Growing up in and around Chicago in the 1980s and 1990s, one witnessed the city’s incomplete political transformation. Mayor Harold Washington’s 1983 victory propelled him to City Hall where during his brief but impactful tenure he began dismantling the Democratic machine built under Anton Cermak during the 1930s and consolidated by Richard J. Daley in the mid-1950s.
Observers like University of Illinois Chicago political scientist, former alderman, and Chicagoland sage Dick Simpson argue the machine bent but never broke. Rather, under Richard M. Daley–who succeeded Washington (via the hapless Eugene Sawyer)–the machine would be reconstituted; “Pinstripe Patronage,” according to Simpson, which represented a shift toward large banking and legal institutions and transnational manufacturers. “Businessmen who give contributions to the mayor expect to . . . deliver goods and services to City Hall at inflated prices,” Simpson told Chicago Magazine in 2008. Crain’s Chicago Business called the new machine, “legalized bribery.”
As for the current occupant, Rahm Emanuel? Well he certainly has not lived up to the lighthearted brilliant social media-inspired satire of Dan Sinker’s The F***ing Epic Twitter Quest of Rahm Emanuel. In Sinker’s completely fictional telling of the 2011 mayoral race, the author secretly created a majestically profane faux twitter feed (@MayorEmanuel) purporting to be the voice of future Mayor Emanuel campaigning for office in 2010/2011.
I am still 100 percent fucking positive that this debate would be way fucking better if we were using muppets.
You get the idea. In the end, Emanuel closed a lot of schools, pushed for charters, enabled police brutality scandals to fester and pulsate, and economically cozied up to corporate interests. All that being said, the upcoming mayoral election, in which Emanuel is not running, features 50 candidates!
Ok perhaps not 50, but as of late November, which marked the deadline for submitting petitions, 18 individuals sidled up for a mayoral run. Though speculation ran rampant, Chance the Rapper demurred and instead endorsed Amara Enyia.
The larger point here is that just as the city is embracing a new political day, marked by a certain nervous uncertainty, so too with the crossover appeal of this year’s #MLA19 and #AHA19 synergy are historians and literary scholars embracing a more interdisciplinary future! With this in mind, The Metropole has some suggestions for those attendees casting about for ideas regarding what to do in the Windy City while conferencing.
First, we’d be remiss not to remind everyone about the Urban History Association Meet Up, co-hosted by Becky Nicolaides and Carol McKibben on Saturday morning January 5 (you can also see here for more details).
Urban History Meet-Up at the AHA: Stop by to connect with urban historians at the #AHA19 – this Saturday Jan 5 @ 8:30-10am, at the Palmer House, Salon 8. We'll have coffee, croissants, and breakfast breads. See you there! @UrbanHistoryA
Second, while hardly comprehensive, we have a couple of slightly off the beaten path recommendations.
Chicago Architecture Center
Granted it’s not a giant affair–really two floors and a gift shop. Nor does the Chicago Architecture Center offer a particularly critical examination of the city’s building history. While the exhibits do make mention of discriminatory housing policies and highway construction, regrettably, it does not spend a great deal of time on such matters. Still, for a thumbnail and visually attractive tour of Chicago’s architectural history it’s good for a 45-minute visit.
Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA)
Everyone knows the Art Institute and far be it from us to dissuade you from visiting the august cultural institution. The still newish modern wing is stunning and its collections remain some of the best in the world. However, its tragically ignored sibling the Museum of Contemporary Art offers a wealth of innovation and creativity, plus a truly great free sitting room known as the Commons (see featured image at top).
Notably for urbanists, the current exhibit West by Midwest explores the migration of artists, photographers, and other creative types to California, especially Los Angeles; think Ed Ruscha, Catherine Opie, Charles White, and Judithe Hernández, among many others. At several points West by Midwest functions like an advertisement for the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts), due to the school’s overwhelming influence on many artists whose work appears in the exhibit. The exhibit traverses intersectional Chicano, Black Power, and Feminist threads that weave their way through the works on display. It alone is worth the price of admission, but check out other aspects of the MCA like Jessica Campbell’s oddly compelling yarn based artwork on display in the Chicago Works exhibit.
If you have an evening open and are unsure where one might venture out to, let us offer this suggestion. Start off at Moneygun, a dimly lit bar in the Fulton Market/Near West Side/West Loop neighborhood, with sharp cocktails and draft beer set to soul tunes from the 1970s. Once you’ve imbibed a libation or two, walk a couple blocks over to Duck Duck Goat, an eminently solid Chinese restaurant with obvious hipster pretensions or perhaps the also nearby Publican, a popular spot that, although sometimes overrated by locals, provides a very good “American Creative” option. Of course it is Chicago and your restaurant/bar options are endless, so consider this a drop in the hat of your numerous choices.
Finally, we conclude with this helpful twitter thread from @tenuredradical (aka Professor Claire Potter of the New School) in which the historian offers some helpful advice for first-time AHA attendees and experienced conference-goers alike.
Everybody getting ready for #AHA19? This is your @AHAhistorians program chair speaking, with some hints for how to have the best meeting ever. Some of you are old hands – for others this is your first meeting! Let’s get started.
Capital cities always struggle in the public mind. They’re “swamps” filled with feckless politicians and their sycophantic followers. They reflect less the nation than its corrupted strivers and the greedy accumulation of power. Life is fast in such metropolises; people live harried lives or at least so this particular narrative goes.
Traveling around Peru, one hears similar critiques about its economic and political center, Lima. The crowded streets of the nation’s capital, one resident of Peru’s Sacred Valley told us, hum with the discontent of pedestrians always wary of being run over by the city’s fearful traffic. Even in its earlier incarnations, observers viewed it as a place apart from the nation. “Lima is more remote from Peru than London,” Alex Von Humbolt wrote in 1802.
Of course, sometimes stereotypes are based on a grain of truth. For example, the March resignation of then-President Pedro Pablo Kucyznski due to a vote buying scandal did not help Lima’s image. This summer, less than six months later, a major scandal involving bribes and rigged legal outcomes in the nation’s judiciary system added fuel to the proverbial fire. “This is big,” Juan Antonio Castro, legal counsel in Lima, told the Washington Post, “maybe one of the worst crises we have had in 15, 20 years.” So yes, Lima wasn’t, isn’t, and probably never will be squeaky clean.
To be fair, regardless of malfeasance or corruption, the Incas had little use for Lima. Like other ancient civilizations, the sun functioned as a deity to be feared, exalted, and ultimately absorbed. Better to situate the empire in the high altitude of Cuzco to the South, far closer to the sun and a point of departure for the royalty who travelled the Inca Trail on their way to the magnificent Machu Picchu. No, Lima’s grey winter skies—“Winter can be depressing,” notes one writer—were hardly suitable for a kingdom of the sun. Often afflicted by a thin layer of mist, Herman Melville viewed the thin condensation that shrouded Lima as a “white veil” that rendered it “the strangest, saddest city.”
In countless ways, Spanish conquistadors saw the world differently. Once disease, civil war, and European cruelty and armaments decimated the once-mighty Inca Empire, Lima’s central location on the western coast provided easy access to the Pacific Ocean. In 1542, Spain made it the seat of the Viceroyalty of Peru. From there the silver bullion mined from Potosí could be shipped to Spain, altering capital flows, international economics, and European statecraft. The mercantilist policy of the Spanish empire enabled Lima to hold a monopoly on colonial South America for over 100 years. Wealth poured into the metropolis.
Colonial Lima became “a city of churches,” as Catholicism violently replaced native religions—though not without a healthy dose of syncretism. Five saints, including the first from South America—Santa Rosa (canonized in 1671)—would emerge from Lima. The Inquisition found enthusiastic and brutal expression in the city’s culture. “Pious Lima, home of the Inquisition in South America,” reflects one historian. This religious past is easily discerned when visiting its historic center, which is pock-marked by Catholic churches.
Spain’s thirst for silver and gold meant its empire refused to remain static. It quickly expanded across South America. Viceroyalties in Bogata (1731) and Buenos Aires (1776) followed, each taking a share of the wealth that Lima once claimed for itself. Peru achieved independence in 1821, bringing Lima’s creoles the political power they believed to be their birthright, but as other nations emerged and colonial Spain crumbled so too did Lima’s commercial stranglehold. As in other parts of the defunct Spanish empire (such as the Argentine capital of Buenos Aires), European merchants rushed in and, by the late nineteenth century, established an economic and cultural presence. The production of beer and the sport of futbol serve as just two examples of the latter. Even today the nation’s two most iconic futbol teams hail from Lima, both growing from sports clubs established in the late 1800s: Alianza Lima and Universitario de Desportes. The former is seen as aligned with the working classes, the latter, with Limeño elites.
