February 28, 2023 - From the March, 2023 issue

Informing the Future Los Angeles Using Its Past: D.J. Waldie &  Ken Bernstein on Becoming Los Angeles

In this most recent edition of the Los Angeles Planning History Group’s Conversations with the Author series, Principal City Planner and Manager of the City of LA's Office of Historic Preservation and authorKen Bernstein, sat down with author, D.J. Waldie, to talk about Waldie’s 2020 book Becoming Los Angeles. After a brief intro to the themes of the book and selected passages from the Introduction, the two historians (and practitioners of planning) discuss how the past can, and should, play a part in imagining an LA of the future. Watch the whole program online, here

“I happen to think having a critical sense of place is as essential as having a sense of self. So, this book, Becoming Los Angeles, is my mapping of Los Angeles, past and present, to know where I am and my relationship to it.” -D.J. Waldie

“…though futurity is built in the DNA of Los Angeles and a reluctance to value the present is part of the Los Angeles experience, I have tried to argue that the persistence and the lingering effects of the past understanding of itself contain the capacity to encourage a sense of place.” -D.J. Waldie

Ken Bernstein: I think there really is no more keen observer of life in Los Angeles and the Los Angeles region than D.J. Waldie, whose “essays and memoirs conjure the idiosyncratic splendor of Southern California life,” per the Los Angeles Times.

I first became aware of his work in the mid 1990s with his book Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir. He's written other books on Southern California, as well as been a contributor to many publications including Canyon Review, Salon, Los Angeles Magazine, book reviews, and commentaries in the Los Angeles Times, The Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and other publications.

He lives in the home where he was born, in Lakewood, California, which he described so poetically in Holy Land. He rose to become Lakewood Deputy City Manager. In fact, he is coming to us tonight live from the City of Lakewood. We're pleased to have him in his home domain and being able to share his thoughts with all of you. We're here tonight to discuss his latest book, Becoming Los Angeles: Myth, Memory, and a Sense of Place.


D.J. Waldie: My thanks particularly to the members of the Planning History Group and, of course, to Ken, Mark, and the other organizers of this evening's conversation and all of you who are attending this evening. I also want to thank Paddy Calistro and Scott McAuley of Angel City Press who have been kind enough, or maybe just optimistic enough, to publish two of my books: Where We Are Now: Notes from Los Angeles in 2005 and, of course, what we're talking about this evening, Becoming Los Angeles: Myth, Memory and a Sense of Place in 2020.

You may recognize the first part of that book's title. It comes from the Natural History Museum's exhibition Becoming Los Angeles, which opened in 2013 and was extensively revised in 2018. The Natural History Museum exhibition creates a timeline for Los Angeles history using a particular visual cue. Events with a particular historical importance are called out by a metal ribbon overhead that literally touches down on exhibition cases that hold something from moments in the city’s history.

My book, Becoming Los Angeles, is not organized in this way; not by a linear time reaching down to touch an artifact in a museum case. To use the language of anthropologist Kathleen Stewart, my work is organized around the “radically particular”, in order to drag things into view that are already being lived and felt. My book is organized by places, things, and memories reaching out to touch me. For me, these encounters and their persistence in memory actually become a mode of knowing.

Neil Campbell, of the University of Derby in England is one of the originators of a field of inquiry called “critical regionalism”. Campbell has a take on Stewart's idea of effective history, a history that feels like something. Here I am quoting from Campbell's work, “It is through the intensities of things, close at hand, that we might become more attuned to the world around us, connecting the local to the globe, not through abstraction and distance, but rather through interpolation and specificity.”

For me, the idea of specificity is incredibly important. In Kathleen Stewart's terms, it's the “radically particular”. Becoming Los Angeles is radically particular and tries to drag things into view. It's a book that's discontinuous, intimate, and concerned with local knowledges that are, I think, a potential mode of knowing.

 If that's the structure of this book--a discontinuous, intimate concern with local knowledges as a way of knowing--what is the book about? In fact, what is everything I've written in the past 30 years about? It's about a sense of place. From what experiences does it arise? By what combination of memory and experience is a sense of place sustained? What value can it have? What's lost when a sense of place is erased or when it's not ever been fully embraced?

