Kevin Starr: Will LA Finally Have a Mayor Who Defines the City?

Roundup: Historians' Take

Kevin Starr, in the LAT (5-22-05):

[Kevin Starr, state librarian emeritus, is professor of history at USC. His latest book is "Coast of Dreams: California on the Edge, 1990-2003."]

Every flourishing city is held together, in part, by a collective narrative. No one is more responsible for this narrative than a city's mayor. To cite this truism in the context of the Los Angeles mayor's race that at long last ended on Tuesday is to remind ourselves that this city's story has fallen into eclipse.

This is not exclusively the fault of either the current mayor or his successor. As poet and political philosopher John Milton told us in "Areopagitica," people get the government they deserve, and these days Los Angeles doesn't merit much of a story.

Like any community, a city must be constantly imagined and interpreted through a story line that embraces past, present and future. Such a story line is advanced on multiple levels: by the artists, novelists and architects of the city; by its journalists and historians; by its clergy and elected officials; by its athletic teams, parades, pageants and marathons; by the evening news, by talk radio (where would Los Angeles be without Warren Olney's "Which Way, L.A.?"); and, most important -- as audience and chorus -- by the public.

It is easy to extract such narrative from great fiction. We know Paris so much better, for example, because of Honore de Balzac. Can we fully envision London without reference to Charles Dickens? New York without reference to Edith Wharton, John Dos Passos and Louis Auchincloss? Boston without reference to Henry James, William Dean Howells, John P. Marquand and Edwin O'Connor? Chicago without reference to Theodore Dreiser, James T. Farrell and Saul Bellow? To this day, one walks the streets of San Francisco with Frank Norris and Dashiell Hammett for company. And as far as the City of Angels is concerned, perhaps no city in the United States has been so fully interpreted and kept in imaginative existence by its writers of fiction.

But a mayor, too, plays an important role in creating a city's narrative and semiotics, its story and symbol system.

From 1933 to 1945, Mayor Fiorello La Guardia of New York proved a master in providing Gotham with the story line it needed to get through the Depression and World War II.

Later, John Lindsay and Ed Koch became virtuosos at expressing not the complete New York story line, but enough of it to keep the city galvanized and engaged with its destiny during hard times.

Throughout their long tenures, the Richard Daleys, father and son, not only told Chicago its story, they practically incorporated the city in their physical selves, especially Daley Sr.

In recent times, Joseph L. Alioto, a North Beach lad risen to lawyerly prominence, proved a master at telling San Francisco, again and again, that it was a city worthy of being ranked alongside the cities of the world and should behave accordingly. Even such a laconic figure as Tom Bradley embodied in his early years the narrative notion that Los Angeles had passed a point of no return when it came to diversity of political power.

James K. Hahn has exempted himself almost completely from such a role. Although Hahn can be interpreted as the Last of the Folks -- a descendant of the Anglo American migrations into Los Angeles in the 1910s and 1920s -- he himself feels no obligation to offer guidance as to what Los Angeles should struggle to be. It's that "vision thing," as Bush 41 once put it -- or, in more fancy terms, the meta-narrative....

I'm told that at Antonio Villaraigosa's rollicking postelection party on the fringes of downtown Los Angeles -- gospel, mariachi and funk music blasting from loudspeakers, the aroma of Mexican food mixing with Korean barbecue in the warm spring air, young couples actually necking as office towers sparkled overhead -- had all the earmarks of a new beginning. The next mayor's speechifying didn't quite live up to the dazzling urban setting or the exuberance of the audience. But remember: A mayor is only one of many contributors to a city's collective story, and the celebration Villaraigosa orchestrated Tuesday night at least suggested an exciting new civic story line.

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