One of the world’s lesser known commodities, but valuable nonetheless, proved a savior to Lima in the 1800s: bird guano. The Incas had long valued it as a fertilizer; individuals caught interfering with guano production could be punished with death. Such severities eventually receded, but international developments only increased guano’s value. During the nineteenth century mining still occupied a central place in the Peruvian economy, but Europe’s agricultural production rapidly increased such that the fertilizer provided economic sustenance for the country, even if English businessmen dominated the trade. By the late 1800s, bird guano harvested in places like Paracas to the South served as the nation and capital’s economic savior. Bird droppings, often the bane of municipalities, ironically funded modernization efforts in Lima as the century ended. Paris served as its inspiration, as it did in Buenos Aires and other South American metropoles. Municipal officials added wide boulevards in parts of the city as a means to emulate those built by Baron Von Haussman in the Parisian capital.
Around 1875, railroad construction brought over 100,000 Chinese laborers to Peru, and many settled in Lima. By the late twentieth century, over one million Peruvians of Chinese descent inhabited the country, their influence visible by Lima’s numerous “Chifa” or Chinese-themed restaurants. The Japanese arrived in the 1920s and made their own mark; though not as prevalent as Chifas, sushi can be had in the capital as well. One might also point to the presidency of Albert Fujimoro (controversially pardoned by the deposed President Kuczynski) during the 1990s as further evidence of cosmopolitan Lima’s contribution to Peruvian society, though the secrecy and manipulations of his tenure undoubtedly contributed to negative depictions of the city and its influence.
Of course, race in Lima, as elsewhere, is a knotty subject. Mestizos make up a much larger portion of the population than in many other South American nations and, as in Alta California, due to intermixing the racial hierarchies established under Spanish rule now abound with fissures through which mestizo Peruvians might wriggle. Yet prejudices remain hard to shake, and the legacy of Spanish rule infused society with the belief in European superiority. Limeños hail from European stock more commonly than countrymen and women outside the city, where indigenous folks and mestizos make up a much larger portion of residents. When you find yourself in Andean regions this truth becomes even clearer. Despite their slight portion of the general populace, around 15 percent, whites dominate government disproportionately. Afro-Peruvians, often descendants of slaves, make up less than three percent of the population.
At the expense of democratic reform, President Augusto B. Leguia proved one of the city’s great modernizers. As he took office in 1919, almost none of Lima’s roads were paved; by the time he left office in 1930 roughly 90 percent of the city’s byways had been laid in concrete. During his rule, Peruvians witnessed over 11,000 miles of roads being laid. In the two decades following his authoritarian rule, road construction continued throughout the nation. Under a military regime that assumed power in 1965, the city added the Paseo de La Republica, known locally as “the big ditch” due to its location below the city itself.
Unfortunately, the same military regime cared little for aesthetics and built a great number of non-descript government buildings that gradually eroded older colonial structures. Granted one might argue such colonial structures served as negative reminders of imperial rule, but the more aesthetically inclined might also note that they did exhibit a certain stylistic flair that has gone largely missing in newer construction. As a result, in Lima you do not see the mix of modernistic panache, art deco cool, and colonial baroqueness that one finds in Mexico City. Partially as a result, “Lima … doesn’t say anything to you,” writes historian Hugh O’Shaughnessy. Walking about Lima, one can hear whispers of the city’s identity but they remain just that: soft murmurings. Its residents embody this mystery, such that “Lima’s inhabitants are kind but discreet, polite yet impassive, but above all in my experience enigmatic.”
Then again, if you make the effort you can develop a feel for the city and its people. The San Isidro section of the city, home to architecture that sometimes suggests the Spanish fantasy style of 1920s Southern California, offers a flash of personality. As do the murals and graffiti that accentuate the Barrancos neighborhood, where one can walk across the historic “Bridge of Sighs” and gaze down at the artistry on local walls while street musicians ply their melodious trade. There is also the more modern but perhaps also banal commercialism of Miraflores, where modern shopping malls help deliver twentieth-century consumerism to twenty-first-century customers.
Admittedly, the 1980s and 1990s proved difficult for Lima and the country. The rise of the Maoist ultra-violent Shining Path in the nation’s countryside drove migrants to the city. Peri-urban shanty towns grew on the city’s margins where poverty—defined by a lack of access to running water, sanitation, and electricity—left the nation’s poor to trade rural hardships for urban ones. The terrorist group often sabotaged the city’s electrical grid, throwing the capital into darkness, and then lighting torches in the hillsides that ringed Lima “to signal the shining future that revolution would bring,” as James Higgins writes. The revolution brought mostly death and destruction, but also the neoliberal reforms of President Fujimoro, who eventually neutralized the Shining Path as a threat while also worsening inequality for much of the city’s working class and poor residents. At the turn of the century, nearly half of all Peruvians lived below the poverty lines; soup kitchens served great numbers of the country’s people.
However, since then Peru has enjoyed some economic success. Home values doubled between 2009 and 2013, as homeowners enjoyed the benefits of one of Latin America’s fastest expanding economies. Foreign buyers have poured into Lima, mostly from Columbia, Spain, and the United States, but also from Australia, Canada, and the UK. Looking to buy a new home in San Isidro? Expect to pay around $2,676 per square meter or almost $250 per square foot. Miraflores will cost you $2,397 per square meter or around $223 per square foot.
Finally, one cannot discuss Lima without mentioning its culinary superiority. Food across Peru is delicious. You will never know the full scope of the potato universe until you’ve delved into Peruvian cuisine. The Anthony Bourdain and Andrew Zimmerns of the world have long touted Lima’s gustatory bonafides. Sublime ceviches, fresh seafood, and clever desserts abound, all at very affordable prices. Michelin stars cascade across restaurants in Lima; its more remote location along the South American Pacific Coast means that though the food rivals Paris and Milan, the crowds and prices do not. “‘Upscale’ is a relative term,” the New York Times’ Lucas Peterson acknowledged in 2017. “You can still gorge yourself on outstanding seafood for about $30 per person.”
Called Ciudad de Iglesias (City of Churches), Ciudad de Reyes (City of Kings), La Perla de Pacifico (The Pearl of the Pacific), and yes, even La Gris (The Gray), Lima remains an affordable international city that should be more than a brief stop before one ascends into Peru’s mountains or descends into its Amazonian rain forest. Enigmatic for sure, but compelling as well, spend some time in the Peruvian capital.
It was regional and local election time in Peru. The above videos provide a very brief insight into local politicos out in the neighborhoods campaigning. Bottom video by Soo Lim.
All photos taken by Ryan Reft
 James Higgins, Lima: A Cultural History, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 1.
When one thinks of Northern Virginia, Old Town Alexandria might be the first place that comes to mind. Historic, compact, and on the water, Old Town remains a popular brunch and tourist destination and a way station for intrepid souls proceeding on to nearby Mount Vernon. Yet, since the 1960s, Alexandria’s industrial areas such as Old Town North have embraced modern mixed-use development; throughout Old Town, the occasional cobble street meets with plenty of twenty-first century realities. Historic Old Town serves as an anchor for a rapidly urbanizing and expanding Alexandria, where modern townhomes and apartment complexes in the new developments of Potomac Yard and Braddock are shaping the built environment around Alexandria’s iconic downtown.
The more modern design of NOVA’s other notable town, Arlington—which can be seen from Georgetown across the Key Bridge—has as recently as 2015 been described by the Washington Post in less than glowing terms: “Welcome to Arlington County’s high-rise downtown, a concrete canyon where nightlife goes to die — and where, in recent years, the commercial vacancy rate has climbed to 30 percent.” Still, not everyone agrees. “Semi-traditional cities” such as Arlington, Robert Steuteville argued recently, are among the most dynamic places for urbanism today. “[H]alf urban grid and half suburban street patterns” minus the sprawl, places like Arlington attempt to imbue a certain urbanity in their suburban landscape. In both cases, the balance between suburban comfort and historical heritage abuts with both the desires and challenges of urbanism.
Still, NOVA’s twenty-first century growth does not rival the development that unfolded after 1945, a period in which mid-century modernism made inroads into the region’s built environment. Smaller homes, ultimately American interpretations of the burgeoning International and Bauhaus movements popular in Europe, emerged in a handful of communities around NOVA and southern Maryland. The juxtaposition between traditional Virginia housing and the then developing modernist movement was no less jarring than the divide currently developing between Arlington’s “new urbanism” and Old Towne’s colonial vibe.
