When I think about the palm trees of Los Angeles, I imagine them in flames. This goes back to the 1992 riots, when, as I recollect, palms alongside the 10 near downtown were set alight like giant torches in the evening sky. The image is embedded in my mind’s eye: A particular L.A. icon transformed into an emblem of a different city altogether, the trope, the fantasy— Lotusland, what Nathanael West once called “the Sargasso of the imagination”—consumed in fiery updrafts of pure flame. “The city burning,” Joan Didion wrote nearly half a century ago, “is Los Angeles’s deepest image of itself; … West perceived that, in The Day of the Locust; and at the time of the 1965 Watts riots what struck the imagination most indelibly were the fires. For days one could drive the Harbor Freeway and see the city on fire, just as we had always known it would be in the end.”
And yet, where are these burning palm trees? I remember them, remember seeing their coronas both with my own eyes and on television, but the Internet offers little trace. My search yields a handful of loose memories, written out, as well as a pair of paintings, but no photographic evidence. It’s disconcerting, since I’ve come to depend on digital memory as a form of validation, as if in the electronic image I might find a reflection of myself. What, then, does it mean that cyberspace deserts me? Perhaps this: That the vision of a palm on fire, whether factual or otherwise, has become a metaphor, a symbol for the disconnection that still divides us, like ventricles in L.A.’s elusive heart.
Such disconnection, of course, helped to fuel the riots, and the Watts riots before them, and the Zoot Suit riots before that. This is the story we almost never tell ourselves, in which the tropes evaporate and the fantasy becomes that of a divided city, with a history parceled out by housing covenants. Palm trees, it would be nice to dream, suggest an alternate set of promises, since in their ubiquity, we see (what let’s call) a kind of democratic exoticism. Still, if such an ideal drew all those early exiles from the East and the Midwest, they were enticed by one more illusion, one more myth. The palms, after all, are no more indigenous to Los Angeles than I am; with the exception of the California fan palm, every other species in the region was brought here from somewhere else.
That this is fitting goes without saying: A city of transplants embodied by a tree that is a transplant itself. In that sense, the image of a palm tree burning tells us something about L.A. and ourselves. The place has a history, even if it remains, too often, hidden beneath the surface; it has a narrative, a collective memory. As the fire takes hold, we understand that there is more at work than meets the eye.
David L. Ulin is an author, most recently, of the novella Labyrinth. His other books include The Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time and the Library of America’s Writing Los Angeles: A Literary Anthology, which won a California Book Award. He is book critic of the Los Angeles Times.
URBAN LEGENDS Written by Lynell George
Whenever I slide out of that series of S’s, the long, slow curves rolling south on the 110 leaving Pasadena, I always look for it: A snaggle-toothed fence of palm trees tilted seductively in a Going-my-way?-lean. These trees aren’t anything you’d find on a postcard touting L.A. That’s precisely why my eye is drawn to them: Five slinky specimens of Washingtonia robusta, with putty-gray trunks and flyaway “hair,” serenading the highway; all of them, that is, save for one, that stands nearly as statuesque—except it has no head at all.
As urban legends go, L.A. plays host to many changeable coded signifiers—those tennis shoes slung over a thick stretch of power lines or jagged haphazard spray-painted tags that bisect neighborhoods into war zones. The decapitated palm trees drifting up out of concrete settled into my consciousness as perhaps yet another cryptic street-code—a warning to decipher.
Back In the ’90s, I’d moved to a street that was a neutral zone amid a collection of boulevards and avenues known for random if not violent ruckus—drive-bys and street assaults, sometimes just shots fired into the black hole of night sky. You’d see evidence of bad outcomes: Boys in wheelchairs; men missing limbs. My street was an odd oasis. Perhaps the steep, San Francisco-grade of the hill was the deterrent; it didn’t make for a great getaway route. Before my apartment building stood one tall Mexican Fan Palm (a robusta by another name). Like a pin on the map, it was part of a chorus of trees you could see from a distance as you looked toward Northeast L.A.
