In his latest book, Sidewalking: Coming to Terms with Los Angeles, writer and editor David L. Ulin recalls urban historian and writer Norman Klein challenging him to name the ugliest place in Los Angeles. To Klein the answer was clear: Van Nuys, at the intersection of Fulton and Burbank. He selected it because “it wasn’t poverty; it was just ugly, retinal eye burn of an extreme form. On one corner was a place called Father and Me, which repaired cars. It was surrounded by rolls of barbed wire like some old lady’s hair. Across the street was a very bad trompe l’oeil lumber yard that looked like it was going to fall over. Then, there was this strange Middle Eastern restaurant in a dumpy building with a faded image on top of a man holding a chicken. It was like that in every direction.” Eventually, Klein discovered that beneath the “desolate veneer of blankness” thrived an invisible population of Lebanese, Palestinians, and Israelis. They were all cohabiting, creating a re-imagined Middle East deep in the San Fernando Valley. “Little by little,” Klein recalls, “it was not the ugliest place in Los Angeles, it was just the best erased example of urban complexity.”
I think this is the perfect description of what happens when you inhabit the “ugly” parts of Los Angeles. As a teenager, I was transplanted from Rome to the San Fernando Valley, ending up precisely in Van Nuys, not far from the intersection Klein describes. I hated it then, but there was a moment when I returned years later, under a whole different set of circumstances, that I realized I’d actually missed the place all along. I had unknowingly longed for the dreariest, most anonymous parts of the city. I found myself driving straight to Van Nuys Boulevard, rejoicing to see that Captain Ed’s Head Shop — where my brother and I used to buy our bongs — remained. I was eager to re-visit the Noah’s Bagel Shop across the street from my high school in Woodland Hills, and spent hours back at the antique mall on Victory Boulevard that sold jewelry and clothes from an era where women wore pearls and covered their hands when they laughed. Why and how those place had become “home” to me is a mystery. But as Ulin says “Los Angeles reveals itself in the most unlikely spaces, spaces we might never think to look.”
As a writer and thinker, Ulin has worked hard to reveal the city as a shifting container of perspectives and vistas, a place where ugly intersections become loaded with poetic meaning, where everything that is “true is also not true enough” — a city exemplified as much by Nicolas Silberfaden’s images of filthy palm trees next to freeway ramps as it is by movie sets and celebrities. He has gone on a variety of brave missions to make sense of all the reflections in the vertiginous “hall of mirrors” Simone de Beauvoir identified there. In the late 90’s, he selected and edited thousands of pages that turned into the anthology “Writing Los Angeles,” a precious and eclectic literary bible about the city. In the early 2000s he studied the science of earthquakes as well as the emotional and spiritual connection people have to them, and published The Myth of Solid Ground: Earthquakes, Prediction, and the Fault Line Between Reason and Faith. For the years that led up to Sidewalking (and beyond), he’s walked — walked! — the city streets in order to understand Los Angeles from the point of view of a pedestrian. Most recently he even embarked on a twelve-hour Metro Rail ride, crossing every line and every station in Los Angeles, Mid-City to downtown to Long Beach to Redondo to North Hollywood to East Los Angeles, Azusa, Santa Monica, and back again.
Editor Gerry Howard called Ulin the literary consciousness of Los Angeles, but I think it goes even further. Ulin is a guardian, confidante, and godfather to the city — a trusted person who will always love it too much to judge it. I rely on him completely to elaborate on its elusive nature, to make peace with the “fragmentary landscape of glimmers and glimpses” that work into your subconscious, latch onto your dreams, and prompt you, unexpectedly, to have an emotional melt-down in front of a glass pipe from Captain Ed’s.
Chiara Barzini: Writing Los Angeles is the most comprehensive anthology that has ever been put together about a city’s literary landscape. It has been my bedside table reading material for years, a bit of a literary bible. How did you embark on this great endeavor?
David Ulin: It was serendipitous in a way. I knew the publisher and the editor of Library of America for a variety of reasons. In the late ‘90s, I was at Book Expo, the book publishing industry trade show, and I was walking through the convention with a friend of mine. We passed by their booth and I said ‘hello’ and sort of in passing one of them said, ‘You know if you’re around, we’re thinking of doing an LA book and we would love to talk to you about it. I said ‘sure, I’d love to talk to you about it.’ When we walked away my friend said ‘I think they just offered you the editorship.’ It turned out he was right.
