Among the fossilized remains of creatures to be found preserved in the Tar Pits underneath Los Angeles, there was a single human woman. The La Brea Woman is at least 10,000 years old and the first known person that Los Angeles buried. Underneath the streets clogged with petrol-guzzling automobiles, a thick stratum of black asphalt occasionally leaches oil out of the drainage grates in mid-Wilshire. Death comes as a shiny slick atop a puddle in the street, ersatz and sticky.
Toypurina is a nine-year-old Tongva-Gabrileño girl living by the beach in Santa Monica when Gaspar de Portola describes the Tar Pits to Europeans for the first time. She is twenty-five and a shaman when she leads the attack to overthrow the padre, Junipero Serra, at the San Gabriel Mission in 1785. Death comes at thirty-nine, not for the martyr, but for the madre: a Christian soldier’s wife, the mother of mestizo children. Toypurina’s sentence is to the prison of the home. 255 years have passed since her birth. Her ancestors’ final resting place is a soccer field, nestled within a thicket of condominiums in Playa Vista.
Carrie Estelle Doheny is fifteen when she moves with her parents to Los Angeles. Ten years later, at the turn of the century, she meets a much older man who’s struck oil. The trusting wife, she marries him and raises his son. They build mansions to the north. They build oil pumps to the south. But no matter how far north you drive, you can’t escape the seepage of Los Angeles. The son has a valet, and a secret. Death comes to the house at the crest of Beverly Hills.
These archetypes—the ancestor, the revolutionary, the matriarch—are locked in a struggle that still plays out. To stop the oil from spilling up over the ground. To contain the darkness that lies just below the city’s sun-soaked surface. Los Angeles is beautiful in a way that defies reason. It’s a semi-arid swamp under manicured lawns. It’s a city, but full of single-family houses. There is much to write about here because the city is a paradox: a complex of impossible dreams, made tentatively real. The fragility of this place is a human fragility. Its cruelty is a human cruelty.
Artists understand this essence of Los Angeles. The city’s interplay of dark and light, and the menace behind its seeming banality are everywhere in the work of artists here. The idealized and the inhumane converge at the far edge of the world, where the engine of commerce produces and recycles images endlessly. Temperate weather and high living standards distract from the knowledge that it’s all built on the graves of others. As writers and artists, we conjure the spirits just under the skin.