Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Los Angeles: The Beautiful and the Ugly

It dawned on me this past May as I rode phase 2 of the Expo Line for the first time, over the bridge above Sepulveda Blvd. It was the very thought that would come to me frequently as I drove north on the 405 from the airport to UCLA, or that one time when I stood  on top of the Baldwin Hills Overlook....  I would peer out the side window, or over the dashboard, and catch sight of the Wilshire Corridor's skyscrapers arrayed against the parched Santa Monica Mountains, perhaps (at the overlook) also peering over boxy retail and commercial buildings and single-family homes in the foreground. The interjection of untamed nature among thick swathes of (bland) modernist development, and the erection of a concrete human presence in semi-arid steppeland have both exasperated and intrigued me...

Mid-century modernism ringed by sun-baked mountains and irrigated greenery

What these experiences have reminded me is that Los Angeles is simultaneously "beautiful", embodying many of the good qualities of cities, and "ugly", embodying many of the bad. As has been true from time immemorial (e.g. sunshine and noir), the city's positives and negatives interact more through means of paradox than juxtaposition.

Take for instance, the pristine nature, such as that I observed in the mountain views. Few other American cities (in fact, Portland, is the only other city that immediately comes to mind) have such expansive tracts of wilderness as the Santa Monica Mountains, Griffth Park and Runyon Canyon in such close proximity to the urban core. Mountain Lions and Coyotes scamper across the region's busy freeways, and hide behind apartment buildings in dense neighborhoods like Westlake. And yet, Los Angeles is notorious for its paucity of traditional urban "green space." Not only does LA have the fewest parks per square mile of any major American city, but (outside of Downtown), the parks it has do not provide the sort of social gathering space found in European or Eastern cities.

As if to compound the problems of deficient open space, Los Angeles is dense. The metropolitan area as a whole is the densest in the country, while, as of the year 20101, the city's planning sub-areas ranged in population density (measured in persons per square mile) from a figure just above Portland's (for West Los Angeles) to a figure almost equal to San Francisco's (South Los Angeles). With people of every race, color and creed jammed together into duplexes and townhouses from Encino to San Pedro, the region should be an urbanist's dream.

Nature, Los Angeles-style

Unfortunately, Greater Los Angeles' density is (for the most part) haphazardly dispersed rather than centrally-concentrated, justifying the region's reputation for "sprawl".  20-mile to 30-mile long swaths of the San Fernando, San Bernadino and San Gabriel Valleys are blanketed by a morass of dingbats and pre-fabricated apartment buildings: with millions commuting between each of these valleys and the coastal business centers or office parks further inland (along geographically-constricted corridors), the end result is notorious congestion. The prevalence of car-centered strip mall commercial corridors in "urban" Koreatown as much as in "suburban" Covina adds to the all-around blight and congestion.  You can get the two-story suburban house with a backyard and (maybe) a pool, or the compact two-bedroom apartment: but the former does not offer tranquil seclusion and the latter lacks vibrant architecture or public space. Instead, urban life manifests in jam-packed highways...and smog.  

And then there's walking. An 80s-pop song reminds New Yorkers that "Nobody walks in LA" but this is far from the truth. Indeed, perhaps no other city in America ritualizes walking as much as LA does. From 7am to 8am and 5pm to 7pm each weekday, an army of joggers and dogwalkers fans out across the sidewalks of every single-family residential zoned neighborhood in the region. Like clockwork, the pedestrian legion dissipates at the end of the timeframe almost as quickly as it appears (though activity is somewhat more constant at some of the Regional Parks, e.g. Runyon Canyon). Outside of some isolated tourist hotspots (e.g. Hollywood, downtown Beverly Hills), nobody walks in LA to get places but everybody does their daily "walk" for a healthy heart and lower cholesteral.

To be more accurate, the above applies to middle and upper-class Angelenos (the cohort which I live among). The places in LA that boast the most throngs of pedestrians are the lower-income, predominantly Latino and Asian neighborhoods that ring Downtown. Stand for a few minutes at the corner of Western Avenue and 6th Street in Koreatown or Alvarado and 7th Street in Westlake and you can easily fool yourself into thinking you are in Manhattan (for the former) or Mexico City (for the latter). Supporting the pedestrian throngs are a cohort of street vendors, one of the largest in the Western Hemisphere (who are kept a safe distance from bourgeois districts, due to city ordinances that officially "outlaw" such activity). Los Angeles is one of the few major cities in the world in which the liveliest neighborhoods tend to be the most impoverished.

