Martin Schiesl, Mark M. Dodge, eds. City of Promise: Race and Historical Change in Los Angeles. Claremont: Regina Books, 2006. v + 228 pp. $18.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-930053-42-7.
Reviewed by Don Parson (Independent Scholar)
Published on H-Urban (October, 2006)
Los Angeles from the Others' Perspective
City of Promise is a collection of seven essays that examines the history and development of Los Angeles, not from the point of view of the dominant players, but from the perspective of the city's racial minorities. Preceded by an excellent introduction by Ali Modares, the book is divided into two sections: the first focuses on the years 1900-1945, and the second considers the years since World War II.
In the opening chapter on the families of Mexican immigrants, Gloria Miranda details the various factors that fueled Mexican immigration to Los Angeles. Mexican cultural retrenchment within the barrio, and socioeconomic constraints--employment, housing, education--allowed little geographic or social mobility. Within this milieu, the immigrant family emerged as a bulwark against the forces of nativism and Americanization. But the consolidation of the family set the stage for future gender-based and intergenerational struggles between conservative elders and their Mexican American offspring. Such struggles occurred not only within the family but within the larger context of urban life in Los Angeles: the clash between nonconformist pachucos and American servicemen in the so-called Zoot Suit riots is an example.
In chapters 2 and 4, Donald and Nadine Hata explore the role of Asians and Pacific Islanders in Los Angeles during the pre-World War II and post-World War II eras, respectively. Subject to nativism and racist xenophobia that were very influential in the formation of federal and state legislation (e.g., the 1924 immigration act), Asian immigrants developed inner-city ethnic enclaves. Places like Chinatown or Little Tokyo were both centers of mutual support as well as purveyors of a tourist and entertainment economy. Following World War II, these areas would lose their residential character as their inhabitants became part of the suburban exodus from ethnic marginalization to mainstream America.
The pre- and post-World War II episodes of African American Los Angeles are the subjects of chapters 3 and 5, respectively. Delores Nason McBroome shows how, in the small African American population of the city in the first two decades of the twentieth century, many community leaders, civic organizations, black-owned newspapers, etc., promoted a middle-class vision of a potential Los Angeles. This possible city was characterized by a high rate of African American homeownership, geographical mobility, and was not beset by the Jim Crow practices of the South. Such a vision was eclipsed by the growth of the African American population, the spread of Jim Crow, and institutionalized racism (e.g., restrictive housing covenants, exclusionary hiring practices). This would confine the growing black population in a fixed urban space and did not allow African American participation in the progressive unionism of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO.) The new black leadership that dealt with this changing situation was heir to the vision promoted by the previous generation of African Americans.
World War II was the great divide in African American Los Angeles. As Josh Sides shows in his essay, "A Simple Quest for Dignity," the war opened up a possibility for African Americans to access higher-waged, unionized, industrial jobs. Such gains saw a foreclosure with the de-industrialization of South Central Los Angeles during the 1970s and early '80s. The loss of moderately paid but steady employment had reverberations in community life, such as housing, mobility, civic associations, and the economic viability of shops in the historic Central Avenue District. There have been significant wage gains in recent years; however, the earnings of African Americans remain low when compared to other racial and ethnic groups. Geographically, the Central Avenue District had been the center of the black community since the Depression. The fall of restrictive covenants in the 1940s and 1950s allowed the migration of African Americans to contiguous neighborhoods. At the same time, other ethnic groups who had shared Central Avenue with African Americans, particularly Mexican Americans, made the move to nearby working-class suburbs. This left the district much more mono-racial than before--a trend that was accelerated following the Watts riot. The aforementioned deindustrialization resulted in a South-Central Los Angeles that was dilapidated, run down, and unkempt--in short, the appearance of a ghetto--which it had not been at any time in its past.
The relationship of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) to the city's minority population is the subject of chapter 6 by Martin Schiesl. While the LAPD has always portrayed itself as a neutral arbiter of law and order, its organizational ability to "protect and serve" functions mainly to the benefit of the white population and not for its minority constituents. Schiesl traces the political history of the LAPD chiefs from the appointment of William Parker in 1950 to William Bratton of the present day. In his comprehensive and richly detailed essay, Schiesl finds that the entrenched, often single-minded, vision of the chiefs as to what the LAPD should be has led to police officers who "confused professional obligations with the unrestrained use of power" (p. 166). In the ghettos and barrios of Los Angeles, such a recipe produced dire results: from the police brutality cases of the 1950s, to the Watts riot, to the Chicano Moratorium, and to the recent Rampart scandal. In addition, the LAPD has never handled well any political or popular criticism. Groups that have dared to voice their dissent of LAPD policy--be they the Black Panther Party or Brown Berets or organizations like the Coalition Against Police Abuse--have undergone unwarranted surveillance or violent repression.
The ultimate chapter in the book is by Ken Burt. Burt traces the history of formal Latino politics in Los Angeles from the election of Ed Roybal to the City Council in 1949 to the 2005 mayoral election of Antonio Villaraigosa. He finds that strategies of political empowerment employed by Latinos in the 1940s are remarkably similar to those of the late 1990s to the present. Utilizing the voter registration drives of the Community Services Organization (CSO) and building interethnic coalitions with key support from organized labor and the liberal left, Roybal was able to gain electoral control of the city's ninth district. Very popular, Roybal retained this post until his election to Congress in 1962. In a similar manner, increased voter registration, coalition building, and the support of organized labor were key elements in Villaraigosa's triumph. Both of these historical periods were prefaced by a social catalyst that fostered an upsurge in voter registration: the shock of the Zoot Suit riots galvanized the Mexican American community in a way that was conducive to Roybal's election. Similarly, Republican support of Proposition 187 in 1994 served to catalyze the Latino vote away from business-oriented candidates to liberal coalition builders who identify with organized labor.
The depth and the quality of research of the well-written essays in City of Promiseis impressive. It will be of value to scholars in the broad field of Los Angeles studies because so many resources are gathered in one volume. At both the undergraduate as well as graduate levels, I envision this book being used for a variety of classes about Los Angeles history, geography, or race relations.
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Don Parson. Review of Schiesl, Martin; Dodge, Mark M., eds., City of Promise: Race and Historical Change in Los Angeles.
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