With an expanding federal government in the post-World War II period, NOVA needed more housing stock. For young architects hoping to make a statement, the Virginia suburbs offered the chance to try something different, while maintaining an equilibrium between dynamic urbanism and idyllic rural existence–urban homes, embedded in an environment meant to highlight the natural virtues of country living. Hidden within a landscape of federal architecture (the CIA, the Pentagon, NRA headquarters) and numerous suburban subdivisions are pockets of mid-century modernism more often associated with California than the mid-Atlantic. For a singular example, one can visit the innovative Pope Leighy House in Alexandria, built by Frank Lloyd Wright as part of his Usonian movement.
If you want more of a community feel, visit Bethesda, Maryland’s Carderock Springs for its “situated modernism” or, if in Northern Virginia, Alexandria’s Hollin Hills—a community its architectural founder described as “ideal country living for urban people.”
For the immersive Hollin Hills experience, one cannot beat the eponymously-titled house tour, held every two years in the Alexandria neighborhood. The community became the first in the D.C. metro region to consist entirely of contemporary housing. With the Vernacular Architecture Forum’s conference having just finished on May 5 and the SACRPH 2019 conference in Northern Virginia on the horizon, The Metropole decided to head down to Alexandria to take in the 2018 Hollin Hills House and Garden Tour. What follows is a brief thumbnail history of Hollin Hills accompanied by photos from the most recent house tour held on April 28. (All photos courtesy of John Bluedorn and Ryan Reft).
Sitting about 14 miles outside of Washington D.C. and consisting of 326 acres and over 450 homes, Hollin Hills remains, as Meghan Drueding wrote in 2014, “a well-preserved paradise for midcentury aficionados.” Following World War II, architect Charles Goodman, developer Robert Davenport, and landscape architects Lou Bernard Voight, Dan Kiley, and Eric Paepke created a community of small homes meant to be modern, affordable and “stylistically aligned with the ideas of such architects as Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Rudolf Schindler and Richard Neutra,” while simultaneously blending into the neighborhood’s rolling hills and wooded areas—“a community of homes nestled into the landscape,” reflected John A. Burns, architect and long-time resident.
While Goodman undoubtedly cast an influence over mid-century vernacular architecture, so too did the landscape architects and designers that worked alongside him. Dan Kiley, for example, went on to commissions with IBM headquarters, Dulles International Airport, and the U.S. Air Force Academy. Kiley, Goodman, Voight, and Paepke ultimately created what some have called “a landscape of democracy” as they sought to blur the boundary between public and private, enabling the flora to “envelope the houses in their embrace.”
“It was the sort of land every builder would turn down,” Goodman told an interviewer in 1983, “but I felt it would make for ideal country living for urban people, and Bob Davenport did, too.” Built between 1949 and 1971, many of the homes would be considered small; they remain so even though most have expanded on their initially slight footprint. Though modest in size, “[h]igh ceilings, open floor plans, and an efficient use of space make them feel larger than they really are,” Drueding noted. At the time, Hollin Hills contrasted starkly with a local tradition “dominated by red brick, gable roofs, white trim, sash windows and paneled doors,” writes Burns.
The homes became available in 1949, with the first selling for $12,500. “The whole method was to break everything down to a system that would simplify construction and still give you great freedom of design,” Goodman told architectural critic Benjamin Fogey in 1983. “The results were relatively inexpensive starter homes … families flocked to them.” The community earned a citation for having the best houses under $15,000 from Life magazine. In 2005, WAPO estimated their value to be “easily 50 times that amount.” Even with the 2008 housing debacle, a safe guess would suggest that number has increased, significantly; an ironic turn for housing built specifically for affordability.
Admittedly, some of its first residents viewed their homes with a dollop of trepidation. “I first thought the houses looked like chicken coops,” Rebecca Christofferson reflected decades later. “I decided subsequently that many of them still look like chicken coops, but I have grown to love chicken coops.” Of course, one person’s chicken coop is another’s modernist masterpiece. Christofferson’s husband, Leif, described their home differently. “There is something uplifting about the design, the light coming in,” he noted. “I like the design, I like the windows, I like the fireplace. I like the outdoors and the fact it flows into the house.” Many of the community’s first residents worked for the government, employed in white collar, but not necessarily lucrative positions. The homes were meant to reflect those inhabiting them: unpretentious and simple, yet sophisticated and affordable.
Influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright, Goodman got his start with the federal government serving as a public architect for the Public Buildings Administration and the Treasury Department. From this position, he promoted modernism in government architecture domestically and abroad, notes the Fairfax County website devoted to another community designed by Goodman, the Commons of McLean.
During World War II, Goodman worked as the principal architect for the Army Air Forces Transport Command. After the war, he founded Charles M. Goodman Associates and turned his attentions to residential housing. From 1946-1956, 32,000 Goodman-designed homes were constructed. In 1957, writing for the American Institute of Architect’s centennial, Fredrick Gutheim heralded Hollin Hills as a promising sign of the future. Yet by 2012, a Washington Post article described Goodman as merely “one of the modernist movement’s better-known architects.” Architectural historian Richard Longstreth noted ten years earlier that “as celebrated as it was in its own day,” the neighborhood had fallen into “semi-obscurity” over ensuing decades.
The popularity of the show “Mad Men” and its overall aesthetic have helped bring some renewed attention to Hollin Hills. In fact, the production designer for the show, Dan Bishop, grew up in the community—as did Jeremy Conway, production designer for the “Sex and the City” TV series and films. “The architecture there did influence my sensibilities about modern homes,” Bishop told interviewers in 2010. “I live in one now, with glass walls surrounded by trees in South Pasadena [Calif.]. Truthfully, I would rather live in a Hollin Hills house.”
Landscaping plays a large role in the Hollin Hills aesthetic. “It’s a unique experiment in the fusion of architecture and landscape architecture,” former president of the American Society of Landscape Architects Dennis Carmichael noted in a 2005 lecture, because “landscape was very much a form-giver, an iconic part of the whole place.” The developers left vegetation much as it was, houses sat upon generously apportioned properties, and the layout of streets “was responsive to topography,” notes Longstreth. “The fact that the houses were built up from the natural setting rather than, like most American suburban settings, cutting down all the trees and flattening the land,” acknowledged one resident, “I think that’s exciting.”
Houses don’t front the road unless above or below street level; no homes look directly at one another. Sitting above and below curving rolling hills, houses sit at angles that provide maximum exposure to sunlight and privacy. “[O]ne doesn’t see a Levittown-style lineup of little houses,” Nancy McKeon wrote 2010, “but a winding, climbing treescape that happens to shelter an entire living, breathing, modernism-obsessed community.” Designers deployed cul-de-sacs and T streets to reduce traffic. “The houses of Hollin Hills are in the landscape, not on the landscape,” notes landscape architect Dennis Carmichael. As Goodman used to say, homes in Hollin Hills “slide through the trees.”
If you find yourself in Alexandria or NOVA more generally, and yes we are talking to you intrepid SACRPH members, wander about the streets of Hollin Hills for a journey into modernist residential housing or Charles Goodman put it, “ideal rural living for urban people.”
 Dennis Carmichael, “A Landscape of Democracy”, in Hollin Hills: Community of Vision, A Semicentennial History 1949-1999 (Civic Association of Hollin Hills, Alexandria, VA: 2000), 76.
As a family of historians who study the city, we are hardly unusual in the way we travel: we like to experience places new and old through food and drink. Less typical, however, is that one of us gets paid to do this. Theresa, as the historian of the American Brewing History Initiative at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, is building a collection around beer and brewing, especially related to the homebrewing and craft beer movements that began in the 1960s. This means visiting brewers, maltsters, growers, purveyors, and others, all to conduct oral histories and gather objects that can tell their stories. As of mid-2018, the United States had more than 6,500 breweries, so one can do this work in nearly any corner of the country. But this summer we visited Milwaukee and Madison, the two biggest cities in the appropriately (if vaguely) heart-shaped heart of American brewing history, Wisconsin.
We don’t usually go on work trips together, but made this a joint venture (with our willing, if not deeply underage, one-year-old in tow) to also visit family and friends in our onetime home state, and to bask in the unique loveliness of Wisconsin summer nights. Lake Michigan, Lake Mendota, and beer: these are the ingredients for doing June in Wisconsin right. Milwaukee and Madison, our destinations are ideal sites for historians who value city streets as much as long docks, adaptive reuse as much as beautiful sunsets. We have close relatives in Milwaukee, resident there for more than a decade now, and family roots in the badger state that go back to the mid-twentieth century. And we spent a wonderful year in Madison while Brian was a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Wisconsin in 2013-14.
