Psychogeography in Hollywood

Today the students worked in small groups and explored one of the most iconic spaces in Los Angeles, Hollywood. So far we have tended to explore the exotic (as in strange) and the spectacular: Beverley Hills, Orange County, South Central etc. You would be forgiven for thinking that today especially, working in Hollywood, it would be the same. However, we used a method of fieldwork that helps explore and expose the more mundane and everyday aspects of our urban environments, psychogeography.

Psychogeography has a long history as a concept and a collection of techniques. It was developed in the 1950s and 1960s by a group of French leftist radicals, the Situationists. The Situationist project, whilst often confusing and contradictory, was to develop a form of radical politics appropriate to the modern world. They noticed that contemporary capitalism was more pervasive than Karl Marx had predicted, it affected our lives in ways that were often subtle and difficult to notice. We were, they said, surrounded by a spectacular infrastructure that conditioned and controlled us. This control pervaded not just the material aspects of our lives – how we move through a city for instance – but also our emotions and behaviour (our psyche). We were, they said, living in a society of the spectacle, surrounded by signs and distractions that filter our perception of a true reality.

The job of the students was to overcome the allure of the spectacle by using a psychogeographical method called the drift. The Drift is a playful method of geographical fieldwork that was defined by the Situationists as a ‘technique of locomotion without a goal. The object is to notice the ways in which areas, streets or buildings seem to resonate with states of mind, inclinations and desires, and to look for reasons for movement other than those for which an environment was designed.

Each group of students was given an area to explore in Hollywood and a dice to throw to decide which direction to choose when the environment presents them with a choice. They recorded their impressions, pictures, video etc. on Google maps which you can find linked below.


Group 1: Ella T, Georgia, Hannah P, Giulia, Tom, Amy


Group 2: Katie, Will, Beth, Hannah S, Matt L, Ella W


Group 3: Ghaleb, George, Adelaide, Kitty, Matt J, Zoe


Group 4: Nadia, Joey, Shay, Alex, Olivia, Dan H


Group 5: Maddie, Elena, Freddie, Dan V, Courtney


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Downtown LA

We spent the day in Downtown LA today. LA, as those of you who have been reading this account for the past week will be aware, is a multi-nodal city: it has lots of centres, lots of downtowns and itself consists of lots of cities. For a number of years, downtown LA, which is located on the site of the original pueblo, after a brief period of dominance in the late 19th early 20th century, took its place alongside all of the other centres in LA. But more recently the Downtown area has reasserted itself.







There are numerous new skyscrapers under construction, new concert halls, a new cathedral and so on. As we learnt on the East LA and South Central day, is undergoing significant gentrification – it is certainly true that over the past ten years it has become much more heavily populated, and much wealthier. There is a great deal of housing construction and conversion happening too, much of which is new higher density apartment blocks. As a city LA has not really ever seen this kind of dense housing developments. So these significant recent changes are some of the things that the students will hopefully have noticed on their tour.

At California Plaza preparing to set off on our walking route

The other reason that we come to Downtown is that it offers a very useful summary of what we have learned so far: the Downtown district is like the whole city in microcosm. For this reason, it is often the day that LA finally makes sense to them. The students were set a walking route that took them through several different worlds. They began at the relatively new California Plaza, one of several spaces created between the new skyscrapers that cater to the office workers by day and concert and corporate conference goers by night. Then they descend into the very different world of Broadway, which serves as a main shopping street for the city’s Latino community. On from Broadway they explore Pershing Square, various industrial and warehouse districts, Little Tokyo, the Pueblo and the area from which the city has historically been managed including City Hall the LA Times and the various court buildings.



All of these different functions sit cheek-by-jowl with skid row, one of the largest homeless areas of any US city. Within a few short hours of (light) walking then, the students have experienced all of these worlds making it a really useful fieldwork exercise.

We ended our day in the Bonaventure Hotel where the students read an account of the architecture of the hotel by a famous postmodern theorist who once got lost in there at a conference (it might even have been a geographers’ conference). They then tested this account against their own experience of the space – mostly by using the glass lifts it seems.

Inside the Bonaventure

Navigators today – Maddie, Matt J, Dan V, Olivia, Adelaide and Georgia were all top notch. All knew where they were and how we got there.

