THE BURNING PALMS
Written by David L. Ulin
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.
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