Imagining Los Angeles

Imagining Los Angeles

 Office of the Dean September 9, 2019

New book by Barry Siegel traces rise of metropolis to the 1932 Olympics

By Lilibeth Garcia

Stuck in 405 traffic to or from Los Angeles? You can thank Billy Garland. There’s been little fanfare or even documentation about the real estate tycoon who put Los Angeles as we know it on the map. That is, until now.

In his forthcoming book, Dreamers and Schemers: How an Improbable Bid for the 1932 Olympics Transformed Los Angeles from Dusty Outpost to Global Metropolis (University of California Press, 2019), UCI professor and literary journalism program director Barry Siegel has brought to life a man and a world that had previously been buried in history.

For the Pulitzer Prize-winning author, bringing worlds to life through the written word is the power of his medium—narrative nonfiction, which is a stylistic storytelling derived purely from factual sources and interviews. Dreamers and Schemers marks the first time Siegel worked exclusively with archival research to tell a true story.   

The story is about Billy Garland, a young man who arrived alone to Southern California in 1890, a time when Los Angeles was a mere frontier town. “Like a painter paints a building, he was going to imagine a city, and not just imagine a city, but bring it about. And it happened,” Siegel says.

In the author’s note of the book, Siegel invites the reader to imagine that world themselves:

    “What was it like for a twenty-four-year-old to step off a train in a remote wide-open frontier town such as
    Los Angeles, to hole up in a cut-rate boardinghouse room, to look around, to see and hear and smell this
    new domain, to start imagining a world-class city out of whole cloth?”

That twenty-four-year-old would go on to become a prominent real estate agent and manufacture Los Angeles into existence. His biggest project was bidding for and staging the 1932 Olympics in the bourgeoning town. To say that the event was unlikely is an understatement. The United States was in the throes of the Great Depression. The Olympics had always been held in a great European capital and Los Angeles was 6,000 miles away—a ten-day trip via ship and train.

Yet Los Angeles prevailed in the midst of it all, thanks to schemers like Garland, who knew how to sell the illusion of a land of limitless possibilities and an ideal climate, and the young Olympic stars who came from rough backgrounds but dreamt of better opportunities. Dreamers and Schemers takes the reader on a journey through this early 20th century, unformed Los Angeles, a time of hectic movement involving business elites, crooks, police corruption, political and sex scandals, and rising movie stars.

Going into the research for his book, Siegel was naturally fascinated by this world. Although he was not around to witness the birth of the city, he recalls a Los Angeles that was still growing into itself.

“I arrived here as a little boy—my family moved from St. Louis—and it was at a time when there was no Santa Monica freeway, no San Diego Freeway, no Century City, and no Dodger Stadium. There were still orange groves in West Los Angeles,” Siegel says. “So I am very conscious of the fact that L.A. is not an old city and that L.A. rose over a matter of decades.”

His interest in that not-so-long-ago Los Angeles led him to the famous 1932 Olympics, which led him to Billy Garland, who was only mentioned once, briefly, in Material Dreams, a book written by renowned California scholar Kevin Starr. The historian described the archetypal real estate agent of the 1920s as “a figure of folkloric significance, a Wizard of Oz, part preacher, part confidence man […] shamans of a new, and it was hoped, better identity and circumstances. Like wizards of Oz behind green curtains, they spoke to that dream of a better life that was bringing a million and a half Americans to Southern California.” Starr then observed that the trend began with William May Garland, “the Prince of Realtors.” With Garland’s story ending there in that one sentence, Siegel had to learn more, describing the research process as “a blast.”

“It was so much fun because you open one door, then you walk across that room, and there’s another door on the other end, and you open that door, and that leads you to another door, and then you’re sitting there, and you’re able to go deeper and deeper into that world. And you have to start imagining the world while drawing from the material.”

For a narrative that had to be imagined, Siegel did not make anything up. Although literature on Garland was somewhat scarce, Siegel exhausted a variety of archival resources, such as newspaper archives from 1890 to 1948, genealogical reports from a granddaughter who had researched Garland extensively, and academic articles written by sports historians. A lot of his research also involved looking at the big picture.

“As I started to know Billy Garland and his values, I also researched the times in which he lived, the politics and the things that were going on. By knowing what his perspective and values were, then I could sort of put him in that world and try to understand how he saw it and how he responded to it,” Siegel says.

The story of Los Angeles revealed itself through Garland. Starr wrote that “Los Angeles did not just happen […] Los Angeles envisioned itself, then materialized that vision through sheer force of will.” As Siegel dove into those Olympic games that determined the course of Los Angeles history, he found a character who had done precisely that. The book is about that journey, and ultimately, about the power of a strong imagination.

“I raise this question about how imagination and even illusion play a role in shaping not just art, but the future, and to me that’s what the story is about,” Siegel says. “It’s an examination of whether individuals, in defiance of everything, can make history.”

Dreamers and Schemers is available from UC Press in October.

Photo credit: Steve Zylius / UCI