L.A. Confidential: California History and the 2012 Whitsett Seminar

If you’ve ever been to Los Angeles, you know beneath the sprawl lay one of the nation’s most fascinating cities.  From Echo Park to Boyle Heights to Silver Lake to Malibu, Los Angeles collects vistas, peoples, highways, and film noir like few others. Beyond LA, California provides scholars with ample subjects from which to explore history both locally and nationally.  The network of public universities in Los Angeles and the state’s other cities only furthers this process. The annual Whitsett Grad Student Seminar enables future academics to present their California research to professors and  graduate students working in similar fields. Cal State Northridge’s Whitsett Professor of California History and Director of the Center for Southern California Studies Josh Sides (author of L.A. City Limits: African American Los Angeles from the Great Depression to the Present and Erotic City: Sexual Revolutions and the Making of Modern San Francisco) and CSUN hosted once again this year.  From real estate certification to beach regulation to early hip hop, California continues to occupy a central place in American life. California may be smugly annoying, but at least it has reasons.

Laura Redford – “College Bound: The Start of University Real Estate Education in Los Angeles and the Nation”

1920 LA

In the film adaptation of Glengarry Glen Ross, Alex Baldwin half berates and half encourages a collection of Chicago real estate salesmen reminding them of what ultimately matters. “Because only one thing counts in this life! Get them to sign on the line which is dotted!”  Baldwin punctuates his speech with a declaration that clearly establishes how his character viewed the business: “It takes brass balls to sell real estate.”  Few scenes convey the gendered dynamics of the profession or its questionable ethics better.  When Los Angeles real estate leaders formed the Los Angeles Realty Board (LARB) in the early twentieth century, what were their motives: protecting the people, protecting themselves, maybe protecting both?  In “College Bound: The Start of University Real Estate Education in Los Angeles and the Nation,” Laura Redford demonstrates that Los Angeles real estate leaders worried about many of the same ethics issued that plagued the salesmen of  Glengarry Glen Ross.   Early twentieth century efforts by the Los Angeles Realty Board’s (LARB) to establish  a licensing system and formal educational path to licensure reflected the combined pressures of Progressive era ideas about scientific management and efficiency, a public skeptical about the motives of Southern California “land sharks”, and an LARB membership obsessed with legitimizing real estate as a profession on par with law and medicine.

If Joel Schwartz pointed out the influence of urban universities on city planning and development in New York’s Robert Moses era, Redford provides a thread to an even more distant past where long before Schwartz’s development-mad NYU officials pushed urban renewal efforts with the subtlety of a sledgehammer, the University of Southern California and Southwestern Law School established formal education classes toward Real Estate certification.  This developmental synergy benefitted USC, Southwestern, and the LARB: the board raised the status of brokers while the schools reinforced the value of education.  The LARB’s partnership with the two schools established a model that spread nationally.  Redford explores the gendered implications of the profession and its partnerships with local institutions of higher education. The field of real estate itself and the board’s attempts reflected an “expression of middle class values and masculinity,” as such it stood as less elite driven than medicine or law, both of which required experience and capital to pursue. The entrance barriers to real estate enabled middle class men to excel.  In contrast, women were largely absent from the burgeoning profession; however, Redford has found evidence of female participation in the business education classes at USC, suggesting the possibility that higher education provided women with means to gain a foothold in the industry.  Considering the hackles raised in the East Village over NYU’s expansion  or those heard from West Georgetown livid over the university’s future growth, Redford enables urban historians to take a step back to see that higher education has long played a key role in facilitating metropolitan economic development. If higher education employs urban renewal and gentrification’s greatest critics, the institution itself has a long history of creating the circumstances to which their Professors object.