What was notable in returning to places we hadn’t been in several years was the extent to which we could see changes in each city — and the coexistent layers of urban transformation — in the beer-glass-shaped lens that we brought to this trip. Brewing history is often urban history; urban history is easily experienced through brewing history. This is as true in Milwaukee as it is in New York, New Orleans, and elsewhere. In each Wisconsin city, we found places that we liked and enjoyed, but that were also interesting for reasons beyond what you can imbibe (or eat) there. Places of beer production and consumption revealed the old and new superimposed–in going back to Milwaukee and Madison, we found each to be a palimpsest where amid many changes, brewing is a mainstay. Highlighted below are some spots that our fellow urban historians might like to see (drink?) when they find themselves in these two great destinations of the upper Midwest. What better way to learn the urban history of a place than through a cold one, some fried cheese curds, and maybe a donut or two?
Most striking about Milwaukee is the degree to which a postindustrial city — maybe even the postindustrial city, a place that has never quite gotten back on its feet after the mass shuttering of factories during the last half-century — has nevertheless maintained its identity as a capital of beer. When machinery and equipment manufacturers closed or departed, beer companies like Schlitz and Pabst followed. But they didn’t bring the implosion of Milwaukee brewing, which evolved — if in fewer hands — and then was joined in recent decades by upstarts drawing from local history. For us, the history of Milwaukee old and new, and beer old and new, was best seen in two places that take very different approaches to water, yeast, hops, and grain.
First, and inevitably, is the sprawling campus west of downtown over which a red rounded-rectangular sign offers a familiar name: Miller. For more than 150 years, Miller has been churning out pleasurable, easy drinking experiences on these streets. Whether or not you are a Miller Lite fan, a tour of the factory and a visit to the tasting room are a necessary stop for anyone interested in architectural history, labor history, and the history of technology, or just the curious urban historian who wants to experience a beer factory that is itself the size of a small city (“Miller Valley,” they call it). In seeing buildings born over decades, one might find oneself thinking that these bottling lines have churned on, unaffected by the history around them. But of course, Miller is now actually MillerCoors, owned by the multinational corporation MolsonCoors. With offices in Chicago, enough plants across the U.S. that you need two hands to count them, and markets around the world, this is as much a story of globalization as one of the local history of German immigrants like Frederick Miller. If Miller’s arrival here helped give rise to Milwaukee’s industrial ascent, the plant today is a reminder that cities like this one can function as nodes in a worldwide economy while continuing to struggle with trenchant poverty and severe segregation.
Miller’s archives tell a story more than a century old, of Milwaukeeans and others who looked to “Miller Valley” to find the high life. Photograph by Theresa McCulla.
Amid Miller’s persistence, one major change in the cultural and brewing landscape of Milwaukee, as in many cities, has been a new wave of smaller breweries that have emerged in the last few decades. Very often, these draw from the brewing history of the city; likewise, they sometimes take advantage of the industrial architecture that remains. Some have specifically asked how they might be part of addressing the challenges Milwaukeeans still navigate. One that we visited, Good City Brewing, suggests this interest in its very name. Founder David Dupee (a high school classmate of Brian’s, originally from Cincinnati, Ohio), recalled a past conversation with his wife and friends in which they decided to commit to Milwaukee: to stay, make the city their home, and contribute to their neighborhood. Constructing a brewery in a former bicycle shop, Dupee and his business partners chose the slogan “Seek the Good” and the logo of a key to encourage their customers to imagine that they hold a key to the city and the ability to help those around them. Frequently, Good City staff venture outside the brewery’s walls, participating in a different volunteer activity each month. The brewery also invites the community in; when we visited on a weekday afternoon, the taproom’s bar stools were nearly full. A shelf of board games kept even the youngest visitors entertained.
Good City Brewing, in an old bike shop, imagines a Milwaukee where modern towers, sheaves of barley, hops, and glasses of locally-brewed beer together make up the city’s skyline. Photograph by Theresa McCulla.
The stories of Miller and Good City show how, in different ways and different eras, breweries change the urban fabric around them, whether in employing thousands with steady manufacturing jobs, enabling them to buy homes and plant roots in the city, or in creating a new kind of third place: craft beer’s taproom.
Though only 90 minutes away, Madison is experiencing a markedly different moment in its history than its bigger sibling to the east. When we left in the summer of 2014, broad East Washington Avenue was already in the midst of a transition from car dealers and brownfields into apartment buildings with high rents and commercial tenants like Google. But four years saw urban development reach a fever pitch here and throughout Madison, where a city that has always balanced between blue-collar jobs and white-collar jobs has tipped more toward the latter. The city’s Oscar Mayer plant closed in 2018 after a century on the east side. State government and the university, long major employers here, have seen startups, social networks, and search engines increasingly fill space both in and around the city: homegrown Epic and ShopBop as well as offices from companies like Microsoft, Zendesk, the aforementioned Google, and Amazon (now ShopBop’s owner).
Serious questions about affordability, equity, and access surround the kind of transition that many mayors envy, and this is no exception in Madison where housing prices have risen markedly as more working-class bungalows find BMWs in their driveways. Yet if it is harder to find a factory-manufactured hotdog in the City of Four Lakes, it is ever easier to find beer, both brewed and served, in spaces old and new, most of which tap into the city’s long history even as they symbolize its more recent transitions.
In a changing Madison, Memorial Union Terrace has remained a space where students, faculty, staff, residents, and visitors all find a seat in the famous Sunburst chairs, a cold drink, a warm brat, and a stunning view of Lake Mendota. Photographs by Theresa McCulla and Brian Goldstein.
That said, the best place to have a glass or a pitcher in Madison is not new — though newly redone — and is notably democratic. Is there a better public space in the United States than the Memorial Union Terraceat the University of Wisconsin-Madison? We haven’t found one. On the day we visited, alumni, students, and other visitors filled the Terrace’s famous Sunburst chairs as the sun lowered over Lake Mendota. The air smelled like grilled corn and brats, student-made ice cream from the Daily Scoop melted from cones onto sticky knuckles, and multiple taps at the outdoor bars pulled Wisconsin-made beer. UW is a land- grant university whose agricultural heritage is still strongly felt. Undergraduate employees at Bucky’s Butchery, an on-campus operation, craft lamb chorizo and beef jerky from animals raised on UW land. Others turn out cheese in curds and blocks, as well as that famous ice cream, at the school’s Babcock Hall Dairy Plant. Part of the same history, the Terrace has functioned for nearly a century as an urban oasis: a lakefront patio just a two-minute walk from State Street, this Big Ten college town’s main drag. An oral history that Theresa recorded with a Wisconsin Historical Society historian and the student president of the Wisconsin Union captured the ways in which beer — served at the Union since the 1930s — has been central (though not essential, especially for underage undergrads) to the Terrace experience for decades. Here is a place where grain, hops, dairy, meat, and a stunning landscape unite Wisconsin’s rural and urban histories in a uniquely sensory way.
Once a nanobrewery, One Barrel has graduated to a bigger scale but remains a neighborhood mainstay at the corner of Winnebago and Atwood. Photograph by Theresa McCulla.
The Union Terrace sits on the west end of Madison’s picturesque isthmus. Drive — or, if you’re a true Madisonian, bike — three miles to its east end to find yourself in a much smaller space that speaks to newer histories of brewing in the Midwest and the United States. One Barrel Brewing Company, formerly an ultra-small batch “nanobrewery,” opened in 2012 under the leadership of UW grad Peter Gentry. Installed in a former grocery — barrel-aging beer now rests in the grocer’s cellar storage rooms — One Barrel caught the wave of explosive growth in craft beer that made Gentry’s business one of hundreds to open that year across the country. Like Milwaukee’s Good City, Madison’s One Barrel shows a firm focus on its surrounding neighborhood and its very local customer base. The brewery opened on a shoestring budget and was a labor of love for Gentry’s friends and family. His father, a woodworker, even built the beautiful, horseshoe-shaped bar that dominates the taproom. These days, local drinkers’ allegiance to this new-ish neighborhood mainstay can be seen in the blue and white mugs of One Barrel’s Mug Club. They stand behind the bar, waiting to be filled with the likes of Commuter Kolsch, Penguin Pale Ale, and 5th Element Rye IPA.
One Barrel was part of a larger retail trend in the Schenk-Atwood-Starkweather-Yahara neighborhood (or just Schenk-Atwood), whose early 20th century streets have embodied the transition from factory workers to knowledge workers. Though you can still find bars that serve those who work the lines in the last of the factories on the city’s Near East Side, more likely you will notice home stores, creative chocolatiers (the wonderful Gail Ambrosius Chocolatier), and a cool coffee shop or two. Similar stories have unfolded elsewhere in Madison, and a trip to One Barrel doesn’t come without reminders (at least for the hungry) of this history of neighborhood change: behind the bar you can find charcuterie from Underground Food Collective, one of the most decorated of the recent chef-driven enterprises that have made this a nationally-recognized food city, as well as pizza from Fraboni’s, an Italian grocer and deli that has stood south of the university since the early 1970s. Fraboni’s is one of the last of the businesses in its neighborhood to remind visitors that the intersection of Park and Regent Streets was once known as Spaghetti Corners (the nearby Italian Workmen’s Club, opened in the 1910s and with still-excellent pizza, is an original vestige of those days).
