Southern California has long been a favorite target for critics of American life and culture; Nathan Glazer here elects to defend it.
When I left Los Angeles one day last February, after a week in Southern California, the newspaper I picked up at the airport reported that the population of Los Angeles County was now 5,800,000, and that it would reach some unimaginable figure by 1975. I also picked up at the airport a report of the Air Pollution Control, District of the County of Los Angeles, discussing the war against smog, and you could, if you wished, put these two things together and ominously conclude that the Southern California boom was coming to an end, strangled by the very things that brought it into being. The balmy weather between the mountains and the sea now helps to create the “atmosphere inversion” that traps the smog-producing irritants. The oil which supplied a good deal of the region’s first wealth is now the source of great quantities of the poisonous substances found in the atmosphere. The open space and long beaches suggested a new style of life based on the automobile, and exhaust pipes of automobiles now contribute their share of fumes to the smog. A new city, almost without traditions, growing up in the age of the automobile, suggested an urban style that permitted people to live anywhere, and thus prevented the creation of a dense city center which might support a public transportation system and reduce dependence on automobiles.
All these things are so easy to say, and two years ago, after my first trip to Southern California, I would perhaps have said them and stopped there. One’s bias in favor of traditional cities—Paris, London, New York—is great, and to see Los Angeles now struggling with its very special problems may afford some malicious satisfaction. But even then, on my earlier visit, there were other things to see which might have modified this too-neat picture of the most American city being destroyed by the most American product. You could (shamefacedly) be exhilarated by the long stretches of white concrete roadway, heavily traveled at a rate of speed and with a precision and articulation in moving together and making turns that was surprising to Eastern eyes. Then there were the wild hills and mountains, almost in the middle of the city, with houses perched on top of them commanding a breathtaking view, and the buildings along Wilshire Boulevard, rather bolder in style and color than you saw in the East, but blending into something that was exciting and perhaps beautiful. One part of Los Angeles reminded you of those desolate stretches of Long Island: long roads, partly developed small-house districts, nondescript business establishments along the roadsides; other parts reminded you of a World’s Fair, too extreme in its modernity and shock-impact to be taken seriously. But what separated it from Long Island was that you knew, from the heavier traffic, the brighter and more ingenious neon signs, the richer gardens, that this was not a backwater, something left behind, with a city somewhere in the distance that was the real thing; this was the thing itself. The traffic, and the parking spaces around everything, meant that you could, and did, get to whatever was exciting or important or interesting. And what separated it from a World’s Fair was that the sense of hectic movement and activity was here to stay, and people were living in it as a regular thing.
And then you realized: there was so much activity, so much life, so much acceptance of and pleasure in this kind of life, that you could not simply turn up your nose, and rush off to San Francisco—which is certainly prettier and pleasanter, but where there is much less building going on, and where the restaurants vie with each other to achieve a more 1890’s look. You at least had to look into Los Angeles, move into the traffic, onto the freeways, head toward the beaches and the mountains, and try to feel what the millions living in Southern California, and the millions more coming, were gaining, and losing.
San Diego. The city of San Diego is about 120 miles southeast of Los Angeles. It advertises itself as smog-free. It already has more than a half million people (there were only 200,000 in 1940), it is one of the fastest growing cities in the country, and it is, in some ways, more typical of Southern California than Los Angeles. It is perhaps a good place to start with.
It has wonderful beaches, a dry, sunny climate, and a magnificent view of harbors and islands from its main downtown hotel. Hills rise behind the city, but unfortunately they aren’t steep enough to provide the views one finds in Los Angeles or the San Francisco bay area. San Diego looks different from other cities and it takes a while to realize that one of the reasons it looks different is that it is rich, but rich in a new and special way. You aren’t struck by the splendid houses and hotels, expensive restaurants, and other evidences of wealth—even though it has enough of these. You are struck rather by the fact that it is rich communally. To begin with, San Diego seems to command all the resources needed by a city which must lay out vast sums for the roads and parking places required by a motorized populace. You find magnificent roads paralleled by even more magnificent roads; the roadside buildings are handsome drive-ins or elegant motels, decorated with redwood, tropical plants, swimming pools, and set off by ingenious landscaping; the hills are green—thanks to expensive irrigation water; the schools brand-new with all the space in the world; the residential developments have intensively planted, well-kept gardens; there are city parks and state parks and beach parks, all well equipped; and even the used-car lots and automobile salesrooms, generally making the dreariest part of an American city, strike one as neat and clean, with their advertising signs a bit brighter and more imaginative than elsewhere. Certainly the light contributes to this effect—it is brighter and whiter than elsewhere; certainly one’s being a tourist contributes to it, too. It is a tourist’s reaction to see roads, and roadsides, first. But here it is also a native’s reaction—they too see a good deal of the world from a car.
