Los Angeles is known for its diversity of all kinds: ethnic, linguistic, religious, species, topographic. It is the most populous county in the country and home to hundreds of cities, communities, and neighborhoods. All of these are reasons that after first visiting in 1998 I decided to move here and devote much of my time to exploring, usually on foot but occasionally with the aid of trains, buses, and my bicycle. As I explore, I make maps. Of particular interest to me are the region’s ethnic enclaves, which are to me central to the city’s identity.
For most of human history, ethnic enclaves have often been created out of discrimination and exclusion, but the role they play in the life of the cities in which they are located is complex. Los Angeles County and neighboring Orange County are almost certainly home to more enclaves than anywhere else in the world, and they are good places to explore where culture and demographics are encoded—and sometimes recoded—in the urban landscape. For new immigrants, these enclaves can help mitigate the strangeness of a new city in a new country, offering not just familiar food, sounds, and smells, but also social services. In today’s California, these neighborhoods are often as much business and economic districts as they are residential ethnic enclaves.
As ethnicities assimilate into the mainstream, enclaves sometimes vanish, as Los Angeles’s French Town, Little Italy, and Sonoratown did. Today, Los Angeles and Orange counties are home to Cambodia Town, Chinatown, Filipinotown, Koreatown, Little Arabia, Little Armenia, Little Bangladesh, Little Brazil, Little Central America, Little Ethiopia, Little India, Little Russia, Little Saigon, Little Seoul, Little Tokyo, Little Osaka, Tehrangeles, and Thai Town. Currently, there are efforts to officially designate a Peru Village, a Little Venezuela, a Paseo Colombia, a Guatemalan Mayan Village, and an Oaxacan Corridor. Enclaves are no longer just for immigrants; an official designation can elevate a restaurant into a destination for tourists from around the world and across town.
Filipinos have a long history in this section of Los Angeles, although the word “Historic” was added to the neighborhood name to appease its many non-Filipino residents when the area received its formal designation in 2002. An actual historic Filipinotown, colloquially known as “Little Manila,” was centered along First Street between Bunker Hill and Little Tokyo, but it was razed to make way for the Civic Center in the 1940s. That’s when many Filipinos moved over from Bunker Hill to what is now Historic Filipinotown, on the northern edge of the Westlake neighborhood. Greater Los Angeles now has several larger Filipino communities, including ones in Carson, Eagle Rock, Panorama City, and West Covina. You might still see a jeepney on the streets of Historic Filipinotown. At Christmas, you might see the paper star lanterns called paróls in the neighborhood, which is still home to an assortment of Filipino organizations, social services, churches, art stores, restaurants, and apartments with names like Larry Itliong Village, Luzon Plaza, and Manila Terrace.
What was historically known as Greek Town was cumbersomely designated the Byzantine-Latino Quarter in 1997. The neighborhood developed in the 1890s as Pico Heights; but when a hundred or so Japanese Angelenos moved there, wealthy whites fled, and their void was largely filled by Mexicans and Eastern Europeans, including Greeks—especially after the California Alien Land Law in 1920 all but halted Japanese immigration. Greek immigrant Sam Chrys opened C & K Importing in 1948, but his Greek restaurant, Papa Cristo’s Catering & Greek Taverna, inspired the most adoration. Across the street, Saint Sophia Greek Orthodox Cathedral, built in 1952, towers over the neighborhood. Aside from those two vestiges, there are few signs of Greeks in the mostly Latino and Korean neighborhood today.
Little Tokyo has overcome several existential threats to become Los Angeles’s oldest extant ethnic enclave. Japanese people began settling in the neighborhood as early as 1869, and the first Japanese restaurants appeared in the 1880s. The neighborhood lost two thirds of its Japanese population during World War II. Then, in 1953, a large portion of the area was razed to make way for the Civic Center. In the 1970s, corporate interests—both American and, ironically, Japanese—led to mass evictions and redevelopment of much of the neighborhood. The Little Tokyo Towers, built in 1975 to serve those whose homes were destroyed to make way for a hotel, are now home to a population that is roughly one-third Korean. Korean investment continues to flow into Little Tokyo, and some Korean investors, like those who bought the dreary, half-empty Little Tokyo Galleria, have taken pains to preserve—or even promote—a more overtly Japanese image.
Businessman Lee Hi Duk sowed the seeds that would become Koreatown when he opened Olympic Market on Olympic Boulevard in 1971. In 1975, he opened a Korean-style restaurant, Young Bin Kwan, with imported blue roof tiles from Korea. He encouraged developers to follow his lead and build in an explicitly Korean style. Few heeded his wish, and his restaurant eventually became the Oaxacan restaurant Guelagetza. In fact, if you want to see Korean-style architecture, you’re more likely to find it in Little Tokyo, at the Little Tokyo Plaza.
Chinatown’s roots extend back to the great railroad projects of the 1860s. In 1871, when a white farmer was killed in the crossfire between two rival tongs, as the Chinese gangs were called, a mob of 500 murdered eighteen Chinese people in the worst-ever mass-lynching in United States history. Chinatown survived this racist terrorism but was later almost entirely destroyed to make room for the construction of Union Station. The last remnants of the old Chinatown were obliterated by construction of the Hollywood Freeway in 1954. By then there was a new Chinatown, built in 1938 and designed largely as an open-air shopping area. China City, with its red gate and hanging lanterns, was built in part from leftover set pieces that had been constructed for the film The Good Earth. This new enclave, built with both Chinese and non-Chinese in mind, helped the latter overcome their fear of yellow peril and even embrace Americanized Chinese dishes like chop suey.
The new Chinatown was built on top of Los Angeles’s Little Italy, which came into being without the input of Hollywood set designers. Had its architecture been more “authentic,” it might have garnered a greater preservation effort. The last Italian restaurant in the neighborhood, Little Joe’s, was demolished over almost no objections more than seventy years after its construction. But there are still a few vestiges of Little Italy in the area including Casa Italiana, Eastside Market, Lanza Brothers, the Pelanconi House, San Antonio Winery, and St. Peter’s. Most others departed with the Italian-American population, which headed in large numbers over the Repetto Hills into the post-war suburbs of the western San Gabriel Valley.
Large numbers of Armenians first began settling in this neighborhood east of Hollywood—and east of East Hollywood—in the 1970s. Often fleeing rising regional instability, they were immigrants not so much from Armenia directly, as from other diasporic homelands in Turkey, Iran, and Syria. Many came from Lebanon, where the well-known Armenian chain Zankou Chicken was founded before opening a second location in Little Armenia. Although the neighborhood has its share of imaginative architecture, including a Moorish auto shop with minarets, there are few overt signs of Armenian-ness in the neighborhood aside from bakeries with signs written in Armenian, the distinctly Armenian architecture of Saint Garabed Armenian Church, and several murals that celebrate Armenian history or commemorate the Armenian genocide of 1915.
Over time, the suburbs of the western San Gabriel Valley became home to Armenians, Japanese, Mexicans, Italian, Serbians, Cubans, and Puerto Ricans. Today recent Asian immigrants and Asian Americans dominate those suburbs. This demographic shift began in the 1970s, when realtor Frederic Hsieh began promoting the San Gabriel Valley suburb of Monterey Park as the “Chinese Beverly Hills” in Taiwanese and Hong Kong media. By the 1980s, Monterey Park was the first Asian American majority city on the American mainland. Soon, Taiwanese families began to move to more distant suburbs, such as Diamond Bar, Hacienda Heights, Irvine, Rowland Heights, and Walnut. The suburbs of the San Gabriel Valley are increasingly home to a multiethnic but largely Asian population that includes large numbers of Chinese, Vietnamese, Indonesians, Burmese, Filipinos, Koreans, and others—although, as with Chinatown, there are vestiges of the Italians who preceded them in the form of markets like Claro’s and restaurants such as Di Pilla’s, Bollini’s, Angelo’s, Mama Petrillo’s, and Vittoria. On the Far East Side, there is relatively little architecture that is recognizably Asian, aside from the odd home, shopping mall, Shun Fat Supermarket, and Hacienda Heights’s huge Fo Guang Shan Hsi Lai Temple.
Home to the largest concentration of Koreans outside of Korea, Koreatown may be the most vibrant neighborhood in Los Angeles; however, located in the Orange County suburb of Garden Grove is a small, suburban counterpart known colloquially as Little Seoul. Officially, it is designated as “The Korean Business District.” Little Seoul arose in the 1970s, around the time Korean Americans found a niche as greengrocers—and, indeed, the first Korean business in the area was a grocery store. As with several other enclaves, relics from before the enclave include seedy motels and adult video stores, but the dominant businesses in the almost invariably blue-tiled strip malls are markets that, unlike most grocery store chains, actually deserve to be called by the overused, honorific title of “supermarket.” The streets of Little Seoul are car-oriented and shadeless, but they are still quiet and walkable. Under the roofs of the markets, a super-extraordinary variety of businesses occupy the periphery, including restaurants, music stalls, discount shops, banks, optometrists, cosmetic shops, herbalists, and more.