What happened to Spaghetti Corners is a story very familiar to most any urban historian: this area, known as the “Triangle” or Greenbush, was largely cleared in the city’s campaign of urban renewal in the 1960s. New housing and hospitals, and the ongoing expansion of nearby UW, foreshadowed the Madison that was to emerge in the later 20th and early 21st centuries. But amidst the large modernist constructions of that mid-century era, other traces remain to remind eaters that this was not just a community of Italian Americans (many of whom worked on the construction of the nearby state capitol building) but also African American and Jewish migrants. One of those came later but still advertises Kosher wares with a neon window sign: Greenbush Donuts started in the mid-1990s and keeps the old neighborhood’s name alive. A required stop, its wonderful plain and blueberry old-fashioned donuts are an excellent morning prelude to evening beers (or you could, we suppose, eat them together?).
Greenbush Bakery looks back to the old neighborhood in its name and in the glowing “Kosher” sign, a reminder of the multiethnic community that stood on these streets pre-urban renewal. Donuts and beer: the perfect combination whether or not you are Homer Simpson. Photograph by Brian Goldstein.
People look back on Greenbush nostalgically now, appreciative of what a multi-ethnic neighborhood of dense streets would have offered; nostalgia for Madison and Wisconsin’s even older past shows up in one of the newest additions to the beer landscape too. Not far from One Barrel and on the banks of Lake Monona, Madisonians have since 2017 been able to find theOlbrich Biergarten in one of the city’s public parks, Olbrich Park. The very name (“garten” not “garden”) is an allusion to the German beermakers who were central to the state’s brewing history; on its taps — serving Karben4, AltBrew, Next Door, One Barrel, and even Good City (among other local breweries) — are the names that have written a new chapter in this history. It seems very fitting that in a public park, in a changing city, one can enjoy a not-too-hot summer evening in a space that joins the 19th century and the 21st. Of course, you don’t have to be an urban historian to enjoy beer and brats in a nice place like this, though we venture to say that a historical perspective allows one to better read the multiple landscapes superimposed on the isthmus.
With brewing history in mind and heart during our June visit to Wisconsin, we had to make one more stop: New Glarus, about 40 minutes southwest of Madison, and particularly theNew Glarus Brewing Company, an institution so beloved that while it only — and famously — sells beer in the state of Wisconsin, it is nonetheless the 16th largest craft brewery in the nation. One might ask why a brewery in the middle of rural Wisconsin dairy country surfaces on an urban history blog. Yet the newly built home of Spotted Cow (the brewery’s best-selling beerer) is quite literally the model of a small town, with a little of the Germany that birthed the state’s famous brewers (and some of the brewery’s equipment), more of the Switzerland that was the birthplace of many early residents of New Glarus (the nearby town, itself constructed to look Swiss), and even a re-created Gothic ruin, embracing picnic tables instead of church pews. Architectural consistency aside, the effect is a postmodern stage set in which rural Wisconsinites and hipster bachelor and bachelorette parties all find a little gemütlichkeit. The brewery is famous for good reason and here you can go well beyond Spotted Cow to a broad range of brews, many experiments only found on these “streets.”
The center of the New Glarus Brewing Company is a city plaza, quaint even on a hot summer day in June. With alpenhorns playing, a cold one in hand, and gentle farmlands beyond, you might soon forget you aren’t in Switzerland. Photograph by Brian Goldstein.
When you are in a fake city plaza in the state’s glacier-free Driftless area, surrounded by beer taps and, yes, even two gentleman playing alpenhorns, it seems best to not ask too many questions about how you got there. Enjoy — moderately — a few tastes, then admire the rolling hills on your way back to the cities that beer helped build–and continues to rebuild. We certainly did.
Theresa McCulla is the historian of the American Brewing History Initiative at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. Her book-in-progress, Consumable City: Food and Race in New Orleans, shows how the pleasurable sensory experiences associated with New Orleans’s culinary world made food a uniquely powerful tool in the exclusion of people of color.
Perhaps it’s fitting that I ended my week-long sojourn to the City of Angels eating Sushi on Sunset Boulevard while sitting behind 1990s super model Fabio. As someone who came of age in the 1990s – I graduated high school in 1994 and college in 1998 — the Los Angeles of 20th century fin de siècle America, at least from the distance of the Midwest, felt more plastic and less vital than New York City. At the same time, Los Angeles of the 1990s seemed awash in troubled ambivalence.
Fabio’s vacant image seemed to be simultaneously everywhere and nowhere during the decade; we all knew who he was, but I’m not sure any of us knew why we did. The last time I remember seeing Fabio, before his recent turn as celebrity Trump supporter, was Zoolander, where he expressed gratitude over receiving the Best Actor/Model award: “You consider me the best actor slash model, not the other way around.” I must confess as we all entered the 21st century, he served as an avatar of my (inaccurate) perception of the city: shiny, vacuous, and superficial.
My very sad Generation X celebrity sighting confirmed the city’s magnificent ridiculousness, while also putting my own misconceptions about L.A. into greater clarity; today’s City of Angels continues to exert a cultural influence while experiencing less violence and maintaining its persistent devotion to the absurd. “Then it suddenly occurred to me that, in all the world, there was nor would there ever be another place like this City of Angels,” journalist Carey McWilliams wrote. “Here the American people were erupting, like lava from a volcano; here, indeed, was the place for me – a ringside seat at the circus.”
Considering that I’ve written about the city for Los Angeles’s KCET since 2012, my youthful ignorance regarding it feels that much more outlandish. One could try to blame pop culture for such dubious notions—after all, films like The Player (1992) and Get Shorty (1995) cast a jaundiced if humorous eye at the city’s entertainment-obsessed culture and emphasized L.A.’s superficiality. Yet, if one actually looks back at the cinematic offerings of the ‘90s, film depicted a much more diverse, nuanced and complicated city than I acknowledged then (see the footnote). The truth is Los Angeles is a circus, but one that includes a multitude of players from a constellation of backgrounds. Since the 1990s, the big top has changed.
Troubled 1990s Los Angeles
I bet I’m hardly the only one who at one point or another viewed L.A. narrowly. I’m guessing for many Americans the city existed on two poles: one, the cynical, superficial Hollywood dream machine and the other a gritty, troubled, drug infested, gang-ridden city inhabited by criminalized African and Mexican American residents—a perception based on films like Colors (1988), Boyz in the Hood (1991), Blood In Blood Out (1993), and Menace to Society (1993). I won’t even mention catastrophe films like Volcano (1997), because Mike Davis and Eric Avila have explored the fetish for literary and celluloid destruction of the city to much greater effect than I ever could.
As evidenced by a 1991 special issue of Time devoted to the Golden State, California remained a national curiosity; a state, and by extension a city, at a crossroads. “It’s still America’s promised land – a place of heart stopping beauty, spectacular energy, and stunning diversity,” a caption from the issue stated. “But faced with drought, mindless growth, and a sputtering economy, can it preserve the dream?”
Even city histories exuded pessimism. Mike Davis’s seminal work City of Quartz captured L.A.’s dark mood as it hurtled toward the millennium: “In Los Angeles there are too many signs of approaching helter-skelter: everywhere in the inner city, even in the forgotten poor white boondocks with their zombie populations of speedfreaks, gangs are multiplying at a terrifying rate, cops are becoming more arrogant and trigger happy, and a whole generation is being shunted toward some impossible Armageddon.” In retrospect, Davis sounds a bit like ad-copy for the Purge movie series.
To be fair, at the time violence, though exaggerated by film and television, permeated the metropolis. The aforementioned films though empathetic to their respective characters, also helped burnish the city’s image as gang-ridden, which in part was true.
In his 2006 work Coast of Dreams, the late dean of California history Kevin Starr noted the struggle with gang violence during the 1990s grew so pervasive that local businesses morbidly adapted. “Florists in certain Los Angeles neighborhoods grew skilled in combining floral patterns with gang color ribbons. Other vendors specialized in producing custom-made sweatshirts and t-shirts with stylized messages honoring the departed,” he wrote. One could even find the city’s famed diversity reflected in its gangs. By the 1990s the LAPD reported 230 black and Latino gangs with an additional 81 Asian ones, “Model Minority” myths be damned.
