October 09, 2015
David Ulin’s new book, Sidewalking, is a meandering narrative that follows the author and critic through the streets of L.A. as he contemplates the city’s past, his role in understanding it, and what it means to create space. Ulin’s work is a natural descendent of Rebecca Solnit’s Walking; as such, Ulin follows a winding path through L.A.’s collage of ideas and structures while considering the city’s effect on his his life. Sidewalking asks us to place ourselves on the (often neglected) sidewalks of L.A: to access the city as pedestrians, in every sense of the word.
Ulin was my mentor at UC Riverside’s Palm Desert Campus, and recently we conversed over email about his new book and his role as a “reluctant Angeleno.”
HEATHER SCOTT PARTINGTON: You write about walking in L.A. as an act of “mutual creation”—that you “remake L.A. in [your] own image (or the image of every other city [you’ve] inhabited…) even as it remakes [you].” How does this act—of using our own vocabulary of familiar cities to establish new ones play into the way L.A. has grown? It seems a distinctly American idea—we’ve been doing this since colonial times—but it’s observable in L.A. more so than anywhere else. Do you think this tension between old and new is L.A.’s identifying feature?
DAVID ULIN: I don’t know that it has to do with Los Angeles in particular as much as it does with my own condition of (let’s call it) exile in Los Angeles. I am a New Yorker, born and bred. Every place I’ve ever lived has existed in my mind in comparison to that cityscape. For the first few years I was in Los Angeles, this was a source of conflict, because it couldn’t measure up. Then I began to deal with the city on its own terms. Of course, that process is an interaction, in which part of my acclimatization has to do with Los Angeles winning me over, and part with me finding a way to get what I want out of the place. It’s no coincidence that I have always lived in Los Angeles neighborhoods where I could walk to the bank, to the bar, to the dry cleaners, to get coffee or groceries; this is the essential currency (for me, anyway) of urban life.
You reference many images of L.A.—literary, but also from film and photos. What was your research like for this book? Did you have access to archival photos or films? Are there images of L.A. that you consider emblematic of “your” L.A., or the way you’d like to see the city?
I didn’t research the book, exactly – or at least, I didn’t research it as a book. I’ve lived in Los Angeles for 24 years and been writing and reading and thinking about it the whole time, so a lot of Sidewalking just grew by accretion, a kind of critical mass. As far as specific research, the Internet is a terrific thing. I tend to write my way into a blind alley or a dead end, and then do research to find my way out. What this means is that I depend in some sense on a kind of serendipity, in that I often don’t know exactly what I’m looking for. Or I do … and then I find something else, which is even more interesting. That 1931 photo of the triple junction at Fairfax, Olympic, and San Vicente, for instance – I don’t remember what I was looking for when I stumbled across that image, but as soon as I saw it, I knew that I would use it, although I had never known it existed until then.
This is related to my previous question; did these sources (particularly the books) come to you over decades of study? I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the critic’s life as a kind of lifelong project; I can feel my own interests coalescing around specific ideas as I read for reviews. I wondered if that was the case for you. Are you just a natural student of L.A. and its mythology, or did you undertake it specifically for the book?
When it comes to Los Angeles, I often feel like Michael Corleone in The Godfather, Part III: “The more I try to get out, the more they pull me back in.” So yes, it’s very much a product of a lifelong project, both in terms of literature and also the daily back-and-forth.
Which writers do you feel have most accurately captured the L.A. experience? Which have shaped it, the most?
