Every “place” has a name, or a designation of some sort, even if it is only a Universal Transverse Mercator designation. Every name is a symbolic designation, a set of implicit meanings and a history of antecedents and results, part of human culture. And so by giving a place its name, the founders (eponymous donors or sometimes “reinventors”) invest every place with an array of symbolic meanings and metaphoric connections. These symbolic names are sometimes most palpable in their ironic incongruity or lack of real equivalence, like the thoroughly redneck hick towns of “Athens”, “Palestine,” and “Paris” in my own native homeland of the piny woods of Deep East Texas (at least as they were until Walmart moved in and made them all “international cities.”
But the identity of other places evolves with history and tradition into an element of language, a clear metaphor for certain kinds of action or attitude, for example, “In a New York Minute.” Other places change their names to try to escape their histories. The excellent 2008 movie Changling, for example, (with Angelina Jolie beautifully playing an uncharacteristically real and sympathetically helpless victim of an utterly corrupt Los Angeles County judiciary and Sheriff’s department—the more things change the more things stay the same, this was about Los Angeles in the 1920s….) focused on the gruesome series of “Wineville chicken coop” murders of children, after which Wineville changed its name to Mira Loma. Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, on a lighter note, changed its name in 1950 (from the perfectly respectable “Hot Springs”, with no bad connotations) to participate more fully in a Television game show…. On the other hand, the names of some places not only embody but change history. Among such places are New York, New Orleans, and Albuquerque, all of which are named after towns of secondary importance in England, France, and Spain respectively, with the common denominator that those towns are all seats of important non-hereditary duchies from which the second in line, second younger brothers of the kings of England, France, and Spain, who may serve as regents during a nephew’s minority, all take their names—and yet very few people think of any of the many dukes of New York or Albuquerque when they think of those cities, and the “Duke” most often associated with New Orleans might be either “Duke Ellington” or some similar performer….but rarely the regent of France during the Bourbon era…
Over the past several years, I have revisited some of the places in my life with special symbolic and metaphoric significance, and the time has come to reflect on them and their role in my life, the life of the world, and the English language in roughly that order.
I cannot help but notice that three of the places I choose are located not only in California but specifically within the confines of Los Angeles County, namely Beverly Hill, Malibu, and Watts, two more are in Massachusetts, Cambridge & Salem, two in the Southern United States (New Orleans & Palm Beach), and two within either the Great Southwest or, in a more narrow historical viewpoint, within Mirabeau Bonaparte Lamar’s vision of the Republic of Texas, bounded on the West as well as the South by the Rio Grande (these last being Dallas and Santa Fe).
(1) Beverly Hills (CA): The story of Beverly Hills over the past seventy years since 1941 concerns a pleasant rural spot adjacent to a couple of famous new cities in the U.S.A. 20th Century’s Golden State of California. This pleasant spot became first a pleasant idyllic dream destination, then an amusing anecdote, then an unsettling dream,all surrounded by a and finally overwhelmed by a single global city which absorbed all the smaller ones. Beverly Hills ended up as an unpleasant spot symbolizing the “high end” of urban decay in early 21st century America—not quite like the world of Charn in C.S. Lewis’ “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” but too damned close for comfort.
For about 30 years in the 1950s-80s, Beverly Hills shown as a mythic mirage of the pinnacle American Dream of wealth, both predating and far outshining Las Vegas, but always more “Nouveau Riche” than Palm Beach (see below) and much stuffier than Malibu (see below). But now, the first thing one notices about Beverly Hills in April 2011 is how poorly maintained are the streets and how distinctly non-elite some of the empty fenced off blocks appear to be, south of Wilshire in particular. Up on Sunset, homeless or nearly homeless people still sell “Maps to the Stars’ Homes” and advertise with handwritten signs on the streetcorners, but who buys these maps? Ultimately, who cares? Answer: only those poor ignoramuses who really do not understand…..
The evolution of Beverly Hills in the popular imagination over the past sixty years runs from roughly 1940-41 when Irving Berlin first penned and Bing Crosby first sang, “The sun is shining; the grass is green; The orange and palm trees sway; There’s never seen such a day in Beverly Hills, L.A.. But it’s December the twenty-fourth, and I am longing to be up north. I’m dreaming of a white Christmas, just like the ones I used to know...” The combination of intense, unrealistic nostalgia with air of California freedom from want scribed a fitting epitaph to the decade of the Great Depression and the New Deal. The mass popular “Route 66” (cum dustbowl) migrations of the 1920s through the 1950s were briefly interrupted by World War II, in which both visions of the comfortable California life and the familiar northern winters provided solace to a couple of million American servicemen and women who passed in the 1940s through the steamy tropics of the Pacific on their way to VJ day, and the Atomic Era of Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and Bikini Atoll….
