In the summer of 2006, my family and I moved from the Bay Area to Los Angeles. Having grown up in the San Gabriel Valley for most of the 1980s, technically I was moving back to L.A. But like many kids living in the ‘burbs, I had no real sense of “The City.” I knew about the world within my three-mile BMX biking radius, but every other neighborhood was just a name on a Thomas Guide page. Coming back after 16 years meant re-learning Los Angeles from the ground up: Its tempos and temperaments, its tangle of mini-metropoles, its physical and cultural terrains.
I decided to let my stomach lead. I’ll go a long way for good food, so I began to ease myself back into L.A.’s geography by chasing meals in whatever corners I had to. That meant, inevitably, turning to Jonathan Gold.
Gold began writing about Los Angeles restaurants in the mid-1980s (when he wasn’t busy profiling N.W.A), but I had no idea about any of this as a kid. By the time I came across his “Counter Intelligence” columns in that ’06 summer, he had already been writing them for nearly twenty years. No matter: Both in the newspaper and in his 2000 compendium by the same name, his reviews felt like a revelation.
It wasn’t simply that Gold was a gifted writer, though he absolutely was. His Los Angeles Times colleague Carolina Miranda said it best when she wrote that his reviews “were both erudite and joyous—his glee over a good dish was always infectious.” Seriously, tell me this passage from his 2012 guide to Koreatown dishes doesn’t make you want to immediately run out to Vermont Avenue: “hwe dup bap is one of those dishes where each bite is subtly varied in spice, marine savor and green crunch, with the smelt roe crackling under your teeth, the raw fish melting into the hot rice.”
There was always a palpable exuberance in Gold’s attempts to relate the sensory experience of eating a meal. Yet more than just how Gold wrote about food, what made him so important, so indispensable to the city, is where he went looking for it.
He wanted to embrace its complexity and contradictions. Everything that others find off-putting and unruly about the city is where he found kaleidoscopic, resplendent beauty.
One of the stories Gold liked to tell audiences was how in his early twenties, before his days as a food writer, he decided to explore every eatery along Pico Boulevard, beginning at a downtown pupuseria and moving west, intending to end at a Santa Monica burger shack. If you’re not familiar with the thoroughfare, it’s a rather prosaic 14-mile stretch that runs through a dizzying number of neighborhoods, including Pico-Union, Koreatown, Beverlywood, Rancho Park, etc. No one street can possibly contain all the multitudes of the many Los Angeleses out there but if you wanted an inkling of the Southland’s overlapping, distinct, and disparate communities, you could do worse than a Pico perambulation.
Gold never made it all the way to the beach, but he got two-thirds the way there, and more than anything the attempt alone says much about the insatiable curiosity that gripped him when it came to understanding food and place. In 1998, he wrote a Counter Intelligence column recounting, “The Year I Ate Pico Boulevard.” It’s one of his very best pieces—which is saying a lot—and this passage is worth quoting in all its giddy, run-on glory:
Pico is home to Valentino, which specializes in preparing customized Italian food for millionaires, and to Oaxacan restaurants so redolent of the developing world that you half expect to see starved chickens scratching around on the floor; to Billingsley’s, a steak house, which could have been transplanted whole from Crawfordsville, Indiana, and to the Arsenal, a steak house decorated with medieval weaponry; to chain Mexican restaurants, artist-hangout Mexican restaurants and Mexican restaurants of such stunning authenticity that you’re surprised not to stumble outside into a bright Guadalajara sun. Greek and Scandinavian delis still flourish on stretches of Pico that haven’t been Greek or Scandinavian since the Eisenhower administration.
It’s all there: Gold’s gift for deep description, the rhythmic pulse of his writing, and most of all, an earnest ethos of inclusion and exploration. He wasn’t trying to sum up Los Angeles in a tidy turn of phrase. He wanted to embrace its complexity and contradictions. Everything that others find off-putting and unruly about the city is where he found kaleidoscopic, resplendent beauty.
More than any other part of L.A., though, I always saw Gold as the champion of the San Gabriel Valley, a massive swath of neighborhoods that begin near the L.A. River and sweep eastward towards the Inland Empire. Gold and his family lived in the SGV—Pasadena to be exact—for decades, not far from where I grew up. Back in the 1980s, I don’t recall any of my friends ever bragging about coming from “The SGV” let alone wearing “626” emblazoned on a t-shirt (this was still the 213/818 era at the time).
By the mid/late 20-aughts, this had changed as a younger generation were now claiming the SGV like it was Brooklyn or East Oakland. Much of that pride is rooted in the region’s astounding food cultures, a result of decades of Asian and Latinx immigrant communities settling across its dozens of cities. The critical masses of those diasporas meant that restaurants could cater to palates not yet assimilated by anodyne American tastes; that reality is what drew Gold, again and again, to explore the SGV’s myriad offerings.
His columns became completely indispensable for me coming back to what I thought were my old haunts, only to realize I had never really explored the region at all. Through Gold, I ended up in more Valley Blvd. and Garvey Blvd. strip malls than I can remember, chasing Taiwanese beef noodle soup in San Gabriel, Vietnamese bun bo hue in South El Monte, Xinjiang cumin lamb ribs in Rosemead, Guerrero-style lamb barbacoa in Highland Park. The day he passed, I happened to be on Valley for dinner and I knew that if I just strolled around one single block, I could find at least half a dozen restaurants with his review turned into a plaque on their wall.
I also thought about one of my favorite memories of Gold’s influence: my parents, who still live in the SGV house I lived in during high school, invited me and my family out to dinner at one of the newer Sichuan restaurants to recently land in Alhambra. My parents, while they eat out on occasion, have never been on the front lines of trends so I asked them how they heard about the restaurant. As it turns out, my dad’s best friends Peter and Alice had taken them there previously. But that couple lived out in Pacific Palisades, on the other, far side of town. “So,” I asked, “how did they learn about this place?” It turns out they had read a review of it… in the Los Angeles Times. And sure enough, I glanced towards the lobby and there was a framed review with a byline for Jonathan Gold.
“So,” I asked, “how did they learn about this place?” It turns out they had read a review of it… in the Los Angeles Times. And sure enough, I glanced towards the lobby and there was a framed review with a byline for Jonathan Gold.
An easy way to understand the uniqueness of Gold’s culinary geography of Los Angeles is found by comparing his orientations to those of many of his colleagues. Pick up any older, middlebrow guide to “food in Los Angeles,” and it’s as if there is no L.A. south of the 10 or east of the 5. We’re not talking about “pockets” of the region being skipped over. We’re talking about massive geographic and demographic parts of the Southland rendered invisible. Gold was astutely aware of all this. In one of the most oft-quoted parts from the acclaimed 2015 documentary about him, City of Gold, he says, “you’re used to having your city explained to you by people who come in for a couple of weeks, stay at a hotel in Beverly Hills, and take in what they can get to within ten minutes of their rented car.” Perhaps he was too polite to add that those myopic “explainers” also included people from L.A., not just out-of-town Zagat editors. Case in point: I recently picked up the annual “best of” issue of a long-running Los Angeles magazine and in their food section, out of twenty-five primary entries, only one was located in the SGV and absolutely none in either South or Southeast Los Angeles.
It may seem odd to say this about a Pulitzer Prize-winning critic who worked for two of the area’s biggest newspapers but in his thirty-two years of food writing for the Los Angeles Times and LA Weekly, Gold created a definitive alternative guide to Southland food culture, one in which East Hollywood mattered as much as West Hollywood, where Huntington Park and Monterey Park carried greater cachet than Hancock Park, and where Koreatown could be more interesting and vibrant than downtown. As Danny Chau wrote for The Ringer, “there is no one true Los Angeles. Perhaps the closest we’ve ever gotten to finding that core is the vision of L.A. through the eyes, ears, and stomach of Jonathan Gold.”
For all these reasons, it’s impossible to deny fellow food critic Gustavo Arellano’s claim that Gold was “one of our greatest and most important literary voices” because “our food in his hands became the prism through which outsiders could finally see the real SoCal.” Gold wasn’t simply a consummate food writer, he was also a quintessential Los Angeles writer, using meals as a way to probe and comment on the city’s innumerable frictions and fantasias. The inevitable—and necessary—Jonathan Gold anthologies and readers that will come are likely to cement what many of us already know: Gold’s writing has shaped a collective idea of Los Angeles to rival those of earlier scribes such as Reyner Banham, Joan Didion, or Mike Davis.
Importantly though, as Chau insists, “the vision of Gold’s true L.A. doesn’t belong to any one person.” It would be, of course, hubristic folly to assume that an individual could replace Gold as a singular figure. But Gold had transformed the entire landscape of food writing here long before his passing. His influence isn’t only reflected in individual writers who work in the same milieu but it’s embedded in the public imagination of how we think and talk about food in the Southland, whether that comes in the form of a high-production documentaries on immigrant restauranteurs in L.A. or random strangers debating soup dumplings on a message board. Jonathan Gold didn’t “discover” a Los Angeles that no one else knew about, but column after column he built us new maps to help navigate it. In his time, too brief it truly was, his lasting gift was to invite us into his city of Gold and so we could find different ways to break bread within it, together.
 Gold began his career not as a food critic but as a music critic and journalist. His profile of N.W.A, for the LA Weekly is still considered one of the important, early examples of West Coast rap journalism. Jonathan Gold, “NWA: Hard Rap and Hype From the Streets of Compton,” LA Weekly, 5 May 1989, www.laweekly.com/news/jonathan-gold-meets-nwa-2385365.
 In the 2015 documentary, City of Gold, Gold describes Los Angeles this way: “the thing that people find hard to understand is the magnitude of what’s here. The huge numbers of multiple cultures that live in the city that come together in this beautiful and haphazard fashion. And the fault lines between them are sometimes where you can find the most beautiful things.” City of Gold, directed by Laura Gabbert, 2015.
 Wendy Cheng, The Changs next Door to the Diazes: Remapping Race in Suburban California (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013).
 “The Migrant Kitchen” is a documentary series about food and immigrant communities in Los Angeles. Food Talk Central is a message board with a robust sub-section devoted to Los Angeles restaurants. The Migrant Kitchen, KCET, 2016, Food Talk Central, http://foodtalkcentral.com/c/usa-west/los-angeles.
Oliver Wang is a professor of sociology at California State University, Long Beach and co-editor of Journal of Popular Music Studies. He writes about culture, music, and food for KCET, the Los Angeles Times, the Los Angeles Review of Books and National Public Radio.
1st and Boyle, the sun sets over the Boyle Hotel at Mariachi Plaza. Photo by Flickr user Salina Canizales.
During the early 1970s in Boyle Heights, decades before the neighborhood came under public limelight for its fight against gentrification, residents pressed city planners to ensure the Mexican barrio was preserved within the Boyle Heights Community Plan. As part of planning director Calvin Hamilton’s citizen-planning efforts, Community Plans were rolled out throughout Los Angeles to reverse the historic top-down planning practices, which in Boyle Heights had led to a significant loss of housing stock. Industrial expansion, followed by intensive freeway construction during the 1940s through the 1960s, rendered countless city blocks repurposed by planners for land uses other than housing. Through his work preparing the Boyle Heights community plan, the city’s first Chicano planner, Raul Escobedo, helped preserve the barrio’s existing stock of inexpensive housing and sought to protect it against expanding downtown redevelopment. This essay examines how discussions over the future of the barrio have persisted over decades among city officials and residents since the 1960s and 1970s.
In urban sites across the postwar U.S., strategies and solutions addressing “blight” gave points of frequent contention between working class residents of color and local civic and business leaders. For the latter group, “blight” entailed a combination of physical, social, and economic conditions that all worked cohesively to inhibit the economic growth or development of an urban area or community. Where some references to blight alluded to substandard housing, dilapidated structures, and depressed property values, others signaled the presence of poverty and “related social problems.” Despite the broad definitions, the remedy of urban renewal aimed to ameliorate social, economic, and physical conditions in these neighborhoods. Over time, as public criticism to urban renewal projects increased, local government strategies to address blight varied. For example, after being labeled as areas reflecting blight, residents of Bishop, Palo Alto, and La Loma (collectively known as Chavez Ravine) and Bunker Hill all experienced removal through the demolition and clearance of “slum” housing. In contrast, despite receiving a similar appraisal by city officials, Boyle Heights was considered eligible for “conservation and rehabilitation” by city planners. While part of the broad power of urban renewal projects, this lesser known component cast Boyle Heights as redeemable without demolition—thus savable from the threat of blight. Yet the question of whom would benefit from the subsequent upgrading of the community remained an ongoing debate.
Photo by Flickr user Chris Pickel.
Community Planning in Los Angeles
Arriving in L.A. during the early 1960s, Planning Director Calvin Hamilton had been recruited by Mayor Sam Yorty to, for the first time in city history, bring the city’s varying land uses under one coherent, city-wide general plan. However, shortly after he began the massive overhaul of city planning, the 1965 Watts Riots took place and captured the urban imagination. For Hamilton, these events underscored the need to include historically excluded communities of color into citywide planning efforts. Reflecting on the impact of the Watts Riots, one city planning official noted the event had, “[shook] to pieces the image of a gay, carefree Los Angeles… and jolted… Angelenos into an awareness of their city’s urbanhood.” However, planners were not the only group re-conceptualizing the role of marginalized groups in planning. Civic groups such as the Community Relations Conference of Southern California (CRCSC) fought to pressure planning practices to include “racial and ethnic minorities, youth, the elderly, renters, the disabled, health and welfare groups, human relations and housing groups.” Together, these efforts compelled planners to assess the enduring impact of postwar racial segregation and counter it with newfound innovative community planning efforts.
Community plans, then, were developed to break away from conventional top-down planning approaches and include otherwise overlooked Angelenos in the process. Although citizen participation in neighborhood planning was readily encouraged in predominantly white, non-blighted neighborhoods, community plans functioned as the first efforts to solicit and collect barrio residents’ input in city planning processes. In this way, these initial community plans and the background reports they generated began to serve as important records of collective community participation in city-led planning efforts. Moreover, these documents function as important artifacts to evaluate relationships between communities of color and city planners over time. Indeed, this relationship has remained a constant site of tension, directly shaping quality of life for communities of color in Los Angeles.
Photo by Flickr user Paul Narvaez.
“Boyle Heights is Worth Saving”
Despite variations in discourse and approaches towards urban blight, addressing blighted places remained a priority for local political and business leaders. Shortly after the construction of Dodger Stadium broke ground on the site where Chavez Ravine once stood, the then councilmember for District 9 (which included Boyle Heights), Edward R. Roybal, observed blight remaining as “one of the most insidious problem[s] confronting the cities of our nation.” Business leaders similarly viewed blighted areas as issues of primary concern for their perceived negative effects on the economy, labeling such locales as “festering sores on the body politic.” In the context of an enduring consensus over the need to relieve blighted areas, the declining popularity of urban renewal by demolition encouraged planners to rethink conventional approaches and thereby consider efforts such as rehabilitation and citizen-oriented planning.
With memories of invasive freeway projects and the razing of neighboring barrios remaining fresh in the minds of many, planners’ citizen-centered approach made for a hard sell for residents of Boyle Heights.
