Inside the Consumer-Built City: Sixty Years of Apocalyptic Imagery

An essay from Norman Klein's Tales of the Floating Class, Writings 1982-2017; Essays and Fictions on Globalization and Neo-Feudalism, published by Golden Spike Press (2018)

Originally written for: Helter Skelter: L.A. Art in the 1990s (MOCA, 1992)

Images © Golden Spike Press

Many great cities have folklores about their own demise; and in these fables, we find secrets about how they were built, or taken apart. Los Angeles is no exception, quite the contrary. According to novels and films since 1930, L.A. is supposed to die by fire, earthquake, suffocation, amnesia, in the dark, in a movie theater, or in some way as seen from a distance, perhaps through the window of a car. The distance often suggests a kind of tourism rather than social realism. Long before the blade runner nightmares, L.A. seemed to inspire stories about enraged tourists taking their revenge, the most famous being Nathanael West’s novel The Day of the Locust (1939).

What follows is a voyeur’s history of consumer apocalypse, in three stages: first, from the thirties into the sixties (the destruction of downtown); then, after 1965 (the domination of the freeway); and finally, in the nineties (the blade runner fantasy). Above all, the nightmare is inspired by the experience of consumer-built spaces, a tourist's guide to hell, in a world built by promotion and set loose like a gyro. It is the Los Angeles of crime fiction and film noir. Its sources begin in the nineteenth century, and find fruition after 1930.


Throughout the nineteenth century, many painters and writers described the European city as a consumer Babylon, built for the self-gratification of the shopper. In a short story written in 1844, Balzac described a Paris newly redesigned for shopping, “the Babylonish luxury of galleries where shopkeepers acquire a monopoly of the trade in various articles.” He wrote:

To know how to sell, to be able to sell, and to sell. People generally do not suspect how much of the stateliness of Paris is due to these three aspects of the same problem. The display of shops as rich as the salons of noblesse before 1789; the splendors of cafés which eclipse, and easily eclipse the Versailles of our day; the shop-window illusions, new every morning, nightly destroyed.
[Parisian shoppers need] illuminations costing a hundred thousand francs, and many-colored glass palaces a couple of miles long and sixty feet high; they must have a fairyland at some fourteen theaters every night, and a succession of panoramas and exhibitions of the triumphs of art.Balzac, from the opening to Gaudissart II, the standard, late nineteenth-century translation found in numerous editions.

This is a sinister vision. Similarly, the English architectural fantasist, John Martin, painted imaginary Babylons that suggested London in the throes of pleasure industries, as in Balthazar’s Feast (1820). Gustave Doré’s wood engravings of smoky London (1872) were filled with convulsive images of goods being delivered for the pleasure of Babylon amid a mad mix of stores, warehouses, and colonnades. Chicago and New York were called industrial Babels, again inspiring a sense of the prurient implications of consumerism, where classes and races mix. The term Babylon became a symptom of the emerging urban chaos as the population in major cities exploded during the second half of the nineteenth century.Mark Girouard, Cities and People: A Social and Architectural History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985), 344-48. He draws upon nineteenth-century diarists, like Goncourt, and the term itself: “The Modern Babylon” was the title of a panorama book about London in the 1830s. Clearly, Walter Benjamin sensed the same issues in writing about the late July Monarchy and Baudelaire’s Paris. Also see Marshall Berman’s All That Is Solid Melts Into Air (1982), and many other studies on modernity and consumerism in the nineteenth century, particularly its links to shopping districts and urban planning.The dense shopping districts and crush of traffic often symbolized the apocalyptic nightmare, as the sites for what Kipling called “the grotesque ferocity” of urban promotion.Rudyard Kipling, The City of Dreadful Night (Cleveland: International Fiction Library, n.d.), 101.L.A., of course, was in the consumer business very squarely by the mid-1870s, engaged in tourism and campaigns to entice railroad interests and real-estate development, but the city leaders had their own notions of how to handle the moral dilemma of consumer Babylon.

L.A. was designed, rather systematically, to not operate like those overcrowded cities back east, and yet at the same time, to simulate them. It was supposed to be more of a Protestant businessman’s fantasy of Martin’s pleasure dome–very family oriented–a Babylon in its way, but one that also resembled a proper garden city, even a farm town. In its mapping of streets and roads, it was supposed to look like a flower on a creeping vine, very modern, but not built in a concentric way like industrial cities, and not so grimy and miscegenated. It had to be better lit than Chicago as you entered it. Even though most roads were unpaved, city leaders made certain that key streets downtown were put under electric arc lights by 1882, like a premonition of a movie set about the city of the future. The crucial image they worked on was how L.A. appeared at the moment the outsider entered by train: it had to look absolutely monitored, the space where the raucous American West ended. Imagine the midwestern tourist arriving by rail to L.A. at the turn of the century. The train makes a slow, wide turn at Alameda. From across the street, out of “cribs” in a red-light district, prostitutes would make eye contact with prospective customers.

