Nathan Masters launches blog to restore LA’s history

Using USC Library archives, Nathan Masters, the manager of academic events and programming communications at the USC Libraries, partnered with Gizmodo to launch Southland, a blog dedicated to reviving the history of L.A.

“The idea is to use Los Angeles as a microcosm to explore the way cities have evolved, the way cities are changing today,” Masters said. “Not that Los Angeles is necessarily exceptional in any way; like I said in my introductory post, L.A. has a sort of unexceptional exceptionalism.”

The blog launched Nov. 25. The idea for Southland came from recognition of Masters’ previous work with writing Los Angeles historical pieces for Southern and Central California’s community television station KCET.

Gizmodo, a reputed technology blog owned by Gawker Media, recently began to expand its scope to include urbanism and design. When Gizmodo Editor in Chief Geoff Manaugh saw Masters’ regional historical work on KCET, he approached him with the idea to launch Southland, a proposition Masters eagerly accepted.

Southland’s pieces, however, are more than historical: They examine the role of the physical land Los Angeles occupies in its history.

“Southland is a play on words; we’re sort of using it as a metaphor. We’re examining the city’s relationship with the land,” Masters said. “For instance, lost landscapes and forgotten infrastructures are two key terms we’ve used. Roads, sewers, electric power lines, aqueducts — those are ways a city can expand its reach and grow in size.”

Yet, Masters is taking it further, looking at what the area was like before this infrastructure existed.

“Southern California has undergone a landscape succession. There’s the indigenous state of the land, before Europeans came, you know — native plants, the Gabrielino or Tongva Indians. In the San Fernando Valley there was wheat farming, there was citrus farming, and then they were cut down and replaced with suburbs. That’s what we mean by lost landscapes,” Masters said.

Masters publishes biweekly stories that draw on various aspects of Los Angeles history. He extracts images from USC Libraries and its member collection “L.A. as Subject,” a division of the libraries that aims to preserve, archive and share the history and culture of the Los Angeles region.

“Southland and our other media partnerships complement the already really strong regional history collection we have here,” Masters said. “Our regional history collection serves scholars here on campus. There are some amazing faculty members who are really at the leading edge of understanding Los Angeles and they make good use of our materials, but scholars from all around the world travel here to access our collections.”

Masters, an Anaheim, Calif. native, started the blog to show that the history of Los Angeles is not necessarily how Hollywood portrays it.

“A lot of people think they know all about Los Angeles. Especially because it’s the subject of a lot of films, people feel like they know things about Los Angeles,” Masters said.

Yet the fact that the blog is so region-specific poses an interesting challenge for Masters.

“How do you get people all across the country and all over the world to care about Los Angeles?” Masters asked. “One of the best ways is to surprise people. If you can, turn people’s assumptions about the city on their head.”

Since launching the blog, Masters has already debunked a number of myths about Los Angeles history. In his first post, he made it clear that there was never a war declared on the Los Angeles streetcar system, and that the city in its natural state was an agricultural hub — not a desert as people commonly believe.

Unlike on other blogs, readers of Southland can comment directly on the archival photographs. One can simply click anywhere within the photograph and the interface crops a square of the image so that they can comment on a smaller area within the larger photograph. Masters said this allows for active reader participation.

Masters said reader comments have been overwhelmingly positive. Most recently, Southland received attention from the popular tech blog Boing Boing. The blog has also received a number of positive reactions from the USC community.

“Southland looks like it will provide a unique look at the history of this area covering more than just popular icons such as Hollywood, but equally important stories that might otherwise be neglected,” said Camille Saucier, a sophomore majoring in psychology who works at the USC Libraries. “I appreciate that USC is contributing some of its vast resources towards such community project.”


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