Identified by the L.A. Community Analysis Bureau as one of the most blighted areas in the city, city planners sought to reverse blight in Boyle Heights through competing processes of rehabilitation and community planning. With memories of invasive freeway projects and the razing of neighboring barrios remaining fresh in the minds of many, planners’ citizen-centered approach made for a hard sell for residents of Boyle Heights. As a local resident and Chicano, city planner Raul Escobedo became a cultural broker for the largely white city planning department and their planning endeavors in Boyle Heights. Escobedo’s work on the Boyle Heights community plan utilized his planning expertise, as well as his connection to the cultural and political context of the Chicano movement fifty years ago. One of which was a necessary relationship to include residents’ input for the Boyle Heights Community Plan.
Despite initial mistrust for city planning efforts in their community, Escobedo successfully encouraged barrio residents to participate in significant numbers, in part, by validating their fears of displacement and, simultaneously, providing insight to the citywide planning processes. Residents’ concerns were recorded as part of the community plan prepared by Escobedo and included issues related to protecting Boyle Heights from encroaching downtown development and safeguarding the neighborhood’s inexpensive housing stock for existing and future working class residents. Similarly, Escobedo utilized the legacy of exclusion inherited by Boyle Heights to contextualize Boyle Heights residents’ fears, concerns, and demands to his city planning colleagues. As the Chicano city planner bridged these two distinct worlds, residents also attempted to make sense of new citizen-oriented planning in the context of concurrent projects that sought to transform planning on a citywide basis and, simultaneously, redevelop downtown.
Mayor Eric Garcetti launches Volunteer Corps event in Boyle Heights, 25 October 2014, via Flickr.
In 1973, residents like Rosalio Muñoz noted that “both the City and County of Los Angeles are presently completing new [plans] which call for further development of this new cosmopolitan center [including] plans to redevelop the surrounding neighborhoods to accommodate projected workers and shoppers for the [downtown area].” For Eastside residents like Muñoz the development of downtown and the surrounding areas threatened existing barrio land uses, as he expressed, stating that “all of this [planned] development has been and is projected to be right on top of what is already the most ideal urban setting for the Chicano.” Such responses to city planning were common in the political imagination of residents who held fast to memories of Federal bulldozers of urban renewal that had disappeared neighboring Mexican barrios. A year after Munõz shared his perspective on citywide planning, Francisco Mendoza argued that the community plan offered “a way of preparing [Boyle Heights] for the outright attack and displacement of thousands of people.”
Despite this hesitancy, efforts by Raul Escobedo and Boyle Heights residents succeed in composing and introducing a community plan reflective of community members. The final community plan allowed veteran city planners to recognize the barrio’s significance as “the only viable economic alternative as to where [families of limited income] can afford to live.” Moreover, Escobedo’s efforts convinced his senior planning colleagues to alter plans to demolish old housing stock and, instead, preserve it. To ensure the character of the community into the foreseeable future, Escobedo recommended residential areas be rezoned to the lowest residential density. Affirming these recommendations, the planning director concluded that “the continued involvement by community residents proved, indeed, that Boyle Heights is worth saving.” In a sense, this conclusion not only expressed the value of saving Boyle Heights from blight, but also saving it from downtown redevelopment.
However, by the time the Boyle Heights Community Plan was adopted in the late 1970s, downtown redevelopment took precedence as the Federal government moved away from investing in cities and neoliberalism took hold within the urban political economy. In 1975, Bradley had warned Angelenos that in the absence of intense redevelopment the downtown core would fall victim to the “urban cancer” of blight. In the 1980s, Bradley followed through on his promise of revitalizing the area and the planning department followed suit by prioritizing its redevelopment, and by abandoning staff and resources to develop community plans and similar citizen-driven projects. For barrio working class and residents of color of Eastside who were often renters and immigrants, the Tom Bradley administration’s move away from community plans re-instilled concerns over future displacement.
Photo by Flickr user Paul Narvaez.
Defending Boyle Heights
Since downtown development became the priority over community planning, city planning had remained out of sync with local residents’ concerns. Community members continued to fight for safe streets, improved schools, and adequate city services, even as political leaders advanced policies that regarded Eastside barrios as blighted and populated by politically apathetic residents. Examples of this would be the selection of East Los Angeles as an appropriate site for a prison and Vernon as a suitable location for a hazardous waste incinerator. Viewed as having direct negative effects on the quality of life in their respective neighborhoods as well as Boyle Heights, these two projects were subject to community protests. Led by Mothers of East Los Angeles (MELA) and religion-based community allies, the ensuing social movement that took place during the mid to late 1980s challenged city and private developers’ policies and practices, which continued to link communities of color with land uses detrimental to residents’ health and safety. In 1996, this grassroots type of activism continued through the organizing efforts by residents of the Pico Gardens and Aliso Village public housing projects. Here, women demanded the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles (HACLA) promise the provision of low-cost housing units for displaced residents who wished to remain in the housing community. While organizing efforts secured a higher number of affordable housing units that would have otherwise been constructed by HACLA, the demolition of the Pico-Aliso public housing community resulted in a net loss of low-cost housing units. Both MELA and the women of Pico Gardens and Aliso Village housing project transformed conventional narratives of their neighborhoods from “blighted” to dignified residential areas populated by citizens who were on a mission to secure a healthy environment for all families.
Although community plans have been dismissed as powerless planning documents they represented, in the case of Boyle Heights, the opportunity to reverse the historic tide of top-down planning and bring historically excluded communities into the city planning fold presented itself for the first time. Community plans also expanded planning processes to engage community residents by hiring culturally and politically informed planners to help connect to the community residents—in this case, Chicano Planner Raul Escobedo. As a result, residents interpreted community plans as an occasion to achieve political inclusion. In doing so, residents maintained a commitment to a multitude of strategies that would ensure community-wide improvements in the quality of life. In a local weekly, local resident Francisco Mendoza argued, “This [community] plan is only one thing that we have to defeat or change for the benefit of not the rich, but for the working people in our community. Those are only some of the reasons for uniting against the attacks and the exploitation of our community, and of all the working people which produce this country’s wealth.”
Mariachi Plaza, Boyle Heights, via Flickr user Paul Narvaez.
Presently, as community plans throughout Los Angeles undergo their scheduled updates, the history between these planning projects and their relationship to marginalized communities provides beneficial insights for politicians, planners, and residents alike.
First, the historical context underscores how local histories remain ever-present in the political and social landscape in which residents live their daily lives— an awareness quickly lost in public debates regarding the future of the neighborhood. Second, foregrounding this history acts as a temporal touchstone for barrio residents across generations to assess how contemporary needs in the barrio have changed or remained the same over time and how they have rearticulated strategies for inclusion. For example, inexpensive housing options, and affordable rents in particular, are increasingly scarce in today’s housing market—an issue identified in city planning documents since the early 1970s and one that has progressively worsened. In evaluating the community plan processes, it also illustrates how activism and community involvement in local politics was part of a protracted struggle for the complete cultural and political inclusion of Latinx communities since fifty years ago—and one that continues to the present. Finally, considering the Boyle Heights Community Plan in relation to the long history of political disenfranchisement in Los Angeles barrios reveals the enduring power relations, which inform contemporary discussions of neighborhood change, even if these power relations go unacknowledged or at times denied.
Presently, the barrio remains a largely renter-oriented neighborhood at seventy-five percent since the community plan was adopted, rendering a majority of the population vulnerable to rising rents and real estate speculation often complementing gentrification.
Current debates regarding gentrification in Boyle Heights, then, bring barrio residents’ longstanding concerns over displacement into the present day. Boyle Heights’ history of providing inexpensive housing for working class (often immigrant) residents continues to be targeted, presently by gentrification and an ever-tightening housing market. In a post-Great Recession context, renters disproportionately share the cost-burden of rising housing costs across the nation. In Los Angeles, the lowest-income renters are severely cost burdened, paying up to seventy percent of their income for rent. Presently, the barrio remains a largely renter-oriented neighborhood at seventy-five percent since the community plan was adopted, rendering a majority of the population vulnerable to rising rents and real estate speculation often complementing gentrification.
City-led efforts to save affordable housing and the working class character of Boyle Heights in the face of downtown redevelopment has continued for so many decades that contemporary activists are picking up the “anti-displacement-baton” with local groups such as Defend Boyle Heights. Planners and activists seeking to curb the influence of downtown development on Boyle Heights and similar working class barrios could benefit from revisiting the history of activism in the barrio and its legacy within and outside traditional avenues of political participation. In 1974, when Mendoza shared his trepidation over community plans and their limits, he nevertheless called on his neighbors to defend Boyle Heights. Doing so, he argued, the following: “every man and woman, working or not, [needs] to come to the aid of [the] community, we need the young, the old, the owner, the renters, we need to unite.”
Taking into consideration the history of planning approaches in communities of color thrown into relief, the protracted fight for economically-accessibly housing in Boyle Heights continues to bespeak its importance to its deeply passionate residents. Early in the post-Civil Rights era, city planning in Los Angeles gestured towards inclusionary policies and practices to meaningfully include marginalized citizens into the planning process, yet overarching policies of exclusionary land uses prevailed even if political inclusion improved. With downtown redevelopment jumping the L.A. River into Boyle Heights, ongoing discussions and framing over anti-displacement movements are better understood within this history of dispossession.
Photo by Flickr user TravelingMan.
 Rodolfo Acuña, ACommunity Under Siege: A Chronicle of Chicanos, East of the Los Angeles River, 1945-1972, Chicano Studies Research Center Publications (Los Angeles: UCLA, 1984), 101.
 Gilbert Estrada, “If You Build It, They Will Move: The Los Angeles Freeway System and the Displacement of Mexican East Los Angeles, 1944-1972,” Southern California Quarterly 87 (2005): 287-315.
 David F. Beatty, Redevelopment in California (Point Arena: Solano Press Books, 2004), 97.
 Calvin Hamilton, “Urban Renewal,” speech, Junior Chamber International Community Development Conference, 28 October 1966.
 Los Angeles Regional Planning Commission, “Environmental Development Guide,” October 1970.
 Anne V. Howell, “Oikoumene—Los Angeles Style,” Los Angeles Planning Department, 2 December1968.
 Irv Burleigh, “Fight Brews Over Who Should Take Part in City Planning,” Los Angeles Times, 6 December 1973.
 Thomas S. Hines, “Housing, Baseball, and Creeping Socialism: The Battle of Chavez Ravine, Los Angeles, 1949-1959,” Journal of Urban History 8 (1982): 123-143.
 Edward R. Roybal, “Report on the Urban Renewal Seminar in New Haven Connecticut,” 7 August 1959.
 Southern California Research Council, Migration and the Southern California Economy (Los Angeles, 1964), 70.
 “Los Angeles County Renters in Crisis: A Call for Action,” California Housing Partnership, May 2017.
 Francisco Mendoza, “Boyle Heights Plan Given Airing at All Nations Tonight,” Eastside Sun, September 1974.
Alfredo Huante is a Ph.D. candidate in Sociology at the University of Southern California. He earned his Master’s in Urban Planning at the University of California, Los Angeles. His work engages racial inequality, racial formation, and land use, particularly related to gentrification.
Boom California seeks proposals for a series of essays on the theme, “Gender, Sex, Sexuality & California: part of the problem & solution.”
We expect this to consist of a range of features related to California’s contributions to these issues, both positive and negative. This includes historical, social, cultural, ethical, medical, psychological, technological, theological, and other features widely represented in interesting ways. Boom’s focus remains the question and contribution of the world in California and California in the world, but we especially invite unique takes on California’s contribution to these matters, including what California may have made possible (or impossible) in light of its particular ordered ways of being.
Issues for exploration may consist of freedom and exploitation, agency and consent culture, the contribution of legislation, criminalization, ‘coming out,’ the Hollywood ‘casting couch,’ Silicon Valley ‘bro’ culture, new and unique liberative movements, as well as the stereotypes propagated by California’s culture-making factory with the very actors, directors, or other figures’ personal lives standing inconsistent with images portrayed in public and through popular media.
Of interest is feminism’s various waves, masculinity, transgenderedness, plastic surgery, STDs, stigma, and class. Of consideration may also be California’s definition of the family, abuse, and California’s contribution to the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, and to various forms of establishing and reinforcing new and old social, religious, racial, and other norms. Further considerations may relate to sexuality and sports, LGBT ‘safe-spaces,’ California ‘cruising’ culture, Proposition 8 and the definition and purpose of ‘marriage,’ sex and California religion/s, prison sexuality, AI innovations, along with California’s own contribution to the development of queer theory (Foucault, Butler, etc.), sexuality and the California environment, among other subjects of inquiry under the broad topic above as related to California.
We invite 100-word proposals for short (800–2,000 words) and long form (5,000-10,000 words) essays as well as proposals of significant books for review, or possible art or other creative forms of media, exhibits, events, etc. These short proposals should be submitted directly to email@example.com by Sunday 15 July, with a deadline of 1 October for final submission of the completed piece for the review process. We anticipate a fast turnaround and to publish this series toward the end of 2018 or the beginning of 2019.
In the last few years, dozens of articles and think-pieces composed by cultural critics and urban pundits have discussed rising rents across Los Angeles accompanied by the transforming local landscape and built environment. Many of these pieces approach the city from a distant, more theoretical standpoint. The native Angeleno journalist Lynell George provides a much more personal and an even deeper perspective on shifts across Los Angeles because she’s been covering the terrain longer than just about anybody. Her new book of essays and photographs from Angel City Press, After/Image: Los Angeles Outside the Frame, examines and explicates Los Angeles in search of place and belonging with an uncanny verisimilitude.
Rooted in personal experience, George catalogs the changing landscape, delving deeply into the city’s shifting districts and ever-evolving zeitgeist coming to rise because of these shifts. A lifetime of covering her hometown is distilled into eleven meticulous essays complemented perfectly by her own poignant, original photography. One of the key themes of this collection, as she states in the text, is that there are “‘many’ Los Angeleses swarming, each with stories that [tend to]) remain in the margins, territories that could only be accessed by someone familiar with its history and layout.” Another key idea she hammers home is that the Los Angeles depicted “on television or in the movies didn’t jibe with what [she] encountered daily, no matter where [she] lived.”
Quite simply, George knows Los Angeles better than almost anyone. City of Quartz author Mike Davis stated to me in an email late April that “L.A.’s written image has always been a predictable mixture of hyperbole, cliché and outsider ignorance, with boosterism and fear as two sides of the same coin. Lynell George comes from a different place entirely. With subtle love she explores the everyday to discover the extraordinary: the creative and rebellious spirits of the neighborhoods, the schools, and the true (not fake) bohemias. She truly sings Los Angeles.”
The Many Los Angeleses
As Davis notes, George’s forte is revealing the many Los Angeleses and she’s been doing this for over three decades. A former staff writer at both the Los Angeles Times and LA Weekly, her writing has won many awards over the years, even a 2018 Grammy Award for Best Album Notes for writing the liner notes, “The Stomp Comes to the Strip,” for the six-CD set, Otis ReddingLive at the Whisky A Go Go. In 2017, George also won the Alan Jutzi Fellowship from the Huntington Library for her work with the Octavia E. Butler archive.
