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Unknown L.A.? Tell me something I don't know

April 26, 2009 |  6:30 am


That’s exactly the attitude I took into the "Unknown L.A." panel on Saturday at the L.A. Times Festival of Books. I’ve lived here for a while in many different neighborhoods, so what extra little bit about this city could I garner from this panel of authors?

Moderator William Deverell, director of the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West, said, “The truth is we know a lot about Los Angeles. But there’s a lot more to be learned about this place. There’s a long tradition of trying to figure out Los Angeles.”

In this tradition, the panelists talked about banking pioneers, smog and architecture. Here are some of their musings about the City of Angels and beyond.

What is a home in California?

D.J. Waldie, author of "Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir," commented on "California Romantica," an architecture book about the home stylings of California in the 1910s and 1920s.

Waldie pointed out that after World War I, Angelenos were struggling with the question: How do you make a home in Los Angeles?

“They wanted to make a house fit for a California imagination,” he said.


Waldie described Los Angeles as a landscape that had been denuded and its inhabitants as a white Anglo-Saxon population who were building houses with Mediterranean flair. “The houses began to acquire a certain hybridity,” he said.

But he admitted that the original architectural styles weren't always fully realized.  “It becomes stripped-down shorthand, and something is lost.”

What is smog?

Chip Jacobs, author of "Smogtown: The Lung-Burning History of Pollution in Los Angeles," said that when he was a child in Pasadena, "the mountains that were so familiar to me would disappear.”

“Smog is actually a very optimistic subject,” he said. “It’s a story about people reacting to a crisis. You can bring about change, thanks to your scars.”

Even in the 1950s, he said, “people’s love of cars was killing them.”

Jacobs’ book ends with a close look at global warming, comparing the issue to smog. “The amazing similarity that you can find is the belief that technology is going to save our bacon once again.”

Who is Isaias Hellman?
Frances Dinkelspiel, author of "Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California," told us that Hellman was her great-great-grandfather. She called him “the man who tamed the financial system of the Wild West.”

Dinkelspiel credited her subject and relative with creating the first successful bank in California, donating the land for USC and helping Edward Doheny to discover gold. Not bad, eh?

So, what’s left? What don’t we know about Los Angeles?
“19th Century Los Angeles is tabula rasa,” said Deverell.
“We don’t really know much of what’s under our feet,” Waldie said.
“One totally uncharted area is California and the Cold War,” Jacobs said.

So, there you have it. The whirlwind version of fun facts of unknown California.

The panel room was packed, and long lines had festival-goers waiting a long time to hear this talk.

But wasn’t the conversation well worth it? (CSPAN seemed to think so; it filmed this particular panel for Book TV live.)

Maybe Angelenos just want to know more about themselves? Maybe we have an insatiable curiosity about smog? Or maybe this city is just darn interesting. And with its endless neighborhoods, winding freeways and a million little lives you could lead, there’s just a lot to talk about.

--Lori Kozlowski

Photo credits: (top) Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times ; (middle) Lori Kozlowski / Los Angeles Times