During this Father’s Day weekend my dad came to visit Los Angeles from the suburbs of Chicago. As a lifelong Midwesterner he had very specific expectations for Southern California based mostly on impressions from movies, but also distant memories from a road trip he had taken with his parents in 1962. The trip took his family from St. Louis to the Seattle World’s Fair, then down the coast through Los Angeles and eventually to San Diego. His memory of Los Angeles was made of a mixture of nostalgia and fantasy, so it was my job on Father’s Day to conjure a taste of that imagined city.
As an 8 year old my dad would have visited Los Angeles after witnessing the Seattle World’s Fair. It would have been in the heat of the Cold War, right before the Cuban Missile Crisis. The theme for the Fair focused on “modern science, space exploration, and the progressive future”, wrapped in the broad concept of a ‘Century 21 Exposition’, replacing an earlier concept, the “Festival of the American West”. The Fair’s vision of the future was based on technology, formulated before the social and environmental movements of the 1960’s, and my dad would have seen Southern California as an oasis of palm trees in a time when the promise of modern science ruled America.
Those iconic Los Angeles palm trees are a result of turn-of-the-century cultural aspirations, not the region’s natural ecology. My dad found some relief knowing that at least one of Los Angeles’s palms was native to California: the California fan palm, Washingtonia filifera, but his affinity towards the other imported palms like the Mexican fan palms and Canary Island date palms went unwavering.
“California’s eighteenth century Franciscan missionaries were the first to plant palms ornamentally, perhaps in reference to the tree’s biblical associations. But it was not until Southern California’s turn-of-the-twentieth-century gardening craze that the region’s leisure class introduced the palm as the region’s preeminent decorative plant. Providing neither shade nor marketable fruit, the palm was entirely ornamental. Its exotic associations helped reinforce what Kevin Starr describes in Inventing the Dream: California through the Progressive Era as “Southern California’s turn-of-the-century conviction that it was America’s Mediterranean littoral, its Latin shore, sunny and palm-guarded.”
Most palm trees in Los Angeles were planted in the 1930’s. In Venice 200 Washingtonia robusta – the Mexican Fan Palms – were planted on Washington Boulevard to celebrate the bicentennial of the nation’s first president George Washington, the namesake of the palm. In 1931 25,000 palm trees were planted along the city’s boulevards. As we walked the boulevards we talked about how many of the palms planted then were near the end of the life spans and how they required too much water.
I think this weekend, in absence of any shade in the 100+ degree weather, a little of my dad’s nostalgic affinity for the palm trees of Los Angeles waned.