A Los Angeles Tourist Guide for the 99 Percent
Consider taking a tour of Los Angeles, and you might think of a star map to the mansions in Beverly Hills or a walk down Hollywood and Vine, or even, if you’re a little adventurous, maybe an excursion down to the famed, Gaudi-esque Watts Towers in South Central LA. But what about seeking out the site of the original Black Panther Party Headquarters? Or visiting Santa Anita Racetrack — where, in 1942, thousands of Japanese Americans were temporarily detained on their way to internment camps after the bombing of Pearl Harbor? Or perhaps a swing by the former site of the Silver Dollar Cafe, where Los Angeles Times journalist Ruben Salazar, a chronicler of the Chicano Moratorium Against the Vietnam War, was killed in 1970 when sheriff’s officers shot a tear-gas canister into the building.
Laura Pulido, a USC professor who studies social justice movements, knows exactly where those places are, and in A People’s Guide to Los Angeles, the guidebook she put together with colleagues Laura Barraclough and Wendy Cheng, she tells you all about them. Because Pulido and Cheng believe there is a lot more history in this city than conventional guides point out, and not all of it is pretty.
“I was actually working on a different, previous book, called Black Brown Yellow & Left, and in the course of doing the research I came across many interesting sites where important events had happened,” aid Pulido, who with Cheng will speak at the Autry on Saturday as part of the Go West Reading Series. “I saw where Ruben Salazar was shot. And we got a fabulous picture of that. I found places like where the Black Panther party had had their headquarters, and their final shootout with the LAPD. And these were just really fascinating to me. I was telling a friend of mine about them and he suggested putting them together and calling it A People’s Guide to L.A.“
But why should those events of the city’s history matter? Aren’t they somewhat embarrassing to the city? Pulido says they are part of a history of the city that is more inclusive of all its residents and ethnicities, and therefore more complete. And anchoring it to the geography of the place was also important, said Cheng, who is an assistant professor at Arizona State University.
“We wanted to look at freeways and suburbs not as this neutral and interchangeable units, but also as mappings of power,” Cheng said. “So the 10 (Interstate 10) is incredibly important, right? Because it demarcates South L.A. When we were studying tour guides to think about how we wanted to organize ours and orient ours, one of the key things we noticed was that very few tour guides will ever take people south of the 10. So that was something we really wanted to highlight about freeways, aside from the historical aspects of freeways carving up poor and minority neighborhoods and all of those things.”
Pulido also noted that conventional tour guides focus on the privileged West Side of the city and downtown, ignoring the south and east sides, as well as the San Fernando Valley.
“We didn’t want to reproduce that particular kind of geography,” Pulido said. “We wanted the wider lens of the county.”
Most tour guides don’t include a lot of history and are centered around fun, she said: where to eat, where to shop. “It’s about contemporary consumption,” she said.
A few guides do talk about history, but it’s a very mainstream, hegemonic version, Pulido said, that reproduces the status quo and does not take into account the viewpoints of minorities or other populations that are part of the landscape.
“It doesn’t challenge the contemporary relationships,” she said, “or even the past relationships that led to that history. So one of our goals, the central theme of this book … is power: how power becomes substantiated in the landscape, and how capital and the state work to produce the kind of landscape that we see and at the same time how people from below contest that power.… If you think about that, we’re absolutely going to give history a very different take than we would for a mainstream tour guide, because we want to peel back those layers.”
Landscapes — buildings, business districts, shops, industrial areas — all of them can hide power, leaving people only the option of liking or not liking the way it looks, Pulido said. But that geography contains the record of complicated negotiations and conversations about who makes decisions in a city, and how that process actually works. The book is an effort to expose those conversations, and along the way it does give visitors some tips on where to eat, but at places that are more connected to the community.
“There’s this idea of history as being sedimented in the landscape,” Cheng said. “Even if the buildings aren’t there we can still understand it as something that happened in that place … It is more challenging to write about the kinds of things we’re writing about than the things that are more traditionally presented as legitimate sites where history occurred, because these tend to be places where the landscape or the building was not preserved. These tended to be struggles by people who did not have that much power. I think that part of the challenge and part of the goal of the book is how to make those events feel present to people even when the built environment has been completely transformed.”
Cheng believes there is an uneven appreciation of history and its places in the United States, and that is also a function of power. Americans are naturally very vested in preserving sites like civil war battlefields because important events occurred there, she said. There is a similar sentiment in favor of preserving the sites of up-from-below history, but people in those communities may not have the power or resources to carry that preservation out.
“When I was taking photographs of the former site of the Silver Dollar Cafe where Ruben Salazar was shot, which is now a discount clothing store, right? You would never know that’s what was there,” Cheng said. “But people would stop their cars and talk to me when I was taking photographs, and say, ‘Oh, yea, you’re taking a picture of that. I know what happened there.’ Two things: either they knew exactly what had happened there and they were so moved that somebody was marking that in the landscape that they had to pull over and speak to me, or they were curious about why I was taking a photograph of that.”