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The California Fiction Index: Invitation to Explore Los Angeles Neighborhoods

James Sherman, Librarian, Literature & Fiction Department,
Collage of books based on Los Angeles neighborhoods
Los Angeles: “nineteen suburbs in search of a metropolis"

Aldous Huxley described Los Angeles as “nineteen suburbs in search of a metropolis"—and didn’t mean it as a compliment. In fact, the diversity of Los Angeles is one of its greatest strengths. The Los Angeles Times mapping project claims there are 114 neighborhoods in the city of Los Angeles. Many of these are the settings for works of fiction.

How many? The Literature and Fiction Department's California Fiction Index has 3556 results under the location “Los Angeles”. This index is a useful tool to find novels set in one of the many “suburbs” or neighborhoods of L.A.: It’s an index of adult fiction set in the Golden State which can be searched by author and title, as well as location. You can find it through our databases, themselves located under the Research tab or the Research & Homework tab on our homepage.

The Index was started and has been maintained by Literature and Fiction Department Librarians, most notably, Alice Kesone Melcon (née Vartanian), who wrote many of the earliest annotations for fiction set in California. In 1961, under the auspices of California Library Association, Ms. Melcon published California in Fiction, a book featuring 500 of these entries. The Index is maintained right up to today—our current subject specialist, Robert Anderson, has served this charge faithfully and has easily created somewhere around two thousand annotations, in addition to work on the Series and Sequels File and the Short Stories Index File.

Although many of the entries in the California Fiction Index simply use “Los Angeles” as a location, many of the novels that bring enclaves and neighborhoods in both the City and the County to life. Here are a few titles representing different neighborhoods or places of interests.

Explore Los Angeles Neighborhoods Through Fiction List

Shanghai Girls
See, Lisa

Chinatown (Los Angeles): This book is set in the 1930s, right at the birth of the “new” (and current) Chinatown, as the old Chinatown (to the south and east of the current one) had been condemned to make way for Union Station and surrounding development. Parts of the book are set in China City, a sort of Chinese-themed Olvera Street designed by Hollywood, using ornate leftover movie sets from The Good Earth (1937). China City was situated between old Chinatown and new Chinatown, where Lisa See’s grandfather ran a curio shop. One of the pleasures of this novel for local history buffs is the author’s precise and specific descriptions of these locations, showing her historical and familial interest in recording what it was like in the beginning. Other surrounding neighborhoods are also explored, from Olvera Street to the once-vibrant Italian neighborhood in the area, as well as long-lost French town on Hill Street.

The Sellout
Beatty, Paul

Compton: In this National Book Award winner, a tour-de-force by Los Angeles’s own Booker Prize-winning author, the town of Dickens is actually Compton, whose founder, Reverend Griffith Dickenson Compton, stipulated that part of the city land would be zoned for agricultural purposes. Urban farms and community gardens are a movement in current Los Angeles, but what Beatty dubs the "agrarian ghetto” of Dickens is based on Richland Farms, where there’s been farming since the early fifties, and where there are corn stands, vegetable farms, and still plenty of horses, goats, and chickens—and more recently, the Compton Cowboys, started under the auspices of the Compton Jr Posse.

Revoyr, Nina

Crenshaw/Angeles Mesa: This novel covers a lot of ground and different eras as it tells the tale of Los Angeles history, but its heart is in the Crenshaw district, including the Angeles Mesa area. Currently, the heart of L.A.’s black community, the Crenshaw district was one of the first racially mixed neighborhoods in the city—in the middle of last century, many Japanese-American residents as well as African Americans ethnically and racially diverse in the post-war era, and its mix of African Americans and Japanese Americans. Central to the story is the Family Bowl, a coffee shop and bowling alley that is significant to the novel. The fictional Family Bowl is the roman à clef name of the Holiday Bowl, a fixture of the community that was much beloved (during the 1992 unrest, Rodney King spent much of his time at the Holiday Bowl in an effort to protect it) as one of the places where people of the diverse communities socialized over food and bowling, showing how this neighborhood had often been a place where the racial tensions of Los Angeles have been soothed as well as stoked.

Their Dogs Came With Them
Viramontes, Helena María

East Los Angeles: Set in the 1960s, this novel follows the lives of four young Mexican-American women living in an East Los Angeles neighborhood while it is being devastated by the effects of freeway construction. Because of the upheaval and destruction of the neighborhood to pave the way for the East LA interchange, many streets are now dead-ends, forcing many families to relocate. Viramontes chronicles the loss of a close-knit community, physically divided by the construction and fragmenting under the onset of a hostile and unsettling atmosphere. The four main characters are connected mostly by their relationship to the neighborhood which is being divided and conquered by cement and bulldozers, as well as the police that comes in to make sure that progress continues, with a “rabies patrol” there to shoot rabid dogs—and sometimes people, too.

