Jason Horton, Abandoned and Historic Los Angeles: Neon and Beyond (2020)
When you hear something described as "only in L.A.," rest assured of its being neither unique to nor representative of Los Angeles. Take, mundane though it may be, the definite article preceding freeway numbers — "the 10," "the 5," "the 405" — a linguistic tic mythologized, by a kind of soft cultural conspiracy, as unheard outside Southern California's metropolis, or at least outside Southern California. True, Los Angeles doesn't look, feel, or seem to work quite like any other city. Both its avowed lovers and haters agree on that, but what exactly sets it apart, and how, remains a matter of active inquiry. Or it would be if more of us actively inquired into it, rather than gesturing toward settled trivialities: frequent driving on the aforementioned freeways, encounters with flamboyant quasi-celebrities, streets lined with palm trees, buildings not shaped like normal buildings.
In recent decades, those avowed lovers of Los Angeles have started to outnumber the haters, or at any rate to speak over them. I don't consider this an unmixed good, though I think I can claim a greater enthusiasm for the place than most. The enjoyment of Los Angeles holds a contrarian appeal, not just for me but others more firmly rooted there as well. When documentarian Doug Pray said to me that "Los Angeles can be so hated that I actually enjoy it," I understood at once what he meant, cool though that hatred had even then. I was interviewing him for Notebook on Cities and Culture, the podcast I launched shortly after first moving to Los Angeles myself about a decade ago — a time, I like to think, when moving to Los Angeles and launching a podcast was less of a cliché than it is today.
At least I wasn't doing a comedy podcast, a genre that even then seemed to emanate an unlistenably huge amount of content from Los Angeles alone. Though I might interview the occasional comedian — an appealing breed of guest, due not least to their habits of observation and perpetual willingness to talk — my primary goal was to get not laughs but a variety of perspectives on Los Angeles in order to better understand the city. Though I'd already hosted radio interviews for years, I thus found my instinct for identifying articulate interlocutors more rigorously tested. Few of the negative preconceptions about Los Angeles were borne out by my daily experience, but those about a certain class of Angeleno speech have, I admit, something to them. Beginning with "so," sentences stagger through a series of "like"s and "you know"s before eventually finding their unstructured way to a concluding "awesome."
In language as in everything, nothing is wrong with Los Angeles, to my mind, that isn't wrong with much of the United States. But shapelessness of speech reflects shapelessness of thought, which afflicts the writing about Los Angeles as much as it does the talk. Angelenos know this, especially those I see on Twitter ritualistically feasting upon the idiocy of each new and unimproved attempt by the New York media to convey insight into "L.A.", that incomprehensible city-that-isn't-really-a-city on the other side of the continent. Yet I wouldn't say that Angelenos themselves can boast of a significantly higher average of hits to misses. And in fact, when I think of the most perceptive renderings of Los Angeles since the Second World War, the work of non-residents comes first to mind: Christopher Rand's The Ultimate City, Reyner Banham's The Architecture of Four Ecologies, the late Jan Morris' "The Know-How City."
"What does it mean to be 'from' Los Angeles?" asks "Comedian, Writer, Producer, Cultural Journalist, and Echo Park Neighborhood Councilperson" Rebecca Leib in the foreword to Jason Horton's Abandoned and Historic Los Angeles: Neon and Beyond. "Must you have lived here a certain number of years? Work in the movie industry? Should you be from the city proper, versus one of its many outlying jurisdictions?" I certainly don't qualify, having only spent a few years of my late twenties and early thirties there, all the while keeping my distance from "the Industry." It would be ridiculous to describe myself as "from" Los Angeles, not that I would benefit from doing so. One genuine difference between Los Angeles and most other cities is that those born and raised there — the only people I consider to be "from" Los Angeles — are accorded no particular authority in discussions of the city.
I would read a book about Los Angeles by someone who's spent a single day there just as enthusiastically as I would a book by someone who's spent a lifetime there. The voices heard in Abandoned and Historic Los Angeles speak from amounts of experience in between, closer for the most part to a day than a lifetime. Leib describes herself has having lived there a dozen years; Horton, the book's primary author, has only three years of residence on her. The two of them co-host, of course, a podcast: Ghost Town, which deals with episodes of "strange history, true crime, and the paranormal," and whose subjects have included the Wonderland Murders, the "Reseda House of Evil," Milli Vanilli, JonBenet Ramsey, and the Black Dahlia — surely the best-known Los Angeles murder victim never married to O.J. Simpson, and an object of continuing obsession by aficionados of the city's history.
