Unearthing L.A.’s Improvised Past

In a City That Constantly Builds Over Itself, You Can Still Find the Last Century in Certain Light and Certain Pockets

by Lynell George

For some time now, I’ve been thinking and talking about Los Angeles in the past tense. Not in a nostalgic way—rather, my memory of place had become an overlay, filtering the way I see and move through the here-and-now city.

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Vanished landmarks are still active points on my personal map of the city where I was born and raised—touchstones I remember from the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. That old Westside bookstore with the sleeping cats and sagging shelves? It’s still there in my imagination, waiting for me to show up and find my place in the conversation. And those palm trees near the corner of Citrus and Wilshire, the ones I saw craning their long, slim necks toward the sunlight? I still see them out of the corner of my eye, as I drive by, on my way to my next superimposed somewhere.

I knew that sense of wide-open physical space and tangible landmarks were vanishing (even my overlay of memories couldn’t hide that fact.) But in the last couple of years, marooned for hours in traffic in a punishing commute, I’d lost touch with the city. I wasn’t sure that it still existed—that certain quality I missed about L.A. (or rather, longed for). A quality that had everything to do with space and light; pace and internal rhythm—the spirit of place. This sense of longing set me off on a path to look for the lost city.

For a sprawling city, Los Angeles in the ’70s and even into the ’80s still had an “over-the-fence” feel—personal and human. It was improvised; a quirky admixture of cultures and influences colliding serendipitously into something new.

I became curious if any of those spaces or features, those small moments of connection or rough edges remained in a metropolis that was day-by-day becoming more vertical and dense, more glass and steel. I wondered if that sense of place, that quiet old city still existed. Best way to learn, I knew, was to push into it.

So first with just a notebook, later with a camera, I began to walk Los Angeles—its grittier neighborhoods, cul-de-sacs and alleyways—in the early less-cluttered hours to see what I might find. Often, hiding in plain sight, I’ve found souvenirs of the last century—backyard incinerators, rusting hulks of past industry, hand-painted ghost signs hawking nickel movies or the promise of “Nice Rooms.”

I’ve been surprised to find that for all of the change Los Angeles cycles through, there is still much of the old city left and repurposed: Remnants of a wooden department store escalator, the old chain pie shop now a storefront church, the fading shade of turquoise on a lonely turnkey house. Each one is some sort of last-stand evidence of who we were, each one is floating out of time, eluding erasure.

Photographically, the moments I find myself most drawn to convey a story of reinvention or resilience. What I’ve found is that in certain light and in certain pockets, the past isn’t vanished, but hidden. In those spaces, Los Angeles still feels personal, and if not conquerable at least malleable—still open to inspiration and interpretation.

*Photos courtesy of Lynell George
Lynell George is a long-time Los Angeles-based journalist who writes about the arts, culture, and social issues.

Thinking L.A. is a partnership of UCLA and Zócalo Public Square.
Primary Editor: Becca MacLaren. Secondary Editor: Jia-Rui Cook.

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