashing the story of the gentleman who went for a stroll and got lost in the Mojave for 6 days. Another man was found dead the other day after being missing for a little under a week.

Still, if you pay attention to your GPS, you might find the place interesting, bearing in mind that it’s as hot as hell, and has no water. NO WATER.

But thanks for the travel article; it’s nice to see Truthdig becoming more of a full-service journal. One little nit-pick, though: the title is misleading; the last thing we need in SoCal is more Bozos moving here thinking that they can commute from their desert paradise to work in the LA basin. Long commutes are dead and the suburbs in the high desert are becoming ghost towns. High gas prices, no water, no industry, no jobs. So much for “reconstruction.”

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By Hammond Eggs, October 5, 2010 at 10:28 am Link to this comment

” . . . lost to the predominant publishers of news about the area such as The Los Angeles Times and Los Angeles Magazine, and, more important, lost to Los Angeles itself.

My explorations of L.A.’s least-talked-about valley began in 2002, when I met the photographer Mark Lamonica at the Southern California Booksellers Association award ceremony in the grand ballroom at the Pasadena Doubletree Hotel.”

I stopped reading at this point because the article sounded like nothing more than boilerplate advertising.  The late, great Robert Mitchum once described Los Angeles as “a losers’ town”.  It still holds true.  Read Raymond Chandler or Carey McWilliams “Southern California: An Island on the Land”.

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By Napolean DoneHisPart, October 5, 2010 at 8:43 am Link to this comment

More money is made by fewer folks in an economic downturn ( the short ).... same for real estate investors ( I know plenty that are MORE busy now and making MORE than when the market was skyrocketing )... its what you know and what side of the capital you live on.

Currently it is buy and hold or flip for small cash…

Great long story showcasing more than what LA or SoCal is notoriously know for… yes, real people live in SoCal, they are not all dream weavers or dream catchers… they are life livers after the nostalgia and makeup runs out.

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By G.Anderson, October 5, 2010 at 8:19 am Link to this comment

You missed a few places, like south central, boil heights, East LA, Norwalk….

In a city where life is inexorably tied to the cost of real estate, and that real estate is
tied to income. It should be no surprise that as income fell, real estate contracted.

Still land lords hope for the return of those heady days, when they could squeeze every
penny out of people who paid most of their income for a place to live. Cheap gas
allowed some to make long commutes to Antelope Valley, or Santa Clarita for the
privilege of working on a mortgage. But those days are gone forever.

Much as south central turned to making money on foster care, when industry left.
Those satellite towns will decay, and become ghost towns full of crime and an
occasional meth lab.

Real estate is gone forever. Gone with the jobs to China, Indonesia, and any where but

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By tedmurphy41, October 5, 2010 at 5:40 am Link to this comment

You could, I suppose, give it back to the original owners.

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