Her first book, No Crystal Stair, published by Verso in 1992 peeled back the false facades of South Central Los Angeles to reveal the faces of the city: the mothers, fathers, extended families, the churches, the schools, and legions of teachers and social workers in the district that walked the walk. Her behind the scenes portraits of community pillars like community organizer and youth advocate Levi Kingston, jazz musician John Carter, filmmaker Charles Burnett, the Marcus Garvey School, and the Ward AME Church showed the real South Central Los Angeles, not the exaggerated misrepresentation that mass media promoted in the late 1980s and early ’90s. Her early essays are meticulously reported and stand the test of time. This new collection carries this spirit even further, matching her poetic prose with her equally skilled photography. There’s an organic unity in After/Image that radiates from every page.
Lynell George was born in Hollywood, raised in the Crenshaw District, and then moved to Culver City just before adolescence. Her parents were both teachers around inner-city Los Angeles and her father eventually became a principal. Both of her parents migrated to Los Angeles for opportunity during the early 1950s, the last wave of the Great Migration. Her father was from Pennsylvania and her mother, Louisiana.
After/Image revisits her formative years to paint an in-depth portrait of not only Black L.A.’s transformation, but the city at large. “The black L.A. where I grew up in the ’70s,” she writes, “was a territory built of dreams and defeats. A work-in-progress that was still being shaped by the unrest of the ’60s and the outsized dreams of our forebears.” After/Image maps these territories, “both physical and of the mind.”
After graduating from Culver City High School, she attended Loyola Marymount University (LMU) and studied with the great Los Angeles novelist Carolyn See. See praised her work right from the beginning. “Carolyn was a Mentor,” George tells me. “She was the first to suggest in college that I send one of the pieces I wrote for her class to either the Weekly or the L.A. Reader. Ten years later, that piece (or part of that piece), ended up being part of an essay in the Pantheon collection, Sex, Death and God in L.A., and entirely by chance, Carolyn had an essay in the same volume as well.”
After graduating from LMU, George went to graduate school for Creative Writing at San Francisco State. While in San Francisco, she met the novelist, essayist and professor Leonard Michaels. Michaels helped her sort out if she should continue in the Masters’ Creative Writing Program or take the leap of leaving grad school. “He gave me advice about what a writer should do: ‘Read. Write. Find someone who you trust to read and critique your work,’” she recalled. “He encouraged me to stay open to the world.” George ended up staying in San Francisco for only a year when a summer internship back home at the LA Weekly became a job opportunity. She listened to Michaels’ advice and sooner than later, she was doing cover stories for the Weekly.
A Pioneer of Los Angeles Journalism
For about seven years George was a staff writer at the Weekly and eventually went on to become a staff writer for the Los Angeles Times for fifteen years. George was one of the first writers in the city to cover the rise of Leimert Park as an artistic enclave in the late 1980s and the first writer to spotlight the district in the LA Weekly. She also pioneered coverage for important topics like the Black and Korean Alliances before the 1992 uprisings happened and dozens of other issues that are now more widely discussed like public versus private schools, Black filmmakers, and gentrification.
These were the glory days of the LA Weekly and George was printed along with important L.A. voices like Wanda Coleman, Ruben Martinez, and Mike Davis, all of whom she became close confidantes with. She met Coleman sometime in the late 1980s and they remained in touch all the way until 2013 when the legendary poet and writer passed. Coleman even introduced Lynell to her brother George Evans and the artist Michael Massenberg, both of whom George has had fruitful collaborations with in recent years. “Wanda was a special force in my life,” George confides. “She was a solid sounding board and sat down with me to make sure that I paid attention to whom and what was around me. She always alerted me to good stories, good people I needed to know or have around me.”
Though Coleman was nearly two decades older than George, they shared many commonalities like both being African American women writers from South Los Angeles with parents who came to Los Angeles during the Great Migration, though Coleman’s parents were in the first wave and George’s at the end. “[Wanda] was a letter writer,” George remembers, “and I still have those notes, postcards and double-spaced typewritten letters she’d drop in the mail.” Their last meeting, shortly before Coleman passed “was a ‘lunch’ that went for seven hours. It was more than a lunch, it was a seminar—in research, history, writing, life, and of course Los Angeles. I’ll never forget it.”
Like Wanda Coleman, George has lived almost her entire life in Los Angeles County. In her adulthood, George lived in Echo Park and Pasadena. Though some of After/Image is autobiographical, it is a larger meditation on the rapid changes sweeping Southern California in the last few decades.
Throughout the text, George converses with a variety of local experts like Lila Higgins from the Natural History Museum who muses on the once-ample green space across the city now developed. The chapter with Higgins, “Urban Wild,” explains how Southern California is “a hotspot of biodiversity,” and what we need to do to preserve local ecosystems and restore the Los Angeles River.
Recording A Vanishing Place
In the book’s opening essay, she writes: “I seem to have ‘lost’ Los Angeles. It’s as if the city were a set of keys I’ve somehow misplaced. I keep frantically retracing my steps hoping to locate it—something’s lost and must be found.” George embarked on this journey as a writer, and a photographer. She rose early every Sunday morning and began wandering all over the city to record “that vanishing sense of place.”
Another mission of the book is to not only locate Los Angeles, but also “to find and catalog what and who is still here. What is Los Angeles when you pull the image of the city away? What are you left with? What is the Los Angeles that lives inside of us? The one—the afterimage—that lingers in the mind’s eye.” The resulting essays, interviews and photographs presented in After/Image are a captivating panorama of 2018 Los Angeles. Among the many subjects covered, she highlights the shrinking size of Little Tokyo and rising rents in the Arts District and Boyle Heights. George shares her conversations with native Angelenos and neighborhood experts like James Rojas, Nancy Uyemura, and Evelyn Yoshimura for sharper insight.
The second chapter of the book, “Lost Angelena,” is a short section that gives insight into the collection’s genesis. For three years, George taught a journalism course at Loyola Marymount University called, “Telling Los Angeles’s Story.” In this class, she encouraged students to look deeper at the city and to analyze beyond the standard tropes and stereotypes that have characterized Los Angeles to outsiders and to followers of film and mass media. “As I encouraged students to look beyond facile definitions I found that I had to as well,” she writes. “My challenge was slightly different than theirs since I was teaching the class in the shadow of what home and place had once meant—and consequently means now.” She ended up diving back into “the city’s grid, drifting past old intersections and addresses.”
The third chapter is appropriately titled, “Arteries of Memory.” Revisiting her childhood home near 61st and West, George recounts her rite of passage growing up in the Crenshaw District. In between breaking down the backstory of streets like Slauson, she explains how the area transformed and the reverence so many residents then and some still feel for city streets. “My father used to recite the names of major surface streets like liturgy: Main, First, Washington, Western, Sepulveda, Exposition, Adams… and, closer to home, Slauson.” She even shares the old Johnny Carson joke: “Take the Slauson cut off, get out of your car and cut off your Slauson.”
The inside story is one of a truer Los Angeles. Her family had been the first black family on their stretch of the street. For a time, she states, “That little stretch of 61st, in that moment, could have been a filmmaker’s backdrop for conveying the mirage of Los Angeles that existed in our collective imagination: white-stucco homes, built in the teens and twenties, with terracotta roofs and wrap-around porches, long driveways and yards that were a vivid sketchpad of shaggy palms and fruit trees and flower beds where the snapdragons fought for space among the succulents. Paradise—until we found that it wasn’t.”
George discusses her family moving from the Crenshaw District to Culver City in the early 1970s and the changing cityscape. Her observations on race are nuanced and from firsthand experience: “I started school with almost all black classmates. For a time, predominantly white. Then black, and by the end, tipping toward mixed again.”
As much as George covers the city’s history within the narrative, there’s a deeper insight embedded in every page. Well-documented topics like the 1965 Watts Uprisings, white flight, and neighborhood redevelopment are shown by George in a new light with greater context. Her conversations on the changing cityscape with longtime Angelenos like Frances E. Williams and Skira Martinez concretizes the topic and makes it more personal. George shows how “Gentrification begins with words. Language of erasure. There used to be nothing here…. That place is a ghost town after dark…. No one goes there anymore…. It’s a no man’s land.” The very language used to describe evolving neighborhoods, she points out, begins the process of erasure with words like “discovered” and “unearthed.” These terms are how the word “Columbusing” has recently emerged.
In the penultimate chapter, “Flow,” she explores what race means in Los Angeles by celebrating the “in-between spaces where new identities formed.” Beginning with her own high school experience she grew up with a “black kid that surfed,” “the white kid that pop-locked,” and the “Japanese-American kid who played basketball with a J.J. Walker comic back-bend.” To further illustrate these stereotype-defying individuals, she remembers an old high school confidante, an Irish-Catholic girl. In the late 1970s and early ’80s, the city was still very segregated, and yet her friend “was part of an emerging new crop: those who were bold enough not to run from, but to step out and embrace what was new; what we would be in conversation with each day.”
Furthermore, George writes, “Before we used words like ally or accomplice, [the Irish-Catholic girl] found a way to stand shoulder to shoulder in ways that mattered most—being quiet, listening, defending, reaching out. She spoke a passable schoolyard Spanish, well enough to be understood, and perhaps most critically, to understand. What was most important to me was she had your back.” The second half of “Flow” spends time with another genre-bending native Angeleno, the bass player Wil-Dog Abers from the iconic L.A. musical group, Ozomatli. Wil-Dog was a white kid within the racially tense 1980s who used music to find an identity, “his portal into enclaves, neighborhood, hidden outposts, and intimate friendships.” People like Wil-Dog and her old friend represent how Angelenos embraced the world around them and flowed along with the changes in the city.
A final word also needs to be said about After/Image’s photography. The last section of the book, “The Spirit of Place,” is almost exclusively photos for sixteen pages. There’s a three-paragraph introduction to the chapter and then five quotes from Angelenos like recent poet laureate Luis J. Rodriguez and the Japanese-American writer and activist, Traci Kato-Kiriyama, interspersed through the images.
The spirit of Los Angeles
George’s opening sentence of the final passage says it all: “The most evocative features of Los Angeles can’t always be put into words. Sense of place is a connection that takes root. It flourishes deep inside. That spirit of place may come in a quick glimpse or along a periphery. Maybe it’s a mood. A hidden vista. The scale of a street. The bend of a skyscraping fan palm.” The book’s cover image of Union Station with the glowing purple sky in the background is a perfect example of a picture beyond words.
George’s photos throughout After/Image capture the evocative moods and hidden vistas nested within the fabric of the city. Influenced by Roy DeCarava, the iconic Harlem-born photographer who used his photography to celebrate everyday life in Black America, her photos of everyday Los Angeles extend the moment with the same kind of authenticity. George has been taking photos as long as she’s been writing, but in her recent explorations walking across the city over the last five years, she “began to take along a camera to record specific details—front steps, attic windows, a tangle of succulents, the remnants of backyard incinerators, hand-drawn signs, lost lists, long shadows, the play of light, details or moments that forced [her] to look twice or ask questions.”
The overall work provides a powerful portrait of Los Angeles in 2018 and over the last half century. She admits, “I can’t quite say if this narrative—the photographs, the testimonials—is a love letter or a Dear John note.” Ultimately, the book is a remarkable ode to Los Angeles and the sweeping arc of her narrative is compelling to natives and nonnatives alike. Her final sentence before the extended photo essay summarizes both the book and her intentions: “I walk to remember to tell and honor these stories—what still lies outside the frame and the images of Los Angeles that live inside of me. And us.”
In March and April of 2018, George has been appearing across Southern California supporting After/Image in venues like Vroman’s Bookstore, the Annenberg Beach House, and the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. She also has essays in two forthcoming books: L.A. Baseball: Photographs from the Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection; and Radio Imagination: Artists and Writers in the Archive of Octavia E. Butler. George’s meticulously prevalent writing and research combined with her personal insight proves why she is one of today’s best voices singing Los Angeles.
* All photos courtesy of Lynell George, used by permission.
Mike Sonksen is a third-generation Los Angeles native whose prose and poetry have been included in programs with the Mayor’s Office, the Los Angeles Public Library’s “Made in LA,” series and Grand Park. Most recently, one of his KCET essays was nominated for an Award with the L.A. Press Club. Sonksen teaches at Woodbury University.
Hao’s first trip to the U.S. was not what she expected. After nearly forty-eight hours of travel and two layovers with her young child in tow, she landed in New Orleans for a long drive to St. Landry Parish. She flew in after dark. The swampy physical surroundings she would come to know remained a mystery until days after her jetlag wore off. And while the eighty-five percent relative humidity smacked of Saigon, nothing else reminded her of home.
Her arrival to this relatively rural part of Louisiana marked the first time someone from her family set foot in the U.S. With a working husband, young child and no driver license (nor car) she was generally isolated and deeply homesick. Her vast network of friends and family in Saigon felt even further away since she had no wireless internet, but once she purchased a second-hand unlocked smart phone, conversations with her brothers and mother became part of her daily routine, providing some sense. Hao scheduled everything in her life around GMT +7, the daily time back in Saigon.
But Hao was not living in a Vietnamese diaspora—she was the diaspora in this part of rural Louisiana.
Our conversations in 2013 during her first months in the U.S. were marked by a longing for her family, the ease of motorbike transportation in Vietnam, Vietnamese food, and the vegetables and herbs needed to cook her favorite dishes. This is no surprise, for food and diaspora have long been the subject of inquiries into place-making, identity, and livelihood. But Hao was not living in a Vietnamese diaspora—she was the diaspora in this part of rural Louisiana. Given her transportation limitations and child care obligations, the Vietnamese diaspora in New Orleans might as well have been in Saigon. She was caught between places and communities all at once. Also caught between categories, Hao did not fit neatly into any of them. Her lived experiences in Vietnam, Louisiana, and eventually California all individually shed light on what it means to long for her homeland in Vietnam, but also California—a place that may serve to mitigate her homesickness and uncertainty about life in the U.S.
As Hao acclimated to Louisiana and the southern U.S., she spoke carefully and with intention about Vietnam, but she also pondered a life in California. She often asked me questions about “what it’s like in Cali?” Locating the Vietnamese diaspora in California requires locating California not in one particular place but in multiple places, simultaneously. Hao was formulating California as the nucleus of Vietnamese diaspora—as a place marked by an established Vietnamese speaking community with persistent social, cultural, and economic ties to Vietnam. Although New Orleans, just a few hours away, has a similarly significant Vietnamese diaspora, Hao knew little about the city, its size and diversity, or the community of migrants she may have identified with. As a recent migrant with an American husband and two young children growing up in the U.S., she did not fit neatly into the Vietnamese “refugee” category nor did she have the social and economic capital that some of her distant friends and acquaintances from Vietnam enjoyed as recent migrants. She more so felt disconnected from any sense of local community in Louisiana—living hours from a major city with a Vietnamese market might as well have been a world away. Yet in drafting a mental map of Vietnamese diasporic culture in California (however real or imagined) she engendered new opportunities for herself and her family.
