Tales from Two Cities

From the gritty drama of noir to the free-spirited poetry of the Beats, how does the literature of California tell us who we are? This Thursday, February 20, ALOUD kicks off the second part of this special home-grown conference in collaboration with The Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West. Free and open to all at the downtown Central Library, Tales from Two Cities will explore the language, culture, and aesthetic that has helped to shape the writing of California. Here’s the full schedule of events, but for a sneak preview at some of the California voices gathering this week, check out these highlights from past ALOUD programs.

Walter Mosley, Between the Sheets: Sex, Literature, and the Future of Erotic Fiction. Listen to the podcast here.

 

Attica Locke, The Future of African American Literature and the Paradox of Progress. Listen to the podcast here.

 

David Ulin in Conversation with Joan Didion.

 

Poet Gary Snyder. Listen to the podcast here.

Learn more about the other upcoming participants and how you can watch the conference from home.

Bookmark This #17

Happy 2014, everyone!

If you are still looking for something to read in celebration of the start of this new year, consider any one of the following five recommended books OR choose from more than six million others that are available through the Central Library, 72 branches and www.lapl.org.

Also, if you are you interested in providing a reading recommendation for an upcoming issue of Bookmark This, contact Library Foundation staffer Erin Sapinoso at erinsapinoso@lfla.org.

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A new Member of the Library Foundation, Jonathan Lorenzo can’t believe it’s already 2014! His favorite movie trilogy is the “Back to the Future” series, and he looks forward to flying cars, hoverboards, and power laces next year… a la Part Two.

Jonathan recommends The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey.

“This book is a classic.  I used to read it every six months or so because it’s that good.  I wanted its lessons to be second nature to me, so I just kept reading it and reading it.  Stephen Covey lays out the fundamental principles I try to live by every day.  The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is a must-read for everyone who wants to make the most of their lives, both professionally and personally.”

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Rebecca Shehee is the Vice President of the Library Foundation of Los Angeles.  A voracious reader and stalwart supporter of libraries, she is also an accomplished quilter.

Rebecca recommends The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner.

“A book that really captured my imagination recently is The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner.  This novel tells the very compelling story of a young artist, our narrator, Reno, and her experiences with an older Italian lover, her own quest to understand her art and herself.  Reno self-describes as one who is “shopping for experience.”  After a violent brush with an underground fascist group in Italy, Reno returns to America and considers her past and future but draws no conclusions.

This novel received immense praise from reliable sources, and I certainly had high expectations after reading Dwight Garner’s review in the New York Times:  ‘Her prose has a poise and wariness and moral graininess that puts you in mind of weary-souled visionaries like Robert Stone and Joan Didion.’  In my humble opinion, he was right!  My favorite type of novel is one that is very literary but also has a can’t-put-it-down plot, and this is one of those.

The Flamethrowers was short-listed for the National Book Award.  I enjoyed it so much that I now want to go back and read Kushner’s prior novel, Telex from Cuba.”

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A Library Foundation staffer for six years, Libby McCarthy is an avid reader and recently completed a very glamorous quilt.

Libby recommends Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand.

“I’m such a fan of true survival stories, and this might be the ultimate one. The book chronicles the incredible life of Louie Zamperini, the arc of which goes something like this: Louie attends USC, breaks track records; he competes in the 1936 Olympics where his performance attracts Adolf Hitler, who requests a personal introduction; he joins the army during WWII as a bombardier; his plane gets shot down over the Pacific and he survives for 47 days at sea….all of this before being captured by the Japanese Navy and held as a POW until the end of the war. The whole story is so much more riveting and triumphant than I could ever describe, but also an important one about war, endurance, and forgiveness. If you haven’t already read it, I urge you to do so before the movie adaptation comes out later this year. Even better, celebrate Louie’s 97th birthday on January 26th. Happy birthday Louie!”

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Natalie Arps-Bumbera is a Development Assistant at the Library Foundation of Los Angeles. In addition to a fondness for Jurassic creatures of all sorts, she also loves Jurassic technology like astrolabes, 1920’s Underwood typewriters, and 1919 Contessa Nettle “accordion” cameras.

Natalie recommends Dinotopia: A Land Apart from Time by James Gurney.

