New WPA Guides for San Francisco, Los Angeles Offer Stunning Reminder of the Past

by Randy Shaw on March 24, 2011

Back when the United States funded a Federal Writers Project (FWP) and a Works Progress Administration to employ arts workers, every state and many major cities produced WPA Guides. These travel companions were written with gusto by some of the nation’s best writers and poets; for example, portions of the San Francisco volume were written by Kenneth Rexroth, the great poet and Beat forerunner. Unfortunately, most of these wonderful guides to 1930’s America are out of print. Now, the University of California Press has just reissued both the San Francisco and Los Angeles books, with an introduction by former SF Chronicle Book Editor David Kipen. Reading both is like finding hidden treasures. The San Francisco edition is a must have for anyone interested in the city, while I share Kipen’s conclusion about Los Angeles that “if there’s a WPA guide to a more vanished city, beats me what it is.” For many Angelenos, the guide will have a strong emotional power, as photos like the Brown Derby restaurant decades prior to its demolition could bring tears to one’s eyes.

The San Francisco and Los Angeles guidebooks offer both traditional tours of the city as well as historical writing more closely akin to poetry. These are books that people can read aloud to one another, and those involved in putting on reading events should consider a night when readers serenade each other by reading pages of these books.

San Francisco of the 1930’s

San Francisco of the 1930’s was similar to today’s version, and also quite different. Chinatown, the Embarcadero, Downtown, Telegraph Hill and North Beach (which it calls the Latin Quarter), and South of Market (which includes everything south of Market to the San Mateo border, including the Haight) are all discussed. But the Richmond, Sunset, Noe Valley, the Castro, and Bernal Heights are among the many currently thriving neighborhoods little developed by the 1930’s.

Fortunately, the core structure of San Francisco was in place in the 1930’s, and experiencing a heyday. The Depression did not impact the city as much as other areas, and fun times were easy to find.

The book’s beautiful writing is reflected in this excerpt describing Telegraph and Russian Hill:

“Along its bottom cuts the diagonal of Columbus Avenue, which begins among the clustering shops, cafes, and night clubs at the southern base of Telegraph Hill and ends among the gasworks, warehouses, and smokestacks at the northern base of Russian Hill. Up from this traffic-crowded artery, where stucco-fronted commercial buildings with their awnings and signboards string in long rows, climb endless blocks of weathered frame flats, staggered—step like–one above another. Here and there a round-bellied window, a red-tiled roof, a patch of green garden breaks the monotony of their ranks. In the salt-fresh, sun-baked air of a clear day, each building stands out sharply, tarnished with a mellow patina of sun, fog, and soot. Seen in such weather, under a hot blue sky, the district is reminiscent of some Mediterranean seaside village spilling to the water from steep heights. And seen when the billowing mists of a smoky twilight stream down the slopes, it has the look of a sprawling hillside town of northern Italy.”

That’s poetry, and is characteristic of the writing in both books.

Other Bay Area Cities

The guide covers the entire Bay Area, with lengthy sections on Berkeley, Oakland, Alameda, the Peninsula, and the North Bay. Among the volume’s surprising historical facts is that Berkeley in the 1930’s “prides itself most on its police department…whose fame has extended to Scotland Yard.” Also reported is that Oakland’s renowned public bear fighting had been (mercifully) banned by the 1930’s, with “baseball instead of bullfights and typically Yankee ‘dime’ parties, socials, and church bazaars instead of Spanish fiestas.”

If there is a more enjoyable book to read about the city’s past, present and future, it’s news to me. The WPA Guide to the City by the Bay is one of the great American books ever created, and it’s revived availability gives cause for cheer.

Los Angeles in the Days of Noir

I have less unbridled enthusiasm for the companion book, the WPA Guide to The City of Angeles.

I was born and raised in Los Angeles, but little of the world I inhabited in the 1960’s and 1970’s is in this book. This is true both because, as Kipen notes, Los Angeles has demolished so much of its past – but also because the entire Westside, including Westwood, was still being built.

The book includes insightful sections on Venice and Santa Monica that will have today’s readers wondering why both cities took until the 1970’s and even later to economically boom. Many will be surprised to learn that in the 1930’s the beach resort section of Playa Del Rey in Venice was “completely subordinated to oil production; bedroom windows open directly upon derrick floors, back porches overlook sump holes, and cottages are dwarfed by tall steel rigs.”

Some areas of Los Angeles have clearly changed for the better.

But in addition to an unbuilt Westside, the 1930’s guide also bypasses such current hot spots as Silverlake and Eagle Rock, despite the former soon becoming the center for gay, bohemian, and left wing Los Angeles. This was an era where the downtown popular in noir films still generated people and excitement, with Hollywood’s impact just emerging. The guide notes that “‘Hollywood’” is synonymous with ‘movies,’ yet few film celebrities now live here, and most of the studios are in the surrounding communities.” There is “nothing ‘Hollywoodian’ about Hollywood.”

The Brown Derby

Lost Memories

For many, seeing photos of the Brown Derby, the Egyptian Theater (where I saw Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon and Natalie Wood in The Great Race in 1965) and reading of a Hollywood district on the rise rather than decline will spawn the sadness of lost memories. That perhaps the most architecturally memorable restaurant building in the nation was demolished and replaced with what is now the “Brown Derby Strip Mall” is all too reflective of the city’s wrong turn.

True, the guide gives Culver City its due as a movie center and, even to this day, a place of great 1930’s Los Angeles architecture. And one can almost hear the newsboys shouting on street corners and the streetcars clanging as the guide channels the energy of Los Angeles’ once majestic Downtown.

But among the great differences between San Francisco and Los Angeles is that while the city to the north has made mistakes, its basic look outside the downtown area is remarkably unchanged over the decades. Los Angeles, in contrast, quickly becomes almost unrecognizable, even to natives. Within a decade of my leaving the city, Westwood – home to UCLA, my mother’s first neighborhood, and the big high school hangout of the late 60’s and early 70’s – was enveloped by highrises and by century’s dawn nearly every business had been replaced.

We should all be grateful that the University of California Press invested in the recovery of these two masterpieces, which deserve a place in every home. Do yourself a favor and start perusing them soon.

Randy Shaw is the author of Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century, and The Activist’s Handbook, both published by the University of California Press.

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