Ronald J. Schmidt, Jr. This Is the City: Making Model Citizens in Los Angeles. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005. 148 pp. $19.50 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8166-4191-8.
Tom Sitton. Los Angeles Transformed: Fletcher Bowron's Urban Reform Revival, 1938-1953. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2005. 256 pp. $32.50 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8263-3527-2.
Reviewed by Raphael Sonenshein (California State University, Fullerton)
Published on H-Urban (August, 2006)
Making a Model City in Los Angeles: Two Views of Reform
To understand Los Angeles one must become a student of reform and of the particular type of reform that swept the American west and southwest a century ago. Its perfect weather notwithstanding, modern Los Angeles has always been a very serious city, dedicated first to becoming a new type of metropolis free of the corruption of traditional cities in the east and midwest, then to developing new forms of minority political involvement.
These two books, quite different in most respects, explore the ways in which Los Angeles and its leaders sought to perfect the civic metropolis. Each explores how leaders sought to create municipal ideals for Los Angeles.
Tom Sitton, the curator at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles, has made a specialty of the "middle" years of modern Los Angeles, the era between roughly 1920 and 1955. While there has been much written about the history of racial and ethnic groups in Los Angeles, about the struggles for water and electric power, and about the colorful life of Los Angeles Times publisher Harrison Gray Otis, there is much less available on the city's political leadership during that time. Sitton wrote an excellent biography of the socialist philanthropist Dr. John Randolph Haynes and traced his role in both Los Angeles reform and in the successful movement for municipal ownership of water and power. In the book under consideration here, he takes on a Los Angeles mayor who has not received the attention devoted to Sam Yorty, Tom Bradley, or today's Antonio Villaraigosa. Judge Fletcher Bowron became mayor of Los Angeles in an historic recall of Mayor Frank Shaw in 1938. The corruption of the Shaw regime might have seemed tame by the standards of New York City and Chicago, but in a city that had devoted itself to nonpartisanship and clean government, Shaw's pattern of influence- peddling and graft was deeply disturbing. It certainly violated the ideals of municipal ethics that had animated many Los Angeles reformers.
Bowron was considered an incorruptible judge and when he was prevailed upon to run to replace Shaw, he seemed the perfect choice to reassert the reform ideals of Los Angeles. Perhaps he would be a transitional mayor. Few could have anticipated that he would serve as mayor for fifteen years and five election victories, a record not matched until Tom Bradley held office for twenty years and five election wins. Perhaps because he lost his last election, to Norris Poulson in 1953, it seems surprising how long he served.
Sitton's account, based in part on the Bowron records at the Huntington Library, is an intelligent, exhaustive, detailed and chronological analysis of the evolving nature of the Bowron regime. From his first election as a reformer (not unlike the startling recall of Gray Davis and his replacement by Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2003), Bowron placed his unique stamp on the office. Unlike the typical politician, Bowron was neither particularly warm nor pleasing. Yet Bowron still managed to generate considerable public support. In Sitton's book, Bowron comes across as a somewhat cranky, but respected leader of the community. While warring factions fought battles over public housing, employment programs, the New Deal, and the Cold War, Bowron seems to ride above it all, weighing in, and still remaining the indispensable avatar of local reform.
Perhaps Bowron's strength, as it emerges in Sitton's telling, was his lack of ideological clarity. While many scholars, myself included, have portrayed the middle years of modern Los Angeles as shaped by monolithic reactionary politics, Sitton's book brings out the remarkable strength of radical forces, including socialists and communists. More scholars are rediscovering this radical history. Especially during the Popular Front days of World War II, the ideological diversity of Los Angeles within which Bowron operated, and which Sitton vividly portrays, is intriguing.
So who was Fletcher Bowron? He was elected as a progressive but became a moderate centrist and even a conservative who defended some of the worst race-baiting against racial minorities. While Bowron seemed to be in constant conflict with the city council, no alternative leader could challenge his reputation or his links to business and civic elites. And when he was finally defeated in 1953, it was from the right, by a Republican congressman who made Bowron's support of federally funded public housing his main campaign issue. As Sitton puts it well: "Without a formal political organization, and in spite of his contentious relationship with the city council ... his primary resource in governing was his personal integrity and ability to convey it to his constituents as he sought to govern effectively" (p. 199). Sitton rightly suggests, though, that Bowron could have been greater, more visionary (especially in race relations), and more cooperative with the council in pursuing his goals. In that, he foreshadows the successes and limitations of a later mayor of Los Angeles, Richard Riordan (1993-2001).
Sitton's analysis of Bowron is thorough and grounded in solid historical research. He has gathered an excellent and engaging set of photographs of Bowron and his times. Sitton authoritatively chronicles all the main events of the era, with a close attention to the shifting coalitions that rose and fell behind and against Bowron. It is engaging for me as a scholar of the next period, the Yorty-Bradley era, to be able to fill in this middle era of uncertain ideological and political boundaries. For that reason alone, this book will be an indispensable resource for students of Los Angeles.
There are several areas that could be more fully elaborated, and either Sitton or others may take them on. With our knowledge of what came next, the rise of a highly racialized urban politics, and dominating politicians like Yorty and Bradley, what share of the overall political power in the city was exercised by the mayor and other elected officials, and to what extent were they overshadowed by powerful private interests? Sitton's book highlights Bowron's key role in policy issues, but we could use help to see if the mayor was, as I suspect, less central than Yorty and Bradley were in a more political era for Los Angeles. One wonders how a Bowron would have fared in a city with a more lively politician-centered environment such as, for example, New York City.
