The Sons and Daughters
of Los: culture and community
in Los Angeles

by David E. James

 Note: This was written in 2001 as the introduction to a collection of essays I edited, The Sons and Daughters of Los: Culture and Community in L.A. (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2003). Its title derived from William Blake’s poem, Jerusalem:

and Los drew them forth, compelling the harsh Spectre
Into the Furnaces & into the Valleys of the Anvils Death
And into the mountains of the Anvils & of the heavy Hammers
Till he should bring the Sons & Daughters of Jerusalem to be
The Sons and Daughters of Los

The essays primarily, though not exclusively, concerned collective community-based cultural initiatives in the city deployed around, for example, poetry, woman’s art making, gay performance, Mexican American printmaking, Asian American filmmaking, and African American video. My role in the project was an extrapolation from a history of avant-garde, amateur, working-class, and other minority cinemas in Los Angeles on which I was then at work (referred to in the first footnote): The Most Typical Avant-Garde: History and Geography of Minor Cinemas in Los Angeles (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005). In this work, I attempted to demonstrate that, despite the identification of the city with the capitalist film industry that supplies commodity culture for the world’s consumption, Los Angeles had an unrivalled history of grassroots popular film practices. Even though their mode of production was constructed in alterity to the industry, thematically, formally and in other ways, they were often engaged in various kinds of critical dialogue with industrial culture. That emphasis on popular cultural production rather than on the consumption of corporate culture placed my project in opposition to the dominant orientation of U.S. cultural studies, then in its moment of ascendency.

In its origin in the UK, cultural studies had focused on post-war ritual and other symbolic forms of working-class opposition to the power of the dominant capitalist (if also vestigially feudal) authoritarian state. But as it developed in the UK and especially as it was adopted in the US, cultural studies transmogrified into affirmative arguments for the putative empowering possibilities that moments of contradiction in those culture industries were supposed to allow. Following one of its signal sound-bites, “intellectuals” were accordingly chastised for having “no respect” for what was speciously proposed as “popular culture.” While not wishing to deny that popular consumption of commodity culture could indeed profitably fasten on its contradictions, in soliciting essays for The Sons and Daughters of Los, I hoped that we might identity forms of popular cultural practice in Los Angeles, which would be all the more important since they had been created in the heart of the culture industries, yet in communities that it had not yet totally colonized. It is unchanged from its previous publication.

The essays included were:

  • Bill Mohr, “Peripheral Outlaws: Beyond Baroque and the Los Angeles Poetry Renaissance”;
  • Laura Meyer, “The Los Angeles Woman’s Building and the Feminist Art Community (1973-1991)”;
  • Eric Gordon, “Fortifying Community: African American History and Culture in Leimert Park”;
  • Claudine Isé “Considering the Art World Alternatives: LACE and Community Formation in Los Angeles”;
  • Sande Cohen, “Not History: Remarks on the Foundation for Art Resources (1977-98)”;
  • Meiling Cheng, “Highways Performance Space: Communities-In -Transit”;
  • Ji-won Ahn, “Signifying Nations: Cultural Institutions and the Korean Community in Los Angeles”;
  • James Moran, “All Over the Map: A History of L. A. Freewaves”;
  • “Self-Help Graphics: Tomás Benitez talks to Harry Gamboa Jr.”;
  • Nithila Peter, “Unorthodox Mystics: Swans That Flock to Vedanta Society of Southern California”; and
  • David E. James, “Popular Cinemas in Los Angeles: The Case of Visual Communications.”

David E. James, Los Angeles, 2014 ii 26.



