a recap by Ryan Fukumori
During the first weekend of October 2015, UCLA and the Huntington Library co-hosted a graduate student conference on the history of Los Angeles and Southern California. “Deep L.A.,” as it was titled, was a project over two years in the making, a collaborate effort between graduate scholars at the University of Southern California and the University of California at Los Angeles.
Plans for the conference began out of discussions from a joint USC/UCLA graduate history course on Los Angeles, co-taught by William Deverell (Professor of History at USC) and Eric Avila (Professor of History, Chicano Studies, and Urban Planning at UCLA). While initial news of the course had suggested an armistice between students from crosstown rivals, “Studies in Urban History: Los Angeles” was more accurately a reflection of the ongoing, dynamic collaborations between historians at both institutions—which have long coexisted alongside the heated matchups at the Rose Bowl and L.A. Coliseum.
Indeed, a cluster of the Ph.D. students who had enrolled in the class was also part of a multi-campus writing group that convened monthly at the Huntington Library. In the summer of 2013, four up-and-coming scholars from this network of historians formalized plans for the conference under the advisorship of Professor Deverell: Daniel Lynch and Max D. Baumgarten, from UCLA’s Department of History; and Celeste Menchaca and Ryan Fukumori, from USC’s interdisciplinary Department of American Studies and Ethnicity.
The theme of the conference, “Deep L.A.,” counterbalanced the spatial, temporal, and topical vastness of Los Angeles history, with attention to the intimate textures and microsocial foci that this historiography demands. That is, centering on the city and region offered the foundation to explore what constitutes a deep historical practice on Los Angeles and Southern California through a heterogeneity of figures, institutions, neighborhoods, landscapes, and movements.
Deep L.A. ultimately convened eighteen graduate historians to share their work, convening scholars from institutions both local (USC, the Claremont Graduate University, and UCs Los Angeles, San Diego, Riverside, Irvine, and Santa Barbara) and far-flung (the University of Virginia). Both days of the conference—October 2 at UCLA, and October 3 at the Huntington—attracted a diverse audience of students, faculty members, and history buffs to listen to the panelists and contribute to the dialogue.
Fittingly, the conference participants themselves offered a sprawling portraiture of research into Los Angeles’ historical depths. Attendees heard presentations on the postwar histories of mainframe computing, suburban Christmas lights, community film forums, East L.A. muralists, and LSD usage. Other panelists traced the 20th-century transformation of urban and suburban space in relation to beaches, supermarkets, and freeway traffic. Some participants documented the central roles of women in post-WWII L.A. history, from anonymous runaways and counterculturalists to wealthy philanthropists and civic leaders. Scholars at Deep L.A. also spotlighted some of the historical actors buried in the archives, such as Depression-era citizen surveillance groups and the movie studio employees who themselves conducted historical research at the Huntington in the 1920s.
While the majority of presenters opted to focus on the mid-20th century, papers on the pre-1848 networks of Euro-American seafaring traders and Californios, and an 1862 coastal megaflood, offered novel perspectives on the 19th-century history of ecology, commerce, and statecraft in a dense period of conquest, territorial transfer, and settlement. In turn, other presenters explored the deep history of the “shallow” past: symbolizations of the 1992 L.A. uprising in science fiction cinema; unsuccessful secession movements in the San Fernando Valley; Latinidad in the Hub Cities; and contemporary issues around historic preservation in communities of color.
The conference culminated in a keynote speech from Professor Michelle Nickerson (Loyola University Chicago), who offered critical insights from her work on 1950s Southern California housewives and grassroots right-wing politics, Mothers of Conservatism. Nickerson dwelled deeply on the process of research and writing itself, ending the conference less on conclusions than poignant questions for further inquiry: what does it mean to relate and sympathize with one’s subjects, when we either agree or disagree with their own politics? How can historians synchronize storytelling with critical analysis? That is—how is a deep historical practice not merely the introduction of new narratives and subjects, but about examining the tools of narration themselves?
The array of scholars who endeavor to excavate this storied past, including those who offered their intellect and expertise to this conference, continue to grapple with such matters as they give life to their deep appraisals and analyses of Los Angeles history. As such, “Deep L.A.” was also a challenge to consider the forms of collectivity and collaboration that will animate the future writing of local and regional history.
Deep L.A. was made possible through generous support from the Huntington Library, the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West, the UCLA Department of History, and the USC Department of American Studies and Ethnicity.