Books

In praise of the writer

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Reyner Banham in Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies coined the label "Plains of Id" for the vast basin of mostly suburbs that surrounds and defines the city. In a glowing review in today's L.A. Times Book Review, Kevin Starr writes of essayist D.J. Waldie, "the Plains of Id have found a voice."

When Waldie's Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir appeared in 1996, Starr says, "instantly, the Plains of Id gained dignity, and Waldie an obscure civil servant living alone in the Lakewood home his parents had bought a half-century ago made his debut as a writer of pithy grace, compassion and insight." The occasion for all this praise is Waldie's new collection of essays for Angel City Press, Where We Are Now: Notes From Los Angeles. Starr, the state librarian emeritus, continues:

Waldie writes in an idiomatic yet incantatory style, with a certain back music ever present in his prose. "The greening of the Los Angeles River," he writes, "is a sobering demonstration of the limits of environmental restoration in an urban landscape. But, it's also a hopeful demonstration of how a perilously fragmented Los Angeles can pull itself together. In the prophetic words of the old hymn, we shall gather at the river, because we have almost nowhere else to go in built-out L.A."

What does Waldie tell us about this region? He offers a combination of new insights and perennial fears. He worries that Lakewood someday will be submerged under the suppressed power of a Los Angeles River unleashed by a faulty flood control system. He takes a slightly skeptical yet ultimately hopeful view of efforts to repopulate and revitalize the downtown. He is appalled by the growing anonymity of life in the Southland: the absence of shared myths, symbols and a collective narrative. From this perspective, he considers Lakewood where a new generation of immigrants has bought into (and transformed) a preexisting place and narrative a conspicuous instance of civic success.

Waldie's overriding insight (and we need to remind ourselves constantly of it) is that Los Angeles as a whole is a success. Not a booster success, for there are tragedies and failures aplenty. And not merely the success of attitude and style, although the trendy and the chic are as vividly represented here as in any city on the planet. But a success for ordinary people, who now are predominately of color and, like Waldie's parents in the late 1940s, arrived here to seek a better life and by and large found it.

Previously on L.A. Observed: New from D.J. Waldie, A tale of two churches, Riding the bus with D.J. Waldie


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