Roundup: September 11, 2013
Almansor Court – 700 S. Almansor, Alhambra, CA
Social Hour: 5:00PM
Speaker: David Kipen
Subject: “Union Station: The WPA’s Guide vs. Raymond Chandler’s Guide”
Click here to view photos from the event.
In this evening’s program, David Kipen will weave together and compare the story of Los Angeles in the 1930’s as outlined in the WPA’s guidebook on Los Angeles, as stylized by the famous noir writers of the time, and as exemplified by the city’s extraordinary gift to itself, Union Station.
Los Angeles has usually needed water far too much to worry about what was in it. With regard to the late 1930s, though, the question becomes impossible to avoid: What was in the water? Raymond Chandler was stripping his pulp stories for parts to build his first novel, “The Big Sleep”. John Fante was mining his misery for “Ask the Dust”. F. Scott Fitzgerald was trying to stay on the wagon in Encino and mapping out “The Last Tycoon”. In addition, Nathanael West was inventing film noir by day hacking away at RKO B pictures like “The Stranger on the Third Floor” and only writing his masterpiece, “The Day of the Locust”, at night.
If only there were some record, some almanac of what it was like to walk those laughably walkable boulevards in Los Angeles, to breathe that ludicrously perfumed air. If only some benevolent patron had stepped in and commissioned a panorama of pre-war Los Angeles, so that future generations could enjoy it vicariously — maybe even try to replicate the freakish atmospheric conditions that made those masterworks possible. In other words, if only there existed “Los Angeles: A Guide to the City and Its Environs” (1941), an historical and current survey of LA in the late 1930s, written by the Federal Writers’ Project of the Works Progress Administration.
Two descriptions of another publicly funded masterpiece, the Union Passenger Terminal, completed in 1939, frame the pivotal years in LA between 1939 and 1958. Bookended by these admiring but modest accounts, the first in the WPA guide, the second in Raymond Chandler’s novel “Playback”, a picture emerges of LA and her on-again, off-again, literally back-on-again love affair with travel by train.
Mr. Kipen has written the introductions to UC Press’s reissues of the WPA guides to Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego, and the State of California. He is the founder of Libros Schmibros, a nonprofit lending library and bookshop in Boyle Heights. He has been book critic for the San Francisco Chronicle and director of literature for the National Endowment for the Arts, and is a Getty/Annenberg/USC Fellow in Journalism this fall. He was born in Los Angeles and indicates that he will always live here.
Larry L. Boerio