Ian Baldwin ’08

Alumnus motivates students to re-examine L.A.

Adjunct history lecturer Ian Baldwin ’08 recently invited a group of Redlands students to challenge their perceptions of Los Angeles. Eyes closed, each pictured the Southern California city and then described it in a single word.

Some stated “sprawl,” “smog,” “fame” or “traffic.” Others had a more positive summary, using words such as “immigration,” “diversity” or “opportunity.”

“While they had not yet seen Steve Martin’s L.A. Story, these students nonetheless echoed the film’s take on a metropolis comically out of control,” says Baldwin.

Designed to reveal common clichés, the exercise was the first assignment in Baldwin’s History of Los Angeles May Term class. Teaching the course at Redlands, he says, afforded an opportunity for personal as well as historical reflection.

“Most of the participants, myself included, were Southern Californians and our familiarity with the region presented a challenge,” he says. “It can be difficult to critique sites from our past, since they are often entangled with our personal memories.”

In a trip to the region’s iconic amusement park Disneyland, the students’ childhood recollections sometimes clashed with their present-day exploration. After some reflection, several felt that the park’s Frontierland had negatively influenced their view of the American West. Its River Belle Terrace restaurant, for example, no longer contained an “Aunt Jemima,” but the plantation remained.

Students also explored downtown L.A., including Union Station, Pershing Square, City Hall and Olvera Street. Each locale revealed a mixed past. Union Station was constructed on the site of Old Chinatown. Pershing Square, now paved with concrete, was once a lush park frequented by political radicals and gay men. City Hall, they learned, stood on the site of the original Native village of Yang-Na. Olvera Street, thought by some to represent and preserve L.A.’s Spanish and Mexican past, was actually a fantasy recreational site created for tourists.

“In the end, we came to see Los Angeles and Southern California as far from Eden,” Baldwin says. “But was that such a bad thing? The region’s inhabitants and unpredictable elements have long been more interesting than anything a promoter could dream up.”