The tourist consumer was supposed to be well armed against such blasphemies. Even on the train, brochures had been handed out. They were paid for by the L.A. Chamber of Commerce, the Santa Fe Railroad, the Pacific Electric streetcar company, even by realtors. From Chicago to Saint Louis and points west, ads in newspapers and magazines had directed tourists toward the Protestant Eden. They were designed to turn the eye away from the seedier elements, although so many were easy to find, even hard to miss.

From local streetcar maps, by 1910 certainly, it is patently obvious that every new town in L.A. was laid out in response to the extensive new streetcar system, either in inter-city Red Cars, or the local Yellow Cars. And the companies that built the system, privately held and heavily into real-estate speculation, were linked directly to promotion. In the brochures, even the maps, there are addresses of realtors to walk to after the disembarking from the train downtown. Any number of consumer attractions are attached directly to streetcar routes: ostrich farms, orchards, beach hotels, particularly along the so-called Balloon Route, from downtown in a gigantic ellipse to the ocean and back, it is a white, Protestant fantasy for a “city of churches” (L.A. was envisioned as a place where every imaginable religion could set up its temple). But not far from the station is the gamblers’ Tenderloin, on Spring Street. And alongside the streetcars non-white laborers are at work on new trunk lines. They are mostly Mexican and Japanese, present yet invisible in the promotional package.

This is very much the spirit of L.A. even before the movie industry arrived (1912). With more boosterism than heavy industry, L.A. was the Vegas and Orlando of the early twentieth century. Pressure was severe to keep a clean image. But despite the efforts of the boosters, L.A. was notorious for its seedier tourist attractions (drugs, gambling, prostitution). During Prohibition, the contrasts grew even more evident, with some ten thousand bootleggers, gambling ships out in Santa Monica Harbor, scandals in the film industry. All this was contradicted by even more waves of expensive promotion. Plans for a multiethnic L.A. carnival were underway, with the following advice:

As America, and particularly California, is the amalgamation of all races, could we not arrange with local people (of ability) from the various countries to give small displays, distinctive of this particular country, the Japanese, for instance, are exceptional gardeners, [and could make] (something along the lines of) the famous Chrysanthemum tableaux of Japan.From a letter to Edward A. Dickson, editor of the L.A. Examiner, who was very well-placed in the promotional network, judging from his papers in Special Collections at UCLA (Collection 663). This letter from 1926 (Box 5) was written by a dentist named Edwin Irvin, who suggested a Battle of Flowers theme for an L.A. carnival, clearly referring to the old La Fiesta (floats with people in sombreros, etc.), or the original Rose Bowl. Then as now, tourist events in L.A. often were given a “multicultural” flavor (only now the flavor also may involve issues of political empowerment).

There were also plans for a Parade of Nations from the film industry, with a fruit parade, a motion picture parade, tableaux (vivants no doubt) of Hollywood now that she had grown tenfold in merely ten years.

One imagines how Nathanael West might have described such an event. The key to noir images of the downtrodden is the bizarre contrast with the consumer images presented by the L.A. leadership–Tod’s life among movie sets compared to life at the “San Berdoo” Apartments. That is why so many of the noir classics came from novelists who also worked as screenwriters, who felt the contrast most vividly, between the information tycoons (real estate, film, glamor, newspaper promotion, advertising) and what critic Louis Adamic called “Shadow America” (1929):

Los Angeles is America. A jungle. Los Angeles grew up suddenly, planlessly, under stimuli of the adventurous spirit of millions of people and the profit motive. It is still growing. Here everything has a chance to thrive–for a while–as a rule only a brief while. Inferior as well as superior plants and trees flourish for a time, then both succumb to chaos and decay. They must give way to new plants pushing up from below and so on. This is freedom under democracy. Jungle Democracy.Carey McWilliams, Louis Adamic and Shadow America (Los Angeles: Arthur Whipple, 1935), 79.

Adamic is referring to the hopefuls who were getting lost inside the boom cycle of the twenties. Beyond their vast numbers (over three hundred arriving every day), they were treated as ghosts by the media who worked with boosters or followed the many scandals. In the twenties, L.A. was the Saudi Arabia for American oil. Its population doubled to 2.2 million, filling in many of the vacant boundaries between townships that once were simply lined with pepper trees, or with summer flowers rising up into the hills unchecked. But many who came found high prices, sever competition for jobs, and low wages.