Late one evening, I returned home startled to find our palm—altered. It had not been pruned nor cut down. Rather it had been guillotined—left headless. Just that one—left only with a bit of dusty fringe of dried-out fronds. Why just ours? What did it mean? It played like a gruesome crime scene. Why leave that sad pole standing, looking not like an orphan but an omen?
As years passed, I would encounter more abbreviated former-trees—single looming messages. Just like the tennis shoes and the tagging, mostly I’d see them in older, struggling—or transitioning—neighborhoods like mine. Along the 110, near the downtown stretches of the 10, along the eastern reach of Sunset, or tracing the rise of hills that used to edge Bunker Hill. By now, I understood it wasn’t neighborhood hijinks, but that this sort of sanctioned vandalism had a secret purpose that was fuzzy and shifted, depending on whom you asked. Some said such measures were necessary because of the rats that took up residence within the trees; others suggested that it stemmed the progress of a rampant fungus killing these ubiquitous non-natives.
Whatever the why, over time, those headless poles mingling with the living, say something else to me now. They’re survivors; just like the old neighborhoods and the marked men and women in them who have survived the violence and the mishaps of the streets—a stray bullet, an unintended trespass over a haphazard line. Changed, yes, but their roots still sunk deep; reminders. Urban legends of a different sort.
Lynell George is an L.A.-based, journalist and essayist. Currently an arts and culture columnist for KCET’s “Artbound,” she has had a long career in L.A. journalism as staff writer for both the Los Angeles Times and L.A. Weekly—focusing on social issues, human behavior and identity politics, and other cultural topics. She has taught journalism at Loyola Marymount University and is also a Los Angeles Institute for the Humanities Fellow at USC, and a USC Annenberg/Getty Arts Journalism Fellow. Her work has appeared in various essay collections and news outlets including: Smithsonian, Vibe, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, the Chicago Tribune, and Essence. She is the author of No Crystal Stair: African Americans in the City of Angels (Verso/Doubleday).
DE DONDE CRECE LA PALMA Written by Maria Bustillos
You don’t have to be Cuban to have grown up hearing the song, “Guantanamera,” you just have to be old enough to have heard Pete Seeger sing it, or José Feliciano, or The Sandpipers, or Tito Puente, or Joan Baez, or any of many, many others. (Which is to say: pretty old, maybe.) The most traditional lyrics to this famous song were adapted from a poem by the lavishly mustachioed Cuban revolutionary, political martyr and national hero, José Martí.
Yo soy un hombre sincero De donde crece la palma, Y antes de morirme quiero Echar mis versos del alma.
There is something very stirring about the way the first couplet fits in with the music, particularly the rising note at the end: “palma,” the palm. The sense of these lines is curiously untranslatable, given their simplicity—as so often happens with poetry; each word’s true meaning is more elusive than the last. But I fancy I’m not the only one for whom the image of this tree is set to music.
I was born in Long Beach, California into a big, rowdy Cuban family, and consequently for me palm trees mean all kinds of home. The lawn above the bluffs of Ocean Avenue in Long Beach is graced with magnificently tall ones that go on for miles. My maternal grandfather, with whom I was very close, was born in Tenerife, in the Canary Islands, a ravishingly beautiful place, all over palm trees. Havana, which my mother and her family left when she was still in her twenties, no longer exists in anything like the way they remember it, but their dreams and memories of it came down to us; for me and my cousins, Havana is like Shangri-La or Islandia, a fictional place, a dream-place that you can’t visit, but only imagine. There are photographs of their time in Cuba, it’s true, black-and-white snapshots with thick white borders and deckled edges, on beautiful thin glossy paper—they don’t appear to depict a real place, either.
The tree anyone loves best, maybe, is likely to be the tree of home; someone with a childhood affinity for English oaks or sequoias is in a very different arboreal situation from that of the native of Southern California. Native New Yorkers enjoy the leaves changing every year, obviously, but for me this phenomenon is like something out of Middle-earth, impossibly ravishing, inexplicable, as weird and as thrilling as a snowstorm, full of a magically foreign beauty.