Elsa Devienne – “Policing the Beach: The Evolution of Laws and Public Order on Los Angeles Beaches, 1920s-1960s”

Venice Beach 1920

If movies like Fletch and televisions shows in the vein of Baywatch and ChIPS have taught us anything, it is that underneath the sunshine and sand lay the nefarious workings of criminal society.   As ridiculous as these examples may be, the image of beaches as spaces of pure unadulterated and unregulated joy fails to match reality as Elsa Devienne argues in “Policing the Beach: The Evolution of Laws and Public Order on Los Angeles Beaches, 1920s-1960s.”  Take the legendary 1919 Chicago Race Riot and its 1943 counterpart in Detroit; both traced their origins to beaches. Each incident tragically sparked deadly and economically debilitating race riots.  With this in mind, Devienne’s work explores the complex interplay of perceived social dysfunction, property rights, environmentalism, and tourism that all came to play central roles in defining the public beaches of Los Angeles.

Not all beaches are the same. Urban beaches in particular exhibit several key differences from their more suburban or rural siblings: Los Angeles patrons demonstrated greater racial and economic diversity usually in bounded spaces bordered by “cheap amusements” and urban infrastructure.  As the number of beach goers exploded (if 2 million people made the trek to LA’s beaches in 1925 by 1935 this number had quintupled to 10 million), the beach as a liminal space seemed to demand more regulation argued law enforcement and local property owners. However, as Devienne notes, the creation of laws governing beaches resulted from interactions between the police, local property owners, and beach patrons.  Often beach laws stemmed less from a desire for public order than the need to create an “urban beach identity.”  Accordingly, a 1965 ordinance banning bongos on several LA beaches had far more to do with the threatening social and sexual mores promoted by Beatniks of the period than any real problem with order.  Local property owners viewed the presence of Beatniks as possibly damaging for their beach’s identity, which in turn might hamper rising real estate values. Thus, they eliminated the one thing the Beatnik could not live without: bongos.

Mr. McDowell and Ms. Taylor this is a respectable beach!

Throughout the century debates regarding beaches as public spaces managed a constant tension:  the desire to maintain a respectable public image while still drawing tourists.  Devienne’s work suggests exciting new possibilities in both urban and environmental history, as the French scholar explores the complex interactions between urbanity, environmentalism, and state authority.  In contrast to Mike Davis’ argument that such regulation results from an increasingly carceral state, Devinne suggests instead the story is not as much an example of the growing police state – authorities and lifeguards themselves lamented their inability to fully police such spaces – but rather a narrative that captures the difficulty of defining the meanings and behaviors assigned to liminal public spaces.

Kai Green – “Writing BLK: Publishing Black Queer Los Angeles”

In his recent memoir, City Boy, author Edmund White reflects, in part, on the struggles of being gay in the midst of the AIDS holocaust of the 1980s. “AIDS killed off most of my circle. Every time I would come back to New York, more and more of my friends would be dying or dead,” writes White. (City Boy, 292) President Ronald Reagan greeted these deaths with a marked silence.  If gay white men felt ignored, gay black men and women felt non-existent.  As numerous writers have noted, the gay liberation movement, for all its positives, resulted in an archetypical figure: middle class white men. Kai Green’s work promises to shine a light on Los Angeles’ population of underserved and a then nearly invisible society – that of Queer black men and women and transgendered individuals –  who traversed American sexuality and politics in the 1980s and 1990s.  Beginning with clubs like the Great Depression WWII era Brothers  and later Jewels Catch 1 (the first black LGBT space founded in LA, 1972) and continuing  with the Blackjack newsletter and the creation of BLK magazine (“a black magazine for gay people not a gay magazine about Black people”), Green encourages historians to shift “our ways of knowing and seeing” or as some patrons of the gay club Brothers suggested to “see in the dark.” Largely through prominent Black gay activist Alan Bell, Green traces the emergence of Black and Queer LA.   BLK provided a space for debate, social networks, and a national advocacy for issues impacting gay black men. Considering the African American community’s ambivalence over homosexuality at the time, the importance of magazines like BLK not only created a dialogue about such issues, but also gave visibility and flesh to largely marginalized figures: gay black men.  Bell sought to bring not only acknowledgement of gay black men and women but also to bring meaning to those that had passed on from AIDS.   Other publications like Blackfire, Black Lace (aimed at Black lesbians), and Kuumba (literary journal) followed while by the 1990s physical guides emerged to provide a literal spatial mapping of Black gay LA. With recent works by Danny Widener and the aforementioned Josh Sides on LA’s African American culture, Green’s research promises to expand this knowledge in ways that could broaden our understandings of LA and Queer life in the final decades of the twentieth century.