Little Arabia’s development followed a familiar path. An immigrant couple, in this case Palestinians from Nazareth, opened a restaurant in a seedy, unincorporated area surrounded by Anaheim. In time, Lebanese and Syrian developers further built up the area and helped found the Arab American Council there. Locals began calling the area the Garza (and sometimes “Gaza”) Strip. Gradually, the strip bars, budget motels, and saloons were joined by halal butchers, bakeries, markets, and shisha dens—although, predictably, their presence wasn’t universally welcomed and ordinances were proposed to require special permits for live music and belly dancing. Anaheim ended up granting official recognition to Little Arabia in 2014, although it’s not strictly an Arab neighborhood as Turkish, Persian, Ethiopian, and Uyghur restaurants can all be found there.
Little India is located in the southeastern Los Angeles suburb of Artesia, a city with a Mexican American plurality and a large Asian minority (hailing from the Philippines, Korea, and Vietnam more often than India). In 1970, the owner of Los Angeles’s first Indian market, Selecto Spices, moved from Hollywood to Artesia, lured by cheap rent. More markets followed, which in turn were followed by restaurants serving Gujarati, Punjabi, and Maharashtrian cuisine. By the 1980s, the area was colloquially known as Little India; however, to avoid offending non-Indian business owners in the area, it was officially designated the International and Cultural Shopping District, although I suspect that no one has ever referred to it as such. The Indian-business-dominated stretch of Pioneer Boulevard continues to grow, and Hindu temples thrive in nearby Cerritos and Norwalk.
Throughout every city, dozens, sometimes hundreds, or even thousands of parcels of land of all sizes sit unused and unloved. Some are owned by the city, some by state or local agencies; others are private. From small fragments of lots to sizeable plots, they are neglected resources for reprogramming the city.
The Bowtie Parcel
With creativity, many blank spaces on the map can become more than just voids in the fabric of city life. Take the Bowtie Parcel, an eighteen-acre post-industrial wasteland near downtown Los Angeles. Formerly owned by the Union Pacific Railroad, it sat empty for years. California State Parks bought the lot for $10.7 million in 2003 but kept it closed to the public for a decade because it didn’t have funds to develop a park. Sandwiched between railroad tracks, highways, and the concrete-encased Los Angeles River, and adjacent to a mostly residential neighborhood, the parcel doesn’t attract many visitors on its own.
California State Parks still hopes to one day develop this lonely land into a public park. But while final plans and funding are being firmed up, it has ingeniously partnered with a nearby nonprofit arts organization, Clockshop, to activate the space, bringing more and more people to the abandoned site.
Every few months, commissioned artists take over portions of the Bowtie Parcel, giving Angelenos another reason to visit. Clockshop founder Julia Meltzer estimates that about 3,000 people have come to events at the site since the partnership with California State Parks started. The parcel has several permanent installations—an obelisk-shaped excavation in an asphalt pad on the site, adobe walls made on site and decorated with changing artwork and graffiti, pointedly political park-style signage that analyzes and comments on gentrification along the river. There have also been moonlit literary salons and overnight campouts beside the Los Angeles River for people from the surrounding neighborhoods, many of whom have never camped out before.
LA Open Acres maps each publicly and privately owned vacant lot in Los Angeles.
Sean Woods, LA sector supervisor for state parks, says the site’s weirdly wild qualities and air of abandonment in the heart of the city attract an audience that cares deeply for the place. “People love the Bowtie in this state—a neglected, industrial landscape with the beauty of the Los Angeles River,” he says. “The aesthetic really attracts artists. For them, it’s a blank canvas.”
But it’s not just a site for artists. “This collaboration with Clockshop is artistic,” Woods adds, “but it also touches on the larger issue of raising awareness of this open space by the Los Angeles River and the issues that surround it. We want to rally support for park development. For us, art is a vanguard of revitalization. It brings people to the site in a nontraditional way.”
Programming the Bowtie Parcel has proved a signal success and an inspiration for imagining the future of not just this once forgotten piece of Los Angeles, but other neglected spaces throughout our metropolitan fabric.
Amigos de los Rios
For the nonprofit organization Amigos de los Rios, the blank canvas takes the form of billboard lots within the cities of Azusa, Baldwin Park, El Monte, South El Monte, Whittier, Montebello, and South Gate. In 2012, Amigos de los Rios worked with UC Berkeley College of Environmental Design professor Nicholas de Monchaux and a team of students to identify lots that could be repurposed into green spaces such as bird and butterfly habitat and wetlands.
Their first project transformed a quarter-acre trash dump in El Monte into a public recreation area filled with exercise equipment and plantings. For years, the students of the adjacent Madrid Middle School referred to this lot as “The Bones.” Wedged between the school and an old metal factory, it was home to two billboard stands and 124 tons of garbage, abandoned sofas, television sets, and mattresses.
With funding from California Natural Resources, CALTRANS, and the California Community Foundation, and help from volunteers, including students from the middle school, and the California Conservation Corps and the Los Angeles Conservation Corps, the site was cleaned up. It now regularly hosts PE classes and marching band practice during school days. The school has arranged native-plant gardening sessions onsite.
Vacant lot on Western Avenue. Photograph by Flickr user Joe.
Now Amigos de los Rios has its sights set on around 150 more billboard lots around town. If turned into welcoming green spaces, Loretta Quach, a senior associate at Amigos de los Rios, says these sites could add twenty to fifty more acres of green space to the surrounding neighborhoods.
LA Open Acres
In many parts of our cities, especially in the poorest neighborhoods, valuable plots of land lie trapped behind unsightly wire fences. These lots could be so much more. They could be pocket parks, urban gardens, or landmarks for public art. Rather than sitting derelict, they could change the lives of thousands of people who live nearby
To bring these forgotten pieces of land to light, a nonprofit organization called Community Health Councils developed LA Open Acres—an interactive map that identifies all of the vacant lots, both privately and publicly owned, in Los Angeles—in collaboration with C-Lab (the Columbia University Laboratory for Architectural Broadcasting) and a group called 596 Acres with support from the Goldhirsch Foundation through an LA2050 grant.
The site collects publicly available information on vacant lots garnered from GIS data from city departments, fieldwork by community researchers, satellite imagery, and existing mapping software. It also includes a status update on each piece of property, plus information on its owner. Before LA Open Acres, no public agency or nonprofit had identified all of these fallow pieces of land in the city. And this lack of information was a major hurdle for anyone interested in repurposing a piece of vacant land.
About 90 percent of the land mapped is in private hands, estimates Malcolm Carson, general counsel and policy director for environmental health at Community Health Councils. The remaining 10 percent is owned by the city. Carson says researchers found many reasons for land to remain vacant. “Agencies often inherit these little parcels and there’s no strategic plan or imperative to do any work on them,” he says. “They usually have to concentrate on the day-to-day work of delivering power, transportation, and water to the city.”
Vacant lot on Marmion Way. Photograph by Umberto Brayj, via Flickr.
Some plots are so small, oddly shaped, or so contaminated that it is often more expensive to repurpose them than to leave them fallow. Should a lot meet the minimum size for a park, agencies would have to expend even more resources trying to figure out who should maintain any future park that would take shape on the property.
Vacant private lots often have a similar backstory. “The tax system in California encourages nondevelopment of parcels,” says Carson. Improving a property usually results in an increase in taxes, although he says that turning a lot into an urban agriculture project could merit up to a 90 percent reduction in taxes.
Every bit of land, no matter how odd, can have an impact, according to Carson. “These pieces of land aren’t marketable, but they’re good for us. There aren’t many parcels of land so small that you can’t even put a bench on it,” he says. Even oddball lots can have a more productive life, not just as full-fledged parks, but as pocket community gardens and gathering spaces. The key is to determine what a community needs and how any plot of unloved land can be part of a solution.
A number of scrappy nonprofits are now eagerly scouring LA Open Acres to find land. One of them is Farm LA, a fledgling nonprofit started by Emily Gleicher and Jason Wood, an Elysian Valley couple dedicated to sustainable living.
Gleicher says she feels like Sherlock Holmes, investigating a mystery using the information LA Open Acres provides on each lot, as they hunt for plots of land with owners who might be willing to see their vacant property transformed into a productive urban farm.
Using the interactive map, the couple has been narrowing down their search for unbuildable lots on narrow streets or small plots that stay vacant because no owner wants to pay for necessary street improvements. Gleicher and Wood would like to turn these lots into drought-tolerant agricultural gardens. They are hoping a recently passed California state bill, AB 551, which gives property owners five-year tax deductions in exchange for allowing their land to be used for agricultural purposes, will encourage owners to work with Farm LA. They’ve already pitched the concept to a number of neighborhood councils.
They’re focusing their search in LA’s “food deserts,” communities with few sources for fresh food. “We want to bring those communities affordable access to organic food, and education on solar and water generation, as well as beautify the neighborhood,” says Gleicher. Wood, who also works at a solar company, hopes to install solar and greywater systems on plots.
They’ve got big dreams for these small lots. Gleicher and Wood imagine LA living off the land.
“We have this Armageddon vision,” says Wood, “where LA could have solar panels running water generators that’s going through a drip line feeding an entire plot of land with no maintenance. Los Angeles could convert back into a desert, but that system will continue to provide water that grows food for people. It’s totally within the realm of what’s possible.”
In the meantime, they’re not sitting idle. They’re converting curbsides on their own street in Elysian Valley into drought-tolerant herb and vegetable gardens.