Posted in LA

Venice Beach

The majority of today’s blog entry is written by the students. You can click on the images below and each will take you to the work of one of the four groups. They have spent the day in Venice, a coastal area of the city which is known globally and pejoratively as the place where Southern Californian weirdness finds its full expression. It’s where one goes to get fit, get tanned, get colonic irrigation, acupuncture, crystal healed, educated in radical new age philosophy, get petitions signed, skateboard, rollerblade, jog, etc. etc. For a city which is quite privatised, Venice serves as a space in which one can unwind at the weekend.

The students have been set a series of ethnographic research tasks to explore the ways in which the district defines itself. All of the students have been asked to explore the ways in which Venice presents itself in the local media and other forms of representation, through tourist facilities, architecturally and so on. They are also looking at whether there are signs of an independence (or incorporation) movement in the district – in other words whether there is a campaign to establish Venice as a separate city with the county Los Angeles. This campaign has been active since the 1950s, but is a very different movement to that which incorporated Rancho Santa Margarita as a city in 2000.

The four groups of students have then been assigned four different tasks: group one is exploring the district’s local heritage industry; group two has been tasked with assessing the New Age movement; group three is mapping the various forms of Californian body culture that find expression in the area; and group four is exploring the local economy.

Click on the images below.


Group 1: Ghaleb, Katie, Maddie, George, Nadia, Will, Adelaide, Beth



Group 2: Joey, Kitty, Ella T, Shay, Elena, Alex, Matt J



Group 3: Freddie, Olivia, Hannah S, Dan V, Georgia, Courtney,



Group 4: Hannah P, Giulia, Matt L, Zoe, Tom, Ella W, Amy



Hope you enjoyed reading about their work in Venice today.


Posted in LA

East LA – Boyle Heights

After a refreshing and relaxing day off we were straight back into the action today most of which was spent in Boyle Heights in East Los Angeles. We set off for East LA from Santa Monica after singing – badly – happy birthday to Matt J who is 21 today…bless.

Arriving in Boyle Heights

Boyle Heights – depending on who you ask – is between 80% and 95% Latino and as such is the area of the city that tends to receive the most immigrants, some of whom will get work in the neighbouring garment manufacturing businesses.

Our morning was spent visiting the East Los Angeles Community Corporation (ELACC). They are a community organisation not unlike WLCAC in their objectives but based in this very different community. Their primary purpose is to build capacity in the local community by building and maintaining affordable accommodation, helping people buy homes and avoid foreclosure, assisting individuals and businesses with their tax returns and financial management, training individuals in the community to become leaders, and helping children with their school work in afterschool clubs. This multifaceted approach certainly seems to be working and they are building many new housing units.

Lupe and Jose talk to us about ELACC’s mission

We met at ELACC’s latest development the Sol y Luna Apartments and were given a presentation of the organisation’s objectives, history and outlook by Lupe Legaspi, Director of Programs at ELACC and José Fernández their Tenant Services Manager. There was some fascinating material on how the organisation is trying to help the local community resist gentrification by holding land and property (not unlike WLCAC) but also by setting up lending circles to bypass banks and by helping those threatened with foreclosure on their properties (a tactic by predatory lenders in the district is to lend to buyers who they know will not be able to pay back their mortgages a after reaping interest payments from them to take possession of the property). The students asked a number of great questions and I think learnt a great deal about the politics of urban planning and grass roots community organising.

And there is real pressure to develop the area from eager but not overly wealthy gentrifiers unable to afford the converted lofts and warehouses in the neighbouring downtown and taking advantage of the accessibility afforded by the recently opened metro system. ELACC then stands literally at the front line of the battle against gentrification and have ensured that in its covenants, its buildings in the area will be affordable accommodation in perpetuity, thereby maintaining the social diversity of the community.

El Mercadito

We took a drive along 1st Street and stopped for a long lunch at El Mercadito. This is an important shopping and recreational space for the local community and until only a few years ago it was very difficult to get by using English alone. The students were asked to explore the market and then take lunch at either one of the restaurants or on the third floor where they ate whilst being entertained by a mariachi band.

