Paradise Found


By Benjamin Schwarz

January 1999 ATLANTIC


TO understand the original lure of the southern-California good life, forget Venice Beach and ignore Beverly Hills. Instead take a drive on an October afternoon when the Santa Anas are blowing, or on a February morning after a rainstorm. The sky will be a flawless blue; the various greens of the palm, the eucalyptus, and the ficus will shimmer in the sun; and everything you see will stand out sharp and clean in the brilliant but never harsh light. Head for Pasadena, unglamorous Glendale, Alhambra, Altadena, Culver City, Los Feliz, the Hollywood flats, the mid-Wilshire area, or the modest “alphabet streets” of Pacific Palisades, where the once-ubiquitous California bungalows of the early 1900s and their successors, the Spanish-style ones of the twenties and thirties, still prevail. These tidy, stylish, airy, (originally) inexpensive houses, which seem to flow into their lush gardens, were built for the lower-middle-class transplanted midwesterners who long defined the city culturally, socially, and economically. The bungalows are, as two prominent architectural historians put it, “the closest thing to a democratic art that has ever been produced.”

The great realistic novel of Los Angeles, and the only one to take seriously the concerns and aspirations of what Frank Lloyd Wright derisively called “the commonplace people” who filled these bungalows and the city, is James M. Cain’s Mildred Pierce. With cumulative detail Cain re-created the intricate, ordinary lives of small entrepreneurs, real-estate agents, waitresses, and next-door neighbors. Los Angeles is now, famously, among the world’s most ethnically diverse metropolises, but Cain and this architecture tour reveal its earlier incarnation, as America’s most bourgeois, homogenous Anglo-Saxon big city. In what critics dismissed as a “huge country village,” the veterans of bleak prairie winters found a place that in their earnest wonderment they called a “Paradise on Earth,” where they rapturously grew in their own back yards the oranges, lemons, figs, nectarines, and pomegranates that were rare treats in groceries back home.

Usually belittled as bland sun seekers, these people seem to me grim realists who understood that because life was mostly loss and disappointment, small consolations should be gratefully savored. Today, for all their complaining, Angelenos have the same sense of gratitude when, after flying home from a trip to the East or the Midwest in January, they hungrily roll down the windows of the cab to smell the jasmine and feel the soft night air.

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