In the last few years, dozens of articles and think-pieces composed by cultural critics and urban pundits have discussed rising rents across Los Angeles accompanied by the transforming local landscape and built environment. Many of these pieces approach the city from a distant, more theoretical standpoint. The native Angeleno journalist Lynell George provides a much more personal and an even deeper perspective on shifts across Los Angeles because she’s been covering the terrain longer than just about anybody. Her new book of essays and photographs from Angel City Press, After/Image: Los Angeles Outside the Frame, examines and explicates Los Angeles in search of place and belonging with an uncanny verisimilitude.
Rooted in personal experience, George catalogs the changing landscape, delving deeply into the city’s shifting districts and ever-evolving zeitgeist coming to rise because of these shifts. A lifetime of covering her hometown is distilled into eleven meticulous essays complemented perfectly by her own poignant, original photography. One of the key themes of this collection, as she states in the text, is that there are “‘many’ Los Angeleses swarming, each with stories that [tend to]) remain in the margins, territories that could only be accessed by someone familiar with its history and layout.” Another key idea she hammers home is that the Los Angeles depicted “on television or in the movies didn’t jibe with what [she] encountered daily, no matter where [she] lived.”
Quite simply, George knows Los Angeles better than almost anyone. City of Quartz author Mike Davis stated to me in an email late April that “L.A.’s written image has always been a predictable mixture of hyperbole, cliché and outsider ignorance, with boosterism and fear as two sides of the same coin. Lynell George comes from a different place entirely. With subtle love she explores the everyday to discover the extraordinary: the creative and rebellious spirits of the neighborhoods, the schools, and the true (not fake) bohemias. She truly sings Los Angeles.”
The Many Los Angeleses
As Davis notes, George’s forte is revealing the many Los Angeleses and she’s been doing this for over three decades. A former staff writer at both the Los Angeles Times and LA Weekly, her writing has won many awards over the years, even a 2018 Grammy Award for Best Album Notes for writing the liner notes, “The Stomp Comes to the Strip,” for the six-CD set, Otis Redding Live at the Whisky A Go Go. In 2017, George also won the Alan Jutzi Fellowship from the Huntington Library for her work with the Octavia E. Butler archive.
Her first book, No Crystal Stair, published by Verso in 1992 peeled back the false facades of South Central Los Angeles to reveal the faces of the city: the mothers, fathers, extended families, the churches, the schools, and legions of teachers and social workers in the district that walked the walk. Her behind the scenes portraits of community pillars like community organizer and youth advocate Levi Kingston, jazz musician John Carter, filmmaker Charles Burnett, the Marcus Garvey School, and the Ward AME Church showed the real South Central Los Angeles, not the exaggerated misrepresentation that mass media promoted in the late 1980s and early ’90s. Her early essays are meticulously reported and stand the test of time. This new collection carries this spirit even further, matching her poetic prose with her equally skilled photography. There’s an organic unity in After/Image that radiates from every page.
Lynell George was born in Hollywood, raised in the Crenshaw District, and then moved to Culver City just before adolescence. Her parents were both teachers around inner-city Los Angeles and her father eventually became a principal. Both of her parents migrated to Los Angeles for opportunity during the early 1950s, the last wave of the Great Migration. Her father was from Pennsylvania and her mother, Louisiana.
After/Image revisits her formative years to paint an in-depth portrait of not only Black L.A.’s transformation, but the city at large. “The black L.A. where I grew up in the ’70s,” she writes, “was a territory built of dreams and defeats. A work-in-progress that was still being shaped by the unrest of the ’60s and the outsized dreams of our forebears.” After/Image maps these territories, “both physical and of the mind.”
After graduating from Culver City High School, she attended Loyola Marymount University (LMU) and studied with the great Los Angeles novelist Carolyn See. See praised her work right from the beginning. “Carolyn was a Mentor,” George tells me. “She was the first to suggest in college that I send one of the pieces I wrote for her class to either the Weekly or the L.A. Reader. Ten years later, that piece (or part of that piece), ended up being part of an essay in the Pantheon collection, Sex, Death and God in L.A., and entirely by chance, Carolyn had an essay in the same volume as well.”
After graduating from LMU, George went to graduate school for Creative Writing at San Francisco State. While in San Francisco, she met the novelist, essayist and professor Leonard Michaels. Michaels helped her sort out if she should continue in the Masters’ Creative Writing Program or take the leap of leaving grad school. “He gave me advice about what a writer should do: ‘Read. Write. Find someone who you trust to read and critique your work,’” she recalled. “He encouraged me to stay open to the world.” George ended up staying in San Francisco for only a year when a summer internship back home at the LA Weekly became a job opportunity. She listened to Michaels’ advice and sooner than later, she was doing cover stories for the Weekly.