Sometimes an ephemeral change is enough to reimagine these neglected spaces in the city.
The Community Health Councils recently began #FreeLotsLosAngeles, pop-up events at which the nonprofit works with a property owner to remake a vacant lot just for one day. Much as the wildly successful CicLAvia events help city residents imagine what it’s like to live car-free for a day, these pop-up events ignite a community’s imagination for the abandoned spaces in their midst.
Last spring, after three months of workshops with the community and with the help of the city’s Great Streets Initiative, the council turned a derelict lot at the corner of Forty-first Street and Central Avenue from an intimidating space full of graffiti, aluminum sheets, and barbed wire into a kind of wonderland. Wood palettes became platforms filled with children’s blocks, display tops for succulent plantings, and a lending library. A silvery shade sculpture hung above the lot, as a mariachi trio entertained the crowd, a yoga class for newbies stretched their limbs, and children kicked a soccer ball around.
For a day, anyway, this forgotten space became a vibrant part of life in the city.
Members of temporary dance company WXPT perform evereachmore at the Bowtie Parcel beside the Los Angeles River. Courtesy Clockshop and Gina Clyne.
When I conducted an unofficial census, I found five juice bars within five blocks. There was a juice bar across the street from a juice bar. There was a coffee shop that had served juice as a matter of course but suddenly rebranded itself as a juice bar. Inside Shinola, the concept store for the revitalized Rust Belt brand from Detroit, there was a juice bar. A juice bar! From Detroit!
Juice bars seemed to have become the preferred urban typology for my Los Angeles neighborhood. Even as the neighborhood council fought to keep other things out—an apartment building, a hotel, a bar that served alcohol instead of juice—juice bars upon juice bars on top of juice bars within juice bars were welcomed with open arms to the juice bar capital of Southern California.
In the midst of this Great Juice Bar Renaissance, cold-pressed beverages weren’t the only things increasing in numbers on our streets. When raw-food chef and Instagram celebrity Amanda Chantal Bacon opened a Moon Juice in Silver Lake, a handful of homeless residents were living on the sidewalk below her business. By the time it was profiled in Vogue—”Better Skin, Better Sleep, Better Sex”—at least three dozen people had erected temporary housing there, cooking their meals over camp stoves just a few feet from where organic cashew milk was being expressed on the spot.
Photograph by Eve Bachrach.
The neighborhood’s homeless population appeared to double and then triple within a matter of months, illustrating a wicked incongruity in Silver Lake’s planning process. How could the neighborhood have approved so many juice bars, yet rejected a giant housing development that would have brought at least 300 units, many of them affordably priced, to Silver Lake’s increasingly expensive rental market? The four-story modern complex reportedly inspired by Richard Neutra’s home and studio nearby was deemed a “massive deviation from the visual character” by the neighborhood council.
Perhaps the neighbors would have liked it better if it served juice?
This phenomenon is not limited to Silver Lake, of course. From Highland Park to Hollywood, Santa Monica to Skid Row, a housing crisis is strangling Los Angeles, exacerbating increasing inequality and contributing mightily to pushing more people out into the streets. Yet neighborhoods fight developments like the one rejected in Silver Lake and propose few good solutions.
The Reason Foundation recently asserted that instead of encouraging residential density, the city should enable residents to commute—of their own free will, of course!—even farther distances by digging a series of freeway tunnels connecting disparate regions to the tune of $700 billion. The free market at work! Perhaps there is a particular type of laissez-faire Angeleno who would rather spend hours a week under the region’s mountain ranges than live any closer to the neighbors.
I thought my neighborhood was moving in the right direction as I gazed from my kitchen window to watch a high-density urban-infill development being built. It was one of several new projects on my street enabled by the city’s recently passed small-lot subdivision ordinance, created to add “stealth density” to empty pockets of already fairly densely populated areas of the city instead of pushing sprawl and traffic ever farther out to the edges of the metropolis. I bragged that my progressive neighbors were adding more affordable housing to an already highly walkable, transit-accessible neighborhood of LA, where it is actually possible to live without a car.
Photograph by Alissa Walker.
The neighbors did not share my enthusiasm. “Eyesore!” one snorted when I ran into him strolling the block. He didn’t like the contemporary style, but mostly he didn’t like the fact that it was three stories taller than the single-family home it had demolished.
Recently, the A+D Museum put on an exhibition entitled Shelter, which offered buzzworthy solutions for LA housing. The ideas that weren’t particularly new; but in the hands of talented architects such Michael Maltzan and Barbara Bestor, they offered timely thoughts for a changing city. A sleek, prefabricated apartment plopped on a swatch of backyard behind a single-family house was simply an updated take on the “granny flat.” I was excited. Perhaps, this would be an easier sell to my picky neighbors.
But as I strolled the models of stacked white boxes, envisioning extra housing snapped into the grid as easily as a handful of Lego bricks, I became increasingly anxious. That tower of micro-units fringed with drought-tolerant greenery—sure, it might be harder to foist this upon a neighborhood with a fear of heights, but it could happen. However, it would be a greater feat to convince the city to reduce the amount of space devoted to parking those residents’ cars.
A recent study by researchers at the University of Arizona found that 14 percent of the land in Los Angeles County had been designated simply for parking cars. That works out to the equivalent of 3.3 spaces for every car in the county. Three parking spaces take up about the same amount of space as the micro-units that many cities are scrambling to build to fill their own housing shortages. Los Angeles could easily be housing one or two more people in the same amount of space we’ve set aside for each of our cars.
Some of the streets around my home go under the nearby 101 freeway. And I’ve watched the underpasses become increasingly residential, just like the sidewalk in front of the juice bar near my home. It is one of the cruelest ironies of the housing crisis. Thousands of people without homes are now living under our freeways, which destroyed thousands of homes when they were built, while space for cars takes space that could be used for houses.
“Birdman,” photographed under the 101 freeway at Alvardo Street in Silver Lake. Photograph by Skid Robot.
It is no secret that Los Angeles bulldozed dozens of its neighborhoods to make way for its beloved cars, but it’s hard to envision just how much land LA has ceded to its freeways. In L.A. Freeway, an Appreciative Essay, the 1981 book that began as an undergraduate thesis, David Brodsly estimated that about 250,000 people had been displaced by the freeway system in Southern California. Writing in the Los Angeles Times recently, architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne estimated that Caltrans owns about 9,000 acres of land along its freeways in LA and Ventura counties. By contrast, LA’s Griffith Park, one of the largest urban parks in the country, is about 4,000 acres.
Over the past half-century, LA neighborhoods that were severed by the construction of our freeway system have suffered the most. Blocks of homes immediately surrounding the freeways have seen their values plummet. Living near a freeway was marketed as a convenience but quickly seen as dangerous due to noise and pollution.
But that is about to change—and faster than we think.
As more and more cars run on electricity, they’re getting quieter and safer, from a public health perspective. Autonomous vehicles will change our idea of the freeway even more. A self-driving future likely means more shared cars and, therefore, fewer of them on the streets. It also means we’ll need to devote far less space to parking and vehicular flow. By some estimates, we could shrink our streets and parking lots by 80 percent. The flow on our freeways could be reduced from ten lanes of human drivers to a hyper-efficient robot-navigated two lanes. The blocks surrounding our freeways will become cleaner, greener, and safer. And what we choose to do with them could truly make a difference for LA.
Photograph by Alissa Walker.
When laying the grid for the cities founded by the Mormon Church, Brigham Young mandated that all streets must be wide enough for an ox-driven cart to make a U-turn, a traffic requirement that became obsolete within a few decades. In cities such as Salt Lake City and Las Vegas, however, these planning decisions remain visible to this day in freeway-like boulevards that stretch across eight, nine, ten lanes of asphalt.
In one Salt Lake City neighborhood, a group decided to erect a temporary development to help illustrate the possibilities of narrowing these roads. The concept of “road diets” have become popular in many cities—dedicating a lane of vehicular traffic to public transportation, bikes, or a pedestrian plaza—but the Salt Lake residents took it even further. With a series of structures designed to be exactly as wide as two vehicular traffic lanes, their pop-up proposal added parks, restaurants, retail, office space, and, yes, housing to underused road space.
Similar ideas have been proposed for extra-wide streets in other cities, but nowhere would this idea be more effective than on LA’s freeways. It’s not even that radical of an idea. Cap parks have already been proposed for many local freeways that are below-grade, and freeway removals have proved to be beneficial for many cities without affecting vehicular congestion. There’s no reason why we can’t begin to give back some of that land for people to live, especially as our burgeoning transit system continues to grow and connect the city in more effective ways.
Imagine living on the 101 Greenway, a revitalized corridor between Hollywood and Downtown LA. Your 300-unit building is close to a new rec center and farmers’ market on an elevated stretch that takes in sweeping views of the Santa Monica Mountains. Electric buses and cars still whirr along dedicated lanes of the adapted freeway, but the rest of the lanes have been devoted to running trails and bike lanes—an actual bike freeway!—all clearly demarcated from vehicles and neatly feeding into the surrounding neighborhoods. The Red Line is a quick stroll away. Did I mention the views?
