The Journal of San Diego History
Spring 1977, Volume 23, Number 2
Editor James Moss
Asst. Editor Thomas L. Scharf

Book Review

Los Angeles: Biography of a City.

Edited by John and LaRee Caughey. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976. Bibliography. Illustrations. Index. 509 pages. $14.95.

Reviewed by Lawrence B. de Graaf, Professor of History, California State University, Fullerton; author of articles on Western Black History, including “Recognition, Racism and Reflections on the Writing of Western Black History,” Pacific Historical Review, February, 1975.

As Los Angeles approaches its bicentennial, scholars are seeking the significance of that city’s evolution from pueblo to megalopolis. This anthology suggests an awesome theme: “Within a mere two hundred years … Los Angeles has recapitulated world history-the experience of mankind thus far.” (xiii) This saga is divided into eleven periods, from the culture of the Gabrielleno Indians through the dilemmas of contemporary growth. Over one hundred selections offer glimpses of the daily life, culture, technology and natural environment of Los Angeles and surrounding areas. Brief introductions sketch main trends in each era, while headnotes provide continuity between readings. Particularly welcome is the index, an uncommon feature in anthologies.

The theme is well developed in the Spanish, Mexican and early American periods. The editors wisely allow the contemporaries to speak for themselves rather than relying on secondary works. The selections include such classic authors as Hugo Reid, Juan Crespi, Richard Dana and Horace Bell. Most readings are interesting, sometimes anecdotal accounts in their own right, yet they convey an understanding of such key developments as the destruction of native culture, the change from Latin to Yankee life styles, and the increasing emphasis on growth culminating in the boom of the eighties.

The quality of this book declines in the chapters on the twentieth century. One weakness is that more reliance is placed on secondary sources, and few of the primary selections are historically significant documents. None of the major studies of the Watts riot are used. Particularly striking is the absence of political documents. Aside from an excerpt from Upton Sinclair’s 1934 campaign book, there are no accounts of political reform movements, elections or changes in government structure. Some of the literary readings stand curiously apart from the biography of the city or do not illustrate their topics as well as non fictional accounts would.

The greater problem is that the “experience of mankind” in a modern city is infinitely more complex than it was in a pueblo, and no anthology can cover all facets of it. The Caugheys have chosen to continue to emphasize picturesque aspects of Los Angeles more than the growth of a depersonalized metropolis faced with issues that defied resolution. The selections on the Great Depression are mostly on such positive aspects as the rise of Knott’s Berry Farm. There are no readings on unemployment, migrants, or Mexican expatriation. The editors emphasize some problems, particularly the threats to the natural environment and ecological balance posed by freeways, pollution and growth. Urban scholars will wish that similar consideration had been shown to housing problems, where the revealing reports of city housing commissions could have been used; to the school segregation issue, a puzzling omission in view of the Caugheys’ work in that Field; and to the fragmentation of governing agencies in the greater metropolitan area.

This criticism is also a dilemma of much urban history. How does one cover the often pessimistic and technical issues of the modern city and still attract a wide audience? Los Angeles is aimed at the general public, not at urbanologists, and people are more likely to read the quaint and witty accounts of topics unique to Southern California than academic analyses of problem is shared by many cities. The Caugheys have compiled an attractive introduction to the evolution of Los Angeles. It remains for others to provide a biography of the later life of that city that will be more complete, and yet as interesting.