Diving into Integration: Sammy Lee, Historical Memory, and the Complexity of Housing Segregation in Cold War California

Sammy Lee in costume and on a photographers pony. ca. 1928 | Image: Courtesy of Los Angeles Public Library

Even with the clearest of minds, personal and historical memory ebb and flow. Recollections of our own past and that of the society around us often become shaped by current circumstance and selective recall. If one adds dementia to the mix, personal memories become scattered vestiges of our former selves that bound across the mind. Lest one thinks society as a collective operates any better, it does not. You need only point to the occasional survey of American knowledge of U.S. history to know the past might stalk us invisibly at every moment, but as Americans we seem blissfully unaware. When two-time gold medal Olympic diver Sammy Lee disappeared for several days this past April, the … [Read more...]

Not Bowling Alone: How the Holiday Bowl in Crenshaw Became an Integrated Leisure Space

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In May 2000, the New York Times reported the upcoming demolition of the Crenshaw District's Holiday Bowl. Built by Japanese American investors in 1958, just as Crenshaw and neighboring Leimart Park were reemerging as one of the city's most diverse neighborhoods, the bowling alley served as an integrated leisure space where African, Mexican, and Asian Americans could interact. "It's like a United Nations in there,'' longtime employee Jacqueline Sowell told writer Don Terry. ''Our employees are Hispanic, white, black, Japanese, Thai, Filipino. I've served grits to as many Japanese customers as I do black. We've learned from each other and given to each other. It's much more than just a bowling … [Read more...]

The Shifting Cultures of Multiracial Boyle Heights

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In a critical scene from the 1997 neo-noir "L.A. Confidential," the ambitious and overzealous Detective Ed Exley (Guy Pierce) escorts rape survivor Inez Soto (Marisol Padilla Sanchez) through the tumult of press coverage upon her discharge from the hospital. Soto's testimony proved vital in convicting four black men of murder at the famous Night Owl diner massacre; a case that led to Exley's promotion and subsequent municipal fame. However, in a brief exchange, Soto reveals that while guilty of sexual assault, the four men never stepped foot in the notorious Night Owl. "I don't know what time they left me, I wanted them dead," she tells Exley in a private moment. "Would anyone care that they … [Read more...]

Working to Play, Playing to Work: Mexican American Baseball and Labor in Southern California

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"I remember traveling to Lake Elsinore, which was a long way in those days," reminisced Zeke Mejia in 1996. "But the only ride we could get was from a friend who hauled fertilizer in his truck, so all the guys crawled inside ... and tried not to breath during the ride. By the time we arrived to play well we all smelled like fertilized fields. We did it because we loved the game." 1 For Mejia and thousands of other Mexican Americans laboring in Southern California during the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, baseball served as a means to at once demonstrate belonging in the United States, while simultaneously asserting their own identity. In Los Angeles, Orange, and Riverside counties, Mexican … [Read more...]

Diamonds Separated by Oceans: Baseball, Japanese Americans, and Southern California’s Pacific Rim

Baseball game at Manzanar War Relocation Center | Photo: Ansel Adams, courtesy of the Library of Congress

"If California has made any contribution to sport on a national level, it is in the democratization of pursuits that were previously the prerogatives of elites," noted the dean of California history Kevin Starr in 2005. "Most of the champions of the twentieth century who come from California first developed their skills in publicly subsidized circumstances: municipally supported swimming pools, golf courses, and tennis courts in particular, where middle class Californians, thanks to the recreational policies of Progressivism, were introduced to these previously social register sports." 1 Indeed, even under the weight of racism, groups denied equal access to mainstream U.S. society found … [Read more...]

125 Years of 4th of July Parades and Liberalism in Maryland’s Takoma Park

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“We’re compromised,” an exasperated Julie Boddy told a Washington Post journalist in 2012. As a sitting member of the Nuclear Free Takoma Park Committee, Boddy and other committee members expressed sharp reservations about a recent city council decision. “What kind of reputation do we have if we fall down in that way?” Ian Barclay, a town native agreed. “It’s just a slippery slope … when you start letting this slide then where are you going to end up.” The issue at hand you ask? Town librarians had ordered a set of Hewlett Packard computers to replace older outdated models. However, HP’s historical association with the production of nuclear weapons led librarians to “stash” them away in … [Read more...]

A Dive into the Deep End: The Importance of the Swimming Pool in Southern California

Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks canoeing in the swimming pool at Pickfair. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library

[Let Summer begin! This week we focus on the role of pools and beaches in American, specifically, SoCal life. On Wed. we'll look at how L.A.'s African American population demonstrated agency and carved out spaces of leisure for their communities through beaches in early 20th century Southern California. For more on pools check out our review of Jeff Wiltse's social history on the subject, Contested Waters and our own take on the narrative surrounding New York's McCarren Park Pool and its connection to NYC's 20th century history of aquatic leisure. Dive in kids!] Perhaps you've heard the story before. There was once a poor mountaineer, who could barely keep his family fed. One day, "while … [Read more...]

Shifting Lanes: The Demise of the Southern California Autotopia

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To understand the City of Angels, Joan Didion once wrote, one needed to immerse oneself in the freeway experience or, as she put it, "the only secular communion Los Angeles has."1 Between 1968 and 1979 Didion published three books -- two collections of non-fiction essays: "Slouching Toward Bethlehem" in 1968 and "The White Album" in 1979; and one work of fiction: "Play It as It Lays" in 1970 -- that depicted a modern Southern California, buffeted by "the weather of catastrophe, of apocalypse," but grounded by its highways and relaxed by its pools. Southern California combined the elemental extremes of nature with the rigidity of the decade's car-centric urban planning. For 1960s and early … [Read more...]

Seventy Years Later: The Zoot Suit Riots and the Complexity of Youth Culture

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[Editor's Note: This article originally appeared under the Intersections column at KCET Departures, May 30, 2013.] In the film "American Me," Pedro Santana, fresh from having his devotion to wife Esperanza tattooed on his arm, prepares for a night on the town. His wife, accompanied by another couple, wades through Los Angeles streets on their way to meet Pedro, as a soundtrack of sensationalized news reports of zoot-suited thugs, dangerous riots, and retributions delivered by U.S. servicemen blare in the background. His friends exhibit a clear wariness regarding the evening's disruptive personality, but Pedro appears unconcerned, more focused on "walking the boulevard with his woman." … [Read more...]

From Better Luck Tomorrow to K-Town: Asian Americans and Los Angeles in 21st Century Media

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[Editor's Note: This piece closes out our  Asian Pacific American Heritage Month coverage.  Be sure to check out our previous posts on Asian American athletics, notably masculinity, femininity, and Asian American basketball in 20th century California here and basketball's role in Filipino and Filipino-American identity here, and the intersection of the Cold War and Asian American citizenship, particularly in how the New Right, anti-communism and the Vietnam War created the diverse demographics of today's Orange county here or how film noir, Cold War ethos, and Asian American sexuality figure prominently in the 1959 L.A. noir classic the "Crimson Kimono" here.] "The problem of this era is … [Read more...]

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