Street Meeting: Multiethnic Neighborhoods in Early Twentieth-Century Los Angeles.
Jane Jacobs referred to Los Angeles in 1961 as "an extreme example of a metropolis with little public life." (1) Mark Wild's Street Meeting makes it clear that this was not always the case. Wild focuses on a number of ethnically diverse neighborhoods of Los Angeles in the first four decades of the twentieth century, and argues that areas such as Chinatown, Little Tokyo, Sonoratown, Boyle Heights, Lincoln Heights, Belvedere, the Market District and South Central were home to a vibrant culture of cross-ethnic and cross-racial interactions, ranging from children's play to teenage romances to adult politics. Wild's work is an ambitious attempt to transcend the ethnic boundaries that have limited the works of many urban social historians. At times, however, he overclaims both the novelty and the importance of his story.
Wild focuses on what he calls the "central neighborhoods" (14) of the city. Although he admits that they were not necessarily geographically central to Los Angeles, he contends that they were central to the lives of poor, immigrant, and African American Angelenos who were excluded from residence elsewhere in the city. The ethnoracial heterogeneity of these districts, Wild argues, was a source of anxiety to Anglo elites who feared the disease, radical politics, and "mongrelized culture" (44) that might emerge from them. The author devotes two chapters to the efforts of Anglo elites to "reform" these districts through what he calls "corporate reconstruction" (39). Drawing on the work of Martin Sklar, Wild sees the work of California Commission on Immigration and Housing, the Los Angeles City Planning Commission, and the social gospel-influenced Church of All Nations as pieces of a larger shift toward a liberal corporate political economy. (2) Wild argues that Anglo reformers strove to impose order on what they saw as ethnic and racial chaos, sometimes through assimilation of heterogeneous populations and at other times through their isolation and segregation. These efforts failed in the pre-war period, Wild says, to quash the ethnic mixing that Anglos feared. In a short conclusion, however, he argues that post-war suburbanization, redlining, and urban renewal transformed the mixed neighborhoods into monoethnic "inner-city" districts (206).
The bulk of the book is devoted to exploring the cultural mixing that characterized, in Wild's view, the pre-war city. Wild divides his analysis of this mixing into two categories: everyday life and politics. Wild's study of everyday life devotes attention to the world of children, tracing a trajectory from the innocent cross-ethnic mixing of early childhood through the more segregated worlds of adolescents in school and workplace. Another chapter examines the sexual mixing that occurred in the central neighborhoods, through both commercial sex and non-commercial romantic attachments that bridged ethnic and racial boundaries. In his treatment of politics, Wild examines the tradition of soapbox speaking used by the Socialist Party, Wobblies, and others to build multi-ethnic coalitions in the pre-World War I period, and the public rallies such as the 1930 Hunger Marches that the Communist Party employed for the same purpose during the Depression.
Wild convincingly dispels the notion that Los Angeles was, as its boosters claimed, the "white spot" of America--a city free of the poverty, ethnic heterogeneity, and conflict that characterized northeastern industrial centers in the early twentieth century. And Wild's effort to move beyond more conventional, single-community studies is commendable; it is undoubtedly true that immigrants, African Americans, and working-class Anglos did not live in isolation from each other, but encountered each other frequently in streets, schools, and even bedrooms. Here, Wild builds on the work of other historians who have demonstrated the extent of residential integration in urban neighborhoods of the early twentieth century. Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton, Olivier Zunz, and Russell Kazal have, in various contexts, made extensive use of census data to show that members of different ethnic and racial groups frequently found each other as neighbors in the pre-war era. (3) Those studies of other cities were confirmed by George Sanchez's examination of the Mexican community in Los Angeles, which showed that the decades from 1900 to 1940 were indeed a time of relatively low ethnic segregation. (4) These previous findings lend credibility to Wild's, which are based less on quantitative sources such as the census and more on qualitative sources such as reform organization papers, government reports, social science investigations, memoirs, and oral histories (some of which were conducted by the author himself).
The real question, then, is not whether there was contact between groups, but what was its significance. Lizabeth Cohen argued that the ability of workers to overcome ethnic divisions through participation in mass culture such as chain stores, movies, and radio ultimately enabled them to unite in the political sphere as New Deal Democrats and in the workplace as Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) members. (5) Wild's account of Los Angeles makes little mention of the Democratic Party or the CIO, which makes the impact of ethnic mixing in this story more uncertain. At times, Wild portrays inter-ethnic and inter-racial mixing primarily as a threat to the powers-that-be. This sometimes leads him to exaggerate its importance, as when he asserts that street speaking before mixed crowds "represented the ultimate threat to the white spots of America" (149). At other times, Wild presents the ethnic mixing of the early twentieth century as a "usable past" for our own multi-ethnic, multicultural era. To this end, he occasionally romanticizes history, as when he says of present-day Los Angeles that "ethnic communities now sometimes view each other as competitors as much as neighbors," as if that had not been true in the past (207, italics mine).
Despite these occasional lapses, Wild's is an intriguing and at times compelling portrait of life in Los Angeles's ethnically and racially diverse neighborhoods pre-Rodney King, pre-Watts, and even pre-Jane Jacobs.
Michael B. Kahan
1. Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (New York, 1961; reprint, New York, 1992), 72.
2. Martin J. Sklar, The Corporate Reconstruction of American Capitalism, 1890-1916: The Market, the Law, and Politics (New York, 1988).
3. Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton, American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass (Cambridge, Mass., 1993); Olivier Zunz, The Changing Face of Inequality: Urbanization, Industrial Development, and Immigrants in Detroit, 1880-1920 (Chicago, 1982); Russell Kazal, Becoming Old Stock: The Paradox of German-American Identity (Princeton, 2004).
4. George J. Sanchez, Becoming Mexican American: Ethnicity, Culture, and Identity in Chicano Los Angeles, 1900-1945 (New York, 1993).
5. Lizabeth Cohen, Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919-1939 (New York, 1990).
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|Author:||Kahan, Michael B.|
|Publication:||Journal of Social History|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2007|
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