There is this wealth of visible, tangible things. But they are things that everyone, or almost everyone, uses: roads and parking space, motels, and drive-ins, small houses and gardens, beaches and parks, schools and government buildings. You wonder if all these roads are necessary; does this fine road need another, finer one alongside it? And if it isn’t that necessary, who is paying for it? And then you come to one reason for these communal riches: San Diego is also a great naval base, and Southern California the setting for a great concentration of military bases. The entire region therefore benefits from the lavish expenditures of a wealthy government, in an area—defense—in which expenditure is always freest. So let there be yet another road, going, it appears, nowhere through empty and unusable country—but then one notices that this road is a way of getting to some air base or rocket installation, even though an unnecessarily expensive way of getting there.
The Federal government contributes more than roads to Southern California. It contributes the water by its irrigation works; it helps to provide cheap electricity with its great dams, and cheap electricity keeps things cleaner, signs brighter, and leads to the widespread phenomenon of stores being lit up all night—all adding to the festive air. In the city itself, on a group of islands in a bay, and on the surrounding shores, a great park is being developed—one reads, “By the City of San Diego in cooperation with the Army Corps of Engineers.” The servicemen need parks, beaches, seaside facilities for their families—and the government helps pay for at least a good part of it.
Even culture is provided. In Balboa Park, in the middle of San Diego, is a huge complex of exposition buildings, one group in a rich Spanish Colonial style of architecture, another group, more recent, in more modern style. How is it possible for such a city, one asks, simply to maintain all these buildings, with their beautiful landscaping and wonderful gardens? The answer is, that there have been two expositions in San Diego—and the Federal government paid for the buildings and landscaping, or a good part thereof. And so San Diego is endowed with a wealth of facilities: with two large open air theaters (one surrounding a huge organ, one in a natural bowl), a large civic auditorium, a recital hall, buildings for an art gallery, a natural history museum and an anthropological museum, a replica of an Elizabethan theater in which a local group puts on plays, and other facilities too numerous to mention, but all of which seem far, far more than even a city of a half million can use. In any case, it is certainly more than it could have created from its own resources.
The help given by the Federal government is supplemented by private philanthropy. The outdoor organ is the Spreckels organ; one of the largest buildings is Ford Hall; the fine American Indian exhibits in one of the museums bear the name of Scripps, as does the Institute of Oceanography and the Art Gallery and Library of La Jolla, just to the north.
The government and the wealthy have contributed water, roads, institutions, buildings. And now it is all there, part of a concentration of communal wealth that is almost unequaled in the world.
Taste. when you speak of Southern California taste, you think of the ice-cream parlor in the shape of an ice-cream cone, the hot-dog stand in the shape of a hot dog. But our images are always ten or twenty years behind the reality. A clean, simple line prevails in Southern California, enlivened by color in materials, by tasteful landscaping, and interesting patterns in wood—exuberance is now generally limited to the gardens and the planting. The new building is much better and bolder than the old—as compared with much of the rest of the country, where the new building is often worse than the old. The best buildings tend to be the public ones—the schools and colleges and universities, the motels and shopping centers.
Where, you wonder, did this new California taste come from? There was no tradition to follow. Of course the impact of modern architecture has been enormous, here as elsewhere, and seems to have produced a special local variant. (Compare the Wilshire Boulevard office buildings with the New York office buildings.) But then it dawns on one: the roads must have had something to do with it. They are a dominating experience, the only large common experience that could be responsible for the general upgrading of taste in Southern California. The new roads present not only simple and subtle lines, impressive crossovers with intriguing concrete support structures and elegant curves, but they present also a clean, uncluttered landscape with continually varied shapes, colors, patterns. There are brown and green hills, there seaside cliffs, here meadows, there a strange strewing of boulders across hilly country. And on the whole, the way that Southern California is now being built up prevents the landscape from being quite as corrupted by roadside trash as was the case in the 20’s and 30’s. There are neat if uninspired government installations, sometimes an impressive group of buildings of a great commercial farm, the more exuberant commercial structures. The roads provide quite a different experience and image from those of the first decades of the motor age. They are probably the one uncorrupted expression of a functional-engineering outlook which most Americans regularly experience.
