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Los Angeles With a Laugh Track – ‘The Natives Are Restless’

May 12, 2010 |  2:19 am


“Side-splitting?” Not hardly.

Cynthia Lindsay's "The Natives Are Restless" (1960) is not a great book about Los Angeles or even a particularly good one. A frothy mix of humor and sunshine, "Natives" floats to the bright end of the noir spectrum, somewhere between Elisabeth Webb Herrick's1934 "Curious California Customs" and the 1941 WPA handbook.

A movie stuntwoman until being injured in an accident, Lindsay was given a typewriter by Boris Karloff (the subject of her biography "Dear Boris") and wrote for the TV shows "Bachelor Father" and "My Three Sons," which is precisely her approach in "Natives": Los Angeles as a situation comedy. 

 Pershing Square Before

The Biltmore, Philharmonic Auditorium and Pershing Square in an undated postcard

Pershing Square Postcard  

The Biltmore Hotel, Philharmonic Auditorium and Pershing Square after construction of an underground parking garage, 1951-1952. Can you tell the difference? Cynthia Lindsay couldn’t. 

Which is not to say that the book is without value. "Natives" is more than a title to be crossed off a completist's checklist. The 1960 book is a time capsule of attitudes about the city, from about 1955 to 1959, as observed from a safe, comfortable perch on the affluent Westside and shows how people  -- at least upscale whites -- viewed the era.

"Natives" is Los Angeles as seen from Farmers Market. Nobody goes downtown unless they have to and Pasadena only exists as a signpost on the road to Palm Springs. It's Hawaiian shirts, barbecues and station wagons full of little kids trading family gossip on the way to school about whose daddy or mommy has an Oscar.

Lindsay's term for these people is "Procals," meaning that they are "pro California" and in that sense, she's one of them. She recycles the usual cliches about car-crazy Californians (there's no mention of the dying streetcar system), crackpot religious movements and Long Beach being Iowa's coastline. But like the "Procals" she describes, the humor is good-natured rather than cynical or malicious. In her view, there are a few real estate agents who are racist spoilsports and promote segregated subdivisions, but generally, everyone in Los Angeles is a good neighbor and they all get along. (I can only imagine how shocked she must have been by the 1965 Watts riots).

Students of local history should be particularly cautious because “Natives" is a fact-checker’s nightmare.  The book  is a quick read and Lindsay is a chatty writer, but she's not particularly accurate and I wouldn't take anything in her book without verifying it, like her claim that backyard incinerators (d. 1957) were actually good for the environment.

Consider this description of Pershing Square (Page 51):

"Parking space in all areas has become such an acute problem that in order to gain more, the Procal not only covers his beaches but he tears down buildings including, at one time, the Los Angeles City Hall. More recently, he simply lifted up Pershing Square, a park in the middle of downtown Los Angeles, burrowed under it, built subterranean parking areas, and then put the top back on. Except for a few new flowers, no one noticed the difference. The park has always been the refuge of the lost and lonely, and the vagrant steeped in wine, sleeping it off in the sun, is back on his bench, the speech makers crying out for their listeners to repent are still at it, and the pigeons still scrabble around for the remains of an office worker's lunch, oblivious to the hum of motors below. The Procal is adaptable."


And no, Clifton's Pacific Seas (d. 1960) was not on Spring Street (Page 91), it was on Olive Street. 

Her disorganized rehash of the fight over Chavez Ravine, in which the minutia of city politics eclipses the displacement of families, is even more unfortunate. It's the sort of account one might get from half-read news stories or cocktail party chitchat.

And her crystal ball was a little murky, as she quotes former City Planning Commission President Robert E. Alexander (Page 222):

"In 1977, the pedestrian will be king in downtown Los Angeles. Many streets will be replaced by cool, green, landscaped plazas where fountains will play and pedestrians can move freely without facing the hazards of dense automobile traffic. The Central City will be an 'island' extending from the Harbor Freeway to the East Bypass, and from the Santa Ana Freeway to the Olympic Freeway. Automobile parking garages will surround the island. Moving sidewalks or gay 'elephant trains' will take people through tree-lined parks to their destinations. Tunnels will provide commercial service to the buildings in the island.

"At least the central 100 square miles of Los Angeles will be served by a mass rapid-transit system. This will be designed specifically for Los Angeles and unlike any other existing system. Anyone in this area will be able to walk from his home, in a multi-story garden apartment, no more than one-half mile to a station from which he can reach any other point in the 100 square miles with ease, safety and speed.

"This new city will not only be interconnected by freeways, but a monorail system will provide interurban transit, linking the widely separated centers."

Proving, if nothing else, that accurately predicting the future is harder than it seems.

"Natives" is a snapshot of Los Angeles on the brink of the 1960s. This is Disneyland as the Matterhorn is being built, with trips to Marineland and visits to Pacific Ocean Park. This is a Los Angeles that doesn't exist anymore -- and perhaps it never did except for someone who squinted at the city from a distant plateau.