Scene from "City of Gold."
By Harold Meyerson
Jonathan Gold, who died decades too young this past weekend, was to Los Angeles as Balzac was to Paris and Bellow to Chicago. He enabled his readers to see his city as no one had seen it before, with a breadth and complexity that had eluded L.A.'s earlier chroniclers.
Jonathan began cruising the city's boulevards and back streets to document its food trucks and strip-mall eateries around the time that L.A. was becoming the latter-day Ellis Island - the epicenter of the third great wave of American immigration, bringing the peoples and cultures of Latin America and Asia into our civic and national life. Dish by dish, he brought these cultures and their creators to the attention of the largely Anglo readers of the city's two papers, the Times and the Weekly. In the process, he gave those readers what has always been hardest for Angelenos to apprehend - a view of their sprawling, disconnected metropolis as a variegated but cohesive whole. Westsiders drawn to his recommendations found what for them were undiscovered countries -- not just the food of lesser-known Chinese provinces and the -stan nations of Central Asia, but places they wouldn't have otherwise gone to: the San Gabriel Valley, East Hollywood, Pico Boulevard just west of downtown.
I've been trying to think of who filled this function during the original Ellis Island period, who told the story, through whatever prism, of all of New York City in 1914 - and haven't come up with anyone. Writers told the story of the part of New York's cacophonous landscape that was theirs, as, say, Abe Cahan, the editor of the Yiddish-language daily The Forward, did with the city's Eastern European Jewish immigrants, but no one endeavored to convey New York's vast entire panoply. That's had to await the encyclopedic accounts that historian Mike Wallace is only now producing.
In like fashion, the Los Angeleses conveyed by Scott Fitzgerald, Nathanael West, Raymond Chandler, John Fante, Mike Davis, Gustavo Arellano and their peers may be exquisitely realized, but these writers, like all good writers, confined their scope to what they actually knew. Jonathan confined his own scope, of course, to what he knew as few others did - the ingredients, combinations and guiding spirits that went into the city's food, which is to say, the world's food. But that meant he dealt with the whole of Los Angeles, albeit (forgive me) in bite-sized chunks.
In that sense, he became a voice of, and for, the whole city. The only other Angeleno I can think of who's been a voice for the whole city is Vin Scully. When the Dodgers arrived (I was eight at the time), Scully created an ongoing narrative that residents listened to across the metropolis, and with a verbal and story-telling brilliance that Jonathan, in a wholly different medium, was to match. The difference is that Scully talked to Los Angeles, while Jonathan talked both to it and about it. Scully helped build one aspect of a distinct citywide identity at a time when one barely existed; Jonathan helped build one, too, in a city radically more diverse than the one Scully encountered when the Dodgers arrived in 1958.
What Jonathan was about was what a number of us in Los Angeles journalism have endeavored to be about during the past three decades - introducing and explaining this new city, this new America, to our readers. I was an editor at L.A. Weekly for a number of years when Jonathan was there, though, as my beat was politics and the economy, I never actually edited any of his work. (But, boy, did I hear from my fellow editors who did, given Jonathan's propensity for filing at the last possible moment.) But in conveying the complexities of, say, Eastside politics, or documenting the similar voting patterns of the city's Jewish and Latino communities on matters touching immigration, we were, in a sense, telling a story similar to the ones that Jonathan told so well.
That's why Jonathan's body of work will be read by historians not just for the way it elevated food criticism to an art form, but also because it championed and helped explain the embrace that urban America has largely given to its third-wave immigrants. That body of work stands not only as a brilliant form of criticism, but as a cumulative refutation of the nativist phobias that our president foments and personifies. Jonathan spoke for the new American food, but ultimately, more importantly, for that new America itself.
Harold Meyerson, who was executive editor of LA Weekly from 1989 through 2001, is executive editor of The American Prospect.