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Invisible no more: the place called Los Angeles.

PARTLY BECAUSE OF ITS geographical setting and Mediterranean climate, partly because of its size and concentrations of wealth and poverty, Los Angeles has been undervalued and misjudged. Los Angeles history has been practically invisible to many people, western historians among them. Some parts of California, such as the Sierra, are considered more western than others, but Los Angeles--the city, county, or greater metropolitan area--is mostly excluded or ignored from the community called the West.

Those of us who live out here on the West Coast believe we are in the West. We think and speak in local terms; we identify ourselves via region, which is variously described as a multistate area (the Southwest), or just the state of California, or through the chafing delineation between northern and southern California. Most frequently we define region as the megalopolis, but the sprawl's boundaries vary according to the moment and the message. It could be the city of Los Angeles, where the 2000 census counted 3,694,820 people; or the county of Los Angeles, which contains eighty-eight incorporated cities and almost ten million people. Or sometimes the region is defined as a five-county area (Ventura, Los Angeles, San Bernardino, Riverside, and Orange), containing 16,373,645 people.

Los Angeles history and identity have been partly subsumed by the region's association with the entertainment industry and popular culture generally. Movies have constrained historical understanding of Los Angeles: It has been difficult for people to separate stories about Los Angeles from the movie stories Los Angeles tells about itself as well as about the rest of the West, and the world. The familiar concepts of movie magic and dream factory interrupt an orderly perception of the region. One result is the widely circulated assertions that Los Angeles has no sense of history; that it is a godless, dissolute, noir dead-end of a place; that it is a brainless, addled, sunlit highlife kind of place; and that it must pay for its sybaritic excesses with "natural" disasters of flood, mudslide, earthquake, and fire. (1) The historical reality is surely no single one of these tropes, but a subtler and more complex scenario. What is as clear as the crystalline horizon on a paradise day in this place is that there are many subjects to cultivate and nurture, and finally harvest in the field of Los Angeles history.

The last decade's frenzied activities among historians and other scholars have made the region's past more accessible and have enabled Los Angeles to come into focus more clearly. Individuals, cohorts of scholars, and particularly Los Angeles libraries and museums working in new ways and in new partnerships have unearthed the previously invisible history of the region. The yield is a bumper crop of a million opportunities for new learning, a thousand points of new understanding, and hundreds of connections between Los Angeles and the world around it.

In Los Angeles of the present and of the past, there are countless stories that are invisible until someone revives or revises them, and I see many signs of people engaging in the creation of new place-worlds. (2) Today, place-world creation has the advantage of being connected not only to particular places, but also to historical documents, photos, visual arts of all sorts, and even sound recordings. These new histories are related to the "natural" environment; the way the land, the air, and the water and all biota were before people came; and as Indian cultures developed, and later, when Spaniards, Mexicans, and Americans arrived. Of course the way the Los Angeles region was way back when is invisible today because it has been completely covered over, refashioned, and styled and dressed in twenty-first-century clothes. How is one to uncover the fabric, peel back the layers, and disrobe the busy city to expose that invisible Los Angeles?

Once rooted in place, you can begin with the published works of historians. This is the most obvious starting point, or rather, points, for there is a large and growing historiography on Los Angeles. Chronicling and providing easy access to these and other materials is the multifaceted program at the University of Southern California's Archival Research Center, or ARC. Based on the premise shared by many historians and other specialists that the region has become global in significance, and with a goal of bringing together administratively and digitally interdisciplinary materials concerning Los Angeles, the ARC is blazing a trail with its digital gateway, making connections to scores of offsite archives, as well as to a growing number of Southern California materials on the USC campus.

In the Digital Archive ( there are several items of must-see importance. Los Angeles as Subject is the result of a four-year project organized by the Getty Research Institute that resulted in publication of a 350-page resource directory describing 178 little-known private and public archival collections about the Los Angeles region (as well as all the large, major collecting libraries and museums). The book's content was simultaneously put on the Web, and operated by the Getty until it was relocated to USC in 2000, where it continues to be handled and enhanced. ARC has also brought together essential bibliographies of published materials in the Los Angeles Comprehensive Bibliographic Database. In addition, the Digital Archive displays finding aids and historical records belonging to USC and its partners, such as the California Historical Society, the Automobile Club of Southern California, the Huntington Library, the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California, the Los Angeles City Archives, the Shoah Foundation, and the Seaver Center for Western History Research at the Natural History Museum.