“I received a copy of Dinotopia from my parents when I was in elementary school, and my copy is still a cherished part of my ‘grown-up’ home library today—broken spine, well-worn cover, loose leaves and all!  The story follows Victorian scientist Arthur Denison and his son, Will, as they set out on a scientific voyage of discovery, only to be shipwrecked before they reach their destination.  Arthur and Will wash ashore on the hitherto undiscovered island of Dinotopia, and are shocked to find it populated by a colony of shipwreck survivors and ancient prehistoric creatures they assumed had long since gone extinct.  I was enthralled by Dinotopia as a child—after all, who doesn’t want to live in a city made of waterfalls, or fly on the back of a huge, winged Quetzalcoatlus Skybax? As an adult, my appreciation of the story has deepened—I love the idea of a utopian society made up of a blend of cultures, animals, and people; I’m impressed by the many ways in which James Gurney incorporates his anthropological background into his work; and I’m enchanted by the beauty of Gurney’s paintings.  Ultimately, Dinotopia does what the best children’s books do: teaches you something new, makes the learning process fun, and presents sophisticated concepts in a simple, elegant way.”

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Sarah Charleton is Cultural Programs Coordinator for the Library Foundation of Los Angeles, and works primarily on the ALOUD author series. She one day hopes to achieve her overly ambitious goal of reading all the featured books from an entire ALOUD season.

Sarah recommends the sound recording of Mary Ann in Autumn by Armistead Maupin (He reads the book in the recording!).

“I knew very little about Armistead Maupin, except that his Tales of the City series has spanned three decades. After hearing that Maupin would be featured at ALOUD for The Days of Anna Madrigal – his final book for the series – I checked out the Los Angeles Public Library’s catalogue to find his books and familiarize myself with his writing. Though it’s not the first in his series, I started off with an audio recording of Mary Ann in Autumn, read by the author himself. Maupin’s writing is so funny and truly contemporary. I appreciated his extraordinary ability to weave together the lives and relationships of the many fictional characters that Tales of the City follows, so readers can jump into any book from the series and still feel they’ve really gotten to know the characters. I would recommend Maupin’s books to any reader, as a humorous but real-life look into the San Francisco lifestyle and its LGBT community.”

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Roll on 2014, and stay tuned for next month’s issue of Bookmark This!

From the Archive: Remembering Veterans

Although the Library will be closed this Monday, November 11 as we honor those who have served our country, you can still access the Library’s online collections, including podcasts from archived ALOUD programs. To commemorate Veterans Day, here’s a few specially selected podcasts on topics from women soldiers to one of contemporary fiction’s most celebrated war novels.

Brian Turner
Phantom Noise: An Evening with Soldier-Poet Brian Turner
Turner’s poems reflect his experiences as a soldier–seven years in the US Army, including a year as infantry team leader in Iraq–with penetrating lyric power and compassion. (Here’s a link to a reflection on this event by ALOUD curator Louise Steinman.)

Sebastian Junger
The author of A Perfect Storm turns his empathetic eye to a single platoon through a 15-month tour of duty in the most dangerous outpost in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley.

Tim O’Brien
A reading and conversation honoring the 20th anniversary of one of America’s most important novels, a book as vitally important for anyone interested in the Vietnam War as it is for those concerned with the craft of storytelling.

Karl Marlantes
What It’s Like To Go To War
Having spent the last 40 years examining his experiences in Vietnam, Marlantes, the decorated war veteran and bestselling author (Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War), discusses his visceral new nonfiction book about the psychological and spiritual toll that combat takes on those who fight.

Tracy Kidder
The Strength in What Remains: A Journey of Remembrance and Forgetting
The Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Mountains Beyond Mountains tells the inspiring tale of Deogratias (Deo), a young medical student from the mountains of Burundi, who narrowly survived civil war and genocide before seeking a new life in America.

Helen Benedict
The Lonely Soldier: The Private War of Women Serving in Iraq
A work of brilliant and compassionate reporting, “a must-read for everyone who cares about women, justice, fairness, the military, and the United States.” (Katha Pollitt, The Nation)

Louise Steinman Straightens Out the Past in “The Crooked Mirror”

“I hope this speaks to reconciliation of all kinds,” says Louise Steinman about her new book, The Crooked Mirror: A Memoir of Polish-Jewish Reconciliation. “I don’t think it’s restricted to Poles and Jews; we all carry a weight of received prejudices of various kinds, so I wanted to be your test case—your guide—and put myself out there, move through this landscape, and see what it does to me and share that with you.” For over a decade, Steinman, who is also the founder and director of the Library Foundation’s ALOUD series, has undertaken an epic journey exploring her Polish-Jewish ancestry. In the beginning Steinman resisted the idea of writing a book that would so preoccupy her with the deeply complex (and horrific) issues surrounding the history of Polish-Jewish relations. But through a series of fated events, eventually she reconciled with her own resistance and took off on a literal soul-searching journey.