Yên Lê Espiritu has examined the persistence of the “refugee” category in U.S. scholarship despite the existence of “multiple migrant categories, from political exiles to immigrants to transmigrants, as well as a large number of native-born” Vietnamese. However, over the past decade literature on the Vietnamese American diaspora emerged, which was a and necessary surge in critical refugee studies. This nascent but growing literature on Vietnamese socialist mobilities has opened up new possibilities for understanding the diversity of migrant communities across the spectrum and their respective lived experiences. Hao’s experience might even further an understanding of what it means to occupy multiple migrant categories at once, as well as what it means to construct California as a community despite her physical distance from it. After all, even without familial ties to the U.S., the two regions she was most familiar with prior to her arrival were Orange County and San Jose. Illuminating Hao’s experience helps us understand the complexities of new Vietnamese migrant experiences and how California is constructed as a particularly valued place for some Vietnamese migrants. Furthermore, her experience provides a reminder that despite the amount of uncertainty that encapsulates migrating to the U.S., the possibility of a better quality of life is still real.
During Hao’s first few months in Louisiana she lived vicariously through my own frequent visits to Little Saigon in Orange County and occasional trips to Vietnam where I spent late nights drinking and eating in a Saigon alleyway with her family. Years later, by the time I visited Hao in Louisiana, she had cultivated a full-fledged Vietnamese culinary garden and perfected her Vietnamese-style Cajun crawfish boil recipe long before she would see a crawfish boil spot every few blocks in Southern California. Without ready access to Vietnamese enclaves elsewhere in the U.S., where food is inextricably linked to homeland, Hao sated her nostalgia and dearth of community relations with Vietnamese herbs and creative southern/Vietnamese fusion. She was ostensibly carving out a new home with her family in Louisiana. Although, Southern California, and all that it seemed to offer by way of Vietnamese community and culture, called to her.
Hao’s perception of Little Saigon was shaped years before she left Vietnam by her working in restaurants in the urban center of Saigon, learning English through western media and later through her American husband, which all worked to produce an image and expectation of life in America. But chatting with cousins and friends who had traveled to Southern California and living next door to me in south-central Vietnam fashioned an idea of Little Saigon that she would endear herself to.
I had first met Hao and her American husband in 2010 while renting a room next door to their small house in highland south-central Vietnam. I shared my ongoing research with her, practiced Vietnamese, and exchanged life histories. We occasionally chatted about the complicated nature of Vietnamese bureaucracy but we mostly talked about regional food diversity spanning the narrow swath of country. She often asked me about California and the Vietnamese community, eventually constructing her own geography of the state with focal points on the weather, Vietnamese grocers and the best place for mì quảng. As the only English speaker in her family and the only family member with a tangible future in the U.S., she carried the precarious weight of expectation and uncertainty through her daily routine. Not long after we met, Hao moved back to a deep network of Saigon alleyways inhabited by her immediate and extended family and by other Mekong Delta migrants. Here, unlike the highlands, she did not have to worry about the chilly air. She celebrated her network of kin and easy access to the rice, vegetables, and noodles that her family brought up from the Delta and sold in the neighborhood.
When the possibility of moving to the U.S. materialized, she asked me about Louisiana as a residential possibility. All I could come up with was an analogy about Vietnamese regional accents, speculation that she might enjoy the food culture of the U.S. South, and mistakenly mentioned her proximity to a thriving Vietnamese community. Although she knew that the Vietnamese diaspora I often spoke of (Little Saigon) would not become her new home, it remained a place of pure fascination and attraction. My attempts at explaining California and its complicated strata, politics, diverse landscape, and ever-evolving food culture seemed to perpetually pique her interest, even after she joined her husband in Louisiana.
Hao first brought up the possibility of visiting California in the context of a potential job training opportunity in Little Saigon and asked if I would be willing to host her. After years living in the rural South, it was obvious that a break from Louisiana was an underlying motivation for her overall visit. Given my own recent relocation back to Southern California, it was clear that experiencing Little Saigon was paramount. Even without family ties in the U.S., Hao knew of Little Saigon and Orange County with stark detail. When I picked her up from LAX weeks later, she barely spoke as we drove south, past the port, the charbroiled hamburger and teriyaki bowl stands, fighting traffic even after midnight. When she did speak it was only to remark on how many people were out (in their cars). I narrated our journey through the South Bay and marked various arbitrary landmarks. For no particular reason I assumed she would be interested in In-N-Out and so I pointed out one and then two more from our vantage point on the 405. As we crossed the Los Angeles River and the threshold to my neighborhood, I noticed my local phở restaurant flashing “closed” in yellow neon. Hao had never really eaten phở in Saigon. I could not picture her eating it once; she opted for hủ tiếu, cơm tấm, ốc, bánh khọt, bánh mì, mực (dried and grilled), anything from the complex network of alleyways in her neighborhood and just about everything but phở. She still seemed pleased to see a Vietnamese restaurant around the corner and asked if it was any good.
But it really didn’t matter if it was any good or not.
The critical mass of restaurants with chữ Quốc ngữ was exactly what Hao expected from southern California. And her week-long visit was somehow quintessentially Southern California —a drive along the coast, walks on the beach, traffic—but also quintessentially Saigon in its own right. She spent a majority of her time in Little Saigon speaking Vietnamese and grocery shopping for our meals at home. California became the Vietnamese diasporic experience of her imagination. She managed to connect with a childhood friend who had recently moved to Little Saigon to be with extended family. He joined us for much of the week and explained what life is like in Little Saigon. We grilled ribs, okra, and squid while speaking Vietnamese and tallying empty beer bottles in a crate. These moments almost gave the illusion that we were back in her family’s alleyway in Saigon. She had been in the U.S. for a couple of years by then, but California seemed to be a sort of a bridge between her life in Louisiana and her family and friends in Saigon.
As we neared Hao’s departure back to Louisiana, we took one final trip to Little Saigon for a last-minute meal and shopping trip. She packed her bag full of her favorite brand of rice paper, tea, headache relief oil, and dried seafood, along with a separate bag for me to deliver to her family in Saigon that summer. It was not lost on me that she was purchasing made-in-Vietnam goods in a Westminster strip mall for her family in Saigon. Hao finally had the opportunity to show her family that she could potentially call the U.S. home and experience the Vietnamese community she did not yet have in Louisiana. Her family knew that commercially produced chocolate candies and toiletries were available everywhere in the U.S. but “Dầu Gió Đỏ” medicated oil came from a Vietnamese community. A proxy delivery of Hao’s California purchased Vietnamese material goods to Vietnam carried the symbolic significance of finding community, marking her wellness, and assuring herself and her family that California was everything she wanted and needed it to be. It could be a home. In our subsequent conversations, California still existed as an object of desire—a place Hao wanted to return to. Despite the limitations that come with being a recent migrant, California remains accessible. There still exists the possibility of bridging the distant space between the rural southern U.S. and Vietnam through a visit to Little Saigon.
 See Sidney Mintz, “Food and Diaspora,” Food, Culture, and Society 11.4 (2008): 509-523; Krishnendu Ray, The Migrant’s Table: Meals and Memories in Bengali-American Households (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2004).
 Yen Le Espiritu, “Toward a Critical Refugee Study: The Vietnamese Refugee Subject in US Scholarship,” Journal of Vietnamese Studies 1/1-2 (February/August 2006): 411.
 See Christina Schwenkel, “Socialist Mobilities: Crossing New Terrains in Vietnamese Migration Histories,” Central and Eastern European Migration Review (2015): 1-13; see also http://criticalrefugeestudies.com.
 For more on transnational migration, aspirations, and the unknown see Ivan V. Small, “‘Over There’ Imaginative Displacements in Vietnamese Remittance Gift Economies, Journal of Vietnamese Studies 7.4 (2012): 157-183. Small’s argument that “for aspiring migrants, life overseas may offer a comparatively uncertain future, but it is one that has already been tested by others who have gone ahead and, therefore, imaginatively invested with optimistic promises of social transformation” sheds light on why the uncertainty of migration holds such promise and opportunity for Hao as the first migrant in her family.
 On the importance of the migrant food culture and the relationship between food and migrant communities, see Parvathi Raman, “Me in Place, and the Place in Me: A Migrant’s Tale of Food, Home and Belonging,” Food, Culture, and Society 14.2 (2011): 165-180; see also Daniela Fargione, “Food and Imagination: An Interview with Monique Truong,” Gastronomica: The Journal of Critical Food Studies 16.4 (2016): 1-8 for more on the intersections between food, loss, identity, and change.
 Hao actually would find herself hours from the nearest Vietnamese diaspora in Louisiana. The Southern Foodways Alliance has since produced a number of short films, oral histories, and podcasts on Vietnamese in the U.S. South. For example see: https://www.southernfoodways.org/okracast-sue-nguyen-of-le-bakery-in-biloxi-ms/. See also Vy Thuc Dao, “From the Ground Up: A Qualitative Analysis of Gulf Coast Vietnamese Community-Based Organizations and Community (Re)building in Post-disaster Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama,” unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Tulane University, 2015.
Sarah G. Grant is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at California State University, Fullerton. Her ongoing multi-sited ethnographic research investigates the cultural, economic, and environmental politics of Vietnam’s commodity and specialty coffee industries.
Every two years, more than 200,000 pilgrims make their way to La Vang, a poor farming village in central Vietnam. They come from the around the world to pay homage to the Virgin Mary, whose apparition visited the village in 1798 and gave comfort to persecuted Catholics. From Vietnamese American Catholics to Thai Buddhists, they come seeking her blessings, solace, and comfort.
“She is not just the mother of Catholics in Vietnam but also anyone who comes and prays to her,” an Indonesian Protestant once told me during a visit to La Vang. His comment echoed the feelings of many who made the long, arduous journey to the Minor Basilica of Our Lady of La Vang. Although the Vatican has not recognized the historical apparition, Our Lady of La Vang has become a global religious and spiritual symbol.
Over the course of a few days, pilgrims pray to a large statue of Our Lady of La Vang holding a figure of the baby Jesus. She stands under three large banyan trees, adjacent to an old church building, wearing traditional Vietnamese attire composed of an áo dài and a crescent-shaped headpiece. With her black hair, dark eyes, and porcelain skin, she reflects an ideal image of beauty in Vietnamese society.
This Vietnamese representation of Our Lady of La Vang can now be found wherever Vietnamese people have emigrated, including: Japan, Taiwan, Canada, France, Australia, and the United States. This Vietnamization of the Virgin is a recent development. Until 1998, statues of Our Lady of La Vang were modeled on French representations of another Virgin Mary figure, Our Lady of Victories. But the new Our Lady of La Vang did not come from Vietnam. She came from Orange County, California.
Vietnamese Americans represent the largest Asian American Catholic group in Orange County. In 2010, there were nearly 70,000 Vietnamese Catholics in the region, according to the secretary of the Bishop of Orange. They constitute the largest Asian Catholic group in Orange County. The community has been growing since the fall of Saigon in 1975, when the first large wave of 125,000 Vietnamese refugees arrived in the United States.Many Vietnamese chose to resettle in Orange County due to its warmer climate, employment opportunities, and close proximity to Camp Pendleton, where many Vietnamese refugees first arrived.
As Vietnamese Catholics struggled to rebuild their lives in the United States, many sought comfort from the Virgin Mary. In 1978, more than 1,500 Vietnamese Catholics across the country attended the largest Feast of Assumption celebration in Carthage, Missouri, during a blazing hot August.The multiday pilgrimage became known as “Marian Day,” attracting mostly Vietnamese of different religious backgrounds from throughout the world. In Carthage, pilgrims worshipped a statue of Our Lady of Fatima and one of Our Lady of Peace (Đức Mẹ Nữ Vương Hòa Bình). For many Vietnamese Catholics, the statues symbolize miracles but also have strong anticommunist connotations.
Like the original Our Lady of La Vang, the statues of Our Lady of Fatima and Our Lady of Peace depicted the Virgin Mary with European features. European images of the Virgin Mary had long been the norm in Vietnamese Catholicism.
Then in the 1990s, when multiculturalism was being promoted by the Catholic Church in the United States, the bishop of Orange County permitted Vietnamese Americans to create a Vietnamese statue of the Virgin Mary. In 1994, this image, known as Our Lady of Vietnam, was completed and placed at the entrance to the Vietnamese Catholic Center in Santa Ana. Our Lady of Vietnam joined a growing collection of ethnic representations of the Virgin Mary in Orange County, including Our Lady of Guadalupe, a Korean Virgin Mary, and Our Lady of Czestochowa from Poland.
Created by sculptor Van Nhan, the white statue represents the Virgin Mary dressed in the Vietnamese national costume. She holds the baby Jesus in front of her with both hands, “as if she wants to hand her most beloved child to Vietnamese people in order to save them and their race,” according to the Vietnamese Catholic Center. She represents the “peace and tranquility” that Vietnamese American faithful seek as they adapt to life in a new country.
Our Lady of Vietnam also reflects Vietnamese American Catholics’ connections to coreligionists in Vietnam during a time in which the country was isolated from the United States after the Vietnam War. She stands on a grotto in the shape of an S that depicts Vietnam and its mountainous ridges. The Vietnamese Catholic Center explains that this representation of the Virgin Mary “guides the spirit of Vietnamese people to return to their homeland roots” and to pray for their coreligionists who are suffering under communism. This is another reason she is referred to as Our Lady of Peace.
In 1995—three years before the two-hundredth anniversary of the apparition of Our Lady of La Vang—the United States reestablished diplomatic ties with Vietnam. This timing helped to revive interests among Vietnamese American Catholics to reconnect to their homeland. In an article published in 1996, Vietnamese Americans were urged to visit the Our Lady of La Vang in Vietnam: “Now is the time for overseas Vietnamese Catholics to be spiritually united and connected with the Catholic Church in the homeland. This is our affirmation that, despite being far away from the homeland, we will never forget our spirituality as a Vietnamese faithful and a citizen of a country and a peoplehood.”
Our Lady of La Vang became Vietnamized through collaborations and agreements that reached across the Pacific. Clergy from Vietnam had seen the Our Lady of Vietnam statue during a visit to Orange County following the US-Vietnam normalization. They were impressed by Vietnamese Americans’ commitment to the well-being of Catholics in Vietnam, and their commitment to the preservation of Vietnamese Catholic culture and history despite decades of separation from their homeland. As a result of the trip, the visiting Vietnamese clergy commissioned Nhan Van, creator of Our Lady of Vietnam, to create another Our Lady of La Vang for the anniversary of her apparition.
Pope John Paul II blessed this Vietnamese Our Lady of La Vang statue in Rome on 1 July 1998. He also proclaimed Our Lady of La Vang the patroness of the Catholic Church of Vietnam. Although this religious honor did not officially recognize the apparition of Our Lady of La Vang, it was a source of inspiration for Vietnamese Catholics throughout the world. For the first time in history, a Vietnamese icon of the Catholic faith was officially introduced to the global Catholic community. On 13 August 1998, two hundred years after the apparition, more than 200,000 attendees gathered in La Vang to worship Our Lady of La Vang as represented by a Vietnamese woman.
Since her transformation, there have been several visual reinterpretations of Our Lady of La Vang to represent the unique faith and experiences of Vietnamese Catholics. In La Vang, in 2002, the Vietnamese Our Lady of La Vang was replaced with a new version wearing a headdress decorated with twelve stars. Although some believe that the stars are an allusion to the twelve apostles of Jesus, Vietnamese Catholics abroad have interpreted them as the stars that Vietnamese refugees used to guide themselves to their new homes. In the National Shrine of Our Lady of La Vang in Washington, D.C., completed in 2005, stars are used as a decorative motif throughout the sanctuary as reminders of the Vietnamese diaspora.
