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Four Takes: Location, location, location, The Boston Sunday Globe

Updated: Aug 27, 2019

(Steve Dykes/Getty Images)

July 21, 2019

The 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building still unfortunately dominates most peopleʼs conception of Oklahoma City. Anderson argues that the Thunderʼs arrival 13 years later, and the teamʼs unexpected brilliance, have been essential to the communityʼs healing.

The city abruptly sprouted with the land run of 1889, an event Anderson recounts in lively detail. (At times he can seem like the desperate-to-amuse guy on the next barstool, but bear with him.) Although the sections on the Thunder may be a little too much inside basketball for some readers, Anderson balances his account with wonderful historical and cultural nuggets (my favorite: the museum devoted to free enterprise). He also delivers a powerful reconstruction of the bombing, as well as an indelible portrait of Gary England, a meteorologist venerated for his life-saving tornado forecasts.

If Oklahoma City almost never came to be, Los Angeles was at least as improbable. Gary Kristʼs “The Mirage Factory – Illusion, Imagination and the Invention of Los Angeles” illuminates the cityʼs rise through three notable figures: William Mulholland, the architect of its water system; D.W. Griffith, the master filmmaker who helped bring a fledgling movie industry west; and the wildly popular evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson.

Kristʼs scrupulously researched history shows how three intersecting dreams created the unlikely fact of LA, as well as its illusion-loving soul. (“Whether you like it or not,” Charlie Chaplin once tellingly told McPherson, “youʼre an actress.”)

At the turn of the last century, Los Angeles was smaller than Fall River. Mulhollandʼs scheme to poach water from the north, and the 1913 completion of his aqueduct, proved vital to attracting investment.

Griffith was drawn by the promise of sunny days and virtually year-round shooting. McPherson, she would attest, arrived on instructions from the Lord. At 28, she quit the East Coast and, with her mother and two children, headed to LA, driving most of the way herself. In California, she drew thousands with her upbeat gospel of salvation and, not incidentally, reports of faith healing. Followers soon donated enough to erect a lavish million- dollar temple, with seating for 5,300.

In the years when Los Angeles was coming of age, Pittsburgh had already reached maturity.

The Pennsylvania coal capital is probably best known as the stamping ground of Andrew Carnegie, and other Gilded Age titans. But in “Smoketown – The Untold Story of the Other Great Black Renaissance,” Mark Whitaker unearths a second, lesser-known city. Much like Harlem, Pittsburgh was home to a vibrant black community that flourished from the 1920s through the 1950s. Its newspaper, the Pittsburgh Courier, played an outsized role in shaping black opinion across the country.

Like Sam Anderson, the Courierʼs editors understood the power of sports to lift the profile of a community. The paper was an early champion of Joe Louis, presenting the Alabama fighterʼs rise as a vindication of black flight from the South. Pittsburghʼs integrated school system and rich musical culture helped produce several jazz greats, including Billy Strayhorn, Billy Eckstine and Erroll Garner. The city also molded August Wilson, one of the postwar eraʼs greatest playwrights.

Family ties encouraged Whitaker to bring this lesser-known history to light. But as Anderson demonstrates, it sometimes takes an outsider to bring a place fully into focus. As a visitor to the deep South, the British travel writer Richard Grant was so entranced that he impulsively purchased a grand plantation house. “Dispatches from Pluto — Lost and Found in the Mississippi Delta” is his mind-blown account.

Arriving from New York with his girlfriend, Grant discovers nature in all its summertime fecundity (snakes, clouds of mosquitoes and armadillos that need killing). He quickly takes on his own prejudices, among them a dim view of gun culture and weed killers, and is entertainingly humbled. Questions of race assume an equally humbling complexity. Full of outlandish stories, eccentrics and lessons in neighborliness, Grantʼs report from the Mississippi swampland washes down like sweet tea.

M.J. Andersen is an author and journalist who writes frequently on the arts.

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