But throughout you are struck by an improvement in taste: it would appear that wealth alone upgrades taste. For if one compares the American roadside of the 20’s and 30’s with that of the 50’s, or with the Mexican roadside just south of the border, you see the effect of professional signs as against crude lettering, of new, smooth surfaces as against patched, broken surfaces put together of clashing materials. Wealth may corrupt taste under certain circumstances, but after a certain point, after all traditional values and proportions have disappeared (as in lower California, and the Southern California of the 20’s), wealth serves to upgrade it—somewhat.
There are of course other influences on taste besides the influence of wealth operating in a society where traditional standards have disappeared. Another influence is the very lack of a “tradition” (except for the weak Spanish one), which has left the field wide open to the homemaking and “California living” magazines. And on these we see the impact of the general rise of taste in the country, and of the victory of variants of a modern approach in architecture and design. And then another influence perhaps comes from the Japanese gardeners, who are responsible for most of the Southern California gardens. These, it is true, have at first glance little in common with Japanese gardens: they are based on the intensive cultivation of small plots, and on the availability of exotic tropical plants—two circumstances which are quite different from those that prevail in Japan. And yet the general character of these exquisite gardens probably reflects the good taste of the Japanese.
The University. Just north of San Diego, and continuous with it, along a curving seacoast with mountains looming up behind, is La Jolla. The seashore has low cliffs, fringe beaches, interesting rock formations. There are motels and apartment houses on the side nearer San Diego, and then pretty and expensive houses in pastel colors on quiet streets, and then a town center with expensive shops, tea-roomy restaurants, a library, a school, an art museum; palm trees line the streets. You think, the Riviera cannot be nicer: hardly anything on any American coastline compares with it. And yet here the University of California has bought a tract of land and plans to build a huge new campus that in time will be as big as Berkeley and the University of California in Los Angeles, and that may be as distinguished.
This is perhaps the most striking introduction to democracy in California: that the free state university takes for a new campus (and can afford to take) some of the best and most desirable land in the state. And this, too, in a state which, because so much of it is desert, mountain, and agricultural valley, does not really have a great supply of good residential land. Nevertheless, the university moves into an exclusive seaside resort and will in time bring in thousands of poor students—who will certainly change La Jolla—and thousands of not-so-rich employees and faculty members—who will change it even more.
A Jew cannot buy a house in La Jolla today: so I was told in San Diego, where it was reported to me that even the son of a Federal judge had been unsuccessful in trying to purchase there. But what will happen to La Jolla when hundreds and then thousands of faculty members pour in, with ten and hundreds of Jews among them? Then La Jolla’s little prejudices will be helplessly swept aside.
There is at present another growing campus of the university on another magnificent California coastline, near another elegant town, Santa Barbara. Another great campus will be built in the Monterey-Carmel region, one of the most beautiful coastal areas in the state, and one of its most important tourist attractions, with many expensive houses and much desirable real estate. But nothing is too good for the University of California—the best faculty, the most expensive buildings, the best sites in the state. Before long it is expected there will be 100,000 students at its various campuses.
If you strike inland from La Jolla, taking a somewhat longer route to Los Angeles, you go through deserted, rolling country, with some good farms, and through strange, foothill country, and eventually you come out onto a great agricultural plain, the citrus-growing area which stretches westward to Los Angeles and beyond. There on the plain, up against the hills, lies yet another campus of the University of California-Riverside. Handsome, low, prairie-style brick buildings begin to outline a new campus (it is only a few years old) which is to be kept small, and which is to concentrate on a liberal arts education in a setting similar to that of small colleges in New England and the Midwest. But this small college already has resources that those other small colleges can often hardly touch: just because it is free and supported by public wealth, while they are expensive and must be supported by private donations. I walked through the open-stack library at Riverside and thought of the library that is being put up after years of painful effort at the small New England college where I was then teaching. This library had been created overnight, and yet it already surpassed that other one. It had complete series of many important scholarly and academic periodicals, it received almost every periodical one would want to look at, it had pleasant outdoor reading areas and great numbers of new books.
Los Angeles. You then proceed through Riverside itself, a pleasant town of old trees, white-painted wooden houses, and a movie theater that was showing Open City when I passed through. The traffic now begins to get heavier, the roads begin to widen, and you are soon approaching Los Angeles.