Eating to the sound of live Mariachi music at El Mercadito

After lunch we took a short driving tour of the local neighbourhood to get a sense of how the standard LA housing stock (single story stuccoed bungalows) has been adapted by the Latino community to suit their lifestyles (basically an increase in enclosed outdoor spaces).

Giant Robot in Sawtelle



On the way home we dropped into Sawtelle, a Japanese neighbourhood quite near the hotel. Here the students were encouraged to eat cream cakes – but only one did – and have a look around some of the shops which have hybrid objects reflecting an interesting trans-Pacific cultural mix.





Group shot outside Sol y Luna Apartments to mark Matt J’s (lying at the front) birthday

The navigators today had a tough job to do. George in the lead van was very capable and also able to give us a lesson in Spanish whilst map reading. Hannah S was mostly concerned with recounting their Venice Beach experience from yesterday. Beth was a very capable co-pilot and kept Martin on straight and narrow, even spotting parking spaces for him. In the afternoon Courtney, despite being nervous about it, was also an exceptional navigator, guiding us seamlessly to Sawtelle. Amy in the second van, sadly, forgot her glasses. Kitty in Martin’s van was brilliant and got Martin out of trouble after he lost the convoy.

Posted in LA

South Central LA: Watts

Today we looked at the consequences of the other side of the economic history of Los Angeles and explored South Central Los Angeles, specifically Watts. Whilst Orange County was benefiting from government defence spending and growing lighter hi-tech industries in the 1960s, South Central Los Angeles was losing pretty much all of its heavy industry. It had been a significant centre for car and auto parts production, but before many places in the developed world, in the early 1960s, it de-industrialised. The concurrent re-industrialisation of Orange County required a very different type of labour force and South Central was left with a large unemployed and mainly African American population. It is no surprise then that urban unrest in the form of the 1965 Watts rebellion accompanied this process.

Tina Watkins begins our tour of WLCAC

We began our day at the Watts Labor Community Action Committee (WLCAC) in the heart of the Watts district. It was founded by Ted Watkins – whose name can be found on many buildings and parks in Watts – in reaction to the 1965 uprisings. His motto ‘Don’t Move Improve’ encapsulates his intent which was to try to prevent people moving out from the area and instead commit to making Watts a more liveable and prosperous place. WLCAC now runs a series of community services from afterschool homework clubs to senior citizen centres, but is also a landlord owning and managing around 800 affordably rented homes. It is the largest landowner in Watts and as such any developments proposed in the district will most likely require their input and consent.

Inside the slave ship exhibit at WLCAC

We were given an inspiring tour and talk by Ted Watkins’s granddaughter, Tina Watkins. Tina outlined a fascinating story of the change in the WLCAC mission that was sparked by the 1992 uprising in South Central. After that point they focused less on the economics of the community and more on becoming a cultural, arts and education centre with a mission to tell the stories of black history in the United States. Her tour really made the students think hard about the often hidden and unspoken histories of exploitation and injustices experienced by African Americans which is outlined in a range of exhibits and installations housed at the Center. Tina’s a cappella rendition of Strange Fruit in the mock-up of a night time in the Deep South was truly memorable.

Q & A with Tim Watkins


We ended out WLCAC tour with Tina’s father Tim Watkins in a Q&A. Much of this was focused on issues around police-community relations but also, interestingly about the pressures of gentrification that the district is beginning to feel – as large landowners in Watts, WLCAC are in a good position to mitigate some of the negative effects of this development.


The Watts Towers


After WLCAC we took a short visit to the Watts Towers Arts Center. Rosie Lee Hooks who runs the centre was kind enough to open the Towers up for a tour on a day on which they are usually closed for conservation and work. The students also met the artists in residence Charles Dickson and Carlos Spivey.

Touring inside the Towers with Patrick









The students have talked to a number of people who live in LA and Orange County and most have expressed shock that anyone would visit South Central LA. This is founded less perhaps in prejudice and more in fear, a fear stoked by all forms of media – traditional and social. Most people who live in LA have never been to South Central and never will. By the end of this trip then, our students will have seen and experienced more of the city than most Angelinos. If you are reading this and planning a trip to LA, make sure you take in WLCAC and the Watts Towers, they really are interesting and safe places to go.