Given the immense amount of information about ongoing events Sitton provides, I also felt the need for more context throughout the story, because significant points were sometimes blurred. Where was the ideological flow of the city going at key moments? What options did racial minorities have, if Bowron was the best they could get? Where were the future leaders of the city during the Bowron era? That said, Sitton provides excellent context on the impact of the Cold War on Los Angeles politics and Bowron. He makes a compelling case that Cold War politics extensively intruded on both California and Los Angeles politics and government and that urban coalitions were drawn deeply into this national ideological struggle.
Built on classical philosophical models of citizenship, the second book in this double review, This Is the City, explores the way in which the leaders of Los Angeles have sought to create "models of citizenship." Rather than filling in a particular time period long neglected, as Sitton does, Schmidt takes on the sweep of modern Los Angeles from the rise of the legendary Colonel Harrison Gray Otis through the Tom Bradley and Daryl Gates eras of racialized, police-centered politics.
Really a work of political philosophy, placed into a historical and urban context, the book begins with an assumption that active citizenship is a good thing that should be encouraged in a democracy. How can such citizenship be developed? One approach is through mimetics, the act of imitating valued models. Leaders, in Schmidt's view, offer different types of models, and encourage different types of imitation. Leaders can thereby help shape the involvement of the citizenry in the community.
Based on this approach, Schmidt revisits the writings, speeches, and actions of key leaders in Los Angeles history beginning with Colonel Otis, the legendary and reactionary owner of the Los Angeles Times, and explores how they shaped Los Angeles. He continues with the movie moguls of Hollywood and how they shaped public perceptions of America by the notions of citizenship that appear on film. Finally, he looks at major police leaders, William Parker and Daryl Gates, and the city's most important mayor, Tom Bradley.
Los Angeles provides the perfect case for Schmidt's study. Without party machines or traditional politicians, the opportunities to shape democracy and citizenship are great. In direct contrast to the historical method of Sitton, Schmidt offers an interpretive history based on well-selected and -framed quotes. Only in Los Angeles would a police chief (Parker, in this case) say: "We're disappointing Washington and the other Founders. By disassociating Virtue from our search for prosperity, we threaten to follow the course of Babylon, Rome, etc. We need a great moral leader to pull us from the brink" (p. 72). The cover photo is a wonder, with the Chief of Police and his family pointing handguns at the reader in a publicity shot.
Schmidt's book is very lively reading, as much a scholarly adventure in political culture as it is a study of politics and philosophy. Los Angeles leaders have said some remarkable things that can only be understood through the lens of the serious city-building aspect of this misunderstood city. The more fragmented the city, the more the leaders try to knit together a governing idea. Schmidt is particularly effective in showing the almost pitiable disappointment felt by successive police chiefs in the failure of Los Angeles residents to live up to these presumed ideals. He could do a better job, though, of showing how the political structure of the city left police chiefs as the moral leaders of a disjointed city government. If political leaders are weak players, then naturally bureaucrats will rise to the role of leadership.
I noticed a disconcerting view of politics, though, when Schmidt turned to race and the rise of the Tom Bradley coalition. The political history is well done and accurate, but Schmidt's conclusion about Bradley not taking the mimetic approach makes that concept more important than it could possibly have been in reality. "Tom Bradley proffered no model of ideal politics and did not use himself as an exemplar for other citizens" (p. 107). Actually, this is not true at all. Bradley always saw in his individual success against great odds the model for minority and other disadvantaged citizens, and even for whites to fight against impossible barriers. Schmidt's analysis seems upside down here. In Bradley we have a man who beat a racist system, and brought a new model of coalition politics to the city, but it seems he did not conform to Schmidt's mimetic model.
I found myself wondering how Bowron would have reacted to Schmidt's ideas. He saw himself, and the voters obviously saw him, as a model leader--not particularly likable, but full of integrity. That did not mean that others had to follow his model; rather, they had to follow his leadership.
Schmidt's immensely interesting and valuable book raises a question. Is the central purpose of politics to create active citizens? Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the great student of ethnic politics and later U.S. Senator, said of the Tammany Hall political machine: "Tammany disciplined the masses and enabled them to rule." To many Americans, and certainly to many residents of nonpartisan, non-political Los Angeles, the purpose of government is to do its job, hopefully unobtrusively, so that city dwellers can pursue their lives. Citizen participation is critically important, should never be blocked, greatly enhances government, and should always be actively encouraged. But Schmidt's model sets up a moral hierarchy that places direct participation on the top rung. As a political scientist, I have to protest this Procrustean bed.
Contrasting as they are, these books tell marvelous stories about Los Angeles. The serious side of Los Angeles, as presented by both Sitton and Schmidt, should guide other scholars in the field as they continue to explore this fascinating metropolis.
. Tom Sitton, John Randolph Haynes, California Progressive (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1992).
. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, "The Irish of New York," Commentary 36 (August 1963): p. 103.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-urban.
Raphael Sonenshein. Review of Schmidt, Ronald J., Jr., This Is the City: Making Model Citizens in Los Angeles and
Sitton, Tom, Los Angeles Transformed: Fletcher Bowron's Urban Reform Revival, 1938-1953.
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