City of Ruins: How Norman Klein Has Emerged As L.A.’s Most Innovative Social Critic

He’s an omnivorous urban theorist with heavyweight ideas

One evening early in the fall, Norman Klein sat behind a Formica table, speaking softly but insistently to a small audience at REDCAT, the CalArts performance space that occupies the rear end of Disney Hall. Beneath the table his right leg jittered a mile a minute, like a metronome. Wearing unpressed khakis and a white button-down shirt, hair exploding in a wiry gray corona, he had the slightly disheveled look of an absent-minded professor, which in some sense he is. For 30 years Klein has been on the faculty of CalArts; in addition, he teaches in the graduate program for media design at Art Center. But recently he has emerged as the most innovative Los Angeles social critic since Mike Davis—fast-talking, omnivorous, a bantamlike urban theorist with heavyweight ideas. His 1997 book, The History of Forgetting: Los Angeles and the Erasure of Memory, put into language what many residents have long thought about L.A.—that this is a city where meaning has as much to do with what we don’t see as what we do. The notion also motivates his 2003 novella-cum-DVD-ROM Bleeding Through: Layers of Los Angeles, 1920-1986, which he had come to REDCAT to discuss.

Bleeding Through is one of those transformative works— Klein has described it as a “data/cinematic novel”—in which the form is as radical as the content. Framed as the story of an old woman named Molly, it blends fiction, social commentary, and historical analysis in a multimedia pastiche of 20th-century L.A., constructed around a vast electronic archive of what Klein calls “traces”: photos, news clippings, interview footage, snippets of documentary and dramatic films. If this sounds compulsive, that’s the point. “I’m obsessed,” Klein enthused at REDCAT, “with the idea that the evidence is almost as exciting as the story. I find it so interesting to locate bits and pieces, scars of how memory works.” For him, such a process is particularly suited to Los Angeles, “a city,” he writes in The History of Forgetting, “that was imagined long before it was built.” Bleeding Through, then, reflects L.A.’s own unreliable memory; a notion Klein (and his electronic collaborators) highlights by weaving “forgetfulness” directly into the project’s software, which brings up different material from the database each time you load it, so the story never unfolds the same way twice.

The idea that L.A. is inherently elusive—a fragmentary landscape of glimmers and glimpses—can get a little abstract, which may explain why Klein has taken so long to catch on. With the exception of the Los Angeles Times, the media have largely ignored his books. Partly this has to do with how Los Angeles intellectuals are treated. “For some reason,” says Peter Lunenfeld, who teaches with Klein at Art Center, “L.A. only has room for one public intellectual at a time, and now it’s Norman. It’s like we can’t handle more than one conversation at once.” Partly it is Klein’s professional status, the way he straddles several disciplines at once. If you ask, he’ll tell you he’s a writer, as opposed to a theorist or professor, then cite influences as diverse as Baudelaire and Balzac, Faulkner and Joyce. Certainly his career can be hard to classify; untenured, he has been an adjunct at UCLA, Otis, SCI-Arc, and USC, moving from campus to campus like an itinerant, leading a patchwork academic life. His course descriptions read like outlines of his obsessions, with classes on the history of simulation or the buying and selling of L.A. as fantasy “You set up a problem you want to solve,” he says, his Brooklyn accent muted with resignation, “and it forces you to do research. Teaching at art schools, I don’t have the degree of support I’d get from a research institution, so I have to build it in.”

If Klein is difficult to pin down, the same could be said about L.A., which reveals itself in the most unlikely spaces, spaces we might never think to look. “Did I ever tell you about the ugliest place in Los Angeles?” Klein asked me one afternoon in his office, a converted garage behind his house in Highland Park. Although we were sitting together, he peered into the middle distance, his face growing animated and his voice rising, as if he were a kid with a secret to impart. “I decided it was in the Valley at the intersection of Fulton and Burbank. I selected it because it wasn’t poverty. It was just ugly retinal eye burn of an extreme form. On one corner was a place called Dad & Me, which repaired cars. It was surrounded by rolls of barbed wire like some old lady’s hair. Across the street was a lumberyard that looked like it was going to fall over. Then there was this strange Middle Eastern restaurant in a dumpy building with a faded image on top of a man holding a chicken. It was like that in every direction.” Eventually Klein discovered that beneath this desolate veneer of blankness were overlapping populations of Lebanese and Palestinians and Israelis, until a map of the Middle East emerged. “Little by little,” he said, laughing at the memory, “this was not the ugliest place in Los Angeles, it was just the best erased example of urban complexity And I thought, ‘Wow, this is one crazy city to have that much happening with so little heat you can actually see.’”