This is a very difficult question because I’m not sure there is a Los Angeles experience … at least one we all share. For me the most influential writer in all sorts of ways (perhaps primarily sensibility and style) is Joan Didion, whose voice and vision have had a huge effect on mine. Also Wanda Coleman, who basically invented contemporary Los Angeles literary culture; Bernard Cooper; Carolyn See, author of the magnificent Golden Days, among other books; Amy Gerstler, David Trinidad, Michele T. Clinton, Lynell George, Ruben Martinez, Chester Himes. Then, of course, the contrarians: Louis Adamic, Carey McWilliams, Mike Davis, Norman M. Klein. The crime writers: Chandler, James M. Cain, whose Mildred Pierce may be the greatest of all Los Angeles novels, and Walter Mosley, who is in many ways our Balzac, author of fiction as social history. More: Luis Alfaro, Shosun Nagahara, Hector Tobar, Janet Fitch, Dinah Lenney, Mark Haskell Smith, Myron Brinig, Naomi Hirahara. I’m leaving people out, I know, but the list goes on and on.
I’m interested in books that mimic the experiences of the writer and ask the reader to undergo a similar process. Your book asks readers to wander with you as you walk the streets of L.A. First: was that a structural choice you made, or did the nature of your thoughts on the city dictate the form of the book? You address the idea of narratives, walking, and meaning a few times. Are you drawn to this type of writing, yourself?
To answer your last question first, I am drawn to this type of writing. The original model for Sidewalking was Alfred Kazin’s A Walker in the City, a memoir of growing up in as an immigrant boy in between-the-wars Brooklyn, which is very much a work we have to wander our way through. Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust was another early inspiration; it too operates on such terms. As far as structural choices, it was more intuitive than that. I knew relatively early on what the chapter structure was, but as far as the movement of each chapter, that grew directly out of the writing process. I don’t like to know where I’m going when I write except in the most general terms; if I know too much, I feel like there is not enough to discover and I get bored. In that sense, I suppose, the book is very much an expression of my own wandering – through the streets and also through my mind. Narrative and meaning are both constructions; I believe that the universe is chaotic, without shape or form. The paradox is not only that we need meaning, however contrived, to exist, but also that it ennobles us to create it because then it is entirely ours.
Do you think a reader from L.A. will approach this book differently than a non-L.A. reader? Or do you think L.A. is as unique as the individual who encounters it?
I try never to anticipate how readers will approach anything. But of course a reader who knows the city will approach it with a certain familiarity. As for Los Angeles, I think it is both unique and representative, like all cities – distinct but with commonalities.
You write about nostalgia for a bygone era of L.A. (and one that you didn’t ever live in)—from an outside view [since I live in Northern California], it seems like this is a central tenet of L.A.’s identity—this kind of longing for what came before. I saw it most recently in the glorious freeway shots of True Detective, and it seems like almost everyone who writes about L.A. (maybe even everyone who writes about California) include an ache for something that’s gone. Do you think the problematic nature of pinning down an essential definition of L.A. is, in fact, the way we can define it?
I think it’s the problem with paradise – it always fails us, and then we are left with our longing for what we wish it was. Not to say that Los Angeles, or California, is paradise, just that it often gets framed that way. If that’s your perspective, then it starts to decay the moment you get here and real life intercedes. In the book I talk about Helen Hunt Jackson, who wrote nostalgically about an earlier, purer era of Southern California – and she was writing in the 1880s. So you see this way of thinking, this strand, from the beginning; it has always been an element. There’s another reason, too, for the nostalgia: the instability of the landscape, the fact that everything can be, and has been, wiped out. Nostalgia is a necessary survival mechanism in a place that regularly erases itself.
Your book reads like a meditation—and I mean that in the literal sense. It’s like a mindfulness exercise. It’s an act of prolonged awareness, and this jives with the idea of writing as sustained noticing. I think Sidewalking makes a pretty good case for living in the L.A. of now: individual moments, and individual interpretation of a complicated city. How did you decide to write these essays? Were they a way to work through your feelings about the city, or were they conceptualized first and then put to a walking test?
