Thursday, June 02, 2011

The Myths of Cities

I turned in the manuscript for my next book DEAD THINGS to the publisher yesterday and am mostly over my freakout about doing so. I know it doesn't suck, but I also know it's not as clean as it could be. No doubt there will be many notes on my creative use of commas at the very least.

I have a scene where the protagonist is thinking about a bit of L.A. history as he tries to track someone down.
Back in the Forties Chavez Ravine was a community of Latino families north of Downtown. Had their own schools and churches, grew their own food, kept to themselves.

The rest of the city liked it that way. Would have preferred they didn't exist at all, but, hey, you can only kill so many people, right? Not that they didn't try.

And then the money happened. Federal dollars to turn Chavez Ravine into housing projects. Kicked everybody out with false promises of new homes, then sat on the land until a guy who ran on what amounted to a "Kick the Mexicans out" ticket got elected, bought up all the land and plopped a baseball team in the middle of it all.

Fucked over landowners meet Dodger Stadium.
It's an oversimplifcation of what happened, but not by much.

And it got me thinking about what makes a city a city. The things that give it its identity.

It's not the roads, the architecture or even the people. It's the stories that accrete over time. The tales the residents tell themselves and each other. The rumors that spring up among outsiders.

And whether they're truth or lies, after a while they stop being fictions and histories. They become myths.

When non-Angelenos think of L.A. they tend to think of four things. Hollywood, smog, traffic and crime. Because that's all they hear about. After a while they all blur together. Mostly as a negative.

They don't hear about the other things, the wonderful and tragic things that don't make it out to the farmbelt. Hole-in-the-wall Ethiopian restaurants on Fairfax, the taco trucks of East L.A., the Zoot Suit Riots, the collapse of The St. Francis Dam, the 1934 flood that put The Valley under water, The White Lady of Griffith Park, The Selig Zoo.

Hell, even most Angelenos have never heard of some of these stories. There are countless I've never heard. This city, like any city, has stories stuffed between its bricks like mortar. Its what binds it together, gives it shape. No one could hope to know all of them.

Some of them aren't even true. The Lizardmen under Los Angeles, for example. But some people believe them, anyway.

And yes, I will be using the Lizardmen in an upcoming book. Just so you know.

God help me, but I love this town. It's completely insane. It's like dating that crazy chick that's great in the sack but tries to knife you in your sleep just to see if you'll holler. But then, isn't every city?

And one of the things I love about it, is that the stories never end. We're making them now. I wonder sometimes if that's the real reason I have this blog. To document some of the crazy, funny, tragic shit that goes on here. Worst case it's a clearing house for fiction prompts.

Incidentally, if you've never been, check out 1947 Project for some bits of old L.A. lore. They know their shit. Like, really know their shit.

How about y'all? What are your city's stories? What are the things that give your town its unique bent? I'd love to hear them.


Sabrina E. Ogden said...

Salt Lake has this bar on State Street called the Busy Bee. They have the best garlic burgers in the world. No lighting except the liquor fluorescent lights hanging from the walls. It's great. One of my favorite places to eat.

Do you remember Mark Hacking? The guy from Salt Lake that faked his entire life right down to his own insanity after killing his wife and leaving her to rot at the dump? I know people that searched the city dump for weeks to find her. It was heartbreaking and very difficult for me. Mark Hacking was a friend of mine. My journal entries talk about what I fine young man he was and how he was going to make a wonderful husband to the woman that he killed. Truly tragic.

You’d be surprised at how many times I saw Elizabeth Smart walking down the streets of Salt Lake and didn’t recognize her because of her clothing. I stood in line next to her at the grocery store. I’d seen the couple she was with countless times, and I didn’t even question the teenager that suddenly showed up one day.

Salt Lake has an interesting history if you really want to find it. We also have plenty of corruption. We just don't talk about it much.

Try not to freak out about the manuscript. You've done your part, now let the powers that be do theirs. You are a wonderful writer and I’m sure you have nothing to worry about.

D. Travis North said...

Philadelphia: More of an overall layout commentary. An interesting thing about the city is that William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania, had a set plan in his mind right from the very beginning. With his father's money, he hired a survey to mark out the blocks and properties within center city from River to River (Delaware to the Schuylkill), despite knowing that the city would not fully develop for a very long time. The Old city borders the Delaware and that's where the early development occurred. He planned for five major squares, one in each major quadrant and one at the center of the city (Now City Hall). Looking at a map of the city, however, you'll note that the blocks on the east side (Old City) are smaller than those on the opposite side. The reason? The original surveyor used chains and rods that were too short, and so the entire city is measured incorrectly. Move forward to present day and properties are measured in both Imperial lengths and "Philadelphia Lengths".

Side note: Central Square is now the home of City Hall. But it was originally the location of the City's Water Tower.

As organized as Penn's scheme m seem, the city was full of traffic and quite difficult to traverse. Enter Ed Bacon (Yes, the father of Kevin Bacon was the former city planner of Philadelphia in the 50's and 60's). Ed introduced Independance Mall (which lies on the north side or the REAR of Independance Hall), Benjamin Franklin Parkway, The Art Museum, Kelley Drive park, Vine Street Expressway and expansions to the rail/subway lines.

Today, these things all seem to be pretty much second nature to a resident and a visitor. But if it weren't for Ed Bacon, the city would be a horrible mess to traverse.

le0pard13 said...

Being L.A. is my hometown, it's the combination of historical events and places all around that constantly amazes me. Down the street is the vibrant Leimert Park neighborhood with its storefronts, and blues/jazz clubs (director Michael Mann used Leimert for his film COLLATERAL) and where some of our friends and schoolmates live. It's also the same area where Elizabeth Short's (aka The Black Dahlia) body was found.

Fine post, Stephen. It's good you mentioned Chavez Ravine -- it's one that is burned into the collective memory of neighborhoods and some of the people in this city. Sadly, I think you're correct that many in their own town don't recognize the wonderful and tragic history that is all about them. Thanks for this.

mad_science said...

Good stuff man.

Spent the last nearly 6 years in LA (just moved out, though).

Growing up in the SF Bay Area, learned to hate the place for all the usual reasons. Turns out that as soon as I moved in (first at the east end of Hollywood and then to Glassell Park), the place is much bigger than the stereotypes. Hell of a lot more history (most of it still in plain sight) than Silicon Valley.

Now that I'm up in Fremont, I find myself looking all over for anything beyond "this used to be a farm, now it's a business park". Best I've got so far is the legendary (but departed) Fremont Drag Strip, a speed Mecca in the glory days of drag racing.