Finally you are on an elevated road that carries five lanes of traffic each way, and that approaches other great roads carrying the same incredible load of traffic. To enter Los Angeles on the freeway from the west, and to see the other freeways coming in, crossing over each other, with enormous rivers of cars moving from one artery to another—this is an amazing sight. What wealth has been poured into the Los Angeles freeways! How many hundreds of millions are yet to be spent upon them! From one perspective, this is a huge, misguided undertaking, a great waste of resources which might have been used for an efficient public transportation system. But it also helps make possible a life in which everyone chooses his time to come and his time to go, in which people can swim in the afternoon, work at night, and shop in huge supermarkets in the early morning, in which only a small proportion of the population of a huge metropolitan area ever sees, or has cause to see, the downtown region, in which everything can be done from a car, and in which the New Yorker, to whom a car is a torment, discovers the efficiency of being in a city in which every house, store, institution is surrounded by its own parking space. Here you can conduct your business, go to restaurants and movies, visit friends, on your own schedule. An enormous expanse of space, capital equipment, gasoline is required. But you think too that the world can probably support one great city of this type, and in any case only one country has the resources and the land to carry through such a Utopian enterprise. Utopian it is, because a city of this type demands that every adult has his own car—and Los Angeles is not very far from that now. Yet still the traffic moves, and more rapidly than in New York.
But finally you get off the freeway to descend into an endless Brooklyn or Queens: single-family houses, stretching for mile upon mile, with occasional streets devoted to business. But with this difference from Brooklyn or Queens: that here everyone has chosen his way of life, while Brooklyn and Queens have not been chosen, but taken out of necessity. The sense of a chosen city, a desired way of life, a realized wish, is strong. We should not be deceived by the surface resemblance to the endless “bedroom boroughs” of New York and Chicago. Here the bedroom and living room are mixed. The streets with little houses are as busy with traffic as great thoroughfares in the East. This may offend our sense of the proper organization of a city, but in any case the curse of the bedroom is removed when it is not separated from the city by a long ride, at the same hour each day, by subway, trains, or bus. Here the city is scattered all around, as if a bomb had distributed Manhattan south of 59th Street homogeneously throughout Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx.
The people. There are of course the old people who have retired, and moved in hundreds of thousands from the Midwest and South. Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust described them with horror, and fixes the image of Los Angeles as a place of horror. And yet you don’t see these people: they are not on Wilshire Boulevard or in Hollywood, or Beverly Hills, or Westwood, or Fairfax, or in the Valley, or in Boyle Heights, or on Adams and Jefferson Boulevard. Perhaps there are fewer of them than there used to be: they are in any case less mobile and certainly less visible than other parts of the Los Angeles population. More visible are hundreds of thousands of Mexicans, and hundreds of thousands of Negroes. Despite the tight-lipped oldsters from the Midwest and the South, Los Angeles is quite an enlightened city: not as enlightened as San Francisco and New York, but not far behind them.
It is the second largest Jewish city in the country—there are 400,000 Jews or more. There are 40,000 Japanese, more than before the wartime relocation, which uprooted thousands from farms. The old concentration of these groups in downtown Los Angeles has been broken up, by relocation and then by the vast postwar freeway building which has wiped out large areas in the downtown section that were Negro, Mexican, Japanese, and Jewish. This downtown destruction has been combined with vast building on the outskirts: and so the Negroes and Mexicans and Japanese and poor Jews can find fairly good housing (by that I mean—better than in other cities in which they live) that has been left behind by other groups moving out, and we find Negroes, and Mexicans, and Jews, and Japanese, or two or three of these groups, living amicably together in many neighborhoods.
The main Japanese neighborhood has now moved to the west, and stretches for perhaps a mile or so along West Jefferson, and reaches back into surrounding streets. It blends into a Negro neighborhood to the east, and is itself mixed most of the way. You see large and prosperous stores run by Japanese, you see a score of real estate offices—advertising investment property, which seems to be favored by the group. You see a well-designed supermarket with attached one-story offices (a common California arrangement—everyone thus has parking space)—and they contain the offices of a Japanese architect, accountant, lawyer, doctor, dentist. You know too that from this neighborhood and others come great numbers of students for the University of California in Los Angeles—1,000 Japanese attend the university, I was told.
