Ten Things You Should Know About Los Angeles


In the mid-nineteenth century, California Indians were auctioned off for slave labor at the Downey Block in downtown Los Angeles. Drawing courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library

by Wendy Cheng and Laura Barraclough

Los Angeles is well known as a place anchored by Hollywood and home to celebrities, beach culture and endless sunshine. There are also the dystopic representations of the city as intellectually vacuous, absent of any redeeming culture and rife with traffic jams, suburban sprawl, environmental noxiousness and racial conflict. As longtime Angelenos and scholars who study LA, however, we know and love a more complex Los Angeles; rich with diverse histories and gloriously multifaceted presents. Since mainstream images depict a skewed and highly exclusionary view of the city – omitting vast swaths of its history, landscapes and inhabitants – we felt that it was a political prerogative to bring the places and histories of the “real” Los Angeles to a broader audience: to literally put them on the map in order to tell a story about how power works through the making of place. As authors of A People’s Guide to Los Angeles, we worked for years to produce our alternative guidebook to Los Angeles. Here are some of our major counter-insights, along with examples of the truly broad array of people and places that constitute the often hidden but fundamental histories of struggle and resilience in Los Angeles and continue to shape the city today.

1. The city was not built by a handful of great white men (or their corporations).

If you were to look at a typical guidebook to Los Angeles, or most of the city’s popular histories, you might get the impression that the city was built single-handedly by wealthy white men with names like Huntington, Doheny, Baldwin and Chandler – men who owned giant industrial corporations that extracted the region’s resources and whose names continue to be emblazoned across the built environment. However, celebration of their financial adventuring and profiteering in the city obscures the creativity, energy and sheer hard work of the people who actually built the city – its laborers, many of them working-class people, immigrants and women.

If we pay attention to these people’s histories instead, we find places like the Downey Block in downtown LA (now the location of a federal courthouse), where California Indians convicted for “crimes” like loitering were auctioned off for slave labor in agriculture and construction during the 1850s and ‘60s; Lang Station, where Chinese immigrant workers completed the railroad lines linking northern and southern California in 1876, forever transforming the state’s economy, despite a growing anti-Chinese hysteria that would eventually lead to their exclusion as immigrants; and Hicks Camp (now the site of a park), an agricultural colony where Mexican immigrant workers lived and developed strategy for the 1933 El Monte Berry Strike, the largest agricultural strike up to that point in California history. There are many such histories embedded in the city’s landscapes, and, since this is a city of workers, more such memories will continue to be created.

The former site of the Downey Block is now the site of a federal courthouse. Photograph by Wendy Cheng, 2010.

2. By ‘city’ we mean county (and sometimes the larger Southern California region).

The City of Los Angeles is the largest and most powerful city in Los Angeles County, which includes nearly 90 distinct municipalities as well as swaths of unincorporated county land. Because the county is carved up this way, political boundaries have been critically important in the perpetuation of metropolitan inequality. For instance, the extremely wealthy city of San Marino (not to be confused with the tiny European Republic) charges non-residents a fee to use its ‘public’ park; as another example, it is widely believed that the relocation of the Rodney King trial to the conservative city of Simi Valley, just outside the LA County boundary, was a major reason for the police officers’ acquittal, leading to one of the worst urban riots in U.S. history. Despite these political boundaries and the way they sometimes get manipulated to preserve power and privilege, the reality is that the metropolitan region is an integrated whole for many ordinary citizens who cross boundaries to commute to work, visit with friends, dine out or take in a show. Increasingly, social and environmental justice organizations also recognize the importance of working at a regional scale to address issues like transportation racism and air pollution. Thinking about Los Angeles as inclusive of the greater metropolitan area better reflects the lived reality of most residents and underscores the political importance of thinking and acting regionally.

3. It is home to the everyday lives and vibrant histories of the working poor, people of color, LGBT people, women and other marginalized groups.

The majority of Angelenos do not live their lives in the elite or heavily commoditized landscapes for which LA is best known. A nondescript block of Vermont Avenue in what is now the Koreatown neighborhood that was once home to two working-class, butch lesbian bars frequented by women of color from the 1940s through the 1960s. As in other cities around the world, bars and other informal social spaces have been crucial sites for the development of queer culture, identity and politics – as became clear in a conflict with police at the Black Cat Bar in the Silver Lake neighborhood in 1967 that led to a two-hundred-person protest of police harassment of queer people. The Black Cat Bar incident preceded New York’s Stonewall by two years and put Los Angeles on the map in the emerging gay liberation movement. Residential neighborhoods have also been significant sites of struggle, as in the South Los Angeles office of Japanese American realtor Kazuo Inouye, who worked tirelessly to open up homeownership opportunities for people of color and integrate all-white neighborhoods in the Crenshaw neighborhood and beyond. Political movements have coalesced and gained traction from modest spaces such as these: the houses and apartments, bars, bus stops, parks, corner stores and churches of the everyday.