We might not need to keep battling to make density more palatable to neighborhood councils across the city. Land could be easily allocated from Caltrans, keeping costs down to build the affordable housing the city desperately needs. Converting the freeways could instantly turn some of the least desirable real estate into the most desirable locations by making these forgotten spaces livable. It could also knit back together neighborhoods destroyed by cars, transforming a soon-to-be-useless piece of overbuilt infrastructure into a much-needed public asset.
California’s freeways—its state highways, urban expressways, and interstates—cumulatively stretch 15,104 miles, end to end. Counting each lane separately, California has 51,326 drivable miles of freeway. Using the standard 12-foot width the state’s Department of Transportation, Caltrans, uses for roadbuilding, California’s freeway system covers roughly 116 square miles. If California’s entire freeway system were stretched out along its 840-mile coastline, it would be sixty-one lanes wide.
Freeways, though, are not just their lanes. They are medians, overpasses, off-ramps, soundwalls, shoulders, berms, plantings, and peripheral spaces, together combining into a superstructure of interrelated elements spiderwebbed across the state. Freeways are infrastructure, architecture, and landscape all mixed together, and they make up a significant part of our built world.
Despite their massive physical presence and impact on the land, we tend to take freeways for granted if we don’t outright despise them. This is understandable. Freeways are so much a part our day-to-day experiences of California that they almost fade into the background. At the same time, we know that freeways have played a powerful and often heinous role in shaping the built environment and the way we live our lives. Although California has long been associated with the freedom of a car-oriented lifestyle in a car-oriented place, the downsides are plentifully evident when we stop to consider them. From traffic congestion and sprawl to environmental degradation and displacement, the list is long. And yet, it’s precisely this influence that makes freeways worth looking at and thinking about more critically.
While many now hope for removals and the gradual undoing of the freeway’s unpopular effects on urbanism, the structure and landscape of the freeway—and their imprints on the land—will likely be with us for many years. Perhaps our freeway structures will one day house the shanty towns of a state ravaged by drought and sea level rise. Their underpasses are already sheltering increasing numbers of homeless men and women. Or perhaps they’ll be highly efficient speedways for autonomous cars, traveling at hundreds of miles per hour, mere inches apart. Maybe they’ll be adapted to do more for us than just provide a direct route from here to there. By understanding how freeways evolved—and what opportunities were missed along the way—we might find ways to reengineer our freeways for the future.
Italy’s Autostrade, built beginning in the mid-1920s, was the world’s first system of fast car-only roads. In the early 1930s, Germany began building its Autobahn, a countrywide network of dedicated motorways between major cities. Inspired by these systems, officials from the US Bureau of Public Roads drafted a masterplan in the 1930s for a national system of interregional highways, and our interstate highway system was born. In the United States, a “coast-to-coast rock highway” linking New York City to San Francisco through fourteen states was planned as early as 1913, though it took twenty-five years to fully build and pave. But while the international highway building project may have its roots elsewhere, it truly flourished in Los Angeles. The conditions under which LA’s highways developed and their physical impact would come to typify the emerging relationship between car and city in the United States and around the world as planners and engineers borrowed the most successful elements of the burgeoning system.
For the most part, these early roads were purposefully kept to the periphery of cities. A vast superhighway “Futurama” designed by Norman Bel Geddes was a highlight of the 1939 New York World’s Fair. But Bel Geddes was nonetheless concerned about how new roadways would be implanted in the landscape. In his 1941 book Magic Motorways, Bel Geddes argued that a “great motorway has no business cutting a wide swath right through a town or city and destroying values there: its place is in the country where there is ample room for it and where its landscaping is designed to harmonize with the land around it. Its presence will not, like that of a railroad, destroy the beauty of the land. It will help maintain it.”
In Los Angeles, that’s how things started out. The Arroyo Seco Parkway between Pasadena and downtown opened in 1940, the first in a rapidly growing network of high-speed roadways. Before freeways became the utilitarian behemoths of the post-war years that we’re most familiar with, they first embraced the concept of creating a harmonious connection with the landscape. “As a ‘parkway,’ the Arroyo Seco was more than a route; it was also a place to appreciate sublime nature from the seat of a car moving through the city at forty-five miles per hour,” writes UCLA professor Eric Avila in the exhibition catalogue Overdrive: LA Constructs the Future, 1940–1990. “A masterful orchestration of trees, shrubs, grass, arched bridges, and winding pavement, the parkway was the architectural linchpin between the garden suburbs and cemeteries of the nineteenth century and the modern highway of the interstate era.”
With medians, controlled access, and bridges for intersecting roads, early parkways like the Arroyo Seco were outfitted or later updated with many of the elements that would become standard on the urban expressways, freeways, and interstates that followed. The transition from parkway to freeway was actually quite fast in LA. Thanks to the 1933 National Industrial Recovery Act, funding for road building was shifted from the local level to the federal level, and New Deal programs made significant amounts of that funding easily available. Los Angeles took advantage of these funds to build the Arroyo Seco and sections of what would become the Hollywood Freeway, both of which retain some elements of the sweeping, scenic paths they originally cut. But almost as quickly as LA began building its scenic parkways, the era of scenic parkways was replaced by a more top-down, efficiency-oriented approach to roadbuilding.
“The transition in design orientation from boulevard to parkway to expressway to freeway accompanied the transition in planning and design responsibility from cities to county planning commissions to state highway departments,” writes David W. Jones in the 2008 book Mass Motorization + Mass Transit: An American History and Policy Analysis.
The onset of World War II brought most freeway building to a halt. But once the war was over, Los Angeles was primed to unleash a massive wave of freeway projects. New Deal money had been used to buy up rights of way throughout the city, often displacing so-called “blighted” neighborhoods and poor communities of color. Two statewide gas tax increases in the late forties and early fifties further built up a pool of money for road projects. Between 1950 and 1955, the total operating mileage of freeways in the Los Angeles area increased by 450 percent, according to David Brodsley’s seminal work L.A. Freeway: An Appreciative Essay. By the time funding for the interstate highway system was approved by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1956, nearly 100 miles of freeway were being built annually across California, according to UCLA urban planning professor Brian D. Taylor.1Statewide freeway plans adopted in 1959 aimed to put every part of Los Angeles within four miles of a freeway, which was just part of a system covering more than 12,000 miles across the state. Though funding would run out long before that system could be fully realized, much of it was built. Construction peaked in California in the 1960s, when upwards of 350 new highway miles were built in a single year’s time. As the postwar freeway building boom peaked, the design aesthetics of the parkway era and its harmonious landscape described by Norman Bel Geddes were largely abandoned. Instead, the freeway became its own landscape—the concrete ribbon, the gash, the neighborhood barrier.
“When the Eisenhower period came in and the roads system for the whole country started to go, none of the standards of providing pleasant environments, limiting the amount of shopping on the periphery, none of those things applied,” says Pritzker Prize–winning architect Kevin Roche. “It was really just thought of purely as engineering. How do you get from here to there, with the minimum of bridges and hills and things like that, so you can just bang your way through it? The question of beauty or handsome environment I don’t think came up very much.”
Not that beauty wasn’t a concern. Roche, for instance, was part of a team of architects, landscape architects, urban planners, and engineers who developed a detailed report for the Federal Highway Administration between 1965 and 1968 calling for “a high level of visual quality in every proposed freeway.”2“The Freeway in the City: Principles of Planning and Design” offered both general and specific guidance on how freeway and interstate building could be less destructive to cities and the landscape, suggesting that more attention should be paid to how freeways approach and cross through cities, how they can be utilized for more than just mobility, and how to design individual physical elements of freeways such as overpasses and support columns to be more attractive. “Urban freeways should contribute to the beauty of the regions through which they pass, from the standpoint of both the users and the viewers of the facility,” the report argues. Roche and his coauthors recognized that many freeway projects would be built regardless of public outcry. If freeways are inevitable, their report seems to suggest, they should at least be better designed.
Landscape architect Lawrence Halprin was another coauthor of the Highway Administration report, as well as his own book about freeways. He’d been trying to integrate these ideals into freeway planning throughout the 1950s and 1960s, but with little success. In his design for the Panhandle Freeway in San Francisco, Halprin tried to create a pastoral, park-like setting, with tunneled and stacked roadways that attempted to compensate for the imposition of the freeway by creating a new landscape along its path. His drawings for the project show recessed roads and large buffers of green space between homes and the freeway, and tunnels that bury the road beneath sloping topography. Even so, the idea of building a freeway that sliced through Golden Gate Park was too destructive for San Franciscans and the project was scrapped, a victim of one of the signal “freeway revolts” that arose in cities across the country successfully demanding that projects be canceled or rerouted around neighborhoods and parks.
Roche says the report he and Halprin coauthored might have had more of an impact if it had been better distributed. But he also knows that designing the landscape of freeways was a low priority back at the height of the interstate era. “I wouldn’t want to blame engineers and say they were insensitive to these problems, but it just wasn’t the number one concern,” Roche says. “The number one concern was to get from here to there ASAP. That was the charge and to do it at minimal cost and as fast as possible. So all this other stuff was regarded as fiddling around.”
Which isn’t to say that Roche and his coauthors gave up on the freeway. Halprin, among other influential landscape architects and planners such as Ian McHarg and Kevin Lynch, tried to create a freeway “that’s as alive as it is infrastructural,” says Margot Lystra, a doctoral candidate at Cornell University whose dissertation focuses on the design of urban American freeways. “These were projects that were just trying to explain that freeways were not just freeways but were environments,” Lystra says. In the post-war freeway era, “neither planners nor landscape architects nor designers across the board were really included in that conversation. It was much more turned over to highway engineers.”
