Even more problematical is Kevin Starr’s view of Los Angeles in his book Coast of Dreams. He gets the little details wrong, saying Santa Monica by the 1980s and 1990s had such irritating homeless that they “effective [were] creating a no-man-s-land between Santa Monica and the sea.” Nita Nickerson, one of my students, said that during this period as a pregnant woman she felt perfectly safe walking the area—hardly a no woman’s land. Starr's examples of catastrophe mostly occured in L.A.: horrifying murders, corrupt cops of the Rampart scandal, the 1992 riot, never ending ethnic tensions, dreadfully poor children, and out-of-control gangs. After reading Starr’s litany of catastrophes, some of my students were astounded to hear me call him a booster.
What’s quite missing is all the citizens groups who bravely battle to make Los Angeles livable. After the 1992 riot Los Angeles’s business and political establishment had established Rebuild LA to address the city’s poverty but it failed miserable. But Starr omits the real story: -Latino led AFL-CIO, immigrants rights groups and progressive Jewish, black Latino politicians and groups defeated Mayor Riordan’s attempts to privatize city services, which would have led to lower wages, producing even more poverty.
Then this coaltion fought for and won a livable wage ordinance; supported the Justice for Janitors campaign to first unionize and then got a wage increased for immigrant janitors working in high-rise luxury offices. All these efforts were the real beginning of addressing poverty after elites had failed miserably. Again, the city's establishment failed to make any dent in the gang problem, but anti-gang groups were making small progress. These many small groups-- Amer-I-Can, Hands Across Watts, Homies Unidos, Unity One, Barrios Unidos, HomeBoy Industries, and Communities in Schools--all flew under Starr's radar as they worked to have gang truces an to provide alternatives to gangs in recreation, life-skills and job-training programs.
Other groups tackled the affordable housing shortage, hunger, and rundown schools. These citizens groups tackling Los Angeles’s problems across the were giving the city much needed compassion and humanity but also were presenting viable proposals that would lessen the growing gap between the state's wealthiest and its poorest citizens. The story was not of a city out of control but of citizen's groups presenting viable proposals. A few of these proposals were adopted but mostly the city's political and econmic establishment stonewalled.
A final story that Starr omits is how Los Angeles arts have come of age in the 1990s. Starr has bits and pieces of the story strewn around his various chapters, but one needs to gather the pieces together in a coherent story. In the 1990s of Los Angeles architecture reached world fame with Frank Gehry while the Getty musuem now had the finest photography collection in a private museum in the country. In the early 1930s Mexican muralist David Sequiros painted his murals in Los Angeles, starting a 60-year old outdoor mural tradition with murals across town, more than any other U.S. city; further, the city has a roster of important visual artists and a huge number of museums and galleries showcasing all kinds of visual art. Many small theaters were daring and adventurous while its large theater pioneered with such plays as Tony Kushner’s Angels in America.
Los Angeles finally had a large scale repertory cinema in the American Cinemateque at the Egyptian The city had one important film festival after another featuring Latino film, African and African-American film, independent cinema, and even a homegrown alternative Silverlake film festival. After New York, Los Angeles was the most important visual arts as well as theater center in the country; in cinema it was, of course, the most important.
Starr even discusses Los Angeles novelists—Bukowski, Ellroy—as being too down and dirty but he has focused on pre-1990s novelists: Bukowski is really a countercultural voice of the 1960s and 1970s celebrating the little guy while Ellroy is a 1980s debunker exposing in his best novel LA Confidential the corrupt, racist 1950s LAPD. Two novelists who did capture the 1990s were Janet Fitch’s White Olander and Hector Tovar’s Tatooed Soldiers. Where Starr gives us a long litany of ills suffered by trashed children, Fitch’s heroine is one of those trashed children who manages by the end to find some happiness. Tovar’s is the best immigrant story, detailing a Guatamlan refugee fleeing the civil war to see in Los Angeles his life hit bottom and then begin to go upwards. Both novels ending with small moments of redemption.
Starr’s book, despite its flaws, is still the best book about California in the 1990s because he begins to tell a major important California story in how the great immigrant wave of the decade was transforming the state’s economy and culture, but a second story needs to be told: how immigrants are transforming its politics. How immigrants form coalitions with non-immigrants in dealing with issues of environment, hunger, jobs, anti-gang and housing may prove to be the big story of the decade starting in 2000. A new arts and literature resulting from this stew of new cultures is also bubbling. Rather than a decade strewn with catastrophe, the 1990s may prove in the future to be a decade like New York 1900-1910 when citizens started small scale groups to produce ideas--seeds of hope--to solve their many problems and to creative innovative new arts.