I want to know the history of the city without a history
April 9, 2013 12:03 PM   Subscribe

Please recommend some books about the history of Southern California. I'm specifically interested in the evolution of car culture and the L.A. area as a cultural incubator.

The backstory: I work out of a house in the San Fernando valley that was built in the 40's. I was sitting around at lunch yesterday, shooting the shit, and started wondering aloud what Southern California was like before the freeways.

If you lived in Van Nuys or Sherman Oaks in the 40's, what was your life like? What did you do for a living, and where would that be located? How did you get there? When were all the suburban developments in that area created, anyway? Is a house built in the 40's the oldest house in the neighborhood? What was it like before the 'burbs?

I want to know all about the history of Southern California, especially during the 20th century. Mainly in the evolution of car culture and SoCal as a sort of archetypal post-war suburban environment, especially in a pop cultural sense. Everything from drag racing in the LA River basin to the Beach Boys to donut shops with giant donuts on the roof.

I know that there are primary sources in the media for this sort of thing. Raymond Chandler, movies like Rebel Without A Cause and Valley Girl, etc. I wouldn't mind recommendations for things like that, but what I really want is non-fiction. Preferably history, but possibly also sociology or anthropology.

Podcasts, documentaries, and other non-fiction media are also fine. I already listen to 99% Invisible, which has fueled my interest in how the suburban car-centric landscape came about and shaped people's lives. The LA Times website has been a pretty good source of information about this sort of thing, but I want to go deeper.

I am less interested in the history of Hollywood, but I'd be into historical writings about the film industry as they relate to Los Angeles as a city. When did the studios move out to the Valley, and what brought about those changes, for example?

I am not really as interested in historical works about 19th century Los Angeles, though if a work spans the Spanish/Mexican period and goes into the 20th century, that would be OK.

I am also not terribly interested in essays and cultural commentary from people who are not historians. I have read a lot of Joan Didion already.

What are the go-to historical writings about 20th century Southern California?
posted by Sara C. to Society & Culture (36 answers total) 50 users marked this as a favorite
(Short note -- I think I meant to write "Raymond Carver" and not "Raymond Chandler", but that's still 20th century Los Angeles, I suppose. Just a different angle on the same city. Which is part of what I find so fascinating.)
posted by Sara C. at 12:15 PM on April 9, 2013

Perhaps you have encountered Mike Davis's City of Quartz and his Ecology of Fear? I enjoyed those, anyway.
posted by Frowner at 12:17 PM on April 9, 2013 [2 favorites]

Golden Dreams: California in an Age of Abundance, 1950-1963:

Starr brilliantly illuminates the dominant economic, social, and cultural forces in California in these pivotal years. In a powerful blend of telling events, colorful personalities, and insightful analyses, Starr examines such issues as the overnight creation of the postwar California suburb, the rise of Los Angeles as Super City, the reluctant emergence of San Diego as one of the largest cities in the nation, and the decline of political centrism. He explores the Silent Generation and the emergent Boomer youth cult, the Beats and the Hollywood ""Rat Pack,"" the pervasive influence of Zen Buddhism and other Asian traditions in art and design, the rise of the University of California and the emergence of California itself as a utopia of higher education, the cooling of West Coast jazz, freeway and water projects of heroic magnitude, outdoor life and the beginnings of the environmental movement. More broadly, he shows how California not only became the most populous state in the Union, but in fact evolved into a mega-state en route to becoming the global commonwealth it is today.

It's not solely about Southern California, but definitely covers many of your bases.
posted by rtha at 12:18 PM on April 9, 2013 [3 favorites]

I liked Mike Davis, City of Quartz and Marc Reisner, Cadillac Desert but these are both kind of urban/economic studies that inform the cultural landscape, but not necessarily about car culture and Googie architecture themselves. They're over 20 years old but you can still find used copies.