The Madonnas of Echo Park
Skyhorse, Brando

Echo Park: With its many shifting perspectives, this book offers many views of Echo Park, as well as forays into Angelino Heights and Los Feliz. The Madonnas of Echo Park intimately follows the lives of residents here and the intersections of its characters, who are loosely connected to events in the 1980s, in particular a street corner where Madonna filmed part of the music video for the song “Borderline” and the tragedy of a child’s accidental death in the aftermath. These incidents, along with the traumatic relocation of Chavez Ravine residents to Echo Park to prepare for the arrival of the Dodgers, are connected to present times with a culminating scene at the Lotus Festival around Echo Park Lake. Skyhorse grew up in Echo Park in the eighties, so the novel is semi-autobiographical, as he namechecks locations and features of the neighborhood, both past and present.  

Huneven, Michelle

Los Feliz: Jamesland is a love letter to Los Feliz and Atwater Village, addressed to both the people who live there and the natural world of Griffith Park and the L.A. River. The quirky and troubled neighbors in the vicinity of Vermont Avenue in Los Feliz, are connected for the most part to the Unitarian church there and the thoughtful minister who tries to be of service. The L.A. River separating Los Feliz and Atwater is also a location, focusing on the adhoc community of outsiders who have made themselves a home in the “islands” there. Huneven’s description of the fauna and flora of both the river and that of neighboring Griffith Park is particularly compelling, and while beautifully written it also provides the inciting action when wildlife invades a historic bungalow. And Huneven’s tenure as an L.A. Times food writer comes in handy for the role that food plays in the book.

Inherent Vice
Pynchon, Thomas

Manhattan Beach: The fictional Gordita Beach is based on Manhattan Beach, particularly the Strand along the shore, where Pynchon lived in the 60s and 70s. Today, that area is a wealthy enclave, but it was not always this way. Much like Venice Beach, this was once a place for surfers, dopers, artists and other fringsters who would later find themselves priced out. In this vintage neo-noir, Doc Sportello’s life in this haven for hippies summons up a time, the end of the sixties, as much as a place, and the sense of the possibilities of freedom evaporating is tangible. The early history of this area is also part of the story—there’s a park described in such a way to make clear there’s no doubt that it’s Bruce’s Beach, which for a short period of time was a beach resort for African American Angelenos, before the City of Manhattan Beach, at the behest of bigoted burghers, used eminent domain to close it.

This is Where We Live
Brown, Janelle

Mount Washington: This is the story of two young artists who think they are on the verge of making it and, to celebrate their imminent success, buy a house they can’t afford. Set in 2005 the LA neighborhood of Mount Washington, the book chronicles the way Northeast Los Angeles (NELA) changed, driven by well-paid professionals who wanted to enjoy the singular character of the Northeast neighborhoods which had managed for most of the late twentieth century to avoid the attention of developers, as described by Brown: “The mix of ramshackle cottages with stained glass baubles...that suggested Mount Washington’s recent bohemian past and newly remodeled modernist behemoths that pointed to its more bourgeois future”. With gentrification, the bohemians and Mexican- American families are replaced by monied creatives, such as the protagonists of the novel. In this case, the gentrifiers are victimized by the fickleness of the dream industry and the mercilessness of an adjustable rate mortgage.

Death is a Lonely Business
Bradbury, Ray

Venice: It was in this seaside LA neighborhood—specifically 660 Venice Boulevard—where Ray Bradbury was a struggling young writer who wrote the books that rocketed him to fame and posterity: The Martian Chronicles, Fahrenheit 451, The Illustrated Man and Something Wicked This Way Comes. Bradbury’s novel is set during that post-war period and his Venetian nostalgia is evident in this loving if sometimes spooky tribute to what once was a weird and wonderful enclave. While there’s a couple of very surreal and fascinating episodes in Bunker Hill and other parts of Downtown, the fog, and cold of Venice shroud the strange doings of its strange denizens. The ramshackle bungalows and sidestreets just off the boardwalk and near the canals are the stage for this noirish murder mystery, described beautifully by this much-beloved writer, who was also a habitué of Central Library.

Devil in a Blue Dress
Mosley, Walter

Watts: Set in postwar Watts and environs, Devil in a Blue Dress has all the detail of the well-researched historical novel with all the trenchant insights of the social milieu and injustices of the period, with resonances for our time. It’s a testament to Mosley that his first detective novel transcends the genre and gives us a view of this vibrant neighborhood during a time of great change, as postwar dreams begin to fade for blue-collar veterans and factory workers who still have their eye on a home of their own. His detective, Easy Rawlins, is able to count on the network of friends who, like himself, are part of the Houston migration to Los Angeles. One of the strongest descriptions is the way that Mosley interweaves his plot with the remarkable history of the Central Avenue Jazz Scene, a vibrant scene which drew great musicians, two of them who appear in the book.

Imagining Los Angeles: A City in Fiction
Fine, David M.

If you're interested in the interplay between fiction and images of Los Angeles and its neighborhoods and environs, be sure to check out David Fine's fascinating literary history of Los Angeles. From the mythmaking of Helen Hunt Jackson's Ramona up through contemporary writers such as James Ellroy, Kate Braverman, and Carolyn See, Fine traces the history of L.A. and Southern California as rendered in fiction. There are chapters on the Hollywood novel, on crime and detective novels (noir and otherwise), novels on the immigrant experience, and even delves into the apocalyptic genre. It's an entertaining and well-researched foray into a new way of experiencing Los Angeles.