For those who didn’t grow up around them, the image of a palm-studded beach seems to suggest languorousness, sensuality, and luxuriating on the sand; a colorful paper umbrella in your drink, and warm sand between your toes. But for me palm trees mean comfort, that sense of safety that childhood things often bring; an ice cream feeling, rather than a cocktail one. In both cases, the palm tree represents the abandonment of care: but in the case of the Angeleno, it’s the abandonment of care not to pleasure, but to peace.
Maria Bustillos is a Los Angeles-based writer and critic.
TRANSPLANT FORTUNE Written by Todd Edwards
I never gave much thought to the fact that they aren’t native to Southern California. They were imported from such places as Mexico, the Canary Islands, and the Colorado desert. Much like many of us that live in LA, they are transplants. With a quick search I found an article with a photo of the palms from the Colorado desert. They grow on hard-to-reach oases that are tucked inside the deep mountain ravines. A more fitting metaphor to describe my life, there isn’t.
For a long time I lived in New Jersey surrounded by the four walls of my music studio. In that space there was life. Outside, however, not so much. I was merely existing. My circumstances discouraged connections to other artists and any artistic outlet beyond my studio. I just accepted the lot of my life. I never thought to change this. Then a spark occurred, perhaps a little divine intervention. I was asked to play A CLUB CALLED RHONDA, the most inspiring party in L.A.
Not much longer after that I was invited by Scion to attend their “Music-less” conference, also in Los Angeles. I made some new friends there and had a few wild nights. I thought, “So this is what happiness feels like.” The desire to move to the city started to grow in my mind, but I didn’t consider it a real possibility until the influence of three very important people in my life. I was asked by Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel De Homem-Christo to come to Los Angeles to work with them on a song for their new album. Through my experiences with them I received a glimpse of life that I never considered possible. I found myself surrounded by many talented individuals and experiencing parties and events in a place that was sun-filled and warm almost everyday. It was so inspiring that Thomas felt that the song we were to write should embody those feelings and experiences I was having while in L.A.
After one week of working with Thomas and Guy, I spoke with my mother. She heard the peace in my voice, which she hadn’t heard before. She uncharacteristically told me, “You need to be out there with your peers. There is nothing for you in New Jersey. I’ll miss you if you go, but I’d feel worse if you stayed.” That was the final push I needed. Five months later I packed up a moving truck with my studio, my record collection, and my mother’s piano, and I drove across the country to L.A., my new home.
How fortunate that a palm tree can be taken from its hidden oasis and planted in a city where it can be appreciated and inspire others to feel happy.
Todd Edwards is a house musician and Daft Punk collaborator, known for his hypnotic collage of cut-up samples over swung beats and lively disco-flavored basslines. Credited as one of the godfathers of U.K. garage, his four-to-the-floor beats have earned him a passionate following in Europe. In addition to his own productions, Edwards has also remixed Justice, Phoenix, Hot Chip, and more. Edwards also co-produced, co-wrote, and sang on the Daft Punk song “Face to Face” on their 2001 album Discovery. He also co-produced, co-wrote, and sang “Fragments of Time” on Daft Punk’s 2013 album Random Access Memories, for which he received a Grammy.
THE PALM TREE?…WELL, THE DOUBLE-EDGED SWORD OF MEMORY? Written by Derek Boshier
Images of the palm tree have wandered throughout my life. I first saw one when I hitched to Morocco in 1960, when I was a post-graduate student at the Royal College of Art in London. Subsequently, in 1962, in my paintings and drawings associated with British Pop Art, I often used the palm tree motif.
In these works the Pepsi-Cola brand symbol often appeared, together with pyramids and palm trees. The former I saw as a symbol of American encroachment into British culture—an ever-present image via the colonial world of advertising. At the time, the pyramid and the palm tree seemed to belong to a world in opposition to advertising, and functioned as symbols of stability.