Police corruption ran amuck as well. The LAPD’s Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums (CRASH) unit descended into lawlessness under the leadership of Rafael Perez, who coincidentally served as a model for Denzel Washington’s character, Alonzo Harris, from Training Day (2001). CRASH officers beat, shot, murdered, and extorted on a level exceeding that of its criminal targets. “No Los Angeles gang could have exacted a more stylized revenge,” remarked Starr. By 2000, 70 former and current CRASH officers had either quite, been suspended and/or relieved of duty, or were under investigation.
Air polloution also plagued the city. The air was thick, disturbingly thick, which proved unhealthy. Yet, at moments, the smog was also aesthetically compelling. “They say the *%*%*%*%* smog is the *#*$@*$@ reason we have such beautiful %$%#&#%# Sunsets,” bad guy mob boss Ray Barbones (Dennis Farina) dispassionately tells B movie producer Harry Zimms in Get Shorty. Beyond picaresque sunsets, air pollution in 1990s Los Angeles was bad, though better than during the 1970s and 1980s (the latter examples being a central part of the plot to 2016’s comedic noir, The Nice Guys). During the 1990s air quality improved, though on average residents endured 200 bad air days each year.
Better Days? L.A. 2018
Since then, California, and especially Los Angeles, has righted itself. Crime has diminished, though certainly not disappeared. “Angelenos are far less likely to be murdered than in the 1990s, when homicides peaked at 1,094 in a single year,” noted the L.A. Times in late 2017. Homicides and gun violence had declined, but violent crime increased for the fourth year straight.
As for the city’s air pollution, 1991’s ripe, masculine, homoerotic action-adventure bromance Point Break encapsulates how far the city has come in this regard. “22 years. Man the air got dirty and the sex got clean,” LAPD Detective Pappas (Gary Busey) explains to partner Johnny Utah (Keanu Reeves). Pappas wasn’t wrong, as noted the air was bad in 1991, but the 1990s for all its struggles would turn out to be a period of real environmental improvement as residents witnessed rapid gains in air quality. Granted, recent evidence suggests some back sliding. An uptick in pollution led to 145 bad days for the year in 2017. Angelenos had not inhaled that much pollution since 2004. Still, even this regression remained far better than where the city stood nearly 30 years ago.
If one wishes to enjoy whatever fresh air L.A. provides, hikes around the city and county serve as a great option. For example, one can begin a long day hike with a trip to Griffith Park. Hit up the Autry Museum of the West, which has some “old timey” exhibits but is also currently exhibiting photography of the Chicano Movement, LA RAZA. From there trek via one of the various hikes at your disposal over to Griffith Observatory, where you can take in views of the city and, afterwards, hike back down (or catch a bus or call a ride-sharing service). If you get a nice day, the views are outstanding. If you’re closer to Pasadena/San Marino, drop in on the Huntington Library, whose botanic gardens alone are worth the trip—to say nothing of its notable art collections and the library itself.
While hiking around the city, you’ll notice Los Angeles has been and is growing. Debates about economic development and housing have arguably grown more substantial and nuanced. No longer mindless, growth in Los Angeles often sparks fierce discussion particularly in the face of rising housing costs and efforts to blunt them. However, the city needs more affordable housing and better regulations. According to the L.A. Times, L.A. needs between 1.8 and 3.5 million new units of housing by 2025 to meet “existing demand and future growth.” The housing crisis has led to a homeless population of 116,000, roughly 21 percent of the national total. Attempts to allow for increased-density housing have been met with unanimous opposition.
The city remains car-centric though, as will be discussed in a moment, getting around the city has gotten significantly easier. Its history as an autotopia remains troubled. Joan Didion famously described Angelenos’ relationship to driving a form of “secular communion.” Reyner Banham observed similarly that “the freeway is not a limbo of existential angst, but the place where [Los Angeles residents] spend the two calmest and most rewarding hours of their daily lives.” Perhaps, but freeways also imposed costs on working class communities, particularly those of color and especially those in East Los Angeles. “By the late 1960s, after the California Division of highways had completed its assault on East Los Angeles, freeways dominated the sensory experience of daily life in the nation’s largest barrio,” UCLA’s Eric Avila notes. In 2015’s Inherent Vice, Paul Thomas Andersen captured the city’s tradition of imposition on non-white minorities—whether for highway construction, economic development or urban renewal—through the voice of the film’s narrator, Sortilege (Joanna Newsome): “Mexican families bounced out of Chavez Ravine to build Dodger Stadium. American Indians swept out of Bunker Hill for the Music Center. And now Tariq’s [African American] neighborhood bulldozed aside for Channel View Estates.” Though fictional, Tariq Khalil (Michael Kenneth Williams) and the plight of his neighborhood represent the city’s general attitude toward minority communities for much of the 20th century.
In the face of this history, development arguments bleed unsurprisingly into issues of gentrification as well. In Boyle Heights long time residents battle gentrification as art studios and galleries scoop up spaces on the Eastside, having already changed the face of the nearby communities of Echo Park and Highland Park. “Newcomers, including artists, have been drawn to Boyle Heights by its rich cultural character — forged from generations of Mexican, Japanese, Russian and Jewish immigrants relegated to the city’s eastern periphery — as well as its cheaper rent and property in an increasingly unaffordable city,” writes Carribean Fragoza. As the “epicenter of all the social ferment that emerged around the Mexican American civil rights movement of the late 1960s”, Avila noted in a KCET short documentary, Boyle Heights “sustains” the current national backlash against gentrification in urban areas.
Less-visibly ethnic neighborhoods have also struggled with gentrification. Downtown Los Angeles and its Arts District serve as one example. In 1981, the city passed the “Artist in Residence” ordinance, which enabled artists to live in their downtown lofts; the L.A. Times noted in 2014 that “it became a bohemian playground – but a rough one.” One could witness drug users shooting up, cars with smashed windows, and “Christmas trees on fire in the middle of the street,” older residents reminisced. The planting of artist/hipster flags established a certain level of stability such that during the 1990s new restaurants began opening one by one, “warehouses became condos,” and new coffee shops moved in month by month.
The transformation of DTLA proved so stark that it even worked its way into pulp noir novels. “The Arts District was more than a neighborhood. It was a movement,” Detective Harry Bosch reflects in Michael Connelly’s 2016 L.A. noir, The Wrong Side of Goodbye. The fictional Bosch had been assigned to the district in the 1970s and remembered its various incarnations and how different they were from present day Los Angeles. “The Arts District now faced many of the issues that came with success, namely the swift spread of gentrification. … The idea of the district being a haven for the starving artist was becoming more and more unfounded.”
Unsurprisingly, amidst all this change, complexities abound; improvements for some Angelenos spark fear in others. For example, the late Mayor Tom Bradley established the first seeds of mass transit in Los Angeles in the 1980s. In 1985, the city broke ground on the Blue Line Light Rail; it debuted five years later and soon become one of the nation’s most used light rail lines. Since then the city has added traditional bus lines, light rail, subways, and even Bus Rapid Transit. Tough battles with the Bus Riders’ Union in the mid-1990s forced the city to adopt more environmentally-friendly buses and to expand service especially in working class areas. While these changes vastly improved transit around the city, they contributed to gentrification. In Boyle Heights, where four light rail stops have connected the once isolated community to the city, the improved transit has also opened the door for gentrification that threatens to displace thousands of longtime residents.
Budget deficits and legislative rancor led many to dismiss 1990s California as unmanageable. However though once denuded of funds, today state coffers brim with dollars. “We’re nearing the longest economic recovery in modern history,” Governor Jerry Brown told the public in May 2018. Even the state’s Rainy Day Fund now holds billions of dollars primarily to address homelessness, infrastructure needs, and mental health service. “Isaac Newton observed: What goes up must come down,” said Governor Brown. “This is a time to save for our future, not to make pricey promises we can’t keep. I said it before and I’ll say it again: Let’s not blow it now.”
As a result, Los Angeles—even acknowledging the above struggles—feels like America’s most vibrant city. Whether depictions have expanded the public’s idea of the city remains debatable. L.A.’s celluloid identity during the early aughts was certainly helped by films like the confusing but mesmerizing Mulholland Drive (2001), Paul Thomas Anderson’s odd Punch Drunk Love (2002), the Rampart-scandal-inspired Training Day (2001), Kurt Russell’s problematic rogue cop and the 1992 L.A. Riots in Dark Blue (2002), the overwrought Oscar winning Crash (2004), the Shane Black noir Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005), the East L.A. coming-of-age story Real Women Have Curves (2002) and more recently films and television series like Tangerine (2015), Beginners (2010), Insecure (2016 – present) and Barry (2018) have expanded the nuances of the city’s image.