My exploration of a sense of place on those terms began with Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir in 1995, in which I tried to discover the elements my own sense of place to the materials and memories of a very, very ordinary suburban childhood. Then, through Where We Are Now in 2005 and Becoming Los Angeles in 2020, I reflect on the significance of a sense of place and its significance to politics, to city planning, and to the city that Los Angeles was becoming at the start of the 21st century.

All those books also offer strategies that have been used to evoke a sense of place. Some of those strategies are successful; some have been debilitating, like the fantasy past that makes Los Angeles so dreamlike.

I happen to think having a critical sense of place is as essential as having a sense of self. So, this book, Becoming Los Angeles, is my mapping of Los Angeles, past and present, to know where I am and my relationship to it. As I illustrate in Becoming Los Angeles, a sense of place is embodied knowledge. It's the means by which I write myself into the story of Los Angeles, inhabit that place as a home, and negotiate my way from the purely personal to the broadly public.

I write with a purpose. I think placeless Angelenos are aliens in their own home when they lack a sense of place, and that has consequences for public policy and civic life. Harold Ramis, the late artist, actor, director moved back to Chicago from Los Angeles because he said, “I'm local, which in LA is meaningless because no one's local.”

Well, that's not true. My book offers examples of how to become local, in the tangible and the familiar, and how that sense of place can overflow within the activities of civic life. I emphasize the ordinary and the commonplace because, in them, the alienated Angeleno acquires wayfinding landmarks, discovers places of memory, and learns neighborhood lore. The local isn't self-enclosed, it's permitted by what's outside if the local is engaged.

For author and critic David Yulan, the very act of living in Los Angeles requires an ongoing process of reconceptualization; of rethinking not just the place, but also our relationship to it. Our sense of what it means.

I'd like to read a short excerpt from the book’s introduction, which might serve as an entry point to our conversation. This is from the introduction to Becoming Los Angeles.

“Author and architect Michael Maltzan wondered if Los Angeles has ‘reached a point where past vocabularies of the city and of urbanism are no longer adequate, and at this moment, the very word city no longer applies .... Perhaps it is not a city—perhaps it can only be described as Los Angeles.’ If not a city, what have we made? And if Los Angeles is beyond words, what unspeakable thing is being made of us? A sui generis Los Angeles, having muted our ability to imagine it, can be described only in terms of wonder or dismay.

Tomorrow has arrived for a city that saw its true self in the future, but tomorrow has come with unexpected company: the working poor, discarded homeless Angelenos, a shrinking middle class, and the callous hyper-rich. Conditions—environmental, economic, and demographic—that Angelenos thought were fixed are rapidly transforming. How are we to be Angelenos when Los Angeles isn’t exactly ‘Los Angeles’ anymore—not the sum of its clichés, without the option to escape to another suburban utopia.

To paraphrase urbanist Benjamin Schneider, Los Angeles may be a dream world to the rest of America… but to its residents, Los Angeles is simply the place where they are, as beautiful as it is infuriating.

Localities, argues sociologist Kathleen Stewart, draw their intensity from the resonances that linger in familiar scenes, commonplace relationships, and ordinary manifestations, steadily picking up texture and inference over time, until everything at hand becomes ‘tentative, charged, overwhelming, and alive.’

In our becoming is the potential for the intimacy that moved architect and urban philosopher Juhani Pallasmaa to declare, ‘I experience myself in the city, and the city exists through my embodied experience. The city and my body supplement and define each other. I dwell in the city, and the city dwells in me.’ To inhabit and be inhabited allows me to experience Los Angeles in relation to who I am, the reciprocal touch of the city and its dweller reinforcing an awakened sympathy.”

Those are some thoughts that I have about this book and broadly speaking about the work I've done for the past 30 plus years.


Ken Bernstein: Thank you so much for those opening thoughts and that reading. We've had some wonderful authors of planning books as part of this series, but none are as elegantly written as Becoming Los Angeles in the terms of the writings we're talking about tonight.


I think when we were talking about this event, though, D.J.’s initial reaction was he hadn't really written, perhaps, a planning book. Obviously, the themes are a much larger set of themes about Los Angeles. I wanted to kind of tease out some of the either explicit or implicit planning topics that you that you do address.