Besides its partnership with USC in several initiatives relating to Los Angeles, the Huntington Library has ballooned its own programs supporting regional studies through research fellowships, active collecting of photographic, library, and manuscript materials, exhibitions, scholarly outreach, and symposia. For example, the Early California Population Project is compiling a demographic database concerning more than one hundred thousand Native Americans, Spaniards, and Anglo-Americans from records kept by the missions. The southern California portion of the project is complete, with forthcoming additions from central and northern districts. Additionally, the Huntington has served as home and staunch supporter for the Los Angeles History Research Seminar, which celebrated the tenth anniversary (in 2002) of this informal but committed group of scholars in a public conference with record attendance in which scholars, journalists, political leaders, and civic activists came together to deal with significant issues of past and present Los Angeles.

A relative newcomer among the city's major institutions has also made enormous strides with diverse organizations interested in local and wider regional history and cultures, while growing and reinventing itself since its 1988 start-up. Now known as the Autry National Center (online at, composed of the Museum of the American West, the Institute for the Study of the American West, and the Southwest Museum of the American Indian, the Autry has boldly forged multiple programs in research, fellowships, collections building, exhibitions, performance, and education. Among these, some interpret the West as American region, and others speak to the special identity of Los Angeles and southern California within--and beyond--the West. Recent exhibitions such as California Pottery: From Missions to Modernism, and Ocean View: The Depiction of Southern California Coastal Lifestyle, as well as Art of the Charreria and Jewish Life in the American West: Generation to Generation, use the material culture and documentary records of disparate communities to fashion wildly popular and content-rich contributions to multidimensional cultural understanding. On Gold Mountain, concerning Chinese immigration to the United States since the Gold Rush, and This Shall be the Land for Women (organized by the Women of the West Museum, which has since merged with the Autry National Center) speak to national movements of critical importance to regional and national history. The Western History Workshop, organized through the Institute for the Study of the American West, serves as a seminar for scholars to present new work in regional history. Like the L.A. History Seminar at the Huntington, the workshop uses email notification and electronic transfer of essays. In this way, people way outside of commuting distance are able to participate in the workshop's forum, even though they are unable to attend discussions with the author at evening meetings convened at the Autry.

Downtown, in the History Department at the Los Angeles Public Library, southern California is the focus of a collection of 2.5 million photographs. Among those images are ten thousand pictures that document the current and historic ethnic and racial diversity of the city assembled by the Shades of L.A. project. Pioneering innovation sparked a collecting initiative that reproduced photographs from private family albums all over the city, depicting individuals and families involved in celebrations, vacations, work, social life, coming-of-age rituals, and many other activities. The Los Angeles Herald Examiner's 2.2 million item photographic morgue documents southern California, the nation, and the world; and other major collections expand LAPL's photo riches in the history of the entertainment industry, sports, politics, industry, and agriculture. Access to a growing portion of the photo collection and documents, as well as the California Index, the California Fiction Index, and other materials are available through the Electronic Neighborhood Databases at

Across town in Westwood, but providing Web access to many materials, is the formidable Department of Special Collections at the Charles E. Young Research Library at UCLA. Besides thirty million manuscripts and five million photographs and other graphic materials, Special Collections houses the Oral History Program, which specializes in regional and local history. The UCLA Digital Library Program ( includes a number of collections concerning the region, and the huge California Cultures digital collection about California and other western ethnic groups, which is scheduled to go online in 2004. Materials from the Los Angeles Times archive, and documents related to the Zoot Suit Riots and Japanese American internment camps, among other subjects, will be among the twenty-five thousand images and fifty thousand pages of text that are scheduled to be part of this project of the Online Archive of California (