Steinman in front of Czeslaw Milosz’ family’s old home in Krasnagruda, near the Poland/Lithuania border.

Steinman’s memoir begins in the winter of 2000 when she was invited to attend the Bearing Witness Retreat at Auschwitz-Birkenau by her Zen rabbi. In a conversation about the Poles’ often-alleged complicity in the genocide, her rabbi casually stated that the Poles had gotten a “bum rap.” The seemingly glib remark upended her understanding of the events during the war—an understanding that had been shaped by stories (and the silence) around the fate of her extended family in Poland. Over the next 12 years, she returned to Poland many times beyond that first conference and immersed herself in Polish culture, history, and politics. The chapters in the book are informed by a critical mass of experiences throughout the years—from on-the-ground tours of cemeteries, memorials, and museums with historians, to interviews with local journalists, artists, and students, to the readings of Jan Gross, Adam Zagajewski, and Czeslaw Milosz, and others.

The vibrant cast of present characters—including many Poles, Steinman’s family, and her American travel companion—makes this look at the past come alive. Each voice sheds new insight into the religious, political, and social issues her ancestors faced—as well as the legacy of Poland’s history as an occupied country, which many young Poles are rigorously examining in today’s democratic Poland. “There were so many illuminating and beautiful moments, and there were also many dark nights of the soul along the way, but the excitement of learning something about my family and the history that shaped them was a deeply satisfying feeling,” says Steinman. “I enjoy wrestling with moral issues.” This was true for her previous book too, The Souvenir, a search for answers about her father’s experience in WWII that led her to the snow country of Japan and a battlefield in the Philippines.

The pleasure that Steinman finds in the discovery process underscores the compassion her writing brings to the stories of The Crooked Mirror. Instead of feeling weighted down with doom, her writing breathes in the landscapes, food, and culture of Poland like an exuberant travelogue as she treks across rainy cemeteries and into bakeries with warm strudel. She explains that when she would return home to Los Angeles from a trip to Poland, she could not easily slip into the writing of such fraught material among the demands of everyday life, so she sought out writers’ retreats to fully re-engage with her notes, her memories.

By the end of the book, she has not only met long-lost relatives and discovered incredible survivor stories in her search to make peace with the past, but she becomes a local hero of sorts in Radomsko, the town of her ancestors. Even though she never intended to become an ambassador for sharing the story of this place with the rest of the world, she is honored by the city of Radomsko with an award and she helps to inspire a new Jewish memorial.  “It’s a magical thing that you actually can open this curtain to the historical past,” says Steinman, “It’s about making a gesture in the world and if you do, you can be received on the other side of the planet.”

This Thursday, November 7, ALOUD will present Steinman in conversation with author Jack Miles about this new work. When asked about the various influences of her writing of this book, she enthusiastically recalled several past ALOUD programs. Here are a few links to those podcasts that helped to straighten out The Crooked Mirror:

Diane Ackerman
The true story of the keepers of the Warsaw Zoo, who, with extraordinary courage, compassion, and calm under pressure, managed to save hundreds of people from Nazi hands.

Father Patrick Desbois
Desbois, a French Catholic priest, has devoted his life to confronting anti-Semitism and furthering Catholic-Jewish understanding. Since 2001 he and his team have crisscrossed the Ukrainian countryside in an effort to locate every mass grave and site at which Jews were killed during the Holocaust.

Norman Davies
One of the world’s preeminent scholars of World War II history, author of the bestselling “Europe: A History and Rising ’44,” offers a clear-eyed reappraisal and an illuminating portrait of a conflict that continues to provoke debate today.

Adam Zagajewski reading with Ed Hirsch, Eavan Boland, and Peter Cole
Discussing Hebrew, Polish, and Irish writers, four of the world’s best known poets examine how local politics, national realities, and cultural traditions affect great literary traditions.

Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela
A psychologist on South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission asks, “What does it mean when we discover than the incarnation of evil is as frighteningly human as we are?”

–Posted by Bridgette Bates

 

Making History Graphic

Over the past two years, ALOUD has featured two separate programs that have explored the graphic novel as a unique form of storytelling. First, Alison Bechdel amazed us with her unique use of the graphic novel format for her memoir Fun Home; then we saw how great works of literature could be reinterpreted by illustrators, cartoonists and graphic novelists to create The Graphic Canon, a new visual way of experiencing the classics.