I started thinking about this book a dozen or so years ago, when I began to write about walking in Los Angeles. I had walked the city since I moved here, but for a long time I didn’t see it as a subject; then, one day, it was. For me, it’s all about the slowing down – not just here, but maybe especially so since so much of this city’s life takes place, or aspires to, at automotive speed. How do we see beneath the clichés and stereotypes? How do we see the place on its terms, for what it is? As for the Los Angeles of now, I think that’s right, but also that individual moments and interpretations are the only mechanisms to craft a narrative through a city as unwieldy as this one. Los Angeles repels the notion of a single narrative; there is order here, but it has a lot to do with chaos, and the embrace of chaos, which may be one reason I am so drawn to it.
Has it changed your view of L.A. to see it though [your son] Noah’s eyes?
I can’t see it through Noah’s eyes – but hanging out with him and seeing how he was living here made me wish Los Angeles had been this way when I arrived.
You say in Sidewalking that much of the literature of L.A. has been “the literature of put-down”, but you also struggle mightily against a notion of L.A.’s exceptionalism. Do you think L.A. is alone in existing somewhere between heaven and hell? Is it unique in this aspect, or do you think other cities have to fight against the same deification and vilification?
Much of the literature of Los Angeles is the literature of put-down up to a point. Until the late 1960s, early 1970s, it’s largely that sort of writing: Outsiders from elsewhere (often the east coast) who dropped in for a few weeks, staying just long enough to have their preconceptions confirmed. Why is there such a cult of exoticism about Los Angeles? Because there are no palm trees in New York. An over-simplification, certainly, but no less true for being so. Eventually, however, writers like Wanda Coleman and the Beyond Baroque poets began to write from the inside, about the condition of being a resident. At that point, the literature began to shift from one of exile to one of place.
As for exceptionalism, I resist, or reject, it because it’s too easy. Every city, every place, is exceptional because all of them have their own history. But there are also movements that bind us, that are more broadly cultural. Take sprawl, for instance: In Southern California, it is a direct result of the 1904 San Fernando Valley land grab, and the opening of the aqueduct in 1913. But it is also true that virtually every other American city sprawled, building highways and distant suburbs in the years around World War II; Levitttown was developed on Long Island, after all.
You write that in some ways, all urban spaces are defined by their use. I am particularly curious about your complicated feelings toward manufactured spaces such as The Grove, and how it seems that they begin to function the same way that more naturally developed (or maybe I should say traditionally developed) spaces do. You write of the streets as the way we access the attributes and meaning of a city—do you think, then, that L.A.’s history as such a non-pedestrian city has made it less likely to be a city in the traditional sense?
Not at all. In fact, Los Angeles is currently developing much more of what let’s call a coherent (or traditional) identity: a Los Angeles aesthetic, if you will. In part, that has to do with the tightening of the city, through light rail, pedestrian districts, the revival of downtown. In part, it has to do with the fact that the city has reached its geographic limits and started to fold back in on itself. Thirty years ago, it was easy to think we lived outside the bounds of “city” even when we lived within the borders of the city itself. Now we no longer – thankfully – have that luxury. We are here together, all of us, in this vast unwieldy urban landscape, and there is nowhere to go. That’s a good thing as far as I’m concerned because it encourages us to develop some kind of shared identity.
As for the use of manufactured spaces, it’s what we do. Look at all the factories that are now apartments, the driving streets that are pedestrian corridors. Look at the High Line in New York, or the Ferry Building in San Francisco. We constantly adapt our cities to our own needs, and the same will be (is already) true of a place like the Grove.
My favorite idea in the book is the concept of L.A. as a place that embodies negative capability—that it requires us to hold contradictory thoughts at the same time. When (or where) have you felt this most acutely? Do you think it’s why you as a critic, and a reader, and a fan of complication, are drawn to L.A.?
I think life requires a sense of negative capability: We are alive, we will die. That’s an unbearable tension – for me, anyway – and yet it’s all we have. In that sense, Los Angeles is a reflection of our existential condition in the broader universe. I don’t know if I’m drawn to it, or if it is just where I live. More to the point, I think, it is the inquiry to which I am drawn, the back and forth of thinking about identity and place.