Los Angeles: Changing Landscapes

Today’s post was written by Purandhya Sharma. Purandhya is a graduate assistant in the William H. Hannon Library’s Archives and Special Collections department. She is an international student from India, and is currently in her second year, pursuing an MFA in Film and Television Production.  

This year’s From Their Perspective summer exhibit features postcards from the Werner von Boltenstern Postcard Collection along with student reflections on the city of Los Angeles. Nineteen student employees at the William H. Hannon Library participated in creating the exhibit this year. They shared their thoughts on how they relate to the city as it continues to recreate itself through its interactions with arts, businesses, entertainment, and cultures. The exhibition is on display in Terrance L. Mahan, SJ Gallery through August 31, 2023 (library level 3).

Los Angeles has a historic position as a city situated within the popular global imagination. It’s a city that almost everyone would have heard of or have built associations with, being home to Hollywood and its stars. I was initially captivated by the grandiose buildings and advertisements of several resplendent restaurants featured on the library’s postcards, but also just the diversity of smaller cities encompassed within the larger Los Angeles County. After discovering that a few iconic buildings and popular sites had been razed to make space for the new, I wanted to focus this exhibit on how other students relate to Los Angeles’s changing landscape. I also wanted them to reflect on what they don’t see represented in these postcards, as sometimes what we know differs from what can be seen.

As a newcomer, Los Angeles has been a challenging city to navigate. When I came to L.A., I saw it as a chance to “unsettle” on the opposite side of the world—an escape from the impending pressure of settling down as an adult in India. Los Angeles offered new opportunities to engage with the post-pandemic world.  When my supervisor Liz Zepeda assigned me to look at L.A. postcards for this year’s From Their Perspective summer exhibit, it helped me to get familiar with the city without having to deal with the treasure hunt of using public transportation or a DMV permit as a “non-resident alien.” The postcards introduced me to what the city has to offer: culture, history, and entertainment.

I cannot help seeing these postcards as physical embodiment of memory and history. One postcard to a loved one described their leisure trip to L.A. I was curious to know what about Los Angeles made it compelling for anyone to vacation here. This curiosity reignited my desire to explore the city—what it is and what it isn’t—and helped me to overcome my initial struggles being so far from home, making small talk with strangers, and the isolation.

Brown Derby restaurant, which is shaped like a large hat.I began by selecting a few postcards that best represent L.A.’s changing landscape and might be interesting to reflect upon. Out of these, library student employees chose the image that interested them for the exhibit. They were provided with reflective questions and encouraged to share their thoughts, but were discouraged from any research. For example, Leonard Richardson-King, a third-year journalism student, points out that something must be done “to preserve L.A.’s gems” as he draws our attention to the mimetic architecture that “exemplifies the programmatic architecture style popular during Hollywood’s Golden Age” such as the Brown Derby restaurant.

One of my favorite postcards from the collection shows Olvera Street, because it speaks to L.A.’s Spanish and Mexican history. Adrian Casiano, a first-year student, reflects on his childhood visits to Olvera Street which, as he mentions, is commonly referred to as “Placita Olvera” by Latinos.

By working with the library’s archives and special collections, specifically helping to digitize various historical materials, I continue to discover how L.A. was built and rebuilt. Los Angeles is a city that has seen so much displacement, with the Indigenous communities and settlers being driven out to make way for new constructions. It is probably why sometimes one feels there is nothing to hold onto. At the same time, the city feels inviting to a migrant.

Olvera street with vendors and customersIt is the stories of migration that I would hear from residents while I was hopping from one Airbnb to another that made me feel less of an outsider when I first arrived in L.A. Los Angeles itself encompasses mini cultural hubs such as Chinatown, Little Tokyo, Koreatown, etc., making it so culturally diverse. I was amazed to find Indian food at local grocery stores, where terms like “ghee,” “naan,” “chai” are part of the common vocabulary (even though one could have a conversation here about cultural appropriation). But at the very least it makes living in L.A. easy and welcoming.

In his book, “Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience,” Yi-fu Tuan explores what gives a place its identity: “What begins as undifferentiated space becomes place as we get to know it better and endow it with value.” How we look at Los Angeles will result from our experiences as we interact with the city. With the two years ahead of me at LMU, I can acquaint myself better with the city of Los Angeles as I continue to understand what unsettling truly entails.

Work Cited

Tuan, Yi-Fu. Space and place: The perspective of experience. U of Minnesota Press, 1977.