Today, statues of the Vietnamese Our Lady of La Vang are popular diplomatic gifts often exchanged between Vietnamese Catholic communities in different countries. In 2002, Pope John Paul II blessed six statues of Our Lady of La Vang in Rome and gave them to Catholics in Orange County, who were responsible for distributing them to representatives of six different continents. Through the Vietnamese representation of Our Lady of La Vang, Vietnamese Catholics throughout the world have become reconnected to each other and have transformed the face of the Catholic Church in their image. In 2010, a stone engraved with the phrase Cộng Đồng Hải Ngoại (Overseas Diocese) was placed at the Our Lady of La Vang Pilgrimage Center during the start of the Holy Year. It recognizes the Vietnamese Catholic diaspora as the twenty-seventh diocese of the Catholic Church in Vietnam.
The growing global popularity of Our Lady of La Vang has spurred the construction of a number of parishes named after her outside of Vietnam, including two in California. These transnational ties are not simply nostalgia for the homeland but an effort among Vietnamese Catholics to heal the wounds of war and displacement. The Vietnamese Our Lady of La Vang represents re-connection among Vietnamese Catholics in the diaspora and the homeland after decades of separation.
Min Zhou and Carl I. Bankston, Growing Up American (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1998), 29.
Peter Phan, “Mary in Vietnamese Piety and Theology: A Contemporary Perspective,” Ephemerides Mariologicae 51 (2005): 457–472.
Van G. Bui, “Huong Ve La Vang” [Toward La Vang], Ky Niem 12 Nam Thanh Lap Cong Doan La Vang [12 Year Anniversary of the Establishment of the La Vang Community] (Orange County, CA), 13.
Thien-Huong T. Ninh is an assistant sociology professor at Consumnes River College and a scholar with research interests in race, gender, religion, and in immigration, particularly forced displacement as in the case of refugees. She is the author of Race, Gender, and Religion in the Diaspora: Ethnic Vietnamese in the U.S. and Cambodia (Palgrave Macmilllan).
Cu Chi Tunnels, Ho Chi Minh City, via Flickr user David McKelvey.
Some years ago, I did the touristy thing. I went to see the Cu Chi Tunnel in the Tay Ninh Province of Vietnam and found myself in a van full of American vets. A few of their friends had died while trying to find the headquarters where the Viet Cong operated during the war. For them, it was a powerful moment. At the entrance of the famed tunnel, one of them openly wept.
Dug up two decades after the war ended, the tunnel was initially intended for malnourished Vietnamese guerrilla fighters. It was once a well-hidden, tight crawl space with entrances submerged underwater. The new version, however, was an open cave and widened considerably to accommodate extra large Westerners. The underground headquarters for the National Liberation Front (where guerrilla tactics were planned against the south) had, in peacetime, turned rather capitalistic and kitschy, all for a tourist dollar. The new version came with a shooting range nearby for those who, emerging from the dank and the dark, wished to shoot an AK-47 or an M16 at some target or another. The price was somewhere around a dollar a pop.
The middle-aged vets teared up gazing at an old war wound, but the young tour guide was all smiles when she and I chatted. Like the majority of her countrymen, she had no direct memories of the war. She readily confessed that, for her, the tunnel was a relic about which she knew nothing until she got her job. She reminisced with me about a friend’s son, a third generation San Franciscan who scrambled for history lessons for his summer job as a tour guide of the city’s famed Fisherman’s Wharf, a tourist trap he had long avoided.
“So you live in California?” she whispered, barely containing her excitement. “My dream is to go for a visit. I have friends over there.” The young woman crawled through Cu Chi 2.0 with foreigners on a regular basis to save money for her own adventures. She rattled off dreamy destinations: Disneyland, Universal Studios, the Golden Gate Bridge, Yosemite. If given the opportunity, she would like to study for an MBA in the United States.
For some the tunnel runs toward the bloody past. For this young woman, it leads toward a cosmopolitan future. The middle-aged men saw war and trauma and senselessness, a bloody memory that bore unfinished grief. This young ambitious woman saw a particular light at the tunnel’s end: The supposed Magic Kingdom.
But for me, where do I stand? I straddle the cave’s mouth as if an indecisive time traveler….
Born in the middle of the war to a military officer who served in the South Vietnamese army, I reached puberty in California a few months after the war ended. I was a refugee boy who quickly transformed into an American teenager. My voice broke that first summer in Daly City, south of San Francisco. I learned English fast enough to start devouring American novels by the second. In time, and with some struggle, I became an American journalist and writer. I traveled the world…
… and it was only then, standing at the far end of the cosmopolitan continuum, that I fully accepted that in the aftermath of the Vietnam war, the two countries are no longer separable for me. The ocean had become a nuisance in my imagination. California (where I spent the bulk of my American life) and Vietnam (my once lost homeland) had both deeply intertwined themselves, fusing, changing, melding, battling for my soul. They offer no final resolution.
Vietnam and the Myth of California
During my first few years in America, I learned many English words. My favorite was that odd, yet open-ended conjunction, “whereas.” I learned it in the eighth grade when I had to write compare and contrast essays.
The Vietnamese take holidays on Emperors’ death dates. I was told on my first school year in Daly City, at the southern end of San Francisco, that students get a day off for Washington’s birthday. Poor Vietnamese were reed thin, whereas poor Americans were hefty and meat eaters. Vietnamese don’t look at you in the eyes unless it is intimate or confrontational, whereas Americans expect eye contact, unless you appear to be untrustworthy. Americans talk about their apparent vision of the future. Vietnamese prayed to their ancestors’ spirits nightly. Americans say, “What do you do?” at cocktail parties, whereas Vietnamese ask, “Are you married?” and “Where is your hometown?”
California was geometrically sound with clean lines for borders, whereas Vietnam was all frills, a convulsed “S” with its messy borders that spoke of aggressions from and losses against China, Laos, Cambodia, and other ancient kingdoms. Vietnam was dirty and damp and its sidewalks were uneven. Its walls mildewed and rooftops curved and caved, its landscape pockmarked and cratered by bombs, whereas California was endless highways and full of concrete and glassy high rises. Its agricultural lands emulated a checkerboard pattern, like math.
Vietnam and California are both long and coastal. They both hug their own continent, framing the Pacific from opposed ends, seeming cursed to serve as one another’s opposed ideas in my child’s mind. If one represented sadness and loss, a country riddled with poverty and warfare, the other offered hopes and dreams—the freedom to remake.
Among the first few American songs I heard living in Vietnam during the war was “California Dreaming,” by the Mamas & The Papas, its cadence full of longing. It slowly dawned on me that even when you are an American living elsewhere, California still represents a dream-like destination. No wonder the Vietnamese had begun to dream the California Dream as the war raged on. In my mother’s “English for Today” textbook, which she studied intensely, she paid special attention to a lesson about San Francisco. My brother, sister, and I pored over her shoulders. She taught us about the gold rush and how it was gold that drew people from around the world. We learned that gold was so abundant that it fell out of pockets of drunken prospectors, and Chinese laundrymen collected gold dust in their jeans when they washed them. The Chinese even called it “Old Gold Mountain.” Gold made the place. I recall the first time crossing the Golden Gate Bridge on my seventh grade field trip. I was sorely disappointed when I was told by my teacher that no, it was not really made of gold.
Vietnam and California are both long and coastal. They both hug their own continent, framing the Pacific from opposed ends, seeming cursed to serve as one another’s opposed ideas in my child’s mind.
Stories told of California during my Vietnamese childhood bordered on the mythic. As a child, I imagined America as a world full of options. I saw it through the “31 Flavors” Baskin Robbins poster brought back by my visiting cousin, who was already living in San Francisco. One colorful scoop stacked on top of another, all on top of a single sugar cone, reaching an impossible height. The salivating child stared in wonder at those painted scoops of ice cream beyond possibility.
The family chauffeur, whom we called Uncle Phuoc, saw California as an open road. “Xứ Cali is so big that you can drive down this freeway,” he would tell us on those humid nights with nothing to do but tell tales. He referred to California as Xứ Cali, which is short hand for the nation of California. He’d never been out of the country, but Uncle Phuoc did business with American GIs on the streets on Saigon, buying and selling American stuff. Plus he saw photos. So for us, he was an expert: “And you can stop and pick an orange from an orchard or an apple to quench your thirst, and no one cares. Such a rich place.”
The Vietnamese word for country is Đất nước, a combination of two elements: Earth and water. Put them together and what do you get? Mud, which is to say where rice grows. The paddies for millennia thus held the Vietnamese soul captive—bent back and conical hats and cyclical life, live and die by the land, something both at once essential and sacred. Even to this day, rural folks still bury the umbilical chords of their newborns in the land, a kind of spiritual registration. Ancestor’s graves still dot rural landscapes, even in the backyard of farmers’ homes. An old ethos: Live and die by the land. Vietnamese pray to the dead. We talk to ghosts.
Alas, cyclical life gives easily to fatalism, imbued by a profound understanding that human suffering and loss are as inevitable as a norm. One accepted one’s fate. No happily ever afters, thanks. Children learn it early on: Vietnamese fairy tales often end tragically. The princess dies. The hero fails to marry the princess. The abandoned wife holds her babe in her arms and waits for her husband on a mountaintop nightly until both mother and child, pitied by the heavens, turn into stone.
The dead princess’ heart turns into a red ruby, refusing the cremating fire. The grieving king had it carved into a tea bowl. Whenever tea is poured into it, the image of the lone fisherman on his boat appeared, floating to and fro. He didn’t know. How could she have loved such a lowly commoner simply because of his singing voice? So he came back, too late, of course. But he cried. The fisherman’s tear fell into the bowl and it melted back into blood. It shimmered into nothingness.
Pati ergo sum? We suffer, therefore we exist. Tragedy followed Vietnamese narratives like Grimm, like Greek. To be acknowledged, to have one’s love requited, no matter how modest, how minuscule, a tear in a teacup was enough as a pay off. To be true to oneself was more important. Virtue was measured in term of stoicism, in endurance, which defined one’s characters, and wherein lived the divine. The rest? Up to fate. For a country invaded, steeped in warfare and losses, it was a luxury to think of happy endings.
One perhaps thinks why in the aftermath of that bloody embrace do the Vietnamese quickly shrug off the old fatalism (like the tour guide wanting her magic kingdom), and shift their gaze fixedly toward America. America’s powerful allure was self-evident through the story of progress of those who arrived in earlier waves, like those of my family.
Take my mother for instance. The letters and photos she diligently sent back home to relatives and friends, along with the care packages during the impoverished cold war years in the war’s aftermath, unwittingly became a powerful propaganda for Uncle Sam. They tell a story of wealth, progress, and transformation.
Sister, see my kids, see how they’ve grown!
Aunty, we bought a five-bedroom house with a pool… Just came back from Paris to see Aunt D. Here we are at the Eiffel Tower.
Those photos and letters were siren songs. Vượt biên—to cross the border, to escape overseas—soon became a powerful verb, upending the Vietnamese sedentary nature. The old narrative faltered: Goodbye water, so long land; no more bent back, blazing sun, mud. A new migratory ethos was born on the back of boat people, with the birth of the Vietnamese Diaspora. What America had offered as possibilities, as opportunities, as dreams, over time became far more potent than any bullets and bombs.
Evolution of places, of movement
A community was born from both memory and ambition. And if I dance at the far end of that migratory story, so many of us now live up and down its streets.
Shh, listen! That man committed cannibalism when he vượt biên. A friend whispered this into my ear while we were eating pho in Orange County’s Little Saigon sometime in the late ’90s. My friend was a local resident. I stole a peek: The man looked just like everybody else in the restaurant, but he was marked. He was on an ill-fated boat stranded on a reef, crowded with people. It was abandoned by an American naval ship. After providing the boat people with some food and water, the American ship left for its mission, promising to pick them up upon its return trip. But it did not. A few days later, the stranded people ran out of food and water. People started dying. The boat’s captain and his squad, out of desperation, started killing the weak. They started eating human flesh and drinking their victims’ blood in order to survive. It’s a story that was featured in a 60 Minutes segment many years ago and later in a powerful documentary called Bolinao 52 by filmmaker Duc Nguyen.
The man, the cannibal, so my friend told me, owned businesses. His children grew up to be tall and smart. They all prospered. That night, going home, and upon rereading an essay by Joan Didion about her California, it got me thinking: These pioneers—the Nguyens and the Trans of our modern time—those who risked death to find new homes, and those who crossed all sorts of boundaries and borders, who is to say that their stories do not rival that of the Donner Party?
Often survivors of a political fallout from another country become builders of another. Refugees and migrants have always helped themselves. It takes a special spirit and resolve, after all, to maneuver across boundaries and borders, risking death to reach the promised land. Given the right opportunity these people transform the world they enter. He walks across desert sands, she sails out to sea with her children, the teenager fleeing violence hops on a train and goes northward with nothing but a small backpack. Eventually in the new country, children are born, businesses prosper, and in time a community begins to form.
It is no exaggeration to say that California, home to the largest Vietnamese population outside of Vietnam, has been radically altered because of the Vietnamese Diaspora. Up and down the coast, Little Saigons bloom, transforming the California landscape.
Just on taste alone: Take a look at my mother’s garden. Back in the ’80s, in her new suburban home at northern edge of Silicon Valley, she creates herbs from seeds and roots she got from friends who came later from Vietnam by boat. Now imagine that little garden spreading throughout California. Refugees and immigrants don’t just leave, they take seeds and roots with them, along with their culinary traditions and taste, and over time Southeast Asian tastes too come to be like the American taste. Go to a farmer’s market these days and see for yourself: Buddha fingers, lemongrass, mountain yam, coriander, bitter melons, mint, amaranth, buffalo spinach; even the air smelled of Southeast Asia.
No wonder the American taste buds demand more nuance, as some liking it hot, and others liking it even hotter. This is why Iron Chef competitions sometime make Vietnamese the Banh mi sandwich. And why David Tran became a multimillionaire, making a chili sauce from his Saigon memory in Southern California, calling it Sriracha. So popular and ubiquitous now that it inspires copycats around the world, and even threatens to usurp ketchup.
I, for one, do not underestimate the power of immigrants’ nostalgia. In the Golden State, it often has ways of becoming retroactive. Buddhist temples now waft incense into the streets of San Francisco, San Jose, Westminster, Long Beach, Sacramento, and Los Angeles. So much longing for home changes the new landscape.
So here too are the familiar rags to riches theme to go with the Vietnamese Californian narrative: The family that started with one modest Banh Mi sandwich truck in Silicon Valley, hoping to serve Vietnamese Americans working as assembly workers turned the business into an international chain. A man who was a rice farmer in Vietnam discovered that he could start his own company assembling electronic boards and so he started a corporation. A Vietnamese woman who sold used clothes on the street of Saigon married an American who worked in the Foreign Service in Vietnam. In San Francisco, the once used clothing seller on the streets of Saigon helped her husband shepherd in a multibillion-dollar investment fund.
So many stories of transformation overseas indeed ends up transforming the erstwhile Vietnamese sedentary soul.
California in Vietnam
“A brand new country,” a reporter friend from Vietnam recently rattled off to me the other day when we spoke. The once isolated country is fast in becoming the most wired, and the highest user of cell phones. “The hottest market for iPhone sales, far surpassing sales growth in India and China….”