The big (and friendly) gorilla on the Los Angeles museum-and-library scene is The J. Paul Getty Trust. The Getty Center's hilltop campus is composed of entities including a museum, research institute, conservation program, grant program, and leadership institute. With principal collecting interests in the visual arts, the Getty Center's opening in 1997 served as stimulus for concentration during its first years on a number of programs about Los Angeles. These included the 1996-97 residential scholar program, entitled Perspectives on Los Angeles: Narratives, Images, History, in which about forty individuals involved in research on Los Angeles and comparative studies viewed the city in relation to other parts of the country and the world. The Getty Grant Program's Preserve L.A. grants have supported the preservation of a number of sites and structures across the city that are of architectural, historical, and cultural significance. Of special importance has been the Getty Grant Program's Los Angeles Digital Cataloguing Initiative, whereby great and small institutions in Los Angeles County have received encouragement and funding to prepare digital collection catalogues and to provide access to them by uploading to the Web. This has meant that materials in Los Angeles institutions previously known to researchers only through visits to each collection have been made available--either through finding aids or by way of full record and image digitization--on the Internet. Now the goal of virtually every collecting institution everywhere, digital cataloguing opens a world of research possibilities that was unknown just a generation ago.

Joint projects and partnerships are responsible for mounting three high-profile exhibitions with accompanying programming and publications that have brought widespread public attention to regional studies. The venerable Los Angeles County Museum of Art (found online at took a bold step with Made in California: Art, Image, and Identity, 1900-2000. LACMA defines itself as "the premier visual arts museum in the Western United States" with holdings of more than 110,000 artistic works from ancient times to the present. By assembling a much-bigger-than-usual exhibition that was open much longer than usual and aimed at addressing the outpouring of artistic works inspired by and created in California, LACMA and its lenders embraced regional significance and elevated it among the fine arts community and audiences as never before.

A second influential exhibition was The World from Here: Treasures of the Great Libraries of Los Angeles, which was on view at the UCLA Hammer Museum in 2001-02 (found online at theworldfromhere). A path-breaking partnership of sponsoring and lending institutions underscored the region's self-awareness phenomenon of recent years, bringing together nearly four hundred objects drawn from thirty-two special collections libraries. The exhibition showcased important and rare materials concerning Los Angeles; the development of printing; the power of the visual image; science, exploration, and discovery; the built environment; issues of everyday life such as food, health, and childhood; and finally, the life of the mind, spirit, and imagination. The World From Here gave credence to an estimation that Los Angeles may well contain a broader distribution and larger volume of library and archival resources than any other city in the nation.

L.A.: Light, Motion, Dreams, a year-long exhibition at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles (online at, which opened in March 2004, sets out to capture the essence of place by examining the interplay of nature and culture in Los Angeles. Building on the History Department's long tradition of interpreting California history, this avant-garde exhibition brings together three hundred specimens and artifacts from paleontology, biology, mineralogy, anthropology, and history. The project focuses on the museum's multidisciplinary strengths to explain and stimulate thought on place and the relationships between Los Angeles and the world, and at the same time to model future efforts through innovative experiential exhibit design that caters to today's electronic and media-savvy times.

The history of Los Angeles has come out of the shadows: It has grown and is getting bigger and better, in large part through resource accessibility initiatives, partnerships, and public programs. As the present is so obviously a complex piece of work, so is the past of the city and region a complex landscape. Like the past of all other places, Los Angeles was invisible until pains were taken to reveal it. Like never before, people interested in the past of this much maligned and much beloved place are doing some heavy lifting and pushing their tolerances. They are feeling some pain as they bulk up, but they are making gains against the invisible past. And they say that it's a pain that hurts so good.

(1.) The bibliography and filmography of Los Angeles debasement, disasters, and despair are huge, popular, and still influential. Nathanael West's Day of the Locust (New York, 1939) and the novels of Raymond Chandler and James Cain set a high standard. Among many others, recent novels--many adapted for the screen as older works have been--such as James Ellroy's "L.A. Quartet," composed of The Black Dahlia (1987), The Big Nowhere (1988), L.A. Confidential (1990) (all New York), and White Jazz (New York, 1992), continue the tradition. Intelligent commentary and synthesis are served in a famously stimulating brew in Mike Davis, City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles (London and New York, 1990) and Davis, Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster (New York, 1998).

(2.) The common experience of "place-making" and the concept of "place worlds," meaning the combination of knowledge with imagination, are explored by anthropologist Keith H. Basso in Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and Language among the Western Apache (Albuquerque, N.Mex., 1996).

Janet R. Fireman is Curator of History at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County and the editor of California History.
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Title Annotation:geographical history
Author:Fireman, Janet R.
Publication:The Historian
Geographic Code:1U9CA
Date:Sep 22, 2004
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