Start with what you've just talked about in terms of a sense of place. I love talking about your work and your mode of observation of “radically particular” and intimate. There’s this observation that, increasingly, how do we deal with a Los Angeles that isn’t Los Angeles anymore? Los Angeles planners are here really are working to create a sense of place. That's been their life's work. But, we deal with these issues of erasure in our city where the past is wiped away and displacement is a key challenge for many of our planners that undermines our sense of place.

How do you think about this type of erasure and disorientation when you think about a sensitive place? How should planners think about that?


D.J. Waldie: These are really powerful approaches to thinking about Los Angeles as it evolves in the 21st century. We can talk about erasure specifically in terms of buildings and places that have been erased from the landscape, buried under later accretions. Erasure also affects memories; the aspect of sort of willful amnesia, which is a characteristic of an awful lot of thinking and writing about Los Angeles.

We need to be attentive to not just erasure of physical structures and places, but erasure of our memories of Los Angeles. Even lost places are locatable in memory. That's part of what I have been trying to do in this book and my work generally as a thinker about place: to encourage strategies for preserving not just the physical structure of a building or home that might have historic significance, but preserving all kinds of places and all kinds of memories that are often overlooked because they are so local and commonplace in every day.

I take a great deal of time to think about wayfinding because, as Ken and maybe some of you know, I'm not able to drive and never been able to drive. As an obligatory pedestrian in Los Angeles, my experience of the city is radically different, to use that word again. For me, I know Los Angeles in a sensory way that is maybe unfamiliar to some of you. I look for places of memory in my traverse of my community. Step by step, I have created a body of memory that provides me a tool for finding my way in a place where I am.


Ken Bernstein: Let me come back to the question of memory that you that you've raised. I love a segment of your introduction in which you wrote, “Planning for a denser and more connected city could begin by acknowledging the durability of prior choices that still shape the built environment”.

Again, so much of the work of many of our planners today has been dominated by our housing crisis and the need to promote infill development and plan for a denser city. What did you mean by that? Where do you see that durability of prior choices and how should planners think about that and observe that in their work?


D.J. Waldie: Well, that's true in a number of different dimensions. I'll just touch upon a few of them when I talk about the durability of the plans that came before.

Part of the problem about Los Angeles is the belief that a better city is always in the future. We can ignore a good deal of the city today because the city that's becoming is going to be the city that will solve our problems or resolve our concerns. We don't think about the fact that the past clings to us and clings to the built form of the city.

I'll give you just one wonderful example. Downtown Los Angeles, the historic core of Los Angeles, is disoriented. It's not on the rectilinear grid of the Jeffersonian survey of American spaces. It's based upon a Spanish colonial grid system. As part of the Law of the Indies from the 16th century, it's cocked about 35 degrees from true north and true south. When you drive from the American grid onto the Spanish colonial grid, you're moving from one Imperial imagination into another Imperial imagination. That disorienting is something that's unlikely to change. That is a persistence of the past in the present. We're always going to have to deal with the fact that we moved from one grid to the other.

 In an area that's more focused on my suburban experience, Lakewood was built all at once between 1950 and 1953. The houses are as old as they are. It's unlikely that they are going to be they're going to be bulldozed away at any anytime soon to replace them with something else. How do we persist? How do we maintain whatever the sense of place embodied in Lakewood while we deal with questions of density, for example.


Ken Bernstein: I love that you mentioned this idea that we are a kind of a forward-looking city, but that has blinded us at times to memory and looking at the past.

I do love that the title you chose was Becoming Los Angeles, whether from the Natural History Museum or otherwise. There’s this sense that we are constantly evolving and constantly progressing and constantly changing. Again, I think that resonates with planners as well.

Also, there's a sense that Los Angeles is always somewhat flawed and there's this need for improvement of the city and that we’re deeply flawed and contradictory place. Is that what resonated with you in terms of choosing a title and the way you approach Los Angeles?


D.J. Waldie: In this book and other work that I've done over the decades, though futurity is built in the DNA of Los Angeles and a reluctance to value the present is part of the Los Angeles experience, I have tried to argue that the persistence and the lingering effects of the past understanding of itself contain the capacity to encourage a sense of place. When we make a new Los Angeles, the past needs to be part of our thinking. We need to be attentive to the past or our memories of Los Angeles as much as we are attentive to the bright, shiny city that it's going to become tomorrow.





© 2024 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.