“Facebook entered Vietnam’s market six years ago and at one point it was adding a million signups a month… It is expected to have thirty-six million users this year, that’s out of forty million Vietnamese who even have access to the Internet!”
“The average age of the Vietnamese is below thirty.”
Therefore, it’s a country of amnesia. Three out of four don’t remember the Vietnam War. Its gaze is forward and relentless. A Pew study in 2014 found that of forty-four countries, Vietnamese were the most optimistic about their future. Whereas Vietnam was once a country made up of poverty and isolation, plighted by wars and bloodshed, it is now expressive—a beginning of cultural renaissance.
Vietnam finally emerged out of the old war to be deeply wired, running on high gear toward cosmopolitan life. Vietnam cleaned up and repaved its broken sidewalks, like their wealthy Chinese and Japanese counterparts, beginning to travel overseas—no, not to vượt biên, but to shop. And to study and invest. Meanwhile high rises spring up virtually overnight in Saigon and Hanoi and Danang. A few months ago in my newsroom in San Francisco, an intern fresh from Vietnam came to improve her English and learn American ways of doing business so that she could get into an MBA program and start her own media firm back home. She seemed to capture that world wariness of the new generation when she commented that, “At first I was impressed with San Francisco, but a few weeks here and it feels, well, nothing special. Just the same as Saigon.”
Just the same as Saigon…
Once upon a time the ocean was treacherous and leaving Vietnam once meant a risk of death, or starvation, or drowning, or falling into pirate hands. Once it took three to six months to send a care package home, and with a government officer reading the letter before it is distributed to the addressee. Today, coming to America for many is a matter of purchasing a ticket on an airplane, and instead of marveling at its grandeur, the wary traveler begins to see America, as the intern sees it: “not that big of a deal.”
An inverse effect is taking place. San Francisco has more pedicab drivers than Saigon, which had gotten rid of them, and so a juxtaposition can be seen along the Embarcadero: Young, strong white people pedal tourists up and down the sidewalk—many of them from Asia. San Francisco has more homeless than its sister city, Saigon, which has cleaned up its streets. The poor/rich gap in the Bay Area is staggeringly third world and the cost of living is stratospheric. One out of three residents here ponder departure.
“You just have to realize that to vượt biên these days—the crossing of borders—doesn’t have to be outside of Vietnam,” a friend commented as he and I sat and drank artisan coffee in my hometown, Dalat, a few years back. Increasingly the dream can also be had at home. These days even middle class Vietnamese fly overseas to shop.
Whereas once Vietnam stood in contrast to America, to California, today it is running on parallel tracks, with its multi-strata and multi-class society. The once old echoed ’90s phrase, “Vietnam is a country not a war,” has now become an old cliché. Vietnam hasn’t been a war for many years, but it’s more than a country. It’s becoming a global entity, a major exporter of rice and coffee and seafood products, a major tourist destination.
Vietnam is a country, but it has taken on various shades of California. Vietnam wants to become the opposite of its former self—it wants to be globally connected, cosmopolitan. It has run fast and furious from war to peace and so like bamboo shoots spring up after the rain, cityscapes in Vietnam looks more and more like SOMA here in San Francisco. Vietnamese cities exist in a new world dotted with Starbucks and McDonalds. Remember those wondrous scoops of Baskin-Robbins? They too have made their way to Vietnam. In his wildest dreams uncle Phuoc could never imagine freeways being built with overpasses in Vietnam, and high rises that radically change Saigon’s city scape.
So be warned: The more you long for California, the more it comes to you. Turn on the TV and see what I mean. A rural teenager appears; she’s nervous, full of self-doubt. But when she sings, a golden voice. Judges swoon. The audience tears up. Soon, a month or so, she has been transformed, grows in confidence and beauty. The awkwardness replaced by the studied gestures of shyness and elegance. She gives a flawless performance. The audience roars with approval. A new princess is born. In the back stage, her yokel mother hugs herself and weeps.
Welcome to Vietnam Idol. Or Vietnam The Voice (The Voice of Vietnam). Or Vietnam’s Got Talent. Regardless of which reality show it is, a golden thread of optimism runs unmistakably through. The new “happily ever after” motif has eroded old world fatalism, and shifted the collective psyche. The Emcee of Vietnam Idol seems to say it all: “We will transform your dream into reality!”
Why was it that I ran so far and so fast from the parochial, the sadness? For some years after the war, after migrating to America, I failed to speak Vietnamese. I failed to form Vietnamese sentences that would shock my younger self, the chatty kid who talked endlessly in his schoolyard in Saigon among his classmates. The child sang the South Vietnamese national anthem with fervor each morning. But the teenager fled from his Vietnam memories, and even changed his name along with his preferred tongue, and read so voraciously that he even began to dream in English.
Only in adulthood did I come to realize that the English language was not one to be used to escape; but instead, to fully claim wholeness, English needs to be applied to commemorate and to grieve. I began to write. I now tell stories about my lost childhood, the lost country, and about the painful exodus out of Vietnam. I began to travel. And I began to go back.
As so did many others.
Victor Luu, who fled Vietnam a day before Saigon fell to Communist tanks on 30 April, 1975, has become a successful software engineer who participated in several start-ups in California’s Silicon Valley. In 2006, he returned to his hometown and founded Siglaz, a software company with more than fifty employees. In his new office in a tall building in an electronic corridor area near the airport called E-Town, where many Vietnamese American expats open their high tech businesses, Luu could see, when he turned around from his desk, the runway from which his plane full of panicked refugees took off decades years ago. “I fully believe in Vietnam,” he added. “The future is here. And I want to help it happen.”
Diep Vuong, a cum laude graduate of Harvard University with a degree in economics, left Vietnam as a boat person in 1979, but came back a decade ago to help fight human trafficking in An Giang, her home province in the Mekong Delta. “I always remember once we came to America my mother saying to my sisters and I that we were born Vietnamese for a reason, and it is up to us to figure out what that reason is,” Giang said. Hers is that she can protect at-risk young women being sold into slavery. “Increasingly, Vietnamese Americans are playing central roles in the philanthropy sector,” she said. “As for me, I can’t just sit and do nothing. Any of those girls being sold to Cambodia or China could be a cousin or a child of an old friend.”
A San Jose born Vietnamese American, known as Giay Giay, went back and married a local boy in Dalat. “Whenever I hear a chicken crow in the morning I get nostalgic for California. My mother raised chickens in the suburb.” Vietnam’s culture has moved toward an open sexuality, she told me, a new sexual revolution. Little Saigon continues to practice its conservative values left over from the time of the war. “The young here don’t care about history, about the past,” she said, “whereas I come back and I am obsessed with it. I want to know where my mother came from, the way she lived.”
The refugee becomes immigrant and then, it seems with opportunities, he, in the twenty-first century, turns into a cosmopolitan—someone who participates in multiple spheres and languages and cultural-geographical affiliations. It’s inevitable, too, for many Vietnamese abroad to take the journey home at some point.
In truth the Diaspora has always played an important role in Vietnam’s economic life, long before the Cold War ended, long before the return trip was possible. But over time, as borders became porous, as the forces of globalization swept over Vietnam after the Berlin Wall fell and the USSR unraveled, the Diaspora began to—individually, collectively—reach back to its homeland, investing, providing technological know how, sharing cultural knowledge, sponsoring others to come, repatriating, and performing philanthropic work, all forming a complex transnational network, becoming a bona fide global tribe.
In middle age, I too long to return. But each time I go to Vietnam I have to contend myself with several versions of my homeland.
There’s the visceral—that long lost country at war time, a world of clanship, intimate connections, of smallness, of a charmed and quiet provincial life of walled villas and servants, a childhood of slow rhythm in the tropical world, and romantic music Joe Dassin, Françoise Hardy, Silvie Vartan, Johnny Halladay, Christophe… and of little school kids in uniform streaming into the old lycée, and the distant echoes of bombs in those quiet Saigon nights after the rain. Even now, typing these words, I still yearn for all that—a world long gone, the fear and the wonders, and retrievable only in the recalling.
One refuses the singular narrative, marrying instead ideas and languages, living with many reference points. To return, one goes forward.
Then there’s that raging river called Vietnam, and it’s full of young, ambitious people wanting to transform the country and improve their lives. It’s consumerist. It’s hardworking. It’s highly wired and growing in sophistication. It’s a world of go-getters. It’s a long-dormant nation waking up, rejuvenating, it roars with sounds of millions of motorcycles toward an unknown future.
Do not get me wrong. Injustice remains. Human trafficking is a scourge. The rich/poor gap widened. But I also wish to tell you that it is a country made up of ambitions and an increasingly globalized landscape. And it’s an unknown country.
And here’s the third home—a landscape made of one’s invention and many points of connections. The only way back is therefore in going forward. One cannot go home again, not to relive the long lost world, or capture the past, but one can take up mantle in that familiar, yet entirely new country. One learns to see the many dimensions of the world simultaneously. One refuses the singular narrative, marrying instead ideas and languages, living with many reference points. To return, one goes forward. One marries opposed ideas and creates points of synthesis. One hears a new symphony over the cacophony. One commits all to memories. One is open to the flux, to change.
Last year in Saigon, not far from where I used to live, I went to a karaoke party with some friends. Not much of a singer, I nevertheless was, after a few beers, coaxed to sing. I selected “Feeling Good” by Nina Simone, which I know by heart. As friends watched in astonishment, I belted its lyrics out with gusto, especially this verse:
And this old world is a new world And a bold world For me For me…
Because, well, that’s how I felt about new Vietnam, and it does feel good.
 “52” refers to the number of those remaining from the one hundred ten people who survived their saga in a boat on the high seas before being rescued by Filipino fishermen from the seaside town of Bolinao, the Philippines.
Andrew Lam is the author of two books of essays, Perfume Dreams, Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora, East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres, and a collection of short stories, Birds of Paradise Lost. He is a recipient of Creative Work Fund to write a series of stories exploring the relationship between Vietnam and California.
Californians need to find ways to mark their identity. This stands true for newcomers and longtime residents, in spite of the amnesia that often befalls ordinary California life. When lines traced from the past prove insufficient for cultivating this, Californians sketch the way forward with the tools available. Very few of these tools are from here, and yet they readily find their way in the regular use of Californians who aim to be themselves, charting new courses, transmogrifying into new narratives they start to see.
This is the story of tattoos in California, and the roles they’ve played in the lives of many. They didn’t start here, but originated with Oceanic and Asianic cultures, especially the Japanese, gamely reaching the California shores from the Pacific world. Various world cultures have long marked bodies with scarring, piercings, and other features meant to enhance the skin’s rich historical and cultural context. From the ancient world to today, tattoos canvassed the body with information: denoting rank, status, meaning, replacing the natural with new data, displaying and communicating an ongoing openness to fresh, transformative possibilities. Artists ink this information onto bodies, like painting on a canvas, or a mural.
The mid-twentieth century saw a cultural development in California during and after World War II and the Korean War, where the relaxed “California lifestyle” provided a fitting environment for what would soon emerge. It was carried by figures like Sailor Jerry, Ed Hardy, Cliff Raven, and Freddy Negrete. Perhaps the only place capable of integrating, nurturing, and disseminating the phenomena so quickly, California was “the global center of the Tattoo Renaissance.”
It makes sense, then, for our reflections to finally be grounded in Los Angeles, where cultural objects and modalities are “rife with contradiction, conflating artificiality and authenticity.” We leave to our readers and those who interact with and experience the Natural History Museum’s exhibition, “Tattoo,” to determine which bits of this new tattoo culture—especially in California but also beyond—reflect the artificial projection or the genuine reality, the stories of the past and future to live into, both of the artists and those inked. Marking identity in California has never been a simple task, but with the power to make bodies into new texts in a moment, tattoo culture remains one of the truest California things happening.
Tattooed silicone torso, USA, 2016, Silicone, Guy Aitchison (b. 1968)
Tattooed silicone leg, France, 2013, Silicone, Chimé (b. 1961).
“Early in the 20th century Chinese tattoos imitated American, European, and Japanese designs. More recently, Chinese and Taiwanese tattoos are integrating traditional Chinese imagery—the Buddha, lion, and dragon, which are all important cultural symbols.”
Left: Charlie Wagner, from the series “Homage to Tattooing Icons,” Switzerland, 1990, Acrylic paint on canvas, Artist: Titine K-Leu (b. 1968). Right: Anna “Artoria Gibbons, from the series, “Homage to Tattooing Icons,” Switzerland, 1990, Acrylic paint on canvas, Artist: Titine K-Leu (b. 1968).
Screen showing the catalogue of a traveling tattooer, North Africa and the Middle East, 19th c., Wood, glass, pigment, and paint, Artist: Unknown.
“Before there were shops offering black-and-gray tattoos, many tattooers in East L.A. worked out of their kitchens and garages. A homemade tattoo machine, some batteries wrapped in white paper, stencils, black Higgins ink, cigarettes, artistic ability, and a willing friend was often all it took to get started.”
L-R, T-B: Tattoo by Big Gus, USA, 2008, Photographer: Markus Cuff. Tattoo by Louie Perez III, USA, 2017, Photographer: Louie Perez III. Tattoo by Jose Lopez, USA, 2007, Photographer: Markus Cuff. Tattoo by Corey Miller, USA, 2006, Photographer: Corey Miller. Tattoo by Franco Vescovi, USA, 2008, Photographer: Markus Cuff. Tattoo by Manuel Valenzuela, USA, 2012, Photographer: Markus Cuff. Tattoo by Carlos Torres, USA, 2013, Photographer: Markus Cuff. Tattoo by Regino Gonzales, USA, 2006, Photographer: Markus Cuff. Tattoo by Chuey Quintanar, USA, 2014, Photographer: Markus Cuff.
Culture Bomb (tattooed silicone leg), USA, 2013, Silicone, Artist: Paul Booth (b. 1967).
Left: Flash sheet (eagle and serpent), Long Beach, California, USA, Circa 1950, Reproduction of color drawing, Artist: Lee Roy Minugh (b. unknown). Right: Flash sheet (roses), Long Beach, California, USA, Circa 1950, Reproduction of color drawing, Artist: Lee Roy Minugh (b. unknown).
Smile now, Cry later, Los Angeles, California, USA, Late 20th c., Drawing on paper, Artist: Freddy Negrete (b. 1956).
Shamrock Social Club, Sunset Blvd, West Hollywood.
Freddy Negrete, Shamrock Social Club.
Isaiah Negrete, Shamrock Social Club.
Freddy Negrete, Shamrock Social Club.
Isaiah Negrete, Shamrock Social Club.
 See Nina G. Jablonski, Skin: A Natural History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013).
 Arnold Rubin, “The Tattoo Renaissance, in Marks of Civilization: Artistic Transformations of the Human Body, ed. Arnold Rubin (Los Angeles: Museum of Cultural History, UCLA), 236-41. See also,
 David L. Ulin, Sidewalking: Coming to Terms with Los Angeles (Oakland: University of California Press, 2015), 83.
Tattoo is an exhibition on display at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County until 15 April 2018. With ongoing special events related to the exhibit, the exhibit may be seen daily from 9:30 a.m. – 5 p.m.
