Guides and Guardian Angels

Guides and Guardian Angels

LAtitudes: An Angeleno’s Atlas
Heyday Books, $30

Under Spring: Voices + Art + Los Angeles
Heyday Books, $20

For the last 40 years, Berkeley-based Heyday Books has published dozens of excellent works, particularly in the realms of history, geography, and urban studies. Many of their books have a Northern California focus, but two of their most recent spotlight Southern California.

Under Spring by Jeremy Rosenberg catalogs the changes occurring in Northeast Los Angeles. Fusing art history and urban planning, this book collages 66 voices from performance artists, scholars, activists, urban planners, politicians, and graffiti writers to chronicle the transformation of a no-man’s land under a bridge next to the Los Angeles River into a dynamic art space for live performances. The focus on this location is a metaphor for the recent wider spread changes occurring across Los Angeles with both the Los Angeles River and emerging art scene.

From 2005 to 2009, Rosenberg worked for the Annenberg Foundation on the Downtown Los Angeles–based projects of the artist Lauren Bon. Bon was involved with the creation of the thirty-two acre park, “Not a Cornfield,” as well the “Farmlab,” and eventually “Metabolic Studios.” Over this time, Rosenberg was a daily witness to the rise of an emerging art community where urban planning, architecture, environmental, and political issues collided.

He explains more in the preface: “As a writer, I was used to having to travel from place to place in search of fantastic stories. During the years above, I didn’t have to go anywhere. All the stories came to me. One day, the mayor would stop by. The next, leading academics. The next, Native American activists preparing for a ceremony. The next, famous international artists, musicians, or actors.”

The lively dialogue creates the framework for the book. The insight offered by thinkers like the progressive urban planner James Rojas and the founder of the Friends of the Los Angeles River, Lewis MacAdams, presents a candid snapshot of a city being transformed. UCLA professor Fabian Wagmister explains the importance of the site described in the book in greater detail: “In between the Spring Bridge and the Broadway Bridge there is a really amazing area. Being at the riverbed, with those two bridges between, to me always felt like an amazing urban amphitheater.” This amphitheater is what Rosenberg masterfully captures, and for his efforts the work was declared the winner of the 2013 California Historical Society Book Award.

LAtitudes: An Angeleno’s Atlas is an anthology of essays and thematic maps edited by Patricia Wakida. The book’s premise was inspired by the author Rebecca Solnit and the twenty-two thematic maps she used to explicate the Bay Area in her award-winning work from 2010, Infinite City. Each thematic map in her book is paired with a short essay that explains the idea being mapped. LAtitudes follows this template by including 19 thematic maps on Los Angeles with an essay accompanying each. The book is divided “into three subsections: “Orientations,” Histories,” and “Perspectives.”

Wendy Gilmartin’s essay “Ugly Buildings” celebrates and maps the structures that make up “the city’s messy stew of urban elements.” Gilmartin acknowledges the legacy of great Los Angeles architecture, but is personally more inspired by its ugly counterparts. “Let the critics concern themselves with the architectural beacons of our contemporary times, ugly buildings are really where it’s at,” she writes. Moreover, she feels that “Ugly buildings are the stock of the people, and they are the products of their culture and history. They’re kind of like us, in a way.” To this end, she lauds the postmodern three-story Kentucky Fried Chicken in Koreatown, a stucco dingbat apartment in Palms, and a gaudy mini-mall on Valley Boulevard in San Gabriel.

Her explanation for the plethora of ugly buildings in Los Angeles connects to the transitory nature of the city. “Much of the ugliness in Los Angeles stems from an attitude of disposability toward buildings,” she writes. “Build it quick and then flip it, tear down, rebuild, gentrify, repeat.” She writes a convincing ode to ugly buildings and puts them in the proper context in regard to the rest of Southern California’s built environment.

Steven Graves, on the other hand, moved to Los Angeles in 2003 and shortly after observed “that Woody and Buzz provide excellent metaphors for exploring the landscape of America’s classic postwar suburb.” In his essay, “Woody and Buzz: Landscape Motifs in the San Fernando Valley,” he passionately describes two prevalent themes in the residential, commercial, and industrial landscape of the Valley. “Cowboys and spacemen are everywhere in the Valley: the former evoke a romanticized past and the latter a romanticized future as those dreamed by those living in the 1950s and ’60s,” he writes. Moreover, Graves examines how, “the gun-slinging past and rocket-ship future imagined by Cold War-era Valley residents are still etched in the environment today, selling everything from alcohol to used cars to insurance.” Graves maps these sites from Woodland Hills to Burbank. The metaphor works well and directly relates to both the former prominence of the aerospace industry during the Cold War and the mythology of the Western past that permeates Southern California, in film and domestic architecture like the ranch home.

Both Heyday titles blend historical information with the latest contemporary developments in the city’s political and built environment. Together they offer an in-depth, well-rounded, and timely snapshot of 2015 Los Angeles.