The result had its own kind of beauty. It’s hard to dismiss the grandeur of the sweeping overpasses of a freeway interchange. Reyner Banham, in his 1971 book Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies, called the intersection of Interstates 10 and 405 in West LA “a work of art, both as a pattern on the map, as a monument against the sky, and as a kinetic experience as one sweeps through it.” The aesthetics of freeway engineering—exemplified in the famous “Four-Level” interchange of the 101 and the 110 near downtown LA, or more recently in the extravagantly swooping 110–105 interchange to the south—has its own fantastic allure.
“Some of the projects in the sixties are instances of designers trying to flip the script on the freeway story and say these are not just structures,” Lystra says. “These exist in neighborhoods, they go through landscapes, they interact with living beings, living beings interact with them. They’re not just these mechanical infrastructures that serve us in this very utilitarian way.”
Today, neither “pastoral” nor “speed” is the buzzword of California’s freeway builders. “The major concern here at the department is safety,” says Patty Watanabe, a landscape architect in the Caltrans District 7 office in Los Angeles. She and her colleagues are in charge of all the nonstructural aesthetics you’ll see on the freeway, from the pattern of cinderblocks in a soundwall and El Camino Real bells, to rest stops and the shrubs planted in the cloverleaves of an interchange. “Anything we put in there, we have to look at it from the safety viewpoint,” Watanabe says. “Not just the public but our worker safety, too.”
Plants have to be easy to maintain, and materials have to be quick to repair or paint. The gray of recycled paint is the go-to for cheap graffiti abatement. Wall-hugging vines require less pruning than big bushy shrubs. Trees have to be set back at least thirty feet, when space allows, and their trunk diameters are usually limited to reduce deadly collisions. Any planting or design or space has to be able to put up with endless noise, wind, dust, heavy metal contaminants, oily water, and all manner of debris and garbage. The freeway landscape is designed to endure a lot of ugliness.
“We’re owner-operator. So whatever we build in our right of way, we have to maintain and operate,” Watanabe says. “You’re going to see a lot of the same things, because that’s what’s in stock in the maintenance yards. And if you have to get something different, then it’s more costly. We’re trying to be good stewards of the public funds. So we’re under constraints and we’re trying to be inventive and creative within our constraints.”
Watanabe sums up the freeway aesthetic: “Most of our palette is usually concrete.”
Freeways today are essentially a massive maintenance project. The era of freeway building is largely over, and state departments of transportation across the country are now left to do what they can to maintain the safety and functionality of freeways for as long as possible. The pavement of the roadway is designed to last between twenty and forty years.3Bridges and overpasses have design lives of between fifty and seventy-five years, depending on use and materials.4Short of a devastating earthquake or flash flood, most of these structures can be maintained and retrofitted to last much longer. And so, despite some successful and sensible campaigns to tear down inner city freeways in places such as San Francisco, New Haven, and Vancouver, most of our freeways and interstates will be with us for the long, foreseeable future.
But that doesn’t mean they’ll play the same role or even maintain the same appearance. The freeways of the future may simply be the sterile territory of autonomous cars and mass transit tubes zipping about in perfect synchrony. When drivers no longer have to pay attention to the roads, the roads no longer have to be designed for drivers. Speeds may climb to a point where roadside trees are but a blur and the zig-zag cinderblock patterns of sound walls are incomprehensible. Personalized billboard advertisements may be more efficiently and profitably displayed in the car’s display panel than on the roadside. With thick packets of autonomous cars filling the roadway, augmented reality windows may become a better way to see where the car is in relation to the city instead of what is actually on the other side of the glass.
A 2014 report from the New York University Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management offers a less orderly prediction. Authored by smart city expert Dr. Anthony Townsend, “Re-Programming Mobility” outlines four future scenarios for how transportation will be transformed by digital technology in American cities by 2030.5The report’s Los Angeles scenario predicts a chaotic rollout of disparate autonomous car technologies “flooding the streets of southern California with a heterogeneous mishmash of assistive and autonomous vehicles that don’t interoperate well—the safety benefits of self-driving cars are realized, but not the congestion-reducing ones.” This gridlock turns freeways into “a 16–18 hour stretch of constant stop-and-go traffic.” The freeway landscape becomes almost completely inconsequential, as car users simply tune out their hellish commutes by watching TV, working at in-car desks, or sleeping.
Indeed, there may not be much to see out of the windshield. The freeway may become even more banal than it is today, with its surfaces and structures designed to optimize autonomous operation and reduce the glitch potential of the varying scanning technologies currently favored by autonomous carmakers. The freeway landscape, big as ever and maybe bigger, may simply become a blank space dedicated fully to transportation and completely divorced from any aesthetic concerns.
Pragmatically speaking, the fully automated freeway is likely decades away. In the meantime, and perhaps for a long time, the freeways we have will undergo a more piecemeal evolution. “We’re not going to build more freeways but the freeways we have will be fully utilized,” says John Kaliski, an architect and urban designer in LA whose firm is currently working on two park projects that could be built on top of stretches of freeways running through dense urban neighborhoods. These freeway cap parks will do little for the drivers below, but could be a way for neighborhoods torn in two by the giant roadways to stitch themselves back together.
Freeways, Kaliski suggests, will be called on to do more than just move traffic in the future. The space above or below them will be reused or redeveloped. The water they collect will be rerouted into retention basins. They’ll generate energy. They’ll provide space for ecosystems to emerge in their margins. In a twist on the freeway revolts of the post-war years, people today and in the near future will demand that the freeway landscape provide more to cities, people, and the environment. “If you look at all these natural systems, freeways are going to have to become more accountable to them in a more rigorous way,” Kaliski says.
This fits into the ethos of landscape urbanism, a reframing of landscape architecture to engage the landscape at a metropolitan scale. “Highways are public space writ large, in the metropolitan reach of their network as well as their sheer size,” writes the architect and professor Jacqueline Tatom in The Landscape Urbanism Reader. “They are part structure and part earthwork, occupying a formal position between architecture and landscape.”
If freeways, in their earliest forms, were about creating a connection to nature and the landscape, perhaps the freeways of the future will redraw that connection. “The structure of the freeway is so robust that it could almost take on anything,” says Ying-Yu Hung, a principal at the landscape architecture, planning and urban design firm SWA. “The question is do we want to dismantle it altogether, or do we want to do some adaptive reuse and make it into something else?”
Even if the rise of autonomous cars and the ever-growing need for fast links within and between metropolitan economies means that freeways will always be with us, perhaps some facets of the first freeways, the harmonious parkways, like the Arroyo Seco, can be revived. Even if our freeways are here to stay, there’s no reason they have to keep playing the same role they’ve played since the 1950s. We can learn from the brutal mistakes of the past and find new ways for our freeway structures to serve us, our cities, and our environment. Maybe we can even redesign and reuse our freeways in ways that offset and counteract the damage they’ve previously done. California’s freeway landscape is ours to redefine.
Like so many fascinated by Los Angeles, I grew up worshiping the Case Study houses. With their crisp edges, clean lines, muted colors, and vast planes of glass, they struck me as the perfect objects of aesthetic desire, especially when seen through the loving, era-defining eye of architectural photographer Julius Shulman. I think of the most famous of all his images, the one of Pierre Koenig’s Case Study House No. 22: one party-dressed lady perched on an ottoman, another relaxed in a faintly Corbusian chair, both visible through seemingly endless floor-to-ceiling windows and cantilevered over the illuminated grid of the city below. But somewhere along the way I lost my religion.
“Los Angeles is the most beautiful city in the world, provided it’s seen at night and from a distance”—an apocryphal quotation and Shulman’s photograph have reinforced each other and a certain idea of Los Angeles’s peculiar appeal in our collective conscious. Appreciation for the city requires distance from the city, and the distance attained is an index of the success achieved. Look at any well-known picture of a Case Study house, taken by Shulman or a less legendary residential photographer, and you never see Los Angeles, at least not at any level of detail at which it feels real. When the city appears at all, it does so almost as an abstraction: a blanket of lights or a distant skyline, visibility dependent on the smog level of the day. Los Angeles functioned not as a setting for the Case Study houses, but as a backdrop.
But the city isn’t a backdrop. It’s the main event. It’s where I eat and drink, where I buy books and watch movies, where I meet friends, and, indeed, where I actually live. The city is where things happen. The city is where I want to be. Why don’t these houses want to be there too? The Case Study program sprang from laudable, democratic ideals, but they are the ideals of a different era. Our cities still need good affordable housing, but it’s time to change our vision of that housing: it should not be in the shape of a house distant from the city.
The Case Study houses came to be at the behest of John Entenza, Arts & Architecture‘s publisher between 1938 and 1962, dreamed up in the magazine’s editorial offices when wartime shortages and restrictions relegated capital-A architecture to the drawing board. Those constraints looked like they were going to ease enough that with its June 1945 issue, Arts & Architecture could announce that “eight nationally known architects, chosen not only for their obvious talents, but for their ability to evaluate realistically housing in terms of need, have been commissioned to take a plot of God’s green earth and create ‘good’ living conditions for eight American families.”
