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. 

1 comment:

  1. Re loneliness: first off, I don't know that making friends is actually any easier elsewhere than here, controlling for stage of life, age, etc. We'd need to see some data.

    Second, I think the best ways to make friends here are by having a consistent volunteer gig of some sort (support a political initiative you like, or just take whatever you like to do and find a way to teach it to people)... or join an exercise or activity group. (Meetups are a good place to find those. They abound.)

    It seems to take a certain number of exposures to people before we form bonds. Volunteering is good bc you probably have at least a few things in common with the other people, since you all chose the same group.