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Reconstructing Los Angeles: A Journey to the Other Side of L.A.
Posted on Oct 4, 2010
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.”
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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