Please join us Wednesday, March 7th, 7-9 p.m. in Orange County’s Little Saigon for a discussion with best-selling authors Thi Bui and Andrew Lam, today’s chroniclers of Vietnamese California. Bill Gates called Thi Bui’s memoir, The Best We Could Do, one of 2017’s top-ten books; and frequent contributor to NPR’s All Things Considered, Andrew Lam’s book on the Vietnamese diaspora, Perfume Dreams,won the PEN/Beyond Margins Award, and Birds of Paradise Lostwas a finalist for the California Book Award. Ahead of an upcoming Boom series on “Vietnamese California,” these leading writers will be joined in a conversation by Boom editor Jason Sexton and by scholars of the Vietnamese experience:
Sarah Grant, Assistant Professor of Anthropology (CSUF)
Phuoc Duong, Lecturer of Asian-American Studies (CSUF)
The event will be held at in the heart of Orange County’s LITTLE SAIGON, at Viet Bao News, 14841 Moran St., Westminster, 92683. Come along early to enjoy some of the world’s best Vietnamese food at any number of nearby restaurants. Books will also be available for sale and signing.
Please RSVP since space is limited. Hope to see you there!
You are looking west from the white bluff of Boyle Heights, to opposite bluffs, backlit by an autumn sunset, mid-October 1877. A panorama of green shadow—grape vines and fruit trees in apple-pie order—fills the valley below, tessellated by farm roads and a rail line that binds the right bank of the river to its left and Los Angeles only recently to the rest of America. Northwest of the bluffs, between the mesa of East Los Angeles and the lip of Reservoir Ravine, thick with white sage and thyme, a ridge of the Santa Monica Mountains that rises behind the city is split by a gap. The Los Angeles River runs through it. Sycamores and laurels step down to the stream. Willows and tule reeds touch the water. Herons wade for fingerling trout and toads that will one day give Frogtown its nickname.
South of here, the Los Angeles River is slower, wider, braiding, making and unmaking gravel islands, and wandering into and out of orchards and vineyards and finally out of anyone’s caring. There is no Fourth Street descending from the heights to the east bank of the river with its own orchards and rows of vines. There is no Fourth Street Bridge across the river.
The falling afternoon light strikes the cupola opposite of the new high school on Fort Moore Hill. It strikes the cross on the new Cathedral of Saint Vibiana and the tower of the county courthouse. The valley is filling with night. The city’s 136 gas streetlights are being lit. Still in sight are the three bridges that finger across the river: a railroad trestle northward, and southward the Aliso Street Bridge. Between them, a slab sided, pitch roofed, wooden bridge, lit with kerosene lamps, stolidly crosses at the river’s narrowest point. No one calls it the Macy Street Bridge. It is just the “covered bridge.”
From the crest of Boyle Heights all of this is visible—bridges, ridge, river, roads—even the loom of Catalina Island, like a band of fog on the southern horizon. It is near the end of that time when all of Los Angeles can be taken in one long glance.
February 16, 1887, looking south from the trestle of the Southern Pacific Railroad, every river crossing, except for the covered bridge at Macy Street, has been damaged by yesterday’s storm. Part of the trestle fell during the night. A stone bulwark, put up last year, collapsed. The trestle of the Los Angeles and San Gabriel Valley Railroad stands, but a hundred feet of its western approach washed away. The eastern end of the Downey Avenue bridge went into “a howling chasm” when the riverbank was undermined. A thousand feet of levee further south is gone. The foot of the Aliso Street Bridge disappeared, a hundred feet of streetcar track, “still attached to the western stump of the… bridge, trails disconsolately down the river.” Gaps, with the river running through, separate the western and eastern ends of the First Street Bridge from solid ground. Without all of its bridges, western Los Angeles is nearly cut off. Although the storm passed this morning, at 4:30 a.m. the “hoarse roar of the river, audible all over the city,” continued to frighten residents.
They had good reason to be frightened. The river had flooded in winters of 1782, 1811, 1814, 1825, 1851, and 1861. After the flood of 1867-1868, water lay over the Cahuenga Valley for weeks, with the hills of west Los Angeles like islands in a sea. Flooding in 1876, 1884, and 1886 (with several deaths) began the river’s channelization that will try to confine it to an “official bed” (which is only some lines drawn on a map).
The river will flood again in 1891, 1898, 1914, 1917, 1921, 1924, 1927, and 1934 (killing 40 in La Cañada). It will flood catastrophically in 1938 (killing forty-five in Los Angeles alone). Even after 1938, when concreting the channel begins, portions of the Los Angeles River will flood in 1943, 1956, 1969, 1978, 1980, 1983, and 1995 (eventually killing a total of twelve in all).
Ruined railroad bridge shows the result of flooding along the Los Angeles River in 1914. Phot courtesy of the Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Los Angeles Public Library, 1914.
December 4, 1891, looking north from the First Street Bridge, a reporter for the Los Angeles Times pauses in his streetcar tour of Los Angeles. Above him is Boyle Heights, “on a high mesa which terminates in a bluff, at the foot of which the river formerly ran.” This, he tells his readers, is the city’s most “airy and healthy residence section.” Elevation, he says, is important from “a hygienic point of view.”
An elevated point of view is important because of the persistent flooding of the Los Angeles River, something the reporter leaves out of his description. The heights are doubly “hygienic” because their uneasy residents are safely across the river from the tenements of Sonoratown and Chinatown, and the immigrant Italian and Russian neighborhoods around the old plaza.
The reporter has one regret as his tour of the city ends (and he will not be the last to feel it). “Much of Los Angeles is almost a terra incognita to many of our residents, in spite of the fact that rapid and frequent transit has to a great extent annihilated distance.” The reporter takes a last look at Boyle Heights. “The large brick building on the crest of the bluff, which is almost as prominent a landmark as the high school and the courthouse, is the Catholic orphan asylum. The rays of the setting sun cause the gilt cross on its summit to shine out like the evening star.”
January 12, 1905, looking east from the newly built Fourth Street Viaduct, the members of the city council’s bridge committee (here to approve the work) can see the trees of Prospect Place and the houses along the crest of Boyle Heights. At their feet is acreage to be developed, now that the carriageway of the new viaduct connects the heights to the downtown business district.
It had taken ten years of political pressure by Isaac Van Nuys, Moses Sherman, James Lankershim, William Workman, and other men with a stake in real estate to engineer the transformation of this acreage into house lots and storefronts. Workman, former mayor and now city treasurer, had reminded the members of the bridge committee that the river lacked a vehicle and pedestrian crossing between First and Seventh Streets, a distance of a mile, and those who live in Boyle Heights and beyond “were of necessity greatly inconvenienced.” The lack of a bridge greatly inconvenienced Workman. The profitable development of his fifty-five acres of floodplain below Boyle Heights depended on building the Fourth Street Viaduct. Workman depended on the sale of lots to wipe out years of debt.
It had taken some weeks of city council politics to get construction of the viaduct started. The sale of municipal bonds in 1903 had raised $100,000, which was not enough to repair old bridges and build a new one. The city engineer advised city councilmen to spend the bond revenue on repairs. He was skeptical of the proposed Fourth Street Viaduct. “It winds around like a snake, and I doubt if it would be satisfactory if finished,” he complained. The councilmen traded votes, cut appropriations for the promised bridge repairs, and the city engineer was overruled.
The sinuous geometry of the Fourth Street Viaduct, required to connect the offset ends of Fourth Street in the Arts District and Boyle Heights, was labeled “basically intolerable” by the Federal Highway Administration’s National Bridge Inventory in 2014. The Fourth Street Viaduct over the Los Angeles River was built in 1930-1931 with seismic retrofitting in 1998 that gave the structure improved lateral stability. Image courtesy of Library of Congress, Historic American Engineering Record Fourth Street Viaduct, HAER No. CA-28.
It had taken the J. D. Mercereau Company seven months to build the viaduct. The footings of the western end lay at Santa Fe Street, followed by 200 feet of wood trestle connecting to five wood and steel spans over the railroad tracks on the west bank and 300 feet of steel truss to cross the river, plus another 500 feet of wood trestle over more tracks to reach the edge of Boyle Heights where Workman’s acreage waited to be developed.
The new Fourth Street Viaduct is 2,000 feet long. It has a six-foot-wide footpath for pedestrians who now have slightly more than a mile walk from Boyle Heights to reach the freight depots, warehouses, and factories that crowd the western bank of the river. The viaduct has a twenty-foot-wide carriageway for farm wagons and shays, and increasingly also for motorcars. The Tourist, the first automobile to be manufactured in Los Angeles, is the most popular; 2,692 will be built between 1902 and 1910. The new bridge across the river is paralleled a few feet away by its twin—the Los Angeles Traction Company’s steel trusses erected in 1898. The spindly supports and thin girders of the two bridges—emblems of an unpretentious, readymade aesthetic—will soon be described as ugly.
Beneath the tracery of wood and steel beams, the river sprawls. Dry most of the year, the riverbed is a tumult of sand ridges and gravel flats, some of them mined to make concrete for the tall buildings that have begun to crowd Broadway. At the foot of Boyle Heights, the bed of the river is a dump where the city’s garbage and its trash are hauled, some of it to be set afire, the rest to be raked through by the hogs that belong to a Mr. Clemmons. He sells the hogs to the city’s abattoirs. The city’s butchers sell the pork as “the finest corn-fed.”
A traveler comes to a bridge. As the traveler starts to cross, one foot is still earth bound. Empty space is beneath the other. The next step requires trust. The traveler is uplifted less by concrete or masonry and more by forces kept in balance with the void waiting below. The bridge seems static, but every footfall must be absorbed, its effects distributed by tension or resisted by compression. The bridge responds. Its span springs to the traveler’s step in order to seem unmoved.
The traveler is unimpressed by the daring that manages hidden forces to make it possible to walk above the earth. The traveler prefers to see a sculptural gesture, a vault from known to unknown, and a hope. But a bridge also marks faithfulness and a constraint. Mid-stride, the traveler cannot veer off the bridge to wander along the green bank of the river passing under. The traveler cannot choose a new path of desire. No meanderings on a bridge. The traveler can only depart from one commonplace and return to another—mid-span, exposed at the space in between. There is no refuge on a bridge. A fleeing traveler can only run back to what was left or run toward whatever is ahead.
The traveler pauses, leans against the parapet, and takes in the elevated view. A bridge affords perspective but also detachment. What happens under the bridge happens without the traveler’s intervention. Water flows or trains pass or cars make their way below. Above, the traveler is more than suspended. Daydreams of flight await on a bridge. So do nightmares of vertigo, of falling, and of suicide. The bridge itself is vulnerable if the balanced forces that keep it standing shift. Every bridge is uneasy. If a bridge falls, what seemed a trivial gap becomes a barrier again, and the landscape the bridge assembled disconnects. Overcome a bridge, and communities at either end are estranged. A bridge is a promise that a broken world can be whole.
(Although every bridge inevitably goes somewhere, not every bridge is necessary. Mere connection is not sufficient reason to build a bridge. Sometimes separation is better.)
The traveler knows only the upper half of a bridge. Unlike most structures, bridges have an above and a below that are intimately joined, but separate, places. Rising from its piers is a different bridge, secretly and elegantly utilitarian. The footloose traveler could abandon the bridge’s flow and settle underneath with others who have given up progress toward the destination imposed on those overhead. Instead of support, the poetic interconnection of uprights, struts, and parabolas arching overhead—beauty more legible to the homeless and the urban forager—could be shelter. The traveler could exchange a vista on top of the bridge for an encampment under it.
Instead, the attractive force of the opposite end of the bridge—its constant offer of novelty—leads the traveler on a contradictory path, perpendicular to the events and possibilities under the traveler’s feet. The bridge has taken the traveler to a phenomenological encounter only to take the traveler from it.
The public demands a harmonious and graceful design, Louis Huot tells readers of Architect and Engineer magazine. Huot is a member of the city’s Department of Public Works under Chief Engineer of Bridges Merrill Butler. (Butler will oversee the engineering of six river crossings between 1924 and 1932. Huot will design the ornamental features for most of them.) The only public that Huot finds demanding are the five appointed members of the city’s Municipal Art Commission. The commissioners’ goal is “to work for the gradual elimination of ugliness,” and the humble wood trestles and girder trusses over the Los Angeles River are “about as ugly as they can be.”
The commissioners feel that a better Los Angeles can be evoked through civic architecture in the classical style. City Engineer John A. Griffin agrees. The character of these bridges “will be such as to excite comment from visitors who enter and leave Los Angeles,” Griffin tells the city council in 1923. They will “raise the status of Los Angeles as an enterprising, properly developed city.”
It is an extraordinary epoch, defined by bridges. The Los Angeles Times, the Automobile Club of Southern California, and the railroads persuaded voters (many of them new motorists) that replacing narrow trestles and truss bridges would relieve traffic congestion and give the city monuments to its ambitions. With new bonds approved, eleven improved river crossings are built: Ninth Street in 1925, Macy Street and Franklin Avenue in 1926, Fletcher Drive in 1927, Fourth Street over Lorena Street and North Spring Street in 1928, Glendale-Hyperion in 1929, and now the Fourth Street river crossing, begun in 1930 and finished two months ahead of schedule. (Still to come are bridges at Washington Boulevard in 1931, Sixth Street in 1932, Figueroa Street in 1937, and Riverside Drive in 1938.)
These improvements are made for an accelerating regime of speed. “These bridges, especially over a stream of this character, should seem as little like bridges… and as much as possible like improved bits of street,” landscape architect Charles Mulford Robinson had told the city council. A bridge should be “conformable to the automobile which it carries across the chasm,” according to Huot. They are horizontal monuments for a horizontal city.
The material of ambition—of monumentality and liberated movement—is the steel-reinforced concrete of the arches that supports the bridge decks and in the pylons, parapets, light standards, brackets, and balusters that decorate their roadways. Mixed on site, the concrete is poured into temporary wooden forms over supporting wood framing called falsework. Smoothed, the concrete will look like well-finished limestone. In less visible parts, after the concrete has set, the impression of the forms will be left as they are. Parallel ridges the length of individual boards and the knots and grain in the wood will still be visible, a permanent shadow.
Huot’s design vocabulary comes from imperial Rome, Renaissance Italy and Spain, and the Paris of Louis Napoleon. Nearly all the new bridges are variations on the classical tradition, except for the Fourth Street Viaduct, where the design is Gothic Revival.
Wooden forms (in any shape a carpenter can fit together), poured concrete, and the conservative aesthetics of the Municipal Art Commission have made monuments of desire out of utilitarian bridges over the city’s problematic river.
What nature divided has been brought together, David Faries of the Los Angeles Traffic Association tells the women of the Hollenbeck Ebell Club, who are waiting on the new Fourth Street Viaduct for speeches about progress to end. A locomotive whistle interrupts. The Playgrounds Department band waits to play “Sidewalks of New York” with its refrain about “east side, west side, all around the town.” Officials from the three railroads that pass under the approaches to the bridge are next to speak, happy now that the last wood and girder viaduct over their tracks is gone. Celebratory banners hang from the catenary wires that carry the electrical grid powering the streetcars that share the viaduct with pedestrians and motorists. Dedication day—Thursday, July 30, 1931—is overcast and hot.
Nature’s divide, for Faries, refers to the Los Angeles River, bracketed with earthen levees but not yet bound in concrete, hummocked with sand mounds, dusty most of every year but prone to sudden flooding, and no longer a city dump.