One controversial example, the simultaneously maligned and celebratedLa La Land (2016), seems to be a sort of standard bearer for modern Los Angeles (at least through sheer repetition, considering its numerous showings on HBO): “a love letter to Los Angeles like the ones Woody Allen gave Manhattan, with fireworks popping over the cityscape (minus the Gershwin) and a romantic bench looking out on the Hollywood Hills instead of the Queensboro Bridge. I ♥ N.Y., but they made L.A. a ★,” New York Times assistant editor Dave Renard wrote in 2017. Perhaps it goes without saying that even those voices that criticize the film often use it as a reference point for what observers misunderstand or obscure about Los Angeles.
Putting aside one’s feelings about La La Land as a movie, the film highlighted some of the city’s most notable, and mundane, destinations: the Griffith Observatory, 105/110 Freeway Exchange, Hollywood Drive, the Rialto Theater, and Griffith Park among several others. Of course, the film is anything but realistic; it’s an oddly nostalgic fever dream based on earlier films like Singin’ in the Rain (1952) and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964). For example, you don’t witness many homeless people (or any at all really), despite homelessness being a persistent, grinding and tragic problem for the city. Even I, who really enjoyed the film, can see why the idea of white Angeleno Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) as Jazz purist and apparent savior along with Mia’s (Emma Stone) tale of a lone actress trying to make it in the big city annoyed many viewers.
To be honest, having lived in Southern California for half a decade during graduate school, Los Angeles felt like gravity; it was an irresistible force, yet it wasn’t an open city. Hanging out there depended on your L.A. connections. Did your friend know the best bar in Silver Lake to knock back a few drinks? What about cool restaurants in gentrifying DTLA? Or the best time to hit Comedy Meltdown in Hollywood?
In contrast, New York City, where I lived for a decade, is so dense, crowded, and threaded together by the subway that one can find old time bars, hip cafes, and alluring dives almost by accident. Stumble off the F train at 2nd Avenue or Delancey Street and you’re bound to find something. The expanse of Los Angeles makes this sort of geographic serendipity nearly impossible. “There are not enough dimensions for a film to truly convey the meaning of Los Angeles, so vast it is in its miles of sprawl,” noted Emily Hunt Kevil at cinemathread.
Yet, everyone has a vision of Los Angeles. “People who have never lived or even breathed in Los Angeles have an idea of what Los Angeles is. But I don’t know if they’re wrong. That’s the privilege of Los Angeles,” Kevil asserts. “It’s the privilege of a city that claims the home to Hollywood and Paramount and Warner Brothers and whose buildings have been reproduced countless times across countless screens all over the world —it’s everybody’s city.” The circus, after all, was meant for everyone.
Between improved mass transit and ride sharing options, one can take numerous paths through, around, and parallel to the L.A. circus. Early in 2018, the New York Times, famous for its awkward coverage of the city, journeyed along all 22 miles of Sunset Boulevard from Echo Park to the Pacific Ocean chronicling the changing face of the city along the way. The newspaper did so always with an eye toward pop culture depictions: “at any point along the route, you will see the images that movies, TV shows and magazines have implanted in your brain.”
I spent my last three days in the city in West Hollywood on Sunset, where one can find great views of the city and the mountains that hem it in, but also a tangle of billboards, bars, and restaurants. During my first three days I crashed in Mar Vista on my younger brother’s sofa. Only blocks from Sawtelle Japantown and a thirty minute walk from Santa Monica, I took in Venice Beach, Korean cuisine, and, after a bit of a trek, Will Rogers State Historic Park, where one can tour the humorist’s old home (house tours only on Thursdays and Fridays however) and go for a short hike in the mountains just behind it.
From Beverly Hills 90210 and Melrose Place to The OC to Insecure and the ill-fated season two of True Detective, Los Angeles’s image will always remain tied to television and film depictions. Yet, change has always been afoot; 1993 Los Angeles differs greatly from its 2018 reality. Fabio might stay the same but the city hasn’t. It remains a circus, but an ever-changing one.
 Carey McWilliams, Southern California: An Island on the Land, (Gibbs-Smith, 1946), 376.
 Plenty of other films along the way depicted L.A. very differently, the neo-noirs Grifters (1990) and L.A. Confidential (1997), the Cohen Brothers through-the-looking-glass comic noir of The Big Lebowski (1998), the racist dog whistle of Falling Down (1993), the Mexican American saga of American Me (1992), the inspirational Stand and Deliver (1988), the tragic heist caper of Heat (1995), the magnanimously weird Ed Wood (1994), the San-Fernando-centric porn tale Boogie Nights (1997), SoCal’s take on Jane Austen, Clueless (1995), the groundbreaking Boyz n the Hood (1991), and the underrated but equally captivating Menace to Society (1993). Throw in Generation X staple Swingers (1996), the Walter Moseley-based Devil in a Blue Dress (1995), the paranoid parable regarding fascism Barton Fink (1991), the overly long but also moving Magnolia (1999) and the iconic post-Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure Keanu Reeves in both Point Break (1991) and Speed (1994). I dig 1999’s revenge tale The Limey (1999) as well, but this is getting ridiculous. Still, one more thing: once Boyz and Menace demonstrated an ability to make money (see Straight Outta Compton (2015) for a more recent example), Los Angeles filmmakers treated the public to a string of movies like Boyz, such as Baby Boy (2001) and South Central (1992) which inspired more purposely ridiculous variations of the theme in Don’t Be Menace in South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood (1996) and the horror/black exploitation of Tales from the Hood (1995). I’m not even counting 1988’s controversial Colors. This is all to say, yes, I realize much more was offered to the public than Get Shorty and The Player.
 Mike Davis, City of Quartz: Excavating the Future of Los Angeles, (Verso, 2006), 316.
 Kevin Starr, Coast of Dreams: California on the Edge, 1990-2003, (Vintage Books, 2006), 78,
 Mike Davis, City of Quartz: Excavating the Future of Los Angeles, (Verso, 2006), 316.
Cities are a tangled mess of spaces that incite memories, desires, symbols and meanings. As time passes, we develop a more complex notion of place and create, sometimes consciously and other times unconsciously, a collection of maps connecting all of these factors and associating them with people that we encounter in our everyday life. Authors such as Ítalo Calvino and Rebecca Solnit have written about how the way we inhabit cities contains more meanings than the eyes can see; an avenue is not just an avenue but a combination of stories with people, places, and feelings that have shaped us through the years. These meanings emerge when the eyes see beyond the form of the objects and spaces, recognizing the emotion and memories embedded within their histories.
The first thing that came to my mind after being invited to collaborate with The Metropole was to write about the city in which I was born and then left when I was 8 years old: Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. In contrast with traditional political-historical analyses applied to urban development changes in Rio between 1840 and 1940, or sociological reports on favelas and affordable housing projects dating from the 1950s to the 1980s, I will present reflections on how I saw Rio in 1994, at the age of eight, and again two decades later at the age of 28 (in 2015); throughout I will explore the expansion of my mental map of the city and how the city became more cohesive in my mind although socially and economically segregated in its geography.
In 2015, after being away from Rio for 20 years, my cab navigated through the narrow streets of Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas on a sunny summer afternoon. I peered outside the window at the lagoon as shy tears fell on my lap with an overwhelming feeling of saudade. Because of my absence from Rio for so many years, I could not differentiate between my lived experienced and what I had imagined. I remembered the times when everything seemed very big and distant from me. Now the beauty of Rio appears to me marked by the conversation between hills and buildings, the meeting of the asphalt and my nostalgia, in the unknown combination of my living memories with the constructions of my mind. Throughout my journey, Rio was unveiled to me slowly and confusingly. I struggled to see the city in its entirety. All I could visualize was a blurred image of different places disconnected from each other. Even though the city contains its history written in the alleys and wide opened urban squares, Rio never confided in me regarding its past; so I needed to dig.
When I was 8 years old every newsstand, building, and signpost seemed so much larger than me. According to my father, following my slow pace, we used to take 20 minutes to walk from my building to my favorite newsstand. I remember that over the course of these walks, I used to greet all the janitors and the newsstand workers. I used to make my own time to have a walk, but I never consciously made sense of the path itself. Twenty years later, twice I tried replicate the same walk: the first time with the intention of capturing all the details and activating my old memories, while on the second I just wandered on auto-pilot. Through this experiment, I noticed all the same trees were closer to my height and seemed greener, and I recognized only one janitor; for my amusement, I consciously connected every single aspect of the course to the gaps in my memories. In my recollection of the 1990s I did not have to cross as many streets as I had to this time. As a young boy, I could not see the end of buildings – they all seemed infinite.