The announcement stated that each Case Study house “must be capable of duplication and in no sense be an individual ‘performance,'” so that the housing solutions discovered “will be general enough to be of practical assistance to the average American in search of a home in which he can afford to live.” In the event, every one of the twenty-four Case Study houses built out of thirty-six commissioned proved a one-off. And if you want to buy one of the Case Study houses that still stand today, as architectural treasures in Beverly Hills, Bel-Air, Pacific Palisades, and other areas now synonymous with wealth, it will cost you dearly.
Architectural historians still argue about why the Case Study houses failed to bring about a landscape of high-design, low-cost architecture for all. Still, they played straight into a distinctive fantasy of postwar American suburbanism. One could imagine enjoying the cultural and economic benefits of a major world city while at the same time avoiding engagement with that city on many levels. One could luxuriate in modern technology and design and at the same time live a life of ease in a kind of futuristic, small-scale simulation of a pastoral idyll. And though the Case Study project didn’t pan out as a mass delivery system for that fantasy, the fantasy itself lives on.
In the decade after the Case Study program, Reyner Banham celebrated the unrestrained architectural exuberance and sense of possibility in the city’s built environment in Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies. But that possibility and exuberance existed, for Banham, in only two of those four ecologies: the coast, which he branded “Surfurbia,” and the hills, where you’ll find the iconic Case Study House No. 22. The “Plains of Id” were not for Banham. Those “central flatlands are where the crudest urban lusts and most fundamental aspirations are created, manipulated, and, with luck, satisfied,” he wrote. The city itself, that roiling, hazy purgatory you might end up quite literally looking down upon, if not erasing from your personal geography entirely, was best seen at a remove.
Banham pointed to LA’s rich heritage of private residential architecture—the Case Study houses and other gems—as a chief asset of the city. And this heritage has become part of a ritual defense in the face of complaints about the city’s air quality, traffic, and insufficiently clear-and-present sense of history. But while those homes undoubtedly are great assets in the eyes of those who happen to live in pieces of that rich heritage, what pride is the rest of the city supposed to muster for a scattered, mostly unrelated series of houses of the wealthy, viewable only from the street in a passing car or—best-case scenario—amid the reverential hush of a paid tour? And what conclusions should outsiders draw about a city that touts those bloodless experiences as its peaks?
Many of those outsiders, especially those from more traditionally urban cities, have laid the blame for all of Los Angeles’s shortcomings squarely at the foot of the automobile—or, less concretely, at the foot of the city’s supposedly pervasive “car culture.” But it takes little more than a glance at the city in the twenty-first century to conclude that whatever car culture might have once possessed it has dissipated. Motorists no longer move freely on the freeways (“Autopia,” in Banham’s styling), but instead inch through “rush” hours that have gradually expanded to consume much of the day, stuck in uninspiring vehicles: utilitarian, aesthetically bland, and often cheap, symbols not of liberation but dour obligation.
You may not want to drive, but you’ve got to do it to get from your single-family house, a dwelling by its very nature not serviceable by rapid transit, to wherever you’re going. What holds Los Angeles back, then, isn’t a car culture but the house culture that necessitates the car. It’s a point made clearly by many of the Case Study houses themselves. Through their windows and out to those striking city views: the house is here; the city is there. Our “house culture” holds that ownership of your very own detached home is the goal for which all can strive. The result is built forms incompatible with a truly urban and urbane city.
This culture in Los Angeles may no longer hold up the Case Study houses as its prime ideal, but it continues to regard them as something like pieces of art in a white-cube gallery, enshrined to highlight their beauty and independence of context. They stand as especially artistic by-products of the promise long held out by Los Angeles’s house culture, a siren’s call heard and believed across the rest of California, the rest of America, and increasingly, unfortunately, the world: we can build a new, better kind of city, one that simultaneously maximizes individual comfort and access to urban amenities. We can build a city of houses.
LA-MAS considers accessory dwelling units, or granny flats, as part of the exhibit “Shelter: Rethinking How We Live in Los Angeles” at the Architecture and Design Museum.
I think of a city as a place that has every dimension of variety, where things change not just as you walk north, south, east, or west, but as you go up and down, ascending a tower or descending into underground pathways and subway tunnels. The city also changes across the dimension of time, ideally serving a slightly different social, commercial, and even architectural cocktail from one day to the next. For me, this experience climaxes in the cities of east Asia, especially in Japan, where forests of towers, falling as suddenly as they rise, act as ever-changing vertical streets sprouting from ever-changing horizontal ones.
For all its appeal in the imagination, the city of houses has one big problem: it doesn’t exist. Building and preserving a city of houses, where one plot of land gets used for exactly one purpose, strips away the multidimensionality that characterizes the urban itself. It seems like this realization has finally dawned on Los Angeles, but only after the city sprawled outward just about as far as it could, leaving no option but to face the challenge of doubling back and filling itself in more densely. It’s a long time coming: New Yorker correspondent Christopher Rand wrote in 1966 of the region’s “conflict between centripetal and centrifugal forces,” extrapolating a future of “much high-rise living” for Los Angeles from a present in which “whatever its origin, the preference for one-family houses seems to be on the way out.”
Rand may have spoken too soon, but now the high-rises have come, and more cranes to build them seem to pop up against the sky every day. Tall towers had already begun to appear during Rand’s time in Los Angeles, but mostly on downtown’s recently cleared Bunker Hill (once a neighborhood of houses, Victorians placed, by modern suburban standards, cheek-by-jowl) and the westside business district of Century City, built on a former 20th Century Fox back lot. But this small boom produced apartment buildings that were nothing more than apartment buildings and office buildings that were nothing more than office buildings, with a smattering of retail space here and there, in thrall to the deadening twentieth-century notion of the separation of functions in the urban fabric. That idea held strong fifty years ago, but has in this century given way to a renewed fashion for buildings, here given the special-sounding label of “mixed-use,” but the norm in other countries, built to accommodate residential, commercial, and office space all in one.
But not every Angeleno—even among the younger cohort who supposedly have come to a generational realization that, to live in a city, you must live in the city—embraces it. “Yeah, they’re putting up a new mixed-use building across the street from us,” I once heard a woman at a party say with audible dismay. When I asked what she thought was the matter with mixed-use buildings, she immediately clarified that their mix of uses itself doesn’t bother her, but their blandness does. Most new mixed-use buildings, once they appear, seem to have emerged not from any strong design idea but instead from the simple economic imperative of quickly capitalizing on a lifestyle trend.
These contemporary buildings, while essentially sound building blocks of urbanism, often project a lack of imagination aggressive enough to remind one of the Los Angeles that James M. Cain described in 1933 as subject to neither “reward for aesthetic virtue” nor “punishment for aesthetic crime.” It’s enough to drive anyone back to the dream of an older Los Angeles, to the day of the Case Study houses. Hence the passion of local architectural preservationists, who seem ready to do battle not just for Pierre Koenig and Charles and Ray Eames, but for drive-in coffee shops and other midcentury novelties of questionable architectural value. But at least they’re kind of neat to look at.
Judging by their work so far, the architects enlisted in this current moment of urbanization dare not attempt either aesthetic virtue or aesthetic crime, a timidity that seems to validate the premise implicit in the preservationists’ work that, if you let an old building fall, whatever rises in its place will, by default, be blockier, blunter, and blander, with nothing more interesting on the ground floor than a Starbucks. So much for the thrills of city life.
As justifiable as it seems given our current crop of architecture, the assumption that the built environment of Los Angeles reached its high-water mark decades ago, and that we can now only hope to hold on to architectural remnants of that time of optimism and eccentricity has become a self-fulfilling prophecy—and a big part of our current problem.
The Los Angeles preservation movement tends to submit to the same confusion that plagues preservation movements all over the western world: that between the artifacts of a culture and the culture itself. The Japanese, by contrast, don’t bend to the same deep insecurity about their culture that we do. They know that any new building will be just as much a product of the Japanese culture as the one it replaces and no less meaningful a structure. Witness the recent outcry over the demolition of the Tokyo Olympics–era Hotel Okura—an outcry heard almost exclusively from Westerners.
So when we idealize the Case Study houses, perhaps we idealize not physical buildings as much as we idealize the culture of the time that produced them, years that now feel impossibly distant when, in Banham’s words, “the program, the magazine, Entenza, and a handful of architects really made it appear that Los Angeles was about to contribute to the world not merely odd works of architectural genius but a whole consistent style.” To say nothing of longing for a time when a regional architecture magazine had the resources to commission actual, built work from a host of big-name architects!
Los Angeles looked about to contribute its own architectural style to the world again in the 1980s when the zeitgeist branded a cohort of local architects including Frank Gehry, Thom Mayne, and Eric Owen Moss the “LA School.” The sharp, cerebral, mannered modernism of the first wave of Case Study architects had been supplanted by a kind of sharp, cerebral, tough postmodernism, the fruit of a loose, primarily Venice-based movement that deliberately foregrounded a variety of harsh design elements: jagged edges; shapes, letters, and numbers in exaggerated scale; rugged industrial materials not just employed but deliberately left exposed.
MAD architects’ vision for Cloud Corridor, a high-density village, photographed at “Shelter: Rethinking How We Live in Los Angeles” at the Architecture and Design Museum.
