May 29th, 2007


Tell it like it was

Hey, look! It's an American Nazi salute! Well, not really, but it certainly looks like one. In fact, these are employees of the socialist municipal agency, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (the virtual penis with which Los Angeles reputedly raped the Owens Valley while the Federal government held it—held the valley, not the virtual penis—and a highly fictionalized institutional figure in reputed rapist Roman Polanski's belated-noir film "Chinatown".) The setting is the agency's Ducommon Yards, the time is October of 1930 (at least according to the photo's information page—the shiny streamlined cars make me think it might actually be a few years later), and the employees are saluting the American flag which has just been raised over the facility.

On another page of the website, the information about the photo (part of a collection belonging to the DWP and now being digitized and put on-line by the L.A. Public Library) does not reveal if this was a one-time event on the occasion of the dedication of the Ducommon yards or if it was a daily ritual mandated by management. As nobody in the picture appears to be dressed for a special occasion I suspect the latter. It was 1930, after all, when Capitalist institutions were in free-fall and Reds were on the loose, and there's nothing a socialist municipal agency hates more than the Reds with whom the conservative businessmen of the city suspect them of being in league. There's nothing like a good, old-fashioned (well, not that old-fashioned, since Americans didn't even have a pledge of allegiance to the flag for more than a century after the country became independent) flag salute to demonstrate white and blueness to offset the red tinge carried (to the minds of the power brokers of the private sector) by even the modest municipal socialism of the sort typified by the DWP.

But it's also likely, given the popularity in Southern California of the German-American Bund, as well as other organizations even more openly sympathetic to the Fascist cause during that era, that more than a few of the pictured workers were imagining the American flag modified with a swastika. It's probably even more likely that more than a few of their bosses felt that way. About a decade later, some of the arm-raising workers were probably in the army, getting ready to slaughter the Nazi arm-raisers, and the municipal government of Los Angeles was in a tizzy over the large Japanese American population in the region and was nagging the federal government to lock up the inscrutable aliens—and their American-born children, too. You can't be too careful, you know, if you're an elected official likely to get blamed for anything that might go wrong.

I've always had a sneaking suspicion that, had the Nazis been a bit less thick-witted, and had a particular segment—probably a substantial plurality—of the local (southern Californian) population had its way, the U.S. would have preempted the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor by becoming allied with the Japanese Empire's fascist allies, in order to fight the Soviet Union. When I was a kid I heard more than a few adults occasionally mutter their dissatisfaction about the way things had gone in the country under "that man" (Franklin Roosevelt), and darkly hint, even after all the post-war revelations about the Nazi regime, that we had been on the wrong side. They still wanted us to salute the American flag in school every day, of course, but at least we were told to put our right hands over our hearts rather than extending our arms. Progress, I have learned, is usually excruciatingly slow—when it comes at all.

Then I think that maybe that rather distressing photo requires a companion piece in which the dismal tendencies of the era are not being flaunted. Here is a photo the website misidentifies as depicting the intersection of Broadway and Seventh Street, but it is in fact a photo of Seventh (crossing left to right) and Hill Streets, one block west. I would guess the date to be later than the first picture—I'm not sure which year women's skirts were that particular length, or when they wore the style of hats in evidence, but I'm going to guess it's right around 1940.

The fact that there is way more public transportation than private cars on the busy street suggests a possibility that it's actually during the war years, when gasoline was being rationed, but the absence of men in military uniforms among the crowd means that it would probably be very early in the war, before the forces were built up. Or the picture might have been taken at the time of what came to be known as the Zoot Suit Riots, which events only ended when the local military commanders put the entire city of Los Angeles off limits for military personnel. So maybe the picture is more disturbing than it looks, but by an absence rather than a presence. Maybe it just isn't possible for anyone knowledgeable about the city's history to look at old pictures of Los Angeles without suspecting something disturbing lurking in them.

But there it all is. I remember that scene from later years. I saw that intersection when it was still about as lively and neat as it is in this photo, and then in still later years I watched it gradually decline as the city's middle class population dispersed itself to that ever-thickening suburban shell which came to encase the old neighborhoods, and the old neighborhoods themselves either quit growing and decayed or kept growing and were altered beyond recognition. Maybe those who dispersed were fleeing that something disturbing which lurks in these old photos. If so, they failed, as I'm pretty sure they carried that something disturbing with them wherever they went.

I can look at this picture of Seventh and Hill in downtown's palmy days and grow nostalgic over many things I recall about the place as it was then, but that crowd of people whose images were stilled by silver and chemicals in that familiar space (I even know that the photographer was leaning from the second floor window of Foreman & Clark's Clothing Store) years before I went there—them with legs poised in mid-stride, heads stopped in mid-glance, vibrations of voices uncaught in unseen air—somewhere in the back of my mind I know that whatever forces rushed through the world, damaging and destroying, lurked within them, or at least some of them. I am looking back at them and know where their steps, collectively, have led. That's the strangest thing about old photos of crowds, I think: that they are always pictures of the unknowing, stepping into our terribly familiar world.