I had been doing a lot of Los Angeles literary excavation. I moved here in 1991, so I had been reading a lot of books prior to moving. I had also been doing a lot of literary and cultural journalism, interviewing writers and writing features and reviews and essays. The work had started to circle around Los Angeles. By that point I had also done a project with the LA Weekly. I talked to eighty-five writers and did little capsule biographies of them as a kind of map of the literary territory. Once I did the LA Weekly story, I thought ‘now that I’ve written about all these writers, it would be interesting to put together something where we could actually bring their work to readers’ attention and highlight not just the community but the overlapping communities of Los Angeles.’ It struck me at that point that there were dozens of writing communities and they were all kind of overlapping.
How did you encounter Lynell George’s work? I fell in love with her story in the anthology, “City of Specters.” It captures a specific time (early 90’s) of the life of the city that I think is so formative to its conscience.
I met her when she was writing for the LA Weekly and I was writing for the Los Angeles Reader. The early 90’s was a moment when the LA weekly had amazing writers. I knew Lynell through the page then we met and we really hit it off. I don’t even know how describe how highly I think of her writing and her thinking— the way they operate together. You can really see her think on the page. You can watch her process of sort-of wrestling with her material. She’s got that beautiful language and beautiful descriptions, but she’s also got that incredibly beautiful thinking going on and it’s operating on all these levels at the same time.
In the early ‘90s there was this kind of violent undertone to the city that maybe isn’t there anymore in the same way. Kids were dying every day. So much gang violence. It was the beginning of it all becoming normalized and I think she tapped right into that.
She did. It’s part of my memory of the city when I first moved here too. Violence from all sides. Certainly in the 80s and in early 90s, it was the most rigorously policed city I had been in. It felt like there were cops everywhere and they were big and they were dangerous-looking, and they didn’t respond to you in a way that appeared necessarily helpful or welcoming. There was violence everywhere and there was a ton of gang violence and high murder rates. It really felt like the city was not safe on any level. Even the authorities who were theoretically invested in keeping order were not actually keeping order. Just look at what happened with Rodney King.
I remember the Northridge Earthquake as a key element of those years, but really it was a whole chunk of events that went from the Rodney King riots to the earthquake and OJ Simpson — I see those three moments in time as marking a big change in LA.
Yeah, I think those were formative events. It began with the beating and the videotaping of the beating, which created the public outrage and the riots — and then the quake to top it off. But I think there were other things happening. During my first winter here, in 1992, there were catastrophic floods. In 1993, the Malibu wildfires were so out of control that you could literally see Malibu burning from mid-Wilshire. So those things, as well, — they’re smaller, but if we start with the beating, they all fit into this pattern of about four and a half years from the Rodney King beating to the OJ Simpson criminal verdict. It was one major cataclysm after another and it really changed the way the city thinks about itself — in some quite positive ways, I think right now from the vantage point of twenty years later. But it felt like the city was reeling. You weren’t able to adjust to the last thing before the next thing came.
In the anthology, Salka Viertel writes a story about her son’s Peter Viertel’s book The Canyon — a novel about 1940s Southern Californian culture before World War II. It’s also a story about an adventurous and artistic group of people living in the LA canyons. I thought that was so interesting that since the 1940s, the canyons of Los Angeles have been associated with an artistic or creative ethos. Why do you think that is — what is it about the canyons?
It’s an interesting question. It actually goes back even further. There is a book from the 1930s called The Flutter of An Eyelid by Myron Brinig, which has been out of print for a long time. It’s one of those books that we discovered when we were doing research for the Anthology and I fell in love with it, but we couldn’t find a piece to pull out that would represent it. It takes place largely in the Santa Monica canyons and it involves a kind of bohemian pseudo-creative community. Maybe the canyons feel slightly removed from the city though they are also still part of the city. They encourage a kind of reflective artistic experience. That was also true in Laurel Canyons in the ‘50s with pop music — but the Viertel experience has also a lot to do with the expat community which is also a really interesting corner of Los Angeles’ history.
I wanted to ask you about the role of the writer in the city and of yourself as a writer in this city. Joan Didion said there is a certain creative quality to living in Los Angeles. Driving around instead of walking is conducive to an uninterrupted thought process which helps the writing. Do you agree?
Didion is right. LA has traditionally been — although this is changing — a private life city. The domestic ideal of the single family house, the social ideal in many communities is still private. Parties and events don’t happen outside in squares or cafes. So for me. generally, this is one of the great things about being a writer here. In America the seat of literary culture is New York. For me and many other writers I know, one of the best things about being a writer here, is that you’re not there. You are 3000 miles away, in a city that is defined by privacy and private life and also a city whose psyche is not defined by literature in the way that other cities are. There’s something kind of great about operating under the radar — it means you can take risks, it means you can go in directions in which you wouldn’t necessarily go, it means you can fail. Without having too much visibly at stake, you are less bound.