The river is the least of the bridge’s concerns. Most of the 2,700-foot length of elevated viaduct from Molino Street to Anderson Street at the foot of Boyle Heights crosses two industrial roadways and a braid of rail lines connected to repair shops, freight yards, and passenger terminals. The bridge itself, supported on graceful, open spandrel arches that leave the west bank of the river to touch down at what had been William Workman’s fifty-five acres, is only 254 feet long. Just as the city engineer in 1903 had warned, the new viaduct snakes through a tangled section of riverside street grid, splits in two at its western end (anticipating street alignments that will not happen), and bends as it reaches the foot of Boyle Heights to connect with Fourth Street.
Although every bridge inevitably goes somewhere, not every bridge is necessary. Mere connection is not sufficient reason to build a bridge. Sometimes separation is better.
Seen from the air, the viaduct appears uncertain about its start and uneasy about where it must end. Fourth Street on the west side of the river angles southeast, generally conforming to the 36 degrees of disorientation in the city’s colonial street grid. Fourth Street on the Boyle Heights side angles northeast. The two ends of Fourth Street, offset where they should face each other across the river, cannot be made to line up, as if the western and eastern parts of Los Angeles were never meant to be in one city.
The division was not natural, and the viaduct’s sinuous geometry could not overcome the forces keeping the halves of Los Angeles separate. A report sent to the board of the Federal Home Loan Bank in 1939 will explain why. Boyle Heights “is a ‘melting pot’ area and is literally honeycombed with diverse and subversive racial elements. It is hazardous residential territory….” The Fourth Street Viaduct seems to have something to say, but none of the Los Angeles papers will ever ask residents of Boyle Heights what message to them the imposing new viaduct is intended to carry.
There is a long flight of steps that takes pedestrians up from Santa Fe Avenue to a streetcar stop where the western end of the viaduct splits to drop one leg down to Mateo Street while the other leg bends further west and north. After the dedication, streetcar passengers will stand there, in the middle of the roadway in a rectangle of white lines painted on the new asphalt. Motorcars will pass on either side while streetcar passengers wait within the white lines of the “safety zone.” The speed limit for motorcars is twenty-five miles an hour.
The streetcar fare is seven cents. 1931 is the second year of the Depression, and not many workmen have seven cents to spare. Some of them will continue to walk from homes in Boyle Heights to jobs in the rail yards, factories, and warehouses between First and Sixth streets along the river. When those men, lucky to still have a job, return in the evening over the Fourth Street Viaduct, one or two might pause to rest on one of the small benches that Louis Huot placed on either side of several of the light standards that spire from the parapet railing. The resting men probably no longer notice, in the fading golden light, the decorative elements that Huot had cast in concrete and made to be appreciated at twenty-five miles an hour.
The Fourth Street Viaduct, somberly Gothic, crosses the not-yet-concrete Los Angeles River in 1931, from the Ralph Morris Collection, Los Angeles Public Library, 1931.
Evergreen Cemetery is at the end of the streetcar line that the Fourth Street Viaduct in 1931 carries over the river—Main Street to Third Street, east to Traction Avenue, a south on Merrick Street, another turn at Fourth Street, across the river to Fresno Street in Boyle Heights, north to First Street, and then a stop at the cemetery gates. The dead could take this way by streetcar; two had been available for charter, specially designed to carry a coffin in a separate vestibule, screened by a stained glass panel, while mourners sat beyond in silence. More recently, automobile corteges cross the river with their burdens and turn off Fourth Street to Evergreen Avenue and the cemetery. A solitary driver arrives by the same route to walk among the headstones to find one and leave flowers.
The new bridges and viaducts Merrill Butler and his engineers have built north of Fourth Street allude to an antique imperial grandeur, confirming with reinforced concrete that the westward course of empire had arrived triumphantly at its destination. The style of the Fourth Street Viaduct is different and solemn in its Gothic Revival details. The pylons at each end of the bridge evoke a memorial cenotaph. Their lancet openings suggest the entrance to a nave. The columns of the light standards, which support the catenary lines of the streetcar power grid, rise above an acanthus leaf capital to taper like the finals atop a medieval cathedral. They intend to lead the eye heavenward. The frames of the streetlight lanterns are banded by a row of primroses, topped by flourishes in the form of leaves, and crowned with a final that could be mistaken for a cross. The parapets lining the viaduct are decorated with alternating equilateral triangles. A trefoil opening pierces each; its three-part shape represents stylized leaves of clover. Both triangles and trefoils are reminders of the 3-in-1 of the Christian Trinity. The Fourth Street Viaduct crosses the Los Angeles River with a pastiche of ecclesiastical architecture and Christian iconography.
The mourner crossing to Evergreen Cemetery by streetcar and the businessman bound for Montebello or Whittier by automobile see one bridge. The train passenger below sees another. The mourner and the driver see a road that rises only slightly at the river crossing, framed by the four pylons. The passenger sees, as the train slows on arrival or picks up speed on departure, a regular pattern of arching ribs overhead, uprights connecting the bridge’s deck to the arches, and cross members connecting the arches to each other. Above is somber decoration, the simplified memories of somewhere else made tangible. Below is structure with no past, beautiful in its economical management of invisible forces.
There is something else to see, perhaps best understood by the occasional pedestrian who pauses to lean against the parapet or sit on one of the small benches. Nearly every outward facing surface, above and below, in the penetrating light of Los Angeles, is patterned with areas of sun-struck brightness and bands and panels of knife-edged shadow. In the moving light, while the pedestrian watches, the surface of the concrete moves too, projections dripping shadows, moldings shedding darkness over plane surfaces, incised grooves stacking alternating white and black bars, changes in profile edged by shadow declaring the three dimensions of pillar, pilaster, corbel, and column.
The Fourth Street Viaduct, gleaming in the sunlight in 1931, is a bright thing for a city that wishes to be only white. As the shadows pass over it, it finds its life in the absence of whiteness.
The tapering spires above the light standards on the Fourth Street Viaduct echo similar features found on Gothic cathedrals. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Historic American Engineering Record Fourth Street Viaduct, HAER No. CA-280.
Empty in 2018 except for a stream of processed wastewater in the low-flow slot that perfectly centers its concrete floor, the Los Angeles River passes beneath the bridge that barely interrupts the almost level deck of the Fourth Street Viaduct. Belvederes, set into the arches of the sentinel pylons that mark the bridge’s place, overlook an engineered void. In the months with no rain, under a sky the color of dried urine, the river is a mirror that reflects the city’s disregard of it. Given two or three days of winter rain, however, the river will carry four times the flow of the Colorado, and dark water, passing with the speed of a freight train, will reach up the slopes of the channel. The river is an artifact of desire as much as the bridges that span it.
What Los Angeles sought, after its river was crossed at Fourth Street by rail and highway viaducts, is hard to discern. For William Workman, the ambition might have been marketable real estate; for city planners, to untangle a transportation grid; for the railroads, to secure uninterrupted approaches to the city; and for downtown business associations, to ensure the daily flow of workers and shoppers. Each of them, in different ways, wanted a city of greatness to satisfy the demands of their desire. They constrained a river because of them and built bridges to make the fulfillment of their dreams seem inevitable. (In the name of other desires, this image has begun to change, as the river channel northward is restored and as parts of its floodplain are reclaimed by parks.)
Evergreen Cemetery is the furthest Los Angeles extended across the Boyle Heights mesa. The future was not in the modest houses and two-story shops along Fourth Street as it rose to the crest of the bluff. The future was south of downtown and then west, away from the threat of the river and beyond the historical claims the old plaza made. East of the river is where the city housed its lepers and syphilitics, where its orphans were asylumed; where the city sent its aged and infirmed, and where its paupers are still cremated and buried in a mass grave as each year ends. East is where the city has sent its dead, not just to Evergreen Cemetery, but to the Odd Fellows and Masonic cemeteries (where lodge brothers lay together companionably), and to the cemeteries (segregated by prejudice and theology), for Catholics, Serbians, Chinese, and Jews.
The viaduct’s Gothic Revival details were intended to inspire melancholy recollection in 1931, although they were not generally the memories of the multi-ethnic communities of Boyle Heights, dispersing even then into a second generation of diasporas. (Did sons and daughters of Jewish immigrants, returning at the yahrzeit, notice that the way to Mount Zion cemetery and Home of Peace was now marked by remembrances of English cathedrals?) In 1939, federal housing surveyors, as a warning to lenders, redlined all of racially mixed Boyle Heights. In the 1950s, the California Department of Transportation, taking advantage of redlining, began cutting rights-of-way along the bluff that the Mexican residents of Los Angeles in the 1830s had called, because of its whiteness, the Paradón Planco. Freeways replaced rows of wood-frame houses where Russians, Italians, Japanese, Latinos, and Jews had lived together and left together for work across the Fourth Street Viaduct. In 2017, and mostly Latino now, the community of Boyle Heights remembers the freeways’ dislocation and the indifference behind it. East has been what the city, in its haste toward the future, chooses not to remember.
The Fourth Street Viaduct bears desires across railroad tracks, across access roads, across the blank surface of the Los Angeles River channel, and across time. Some are desires you may not recognize today or want anymore. But the viaduct cannot do otherwise, or be other than what it is, so well made was it, with skill and an eye toward the effect of its repeating elements of arch and trefoil, pylon and spire, light and shadow. These elements, which framed the city’s aspirations in 1931, are still available today as a borrowed elegy for a city full of anxieties about its place.
The contained river below and the stylish viaduct above were intended to be monuments of Anglo triumph over nature and space, achievements that need thoughtful translation if we are to bridge the abyss made by the city’s subsequent erasures of memory. Recovery of the commonplace is sensuous: the sight, smell, sound, and touch of things that might be the prelude to an embrace or a blow, that might make us cringe at their maker’s motivations, that might require humility—even love—instead of fury or contempt when considering the history of these things. Crossing over a bridge is risky.
A traveler comes to this bridge, an articulate framework suspended between its past and our future, to cross over its consort river that divides Boyle Heights from the Arts District. The number of pedestrians is fewer now, and the passengers waiting for streetcars are gone. A Metrolink train rumbles under one of the viaduct’s arches. A tree, rooted within or under the roadway deck, tops the parapet where it crosses Santa Fe Avenue.
A homeless man is living on the belvedere that projects from the arch of the first pylon as the bridge prepares to leap east. A shopping cart and plastic sheeting make a barrier in front. The sidewalk here is only five feet wide, and the footing is uneasy because the metal grates that provide access to conduits under the sidewalk are uneven. Pearly grit, enough to support a few shoots of grass, has gathered along the parapet edge as if a slow-moving river had passed over the bridge, dropping silt. The belvedere beneath the arch of the opposite pylon stinks of urine. The streetlight lanterns here are missing glass panels, so only the skeletal arch remains in the metal frame. Time and the vandalism of indifference both work on the Fourth Street Viaduct every day, which is part of the pathos of things in our lives. Yet insulators for the streetcar wires on the light standard next to the pylon and a catenary holdfast over the arch remain as the viaduct’s memories of itself, not yet erased. The banister under the traveler’s hand has the feel of stucco. The thread of water in the low-flow slot below glints and murmurs. The advent of something terrible or beautiful seems to be near. Some birds wheel overhead.
In 1998, the Fourth Street Bridge was retrofitted to improve the lateral stability of its arches in an earthquake. In 2014, the National Bridge Inventory of the Federal Highway Administration determined that the entire Fourth Street Viaduct met the “minimum tolerable limits to be left in place as is,” although the geometry of its roadway deck is “basically intolerable.” The report added that the viaduct is “functionally obsolete.”
The drawings and paintings accompanying this essay are by Roderick Smith and Richard Willson, and are part of the exhibition, “Positively 4th Street: An Encounter with Los Angeles Viaduct,” on display at the Don B. Huntley Gallery, Cal Poly Pomona, through April 12, 2018.
 This description is based on Brooklyn Land and Building Company, “View of Los Angeles from the East,” 1877.
 Connection to the transcontinental rail network (through San Francisco) began in September 1876.
 The high school was completed in 1873, the cathedral in 1876.
 “The Storm: The Situation of Yesterday Fully Set Forth,” Los Angeles Times, February 18, 1887, 1.
 Blake Gumprecht, The Los Angeles River: Its Life, Death, and Possible Rebirth (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001). Gumprecht details episodes of flooding along the Los Angeles River through the 1990s.
 “Ten Years: The Story of a Decade,” Los Angeles Times, December 4, 1891, 1.
 City council’s bridge committee; 2000 foot length; “Big Bridge Accepted,” Los Angeles Times, January 13, 1905, 14. Bridge advocates; of necessity greatly inconvenienced; “More Interest in Los Angeles Real Estate,” Los Angeles Herald, November 24, 1901, 7. Not enough to repair; it winds around like a snake; “Calls It a Steal: Kern Fights for Fourth Street Bridge,” Los Angeles Herald, July 19, 1903, 8. Sale of land benefits Workman, “Bridge Street Tract Sold, Los Angeles Herald, September 20, 1903, 1. Construction details, “Plans for Fourth Street Bridge,” Los Angeles Herald, October 8, 1903, 14. City council politics; “To Submit Plans for New Bridges,” Los Angeles Herald, January 3, 1904, 6.
 Some references claim 5,000 automobiles were produced between 1902 and 1910. The lower total is cited by the Los Angeles Almanac, “First Production Motor Vehicles in California,” http://www.laalmanac.com/transport/tr10a.php, accessed December 8, 2017.
 “City’s Garbage Turned into the Pork We Eat,” Los Angeles Times, June 24, 1906, 13.
 Louis L. Huot, “Modern Lines Are Reflected in New Los Angeles Viaduct,” Architect and Engineer (October 1933): 27.
 Stephen D. Mikesell, “The Los Angeles River Bridges: A Study in the Bridge as a Civic Monument,” Southern California Quarterly 68 (1986): 365-86. Mikesell describes both the engineering and the aesthetics of Merrill Butler’s bridge program.
 “Art Commission to Beautify City,” Los Angeles Times, October 31, 1903, 2.
 Charles Mulford Robinson, “The City Beautiful: Suggestions,” in Los Angeles, California (Los Angeles Municipal Art Commission, 1909), 3.
 Engineering Department, Annual Report (City of Los Angeles, 1923), 30.
 Merrill Butler, “Architecture and Engineering Are Harmonized in Fourth St. Viaduct.” Southwest Builder and Contractor (August 7, 1931): 50.
 “Fourth Street Span Dedicated,” Los Angeles Times, July 31, 1931, 1.
 Home Owners Loan Corporation City Survey Files, “Area D-53, Los Angeles” (National Archives, Washington, D.C. 1939), 7, quoted in George Lipsitz, Time Passages: Collective Memory and American Popular Culture (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1990), 137.
 Al Parmenter, “Change in Motor Law Goes in Effect Friday,” Los Angeles Times, August 9, 1931, 1.
 Laurence M. Benedict, “No Review on Fares,” Los Angeles Times, January 7, 1930, 1.
 “Route Map of the Los Angeles Railway,” 1934.
D. J. Waldie is the author of six books of non-fiction dealing with aspects of everyday life, including Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir. His commentaries on California history and politics have appeared in the Los Angeles Times and The New York Times.