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Reading L.A.: Norman M. Klein on our collective amnesia

August 29, 2011 |  3:32 pm

Bunker Hill and the Angel's Flight funicular, shown in 1962

A few caveats -- OK, a whole bunch of them -- before you pick up a copy of the 15th title in our Reading L.A. series. Norman M. Klein's "The History of Forgetting: Los Angeles and the Erasure of Memory," first published in 1997, is an ambitious book about urban growth and gentrification that often seems to be at war, or at least in a prolonged spat, with itself. It offers generous helpings of reheated Mike Davis. (Can you imagine a less tasty dish?) It experiments with form and point of view -- there is a 64-page novella, about Vietnamese immigrants and Los Angeles, in the middle of the book -- in ways that ought to have spiced up the proceedings but instead manage to make them even tougher to get through.

Reader, I skimmed the novella.

In some respects this mishmash is simply the result of poor (or maybe just feather-light) editing. But in other ways the book's multiple-personality syndrome is thoroughly strategic. Klein is explicit about his interest in a jagged, fragmented narrative structure; sounding like the academic version of Thom Mayne, he declares at one point, "I look for ruptures more than coherence." You said it, Norman!

These faults are particularly disappointing because the themes at the heart of "The History of Forgetting" are so crucial to any understanding of Los Angeles (and indeed so central to this reading series as a whole). In his effort to analyze “collective forgetting” in Los Angeles, Klein focuses on the changes over the last four decades or so in two neighborhoods just west of downtown: Angelino Heights (where he bought an old Victorian, a "former gang house,” in 1979) and Temple-Beaudry. He also writes a compelling history of Bunker Hill and the way it was radically remade in a spasm of urban-renewal demolition, leaving the Angel's Flight funicular (pictured above) as an odd, romantic remnant of what was once a dense, teeming district.

Carroll Avenue in Angelino Heights

What he discovers along the way is that Los Angeles, infamous for knocking down important individual landmarks without regard to their architectural significance, is also guilty of wiping out whole neighborhoods, or at least robbing them of their character and sense of layered history. There is often an ethnic and racial dimension, Klein argues, to this demolition.“I should emphasize,” he writes, “that, except for Chinatown, every neighborhood erased by urban planning in and around downtown was Mexican, or was perceived that way.”

Klein’s grab-bag of a book also includes a chapter on how memory works -- on what he calls "memory theory" -- and an often fascinating analysis of how noir novelists have depicted the physical landscape of Los Angeles. “Behind all the violence and fury in the fiction,” he writes, “noir refers to inaction, to spaces haunted mostly by consumer passivity –- about being lost in the wrong neighborhood without change for a phone call.”

A Christmas tree being lowered into place in 1998, amid the new towers of Bunker Hill
He offers a similarly captivating take on how Hollywood directors have treated Los Angeles and its architecture, focusing on "Heat" (“clearly an homage to the denser L.A.”), "Blade Runner," "Falling Down" and a handful of others.

In the end, though, the gap between what might be called the moral tone of the book and its structure is too wide to bridge. Klein worries, legitimately, about how neighborhoods lose the threads of their own history, and how the culture of Los Angeles makes this sort of forced amnesia both culturally palatable and sadly predictable. In many ways what he offers is an impassioned argument for urban continuity, for an approach to architecture and urban planning that will make plain rather than smooth over the complexities of history and the way the real-estate market can make residents economic fugitives from their own neighborhoods.

But the book itself -- in its unevenness and its stop-and-start, ever-shifting narrative approach -- is entirely at odds with continuity in any literary sense. Like D.J. Waldie, Klein clearly wants the architecture of his book to mirror his subject matter, in this case diffuse, diverse and tough-to-define Los Angeles; but ultimately that effort is more alienating than illuminating. The chapters are little patches of land full of good ideas but topped with rhetorical barbed wire, walled off not just from the reader but from one another. After awhile you get tired of ripping your shirt making the short climb from one to the next.

RELATED:

Reading L.A.: David Brodsly's 'L.A. Freeway'

Reading L.A.: Mike Davis, 'City of Quartz' and Southern California's 'spatial apartheid'

Reading L.A.: An update and a leap from 25 to 27

-- Christopher Hawthorne

Photos, from top: Bunker Hill and the Angel's Flight funicular, shown in 1962 as many of the neighborhood's older buildings were being demolished to make way for new construction. Credit: Los Angeles Times.

Carroll Avenue in Angelino Heights. Credit: Los Angeles Times.

A Christmas tree being lowered into place in 1998, amid the new towers of Bunker Hill. Credit: Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times.

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