What is your favorite LA myth?
Because of my sense of romance about both of these things, I think it is what Mike Davis referred to as the “Sunshine/Noir Dialectic.” The myth of the sunshine and the beach and the lotus land is pretty seductive of course, but what’s even more seductive is the noir counterpart, the dark side of that sunshine myth. In the most simplistic way it is: what happens when you get here and nothing works? You can’t go back, there’s nowhere else for you to go. You’re at the edge of the continent. So you’re stuck and how do you wrestle with that? And what happens when you come here to escape your history and your demons and those very things follow you here?
Let’s talk about your book Sidewalking. I was completely fascinated when I read it was coming out. I thought, who else but you could write a book about being a pedestrian in Los Angeles?
I walked in LA when I moved here, partly out of necessity and partly out of inclination. It is the way I know how to interact with a city, so even this city — which is a strange city to walk in — became a walking landscape for me because it felt natural. The first few years we lived here, my wife and I shared a car — she had steady work and I didn’t, so she got the car. In 2007 or so, I started to think that I really could do a book about walking in LA. I had also edited two books about LA and having done the anthologies and having done a lot of writing of essays and articles about the city, there was a part of me that wanted to take part in the conversation on that level. I didn’t know what kind of book I would write, but I knew walking would be at the centre of it. Had I written the book in 2014, it would have been very different. The city has changed so much and in so many different ways — in terms of public transportation, pedestrian quarters, Downtown’s rejuvenation, urban density, and verticalization. There is a new sense of Los Angeles’ identity. I like writing books that are stuck in time.
Indeed from what I’ve seen in LA in the past few years, it seems it is a bit more of a pedestrian city, and there are a lot more neighborhoods where you can afford not to have a car. In my memory, the “walkers” in Los Angeles were a kind of a parallel or forgotten population —mainly outcasts and teenagers without licenses. Do you still feel like that’s still the case?
I think that’s still the case and more. There’s a phrase for people like me. Something like ‘riders by choice,’ but there are large populations in the city that do not ride or walk by choice. They do it by necessity. So that’s a really important question— at what point does public transportation become a civil rights issue? In terms of access and mobility I think it’s very much a civil rights issue. And what does it mean to ride by choice or by necessity? I think those are very important questions.
You are a native New Yorker so walking is part of your genetic makeup. How much walking have you actually done in LA?
Yeah, that’s the thing about this book: there is a lot of research and information and a lot of groundwork, but because it grows out of my own experience, it doesn’t feel that way. I walk everywhere pretty much, but I walk practically. I walk to go to the bank, I walk to run errands, I walk not as a kind of specialized activity but as part of a routine. So I don’t really keep track of those kinds of things, but I walk every day.
One thing I’m really interested in is the idea of “nostalgia” in Los Angeles. In the 90’s no one was nostalgic for anything in LA. Today downtown is this functional, gentrified and hip place, but in the 90’s it was really sketchy to go downtown. It was dirty and dangerous and there were almost no cops. Everywhere else was full of cops, but in downtown it was almost as if they were saying ‘you guys do your thing— do what you have to do, we’re not going there.’ And in the middle of all that there were incredible testaments to the silent movie era. I think in particular of places like The Alexandria Hotel, which was important to my family because it was where my father shot his TV series. At the time it smelled like urine and Lysol — low income housing apartments spread amidst the glories of the Valentino suite and the stained glass ballroom. You could see between the cracks, Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and D.W. Griffin. United Artists was created in those walls in 1919. From a European point of view, the place generated an immediate sense of nostalgia. It seems like today there is a movement towards bringing out these LA landmarks and celebrating them a little bit more.
I think the nostalgia question is interesting in relation to Los Angeles. In some sense Los Angeles is very much a present tense city, or has been. I think that has to do partly with the light — a flat, sort of shadowless light that makes you feel like you are living in the present tense. But then it’s diffused with a little bit of a nostalgic air at the end of the day, a bit of a mist and the trees— at least it fills me with a kind of wistfulness. There’s the transplant of cultures, the idea of people coming here to leave their past behind, to somehow shed what they were, and become something else. It tends to be a very forward-looking idea. There are all these notions of Los Angeles as a city of the future, very anti-nostalgic. But I also think there is deep nostalgia woven into the soul of the city and I think that you can see that in the literature. You see it in Helen Hunt Jackson, in Raymond Chandler. There is a passage in The Little Sister where he talks about how LA used to be in the good old days. So there is always the sense of the city as a corrupted paradise.
All photographs from the book, Both Sides of Sunset: Photographing Los Angeles, with and introduction by David L. Ulin.