Whenever I pass by “LA School” buildings—Moss’s complex of experimental office spaces in Culver City called the Hayden Tract; Gehry’s Chiat/Day Building, fronted by a giant pair of binoculars, now home to Google in Venice; Mayne’s Caltrans headquarters downtown—I do sense the traces of a bold new future, a future, as science fiction writer William Gibson put it, that is already here but unevenly distributed. New projects under construction in Los Angeles right now impress in their own ways—the efficiently compact footprints of buildings reclaiming downtown’s surface parking lots and the sheer physical and technological scale of the Wilshire Grand Tower come to mind—but they lack bravado.
This stifling air of mediocrity is not limited to Los Angeles. San Francisco suffers from a different manifestation of the same syndrome. There one senses a city’s enormous potential fighting to get out from under an avalanche of rigid restrictions and nostalgic ideals. Just as in Los Angeles, a true urban form struggles to emerge from the legacy of the contradictory and mirage-like vision of a city with a suburban texture.
We must dispense with the dream of a city of houses once and for all, and acknowledge that even our rich heritage of privately held residential architecture adds little to, and in many ways actually detracts from, the public life of the city. The state’s growing population increasingly means a growing urban population, which means someplace has to lead the way into a post-house California.
Los Angeles could do it. So could San Francisco. Or San Jose. Or Oakland. Maybe even Fresno. If pulled off right, a new California urbanism in any of these cities could provide a model for the rest of California, for the rest of the United States, and maybe our increasingly urban world.
In Los Angeles, that would require relinquishing our attachment to buildings like the Case Study houses even as we might rediscover the spirit that built them, the spirit of a culture that characterizes Los Angeles more than any movement in residential architecture could: a readiness, willingness, and ability to reinvent the way in which we live.
What might a post-house Los Angeles look like? When Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner envisioned a thoroughly urbanized twenty-first-century future for the city in the early 1980s, it presented a downtown heightened in every sense of the word, with not just taller buildings and renewed industry, but a more diverse and densely packed population in action twenty-four hours a day—a vision that has shaped our image of dystopia for decades. To this day, the term “Blade Runner-ization” gets tossed around by those looking to block buildings they consider too big, or that would mix elements, functional or human or hybrid, that they don’t want mixed.
In 2013, Spike Jonze’s Her offered a vision of near-future Los Angeles that viewers found more appealing, or at least less hellish. But its glossy towers, high-speed trains, and sidewalks in the sky came cut and pasted by movie magic straight from Shanghai, opting for a bland, almost placeless internationalism rather than daring to imagine the possibility of a new and distinctive architectural aesthetic emerging from an urbanized Los Angeles.
Here in the real world, ideas for architecture stylistically suited to the next Los Angeles have begun to appear, if only just. Michael Maltzan’s mixed-used development One Santa Fe in the downtown Arts District, with its quarter-mile length and candy-cane color scheme, exudes a brazenness of a frontrunner. Los Angeles Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne described it, complimentarily, as banality stretched in the direction of monumentality. Maltzan has injected a badly needed dose of vitality into the city’s architecture scene just by building something that is impossible to ignore and not argue about.
Another Maltzan design, the striking Skid Row Star Apartments, appeared in Shelter: Rethinking How We Live in Los Angeles, an exhibition at A + D, Los Angeles’s architecture and design museum. Some of the concepts on display there looked like house culture artifacts spruced up to survive another century. Others, especially PAR’s 6030 Wilshire, might point a way forward to a creative refiguring of the very idea of “house.” The firm envisions a 930-foot-tall tower atop the coming Wilshire/Fairfax subway station, but a tower that would, in the firm’s own words, stand against the existing uncreative “tower typology,” which “has become anonymous, defined mainly by its height.” Instead, the structure would effectively consist of a “stack of individual houses, each with a direct connection to nature through oversized terraces,” none placed too rigidly atop the one below it, resulting in a vertical street of replicable yet “unique living environments with access to green space, qualities that are emblematic of Los Angeles living.”
Those very qualities placed near the top of the priority list for the editors of Arts & Architecture as they looked to the future back in 1945. “Perhaps we will cling longest to the symbol of ‘house’ as we have known it,” they wrote as they launched the Case Study Program more than sixty years ago, pondering the future of residential architecture to come in postwar America. “Or perhaps, we will realize that in accommodating ourselves to a new world the most important step in avoiding retrogression into the old is a willingness to understand and to accept contemporary ideas in the creation of environment that is responsible for shaping the largest part of our living and thinking.”
In California, the code that governs how individual towns and cities develop sprawls across an entire shelf of thick three-ring binders in many planning offices, architectural firms, and building companies. These codes started out much smaller, of course, but over the past 125 years they have slowly grown longer and more complicated as regulators sought to address a seemingly endless number of questions and conditions pertaining to building California.
Sometimes new code is directly at odds with older code, but the older code stays on the books. We have regulations to encourage density and others favoring suburbanization. We have codes favoring public transit and other mandating acres of parking. These goals are contradictory and impossible to achieve at the same time in the same place; each bit of code can be used to stop another from doing its work. So nothing happens.
Computer code can have the same problem, too. New functionality requires new lines of code. And you can keep adding new code to the old until eventually you have what programmers artfully call a “hairball”—a tangle of code, full of bugs, kluges, and workarounds, so inefficient that it slows down the whole program or breaks it altogether. At that point, you face a choice: do you go in and try to kill the bugs and write more kluges and workarounds? Or do you start over and write new code?
We’re at that point with building and development codes in California. We need new code for the twenty-first century. Can we get it by tinkering with our existing code? Or should we rewrite our codes from the ground up?
The hairball of building and planning codes, at multiple levels of government, makes it difficult—and extremely expensive—to address two urgent and related crises facing California today: an urban housing shortage and climate change. The Bay Area and Southern California dominate lists of the most expensive metropolitan regions in the country. Greedy developers, young gentrifiers moving into low-income neighborhoods, and NIMBY groups are frequently blamed for skyrocketing housing costs; but in reality, each is merely a symptom of a deeper problem. We need to recognize that the entire system of regulating housing development is broken. To create affordable cities, responsive to a changing climate and prudent with limited natural resources, we may need to rewrite the rules from scratch with a new set of goals in mind.
Process 15 (A) by Casey Reas.
Most of the rules and regulations governing how and where and what housing gets built were first written in an era when land was cheap. California’s cities were expanding outward, and developers built detached homes while the state connected these new neighborhoods with new freeways. City planners began trying to rein in sprawl beginning in the 1970s, and an increased interest in urban living in recent years has changed what urban Californians look for in housing. California’s codes have not caught up with these larger changes.
Building and planning codes have their roots in the Progressive-era reform movement that sought to promote health and safety through higher-quality housing than the tenements that had been built in fast-growing industrial cities. Light and air were seen as cures to the ills that plagued dirty and heavily polluted late-nineteenth-century American cities, and many early reformers were legitimately concerned about the living conditions of lower income residents. But reformers’ intentions were not always benign. Nativist sentiment, racism, and classism also figured heavily in the reform movement, and upper-class reformers “saw new ethnic, religious, and political subcultures as threatening to hard-won changes in polite family life.”1
As the movement to regulate construction and land use coalesced, many of the well-intentioned early reformers who sought to improve the conditions of working people were pushed to the sidelines as the drive for zoning became more about excluding people, namely immigrants and African Americans.2California cities had long used police powers to prevent Chinese laundries from setting up outside of Chinese neighborhoods, but Baltimore was the first city to write racial exclusion into a zoning ordinance when, in 1910, city leaders passed a law limiting where black residents could live to a list of specified neighborhoods.3Racial zoning became common across much of the South. In 1917, the Supreme Court ruled that this interfered with property rights in Buchanan v. Warley, but municipalities continued to pass race-based zoning laws decades into the twentieth century. Even where racial exclusion was not codified by a city, deed restrictions in large subdivisions were commonly used to keep minorities out of certain areas. Reverberations from these baldly racist and segregationist practices are still felt today.
San Francisco began writing building codes as early as the late 1800s; but rather than legitimately regulating construction, these codes were often more concerned with collecting fees and harassing Chinese immigrants. The earthquake of 1906 and a backlash against what was seen as corruption during the rebuilding process prompted new, more stringent building codes between 1908 and 1909, however San Franciscans showed little interest in implementing zoning at this time.4In 1908, Los Angeles was first to enact a citywide zoning ordinance that covered uses, principally protecting residential areas from industrial development. But implementation of zoning was focused on preserving high-value neighborhoods, promoting higher property values in middle-income areas, and promoting industrial uses in poor areas. In Berkeley, rather than protecting residents from pollution from nearby industrial activity, zoning codes were written to protect factory owners from lawsuits by low-income neighbors.5
When developers realized that property owners only had control over their own land, and developers could lobby the government to regulate land uses in the surrounding area, they became the biggest proponents of new codes. Broker-subdividers who were building large tracts of housing in the first decades of the twentieth century took the role of “community builders” by lobbying for land-use planning.6In 1916, Berkeley became the first city in the country to zone specifically for single-family housing as one of only five different kinds of residential use districts, ranging from single-family to apartments. The earlier code in Los Angeles had simply zoned areas as residential or not.7
San Francisco came around to writing zoning codes—as opposed to building codes—after great urging by the Commonwealth Club. The club undertook surveys to document the need for zoning, lumping apartment houses in with lumber mills and stables on the list of undesirable intrusions in residential districts.8Legislation enabling zoning was passed in 1917, but it took years of studies before the first zoning ordinance and maps were created in 1921. Because San Francisco was much more densely developed than Los Angeles or Berkeley, the implementation of zoning faced more resistance from the real estate industry than in other cities that had enacted zoning regulations. The eastern half of San Francisco was already built out, and there was fear amongst developers, business owners, and architects that a zoning code would stifle further development. The Real Estate Board won at least one battle, ensuring that the Zoning Code of 1921 didn’t include height limits, only restrictions on use.9But portions of the western side of San Francisco that had not yet been developed got the city’s first detailed zoning restrictions. Areas were zoned into “first residential districts,” mandating single-family homes. Mixing commercial and industrial uses in residential districts was prohibited, with commercial businesses limited only to major thoroughfares where streetcars ran. Hotels and rooming houses were prohibited.