Navigators today were actually pretty good. Despite feeling nervous about guiding us through South Central LA Freddie, Elena and Tom knew where they were and were ready to make detours when and if required.

We are gradually posting a number of images on @SussexGeogLA and re-tweeting some of the students’ tweets. Please do follow us if you are a tweeter or just look it up if you’re not.

Posted in LA

Orange County – Rancho Santa Margarita

On the road to Orange County

Bright and early this morning we set off south of LA to Orange County and spent the whole day in the city of Rancho Santa Margarita (RSM). RSM is a young city and the first incorporated city of the millennium in the USA. Orange County has benefited from significant economic growth since the mid-1960s in part driven by defence spending that in turn funded a burgeoning IT sector. More recently biotechnology and finance corporations have also begun to make significant contributions to the local economy. RSM is a product of this economic growth but also of the wider trend of peripheral urbanisation that is occurring throughout the region. Some geographers call these types of settlement ‘edge cities’ and they are often, like RSM, contract cities which tender for most of their services and have a very small permanent administrative staff.

Melissa Data welcomes us

Our first stop was at Melissa Data a software engineering company focused on address verification that was amongst the first to set up in RSM 27 years ago. We were welcomed by the founder and CEO Ray Melissa and Human Resources Manager Bette Hagerty before Lauren Sveen, Admound Chou and Michael Johnson took over. Lauren took the students through the dynamics of how the company works and then Michael talked more broadly about working and living in RSM, ending with a really entertaining game of Jeopardy the questions for which were based on the presentations that we’d just heard. Most of the students acquitted themselves well although the winning team could do with a lesson in humility.

Playing Jeopardy in the training room at Melissa Data

The City Center at RSM



The people of RSM always give us a warm welcome and Melissa Data are no exception as they laid on a great Panera lunch for all of the students and lots of chocolate eggs throughout our stay.

We then had a free hour in which to explore the Town Center where the students enjoyed the shops (mostly Target).





Our afternoon was spent in City Hall. Once again, we received a fantastic welcome and a number of people who were immensely generous with their time.

Mayor Gamble talks to the group at RSM

We began with a great talk by the Mayor of RSM Carol Gamble. She was one of the main movers in establishing RSM as a city some 17 years ago and has since worked for the council running the place. She and her colleagues are all part-time politicians working full-time in other professions – Carol for instance is helping to manage the construction of the new LA Rams stadium – and give up their spare time to administer the city. They all work to uphold the original vision which Wendy Starks, Principle Planner and Laura Lopez, PIO/Management Analyst, then discussed with us. This vision at its core celebrates the values of small town American life but designed to counter the problems of urbanity – over-reliance on the car, lack of recreational space, lack of social mixing and so on. There’s an interesting video on YouTube that we were shown that helps elaborate.

Wendy Starks and Laura Lopez discuss the RSM vision

In both visits today the students asked some excellent, engaged questions. I was immensely proud of the way they represented our department today.


Group photo at the end of the day in the Council Chamber at RSM

The quality of navigation was not so consistently excellent however. First navigator in the lead van was Joey. His map reading was slightly out of synch with the road we were on, usually by about one junction. In the second van Ghaleb was navigating and was more able to work out where he was. The Ferdinand Magellan prize for navigation however goes to Matt L who managed to get Martin out of a pickle when he managed to follow the wrong van out of the car park – not for the first time.

Posted in LA


Although we started with overcast skies, today the weather was mostly clear and sunny. I am hoping that this clarity coupled with the nine weeks of reading about LA, preparing presentations and listening to a series of boring lectures I delivered on the city and the themes of the trip will mean that it all began to make sense today. Fieldwork is about trying to ground complex ideas in concrete, if confusing reality.

Inspirational teaching is our trademark

Our day comprised of tours of a number of areas of the LA to get a sense of the scale and complexity of an urban space that many are now holding up as the model that other global cities are following. After giving the students 30 minutes to mark the route on their maps (not that all of them managed to – see below), we set out for Beverly Hills.
In Beverly Hills I wanted the students to do something that the environment is not really designed to allow –to walk. Security patrols, warning signs, CCTV, the lack of sidewalks and various forms of defensive architecture, make this extremely wealthy area unwelcoming to non-residents. When we visit other areas of the city more renowned for imparting fear and discomfort, the sense of being out of place in this extremely wealthy area will be placed into a different context. Sadly however the walking route that I had planned was completely closed off and we had to make do with a driving tour of the plush residential streets. I think they got the idea though.