Talking to Norman Klein is an exercise in excavation. Such a notion informs not just his theories but his way of speaking. He keeps returning to certain subjects: the layering he sees everywhere, his belief that L.A. is less an integrated city than “like the Holy Roman Empire, 9,000 microchmates”—another favorite word. It’s a fascinating process, not least because it reflects the structure of his writing, his tendency to circle a topic, gathering impressions, fragments, evidence. “The most important aspect of his work,” says Michael Dear, professor of geography at USC, “has to do with what it tells us about how we remember: repeating stories, always embroidering. It raises questions about the very nature of remembering.” In The History of Forgetting, Klein describes the early days of the motion picture business, which developed in Echo Park. “I learned that across the street from my apartment,” he writes, “on Glendale Boulevard, Tom Mix used to ride a horse to work from his ranch in Mixville (now a Hughes market shopping center). But no recognition could be found anywhere that the entire film industry had once been centered there.” Nearly a decade after he wrote those words, Klein and I spent a few hours looking at the former site of Mixville as well as Mack Sennett’s old studio, now a public storage space. “It’s incredible,” he said. “This is the center of our whole cultural memory. This is where the language of film evolved. If we were in Paris, and this was an atelier where Picasso had painted, it would probably be a museum.” Here, however, there was nothing, not even a commemorative sign. “All cultures,” he continued, “have some kind of erasure. But what’s curious about this erasure is that it’s done mentally In other words, you don’t see it even if it’s right in front of you.”

“Erasure” is a word Klein uses often, like a mantra. It is, he suggests, the dominant metaphor for reading Los Angeles, a city that continually rewrites itself. In The History of Forgetting, Klein illustrates the concept by invoking the psychoanalytic term “imagoes,” which refers to traces, or memory fragments, that haunt us, like “an empty lot where a building once stood.” In Bleeding Through, he uses digital images in which vintage photos of city streets dissolve, or bleed, into shots of the same scenes as they look today In both works he blurs the line between fact and fiction, myth and history, developing what he calls “docufables,” in which a character like Molly becomes a filter for the city’s life. “[A]fter over twenty years teaching in art schools,” he writes in The History of Forgetting, “I have begun to see historical writing, at least about mass culture, as an installation piece…. Evidence is a remnant left over by chance.”

What’s interesting is how personal all this is. Klein’s ideas first took shape in 1979, when he moved just northwest of downtown to Angelino Heights. An enclave of privilege in the early 1900s, the area had become peripheral to the city’s consciousness by the time Klein arrived, although it continued to have the greatest collection of vintage Victorian houses in L.A. “This was a neighborhood,” he says, “that wasn’t noticed. It had a name, but no one could find it.” Even the occasional architectural tours avoided his block as too unsightly. “They actually had maps,” he says, laughing, “that ignored the street I was living on. I’d see people standing at the boundary of the street looking at the map, and there was total confusion.” At home, meanwhile, Klein kept finding hidden liquor bottles and other signs of the former owner’s secret life. Equally influential was Klein’s working-class upbringing in the Brooklyn of the 1950s, a landscape imbued with its own profound sense of being erased. “One of Norman’s great strengths,” says Mike Davis, who helped facilitate the publication of The History of Forgetting, “is that he’s a Brooklyner. Growing up in Coney Island gave him a magical realist perspective, which is wonderful to bring to Los Angeles because it attunes him to the juxtapositions, the dissonances.”

Klein agrees, although his terms are more concrete. The son of a butcher, he found unexpected echoes of his history in Southern California, from the ruins of Angelino Heights (“One vacant store,” he writes, “had been a kosher butcher shop in the fifties, now with a rusted sign, but very similar to the dismal store my lather had run in Brooklyn for thirty years”) to the street life that he sees in Highland Park. “When I go down Figueroa,” he told me one day, eating a burrito at a taqueria a few blocks from his house, “I literally flash back to my teenage years on Avenue U in south Brooklyn.” Up the street, the Gold Line thundered past on its way to Pasadena, while on the sidewalks, people shopped and chatted. Klein watched for a moment, as if he were looking through them to the past. “Even though the people here are Salvadoran,” he continued, “I can almost see them as Jewish. I find this a lot. To me, L.A. isn’t a flashy Hollywood city but a collection of microclimates, of ethnicity and layers of urban traces, one upon the other.”