And then there are the young people. So many American cities lose them, so few attract them. Los Angeles is one of those that still attracts them. It is far away, it is different, there are jobs, some of them interesting and glamorous. You suspect that Hollywood’s declining predominance in the entertainment industry has been accompanied not only by a rise in its taste, but a rise in the level and character of young people that it and the related entertainment industries attract. You wonder whether Hollywood twenty years ago could have provided the people to support so many little theaters, coffeehouses, and other gathering places for young people of artistic and intellectual bent. In any case, Los Angeles today, with New York and San Francisco, has a “Village”—a place with little theaters (more than one) and coffeehouses, small night clubs in which you hear folk singers, psychoanalytically-wise comedians, flamenco guitarists, and such. Whatever the meaning of all this for the history of culture (and it may be a curse, conceivably), for a city it is fun, and you can hardly imagine a great city without its bohemia. Los Angeles qualifies; its bohemia is different in quality, perhaps inferior in quality, to that of San Francisco, as that is perhaps inferior to New York’s. But its differences also make it interesting. The three bohemias sort out, from the young people coming from the towns and cities of the country, and from these three cities themselves, somewhat different types. Some people, of course, try all three.
Bohemia, too, is democratic: and in a party on the Hollywood hills you will find people who will want to act and people who have actually been seen on the screen, a nightclub chef (his working hours are the same as the entertainers, and he knows them), a jewelry salesman, a psychiatrist from New York for a medical convention, people who are quite indefinable, and a visiting intellectual from New York. The house is an expensive one, but the party is being held in a kind of basement room in which a poor hopeful actor lives, built into the hill, and opening on a garden with a swimming pool, and there is a fine view of the city—for it is winter, and the winds have blown the smog away.
Work. Los Angeles looks less like a place where people work than any other great city in the world. There are no busy skyscrapers filled with office workers and garment workers, as in New York. The tallest buildings in the city are some downtown government buildings, some elegant hotels, the Prudential Life Insurance Company on Wilshire Boulevard, the Angelus and Mormon temples. There are oil wells and refineries—but they require few workers. The movies and television are main industries, and you do see huge studios—but that is not exactly one’s typical image of work. There are factories—but they make things like airplanes and electronic equipment, which require no belching smokestacks. There is no surge of workers into and out of the city—the traffic is dense morning and evening, but it is going both ways, and you can’t be sure who is going to the beach, the supermarket, Disneyland, or to work.
Indeed, the gap between work and play in Los Angeles must be narrower than in any other great city. Where do people work in Los Angeles? In supermarkets, in gasoline stations, in parking lots, in the movies, in hotels and motels and restaurants, as gardeners, in offices which have tropical plants and bright cars right outside the door, outdoors as building workers, indoors in bright new factories. And the same universal vehicle, the car, serves work and pleasure interchangeably, and the vast complex of economic activities which serve the car also serve work and pleasure interchangeably.
Life is hard and life is earnest, and there are coal miners and steelworkers and auto workers and textile mill operatives—but not in Los Angeles. There freer styles of work prevail, operating in an urban environment which is more successful in obscuring the sharp division between work and non-work than any other. There are the backyard swimming pools and the beaches, which can be used three-quarters of the year, there is the huge array of service jobs which can be worked at part-time and at odd hours and on odd days, there are all the non-working people who have come with a little money and invested in real estate, and those who have come with nothing but live on pensions. More people act as if they were on vacation (and must feel it, too) than anywhere in the world. There is no way of telling it is Sunday in Los Angeles unless one looks at the calendar.
Los Angeles produces less than any other great city of the things that, from a grim, Protestant way of looking at things, anyone really needs. And yet it grows like mad. And those other cities, that supply the country with useful things like coal and steel and cloth and machinery, decline. For Los Angeles, everything has been made easy. The vast investment that is required to maintain 6,000,000 people and 3,000,000 automobiles in the desert seems to require little effort from anyone. The water and the electricity come from hundreds of miles away, and the government helped to pay for it anyway. The oil only has to be taken from the ground. The cars come from Detroit. The roads are paid for by the government, or the gasoline tax. And the complicated engineering effort needed to do all these things only requires money and engineers, and there is plenty of both. There is the smog—but that too can be solved by money and engineers. It is hard to see how the machine can stop, and leave these people without water for the gardens, electricity for the bright lights, cars to run around in.
All the rhythms in Los Angeles are different—the daily movement in and out of the city center is hardly greater than other movements, the weekly cycle is scarcely noticeable, the seasonal cycle is different. That dividing line between work and nonwork that is at the basis of so much of Western achievement, and misery, loses its sharpness. But perhaps for our society in general work has already done its job, and we can keep things going with much less of it. And if we can, Southern California is not an aberration, but a reasonable suggestion as to how things can be.