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Festival of Books: The myths and realities of an idyllic city

May 1, 2011 |  3:23 pm

HollywoodSign
The Hollywood sign may be the perfect symbol of the blending of myth and reality of Los Angeles. Designed to be only a temporary marketing tool that eventually started to fall apart, it has since become an emblem of ultimate glamour and celebrity.

That iconic sign was one of the aspects of the city discussed in the panel "Los Angeles: Myth & Memory," moderated by L.A. Times writer and columnist Patt Morrison, author of "Rio L.A.: Tales from the Los Angeles River." The panel of authors who have written about the city talked to a mostly middle-aged or older crowd about how Los Angeles has crafted itself as an idyllic playground while often obliterating or at least polishing its less-than-sunny aspects.

Panelists included William Deverell ("A Companion to Los Angeles"), D.J. Waldie ("Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir"), Leo Braudy ("The Hollywood Sign: Fantasy and Reality of an American Icon") and Lawrence Culver ("The Frontier of Leisure: Southern California and the Shaping of Modern America").

The Hollywood sign wasn't linked with the movie industry when it went up, said Braudy. Originally reading "Hollywoodland," the sign advertised a real estate development that was "for rich people who wanted to tend their gardens," and meant to compete with Pasadena. "Its connection with Hollywood is almost a kind of happenstance," he added, a myth created over the years.

Deverell talked about the creation of Los Angeles as a natural paradise with swaying palm trees, gorgeous beaches and plentiful orange groves, despite the fact that, as he put it, "L.A. is a place that willed itself by shoving nature around. It tested the limits by putting the most people in a basin this big. It was a mythical embrace of nature."

Culver called Los Angeles "arguably the most successful tourist attraction in history," adding that the city over the years has been reshaped "into an appealing tourist commodity." Yet there is a darker side to this. Decades ago public pools and other public leisure spaces discriminated against minorities, allowing them access only on certain days. In one instance, "International Day" was the euphemistic name for the day blacks and Latinos were allowed in public pools -- also, Morrison noted, the day before the pools were drained.

And while people moved to Los Angeles for the great weather, wide-open spaces and home ownership, they may not have had a vision of sharing that paradise with their neighbors. "People came for their own paradise," Morrison said, their own oranges to pick in their backyards, their own pools to swim in. "There was this idea of coming here to turn your back on civic engagement, of making it all about you."

Added Deverell, "People do retreat to their domestic space, and Los Angeles offers that."

Homeownership, still a big draw for people who live in more concrete-filled urban environments, was a dream for Americans after World War II. "On the one hand that was offering a more democratized life," he said, "but at the same time, those homes were controlled by racial housing covenants."

While Los Angeles isn't the only city that has laundered its past, Deverell noted, "L.A. does it brilliantly." 

As a parting question, Morrison asked each panelist why he lived in L.A. Waldie might have been speaking for so many Angelenos when he said, "I have fallen in love with this place and I cannot bear to leave the place I love."

-- Jeannine Stein 

Photo credit: Al Seib / Los Angeles Times

 

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