By 1930, visible contradictions were often remarked upon. While L.A. was being hyped as “the playground of the world,” the “all-year-round city,” it was also described by preachers like Sister Aimee Semple McPherson as the city of transience, of the last chance, it was the city of thwarted expectations, the place featured in articles about beauty queens getting their hopes undone in the film industry. From the thirties on, many of the classic novels of dark Los Angeles centered around the consumer in a feeding frenzy, trapped in a setting where ungratified consumer desire has made murder or suicide its only remaining object. The scenes include: the Hollywood premiere that leads to murder in West’s The Day of the Locust; the dance marathon that becomes a danse macabre in Horace McCoy’s They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1935); the movie mogul who is spun into reductive hopelessness, a victim of consumer planning, in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon (1941); restaurants that become sites for murder in Mildred Pierce (1943); a used car lot that suggests suicide in Charles Willeford’s The Woman Chaser (1960). The grift is always on. The nightclub is always sinister. How well we know the formulas developed over dozens of noir films and novels set in L.A., with their grim soda jerks and flop houses lit by the flickering neon of a nasty city that never sleeps.The body of literature on noir fiction and film is too vast to summarize here, except through a few key points: the structure of the noir crime story involves an inversion, a retelling, as if to say that the crime itself is erased, and usually rediscovered long afterward. To emphasize this inversion, the setting requires a world where criminals are in business, and businessmen are crooks, then adds confrontations where moral frontiersmen are trapped in this urban cesspool. Finally, as the crucial added element, essential parts of the final scenes are told from the point-of-view of the criminal directly, who becomes an unreliable narrator forced to reveal the perversities that actually generated the crime. In that sense, all business is ultimately governed by crimes of passion. The uneasiness of the telling (finding who did it), the inability to trust the domestic of the ordinary surface of events, fits very comfortable for L.A., where so much is erased and layered. Into these erasures enter the impassioned murderers, adept at covering up until events overtake them. In that sense, noir is surely a fable about the consumer-built world, in all its fractured signification.

The formulas also involved victims with amnesia brought on by the consumer-driven experience. Presumably their numbing lapses of memory were induced by the extremes of L.A. as in this passage from Eric Knight’s You Play the Black and Red Comes Up (1938):

The minute you crossed into California you went crazy… I could remember everything about California, but I couldn’t feel it. I tried to get my mind to remember something that it could feel, too, but it was no use. It was all gone. All of it. The pink stucco houses and the palm trees and the stores build like cats and dogs and frogs and ice cream freezers and the neon lights round everything…
I thought about coming over the Santa Monica mountains and seeing Hollywood all lighted up like a fairy city; and the way men in yellow smocks stood on Sunset Boulevard waving bags of Krispy-Korn and trying to sell movie guides to the homes of the stars and how I never saw anyone ever stop to buy one.Eric Knight, You Play the Black and the Red Comes Up (Berkeley, Calif.: Black Lizard Books, 1986, orig. 1938), 131-132.

In Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One (1948), Forest Lawn cemetery in Glendale becomes an allegory about mortuary salesmen driving their workers insane. By the time Jim Thompson presents his grifter’s whorehouse vision of the Sunset Strip in the late sixties, the dens of noir iniquity may have shifted neighborhoods, but remain linked to that central theme: how consumer hype erases the sense of place, and invades the self.

We look at the state of L.A. in the 1990s, noir indeed. The population is exploding as the New Pacific Byzantium adjusts to the new world economy. We see a city in economic downturn after a boom, a bit reminiscent of the early thirties, at the start of the Depression and the opening of the noir traditions. Like the early thirties, growth has stopped, and yet the tourist impact remains, apparent in the shopping colossi newly built on the West Side during the 1980s–as erratically overbuilt as ever, as clearly connected to consumer speculation as ever, and probably even more isolated from the multiethnic L.A. than ever.

That is the heritage of a city planned and let loose through an alliance between consumer promotion and transportation. Was there a movie set on that empty lot? Something looks missing, something erased. First came the streetcar and railway promotion that built the outlines of L.A. from 1885 into the teens. Then, even before the streetcars were dismantled came the freeways, after 1939. Even now, as traffic worsens, as the city grows denser, older and poorer communities still look expendable. They are barely noticed, except as freeway exits on the lateral plan.

In the coming decades, many poorer communities will be removed, either leveled and rebuilt, or simply ignored while they take on a post-apocalyptic appearance. That has been the pattern for sixty years now, since old Chinatown was leveled in the thirties. By the fifties, speculators were allowed to tear down key buildings in decayed neighborhoods directly facing the edge of downtown. Then what remained was abandoned, and left frozen for two generations, after downtown’s Bunker Hill was removed in the sixties. This has been a city where neighborhood politics rarely shape city ordinances, quite the reverse. The predominantly lower-class, Hispanic neighborhood of Chavez Ravine was replaced, first by plans for low-income housing, then, after a red-baiting campaign, emptied to build Dodger Stadium. Through city bonds, zoning variances, and eminent domain, real-estate expansion frequently was protected far more than community rights. L.A. is a city of momentum, rather than maintenance. It is a city of erasure, and camouflage.

As a result, the sites that remain–after promotion has failed–very often look emptied, or like beached carcasses, like Venice in 1905 or Mount Olympus (in the Hollywood Hills) in the sixties after they went bust– skeletons of wires and stucco, a building here, a fantasy shell there.Both were neighborhoods designed as fantasies, with canals built in Venice modeled after the Italian originals and a mock Greek statuary decorating Mount Olympus These create an unsettling experience for visitors, a gothic mood that is inscrutable as if the clues to a crime had been buried, as in Orson Welles’ decaying Venice canals in Touch of Evil (1958).