That being said, the gentrification of Downtown's Historic Core changes the picture a little, though I see that area as more of a hipster Hollywood (predominantly a nightlife destination) than a genuinely walkable neighborhood. Spring Street now even has a dog park...

A lack of public space and human interaction, as well as a vast physical geography, cause (middle- to upper-class) Los Angeles residents to suffer from personal isolation to an extent unknown in any other world city. If you have your circle of friends from college, you'll make the weekly drive to cling together. If not, then good luck (You're as likely to run into a tourist from Shanghai or Dusseldorf as you are a resident from the neighboring apartment block, when frequenting the Grove). Visitors from the East Coast and Europe are always impressed by the outward "friendliness" of our residents--especially those who work in restaurants or coffee shops. Little do they remember that many of us are professional actors, who do their best to conceal how much all of us suffer.  

And finally, there's the human diversity. I once encountered a statistic stating that the students of the Los Angeles Unified School District speak 120-something languages at home. From personal experience, I can attest that the LA area is one of the few in the country (if not the world) which boasts eateries featuring almost every cuisine imaginable (see my new food blog for more on this). And yet, thanks to the lack of public space and communal interaction, Los Angeles' diversity results more in atomization than cross-pollination. Jane Jacobs famously remarked on a Los Angeles resident who had "never laid eyes on a Mexican"2, despite its significant Mexican population. I myself never ate at a taco at one of the city's iconic loncheras until I started venturing to the Eastside as a Lyft driver after college. As food critic Jonathan Gold once said, in Los Angeles the (different) ethnic groups "cook for themselves" and not for one another or the city as a whole. Such an attitude contributes to the city in raw variety and authenticity, but deprives the city of social cohesion, personal enrichment (for its individual citizens) and a unique sense of place.

 Having recently left the city for a week-long vacation, I understand how much I love LA. The vast expanse of urbanity, the variety of people and places, the mountain vistas and ocean sunsets, the taco trucks and loncheras... Each of these qualities is intertwined with such social ills as sprawl, traffic, or conflict. It is true that Los Angeles has long-lacked in quality long-term city planning, though maybe Los Angeles is too complex or too "real". to reduce to a perfected form. Regardless of whether I can live to see that ideal implemented, I can ponder a better future while cherishing the present.

1. Based on calculations I made as part of a project for work, in June.  
2. Jacobs, Jane. The Life and Death of Great American Cities, pg. 72. 

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

An Angeleno visits the Twin Cities

Both in my work and private life (i.e. on this blog), I have spent much of the past two years critiquing transportation and land use planning here in Los Angeles.  A recent visit to the Twin Cities metropolis, a region  that is seen as a national model for multi-modal transportation planning (as well as in affordable housing and economic development) gave me the opportunity to assess Los Angeles' shortcomings with a more rounded perspective. I arrived at the following observations.

1. As in Los Angeles, the Twin Cities' gestating Metro system anchors on the city of Minneapolis' downtown core (the system's planned expansion aims to keep things this way). Besides the fact that such a system marginalizes the downtown of the region's second anchor city, St. Paul (served by a single line leading to Downtown Minneapolis), it also ignores the importance of the numerous urban commercial, retail and entertainment centers outside of either city's downtown, like Minneapolis's Uptown District and St. Paul's Grand Avenue. Indeed, I noticed that much like Downtown Los Angeles of the 1980s and 1990s, Downtown Minneapolis serves primarily as a weekday employment center: outside of narrow corridors along the Nicollet Mall, First Avenue and Washington Avenue, almost all restaurants and shops closed all-day on Saturdays and Sundays and at 6 pm on weekdays. By contrast, when I visited Uptown and Grand Avenue, at 8 pm on a Monday and on a Saturday morning respectively, I encountered a healthy mix of shops, restaurants and bars open to business (and serving patrons), in settings that were just as walkable and compact. Luckily, Downtown Los Angeles is no longer so fixated around the workweek (except in the vicinity of the Civic Center). And, yet, a general problem for downtown-centric transportation planning still applies: by focusing on only one of several regional "centers", each of which may serve as important (or specialized) of a use as the other, a transit system will only capture a segment of one flow of regional commuter traffic.    