On November 12, ALOUD will present acclaimed graphic novelists Gene Luen Yang (American Born Chinese; Avatar) and Joe Sacco (Journalism; Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt) in a discussion exploring their innovative approaches toward “Making History Graphic” – both will be joined in conversation by Charles Hatfield, Professor of English at California State University, Northridge (Alternative Comics: An Emerging Literature; The Superhero Reader).  Both authors have newly released books that tell historically accurate stories in beautifully illustrated comic form, to create an altogether new and exciting way to experience and learn about events of the past. In advance of this program, we wanted to give you a better idea of just how special and inventive these new books by Yang and Sacco are. Read more below, and join us at ALOUD on November 12th!

Joe Sacco’s The Great War: July 1, 1916: The First Day of the Battle of the Somme 

This stunningly illustrated panorama by Joe Sacco can be difficult to describe, because we have never quite seen anything like it. Unfolding all 24 panels of Sacco’s exceedingly detailed masterpiece reveals a complete re-telling of the events on the first day of the Battle of the Somme during World War I. The accompanying booklet, On The Great War, includes an authors’ note explaining the importance of the WW 1on Sacco’s life and psyche, a forward by author Adam Hochschild which includes excerpts of his acclaimed book, To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918 (which he discussed at ALOUD in 2011)  and a fully annotated version of the whole illustrated panorama, which allows the reader to visually experience every step of the battle by explaining and contextualizing exactly what you are seeing, giving real insight into the lives and conditions of the soldiers. Examples of Sacco’s annotations:

Plate 9, #15: Breakfast arrives though not all the troops get a chance to eat”

“Plate 11, #23: At precisely 7:30 am, the attack commences.”

“Plate 21, #42: A battery of 6-inch howitzers fires at German positions.”

The detail in this book must really be seen in person, as photos cannot do it justice- but we’ve included a few for you below, as well as a short video that shows the unfolding of all 24 panels of The Great War: July 1, 1916: The First Day of the Battle of the Somme.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gene Luen Yang’s Boxers & Saints

Gene Yang has written a number of successful graphic novels, including the award-wining Avatar which became a popular television series on Nickelodeon, but his newest work, Boxers & Saints, for which he was just nominated as a 2013 National Book Award Finalist, is his historic depiction of China’s Great Boxer Rebellion from perspectives on both sides of the battle. Not only does Boxers & Saints teach about real events of the Boxer Rebellion, it also makes both sides of the story relatable because the reader experiences each story through the eyes of  the main character.

Boxers, the first volume of this series follows the main character Little Bao- a young Chinese boy living in the countryside, whose life drastically changes after the arrival of western missionaries who try to insert their beliefs by force and intimidation. After witnessing a series of injustices on his village and his own family, we see Little Bao change from a boy to a warrior determined to set things right. Bao joins a group of vigilantes called The Righteous and Harmonious Fist, and together they set out to banish the “foreign devils” in order to reunite China, showing no mercy along the way. Storytelling and the importance of cultural history plays a huge role in Boxers & Saints, and there are even a few scenes that take place inside a library (which we loved of course!)

Images from Boxers:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In Saints, the second part of this two-volume set, we witness the other side of the Boxer Rebellion by following the story of an impoverished young girl who has converted to Christianity, by giving up her family and her past as an outcast,for the prospect of starting over with a new life and a new name. We see her struggling along the way- battling her own confusion over religion, family, and searching for meaning in her life.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We’re sure you’ll enjoy hearing more about the process behind these stunning works as much as we’ve enjoyed reading them.  See you on Tuesday, November 12th as we explore “Making History Graphic.”

 

By Sarah Charleton, Cultural Programs Coordinator

Bestselling Author Ken Follett Talks Spies and Libraries

Recently, internationally renowned author Ken Follett took a break from working on the third book of his Century Trilogy to make a special appearance at an event for The Council of the Library Foundation, supporting the Los Angeles Public Library. Before the event, Fifth & Flower caught up with Follett to discuss what lead him down the path of epic storytelling—from humble beginnings to selling over 130 million copies of his books worldwide.

Ken Follett speaking to guests at the California Club. Photo by John Lucas.

What was your first experience with writing and literature?

Follett: I learned to read very early when I was four-years-old. My parents were neither rich nor poor, but they could not afford to buy the number of books that I wanted to consume. I would get a book for my birthday and a book for Christmas and that was nowhere near enough. I was born in a city called Cardiff, which is the capital city of Wales, and less than half a mile from our house, there was a public library and I joined it when I was seven. From then on, for many years, I went to the library once a week and that’s where I got all my reading. Of course, everyone who eventually becomes a writer starts out as a voracious reader.

