Families of a Los Angeles Past
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ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: Whenever I’m on the road and I tell people I’m from Los Angeles, a native, in fact, I see this look of commiserative trepidation cross their faces. To them, this city is overwhelming and unhinged, a place where the people riot and the cops are out of control and the very ground itself pitches and seethes, a sunlit but film noire sprawl where danger lurks, and the racial fault lines underlie the earth along with the literal ones.
The truth is many of us natives also carry these threatening images. After all, we were raised on them too. But now comes a wonderful corrective, a new picture book called “Shades of L.A.,” a quiet, modest but so powerful family album for a bruised city that tends to forget that ordinary people lead ordinary lives here, decent, graceful lives, observing all the garden variety rituals, marrying, burying, giving birth, graduating, all of them.
Did I forget to mention the sub-title, “Pictures from Ethnic Family Albums”–the people in these pictures come in all complexions. These are their pictures, the ones they took of themselves and which have been gathered into this book by the Los Angeles Public Library. The book, therefore, has a wonderful home made feel, as if any of us were looking through our own albums.
It’s a reminder that whatever our color or background, the arcs of our lives are very much the same, and that this is a city of immigrants and always has been–a people who came here from China and Japan and Mexico looking to start over, and of how quickly and movingly they adopted the rituals of their new land. In 1930, a Japanese-American family celebrated Christmas on West 3rd Street. Chinese-American movie extras posed together after a 1934 Labor Day Parade, and in 1923, Mexican-American members of the International Institute celebrated the 4th of July in Boyle Heights, as did these Korean-Americans on a Venice beach a few years later.
This is an album of assimilation, of a city being made, new citizens planting roots in their new Southern California soil, joining basketball teams and baseball teams, and the armed services and the Red Cross. This is an album of reminders too that long before the trouble, before Rodney King and the Watts riots of 1965 there was a lovely, thriving, full tilt African-American community here of hard working, hard playing people. They made money and had kids and had maids and went to the beach like everyone else.
Ah, yes, it was still officially segregated in the 20′s and 30′s–like this one in Santa Monica. So the wounds are here too in this album, tucked in quietly, a reminder of the ongoing prejudices and racial discord that marked not only this city but the state and the country of which it is a teeming, vibrant, passionate, and, yes, sometimes angry part.
But we can we not dwell on that for a minute, not fall back on that note, but celebrate these lives, this album as it portrays the multi-colored family that is Los Angeles and has been and will be.
I’m Anne Taylor Fleming.