Over the years, social critics from Carey McWilliams in the forties to Mike Davis recently have tried to describe that whimsical evil–L.A. as sardonic. Davis uses noir phrasing, about “Fortress L.A.,” or the “Developer’s Millennium,” in evocative openings like the following: “The shortest route between Heaven and Hell in contemporary America is probably Fifth Street in Downtown L.A.”Mike Davis, “Chinatown, Part Two? The ‘Internationalization’ of Downtown Los Angeles,” New Left Review (1986).McWilliams used carnival images, about “the circus without a tent,” with lists of sideshow larcenies that went with it, particularly in a very influential essay entitled “The Sociology of the Boom.”Carey McWilliams, Southern California: An Island on the Land (Santa Barbara: Peregrine, 1973, orig. 1946). Also see Norman M. Klein and Martin Schiesl, eds., Twentieth Century Los Angeles: Power, Promotion and Social Conflict (Claremont, Calif.: Regina Press, 1990). For L.A. history as social theory, the problem is always centered on how to overcome the lingering impact of consumer-built experience. L.A. is too often simplified either as the great exception or the virtual allegory. Both extremes tend to obscure the enormous political power that consumer industries wield here (real estate, agri-business, oil, and film– all heavily reliant on consumer promotion).Probably the earliest such book was Los Angeles (1932), by Morrow Mayo:

All of [the spectacle and hype of L.A.], together with the farmers and the quacks, the tourists and the boosters , the beach resorts and the crazy architecture, make the whole section a sort of outdoor circus.Morrow Mayo, Los Angeles (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1932), 324-25.

These critics always emphasized that, beyond the fantasies, L.A. actually “exists,” has a stable population often ignored in spicy stories about transience, high suicide rates, and bizarre cults. And yet, the mood of romantic gothic is so captivating, it is difficult not to imagine corpses in low-key lighting, as in a film noir. A good case in point is a lecture Robert Towne gave on what he left out about L.A. in writing the screenplay for Chinatown. Every question in the packed auditorium came from fans who presumed that his film images of evil in Chinatown were truth incarnate, that it all had happened as in a Raymond Chandler novel. The noir is so exotically compelling, its phantasms consume our own memory of the crises of the city. As Davis writes: “Noir was like he transformational grammar turning each charming ingredient of the boosters’ arcadia into a sinister equivalent.”Mike Davis, City of Quartz (New York: Verso, 1990), 38.

Hearing Voices: Imaginary Death Knells

This transformational grammar also operates directly in the mind of the resident here. L.A. is whimsically gothic because the spaces are designed so often to emphasize the spirit of the buyer’s impulse–you alone in the shopping mode, like and endless reification of the Lacanian mirror stage, where no unifying signifiers ever develop. Daily life in the consumer-built setting can feel highly disengaged, rather like living inside a TV commercial. The small rituals that are supposed to seem random feel instead much more voyeuristic, as if you are unconsciously following a real-estate salesman’s script wherever you go.

In that setting, odd fantasies can take over, paranoid brushes with death of the sort one reads in pulp magazines. For example, some people have said to me that when they walk on empty L.A. streets in the old industrial district downtown, they can feel–imagine they feel–the sights of an infrared rifle, blocks away; as if a lunatic with nothing much to do were monitoring them, instead of the police who circle the area like shepherds.

These imaginary nightmares often involve savage reversals of the consumer act. In the late seventies, a myth emerged about supermarket parking lots, a grand peur for the shopper. As the story went, a man, described by many in precise detail–usually in his early twenties, dark hair, obsequiously helpful, soft-spoken–would walk behind old ladies while they leaned over with bags of groceries, the trunk of the car wide open, one way or another, he would ingrate himself, look needy. The lady would agree to drive him somewhere. He would murder her en route. I am told the crime described was imaginary–never took place, a shopper’s folktale. However, many people were convinced that they had been following the story in The Times or The Herald, or knew a family this had happened to. (Even stranger, the bad wish finally came true much later, in 1991, with a series of “mall” killings in Covina.)Laurie Becklund, “Rage and Alienation Mark Suspects in Mall Murders.” Los Angeles Times, September 22, 1991. The tone of the article even reads as a noir crime novel.

Like these consumer folkmares, there are noir and apocalyptic scenarios that continually repeat in literature, film, and the visual arts from L.A. By the mid-sixties, they take on an increasingly disengaged spirit, like a nightmare one watches through the windshield of a car. Some of the darkest of these myths, summarized in the following sections, revolve around L.A. fires, smog, and freeways.