The view from Beverly Hills

Leaving Beverly Hills we travelled towards poorer areas of the city, skirting around the top of South Central LA. This section of the day gives the students a real sense of just how close to one another extreme wealth and extreme poverty are in this city. It was also set up to give an idea of the ways in which different neighbourhoods and districts in the city express themselves in terms of architecture and iconography. This is a remarkably diverse city culturally, socially, economically and aesthetically.

Lunching at the Farmers Market

We took lunch at the Farmers Market in Hollywood and then headed up to the Hollywood Hills to take in views of the San Fernando Valley. It was at a viewpoint overlooking the valley that I pondered my teaching technique on the pre-trip module – when asked what area they were looking at, the answers were not what I expected: Seattle, San Francisco, South Central, Orange County were some notable ones.

Group photo overlooking the San Fernando Valley

We then travelled along Mulholland Drive to overlook Los Angeles again from a viewing area above the Hollywood Bowl. Here, the students made a field sketch of the city. The object of this exercise was to get them to think more deeply about what being a field working geographer means and some of the problems and possibilities afforded by that position. I hope it worked. This is not, as you’ll see from the examples below, about accurate representation, but about the limitations of the classic geographers’ view from a high place.

Part of the view that the students were sketching


The look of pure concentration whilst sketch mapping – Matt L, Nadia and Joey


Tom and Shay share equipment whilst sketch mapping

At least someone is listening to their tutor

One regular feature of the trip is that students are asked to be navigators. Ella T was the first lead navigator today and did a great job. She was the one that was able to navigate a different route through Beverly Hills when we had to abandon the walking tour. Dan H was the first navigator in the second van and ‘on the ball’ according to Catherine. Giulia was apparently brilliant in Martin’s van too. The afternoon navigators were not however a match. Shay used the ESP method of navigation which consisted of not actually using a map or using a map on which there was no route marked. Nadia had also failed to mark the route on her map although this might not be the reason that Catherine got lost coming out of the Farmers’ Market. Katie, Martin’s navigator was another with a route-less map, but apparently knew where she was going.

We’re off to Orange County tomorrow. Let’s hope they know where that is.

Posted in LA


En route over Greenland

Welcome to the first entry for the Los Angeles field class blog for 2017. Each day of the trip we will record our activities including, hopefully, lots of content and comments from the students. Everyone reading is warmly encouraged to make comments and contributions too, so please feel free to send them in. We are also running a Twitter feed, so please follow @SussexGeogLA . This will include other content including pictures, videos etc. of us in the field as it happens. If you’re a tweeter please include @SussexGeogLA and we can re-tweet you.



Arriving at LAX

Martin, Catherine and I arrived yesterday to set things up for the students – picking up vans, sorting out the hotel accommodation, buying maps, etc. It’s all going smoothly at the moment which is worrisome because usually something has gone wrong by now – that’s unless you count the fact that it took Martin 15 minutes to park his van yesterday (badly) and Catherine forgetting to bring her mobile to the T-Mobile shop to install a new SIM…oh, and forgetting her toothbrush.



Comfort Inn

Our home from home for the next 10 days



Two of our three vans.

We now await the arrival of the students who are coming in on flights throughout the day – we’ll be making several airport runs today.


Maps for each of the students. Tomorrow they will use them to navigate the orientation route


We have an ‘early’ start (= 9.00am) tomorrow for the orientation day. This will involve practising the lost geographical arts of map reading and field sketching. Please read the account of when it’s posted because the results are often interesting, sometimes disturbing, frequently abstract.

You can see who is on the trip by clicking ‘Who’s who’. We met for 9 weeks before departure and they’re all fully briefed on the city, and I think very excited about what the next 10 days has in store. The weather looks like it will be warm and sunny throughout our stay.

Posted in LA

Los Angeles Field Class 2017

Information for the Geography field class to Los Angeles in 2017 will appear here.

Santa Monica

Santa Monica

On our way to the Bonaventure Hotel

The Bonaventure Hotel



Posted in Admin