The Sons and Daughters of Los: Culture and Community in Los Angeles
by David E. James 

In the initial stages of the project whose results are collected in the present volume, we approached popular culture in Los Angeles using as a heuristic the idea of “grassroots cultural organizations.” By this, we had in mind the more or less ad hoc instances where people who were marginal to the city’s established cultural institutions came together to share their poetry, painting, dance and other forms of art, and in so doing created communities that then developed lives and momentums of their own.[1] [open endnotes in new window] Conceived in dissatisfaction with both industrial and other publicly sanctioned forms of culture, they generally produced themselves as demotic alternatives to establishments that they perceived to be alienated and compromised. Within the frame of this guiding orientation, the associations we explored were diverse in respect to both their internal organization and their eventual relations with the dominant cultural institutions. Growing from the initial efforts of very small groups, in some cases only one or two people, they were originally independent and autonomous, at least to the degree to which these concepts can presently be meaningful. But as they developed wider constituencies, they inevitably became affiliated in various ways with the kind of organizations with which they had before been in conflict, both public—such as city, state and federal agencies—and private—such as foundations and corporations. Despite these affiliations, their creativity remained to some degree of refractory, still honed on a stone of critical alterity.[2]

With the exception of the Vedanta Center (an earlier and somewhat differently conceived initiative), the associations we examined were formed in the tide of populist social contestations mobilized in the 1960s. And mostly they were shaped by the ideas in which social and political identity were conceptualized and lived in this period, that is, through struggles for civil rights by ethnic and sexual minorities. The local emergence and self-assertion of these political identity-groups were of course part of national movements, and indeed the remarkable ethnic diversity and other demographic features of Los Angeles ensured that they were also often affected by global issues, especially by population shifts and changing patterns of migration. On the other hand, the more immediate motive in their creation was usually an interest in a particular cultural form, often a medium with a distinctive and integral relationship to the development of the specific social group. For example, though African Americans in the city have made public art in the form of murals for many years, the combination of indigenous and European elements in the traditions of mural painting developed in post-revolutionary Mexico became a primary reference-point in the assertion of a Mexican American identity in Los Angeles. Even if they were locally forged and if they were not quite so thoroughly constitutive, similar relations have obtained between other groups and specific mediums. Performance art, for example, has proven particularly valuable for women and gays and lesbians, and so the current flier distributed by a performance collective that is the subject of the one of the essays below announces:

“This workshop is for gay men to gather together and create community through performance.”[3]

Sometimes a given medium and the institution that developed around it proved valuable for different groups at different times; thus, when the poetry center Beyond Baroque became a focus for minority poets, part of its constituency changed from what it had been in preceding periods when it revolved around beat and punk subcultures. And though most of the associations studied here based themselves on mediums with less rather than more concurrent commercial viability, sometimes these and certainly parallel communities have flourished by employing the art forms of the culture industry itself—film, television and recorded music. Visual Communications (V.C.), an Asian American community cinema considered below is such an instance. Like all attempts to create popular practices of commercial cultural forms, these last have to construct themselves both within and against the immense social authority and economic resources of the industrial usage of the mediums in question, and so V.C. and similar popular cinemas have been especially precarious, though by the same token their achievements remain of special interest.

But whatever the relative importance of their immediate aesthetic or social motivations, the organizations examined in this volume all have in common a foundation in integral human usefulness, the non-instrumental exercise of the creative faculties. All were created by people, some of them oppressed or otherwise marginalized and disenfranchised, who found cultural activity to be a means of self- and communal discovery and realization. All were sustained as popular activities in which people developed forms of symbolic self-expression and joined with others of similar interests. Within the communities they formed, art was not engaged as primarily the production of commodities, and so its role in increasing the value of invested capital or in preserving the system of capitalism as such was negligible. Even though their existence has been besieged and importuned by a rampant market economy, they have known from the beginning what William Blake, as he lived through the emergence of the commodification and industrialization of culture in the late eighteenth century, came at last to understand:

“Where any view of Money exists Art cannot be carried on, but War only.”[4]

Nor were their practices initially supported by the institutions of the established museum and conservatory cultures, for since their interests were no more purely aesthetic than they were purely social, they could not be coerced into the defensive, putatively extra-social reservations premised on aesthetic autonomy. Initially they were opposed to both to the sublation of popular participatory culture into haut bourgeois, fetishized real estate and to the entertainment industries’ commercialization of it into standardized, marketable commodities. Their point of origin and their ongoing aspiration was thus popular activity prior to both poles of the contemporary “high/ low” bifurcation of cultural possibilities, prior to both forms of reification by which social creativity is assimilated into complementary fractions of capital.

