L.A.’s Inferiority Complex

For over 50 years, scholars, educators, historians, and enthusiasts of the North American West gather annually to share the latest findings and approaches to understanding the diverse history of the west as “both a frontier and a region.” I had the honor of presenting at the Western History Association 2014 conference in Newport Beach last week, and although I have never presented at this conference, nor attended, I have to say I really enjoyed it and was impressed by the quality of panels.

The highlight for me was a roundtable titled, “Is There a Los Angeles School of Western History?” that featured a ‘who’s who’ of Los Angeles historians, both on the panel and in the audience. It was a lively and entertaining discussion, and of course, it got me thinking. Someone in the audience brought up the difference between scholarly activities in Los Angeles vs. the Bay Area — that there is an encouragement of camaraderie and collaboration among schools and institutions here in L.A. that doesn’t exist at places like Stanford and Berkeley. One seasoned Bay Area scholar chimed in to the discussion, remarking that this was true in his experience, even among colleagues in his own department. More importantly, he noted that San Francisco has never quite gotten over the fact that it is NOT the most important city in California. Although this is an accepted fact in the Bay Area, scholars in Southern California still concern themselves with this San Francisco / Los Angeles comparison.

What struck me about this statement is that scholars writing on Los Angeles are still dealing with this inferiority complex in two ways: either in justifying work on Los Angeles as a historical subject, or in their analysis of Los Angeles history. In my own work, for example, I discuss at length how L.A.’s inferiority complex was a driving force for civic leaders and politicians. I argue that a looming inferiority complex hung like a cloud over the elite Angelenos who drove cultural and urban renewal initiatives during the 1950s and 60s. The establishment of the L.A. Music Center, the L.A. County Museum of Art, the L.A. convention center — in each case, the idea Los Angeles was still playing catch up to San Francisco and New York permeated much of the fundraising and planning discussions. Surprisingly, not once during this conference roundtable did anyone discuss scholarship on Los Angeles in these terms.

When it came to my own presentation later that afternoon, I couldn’t help but think about the topics brought up in that roundtable discussion, especially the issues of public-private collaboration and an urban inferiority complex. My talk, “Private Power, Public Spaces: Culture-led Regeneration and the Los Angeles Music Center,” discussed the Center’s role as a highly visible symbol of L.A.’s cultural coming of age in the 1960s. The paper was part of a panel titled: “Identity in Motion: Culture and Alterity in Southern California,” in which all three papers dealt with shifting concepts of urban identity. To me, this idea of shifting urban identities is one of the greater issues that scholars of Los Angeles have to cope with – not just the texts in front of us, but the opinions and emotions that impact the world, and that are harder to capture.

Historically, the press frequently talked about this issue, and we must continue to discuss it today to understand why things happened the way they did and where we might be headed because of it…

“In the last two decades…[LACMA and the Music Center], now internationally recognized, have been instrumental in making L.A. a major-league arts town, and they have helped to coax the city out of the lifelong inferiority complex imposed by older municipalities.” [1]

[1] “ L.A. Arts: The Second Generation: The Old Guard Loses Its Cultural Grip,“  L.A. Herald Examiner, December 2, 1984.

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One thought on “L.A.’s Inferiority Complex

  1. Pingback: Is L.A. Designed to Work? | Remaking Los Angeles

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