From Boston to LA: Learning From My Own History

At the outset of City of Quartz, Mike Davis includes as an epigraph from the theorist Walter Benjamin that:“The picturesque has an effect only on the foreigner. To portray a city, a native must have other motives–motives of one who travels into the past instead of into the distance. A native’s book about his city will always be related to memoirs; the writer has not spent his childhood there in vain.” (Benjamin, “The Return of the Flâneur” 1929)

I have returned to this quotation a great deal as I have completed a book called Don’t Blame Us: Suburban Liberals and the Transformation of the Democratic Party about the suburban liberal residents along the high-tech corridor of the Route 128 highway in my native city of Boston, while looking out from my home office in Davis’s hometown of Los Angeles.

 

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 Route 128 outside of Boston

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The view from my home office window (you can see the Griffith Observatory and Hollywood Sign in the distance)

When I entered graduated school, I did not intend to write about Boston or even to write a community study. However, it became clear reading books in my seminars and participating in the Metropolitan History Workshop at the University of Michigan that my questions about national political realignment, racial inequality, economic restructuring and the contradictions and transformation of American liberalism were best suited to a study of one particular place and, seemingly arbitrarily, picked Boston. As I returned home to do the archival research and delved into the writing, it became increasingly clear that all of these questions emerged from my experience growing up in Boston and were issues that had unconsciously interested me since I was a kid and had propelled me toward the study of history in the first place.

The seeming contradictions of embedded in these two images of Massachusetts liberalism in the 1970s initially shaped my research:

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I’ve also realized how much my research and writing sit at the intersection between the personal and the academic, which has helped to reveal otherwise obscured issues and connections. As Walter Benjamin’s observation suggests, a native can interpret in the texture of a place issues or realities that might elude an outsider. Yet a close and personal connection to a place can create certain gaps that might also elude an outsider. I have constantly had to question what kind of prejudices, assumptions, and potential blindspots my own relationship to Boston might shape my work. In doing so, I have often returned to the note journalist J. Anthony Lukas included at the outset of Common Ground (it sits at the top of my list of favorite books and was one of the major inspirations for my dissertation ):

“[The] families at the center of my story were not selected by statistical averages or norms…At first, I thought I read clear moral geographies of their intersecting lives, but the more time I spent with them, the harder it became to assign easy labels of guilt or virtue. The realities of urban America when seen through the lives of actual city dwellers, proved far more complicated than I had imagined. ”

Unlike Lukas who spent years literally following his subjects, I have got to know mine largely through archival research and spending time writing about them. I have particularly focused on the economic, social and spatial structures that shape and constrain the political and social choices that suburban knowledge workers make: from where to buy a house or send their child to school to what issue or politician to vote for, and then how these choices both reflect and have affected political change. I have also tried to understand the mental maps these historical actors have constructed of the economic, political and racial landscape of Boston, and the nation and their place within it. This process has challenged many of my initial assumptions and easy assignments of credit or blame and has made me more empathetic to the motivations, accomplishments, and limits of the suburban liberal knowledge workers in the Route 128 area. It has also made metropolitan Boston, liberalism and recent American history much more complicated and difficult for me to understand and explain than I had realized when I initially wrote my dissertation prospectus seven years ago. But also, far more interesting.

I’ve had a somewhat analogous reaction to Los Angeles. Before I moved here four years ago, I had disdain and, from reading Mike Davis, frankly fear of LA. I still feel a bit of a foreigner here, but the more time I have spent in LA, teaching courses at Claremont McKenna College about urban and suburban history, participating in conversations as one of the co-organizers of the LA History and Metro Studies Group, it has challenged many of my assumptions about the utopian/dystopian binaries that surround LA. As I have come see its simultaneous beauty and sprawl, and its similarities and differences to Boston, it has given me new appreciation of the complexity of LA and metropolitan history more broadly.

An image that captures LA’s scale and dualities:

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I have spent the spring finishing my first book project and I am beginning to conceptualize a new project, which will be a more national study (more about that in later posts). This process has left me once again with a sense of complicated feelings toward Boston. I realize however, even if I don’t live there anymore or spend my days immersed in its history, Boston will always be my home.

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About Lily Geismer

Lily Geismer is assistant professor of history at Claremont McKenna College. She is the author of Don’t Blame Us: Suburban Liberals and the Transformation of the Democratic Party

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