Sailing without regard to the Scylla and the Charybdis of the high/ low binary, popular cultural activity finds itself and its constituencies outside both arms of corporate culture—the industry and the museum—and as a consequence has hardly developed a theoretical armature of any general social leverage or persuasiveness. A full theoretical elaboration of such a contrary model of contemporary popular culture cannot be attempted here, and any assessment of the implications of the communities (anti-capitalist? proto-socialist?) it might subtend must remain provisional. On the one hand, the complexities of both crucial terms—“culture” and “community”—bespeak the huge social transformations of the period of advanced capital.[5] A comprehensive encounter between the two terms would have to include the way they have been constructed in the fields of sociology, social and cultural anthropology, urban geography and the various minority studies areas, as well as in the specific disciplines of poetry, art history, performance art, video, and the other artistic mediums.

On the other hand, the available data about actual community cultural projects is extremely limited, and indeed the present project should be understood as a contribution to the collection of primary material upon which more generalized hypotheses about new forms of progressive popular culture could be elaborated. So though specific theoretical presuppositions are implicit and sometimes explicit in each of the essays below, the alternative theories of popular cultural production they project are subordinate to the historical details, the aesthetic achievements, and the varying social possibilities of the individual case studies. Any attempt to deduce or synthesize a general theory of a genuinely popular culture from them would necessarily involve a critique of the institutions and the theoretical apparatus that presently legitimize and naturalize capitalist culture as a whole. In lieu of such a general theory and propaedeutic to it, here we will only sketch the environment in which the sodalities studied below came into being, the cultural conditions in the city in which they were created, and hence give some concrete grounding for their various innovations and interventions.

Such a geographical focus on Los Angeles may well initially appear to be Quixotic, if not misguided. For the city is famous for being the center of industrial culture—the capital of the culture of capital—and, at least until recent developments in museums and art schools reversed this, hostile to autonomous art. But what has appeared to be the city’s categorical anomalousness is in fact a compounded prototypicality that gives the present project a more than regional significance. For if the specific urban and spatial structures developed in Los Angeles are, as many claim, the model for future cities, and if the culture industries located in it have a global hegemony, then the conditions that variously shape, inhibit, but also nurture the emergence of truly popular cultural communities in Los Angeles may reasonably be considered to exemplify a general situation; the specific institutions and histories examined below have implications about alternatives to capitalist culture more generally. Here, then, we will be concerned with a pattern of homologies and other relations between social space and culture in a city whose drastic reconfiguration of both appears to be historically prototypical.

Whether despising Los Angeles or celebrating it, whether understanding it (as they used to) as an exception or (as they now do) as a paradigm for future conurbations all over the world, geographers have recognized it as a distinctly new kind of metropolis. The great nineteenth century cities, they argue, were each comprised of a vertically expanding core surrounded by dependent rings, but Los Angeles developed as an agglomeration of separate communities, dispersed across the desert plains between the San Gabriel Mountains and the Pacific Ocean. There, successive waves of immigration—Spanish invaders in the colonial period, then Anglos and other Europeans from the mid-west and south, Blacks and Mexicans, and most recently, Asians—created distinct enclaves, many of them internally homogenous and largely segregated from each other. Together these formed, not the radial melting pot of the modern city, but a polynucleated postmodern megalopolis.

In the phrase of Robert M. Fogelson, one of its pioneering historians, the Los Angeles that became a great city, did so as “a fragmented metropolis.”[6] Its fragmentation only intensified over the last third of the twentieth century when it became ethnically and culturally one of the most diverse cities in the nation. Changes in the U.S. immigration laws in the mid-1960s combined with the city’s expanded role as a center for Pacific Rim capital and with the Reagan administration’s neo-imperialist ventures in Meso-America that made it the premier port of entry for immigrants simultaneously transformed the city’s demographic structure. But fragmentation had characterized its development from the beginnings, and awareness that phased immigration, voracious peripheral growth, and horizontal rather than vertical development was producing an unprecedented galaxy of unintegrated satellites is itself anything but new.