A Pioneer of Los Angeles Journalism
For about seven years George was a staff writer at the Weekly and eventually went on to become a staff writer for the Los Angeles Times for fifteen years. George was one of the first writers in the city to cover the rise of Leimert Park as an artistic enclave in the late 1980s and the first writer to spotlight the district in the LA Weekly. She also pioneered coverage for important topics like the Black and Korean Alliances before the 1992 uprisings happened and dozens of other issues that are now more widely discussed like public versus private schools, Black filmmakers, and gentrification.
These were the glory days of the LA Weekly and George was printed along with important L.A. voices like Wanda Coleman, Ruben Martinez, and Mike Davis, all of whom she became close confidantes with. She met Coleman sometime in the late 1980s and they remained in touch all the way until 2013 when the legendary poet and writer passed. Coleman even introduced Lynell to her brother George Evans and the artist Michael Massenberg, both of whom George has had fruitful collaborations with in recent years. “Wanda was a special force in my life,” George confides. “She was a solid sounding board and sat down with me to make sure that I paid attention to whom and what was around me. She always alerted me to good stories, good people I needed to know or have around me.”
Though Coleman was nearly two decades older than George, they shared many commonalities like both being African American women writers from South Los Angeles with parents who came to Los Angeles during the Great Migration, though Coleman’s parents were in the first wave and George’s at the end. “[Wanda] was a letter writer,” George remembers, “and I still have those notes, postcards and double-spaced typewritten letters she’d drop in the mail.” Their last meeting, shortly before Coleman passed “was a ‘lunch’ that went for seven hours. It was more than a lunch, it was a seminar—in research, history, writing, life, and of course Los Angeles. I’ll never forget it.”
Like Wanda Coleman, George has lived almost her entire life in Los Angeles County. In her adulthood, George lived in Echo Park and Pasadena. Though some of After/Image is autobiographical, it is a larger meditation on the rapid changes sweeping Southern California in the last few decades.
Throughout the text, George converses with a variety of local experts like Lila Higgins from the Natural History Museum who muses on the once-ample green space across the city now developed. The chapter with Higgins, “Urban Wild,” explains how Southern California is “a hotspot of biodiversity,” and what we need to do to preserve local ecosystems and restore the Los Angeles River.
Recording A Vanishing Place
In the book’s opening essay, she writes: “I seem to have ‘lost’ Los Angeles. It’s as if the city were a set of keys I’ve somehow misplaced. I keep frantically retracing my steps hoping to locate it—something’s lost and must be found.” George embarked on this journey as a writer, and a photographer. She rose early every Sunday morning and began wandering all over the city to record “that vanishing sense of place.”
Another mission of the book is to not only locate Los Angeles, but also “to find and catalog what and who is still here. What is Los Angeles when you pull the image of the city away? What are you left with? What is the Los Angeles that lives inside of us? The one—the afterimage—that lingers in the mind’s eye.” The resulting essays, interviews and photographs presented in After/Image are a captivating panorama of 2018 Los Angeles. Among the many subjects covered, she highlights the shrinking size of Little Tokyo and rising rents in the Arts District and Boyle Heights. George shares her conversations with native Angelenos and neighborhood experts like James Rojas, Nancy Uyemura, and Evelyn Yoshimura for sharper insight.
The second chapter of the book, “Lost Angelena,” is a short section that gives insight into the collection’s genesis. For three years, George taught a journalism course at Loyola Marymount University called, “Telling Los Angeles’s Story.” In this class, she encouraged students to look deeper at the city and to analyze beyond the standard tropes and stereotypes that have characterized Los Angeles to outsiders and to followers of film and mass media. “As I encouraged students to look beyond facile definitions I found that I had to as well,” she writes. “My challenge was slightly different than theirs since I was teaching the class in the shadow of what home and place had once meant—and consequently means now.” She ended up diving back into “the city’s grid, drifting past old intersections and addresses.”
The third chapter is appropriately titled, “Arteries of Memory.” Revisiting her childhood home near 61st and West, George recounts her rite of passage growing up in the Crenshaw District. In between breaking down the backstory of streets like Slauson, she explains how the area transformed and the reverence so many residents then and some still feel for city streets. “My father used to recite the names of major surface streets like liturgy: Main, First, Washington, Western, Sepulveda, Exposition, Adams… and, closer to home, Slauson.” She even shares the old Johnny Carson joke: “Take the Slauson cut off, get out of your car and cut off your Slauson.”
The inside story is one of a truer Los Angeles. Her family had been the first black family on their stretch of the street. For a time, she states, “That little stretch of 61st, in that moment, could have been a filmmaker’s backdrop for conveying the mirage of Los Angeles that existed in our collective imagination: white-stucco homes, built in the teens and twenties, with terracotta roofs and wrap-around porches, long driveways and yards that were a vivid sketchpad of shaggy palms and fruit trees and flower beds where the snapdragons fought for space among the succulents. Paradise—until we found that it wasn’t.”
George discusses her family moving from the Crenshaw District to Culver City in the early 1970s and the changing cityscape. Her observations on race are nuanced and from firsthand experience: “I started school with almost all black classmates. For a time, predominantly white. Then black, and by the end, tipping toward mixed again.”