Who are some of the writers that you fell in love with at an early age?

Follett: There’s an English writer called Enid Blyton, who was hugely popular when I was a kid. I just loved her books. I read the Bobbsey Twins—that was an American series I really liked as a boy. I read a lot of classics, but I think I probably read them in special abridged editions for kids because this was when I was eight, nine, ten; I can’t have read The Tale of Two Cities in the full version, but I remember reading it. Uncle Tom’s Cabin I read when I was a kid. I liked anything with space rockets in it and anything with detectives in it. And I still do!

You do copious amounts of research for your books. Can you talk about that process?

Follett: Well, the first book I researched was also my first successful book, The Eye of the Needle. Because it’s set in World War II and I was born in 1949, after the war was over, I was obliged to find out what everyday life was like at the time and how it was different from what I knew. That turned out to be a very helpful process for me because the research gave the book a feel for the grain of everyday life, which I had not achieved before. I do have natural curiosity—that relish for details has found its way into my books and I think made them better.

Writing about spies, whose lives are presumably so different from your own, takes a lot of immersion in details. Where did you do that kind of research?

Follett: What I found important in spy stories was to locate the spy at a moment in a war or in a conflict when what he does can change the course of history—that makes the book so much larger in scope. That’s really why I started studying battles and the cause of wars, with the constant thought in my mind: How might this have been different? How might I persuade readers that this could’ve been different if a James Bond or a Henry Faber was there, acting and trying to change the course of events? And anyway, [spies are] making it up as they go along, so you might as well do the same. 

You’re very politically active and aware, but why write your new trilogy, the Century Trilogy, now?

Follett: After World Without End, I wanted to do another book with the same sort of scope: a long historical novel covering many years with many characters and earth-shaking historical events. But I didn’t want to write another medieval story right away. And so I thought, what period of history could I write about that could be as exciting as the Middle Ages? I thought of the twentieth century; it’s the most dramatic century in the history of the human race, with the worst wars that we’ve ever had, terrible mass murder, the invention of the worst weapons that we’ve ever devised, and yet it’s also our story. I, and most of my readers, were born in the twentieth century and so it’s about where we come from.

You mention your readers. When you write, who do you imagine are your readers?

Follett: There isn’t a specific reader. I don’t think of, say, a man on a commuter train or a woman on an airplane or anything like that because I don’t think there is a profile of a Ken Follett reader. But I do think of the reader all the time and what I believe readers want out of literature. And I think: Am I providing that? Am I creating tension and characters that they like and satisfying resolutions to conflicts and so on?

What are you currently reading?

Follett: I just finished the new Tom Wolfe. I thoroughly enjoyed it and I raced through it… What I like about him is that he writes very well about society, very sarcastically, very critically, quite maliciously, but very well. At the moment, I’m reading two books at the same time. I’m reading a new book called Portrait of a Novel, which is a book about how Henry James wrote Portrait of a Lady. And, I’m reading Portrait of a Lady. I have them both on my Kindle and I’m trying to synchronize so that I read in the literary book about Henry James’ visit to Rome and then I read the chapter in Portrait of a Lady where the heroine of the story, Isabella, goes to Rome. Of course I’ve read Portrait of a Lady before more than once, but I’m especially enjoying it with this analysis going alongside.

 

Revving up for some revolutionary Eastside history: Ruben Martinez’s “Variedades”

ALOUD author Rubén Martínez, who joins us at the library later this season for a look at Desert America: Boom and Bust in the New Old West, takes the stage tonight to host Variedades: The Ballad of Ricardo Flores Magón. The story of Magón, a Mexican revolutionary whose turn of the century politics fomented for awhile in L.A.’s eastside neighborhoods and downtown, is animated through music and theatre in a multimedia performance at the Ford Amphitheatre. The salon-style variety show is an ‘unearthing of radical L.A. history’ and features local performers Quetzal, La Marisoul, Chicano/Son, Los Illegals, Ceci Bastida, and Josh Kun, among others. Read up on this revolutionary character in L.A.’s history in today’s LA Times piece and catch the show tonight at the Ford.  More info here. 

The revolution continues in Central Library’s Getty Gallery with the exhibition: A Nation Emerges: The Mexican Revolution Revealed  (through February 2013).