Now Pepsi-Cola and Coca-Cola are well-established worldwide (with Starbucks as the relatively new kid on the block), and palm trees have also been assimilated into pop culture.
But assimilation doesn’t mean permanence. It is rumored that the Los Angeles Parks and Recreation Division quietly mandates, at least in the case of city property, that when a palm tree dies it will not be replaced by a new one.
A recent painting of mine, titled “Otherwise Engaged,” was shown this spring at Night Gallery in Los Angeles. The pyramid appears, but not the palm tree. Now removed, at one point the palm tree was an active ingredient in my work. Perhaps this transition could be a parallel with the Los Angeles Parks and Recreation Division? The palm tree is not native to Southern California, despite its image being so strongly associated with Los Angeles. It has been an L.A. icon for decades—but for how long will it remain so?
Derek Boshier began his career exhibiting in London in the 1960s after graduating from the Royal College of Art in 1959, where he studied alongside fellow Pop artists David Hockney and RB Kitaj. Boshier has shown extensively in the U.S. and Europe, most recently at The National Portrait Gallery in London, Tanya Leighton in Berlin, and Night Gallery in Los Angeles. His work has been acquired by The MoMA (New York), The Menil (Houston), The Tate Gallery of British Art and The British Museum (London), The Brooklyn Museum (New York), and The Centre Pompidou (Paris), among many other collections. He lives and works in Los Angeles.
ODE TO CELL PHONE TOWER #247 Written by Michael Jaime-Becerra
You stand on the north side of the 10, between the Baldwin Park Boulevard and Frazier Street exits, between the Aristocrat and Royal Knight motels, beside a storage facility and a beige retaining wall to keep the freeway traffic at bay. You’ve been erected to be exactly 49.9 feet tall, standing over two lowly date palms, real ones, their fronds yellowed by shame and electromagnetic waves, both trees slumped of posture and leaning away as much as their roots will allow.
Realistic detail may matter with sex toys and processed lunchmeat, but it scores you no extra points. You fool no one. Your fronds are untropically green, a deep shade better suited for billiard-table felt or cans of pine-scented air freshener. These fronds bob stiffly in the breeze in the manner of a chaperone attempting to showcase his cool. Below them, your crown of cut fronds more resembles a speared pineapple—is actually called a “pineapple” in the brochure—and is touted for its functionality by concealing extra antennas underneath. Unlike the neighboring trees, your trunk is arrow straight, wind-tested up to 140 miles per hour, and the imperfections in its bark texture have been cast in symmetrically arranged sections of seamless polyethylene and fiber-reinforced polyester. And unless we start expecting palm trees to produce perfectly positioned loudspeakers, your primary set of antennas will always give you away. Try all you want. You will never be one of us. And when you drop my call, when you fail to forward my texts, you prove this even more.
Deep breath. Deep sigh.
Forgive my loathing, palm tree. Yes, you want to be beautiful, but if I’m to be truthful, the crime your vanity would seem to be is actually mine. Why must I hide you? Among electrical lines and satellite dishes and mile after mile of fiber optic cable, why are you the infrastructure that we pretend to not see? Perhaps aesthetics concern us. Perhaps if we put you in some place we don’t want to be, and if we can form you to appear hardly noticeable, we might also ignore our deep, compulsive need for the sense of importance you shepherd, the digitally converted dopamine you deliver direct to our collective hand. Or perhaps we’ve made you in the tradition of those who put men on the moon and climb great mountains. We do so because we can.
Oh, dear palm tree, the one registered as Call Sign WQLW509, tell us our number of likes. Tell us our number of followers. Let them see that we love our wives and husbands, that we love our children, each one meaning the world more than the next (and ignore that we do so using the same thumbs-up attached to the photo of our favorite bowl of ramen noodles).
Oh, dear palm tree, please receive our signal, convert it to data, and do so now. Add it to the string of numbers as endless as the cars flowing past.
Zero-one. Zero-one. Zero, zero-one....
Michael Jaime-Becerra is the author of Every Night Is Ladies’ Night, a collection of stories, and This Time Tomorrow, a novel. He teaches creative writing at UC Riverside.
