Los Angeles is changing so rapidly that it really messes with your head, says author Lynell George

By Bliss Bowen

Lynell George loves L.A., but the relationship status is “complicated”
Photo by Noe Montes

“There is a distinct, episodic quality to L.A. In smaller or differently arranged cities, pieces of the past are more visible, often integrated into your present — readily accessible as you plan your future. In Los Angeles, returning to a location out of your past, trying to re-experience a feeling that you had, can leave you dislodged and disoriented, depleted. No coverless and thumbed-to-ruin Thomas Brothers Street Guide or state-of-the-art GPS can take you back to where you used to be. In a blink that place you knew is not just gone; you sometimes wonder if it was even there.”

The seed of “After/Image,” veteran journalist Lynell George’s heartfelt collection of photographs and essays about Los Angeles, was planted during a dinner party conversation. George, long a reliably passionate defender of the diverse city where she grew up, uncharacteristically did not leap to its defense as a fellow guest derided L.A. as “ugly.”

Writing about this fascinatingly diverse metropolis for the LA Times, LA Weekly, KCET and other outlets over the past few decades had helped her get to “the city’s core” and discover her writer’s voice. “The beauty of L.A. is seated in change, adaptability,” she notes early in “After/Image.” It is “complicated” and “messy,” but that is part of its wonder.

But at that moment she questioned herself: Had the ever-intensifying traffic, perpetual destruction of historical architecture, and gentrification of neighborhoods finally nudged her to join the exodus of friends who had decided it was time to move on?

It’s a question that George, who has recently spent time reconnecting with family heritage in New Orleans, hasn’t fully answered. “After/Image” is less a culmination of her writing and thinking about Los Angeles than maybe just “the destination I’m at right now,” she says during an insightful conversation. “I thought at the end of the process of writing this book that I would have a clearer idea of how I felt about the city, and whether I wanted to stay or go. I guess what it did is make me realize just how ambivalent I am.”

Witnessing so many build-up-and-tear-down cycles upends perceptions of reality, according to George, who recently won a Grammy Award for her liner notes for “Otis Redding Live at the Whisky A Go Go: The Complete Recordings.”

Contemplating the city’s ceaseless change, she made an unexpected realization: “The city I live in, a lot of it, is in my mind.”

It’s often said that L.A. is a mecca of self-reinvention, which is reflected in the city’s architecture continually being built over. Did your journalism include architecture?

Not formally. I did a big piece on this wonderful project the city was launching through the Department of Historic Services, Survey LA [the Los Angeles Historic Resources Survey, which identified “significant historic resources” across the city]. Because not a month or sometimes even a week would go by when some historic structure was gonna get knocked down, and there was nothing you could do to stop it.

That makes it so hard to form memories. Things are gone so quick. I can’t tell you how many different iterations certain corners have been through, because it’s to the point that I really don’t remember what it was. Isn’t part of forming memories about making pictures in your head about what something looked like? That’s been the most infuriating thing about growing up here. It teaches you not to value something. I know neighborhoods aren’t museums; I get that. But in New Orleans, I was around buildings built in the 1700s. That was amazing.

As you write, there are always new places to explore in L.A., like Stoneview Nature Center. Were there other places you wanted to include?

[Laughs] There was a lot of stuff. If you’ve been here long enough, you’ll know one place by one name, but two generations above you, they know it by another name, and then the younger people know it by something else. Like I knew Frogtown in a different way, [not as] Elysian Valley.

I wanted to explore place in that nesting doll sort of way. I wanted to do something about the beach communities that weren’t the glamorous beach communities, some of the places we used to go to growing up. I would include Venice in that, but also Dockweiler. There was a huge community there of people using beaches, but it wasn’t about surfing; it was about something else.

What, to you, is the most common misperception of Los Angeles?

That it’s a place that’s just about gloss and surface, and that there is no “there” there. That’s the one I think that infuriates me the most. Because all you have to do is put yourself in a place that’s not about Hollywood — not to disparage Hollywood, because Hollywood’s interesting too. I went to Culver [City High School]. I think about growing up at a time when MGM had just been acquired by Sony. All the people we were going to school with were prop people and gaffers and guys and women who worked with their hands — they were working-class, a different kind of Hollywood; not the actors and producers and deals. …

There’s so much richness that comes with this co-existence, because it has attracted people from all over the world. I learned so much in my young years because people chose to come here from all over the world. I learned rituals and language and history just because of the proximity. And it does come from sitting down and having conversations, or having arguments, or sharing a meal, or going as deep as you want to. And that is about you, and it is on you deciding to say yes to something, and making a turn, and making a friendship, and opening your hand, and opening your own home and opening
your own heart.

L.A. is so rich, and it gets dismissed
time and again. That’s the thing I really hope people can walk away with from
this book.


Writ Large Press presents readings by Lynell George and poet F. Douglas Brown at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday (April 17) at the Annenberg Beach House, 415 Pacific Coast Hwy., Santa Monica. Free, but call (310) 458-4904 or visit annenbergbeachhouse.com to RSVP.