Gray Brechin Excavates the New Deal in Southern California

The invitation to speak at the ALOUD series at the Los Angeles Public Library on June 21 gave me an opportunity not only to show the audience an indispensable but invisible matrix of New Deal public works that lifted Southern California out of the last depression, but to reveal an option seldom if ever offered as an antidote to an economic crisis. That option was both direct and indirect federal employment through emergency work relief agencies. The WPA, PWA, CCC, and others succeeded not only economically, but as the means to create a healthier society rather than one ever more desperate and pathological. Gray Brechin and David Kipen of Libros Schmibros in conversation at ALOUD. Photo by Gary Leonard.

Striking at 5:54 PM on March 10, 1933 just six days after President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s inauguration, the Long Beach earthquake gave New Deal agencies an opportunity to show how dramatically taxpayer money could be used to spread opportunities previously available only to the few. The shock collapsed or severely damaged schools throughout the county. The Los Angeles Board of Education assigned a board of 48 architects, engineers, and construction experts to assess the safety of all its schools and plan new ones.  With the aid of grants and loans from the new Public Works Agency in Washington, Los Angeles and adjacent cities launched a three-year campaign that one PWA publication called “the largest school building and rehabilitation program ever undertaken.” After three years of construction, workers had built or reconstructed 536 buildings with the help of the PWA. Long Beach alone got over 30 schools.

The Roosevelt administration operated on the assumption that it is far cheaper and better for a society to uplift the nation’s people rather than punish them so that, in the depths of the Great Depression, the PWA and the later Works Progress Administration (WPA) built or refurbished tens of thousands of schools around the country. Many of them are architecturally distinguished and embellished with public art now seldom seen by the public. In addition, the two agencies constructed entire community college campuses as well as modern teaching, research, and athletic facilities at state universities. Roosevelt strongly believed that only an educated citizenry could sustain democratic governance, so both agencies also built and aided public libraries and museums, while millions of young men recruited into the Civilian Conservation Corps were provided with educational and vocational opportunities through in-camp schools and WPA-run extension courses.

On construction sites throughout Los Angeles County, project signs proclaimed “Workmen Wanted.” Demand for concrete and other materials kickstarted the moribund building industry. From the bottom of the Depression in 1933, the GDP rose sharply and unemployment fell. Though I was unaware of it at the time, the excellent free public education I received in the 1950s and 60s was largely a legacy of those New Deal initiatives. California then merited its boast to be The Golden State.

On the day after our presentation at the Central Library in Los Angeles, David Kipen and I set out to discover more of the unseen public landscape left to us by New Deal agencies and workers while we still have it. In the auditorium of South Pasadena Middle School, we found a WPA sculpture of CCC workers by San Diego-based Donal Hord.  The sculptor placed at least two African-American workers in the foreground of a densely-packed relief, a reminder that the C’s were initially integrated outside of the South. That was fifteen years before President Truman desegregated the U.S. military.

Relief of CCC Workers by Donal Hord, 1938, at South Pasadena Middle School.

David and I also visited the post offices in South Pasadena and Culver City, both of which contain murals created for one of several New Deal art agencies. The Treasury Department built over 1,100 post offices during the New Deal, many of them embellished with public art that reflected back to citizens their regional landscapes, history, and legends as well as their work.

David Kipen in lobby of Culver City Post Office.

I feel an urgency in documenting these often superb buildings and the art they contain before the U.S. Postal Service liquidates itself as it sells off the public’s property. Citizen opposition to the closure of post offices in Venice, La Jolla, Santa Monica, Beverly Hills, and elsewhere appears to be futile in the hasty fire sale now going on; shortly after returning home, I learned that Berkeley’s Renaissance-style post office — Pasadena’s cousin — will soon join them on the market.

Though David wrote the introduction to the republished WPA guide to Los Angeles, we both remain baffled by the book’s failure to mention the ubiquitous New Deal public works that pole vaulted Southern California (and the nation) into the mid-twentieth century. But, then, archaeology was among the many fields of knowledge advanced by CCC and WPA workers. As the Living New Deal team uncovers more of what my parents’ generation built 75 years ago in order to extricate itself from another financial crisis, I think of the workers who excavated lost civilizations then. In doing so, we are recovering a forgotten ethical language so often antithetical to that of our own. Listen to the podcast of the event here.

–Posted by Gray Brechin

Dr. Gray Brechin is the founder and project scholar of the Living New Deal project based at the U.C. Berkeley Department of Geography: http://livingnewdeal.berkeley.edu