A LANDSCAPE FROZEN AND GRAY Written by Nina Revoyr
It was the palm tree that did it. Not the soft swell of calf, which was what he saw first, or the white dress, summer-thin, that curled around it. These lines came to me in the winter of 1997, when I was living in upstate New York. I’d been wrestling with my second novel, Southland, for more than a year, frustrated that the early drafts lacked urgency and life. The book was about history, yet the whole story was set in the present, and suddenly I understood that I needed the past; the characters needed the freedom to live and act in their own times and not be shown just through the filter of memory. Then this image appeared in my mind: a girl leaning against a palm tree, one leg tucked behind her, sole pressed flat against the bark. A boy walking down the sidewalk and seeing her there. The Crenshaw District, 1945.
This encounter now opens a chapter that comes late in the book. It reveals the origins of a secret romance, the effects of which reverberate for decades. For the neighborhood, the moment is bleak—it’s the end of World War II, and both Japanese-Americans and African-Americans are struggling for jobs and housing, their futures curtailed by prejudice. And yet against that backdrop, love begins:
As he drew closer…he saw how the tree had changed for her, framed her, stooped down so she’d be protected. The rough, peeling skin of the tree made hers appear softer; the shifting sound of the leaves betrayed the tree’s pleasure.
My own landscape at the time was frozen and gray. I was in endless winter, far from California. My yearning for home—for L.A.’s sunshine and palm trees, and city streets, and vibrant mix of people—all tangled with the image of the fictional girl and lit my mind afire. First came those sentences, and then an opening into history, new chapters that were set in the past. The interspersing past and present ultimately led to an entirely different book.
The cover of Southland is a picture of a rundown street, old brick buildings with bars over the doors and windows. Standing over it all is a single stately palm tree. I’m drawn to paradox and contrast, the unexpected way that one thing can contain another—concrete and nature, present and past, hardship and irrepressible love. I now weave history into almost all of my work, but my first gesture to the past was that image in Southland. A girl, a dress, a bright summer morning. Crenshaw, 1945. It was the palm tree that did it.
Nina Revoyr is the author of four novels, including Southland, a Los Angeles Times bestseller and “Best Book” of 2003; The Age of Dreaming, a finalist for the 2008 Los Angeles Times Book Prize; and Wingshooters, winner of an Indie Booksellers’ Choice Award and an O: Oprah Magazine’s “Book to Watch For.”
THE SOUTH CENTRAL PALM Written by Ava DuVernay
There is a lovely looming trail of palm trees along the stretch of South Central L.A. that hugs the 110 freeway. If you’re driving from downtown, you’ll see these very mature trees begin to jut up alongside the concrete barriers at just around the Gage Avenue exit. They zigzag across the mid-cities, swaying hello to the airplanes directly overhead en route to nearby LAX. I love to see them when I come in for that landing. I love to see them when I drive that freeway. And I loved living under and among those very trees growing up. The palm trees around Compton, Watts and South Central are wise. Wise to the ways of our city. Wise to the fact that they were planted when white people called Compton home. Wise to the triumph and turbulence of the black people who later came and embraced them. And wise to the brown people who now love and laugh under their sway. This little meandering story isn’t about gentrification. It isn’t about the pretty punctuation that palms provide to the City of Angels. It’s about the regal simplicity of the South Central palm tree—proud, old and gently whispering, “My sister, You are home.”
Ava DuVernay is a writer, producer, director, and distributor of independent film. She was the winner of the Best Director Award at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival and the John Cassavetes Independent Spirit Award for her second feature Middle of Nowhere. Currently, she is in production on the upcoming feature film Selma, which chronicles the historic 1965 voting rights campaign led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. She is directing the film from her screenplay with Oprah Winfrey and Brad Pitt’s Academy Award-winning company Plan B serving as producers. DuVernay is founder of AFFRM, a film distribution collective dedicated to African-American cinema, and sits on the boards of Film Independent and the Sundance Institute.