The City Burning

Summers are fire season in L.A., with a stillness and apprehension that can suggest bizarre connections between nature and urban collapse. For instance, in The Day of the Locust, in the midst of a riot brought on by consumer ennui, Nathanael West has Tod Hackett remember his painting of The Burning of Los Angeles. While watching the riot and the fire in the Hollywood district, Tod is “clinging desperately to the iron rail,” thinking of details in his painting:

...the burning city, a great bonfire of architectural styles, ranging from Egyptian to Cape Cod colonial. Through the center, winding from left to right, was a long hill street and down it, spilling into the middle foreground, came the mob carrying baseball bats and torches. For the faces of its members, he was using the innumerable sketches he had made of the people who came to California to die.Nathanael West, The Day of the Locust (New York: New Directions, 1962, orig. 1939), 184-85.

Similarly, in August 1965, the Watts Rebellion became the fire that altered the culture of the city. Afterward, a flock of apocalyptic books appeared. They tend to describe a world dying by long distance. Joan Didion remembered the Watts riot as a summer fire seen from the freeway:

The city burning is Los Angeles’ deepest image of itself: Nathanael West perceived that, in Day of the Locust; and at the time of the 1965 Watts riots what struck the imagination most indelibly were the fires. For days one could drive the Harbor Freeway and see the city on fire, just as we had always known it would be in the end. Los Angeles weather is the weather of catastrophe, of apocalypse.Joan Didion, Slouching Towards Bethlehem (New York: Dell Publishing, 1968), 65.

Notice how peculiarly disengaged the description is. Obviously since the mid-sixties, there are many more dark stories using the freeway, but that is simply a measure of a much broader distancing device. Social conflict is roped off, like a museum display, or like ashes blown from a fire. Is this mess finally getting out of hand, the driver wonders, uneasy about “sigalerts” that make all problems sound like innocent acts of nature?

The floating disquiet seems quite a contrast to the highly coordinated crisis management (public services, planning, zoning; the cautious, fortified look of the new downtown; Operation Hammer, which was used by police against L.A. gangs, presumably to fight the war on drugs, and which ultimately led to the most apocalyptic public images of all, the Rodney King videotape) that has shaped the look of L.A. in the trajectory that proceeded from the shock of the Watts Rebellion. Urban planning was refashioned afterward, as was city politics. Of course, after 1965, many other forces came into play as well, from Vietnam to white backlash. Together, they appear increasingly in descriptions of nature taking its revenge on the city.

The fire stands in for helplessness before monumental natural disaster, a world that suddenly has lost its monitor, and gone out of control, as in novelist Thomas Sanchez’s description of a fire in the Santa Barbara mountains:

It was time to evacuate. We piled personal belongings in the cars. I ran through the darkened house locking windows and tying doors together so advancing flames couldn’t suck them open. Minutes became hours, hours became lifetimes. There was nothing to do except wait and watch which way the fickle winds of fate would blow. The curtain of flame rose higher around us, the fiery opera in full force, a hundred houses already burned.Thomas Sanchez, Angels Burning: Native Notes from the Land of Earthquake and Fire (Santa Barbara: Capra Press, 1987), 33.

Fire meant the end of immunity, the window of advantage gone, the biosphere so essential to Southern California taking revenge, or the non-white “hidden” world claiming its place. The mood after 1965 sparked national best sellers about the end of L.A., like Richard Lillard’s Eden in Jeopardy (1966), or Curt Gentry’s The Last Days of the Late, Great State of California (1968). Journalist Lawrence Powell wrote this about a fire in Malibu: “What next? Cliff slippage? Earthquake? Drought? Plague? War? All have visited the earth at some point in history, Southern Californians should not expect immunity forever.”Lawrence Clark Powell, Ocean in View: The Malibu (Santa Barbara: Capra Press, 1987), 57. This is a new edition of a book published by Dawson’s Book Shop (L.A., 1968); the original article appeared in 1958.

The Invisible City: Freeways

The freeway network in L.A. was essentially finished by the mid-sixties, and ran at high efficiency for about ten years. Architecturally speaking, it completed a process whereby the point where one entered public spaces was narrowed considerably, and the private spaces one had within the auto where enhanced.A useful source is Douglas Suisman, Los Angeles Boulevard: Eight X-Rays of the Body Public (Los Angeles: Los Angeles Forum for Architecture and Urban Design, 1989).This process also fits into a broader, longstanding tradition which began in the twenties. After years of adding parks and public plazas, there came a trend toward much more privatization of landscape and public areas: instead of new parks, there were more backyards, and more boulevard shopping districts along the Miracle Mile or on Sunset Boulevard; it was the inversion of private fantasy into a public consumer phantasmagoria set inside the shopping mall, or the theme park, not to mention being explicitly rendered in the fantasy architecture so notorious to L.A.

Other factors also contributed to this growing denial of public space on behalf of private consumer fantasy. They all related eventually to the freeway, but come historically from other sources. Well into the twenties, an extraordinary isolation existed between the three original urban circuits of the city– Downtown, the West Side, and the San Fernando Valley. Each had developed very separately from the other for generations, and this left clear boundaries, despite the myth of L.A.’s sprawl and endless uniformity. If anything, white flight and real estate booms have made these distinctions even stronger, reinforced by the expanded orbital downtowns in each area. If you live on the West Side, you may never travel east of La Brea Avenue, except occasionally to go to MOCA, LACE, or the symphony. The habit is well fixed, like a freeway interchange. One literally passes through to arrive, but rarely stops.

