Depression-era book captures LA’s essence

Eighty years ago today, thousands lost their wealth in a series of unfortunate economic events. As stock values plummeted, so did the Los Angeles pride that had been built up through the growth of California industry.

The infamous Black Tuesday launched a nationwide economic depression that caused staunch politicians in decades following to initiate programs to make ends meet for the countless unemployed, a good number of which were in Los Angeles.

One such endeavor, The US Work Projects Administration Federal Writers’ Project and Historical Records Survey, gave jobless teachers, librarians and writers a chance to make their living by compiling information for comprehensive guides to the great American cities — the centers for the nation’s collective suffering.

These guides revealed to readers both then and now a dated essence of resigned oddity tempered by the spirit of possibility and expansion that exists to this day, despite more than half a century’s worth of societal change.

LA’s addition to the “American Guide Series,” Los Angeles: A Guide to the City and its Environs, published in 1941, has no singular author to grace its spine. It is simply another product of the Federal Works Agency and Work Projects Administration, a compilation of hundreds of out-of-work writers that walked the streets of Los Angeles, a city that would sustain them after they humbly gave up their bylines. To this end, the words in the handbook have a sense of collective truth, a portrait divined by the teamwork of the artistic and underfed.

The guide, to say the least, is thorough. More than 400 pages illuminate Californian history and culture, a primer on then contemporary Angeleno culture. Photographs and illustrations give an overwhelming sense of what was 451 square miles of a mixed-up city, a series of suburbs connected by a culture so unique to the area.

But LA’s history can’t escape the inevitable romance tied with the sunny weather and mystical geology, threatening its citizens with small quakes and big rumbles at any given moment.

To preface the book, John D. Keyes, state supervisor of the Southern California Writers’ Project, quickly shot down the idea of a falsely idealized city, expressing his desire “to present Los Angeles truthfully and objectively … It has been lashed as a city of sin and cranks; it has also been strangled beneath a damp blanket of unrestrained eulogy. The book shows Los Angeles as a composite, a significant city.”

Keyes and the guide emphasize LA’s place in the country as the nation’s fifth largest city. “The Fifth City,” as the writers boast, was filled with idyllic parks, thriving businesses and a strangeness that seemed to only grow in between California’s citrus groves and almond blossoms.

The introduction of the guide was very much like the expression of educated awe of an outsider looking at the Los Angeles plain with wide eyes and an empty stomach.

The Los Angeles spirit is all encompassing, a climate that — to the East Coast transplant — “amazes and delights him, and thaws him out. There is a heady fragrance in the air, and a spaciousness of sky and land and sea … His curiousity is always whetted … He feels a certain strangeness … that is once exhilarating and disturbing.”

After all, the city’s residents made quirky fashion decisions: Most residents wore bright colors, girls sported colorful pants, housewives combined casual cotton dresses with furs to go to market, men refused to wear hats and — absolutely shockingly — women’s legs rejected conventional nylon stockings.

This noticeable characteristic of tolerance also created an architectural eclecticism that, even in the Great Depression, gave the city a skyline far more different from the ones of the Old World. The guide notes structures such as the LA Public Library, USC’s own Mudd Hall, LA’s collection of pretty Post Offices and the iconic Los Angeles Times building crafted what was then a low, jagged landscape of brick, stucco and adobe. Even now, the city’s lack of one iconic architectural design gives an insight to just how diverse the Los Angeles skyline truly is.

Writers also boast of the city’s self-sufficient nature, which stems from its great industries of motion pictures, food, airplanes, wine, automobiles and oil. These seemingly disparate commercial entities created both an atmosphere of a layered economic symphony and a multiplicity of faiths in both business and religion.

A short section is even dedicated to “The Business of Pleasure,” which elaborates on LA’s place in American culture as a place to escape, to amuse oneself in a limbo of temporary pleasure. There are ephemeral splendors here that allow tourists to reach upon the stars. Much more common, according to the guide, is the simple joy of experiencing the place firsthand, and thus, the guide provides easy driving tours of suburbs and must-sees clumped together by proximity.

Many of the landmarks still exist in the guidelines, but the highways and hotels have gone to ruin in order to accommodate the contemporary Angeleno driver, but such journeys warrant a try; after all, making the trip from City Hall to Lake Arrowhead may uncover something special, something indescribably magically indicative of the culture and tradition of Los Angeles.

Though the guide is more than half a century old, it still captures that nebulous spirit of a city shrouded in relative mystery. The quintessential Los Angeles can be seen in the guide’s visual elements: maps, photographs and illustrations show timeless images of men bowling on the green in Exposition Park, details of murals from the Federal Building and charming shots of the Lotus Pool in Echo Park, giving a representation of the wonders within the city. Though they’re in black and white, these images, like the text, are nostalgic, familiar and authentic, illustrating a city that’s at once at our fingertips and gone forever.

Clare Sayas is a junior majoring in public relations. Her column, “Lost & Found,” runs Thursdays.