Felicia Viator – “We Knew the Streets: Electro-Rap, Mobile DJs, and the Early Los Angeles Hip Hop Scene”

Even East Coast utopians like Rakim and Chuck [D] talked control and discipline.  By contrast, excess was the essence of NWA’s appeal.  These poems celebrated pushers, played bitches, killed enemies and assassinated police.  Fuck delayed gratification, they said, take it all now.

– Jeff Chang, Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop:  A History of the Hip Hop Generation, 319

In 2006, writer Jeff Chang published one of the most comprehensive and accessible histories of hip hop to date: Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop.  However, as with any landmark work, new scholars frequently emerge to push or challenge the ideas of even the most revered text.  Felicia Viator’s “We Knew the Streets” proves no exception.   Like Chang, Viator touches on policy decisions and broader economic trends of the period – Reagan’s cuts to federal urban spending, deindustrialization, and a Los Angeles awash in gang activity.  Unlike Chang, who focuses more specifically on particular performers like Ice Cube, Viator turns her attention on the troubles and triumphs of a broader Black youth culture via the early days of LA Hip Hop or what Viator labels “electro rap.”  Though DJ events took place in clubs like Roxy or the Palladium, these shows catered to “older white rock critics.”  Instead, the mobile DJ parties of the late 1970s and early 1980s, often characterized by networks of dancers, spinners, and promoters, celebrated the urban decay of the period while giving LA’s Black youth a cheap and interactive means to lay claim to the city and its crumbling spaces.  Yet as Viator notes, a troubling dynamic lay beneath the surface: the connection of many of the scene’s leading lights to the gang violence and warfare of the period.

Before Coors Light and Best Buy endorsements, there was NWA

While it was true that such parties and activities did keep “kids off the street,” there remained no way to eliminate the “hardcore nefariousness,” as one local DJ articulated it, that sometimes surfaced at shows.  By the mid-1990s, the scene had become associated with mayhem and violence.  Though Dr. Dre and famed KDAY personality Greg Mack helped shape Los Angeles’ leisure spaces, transforming middle school destinations like skating rinks into mini-Hip Hop stadiums, they failed to quell fears over the music’s connection to the illicit. Viator reflects on such developments, noting that from the outset police, local neighborhood groups and activists, and eventually the national press associated the movement with crime, meaning its practitioners struggled to balance the dual pressures of gang activity and police repression.  When one considers the relatively cuddly conservative middle class space that former rappers like Ice T and Ice Cube now occupy (to say nothing of the once scandalous Dre and Snoop – one does commercials for Best Buy and the other a national cell phone chain) their association with LA’s gang ridden scene seems eons ago.  Moreover, particularly in the 1990s when West Coast rap redefined the genre, it attests to the centrality of hip hop culture in American culture.  Both Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama drop references to prominent rap artists and records, while the late Tim Russert would ocassionally ask of [insert male August white senator] if they “felt dissed” by this political statement or maneuver by the opposition.  To which, the old white man sitting across from Russert would reply, “No, I wouldn’t say dissed …”

Haley Pollack – “In the Shadow of the Prison Boom: Remembering Crime and Safety on Alcatraz Island”

Yet another layer of inaccurate narrative

For those of us in our mid-30s, the last pop culture memory we draw upon regarding the famed abandoned jail, Alcatraz, would probably be the atrocious but financially successful Nic Cage-Sean Connery vehicle The Rock.  The movie reimagined Alcatraz as a site for a rogue military strike on San Francisco by disgruntled and disillusioned soldiers.  In contrast, Haley Pollack examines the ways in which the historical memory of Alcatraz has been altered in relation to rising rates of incarceration, environmental movements, and American tropes promoting nuclear families. Drawing on the memories of prison guards and their families that resided on the island fortress (at the time of its closure 1963, 75 children lived in the shadows of the famous prison), these memoirs emphasize the island’s lack of crime and traffic, pristine view of the city, and the domestic bliss of its mid century nuclear families.  Since its closing, the gardens planted by residents, the island’s natural beauty, and its importance politically – the 1969 occupation of Alcatraz by a Native American organization known as Indians of All Tribes not the geo-stupid politics of The Rock – have come to play larger roles in its identity.