2. By running light-rail lines on at-grade (streetcar-esque) alignments through a heavily-trafficked downtown core, a transit operator limits the line's convenience. In Downtown Minneapolis, it takes at least 7 minutes (according to the schedule: It felt even longer each time I rode) for the Green or Blue Lines to travel the 1.5 mile distance from Target Field to the US Bank Center station, almost as much as the amount of time it takes the Blue Line to traverse the ensuing 3.4 miles from US Bank Center station to 38th Street station. At-grade, street-level track layouts have a similarly-retarding effect on the Expo Line's journey along Flower between Pico and Jefferson and on the Gold Line's crawl along Marmion Way in Highland Park. My experiences in Minneapolis reaffirmed my belief that tunneling or bridging expenses are justified for transit line segments through dense or heavily-trafficked areas, where such improvements result in commute time savings (which translate, in turn, to increased ridership) and fatality reductions.

3. Minneapolis's Blue Line also slows dramatically just south of the International Airport, in the stretch between the Terminal 2 and Mall of America stations. In the span of only half a mile, the Blue Line makes 3 stops (American Boulevard, Bloomington Central and 28th Avenue) as it winds through an agglomeration of parking lots and suburban office parks, before terminating inside the Mall of America. That's right: three stops within the classic half-mile walk circle! Since I traveled on a Saturday, the entire district (and each of the three stations) was deserted, but I am sure that even during the week, the copious free parking and lack of pedestrian infrastructure ensure that the vast majority of the persons employed in the district drive to work. Of course, the lack of walkability might be cited in support of placing the three stations (each in proximity to a major hotel or corporate complex) so close together but this begs the question: why build stations to serve an auto-centric, weekday-exclusive business center in the first place (retarding the Blue Line's speed on this stretch)?

 As with Los Angeles' prioritization of the Foothill Gold Line extension over the Crenshaw Line or Purple Line to Westwood, the answer probably lies in politics (i.e. appeasing suburban constituencies), not revenue or ridership.

4. Minneapolis's Grand Rounds Scenic Byway bicycle "highway" is truly impressive, both in its scope and scenery. However, I would hesitate to assert (as the folks at WalkScore do) that Minneapolis is America's most bike-friendly city, based on its bike paths, since the bike lane network seemed lacking. Compared to Portland, bike lanes in Minneapolis were thinly distributed (as far as a mile apart outside Downtown). Many important bike connections (e.g. along Riverside Avenue between the Franklin Bridge and the University of Minnesota's West Bank Campus) teetered rather precariously (none were protected) on the edge of 4- to 6-lane speedways, which teemed with sedans dashing to enter the Interstate. Much like Los Angeles, Minneapolis gave way too much street space too cars back in the 1950s and 1960s and still acts too timidly in reclaiming space for bikes. While the Grand Rounds bike path system is great for joyriding, it fails to provide mobility since it runs mostly through residential areas on the edge of the city, with few urban amenities nearby (Portions of the Chain of Lakes and Mississippi River segments get pretty close to Uptown and Downtown, but lie in parkland areas separated by a few blocks from the main commercial strips). In terms of bicycle planning, Minneapolis is no model for Los Angeles.

5. My line of reasoning in point 4 leads to my final conclusion: That Minneapolis-St. Paul felt (*gasp), on the whole. less walkable than LA. Not only did the region's arterials and local streets devote disproportionate space to cars (like ours) but many signaled intersections in outlying neighborhoods, partuicularly at intersections between arterial and local streets, lacked demarcated crosswalks. The absence of this feature, which I have come to take for granted in my hometown, made it difficult to get right-turing cars to slow down and enabled cars in the through lanes (without a visible reference) to block the pedestrian crossing space. In addition, Minneapolis's Skyway system seems to deplete much of Downtown Minneapolis of street-level retail and dining amenities, making it more difficult to sightsee the city's urban core on foot. Minneapolis's city leaders should take some advice from this urbanist.

The moral of the trip? Maybe LA is not so doomed after all.