In looking up those links I just ran across this list of best nonfiction books about Los Angeles on the LA Times site, which looks like it might be up your alley.
posted by troyer at 12:18 PM on April 9, 2013 [5 favorites]

City of Quartz by Mike Davis or LA Plays Itself?
posted by mwachs at 12:18 PM on April 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

Kevin Starr is a historian who served as California's state librarian. I most recently read his Coast of Dreams, which covers the 1990s, but his books cover all the major periods. I haven't read the others since college, but IIRC, Inventing the Dream covers a lot of the cultural incubator territory.

For suburbs: DJ Waldie's Holy Land is part history, part memoir. It's not about the San Fernando Valley, but about the post-war boom in the suburbs near Long Beach.
posted by serialcomma at 12:19 PM on April 9, 2013

A good look at the way car culture impacted LA architecture and urban-planning (as far as I can remember, since I haven't read it since college) is Reyner Banham's Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies.
posted by Countess Sandwich at 12:21 PM on April 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

+1 for LA Plays Itself, a great documentary.
posted by caek at 12:23 PM on April 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

Also, City of Nets, about Hollywood in the 40s. And seconding Reyner Banham--his book and the documentary Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles.
posted by serialcomma at 12:24 PM on April 9, 2013

Nthing Mike Davis and Kevin Starr. Since you are in the Valley and particularly interested in the Van Nuys and Sherman Oaks of the 40s, I think you should phone the Los Angeles Valley College Historical Museum, possibly make a visit. Way, way back in the day I had to do a history research project about the 1920s and the curator/historian at the time was amazingly helpful and just let me loose on a bunch of primary source material on SFV development. They could probably guide you to less well-known works about SFV history.
posted by stowaway at 12:31 PM on April 9, 2013 [2 favorites]

Yes, was just coming here to recommend Kevin Starr, and the book rtha recommended. Here he is giving a keynote (about 27 minutes in) that talks about Los Angeles history and meaning and how that influences the built environment (he's at an architectural conference).
posted by oneirodynia at 12:35 PM on April 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

Maybe not exactly what you're looking for, but Gay LA is an interesting read.
posted by ablazingsaddle at 12:37 PM on April 9, 2013

I think you would really enjoy The San Fernando Valley: America's Suburb by Kevin Roderick. It's been years since I paged through my copy, but I recall it touching on many of the themes you mentioned. It's astonishing to see the photos of Van Nuys (basically a few buildings at a crossroads) circa 1900 in contrast to what's there now.

Personal anecdote: I lived in Sherman Oaks in the 1990s, and once struck up a conversation with a woman who was then probably in her 70s. She had lived in the Valley since the 1940s, and could remember when Ventura Boulevard -apart from intermittent commercial intersections miles apart- was citrus groves pretty much all the way out to Woodland Hills. She was very wistful, and seemed sort of shellshocked by how quickly and completely sprawl had wiped it all out.

James Ellroy's My Dark Places (about his mother's murder and his own subsequent struggles) provides a glimpse of the darker side of mid-century SoCal.

It's fairly specific (and apparently out of print) but I acquired a copy of Googie: Fifties Coffee Shop Architecture by Alan Hess not long after moving to the Valley and spent a lot of time paging through it and making pilgrimages to the places in the book that hadn't been torn down yet. (Twain's restaurant in Studio City lives in a former Denny's building, designed by Armet & Davis - unlike the ones that are still Denny's, it probably hasn't been remodeled since at least the 1960's.) The book examines the influences behind the movement; the postwar boom and rise of car culture combined with space-age optimism.

Finally: it's kind of goofy and a little bit meta (viewing the history of SoCal through a fictional lens) but I still love to watch Adam-12 and CHiPs, just because it's so fascinating to look at all the scenes that were filmed on location; the cars, the buildings, the billboards... If you watch enough, you'll recognize a lot of intersections and neighborhoods that may not have changed much at all since they were filmed in the 1960s and/or 80s.
posted by usonian at 12:40 PM on April 9, 2013 [6 favorites]

I recommend a poke around the archives of the Center for Land Use Interpretation and their bookshop. If you can get on one of their bus tours, they often go into some fascinating history, and their newsletters are full of amazing subjects like Autotechnogeoglyphics: Vehicular Test Tracks in America.
posted by tardigrade at 12:45 PM on April 9, 2013 [2 favorites]

Carver is more Pacific Northwest (Oregon and WA).
posted by KokuRyu at 12:47 PM on April 9, 2013

when Ventura Boulevard -apart from intermittent commercial intersections miles apart- was citrus groves pretty much all the way out to Woodland Hills. She was very wistful, and seemed sort of shellshocked by how quickly and completely sprawl had wiped it all out.

