Los Angeles for Beginners

No one who arrives in Los Angeles comes without baggage. I came with a whole lifetime of seeing the city through the filter of its culture industries and the region’s relentless self-promotion. This did not prepare me for the real thing. Watching Thom Andersen’s Los Angeles Plays Itself—a brilliant documentary composed entirely of clips of the city in other movies—would have disabused me of at least some of the worst inaccuracies and illusions spun by Hollywood, but I didn’t see it until it was too late. I did come with the standard roster of guides: Time Out, Lonely Planet, Rough Guide. They’re all reasonably helpful, but if you want a vision of the city that extends beyond Grumman’s Chinese theatre, Disneyland, and the mean streets of Beverly Hills (all of which you should visit) other books are in order.

Los Angeles: The Architecture of the Four Ecologies by Reyner Banham

It is said that Richard Neutra, the émigré architect who defined the international style in Los Angeles housing, was driven around the city while lying back in the passenger seat to spare him the excesses of L.A.’s eclectic architecture. In his whirling, wide-eyed tour of Los Angeles, English architect and planning theorist Reyner Banham gets readers to sit up and take in the view. From his perch in the driver’s seat, Banham zips past the unregulated mix of housing and mini-malls, of commercial strips, parking lots and warehouses, and ticks off the architectural oddities he encounters: neo-classical mansions and Japanese craftsman cottages, Art Deco movie palaces and the neon-clad coffee shops of 1950s futurism. In doing so, he embraces the city’s freeways as central to understanding Los Angeles. After Banham’s sweeping tour of the city, his account of its suburbs—with their hidden enclaves of privilege, precarious foothills, hedonistic beaches, and urban prairies of ranch-style sprawl—will make readers want to travel beyond it.

City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles by Mike Davis

Davis is the essential corrective to Banham’s refusal to look into Los Angeles’s shadows and alleyways. Writing urban geography in the key of Raymond Chandler, City of Quartz is the closest that anyone has gotten to giving Los Angeles the noir sociological treatment that it deserves. Here, Davis lays bare the structures of power, inequality, and violence that have undergirded the Californian dream, and highlights a cast of villains that includes the real estate and railway barons who carved the place up in the twentieth century; the Hearst press that pandered to them, and the ambitious and often violent LAPD. Especially affecting are Davis’s chapters on the militarization of the city through initiatives designed to keep out homeless people, and his account of the creation of the new downtown, an antiseptic urban simulacra that makes one want to bolt for the decaying grandeur of old Broadway or the new immigrant bustle of the run-down fashion district. In another chapter, Davis tells the heart-rending story of Fontana, a blue collar suburb-city in the outer reaches of the San Gabriel valley, where the cycle of hyper-industrialization and shattering deindustrialization played out in just half a century. Driving through the eastern edge of the city where it begins to turn to desert, you will never look at Los Angeles—or its periphery—in the same way again.

Southern California: An Island on the Land by Carey McWilliams

Though it was published over half a century ago, Southern California remains fresh, quirky and inquisitive. A journalist for many years in Los Angeles and a practicing lawyer, McWilliams defended the Mexican-Americans accused of murder in the infamous 1942 Sleepy Lagoon case, in which more than three-hundred Mexican Americans were arrested after a body was found in a city reservoir. As a lifetime supporter of many progressive causes, it’s not surprising that McWilliams places Native Americans, Jesuit missionaries, Spanish colonial elites and later, waves of Mexican-American immigrants, at the heart of the city’s story. From this vantage, he eyes the eccentricities, fantasies, and foolishness of the city’s breakneck growth after its inclusion in the US. McWilliams’s account of the rise of Hollywood and its relationship with early waves of pious Christian settlers and peace-seeking sanatorium clients is excellent, as are his descriptions of the orange grove latifundia of the Inland Empire. He’s at his best, though, when accounting for the cults and mystics of the city, who were at work long before TV evangelists and scientologists arrived. To McWilliams’s credit, the book is both a clear-eyed narrative history of the region, as well as a penetrating expose of the sunshine boosterism that had previously passed for Southern California history.

A People’s Guide to Los Angeles by Laura Pulido, Laura Barraclough, and Wendy Cheng

If Davis and McWilliams alert visitors to the existence of Los Angeles’s deep fissures and hidden history of conflict, they don’t reveal where one can go to actually see evidence of it. A Peoples Guide to Los Angeles brilliantly fills this gap with listings of more than a hundred historic sites of struggle, as well as themed tours of the city from Latino, Native American, African American, and queer perspectives. One one trip, the book took me to Van Nuys in the San Fernando Valley, where California’s last car plant was replaced by an auto-industry themed mall; and then to the great wall of LA, where the city’s ethnic and political history has been rendered on a mile of concrete drainage piping. It helped me find the empty lot that was once the headquarters of the Black Panthers in South Central, and the skater scene in Hancock Park. Finally, it took me to Olympic Boulevard in East LA, a working-class area that over the past several decades has become home to many of the city’s Mexican immigrants. Los Angeles’s cultural diversity was on display at a Sunday at lunchtime, where amongst the warehouses and railway tracks, I found duelling mariachi bands, and families queuing for tacos and freshly sliced fruit.

David Goldblatt was Visiting Professor of History at Pitzer College,