On a superficial level, the layering of Jews and Salvadorans might seem a stretch. For Klein, though, Highland Park and midcentury Brooklyn are both communities marked by immigrant cultures, “the nuancing and mixing of classes” that has been erased in places like Angelino Heights. This is very different from the L.A. the planners offer, with its controlled settings, its shopping centers and office parks, which add up to an ersatz urbanity, an illusion of city life. In his most recent book, The Vatican to Vegas: A History of Special Effects, Klein develops the concept of “scripted space,” a term that encompasses everything from the Sistine Chapel’s narrative frescoes to a contemporary shopping mall. “Scripted spaces,” he writes, “are a walk-through or click-through environment…. The audience walks into the story. What’s more, this walk should respond to each viewer’s whims, even though each step along the way is “prescripted” (or should I say preordained?). It is gentle repression posing as free will.” What he’s describing are clever facsimiles of reality, in which experience is entirely mediated, even as it appears not to be. As an example he cites the Grove, with its town square out of a Frank Capra movie, its regulated sense of urban life. “It’s a consumerist fantasy,” he says. “And we love it. The more artificial the fantasy, the more powerful it gets.”

Klein, in many ways, could be talking about his own work, for Bleeding Through is its own kind of scripted space. The same is also true of his current work in progress, The Imaginary 20th Century, a multimedia show that seeks to blend the innovations of Bleeding Through with a physical component, in which viewers enter a gallery installation featuring representations of what various visionaries imagined the 20th century might look like. For Klein, this is another method of commenting on the world where we find ourselves, which in turn leads him back to L.A. “Los Angeles,” he says, “is a place where memory is elusive. That means we have to find a new way to see. This new way has to be based on layers. Suppose we think of the city as a collage, but then you turn it sideways and it looks like Jell-O strips, one layer upon the other. You can see through them, but one obscures the other. And it looks like a collage in a photograph, but in fact it’s about 15 layers, all stacked and translucent and opaque.” There’s something sticky about this image. It suggests how much resides be low the surface, how much there remains to excavate. Such an idea flies in the face of a lot of things, not least the city’s understanding of itself. But then, as Klein puts it, “Nietzsche said you should look for what people accept without thinking and attack that like a surgeon. I always add that you know you’ve gone far enough when you can hear the scraping of the bone.”

One Sunday afternoon Klein took me to the Belmont Tunnel, where for 30 years, from 1925 to 1955, the Glendale Boulevard Red Car went underground beneath Bunker Hill. Now it had become an informal art park and ball court, the only place in the United States where tarasca, or Aztec soccer, a game that looks like a mix of handball and cricket, is played. The day was warm and quiet, and as we climbed through a fence and stood among a small group of parents and kids and grandparents, a cluster of men played in the dirt of what had once been a railroad yard. “This is the largest urban ruin in the country,” Klein said, waving at the tunnel, which lay bricked up in the distance, like the muzzled mouth of history. “And this,” he went on, directing my attention to the game and the elaborately graffitied walls of the tunnel complex, “is the organic expression of a neighborhood. This is the city reconstituting itself.”

I thought back to all the neighborhoods Klein and I had talked about, from Angelino Heights to Coney Island to Highland Park. In such a context the Belmont Tunnel should have been a triumph, a victory of presence over absence, an anti-erasure, as it were. Yet the day we visited, it was a month from being demolished. In its place would soon be luxury apartments, and if a deal between the city and the Cultural Heritage Commission seemed likely to save the entrance as a landmark, the graffiti and the ball court would be gone. “What did they do wrong?” Klein asked, pointing to the players. “They performed a miracle. We’re supposed to honor the survival of a community. Instead, we’re witnessing the death of a piece of history.”

Klein and I walked around for a while, looking at the graffiti—an American flag, an enormous rock painted to look like a tribal totem, a pattern of stonelike designs running along the bottom of a wall. We watched the game also, but somehow it already felt like an imago, a whisper of memory fading into a lost trace of the past. I was reminded of something Klein had mentioned earlier, about the value of memento mori, the longing he believes is built into nearly everything. “Something’s only interesting,” he’d said, “if it’s dying. If it’s really flourishing, it’s in such a state of denial. It’s not interesting yet.”

The same, of course, could be said of Los Angeles. That’s the paradox of the city, the contradiction at its center, the idea that fuels Klein’s work. “This is a rough area,” he acknowledged as we left the tunnel, “”with drugs and gangs and poverty, but here we’re seeing something positive, and it’s going to disappear. The history of forgetting. The problem is that the city doesn’t think this is a neighborhood. They don’t think these people are here. But look at them. They sure look like they’re here.”