Uncertain Signifiers:

Looking at the Demarcation of Los Angeles

A Photo Slideshow by J.R. Valenzuela

I grew up surrounded by fields - strawberry, artichoke, lima bean, and lemon. They were steadily built up into new houses; trees were left to die and be piled up and burned, all elements of the land's former state removed or made irrelevant. As people moved in, I allowed myself a certain "firstness equals correctness" attitude. I felt that these new arrivals were unacceptable, and that my house, in a suburban development also built on top of old farm, was exempt. These other communities had disrupted my whole environment. I relished the yearly infestations of citrus pests looking for their disappeared groves and settling for brand new living rooms instead.

My great, great uncle was a contractor and built sidewalks all over Santa Barbara. My dad pointed them out on each trip to the city, and we would look for the imprint with the company name and the year it was made. Something has always appealed to me about displaying a date of construction, like a Masonic temple with a huge plaque "Erected A.D. 1929" or deciphering serial numbers on a bicycle. I'm not as interested in photographing these markers as I am what surround them. I'm interested in the clues that undermine the punctuality of a simple date and hint at the simultaneous persistence and destruction that characterizes the passing of time in the city.

Since I've lived in Los Angeles, I'm inclined to think of the cliché that "New York is vertical and Los Angeles is horizontal"; the basic comparison between density and sprawl. New York is composed of layer upon layer. Often anything left behind is rendered invisible or buried underground like Penn Station, the only trace of its former neoclassical splendor in the basement level. Los Angeles fans out in every direction; progress measures itself abutment by abutment, new development by new development, old use and new use. If you go beyond what immediately grabs your attention, beyond those elements of the scene that determine the time of construction as surely as a date marker, you get this feeling of one space acting out a several possibilities and purposes simultaneously. The Thomas Guide, the official map of Southern California, shows this most explicitly. Abandoned railroad tracks and right of way, schools, aqueducts, the ancient property lines of the Spanish Missions interact and overlap like a massive Venn diagram.

I suppose every city has specters of former uses and populations, but what always strikes me about Los Angeles and much of Southern California is the ubiquity of these specters. There are still spaces in between these endless towns, often they are merely filled up with more little communities, however, occasionally they are strangely empty. Those in-between spaces are what I'm interested in, those that are still intact and those that seem to be delineated only by their absence.

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