Remembering Alcatraz fondly?

If 1930s gangsters like Al Capone fueled tourism in its early years, park rangers and others have added the environmental and domestic narratives in what Pollack points out amounts to a counterpoint to the violence of incarceration.   This reworking of the narrative sanitized the brutality of prison life just as California’s (and the larger nation’s) prison complex exploded. For example, from 1852 to 1964 only 12 new prisons were built, in contrast, from 1982 to 2000 23 new prisons came into existence.   The revisionist narrative established at today’s Alcatraz twists history such that yesterday’s prisoners remain quaint Boardwalk Empire like hoodlums forced to inhabit a prison of lesser quality than today’s Supermax facilities that house arch criminals.  In this way, incarceration as progress means that yesterdays prisons may have been worse than their counterparts physically, but the criminal populations that inhabit them today exceed the nefariousness of their predecessors.  As one commentator noted, the new narrative operated much like incarceration Disney style and raises real questions regarding how Americans think about the carceral state.

Stefani Evans – “From Khaki to Brown: Changing Webs of Support in Santa Ana, California, 1950-2000”

Though histories of metropolitan development often focus on private business, labor organizations, and municipal governments, Stefani Evans reminds historians that federal institutions and military installations also shape urban and suburban realities. Evans’ examination of tract 1415 in Santa Ana, CA reveals the complexities of twentieth century homeownership in the shadow of military service. Influenced by transnational events like the Korean War and the various immigration reforms of the twentieth century (from the 1965 Immigration Act to Reagan’s 1986 IRCA), Evan’s tracks the changes in ethnicity, race, and religion that resulted from the combined forces of labor migration and militarization. Though by 2010, tract 1415 consisted largely of Spanish surname residents, in the beginning the area had been exclusively white, and exclusively military.  Marketed to veterans of WWII, G.I. Bill benefits enabled many to purchase homes.  Nearly two-thirds of the tracts 139 original residential lots came to be occupied by military families: eighty white military families in all. Critically, these households were characterized by non-traditional domesticities.  In many homes, due to military obligations, women operated as “de facto” heads of the family.  Moreover, because of frequent transfers required by military service, residents invested much of their energies into support networks rather than the home.  The military’s almost enforced transiency raises questions regarding how communities grow when large numbers of residents feel they “have no stake” in their neighborhood’s future.

As the forces of segregation declined and immigration to the US from Mexico and Asia increased, due to immigration reform and American military adventures abroad (Korean War, occupation of Japan, the Vietnam War), the area’s diversity shifted as Latino workers and Vietnamese laborers moved into the tract in the 1980s. By the 1990s, due to immigration and labor flows, tract 1415 had become nearly exclusively Latino.  Homes became forms of identity as several Latino American homeowners created “sacred suburban spaces.” “[B]right colors, Christmas lights, wrought iron fences, and shrines to the Virgin of Guadalupe evoke an ‘enacted environment’ in postwar tract housing that was originally built for whites,” commented Evans.  The few white homeowners who remained also invested their identity in their households’ appearance, but broadcasted different sensibilities.  The Latino homeowners of the new century demonstrated alternative notions of property as several took part in a form of interfamilial rotating homeownership that resembled rotating credit agencies.   In the end, the trajectory of tract 1415 from 1950 to 2010 illustrates the influence of transnational forces from war to labor to immigration in shaping the Santa Ana of today and suggests that metropolitan economic and social development depends as much on what happens outside the nation as inside it.

Ryan Reft


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  1. […] Felicia Viator, history lecturer at San Francisco State, noted at March’s Whitsett symposium, Dre, Cube, and influential KDAY DJ Greg Mack employed a stripped down approach to getting their […]

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