As much as George covers the city’s history within the narrative, there’s a deeper insight embedded in every page. Well-documented topics like the 1965 Watts Uprisings, white flight, and neighborhood redevelopment are shown by George in a new light with greater context. Her conversations on the changing cityscape with longtime Angelenos like Frances E. Williams and Skira Martinez concretizes the topic and makes it more personal. George shows how “Gentrification begins with words. Language of erasure. There used to be nothing here…. That place is a ghost town after dark…. No one goes there anymore…. It’s a no man’s land.” The very language used to describe evolving neighborhoods, she points out, begins the process of erasure with words like “discovered” and “unearthed.” These terms are how the word “Columbusing” has recently emerged.
In the penultimate chapter, “Flow,” she explores what race means in Los Angeles by celebrating the “in-between spaces where new identities formed.” Beginning with her own high school experience she grew up with a “black kid that surfed,” “the white kid that pop-locked,” and the “Japanese-American kid who played basketball with a J.J. Walker comic back-bend.” To further illustrate these stereotype-defying individuals, she remembers an old high school confidante, an Irish-Catholic girl. In the late 1970s and early ’80s, the city was still very segregated, and yet her friend “was part of an emerging new crop: those who were bold enough not to run from, but to step out and embrace what was new; what we would be in conversation with each day.”
Furthermore, George writes, “Before we used words like ally or accomplice, [the Irish-Catholic girl] found a way to stand shoulder to shoulder in ways that mattered most—being quiet, listening, defending, reaching out. She spoke a passable schoolyard Spanish, well enough to be understood, and perhaps most critically, to understand. What was most important to me was she had your back.” The second half of “Flow” spends time with another genre-bending native Angeleno, the bass player Wil-Dog Abers from the iconic L.A. musical group, Ozomatli. Wil-Dog was a white kid within the racially tense 1980s who used music to find an identity, “his portal into enclaves, neighborhood, hidden outposts, and intimate friendships.” People like Wil-Dog and her old friend represent how Angelenos embraced the world around them and flowed along with the changes in the city.
A final word also needs to be said about After/Image’s photography. The last section of the book, “The Spirit of Place,” is almost exclusively photos for sixteen pages. There’s a three-paragraph introduction to the chapter and then five quotes from Angelenos like recent poet laureate Luis J. Rodriguez and the Japanese-American writer and activist, Traci Kato-Kiriyama, interspersed through the images.
The spirit of Los Angeles
George’s opening sentence of the final passage says it all: “The most evocative features of Los Angeles can’t always be put into words. Sense of place is a connection that takes root. It flourishes deep inside. That spirit of place may come in a quick glimpse or along a periphery. Maybe it’s a mood. A hidden vista. The scale of a street. The bend of a skyscraping fan palm.” The book’s cover image of Union Station with the glowing purple sky in the background is a perfect example of a picture beyond words.
George’s photos throughout After/Image capture the evocative moods and hidden vistas nested within the fabric of the city. Influenced by Roy DeCarava, the iconic Harlem-born photographer who used his photography to celebrate everyday life in Black America, her photos of everyday Los Angeles extend the moment with the same kind of authenticity. George has been taking photos as long as she’s been writing, but in her recent explorations walking across the city over the last five years, she “began to take along a camera to record specific details—front steps, attic windows, a tangle of succulents, the remnants of backyard incinerators, hand-drawn signs, lost lists, long shadows, the play of light, details or moments that forced [her] to look twice or ask questions.”
The overall work provides a powerful portrait of Los Angeles in 2018 and over the last half century. She admits, “I can’t quite say if this narrative—the photographs, the testimonials—is a love letter or a Dear John note.” Ultimately, the book is a remarkable ode to Los Angeles and the sweeping arc of her narrative is compelling to natives and nonnatives alike. Her final sentence before the extended photo essay summarizes both the book and her intentions: “I walk to remember to tell and honor these stories—what still lies outside the frame and the images of Los Angeles that live inside of me. And us.”
In March and April of 2018, George has been appearing across Southern California supporting After/Image in venues like Vroman’s Bookstore, the Annenberg Beach House, and the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. She also has essays in two forthcoming books: L.A. Baseball: Photographs from the Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection; and Radio Imagination: Artists and Writers in the Archive of Octavia E. Butler. George’s meticulously prevalent writing and research combined with her personal insight proves why she is one of today’s best voices singing Los Angeles.
* All photos courtesy of Lynell George, used by permission.
Mike Sonksen is a third-generation Los Angeles native whose prose and poetry have been included in programs with the Mayor’s Office, the Los Angeles Public Library’s “Made in LA,” series and Grand Park. Most recently, one of his KCET essays was nominated for an Award with the L.A. Press Club. Sonksen teaches at Woodbury University.
Copyright: © 2018 Mike Sonksen. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.