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John Mack Faragher’s Eternity Street traces the history of Los Angeles like no other book has

A view down Spring and Second streets, Los Angeles, California, 1895.
A view down Spring and Second streets, Los Angeles, California, 1895.
American Stock Archive/Getty Images

I lived in Chicago for many years, and each time I revealed that I had come from somewhere else, a similar conversation followed.

Rating


3.5


"Oh. Where did you grow up?"

"Los Angeles."

"Really?"

"Yes."

"Huh. Weird. You seem like more of a New York person."

As if that were a compliment.

Los Angeles has a bad reputation. It’s all smog, all fluff, no substance. Manhattanites, of all people, tell me they find it too superficial. I’ve heard horror stories of childhood trips wasted at the Walk of Fame. Even the natives get self-loathing. I’m going to go to college in a real city — that was the line growing up. I hate it here (but I could never leave) was the line for those who stayed.

Pop culture is largely to blame. For a city accused of having no history at all, Los Angeles has too much mythology, all of it somehow set in the 20th century, all of it confined to the depravity of making motion pictures. If there are periods at all, they are Old Hollywood and New Hollywood; the first glamorous, the second principally concerned with cocaine and celebrity derangement. Everything else is criminal: There's fame, and then there's the setting of a Bret Easton Ellis novel — bad noir. Los Angeles is the culmination of every bad trend of the 20th century: cars and freeways, mass media, and vanity. Suburbia. Playing chicken with the water in a desert. LA hasn't been aspirational since a Beach Boys song.

Even the best books about Los Angeles don’t tend to stray far from the theme. Go to Amazon and search for the city’s name — you’ll see.

Throw in the traffic, and one begins to see how Los Angeles has taken on such an ugly shape in the American imagination. A city full of marketing men and image consultants can’t save a place where they’re considered to be the problem. Even the weather can’t save LA.

The 21st century has seen improvement. Pacific Standard, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and other magazines have reminded the opposite coast that writers — and painters and composers and architects — live in Los Angeles, that not every resident is a screenwriter or a movie star. Books about the city are coming out, books that aren’t about the studios, and they're doing well, too.

These are encouraging signs for Los Angeles in the 21st century. But to wash out the stain of the past 50 years, the city must do more than make sense of its future. It must make new sense of its past. Like all California schoolchildren, I was taught a history of my state and city that began with the missions and skipped to the gold rush, with a brief mention of some war in between. We visited the old pueblo, sure, but without any sense of how a thousand square miles of city grew around it.

John Mack Faragher’s Eternity Street fills out those centuries in between, an endeavor as important to figuring out the city as the books that find it now.

Eternity Street shades the history of Los Angeles in a way no other book has

Eternity Street is an achievement, and I use that word particularly. There are genres of historical writing: the history of a person or a people, of a nation or an idea. The history of a place is the most difficult. A place does not have a natural story like a person does. It lacks the ambitions of a nation. Unlike an idea, a place does not have a clear inception, a clear consequence, apologists and dissenters. Geography resists narrative; one only gets to decide when to begin paying attention and when to stop. What happens in between makes no guarantee of closure, or continuity, or sense.

This is particularly true in the case of Faragher’s Los Angeles. Beginning with the first missions in the 17th century and tracing the rise of the city through the 19th century, Eternity Street contains generations of characters and ambitions acting on a landscape in permanent flux. The city does not exist in the beginning: What is and is not Los Angeles, what is and is not California, changes. Sometimes it changes several times within a single set of characters’ lives.

The character of Los Angeles changes too. It is indigenous, then Spanish, Mexican, then Californio, the Bear Republic, then part of the American one. Within each of these periods, it is on the verge of some break with its new national identity, too, and there are times when even those who lived there did not know precisely where or who they were. That Faragher is able to make sense of it at all is an achievement, a testament to his capacity as a historian and a writer.

Eternity Street is nonetheless imperfect. Such an unwieldy subject can lose focus at times. The sheer weight of names and interests and alliances can lose cohesion, and Faragher relies too much on a reader’s memory for financial and familial connections only mentioned in passing. This is particularly true in the long sections of relative peace, when the story must rely on illustrative incidents and the history of commerce, without the narrative discipline enforced by something as intuitive as a war.

It is unsurprising, then, that Eternity Street’s strongest section is its middle third: The story of how Los Angeles came to be American, at least in name, has the benefit of clear dramatic anchors. When too long a period passes with only slow changes, when the city is shaped more by the attrition of trends and time than by any series of distinct events, Eternity Street drags. But this is how history often goes, and Faragher is as competent as any historian in drawing some story out of details, if not superlatively so.

The book is an achievement in virtue of this, not in spite of it. In reading, I found myself lost, at times, in long incidentals — in the details of criminal cases and small squabbles meant to illustrate some larger sense of place — only to emerge disoriented, too long distracted to recall immediately where the larger story had been when we left off. Yet this failing (to the extent that it is one; such passages were always enjoyable) is a testament to Faragher’s research.