The tourist planning of hotels and theme parks also shows this sense of removal, and quest for homogeneity. For convenience and “safety,” they are built directly off freeways, away from the mixed population centers. Even the Bonaventure Hotel, made famous as critical theory by Fredric Jameson, was built specifically in a depopulated zone where nearby residents were almost impossible to find. The entrance, in fact, was so inaccessible to anyone other than guests, that an extra entrance had to be added on the eastern side in the late eighties, simply to allow the businesses inside to find some street traffic (though there is virtually none except for business lunches). That is consumer-built isolation indeed. Self-alienation might be more like it.

City agencies still permit the destruction of key sites, as they have for generations. On behalf of the continuing strategy to locate historical memories where whites live, historic buildings in the “forgotten” (non-white) side of town are still being quietly dismantled, like the site of the Mack Sennett Studios along Glendale Boulevard in Echo Park (where Charlie Chaplin and Gloria Swanson got their start and the Keystone comedies were filmed in the teens and twenties), destroyed in 1990, observed but never noticed by the 40,000 cars that passed by its erasure.

What then is the final effect of this architectural evasion, this introversion of public spaces evident by the late sixties? In the novel Invisible Cities (1972), Italo Calvino finds Los Angeles unapproachable by freeway, as so many visiting writers do. He cites L.A. in his discussion of the endless catalogue of forms that cities may take, saying “When the forms of cities exhaust their variety, and come apart, the end of cities begin. In the last pages of the atlas there is an outpouring of networks without beginning or end, cities in the shape of Los Angeles...without shape.”Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities, tr. Wm. Weaver (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1972), 139. Roland Barthes suggests much the same in his comparison between L.A. and Tokyo as cities without centers, in his collection Empire of Signs. Myths like these present L.A. as both inscrutable and painfully obvious, the city as oxymoronCalvino is suggesting a city incapable of holding a memory or a shape, rather like a bad battery unable to hold a charge, a city after the death of cities.

While this critique, very frequently made, has the charm of a ghost tale, it still tends to obscure vital historical evidence, much as the earlier noir literature often exoticized the chaos. L.A. has never been simply a sprawl. As mad as some of the results may look, more than fifty years of planning went into the freeway basin we see today. L.A. is not without boundary; its boundaries are clearly defined by its transportation outreach and segregated real-estate planning. L.A. is not suddenly looking like a “real city.” There was always massive poverty here, a large pool of cheap labor, usually shut off from the tourist route, and made invisible, until occasional bursts of violence suddenly made the public notice, like a summer fire–similar to the Locust fire, but more remote. In L.A., one can easily live a lifetime as a tourist, see mostly what the smoke sends by way of promotion, never visit what is left out, except by way of crime movies. That is why L.A. begins to resemble a netherworld.


On July 26, 1943, the city of L.A. underwent a gas attack, four hours of thick, noxious misery brought on by the industrial buildup during the war effort. Others followed, one in September. After blaming a rubber factory in East L.A.–as well as home incinerators, oil refineries, automobiles, and asking numerous experts–by 1948 an Air Pollution Control district was set up.Richard G. Lillard, Eden in Jeopardy (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1966) 235. Lillard also writes that Southern California “is an engrossing and portentous foreshadowing of what mankind’s heedless, headlong plunge will do to landscape and civilization” (p.315).

From that point forth, the issue of smog has been unmistakably a part of L.A. lore. In the fifties, the New York Times carried numerous articles about L.A. air, as much as Ed Ruscha would use smog as a chiaroscuro in various paintings in the sixties. Even the modest “improvements” in air quality since the seventies are barely noted, beneath the apocalyptic associations–and realities. Smog as urban blight. Smog as nature’s revenge, yet again.

Since the mid-sixties, the aurora of smog has become a governing symbol of L.A., the emblem of avoidance and self-reflection. One drives into it with the same expectations as driving into a city skyline–for the city out of control. Along the San Bernardino mountains, toward Lake Arrowhead and Big Bear, the smog can rise up to a mile high, like a mysterious erasure, but no longer as visceral as film noir. We have a new auto-noir, based on a different system of memories, no longer about decaying downtowns. Novelist John Rechy writes:

Driving out of Los Angeles after a ten-day visit, I looked in my rearview mirror as the freeways that knot within the city untie into a straight highway; and I saw reflected a gray amorphous “dome,” a cloud created by entrapped smoke and lingering fog enclosing the “city of lost angels,” the city of daily apocalypse.
At that moment crowded memories of that visit full of sex and revelation seemed to be contained within that mirrored reflection.John Rechy, Numbers (New York: Grove Press, 1984), in the Foreword.