That's really interesting, because as a city transplant, my first reaction to Ventura Blvd was "Oh, OK, this is kind of urban. The buildings, like, sort of touch each other? There are parking meters. This is something I kind of understand." I was frankly a little confused as to why the Valley is synonymous with sprawl, because it's compact -- if car-centric -- in a way that seems basically livable. Probably because I'm seeing Ventura Blvd: Endgame and not Ventura Blvd: Why Did You Chop Down All The Trees.

I still love to watch Adam-12 and CHiPs, just because it's so fascinating to look at all the scenes that were filmed on location; the cars, the buildings, the billboards... If you watch enough, you'll recognize a lot of intersections and neighborhoods that may not have changed much at all since they were filmed in the 1960s and/or 80s.

Yeah, noticing this sort of thing (most recently with Earth Girls Are Easy) is exactly how I started wandering down this particular rabbit hole.
posted by Sara C. at 12:49 PM on April 9, 2013

I recommend Southern California: An Island on the Land by Carey McWilliams
posted by lathrop at 12:57 PM on April 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

Have just downloaded the Kindle edition of Golden Dreams: California In The Age Of Abundance. Keep the recommendations coming!
posted by Sara C. at 12:58 PM on April 9, 2013

If you are at all interested in video games, I am lead to understand that L.A. Noire features an amazing recreation of LA in the late 1940s. Frankly, the police procedural that makes up the bulk of the gameplay is rather crappy, but I enjoyed randomly cruising around the city a great deal.
posted by Rock Steady at 12:59 PM on April 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

Here's a great article by a video game writer who plays L.A. Noire alongside his father, who grew up in LA and whose father was actually an LA cop in the 40s.
posted by Rock Steady at 1:05 PM on April 9, 2013

Ventura Blvd: Endgame and not Ventura Blvd: Why Did You Chop Down All The Trees.

I remember an intersection somewhere out towards Reseda or Northridge that really struck me; the buildings were all visibly older than the nondescript 70s/80s strip malls that were all around; there was a gas station/garage, some storefronts and restaurants all clustered at a crossroads, and it seemed pretty clear that when they were built, those buildings were probably the only thing for miles around. It felt like an archaeological discovery, and made me sad.
posted by usonian at 1:14 PM on April 9, 2013 [2 favorites]

Sara, if you're not already a member, you might get a kick out of the History of Los Angeles meetup group. There's a historic walking tour of Van Nuys this Saturday (repeats in upcoming months) that might be of particular interest to you.
posted by nacho fries at 1:39 PM on April 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

I find that studying successive historical maps of the city can impart a particularly useful understanding of its development. For now, check out Los Angeles Mapped, an online exhibition from the Library of Congress.

And I have a book in storage (that I can fish out if you'd like to have a look) that walks you through the several early maps of the city, from Ord's 1840 survey up through nearer to the times you're looking for.
posted by carsonb at 1:43 PM on April 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

True, carsonb. I have an early 1950s Thomas Guide which provides hours of fascination.

If you like Ray Bradbury you should try his Death Is A Lonely Business. The story's not much, but contains many details of his life in and observations of LA before the freeway.

(and apparently out of print)
I think the updated version of Googie is still in print, usonian

posted by Rash at 1:47 PM on April 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

You should follow USC Library's project LA as Subject. They have an active Twitter feed, and they post tons of information about Los Angeles history.

Before freeways, Los Angeles was all about transit by rail cars, specifically the Red Cars, and to a lesser extent, the Yellow Cars.

Cal State University Northridge has an extensive digital collection related to the Valley, with a lot of photos of the area pre-WWII.
posted by smoq at 2:17 PM on April 9, 2013 [2 favorites]

There some talks (panels) at the upcoming L.A. Times Festival of Books that might speak to your interest.