But if there are any orange trees left in Beverly Hills, now, they are damned inconspicuous, and they certainly don’t have groves of them anymore. Artificial rows of palm trees line the streets and boulevards but they mainly are propped up by city maintenance crews, approximately as often as the potholes and massive cracks in the tarmac of those same streets and boulevards. Rodeo Drive is not REALLY all that much more interesting or impressive than the Grove or Beverly Center on La Cienega as a shopping center—a few more “boutique” rather than mass marketed chain names. But Wilshire and Beverly Boulevards generally have a lot of vacant street-front windows and Santa Monica has even more.
Just east of Rodeo Drive are streets of modest, poorly maintained apartment buildings which remind me of Deep Ellum in Dallas (see below) or East Austin more than the Clampett or Drysdale mansions….. Which brings us to the middle phase and very height of Beverly Hills’ reputation epitomizing the American Dream: the 1962-1971 run of Buddy Ebsen’s, Max Baer’s, Irene Ryan’s and Donna Douglas’ fairy-tale fable of Tennessee Mountaineers who struck oil and got rich so quick they never changed their clothes, manners, or understanding of the world. The Beverly Hillbillies encapsulated and advocated simultaneously the best and worst of that waning phase of the American Dream which ignored the old stern Protestant/Puritan work ethic in favor of “get rich quick and easy.” There was nothing stern or hardworking about the Clampetts or the Drysdales or anyone else in the picture. Money just was inherited, in the Drysdales’ case, or came “up through the ground like a bubblin’ crude…” in the Clampett’s case.
By the time of Beverly Hills 90210, (1990-2000) the American Dream had become degenerate and seedy. Instead of the light and innocent nostalgia of White Christmas or the comic “transplanted Mountain naifs” theme of The Beverly Hillbillies, the teen cast of 90210 dealt with, in politically correct manners, a litany of social issues more closely analogous to the 1970s Norman Lear series All in the Family than any sound bite images of orange trees or “swimmin’ pools, movie stars” ever could be. The “redeemingly social important” issues addressed in the 1990s series included but were not limited to “date rape, alcoholism, domestic violence, gay rights, anti-Semitism, gay parenting, drug abuse, teenage suicide, AIDS, teenage pregnancy, bulimia and abortion” (That’s the Wikipedia list anyhow—I could never stand to watch the damned show long enough to absorb such a list myself—I found it utterly grotesque that even University Professors at Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and the University of Chicago, as well as several U.S. District Judges and their staffs, seemed addicted to it…..but I shall mention no names to protect the guilty—they KNOW who they are…..)(see comment by Barbara Ann Kidd-Hoffman below).
In short, today, 2009-2011, Beverly Hills’ physical urban decay of roads, buildings, and general infrastructure has quite symbolically caught up with the moral decay of the 1990s, and Beverly Hills is no longer so much the epitome of the American Dream as a seedy signpost of American decay and decline. And as the ship sinks, the rats jump off leaving—only the strongest healthiest rats aboard….the Bankers and real estate brokers who hope to profit from the decline in values followed by a recovery. And a dashed crooked lot they are, from everything that I can tell…
Of that list of “topical social issues” choking the tail end of the American Dream in Beverly Hills 90210, it is interesting to see “anti-Semitism” on the list. Los Angeles has a very large Jewish minority, and a large number of Jews definitely live in Beverly Hills. As members of the West Coast Elite, they seem more comfortable than most with Chinese partners and successors in interest. Beverly Hills, in fact, is NOT dominated today by people with Anglo-American names anything like Milton Drysdale or Jedediah, Jethro, and Ellie Mae Clampett, but more like Kim Li Fong and Yeegal Tsveerra. The Wall Street Journal not long ago ran an article on the decline of the WASP elite of America (“That Bright, Dying Star, the American WASP” May 15, 2010—not coincidentally a mere year and a half into the Presidency of one Barack Hussein Obama) and this is nowhere more apparent than in Beverly Hills and, amazingly enough, at Harvard University, founded in 1636 by the ultimate WASP establishment a mere 16 years after the Mayflower Compact.