This is literally a telling quote about voyeuristic inversion in freeway L.A. The emotional impact of the city suggests tourism, a cloudy mirror, but a mirror nonetheless. We are supposed to watch, or be watched, in the privacy of our vehicle.

If you approach Los Angeles on the highway turned freeway…, you’re aware perhaps as far as a hundred miles away, of the Cloud. It enshrouds the city. In the daytime and from that distance, the Cloud, which is fog and smoke creates a spectral city: a gray mass floating on the horizon. At night, lit by the millions of colored lights with which the city attempts futilely to smother the dark, it becomes an incandescent, smoking halo; dull orange: as though the city were on fire.Rechy, Numbers, 19. This passage probably was written within the year after the Watts Rebellion.

This is very much the spirit of L.A. apocalypse writing from the mid-sixties on, about smogs, fires, and disengaged sensory madness, different in a very essential way from the white mob starting the fire that Nathanael West described at the end of The Day of the Locust. Rechy’s first novel, City of Night (1963), came out of an earlier inspiration, a bit closer to what West evoked in those final scenes– the picaresque into urban blight, as in Jim Thompson or Charles Bukowski novels, or John Fante’s Ask the Dust (1939). Noir fiction in L.A. (1930-1960s) kept a record of urban decentralization from Chandler’s descriptions of Marlowe’s office at the seedy Belfont building near Hollywood, to his visions of Bunker Hill. Rechy’s City of Night used Pershing Square downtown as a nexus of what he called “Outcast America.” Bukowski lived downtown often, and studied its steady demise–its demolition and its depopulation, where only the desperately marginalized stayed on for the end of the world.

Artist Llyn Foulkes lived near Bunker Hill downtown in the early sixties, watched dozens of magnificent, but blighted, Victorians get bulldozed to clear a path for what eventually became California Plaza, and MOCA, among other puzzle pieces of the new steel-and-glass downtown that stands alongside the Harbor Freeway today. Foulkes saw one of the last Victorians after it burned down. He visited the ashes like a tourist at the end of the world. By the seventies, there was virtually no way to recognize that Bunker Hill had been there at all, though “neo noir” films after Chinatown (1974) often echo the lost downtown, like feeling for a lost limb, an appropriated memory. The neighborhood of Chinatown becomes a state of mind, best forgotten. The Two Jakes (1990) could be retitled “How I learned to become an amnesiac after the war.” By the time we get to films like To Live and Die in L.A. (1985), or The Grifters (1990), the characters operate as if their motivational centers had been burnt away–they have family routines but no family memory, no intimacy, no remorse. Although intensely personal, the characters are also metafictional, as if the repetition of crime films (the cop who drinks too much, the whore who remembers too much) had destroyed their ability to respond tenderly to mother or to lover. They are consumerized types taking revenge on their maker, or their creator, like the scenes between the replicant and his maker in the movie Blade Runner (1982). Theirs is a life prescripted rather than prescribed.

What brings on this emotional lacuna? By the eighties, L.A. is a city of widening extremes. The infrastructure is decaying rapidly, while the barriers between rich and poor increase. It is rapidly emerging as both the wealthy capital of the Pacific Rim, and a primary victim, its first colony. Underneath the towering impact of massive global consumer marketing, and its electronic communities, the apocalyptic visions became even more about the invaded self, and fantasies of self-immolating revenge against anonymous faces, as in serial murder.

Helter Skelter

The expression from the Manson trial, and from the Beatles song, conjures up the spirit of male nightmares from the Vietnam era to the present. If our subject is nightmare– particularly male white nightmare–I suppose the central image that artists and writers mention the most remains the art direction for Blade Runner.Norman M. Klein, “Building Blade Runner,” Social Text 28 (Summer 1991), 147-52.That will be our first clue to where this response to the consumer-built city has gone since the sixties. The camera opens to L.A. in 2019, utterly devoid of sun, with a noir drizzle we know from forties movies, like Blue Dahlia (1946), or the low-key lighting so crucial to the film noir envelope. The look seems so whole, but it is brilliantly patched together. At bottom, we see remnants of the old Warner’s New York set, dressed up again; at top; mattes of skyscrapers where power is monitored; between, in flying cars, object animation for the police who maintain the barriers. In the sky: a funeral dirge about consumer promotion, in English for tourists, with screens reminiscent of Tokyo. The effect is stunning, but we must remember how it was done, by layering the syntagmas of consumer memory.