I haven't combed through the schedule thoroughly yet, but here are a few quick hits:

The Real LA Noir
Patt Morrison in conversation with Andrew Blankstein, Larry Harnisch and Richard Winton

Kevin Starr in Conversation with William Deverell

The "Conversation" tickets (dirt cheap) go on sale online this Sunday. Some of the showboat ones sell out fairly fast, so it's worth hopping on the sale early if you're interested.
posted by nacho fries at 2:53 PM on April 9, 2013

Nthing Mike Davis, adding Barney Hoskyns' Waiting for the Sun: A Rock & Roll History of Los Angeles.
posted by box at 3:58 PM on April 9, 2013

Los Angeles:The End of the Rainbow by Merry Ovnick studies 20th century Los Angeles through its architecture. Not its Architecture with a capital A, but regular homes and commercial establishments. If you've ever strolled through your neighborhood and found the juxtaposition of Spanish colonial, thatched roof "storybook" and Craftsman homes amusing, you might enjoy the history of this mishmash.
posted by queensissy at 4:13 PM on April 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

I love this book: Los Angeles. Portrait of a City. It has both an overview of the history of Los Angeles and stunning photos from the past. Highly recommended.
posted by biscuits at 4:28 PM on April 9, 2013

Oh, I nearly forgot about this but smoq's mention about rail cars jogged my memory:

You can go to Rick's Burgers in Frogtown/Silverlake (uh, corner of Riverside and Fletcher) and see there hanging on the wall several pictures taken of that same intersection when the rails ran right through there. And then the random concrete pylons dotting the hillsides right around there are the bases for the rail trellis that spanned the valley between Silverlake hills and Elysian hills.

As a small bonus, said pylons are usually covered in clever street art these days.
posted by carsonb at 5:25 PM on April 9, 2013 [2 favorites]

Cadillac dessert is awesome. Also this...
The history of the L.A. subway is fascinating
posted by couchdive at 6:04 PM on April 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

Kind of off the wall, but Two Years Before the Mast has significant portions involving the hide trade where Richard Henry Dana's ship stopped at ports in Southern California in the late 1830s, when California was a backwater province of newly independent Mexico. At that time, San Diego was still just a little village at what's now "Old Town", and hides had to be shlepped miles overland to get to the water because the town wasn't really near a port (what's now downtown San Diego didn't exist until the late 1860s). Another stop was in San Pedro, which is obviously miles away from the village of Los Angeles.
posted by LionIndex at 6:07 PM on April 9, 2013

Here's Taken for a Ride, a 1996 documentary on the "General Motors Streetcar Conspiracy." From what I've heard, it's more editorial than you're looking for, but it's worthwhile for illustrating the most vital element of Southern California's sprawling urban development: the surface railway. "Over 1,000 miles (1,600 km) of tracks connected Los Angeles with Hollywood, Pasadena, San Pedro, Venice Beach, Santa Monica, Pomona, San Bernardino, Long Beach, Santa Ana, Huntington Beach, and other points and was recognized as best public transportation system in the world," as Wikipedia says.

I'll keep searching for proper non-fiction documents on this, but if it helps in your own searches for the same I'll be happy.
posted by tapesonthefloor at 6:45 PM on April 9, 2013

Yeah, you meant Raymond Chandler. (link goes to tour run by Scram)

not to be confused these guys

Inventing LA: The Chandlers and Their Times is a wonderful overview of the city's formative years.

If you want to know about car culture, i would bet someone at the Peterson Automotive Museum could set you up.
posted by timsteil at 7:15 PM on April 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

(For the record, my guess is that I somehow combined Raymonds Carver and Chandler into a single mythical mid/late 20th century writer dealing with suburban anomie in the LA area and also maybe sometimes hardboiled detective stories. Which now seems vaguely unlikely.)
posted by Sara C. at 8:25 PM on April 9, 2013 [2 favorites]

Joan Didion, Slouching Towards Bethlehem and The White Album. Amazing pieces of journalism.
posted by Phlegmco(tm) at 3:21 AM on April 10, 2013

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