Residential neighborhoods in Los Angeles were significant sites of racial struggle, as in this 1949 photograph of a white mob gathering to protest the sale of a home to a Black family in South Los Angeles. Photograph courtesy of Herald Examiner Collection/ Los Angeles Public Library.

The sign for Kashu Realty, the business of Japanese American real estate agent Kazuo Inouye, who fought to open up homeownership opportunities to people of color, still hangs on Jefferson Boulevard in South Los Angeles. Photograph by Wendy Cheng, 2009.

4. The city does not end south of the 10 freeway or east of downtown.

Most tourists visiting LA are directed to downtown, the Westside and Hollywood. These areas have historically been, and to some extent still are, inhabited disproportionately by people who are white, prosperous, famous or powerful. In some guidebooks, maps literally stop at the 10 freeway—completely leaving out the vast communities to the south, most of them Black and Latina/o—and at the Los Angeles River, which separates the Greater Eastside and its historic Latina/o and Asian American communities from downtown. These omissions deflect attention away from some of the county’s most impoverished, segregated and polluted neighborhoods, and away from the forces of systematic neglect and oppression that have created such conditions. But they also hide the efforts, past and present, of creative, ordinary people who have raised healthy families and built strong communities amid formidable conditions, and who have led innovative social and environmental movements in resistance. Thus, if you don’t go south of the 10 freeway, you’ll miss the historic locations of local chapters of the Black Panther Party and the American Indian Movement; the Dunbar Hotel, which hosted the first National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)’s conference on the West Coast; and the home of beloved Communist Party USA chairperson Dorothy Ray Healey. And if you don’t go east of downtown, you’ll miss the neighborhood where black and white residents committed themselves to integration during the 1960s and ‘70s; the racetrack where Japanese Americans were held before being interned in camps during World War Two; the gravesite of Owen Brown, son of legendary abolitionist John Brown; and some of the best Chinese food in the world. There’s so much to see and learn in Los Angeles that is, quite literally, off the tourist map.

5. No, you may not always feel ‘safe’ visiting some of these sites… and that’s part of the point.

Most American cities – and especially suburbs (although they are not always distinguishable) – are so segregated that, apart from strictly hierarchical economic encounters, many Americans rarely interact in any meaningful way with people who are different from them racially, culturally or economically. To a significant degree, this is also true of Los Angeles, even though it is one of the most diverse cities in the world. We encourage people to step out of their comfort zones and regular routes, whether that means attending a strategy session or art exhibit at Chuco’s Justice Center in South LA, a hub for youth and community organizing against mass detention; or going deep into the infamous San Fernando Valley to see the high school auditorium in Reseda where, in the late 1970s, white suburban parents organized to prevent the desegregation of their students’ schools via busing. The social order that is implied by our spatial separation from one another is far from natural, and we cannot truly understand that, nor make meaningful progress towards a more just society, by staying within our comfort zones.

6.  Los Angeles is a nature lover’s paradise.

Scorched hillsides, smog, choked six-lane freeways and miles and miles of concrete – these are some of the most prevalent images of Los Angeles. But Los Angeles is also a place where residents have worked hard to protect the vitality of humans, animals, plants, soil, air and sea. Take, for example, the Los Angeles River Center and Gardens, a hub for activism to reclaim the city’s 51-mile-long, mostly cemented river channel and restore its riparian ecosystem. Or the Ballona Wetlands, one of only two remaining wetlands in the entire county (the rest have been destroyed by high-end real estate), which provides a resting spot for migrating birds, filters ocean waters, and serves as habitat to many species. Or consider the Theodore Payne Foundation for Wildflowers and Native Plants, named for an English immigrant to Los Angeles in the early 1900s who worked hard to preserve native species endangered by agriculture and development, and which now promotes the cultivation of California’s indigenous species through education and programming. These are just a few examples of the vibrant environmental movement in Los Angeles that enriches the city’s history and landscape, making this a rewarding place for nature lovers to visit.

The Los Angeles River still flows for miles through the city and is an important site of environmental activism. Photograph by Wendy Cheng, 2008.

7.  It is as important to focus critical attention on privileged landscapes, in order to understand how they are products of the same processes that create poor, under-served areas.