So, too, Dennis Cooper’s fiction layers TV memories with bits of L.A. consumer life, and holds them together with violent erotic fantasies about serial killers hiding corpses, or simply the theater of violence in the club scene. I am reminded of Bataille’s sense that the act of consumption can feel so dehumanized that it evokes fantasies of great brutality.From Norman O. Brown, Apocalypse and/or Metamorphosis (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991), 192. Bataille appears in many discussions of apocalypse as aesthetics. He provides a darker alternative to Surrealist practice, and is widely read by writers and artists. The post-apocalyptic category, as in the bookstore Amok in the Silver Lake area, has become popular in numerous L.A. bookstores as well. Other key sources include William S. Burroughs, J.G. Ballard, and various publications through Semiotext(e).It is like a paranoiac ennui, in the more advanced condition of the consumer-built city, when the voyeurism and erasure leave a caesura– a space for infantile rage for a new variation of the “unmotivated act.” This is the act brought on by forgetfulness, as in the scene from Cooper’s short story, “A Herd” (1981). Ray, a serial killer, cruises the streets for a victim. He finds Jay, and kills him by injecting a drug overdose. He puts Jay’s body in his car. It is four a.m. Ray drives up the San Diego Freeway, to a cluster of trees, then parks, and claws through the brush for a place to leave the body. “He was surprised the earth felt warm. Like skin, he realized, just after death when there was no hint of the sentence passed over it.” He drops the body, as if it had been “stolen from some art museum and broken.” Then, after pushing it down a slope, Ray “thought how the corpse might stay permanently hidden, a distant white blur to the hurrying drivers, like their expressions in choppy pond water. It was a sight which would smear in the mind, be erased by the long straight freeway, grow vague as the date, as the night would become, then the month and everything not photographed in it.”Dennis Cooper, “A Herd,” The Tenderness of the Wolves (Trumansburg, N.Y.: The Crossing Press, 1982), 69-70.

Crime and place vanish, behind the freeway city. In that spirit, I am reminded of J.G. Ballard’s stories of consumer locations slipping into the stone age, of concrete islands and high-rises dissolving into raw patriarchal violence; or of Charles Ray’s generic mannequins, Llyn Foulkes’s almost decapitated figures, or Mike Kelley’s banal(ized) parodies; or Raymond Pettibon’s and Robert Williams’ graphic-novella spoofs of naked fascisti at war. As in films and novels about cyborgs and futuristic barrios (cyberpunk), many of these images about possible ends of the world show a barbaric amnesia replacing white civilization, in a city whose sky is the “color of television tunes to a dead channel.”From the opening line of WIlliam Gibson’s novel, Neuromancer (London: Gollancz, 1984). Quite a few cyberpunk novels are set in L.A., including Norman Spinrad’s Little Heroes (New York: Bantam, 1988) and Mick Farren’s The Armageddon Crazy (New York and Toronto: Bantam Books, 1987).

Noir and helter-skelter (after 1965, when the two conjoin) are both definitively white traditions, particularly in L.A. They trace the underside of the white consumer-built city, whether from the margins of slums during the Depression, of the interior of a car on the freeway. To explain why I say white response, let me compare L.A. to New York for a moment, to isolate the experience. From the 1880s into the 1920s, New York received about twelve million European immigrants. Its own population more than doubled, including, by 1920, over 1.2 million Jews and at least as many Italians. The Manhattan of small buildings, horizontal spaces, and genteel Protestant leadership in control of the city’s life and power had disappeared. However, for contrast if one were to ask an immigrant family about the shock of this change, they might wonder what you mean. They, after all, were moving into place. How could they understand the shock from the ruling Protestant point of view? On the other hand, if you asked the old Protestant families the same question, they would have answered that, indeed it was utterly traumatic. “Deaths in Venice” are generated from inside the class who must give way. So too in L.A. By the twenties of the next century, white L.A. will have been altered very dramatically, and very likely, the city will survive the trauma very well, according to which group you ask. If you ask the white world about blade runner in 2019, they might compare it to chaos in a racial decompression chamber. Their memory would be filled with erasures and avoidances, like the mind of the cyborg. Nightmare depends on point of view.

In conclusion, apocalyptic imagery is increasingly more about amnesia than loss of place. Increasingly, the story devices concentrate almost exclusively on the problem of bad memory, on the criminal lying or the writer skipping the killer’s motivation (why Jim Thompson is such a pivotal figure). In the arts and experimental fiction, the fantasies take one of two extremes (and I do mean extreme). They are either elaborately brutal or comically bland. Both extremes must be viewed like the phantasms of a patient to a psychiatrist, and intentionally so– an overlay about forgotten details. This overlay, like advertising, self-consciously covers over the physical L.A or political L.A. It is a form of noir romantic irony–“self-consciously” announced to the reader. Through appropriation, metafiction, and exaggerated expressionist devices, these images play directly with the tourist promotion itself, as it has invaded leisure, privacy, urban planning, political memory, media, transportation, the body, the memory.

That means that feelings of apocalypse do not come out of a death wish for earthquakes, not directly, not even out of communities that die, like Bunker Hill. They emerge more from the repression of experience by a tourist supra-culture–by the vital information that L.A. promotion denies us. Our knowledge of the city becomes as segregated as the class structure itself. We feel diminished. We are diminished. But we do have the option of creating an alternative, to find ways to distinguish ever more honestly between social process and consumer salesmanship. That is implied in much of the work recorded here. And that, ultimately, I hope, will be the impact of this show.