Postmodern geography now proposes a "Sixty-Mile Circle" of "at least 132 incorporated cities" or "the most differentiated of all cities," "a combination of enclaves with high identity, and multiclaves with mixed identity…perhaps the most heterogeneous city in the world."[7] But before World War II, well before Los Angeles became so conspicuously a microcosm of global diaspora, the 1939 WPA guide to California described it as "nineteen suburbs in search of a city”—already a tripling of the "six suburbs in search of a city" noted in 1920s witticisms.[8] And, summarizing in the midst of the urban expansion, for the rubric to his 1946 chapter on the “Los Angeles Archipelago” of “social and ethnic islands, economically interrelated but culturally disparate”—still the best analysis of the historical evolution of the city—Carey McWilliams quoted one Charles A. Stoddard who in 1894 had noticed,

“Southern California is made up of groups who often live in isolated communities, continuing their own customs, language, and religious habits and associations.”[9]

Reinforced by the long history of anti-labor politics that hindered trans-ethnic working-class consciousness and solidarity, the social dispersal that allowed immigrant groups to settle in relatively homogeneous, relatively autonomous clusters produced a distinctive segregation. Though historically, these communities all too commonly become visible to the hegemony at moments of racial or cultural strife—the anti-Chinese riots of the 1870s, for example, or the military’s terrorization of zoot-suiters in the 1940s, and the uprisings of Blacks in the 1960s and Latinos in the 1990s—all the while, within themselves they have nurtured and sustained local traditions of enormous and distinctive vitality. The barrios of East Los Angeles, for example, or the neighborhoods of South Central where African Americans have preserved the customs of the rural south and even echoes of Africa, and more recently the "little" Asian cities of Tokyo, Manila, Taipei, Saigon, and so on have all lived as vibrant and substantially self-sustained cultural milieus. Re-establishing some of the elements that formed the land- and cityscapes of other spatialities—the family structures, the customs and the festivals, but also the creative rhythms of street behavior and social living—these communities have fashioned themselves between the cultural patterns of their originals and those of their new environment, forging a new local life for often globally-distant identities.[10]

Spatiality in Los Angeles is then structured between two primary vectors: a centripetal pull towards Hollywood/downtown core, which has always been and remains the focus of the civic, economic, and transport networks of the basin, and the centrifugal pull generated by the semi-autonomous industrial and residential enclaves. If the segregated peripherality of these enclaves precluded their full integration and representation in the city and full participation in its rewards, it also compensated by allowing a spontaneous culture to flourish and to mediate in some measure the social traumas that pervade the postmodern city—for which again Los Angeles is recognized as the prototype.

For the global movement of capital that impelled many of the population flows that created the city has also devastated its social fabric. In the past quarter-century, massive if selective de-industrialization and the growth of precarious, low-income jobs especially in the service and tourist industries, have been compounded by white collar crime, virulent police corruption and brutality, and the exploitation and destruction of the land, water and air. Trickling down to the lives of working class people, these socio-economic developments manifest themselves in un- and underemployment, poverty, homelessness and alienation, in crises in public health, housing and education, and in suspicion and conflict among sexualities and ethnicities. With the world-historical victory of neo-liberalism, similar and in some case much worse forms of intertwined social destabilization, atomization, and massification have become globally pandemic; but the paucity of attempts to address them in Los Angeles have been no less extreme than the economic developments that produced them. Paralyzed by what has been called “a collective or civic aversion to dealing with social, economic and political problems,” local governance has not begun adequately to address the erosion of the older forms of urban community, and instead

“governments and populace have colluded in a decline of the commonwealth…the collapse of community.”[11]

In this, again, the city is a paradigm of the widespread lived experience of loneliness, alienation and social impotence, of the cultural attenuation and anomie that are now more intense and inescapable than even during the upheavals and dislocations of high modernity. Then at least, however corrupted its actual instantiations may have been, socialism as a political philosophy sustained the ideal of a non-exploitative human commonality, whether projected as popular participatory control over local life or as a future classless society. But now it is the market, abetted wherever possible by military power, that administers the world, and free- market fundamentalism appears locally, not in communal social projects, but as privatization. In the telling image of one popular analyst, we now go “bowling alone” for, as a more abstract one reminds us, the

“gravest and most painful testimony of the modern world, the one that possibly involves all other testimonies to which this epoch must answer is the testimony of the dissolution, the dislocation, or the conflagration of community.”[12]

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