(2) Cambridge (MA): In fact, they still sing, “By these festival rites from the age that has past, to the age that is waiting before, Oh relic and type of our ancestors’ worth, that hast long kept their memory warm, ’til the seed of the Pilgrims’ is gone” as one of the soupier songs of self-glorifying mythology. The faces on Harvard Campus used to be notably pale-to-pasty white, even in the 1980s, with a few utterly brilliant non-Anglosaxon foreign-born types such as Professor of Archaeology Kwang Chi-Chang or my own Mexican condiscipulo Jose Fernando Robles Castellanos, but my son was able proudly to say in 2008 that in Kirkland House, of all places, he had not one single White Anglo-Saxon Protestant suite mate. I confess I found it disturbing, but even moreso last Winter (February March 2010) when I was residing again in Palm Beach 33480 (see below) and was told by one of the grandfatherly clergy at Bethesda-by-the-Sea that not only my son Charlie (who would have been a fourth generation legacy) but his (the Reverend Father’s) grandson (who would have been a rather remarkable sixth generation Harvard legacy) and many other WASP legacy students had been denied admission to Harvard College (just a few months before the WSJ article mentioned above).
So yes, there are some connections among the Historically metaphoric places which constitute mythic realities among this list. Students at Harvard in Cambridge are likely to visit friends or relatives in Palm Beach and Beverly Hills—there is no significant doubt about that. They are also likely to grow up and visit Santa Fe—either as tourists, students of Indian lore, or in other capacities. Throughout much of my academic life as a student of American anthropology, archaeology, & history, the most common purpose in going to Santa Fe was to attend or contribute to the prestigious “Advanced Seminars” at the School of American Research. I contributed exactly one article to one such seminar whose proceedings were published in 1986: Late Lowland Maya Civilization.
But Cambridge qualifies as place of mythic reality because at its heart lies Harvard College: the single oldest non-governmental American corporation, the oldest and one of the most valuable American trademarks, and the longest Anglo-phone seat of learning and research in the Western Hemisphere. While it is true that the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico and about 8 other universities founded under the Spanish Viceroyalties in Latin America can trace their lineages back 14-98 years longer than Harvard, not one of these has ever equalled, much less exceeded the Harvard name as a trademark of elite excellence. It didn’t hurt the Harvard trademark that the American War of Independence (aka the “American Revolution”) started in Middlesex County, Massachusetts on the 18th of April in (17)75. Or that George Washington took command of the Continental Army troops on the Cambridge Common or that George & Martha Washington prayed and worshipped at Christ Church in Cambridge immediately thereafter, or that the Washingtons stayed in several houses now mostly known as the residences of Harvard University Presidents on Campus. But somehow or other, almost every major intellectual movement in the United States from Unitarianism to Abolitionism to Social (and Biological) Darwinism (and its most recent avatars Sociobiology/Evolutionary Psychology) all took shape and formed around debates at Harvard, as have some of the great economic debates, including one of the most long-standing, the debate between corporate-charter socialism (aka Fascism), governmental design (“command and control”) socialism (e.g. the New Deal/Great Society), and monetarism have all swirled around this precinct of higher learning.
Nor did it hurt the Harvard trademark that in the late 19th century-early 20th century a certain wall was built and commemorated by successive graduating classes with ornamental gates surrounding Harvard, creating the concept of “Harvard Yard” as an enclave within the Cambridge enclave itself. This wall became a latter day “sentimental” pomerium or sacred boundary of the Urbs Antiqua known as Harvard—which even adopted the conceit of a quasi-calendrical usage comparable to the Roman “Ab urbe Condita“/”Anno Urbis Conditae“, whereby certain events are commemorated first “Anno Domini” and second “Ab Collegii Condita” so that 1636 becomes for some purposes the third most important date in the world after 753 B.C. and 1 A.D.. I was privileged to attend the Tersesquicentennial celebrations in 1986 when Prince Charles of Wales and his then wife Diana came to the Yard and the steps of Widener Library to address the colonials and congratulate them on how well they had all done…
Speaking Widener library and the formation of an international elite—the Harvard trademark received a huge boost from the sinking of the Titanic. Harry Elkins Widener died in that famously stupid and unnecessary disaster at sea and his parents bequeathed what would have been a large part of his inheritance to Harvard to create what is now the 8th largest library in the world, overall, which is also the single largest privately owned library in the world.
(3) Dallas (TX)
(4) Malibu (CA)
(5) New Orleans (LA)
(6) Palm Beach (FL)
(7) Salem (MA)
(8) Santa Fe (NM)
(9) Watts (LA, CA)
University of Chicago Anthropologist Marshall Sahlins wrote two books in the 1980s: Historical Metaphors and Mythic Realities, in 1983, and Islands of History in 1985 which had a particularly strong impact on my philosophy and understanding of the world.