Though his own fascination may not cross into obsession, Horton does admit to a love of "stories and anecdotes about Los Angeles. Whether it was something that happened five minutes or fifty years ago, I'm interested." Most pieces of the city depicted in the photographs he collects in the book are a bit older than that: the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, opened in 1923; the Hollywood Sign, put up that same year; Canter's Deli, originally established in 1931; the cylindrical Capitol Records building, completed in 1956. These will be familiar to anyone who's seen a few movies set in Los Angeles, as will the much older Bradbury Building, which has stood downtown since 1893. Its ornate atrium lobby has appeared in movies since at least the 1940s, including several classic films noirs and perhaps most famously Ridley Scott's Blade Runner, which revamped that genre for the 1980s.
It surprised me that Damien Chazelle couldn't find a use for the Bradbury Building in 2016's La La Land, given his apparent mandate to sweep in as many recognizable Los Angeles locations as possible. But then I didn't quote know what to make of that film, despite having entered it primed by my interest in Los Angeles cinema (a concept about which I've gone so far as to make a series of video essays) for intense artistic engagement. Though I couldn't sense a cogent vision of the city in La La Land, I've only seen the movie once, many fewer times than Horton has mentioned, on podcasts, having seen it himself. With its musical story of a frustrated jazzman and an aspiring actress destined not quite to come together, the film's Los Angeles seldom overlaps with my own — much less often, I presume, than it overlaps with Horton's.
Titled a "writer/comedian" in his bio, Horton has over the past decade and a half no doubt had his share of close, prolonged encounters with the Los Angeles entertainment industry. His work suggests a temperament suited to such an environment, with the twin instincts it demands for entertaining others and promoting oneself. On his solo podcast Strange Year, he tells of the kind of historical events from which late-night idle curiosity-fueled Wikipedia binges are made: the death of Payne Stewart, the Dancing Plague of 1518, the Wow! signal. Though episodes have lately run no longer than three or four minutes, Horton finds time in the middle of each one to promote his other projects, including Ghost Town and indeed Abandoned and Historic Los Angeles. As someone who hasn't always woven the various threads of his work as tightly as he might have, I can't help but respect the integration.
I also can't help but respect Horton's apparently genuine fascination with Los Angeles, which, I gather, is hardly universal among the Industry-proximate. It turns out that many who grow up dreaming of Los Angeles dream less about the place itself than about themselves and what they'll become there. The result is that the city can, at times and in places, feel peopled solely by those blind to their surroundings apart from what can aid their self-advancement. (Again, the failings of Los Angeles are only the failings of America.) This feeling isn't unknown in Horton's native New York, but that city somehow manages to command a higher degree of respect, in a sense even humbling its arrivals before it. New York demands mastery, and will haze you until such time as you achieve it. But how many have even tried to master Los Angeles? Of what would such mastery consist?
That last has been a driving question of my own work on Los Angeles, which continues apace even here in Seoul, where I live now. I began it rather less intensively when first I arrived in Los Angeles, breezing through the many local-history books put out by Arcadia Publishing. Known for their slim collections of photos accompanied by short explanatory essays, Arcadia seemed then to have installed a revolving stand in most of city's bookstores. The sepia covers stacked therein depicted subjects like Art Deco buildings, the 1984 Olympics, and the old streetcar systems, as well as individual districts: the historic core, Boyle Heights, Little Tokyo, Palms. To master Los Angeles, I figured, I'd have to approach it as what it's often called, a "city of neighborhoods" — not that I haven't heard the same appellation slapped with equal plausibility on practically every major city in North America.
With its bright colors and wide geographical remit, the Arcadia-published Abandoned and Historic Los Angeles breaks from their standard form as I knew it. To return to the root of one of Leib's introductory questions: where is Los Angeles, and where is not Los Angeles? In the postwar decades, some observers thrilled to the prospect of the city growing into a "mega-region" stretching from Santa Barbara to San Diego. Few, today, would accept so capacious a definition of Los Angeles, but even fewer adhere strictly to its city limits. Most seem to regard all of Los Angeles county — which includes such sizable independent municipalities as Santa Monica, Pasadena, and Long Beach — as "Los Angeles." Every current and former Angeleno must draw not just his own line between Los Angeles' west side and its east, but his own border against all that is not Los Angeles as well.