Although not as busy as during the twentieth century, Rio’s newspaper newsstands still represent a remarkable feature of the city. Since their emergence in the 1910’s and through the hard work of the Italian immigrant Carmine Labanca, newspaper newsstands (called bancas de jornais in Portuguese) gained recognition; they appeared in every single neighborhood and created a place for public socialization and leisure around the printed matter of the daily news. Bancas were definitely a huge piece of my childhood in Rio: along with things like comic books and bubble gum, I used to buy trading cards of futebol players from Italy and Brazil.
The overlapping of stories and myths that abound in Rio are visible through the conversation/conflict between the asphalt and the hills. Whether you are walking on the beach or staring from one hillside to another, one can see asphalt stripes crisscrossing the hills. At times this can be viewed as a remarkable landscape, and in other moments, as a social-economic division between classes. From Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas, a natural lagoon located in Zona Sul, one can see the strip of upper-middle-class buildings attached to hills. On the opposite side of the lagoon, you see a sand belt with beaches such as Ipanema, Copacabana and Leblon. Although the lagoon was not man-made, throughout its existence the place was shaped by society. By the 1970s the local government, working with corporations, came up with a real estate plan focused on the construction of fancy condominiums that became part of Rio’s skyline in the late 1980s.
Walking from Lagoa to the beach, I could see that the old food kiosks remained, but all the main symbols from 1994 had been assaulted by the irrefutable force of transformation wrought by time; the public building attached to the square was doomed to decay and the school near the church was completely renovated. Unfortunately, my favorite quiosque owner was not there anymore. By the time I stopped at the beach, one of his friends told me he had moved back to an unknown city in Northeast Brazil. Historically, food kiosks or quiosques in Rio de Janeiro have had two main moments: one in the early 1900s that ended with the urban reformations of Downtown led by Pereira Passos (1863-1913), and the other that started in the 1960s with the installation of shacks on the city shores. To be honest, when I arrived in Rio I thought the quiosques were gone because of the reforms for the 2016 Olympics. I’m glad I was wrong, because they are still a charming tradition just like the bancas de jornais.
Moving away from the beach, I traveled to the well-known feira – the Brazilian fruit market. Similar to farmer’s markets in the United States, these small food stands intend to provide fresh and frequently organic vegetables, fruits, cereals, nuts, meats, dairy products as well as local dishes such as pastel, caldo de cana, and tapioca. In my mind such fare never existed along my path during the 1990s. After stopping to eat a pastel and drink a caldo de cana, one of the sellers informed me that he has been working in that feira for more than 20 years, despite my recollection.
It was then I realized the possibility of living a new story in an old city during a short summer trip. At that very moment, my childhood in Rio felt like a dream or a book that I had absorbed into my own personal history—something that actually never happened to me. These words are the product of my bittersweet feelings and my blurred memories of a city that courses through my veins and my heart. As a child in 1994, the year my second grandfather died and the Brazilian national futebol team won its fourth World Cup, I was not aware of how far these places were from each other, not even if they were in the same neighborhood. Fast-forwarding to 2015, with improved spatial awareness, I could visualize some borders between neighborhoods, and the interconnection among streets, supermarkets, schools, churches, and parks. I still do not know much about Rio or its history, and definitely have much to learn, but through this experiment I had the opportunity of understanding a small part of how the city became more cohesive in my mind although socially and economically segregated in its geography.
Yuri Gama is a member of the Urban History Association, and Latin American History PhD student at University of Massachusetts Amherst researching the urban history of Brazil with focus on Northeast cities in light of the global context of the Cold War era.
All photos taken by Yuri Gama; featured image (at top): Downtown Rio circa 2015
This summer, The Metropole is departing from its Metropolis of the Month format and will instead feature travelogues from globetrotting urbanists. We’ve asked some great contributors to share photos, reflections, and lists of their favorite things to do in the cities they’re visiting. But before we bid Buenos Aires adios, we actually have two travelogues from the city. Next week we have a post from Anton Rosenthal, who has collected perspectives on the city from 19th and 20th century travelers , but first I want to share some recollections of my three encounters with Buenos Aires and a list of recommendations for those making a visit.
My siblings and I each got to take a big international trip the summer after we turned 16, and my turn, in 2003, was to Buenos Aires. That year I became fascinated by Latin American literature and magical realism after reading Cristina Garcia’s Dreaming in Cuban, ironically in my Sophomore English class. I had been taking Spanish for a few years and my parents, watching my enjoyment of learning the language, wanted to give me an opportunity to practice. Argentina’s economy was still spiraling after its crash in 2001 and the favorable exchange rate gave us an opportunity for a slightly more luxurious vacation than we might otherwise be able to afford.
We stayed in a nice hotel in Palermo, within walking distance of the Jardín Japonés and the Museo de Arte Latinoamericano (MALBA). I recall visiting both, and being particularly enchanted by MALBA’s permanent collection. I bought several postcard-sized prints in the museum shop and they were prominently displayed in my bedroom for years afterwards.
My most vivid memory from that trip, however, was the day we spent in La Boca—the working class neighborhood whose colorful row houses are most vividly associated in the public imagination with the city. We walked around, and saw outdoor tango performances, and who knows what else. It had been several hours of exploring, and I was tired. That’s when “the incident” occurred, the one thing for which my father will never forgive me.
We were walking past La Bombonera, the stadium of the Boca Juniors football club, and a game was about to begin. A life-long soccer fan, my father’s face lit up. The gears began turning in his mind, as he imagined himself in the stands cheering for Boca and enjoying what would likely be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. In equal measure the gears began turning in my mind, but I imagined being simultaneously bored and scared by the pressing crowd of screaming men surrounding us. So I put my foot down, literally stomping my foot and crying and refusing to go. I won, and my father angrily hailed us a cab back to the hotel.
During that week Buenos Aires made a strong impression; I remembered it as a vibrant, cosmopolitan city with delicious and cheap food. Four years later, I decided to spend a semester abroad there during my junior year of college. By 2007, the economy had not measurably improved and it was still the best bang for your educational bucks.
My experience of the city as a twenty-year-old college student was mixed. I had hugely formative experiences–I took a modern dance class at a community center, which kicked off a three year love affair with, if not talent for, dance; I attended services at Jewish congregations throughout the city and realized that religious practice was important to me; I attended concerts and festivals and films and by the end could actually understand the Spanish–but I also found myself exhausted by porteño culture. My clothes were too casual by the standards of the formal, fashionable women of Buenos Aires, and as I ate and drank my way through a city obsessed with thinness I had fellow passengers on buses and trains admonish me for standing (because I was “clearly” pregnant). In an email I wrote to friends back at home, I shared an anecdote capturing the best and worst of the city and my experience abroad:
Standing on a crowded bus yesterday, a woman yelled at me for not making someone give me a seat, since I was so obviously pregnant. Although it was the 4th time now that this has occurred, it was still humiliating. It was worse this time though, because despite 4 months of constant language immersion, I could not formulate even the most perfunctory response. Eventually I just managed to say “No, no lo necesito” and got off the bus (luckily, it was my stop).
I got off the bus at the Palermo Wine Tour. For 40 pesos, we got a souvenir wine glass, and all of the businesses on CalleHonduras had representatives from various bodegas (vineyards) offering unlimited samples. We were celebrating my friend’s 21st birthday, so we got pretty sloshed. It was a good time.
I found myself back on Calle Honduras in 2015, when I dragged my husband and in-laws to Buenos Aires so they could experience the city themselves. Seeing the city through their fresh eyes, it felt bigger than when I left in December 2007. Quickly, though, I found myself gravitating towards what I had always loved about Buenos Aires: lingering over long meals without being harassed by waiters, watching films in immaculately clean theaters, visiting craft fairs on Saturday afternoons, buying candy and snacks from the kioskos, and drinking lots of cheap, delicious Malbec.
This is my number one recommendation to anyone traveling to Buenos Aires. The permanent collection of Latin American art is one of my favorites of any museum in the world–and I’ve been to a lot of museums! Make sure to see the Wifredo Lam and Xul Solar paintings. Before going, also check what films they are showing.
Most neighborhoods in Buenos Aires have an arts/crafts/antiques fair each weekend, but my favorite has always been the one in the neighborhood of Palermo (though multiple times I found jewelry I loved at the feria in Belgrano, and the one in Recoleta, outside the cemetery, isn’t bad either). These fairs are the best place to find distinctly Argentine gifts.
If you leave Buenos Aires without trying Cumaná, you screwed up. The empanadas are above average but the restaurant is really known for their cazuelas, or little casseroles. Just know that at lunchtime there can be lines, so don’t go starving–or make sure to arrive before noon or after 2-3 PM.