For people who care about justice and inequality, it can be easy to focus exclusively on people and places that are poor, vulnerable, under-served and ignored. However, to do so would miss the important fact that power operates relationally: as some people and places are oppressed and exploited, others are simultaneously privileged – both are outcomes of the same decisions and processes. Take the California Club, an elite social club founded in 1887 that restricted all women as well as men of color until fairly recently, even resisting a non-discrimination ordinance in the 1980s; and Malibu’s public beaches, where wealthy homeowners have illegally blocked access by the general public to the gorgeous beaches fronting their homes. Some of these sites are already famous tourist attractions precisely because they are associated with wealth and glamor, while others are mundane and little known.

8. There are ghosts in every urban landscape.

These ghosts are not only of people, but also of places. They take the form of that which once existed, but was then destroyed, as in the razing of predominantly Mexican American Chavez Ravine to make way for what is now Dodger Stadium, or the vacant lot that was formerly home to the South Central farm, the largest urban garden in the United States before it was bulldozed in 2006 due to wishes of the lot’s purported owner (where, if you look closely, you might still find some nopal plants, a few errant squash blossoms – the remains of a dream of urban sustainability). These ghosts also include places that were built over, like downtown Los Angeles itself, which was once the site of a thriving indigenous village; as well as that which was never built, such as the proposed East Los Angeles prison, which was successfully prevented by the Mothers of East LA, who formed specifically to block it, then went on to other environmental justice causes. If we don’t call their names and tell their stories, especially in Los Angeles, a city that has been built on reinvention and forgetting, how will people know that these ghosts ever existed? How can we create a future that builds upon these mostly forgotten pasts?

Before its destruction in 2006, the South Central Farm, tended by farmers such as this man, was the largest urban garden in the nation. Photograph by Jonathan McIntosh.

The former site of the South Central Farm, a year after it was bulldozed. Photograph by Wendy Cheng, 2007.

9. It’s all about power.

Analyzing the operation of power in our everyday experiences and landscapes changes the way we exist in, and understand, the world. Los Angeles offers many lessons that illustrate this point. To take just one example, in the 1990s, the LA-based Bus Riders Union (BRU) changed the way the world thinks about public transportation. Despite Los Angeles’s reputation as a city of automobiles, it actually has the largest mass transit system in the country. Beginning in the 1980s, the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) began to pour the majority of its budget into a light-rail system that served only a small percentage of riders, largely ignoring the overcrowded and under-served bus lines upon which 94 percent of riders – mostly working poor people of color – depended. The BRU brought together a multiracial coalition of transit users to assert that equitable access to public transportation is a civil right, and in 1996 they won a historic victory in the courts. Operating out of their offices in an upper floor of the Wiltern, a Statue-of-Liberty-green art deco theater at the intersection of Wilshire and Western Boulevards, directly overlooking several bustling bus stops as well as a light rail station – the BRU continues to fight for the civil rights of transit riders. It stands for just one LA story about how analyzing and then challenging the operation of power can not only transform basic terms of daily existence, but also shift the way people think about what they rightfully deserve.

10. Some of us were born here. (We love this city.)

Los Angeles has a reputation as a city of people from elsewhere, who travel here to “make it big” or “strike it rich” — or simply to support their families back home. There are certainly many important stories of migrants who left their mark on this city’s political and economic history. Noir representations, created and disseminated largely by Anglo and European transplants, have made the city famous as a place of alienation and ennui. But while LA is, without a doubt, a city indelibly shaped by movement and migration, it is also home to many people who were born, raised and plan to die here, and whose families have lived here for generations – some even before the region became part of the United States. Homegrown Angelenos are the organic life-force of the city. They harbor a profound love for Los Angeles, with all its quirks and problems.

We happen to be – happily and proudly – among them.

About the Authors:

Wendy Cheng is a photographer and an assistant professor of Asian Pacific American Studies and Justice & Social Inquiry at Arizona State University’s School of Social Transformation.

Laura Barraclough received her Ph.D. in American Studies and Ethnicity from the University of Southern California, and is currently Assistant Professor of Sociology at Kalamazoo College. In addition to A People’s Guide to Los Angeles, she is the author of Making the San Fernando Valley: Rural Landscapes, Urban Development, and White Privilege (University of Georgia Press, 2011). Her interests include human geography; urban studies; comparative ethnic studies; and the history, politics, and culture of Los Angeles and the US Southwest. She is a native of Los Angeles’s San Fernando Valley.

Wendy and Laura are co-authors, with Laura Pulido, of A People’s Guide to Los Angeles.