I am going to pick on Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow’s piece from Slate because it crossed my desk this morning. I’m sure she’s a wonderful journalist, and she’s clearly a good wordsmith, but this piece pretty much exemplifies why I’m tired of tired screeds about bad-old, bad-old Los Angeles. Her overtures to trying to confront the “myths” of Los Angeles (because she’s so different than all the snotty urbanists who wrote before her about the wicked, wicked Gehenna known as LA) don’t work as she then goes on trade on the myths, and I’m just not in the mood.
Her thesis: the sustainability plan is a gloss for an unsustainable lifestyle, but is it a sign of change? Sure. Sustainability is pretty much that, everywhere. (Note: In New York, people who control capital flows that are completely and utterly destroying world environments take the subway to work. Is that sustainable because people aren’t driving?) Sustainability is aspirational,; it’s always aspirational, and I’m tired of having that discussion, too. Yes, LA is a problem. And yes it tries to fix itself and fails. But it still tries. Like everywhere else, even cities that urbanists love.
She drops a lot of names in the LA Pantheon of Writers (leaving aside Jane Jacobs): all white, all male: Kevin Starr (whom I admire madly); William Fulton; Christopher Hawthorne (wonderful writer), and of course, Mike Davis.
But Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. These are good writers. But. They are limited.
When I read white people’s writing about Los Angeles, it makes me grate my teeth. When I read people of color writing about Los Angeles, for the most part, the writing strikes me as much more relevant and believable. Now, maybe I’m overly hard on my fellow white people, but I don’t think so. I think it has to do with the presumptions about who can know what about what kind of city Los Angeles is, and what places and their archetypes represent LA.
To wit: White people write about Los Angeles like it’s all one place, and that place is the Westside, where relatively affluent white people live. There, maybe–maybe–you have people living in fortresses and cars and only stepping out in public for Ciclivia. Maybe. The partial–as long as it is white–gets to represent the whole.
But people in East Los Angeles have been conserving for years. They’ve been doubling up in homes, carpooling, taking the bus, etc. All the stuff the wealthy and privileged in LA don’t do and that, for reasons beyond me, is always used to represent the whole of life lived in LA. You can go to any Central American neighborhood just east of USC and you will find people all over the sidewalks, on their porches, chatting on street corners, carpooling, and conserving their plastic bags (and not jumping into their Hummers.) They have street life, and it’s not just on Ciclivia days.
(Ciclivic a wonderful event and I wholly support it, but that is your harbinger of change?)
Maybe I just have very good taste in Los Angeles writers of color and in neighborhoods, but…in some respects, it’s white supremacy that actually leads us here. Because the way the world is set up, people of color and their experiences…well, those can’t be representative of the whole, can they? They just can’t be. They are other. So writers of color, writing about Los Angeles, write about the Los Angeles they know (as does everybody) but nobody expects that to stand for the whole of Los Angeles. Instead, these writers write about the way life in Los Angeles is lived in my experience (a lot like I think life is lived in all these mega-regions); in neighborhood spaces, in districts, in parts of the region, rather than the region as a whole. Of course George Sanchez writes brilliantly about certain neighborhoods because a Mexican-American historian would, wouldn’t he? Ditto with Laura Pulido. And Walter Mosley. And so on, and so forth. Their work is expected to be partial, to show a slice of life in a world that is different from “the world.” As it turns out, empirically, these assumptions about partiality actually work out well in trying to represent Los Angeles, which is way too complicated to speak of as one place.
Whereas white writers have both the hubris and the societal approval to represent white Los Angeles as Los Angeles. And that’s not even remotely accurate, and it has never been accurate.