Many of the places featured in the book are not, to my mind, Los Angeles, and some I've never even seen: Van Nuys, Woodland Hills, Panorama City, Sun Valley (which I know only from Paris, Texas), all in the suburban San Fernando Valley north of Los Angeles proper. Yet the pictures taken there are among those I've spent the most time looking at, especially the eerie views of the Promenade Mall that appear in the "Abandoned" chapter. Though I didn't grow up in southern California, I did grow up in the right era to partake of shopping-mall culture elsewhere, in other suburbs, those bulwarks against the emergence of public life itself. Many members of my generation and the one before have fond memories of the enclosed, commerce-only substitute for street life offered by the mall in its heyday, but we can only feel so sorry to see them close down.
Other aspects of abandoned Los Angeles on display include an Echo Park liquor store, a J.C Penney in San Fernando, and the large Art Deco Sears building east of downtown. Many Angelenos have vivid memories of the Sunset Strip Tower Records, here pictured as a red-and-yellow shell with a "For Lease" notice still in its window. More poignant are the disused neon signs — LOANS, RECORDS, AMERICAN MOTEL — in part because the preceding chapter gathers so many of the ones still active. "You don't have to look too long or far for these majestic reminders of LA history," writes Horton, and that's true enough, though anyone who arrives expecting the wonderland of illuminated mid-century élan compressed into the book's first thirty pages is in for disappointment. Even Los Angeles' grandest boulevards sooner or later devolve into one chain supermarket, bank branch, drug store, and gas station after another.
These neon signs tend to date from a relatively brief and recent period, but one near-fetishistically focused upon by many Los Angeles history buffs. Notably absent from the book is the sign atop Felix Chevrolet, a dealership near the University of Southern California, which bears the figure of the eponymous cartoon cat. Taken out of commission in the mid-2000s, it eventually turned back on with LEDs instead of neon tubes. This sparked a minor controversy, aggravated by how near the dealership, neon sign and all, had come to official designation as a historic landmark. In Los Angeles such negotiations constantly threaten to turn bitter or pointless. "Occasionally in their zeal to protect the heritage," write David Gebhard and Robert Winter in their Architectural Guide to Los Angeles, the Los Angeles Conservancy "have wasted their time trying to preserve old things that have very little historical significance and even less beauty."
The Conservancy brought Gebhard and Winter's words came back to mind just a few weeks ago with a mass e-mail about saving a building shaped like a chili bowl. Yet the kind of structures snapped by Horton and the book's other contributing photographers do stand as indictments of the visually diminished age in which we live today. The regard paid to a thirty-foot neon clown in a liquor-store parking lot or an oversized rooftop donut has the character of worship, an awe before inscrutable traces of an extinguished civilization more vital than our own. It's difficult not to credit the preservationists' implicit claim that Los Angeles will never again summon the wherewithal build a Pan-Pacific Auditorium or LAX Theme Building, or even a Felix sign or Chili Bowl. Long derided for its excesses and eccentricities, Los Angeles is to my mind no longer excessive or eccentric enough.
If Horton has such thoughts, he keeps them to himself. "I love living in Los Angeles," he writes in his introduction. "The city is flawed. It needs work. I know that." This is as specifically critical as the text gets, whether in sections written by Horton himself of by one of the other Los Angeles-resident contributors, all of them Industry-involved to one degree or another. It appealed to my sense of coincidence to spot in the lineup comedy writer Molly McAleer, one of my Notebook on Cities and Culture interviewees, who writes about an encounter early in her Los Angeles life with "a young female MC out of Queens named Nicki Minaj." A brief paean to South Pasadena comes from Greg Sestero, an actor best known for his involvement in The Room, the last "bad movie" to become a cultural phenomenon, shot in Los Angeles but set in San Francisco.
Horton tells of discussing his decision to move to Los Angeles with the famously San Francisco-associated Robin Williams, and of his love of the Beastie Boys, who to his young self "were New York City"; only later did he learn how much they'd recorded in Los Angeles. He might have mentioned how Adam Yauch (or MCA, as he's labeled in the mural on the book's final page) once lived in Koreatown, which artist/comedian Kristina Wong describes as what would happen "if Seoul, Korea and Oaxaca, Mexico had an urban planning baby." Having moved from Los Angeles' Koreatown to the biggest Koreatown in the world (and also having, I should note, a taste of chapulines), I can second that. But one never really leaves Los Angeles: even in Seoul I find myself submitting to the urge to photograph neon signs — and only here did I start going to Randy’s Donuts.
Don’t miss out on Books on Cities. Subscribe or upgrade your subscription with the button below, and you’ll receive full access to the archives as well as every city-book essay-review ahead: