My segment on KCRW on Monday was a short conversation with Steve Chiotakis about the palm trees that some observers of Los Angeles find iconic and others, including me increasingly, find to be more annoying and cliche than evocative. The segment was inspired in part by the rash of July 4 fires that destroyed a few dozen palm trees around the area and in part by a collaboration between the Los Angeles Review of Books and Flaunt magazine. The two outlets commissioned pieces on the palm tree by writers such as David Ulin, Lynell George and Victoria Dailey. Some excerpts:
When I think about the palm trees of Los Angeles, I imagine them in flames. This goes back to the 1992 riots, when, as I recollect, palms alongside the 10 near downtown were set alight like giant torches in the evening sky. The image is embedded in my mind’s eye: A particular L.A. icon transformed into an emblem of a different city altogether, the trope, the fantasy— Lotusland, what Nathanael West once called “the Sargasso of the imagination”—consumed in fiery updrafts of pure flame. “The city burning,” Joan Didion wrote nearly half a century ago, “is Los Angeles’s deepest image of itself; …
Whenever I slide out of that series of S’s, the long, slow curves rolling south on the 110 leaving Pasadena, I always look for it: A snaggle-toothed fence of palm trees tilted seductively in a Going-my-way?-lean. These trees aren’t anything you’d find on a postcard touting L.A. That’s precisely why my eye is drawn to them: Five slinky specimens of Washingtonia robusta, with putty-gray trunks and flyaway “hair,” serenading the highway; all of them, that is, save for one, that stands nearly as statuesque—except it has no head at all.
As urban legends go, L.A. plays host to many changeable coded signifiers—those tennis shoes slung over a thick stretch of power lines or jagged haphazard spray-painted tags that bisect neighborhoods into war zones. The decapitated palm trees drifting up out of concrete settled into my consciousness as perhaps yet another cryptic street-code—a warning to decipher.
PARISIANS CLAIM THAT IN PARIS, one is never more than 400 yards away from a Metro station. In Los Angeles, I am equally certain that one is always within 400 yards of a palm tree. Scores of streets are lined with them; they are ubiquitous in domestic and public gardens; they rise from hilltops; they tower above cemeteries; they front museums, movie studios, hotels, hospitals, municipal buildings, modest apartments, and lavish villas; they are clustered around swimming pools; they dominate the skyline — they are everywhere, and have never been more popular. The city’s 200-year love affair with palms has never ceased, and rather than waning, the affair is waxing. From the first palms planted by Spanish padres to the city of Beverly Hills, which recently, in an act of cosmetic alteration, created a palm-lined, palm-bisected thoroughfare on upscale Rodeo Drive, the palm has been the tree of choice for Angelenos.
* Fixed spelling of George's name.