Eternity Street will be a reference for some time, I think. If it is messy, it is messy from abundance. If it does not always excel in synthesis, it is only because its intention — before pleasure, before even clarity and structure — appears to be demonstration. This is a definitive work, says Eternity Street. The book justifies that claim. It is the kind of book I might have loved more as a child, when my memory for detail was greater, when 600 pages of names and places, of endless information, offered the satisfaction of becoming an expert without trying. When such granular absorption took more readily, like a language.

I felt that way again sometimes when I was reading Eternity Street. I don’t know if that is because I grew up in Los Angeles. But I do not think that’s all of it. I recommend it to natives of any place.

The book finds something more fundamental to LA than celebrity or smog or cars: violence

Eternity Street has one other excellent feature, one that makes it especially important, not only as history but as part of understanding the city moving forward: The history of Los Angeles, according to Eternity Street, is about violence.

The theory goes like this: The period between Los Angeles’s first settlement by Spanish missionaries and its eventual incorporation into a 20th-century United States capable of managing its westernmost cities was marked by an unusually long-lived instability in state authority. The missionaries were undermined by indigenous people, then by Spain itself. After the Mexican War of Independence, Mexican authority remained tenuous — it became a tradition for Californians to overthrow their departmental governor and for Mexico City to acquiesce by sending them a new one.

In the early 19th century, several factions warred in southern California: liberal Mexican nationalists and illiberal ones, those who hoped for an independent California, and those who worked the "Texas game" — hoping to provoke a rebellion or a war that would culminate in annexation by America. After the Mexican-American War, stability was no more constant: Far from Washington, local law enforcement struggled to persuade Angelenos that they were all subject to the same laws, much less the same national identity. By the 1850s, Los Angeles was notorious as one of the most violent cities in the country.

The consequence of this instability, says Faragher, was a breakdown in the state monopoly on violence. Throughout the time periods he covers, roughly the 150 years between the mid-18th and late 19th centuries, trials are short-circuited in favor of mob justice. Appeals, duly owed, are denied by citizens committees. Jails are stormed, public executions are attended by crowds, and the rate of incidental violence — assaults, murders, arson — carried out in long cycles of retribution become the local stand-in for formal justice.

But this, vitally, is not the simple caricature of "frontier justice" that populates so many myths about the Wild West. It is not a matter of sheriffs and outlaws, of taming a wild land, of law-abiding citizens beset by scoundrels and lowlifes. In Faragher’s history, the wealthy are as likely as the poor to be caught in these cycles, as reliant on the informal criminal law the city develops in a vacuum as the destitute.

Long grudges and alliances, honor killing and expediency are the undercurrents of Los Angeles’s life, pervasive enough to shape the city that emerges in the 20th century. The implication is clear: It is not "wildness" that makes a place violent, nor "chaos" that comes when the law fails. Rather, Los Angeles in those transitional centuries is representative of any place where the state can neither win obedience to its will nor enforce it. The consequence is something more complex than anarchy, a kind of substitute tribalism, with its own logic and its own self-perpetuating laws.

As it happens, this is also, roughly, the thesis of Ghettoside, Jill Leovy’s 2015 book about homicide in LA’s predominantly black southern neighborhoods. Ghettoside was met with hosannas when it was published in January of last year, in part because it made a remarkable case for the roots of endemic urban violence. The trouble, Leovy argued, was not that poor black people lacked discipline or restraint or civility, as conservatives have long alleged, but it was not so simple as overbearing, brutal police practices either.

Rather, Ghettoside went, the unrest south of the 10 was the consequence of both over- and underpolicing: cops too quick to earn distrust by harassing citizens for minor crimes and too slow to take the big cases seriously, barely investigating murders and assaults that could not be immediately solved.

As a result, conditions became remarkably similar to those described by Faragher: In the absence of a legitimate state monopoly on violence, residents had established a shadow legal system, based on retribution and secrecy, where problems they did not believe the police would solve were handled privately, and violently, leading to cycles of vengeance, more bloodshed, and more distrust. When state authority attempted to reestablish itself, it cracked down in all the wrong ways, worsening the weight of a heavy hand without much grasping the real problem.

Leovy's theory of violence may be newly popular, but reading Eternity Street it's clear that the Los Angeles Leovy saw was not new. If anything, it was one of the last vestiges of the old Los Angeles, the way the whole city was for a long time. Failures of authority, retribution, sublegal systems of law: These were not some strange features of particular neighborhoods in a particular time, but rather something carried forward from the oldest strands of Los Angeles DNA.

If nothing else, Eternity Street adds context to Ghettoside, an understanding of continuity that's vital to the discussions Leovy has inspired. It is our good fortune that these two books came out so close to one another, that they independently came upon similar theories of Los Angeles, that they speak to the centuries before and after the 20th, allowing a city with a history and a future beyond periods of Hollywood — as troubling as that future and that history may be.

Read them together, or apart. They speak to one another. Both are vital, if you care about Los Angeles. Both are fascinating, if you’re tired of the shallow impression you've been given of the city.