Zoning promoted neighborhood homogeneity that had not existed in cities prior to its creation. While people had legitimate concerns at the turn of the century about dangerous heavy industrial uses being built next to residences, the large tracts of single-family homes that were encouraged by the new code were designed to exclude large segments of the population. Zoning provided a government-backed mechanism to spatially segregate people by income and consequently by race.
Process 11 (A) by Casey Reas.
In Lakewood, the quintessential postwar Southern California suburb depicted in D.J. Waldie’s Holy Land, three Jewish developers purchased land that held the stipulation put in place by the previous development company that lots could not be sold to Jews, Mexicans, or black people. The Supreme Court didn’t ban racial restrictions in property ownership until 1948, and citizens could and did continue to sue to enforce racial covenants until the court banned that practice in 1953.10
Zoning also laid the groundwork for discrimination by other means. Ta-Nehisi Coates’s widely debated essay “The Case for Reparations” was based, in part, on the fact that banks replicated race-based zoning by drawing red lines around black neighborhoods on property maps and refused to lend to prospective homeowners there. This process, called redlining, prevented black Americans from buying homes during the postwar boom and locked them out of the legitimate credit market. While Coates’s essay uses Chicago as a case study, property maps were created of cities nationwide that forbade lending in black neighborhoods, putting residents at the mercy of an extortionist lending system with no regulations.11In most cities, including San Francisco, the FHA maps showed “A” districts (meaning those areas most desirable for lending) aligned with the areas that had been recently zoned for single-family housing.
In addition to zoning codes that regulated how property could be used, planning codes also regulated the forms buildings can take through prescriptions on height, bulk, lot coverage, shadows, floor area ratio (the total square footage of a building divided by the size of the lot is on), and a wide variety of other measures implemented to achieve the planners’ desired effect. Over the course of the twentieth century, zoning and planning codes were used to control the setbacks on all sides of buildings, the amount of a lot that could be covered, parking minimums, and maximum floor area. Design guidelines were written in many places that dictate such details as building materials and design styles. Taken all together, these regulations have a profound effect on what gets built. The Empire State Building, for instance, was designed via an economic feasibility study for a speculative office building which took costs and potential rental income into consideration, in addition to how far from the street the building had to be set back from the street, as required by New York’s 1916 zoning code. Only then was the architect hired.12
Even across individual states, the regulatory environment differs between municipalities. Local building code amendments then overlay state building codes, meaning that every jurisdiction has a slightly different set of rules. The city of San Francisco’s zoning map shows sixty-five different use districts to regulate land use in a city of less than fifty square miles, and neighboring Oakland and Daly City each have their own separate lists of zoning designations.
Once federal regulations, design guidelines, building safety and energy efficiency requirements, historic preservation zones, and infrastructure considerations are brought into the mix, California’s city planners are left to navigate not only a Byzantine but an often contradictory set of rules. A city planning department may want buildings to have stoops and require them in design guidelines, but accessibility regulations in building codes require wheelchair accessibility. Fire departments advocate for wide streets in order to maneuver and park large vehicles during an emergency, but urban design guidelines often require narrower streets and curb bulb-outs to increase safety by lowering traffic speeds. Some of California’s own largest policy initiatives are at odds with each other. The state will require net-zero housing by 2020 and net-zero commercial buildings by 2030, meaning these buildings will use the same amount of energy as they generate. This is fairly easy to do in the suburbs, where more land is available for on-site energy generation. But it is nearly impossible to accomplish in cities at the scale required. At the same time, SB 375, the state’s Sustainable Communities Act, encourages better coordination between land use planning and transportation in order to reduce the number of vehicle miles traveled (VMT) as part of the state’s initiative to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It is nearly impossible to do both of these things at the same time. Reducing VMT requires density, but density is nearly impossible to achieve while constructing net-zero buildings, unless transportation emissions for the site are taken into account when measuring the environmental impact of a new building.
Even where layers of code aren’t in conflict with one another, they can be in conflict with neighborhood groups. In California, which allows for a great deal of citizen participation in the planning process, it is not uncommon for neighbors to object to projects that will introduce rental apartments or taller buildings even where they are allowed in the existing code. For instance, the state enacted legislation decades ago to specifically allow for secondary units (also known as in-law units or granny flats) statewide, yet few local jurisdictions have followed through and allowed the new housing because of resistance from homeowners. San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors passed local legislation in the 1980s explaining why the city’s single-family housing was a scarce resource that needed to be preserved, despite it making up the majority of the residentially zoned parcels in the city. To this day, San Francisco does not allow in-law units in single-family districts.
Process 7 (A) by Casey Reas.
Early zoning codes locked many areas into much lower densities than would have developed if previous patterns of growth had taken their course. The densest, most urban parts of San Francisco (and those most frequented by tourists and film crews) are those that were rebuilt following the earthquake of 1906. Farther afield, the southern and western portions of the city built after the zoning code of 1921 are essentially suburban in density and character. This was not organic growth but development as prescribed by city planners and homebuilders. In Groth’s words, “Zoning thus made uniform land use and desired densities as enforceable as the requirements for interior plumbing.”13
If we switch from looking at planning regulations that govern where and what we build, and instead look at the building codes that were created to govern safety, we see a similar pattern of regulations that over time have come to strongly favor suburban development with little regard for their impact on the cost and feasibility of building higher density housing in cities. Architect Tom Steidl compared high-rise residential buildings in Los Angeles and Vancouver, specifically looking at factors that allowed buildings in Vancouver to be much more slender, even when they contained a similar number of units. Buildings in both cities have to comply with stringent earthquake design standards, but he shows that fire safety-related mandates in Los Angeles create a building core—where elevators, stairs and trash chutes are located—twice as large as what is required in Vancouver.14A larger core means less useable space, making a building less efficient and more expensive to build.
The differences in approach to fire safety are not the result of Canadians’ higher tolerance for risk or greater faith in their fire departments. It is because the best way to prevent deaths from buildings fires is through the use of sprinkler systems, not stairwells. Research has shown an 82 percent decrease in the fire death rate in buildings with these systems, which is why they are installed in most new apartment buildings.15Germany, a nation with half the fire death rate of the United States,16allows a single stair in buildings up to 60 meters tall (about 200 feet), which allows for much more compact and efficient floorplans, and in turn means lower per square foot construction costs. But in the United States, multiple stair towers and the separation between them are still the foundation of the regulatory approach toward fire safety, despite the presence of sprinklers and other fire safety measures. Putting risk in perspective is important. There were over 32,000 motor vehicle related deaths and 12,000 gun deaths in the United States in 2013. That same year there were only 325 fire-related deaths in apartment buildings.17
The other largest regulatory factor influencing construction costs and feasibility, and the one communities have the greatest control over, concerns the mandatory parking requirements spelled out in local planning codes. Many of these codes still require two or more parking spaces for each residential unit. This both increases the cost of construction and reduces the number of units that can be built. On a typical site in Los Angeles, parking requirements reduce the number of homes that can be built by 13 percent, and underground parking adds $35,000 in construction costs per parking space.18
Urban sprawl has been widely condemned for its environmental impact, and limits on the distance people are willing to commute mean that outer-ring suburbs are desirable only to the point where commuting distances become too great. But, low-density suburban development is still the dominant form of housing production. By the end of 2014, nationwide construction of single-family homes reached levels not seen since 2008 before the Great Recession.19In California, there is a slightly different story, as new building permits were nearly balanced between single-family homes and units in apartment buildings between 2011 and 2014, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Much of this may be due to an excess inventory of single-family homes in the state, which needed be cleared in the wake of the downturn; so we will see only in the coming years whether or not this trend endures.
Sales prices for single-family homes can be as low as $60 to $70 per square foot in parts of the United States where labor is cheap and land costs are low—especially for high-volume builders who can rely on economies of scale. In California, national builder D.R. Horton is selling homes in Adelanto in San Bernardino County for under $100 per square foot. Roof trusses and preframed walls can be delivered and installed the same day. Designs are standardized and planning approval is typically efficient and predictable. Union labor is rarely used on single-family projects and construction staging (areas for storing materials and equipment) is not an issue. In the case of large developments, the same plans are used again and again, with minor modifications here and there for variety. An architect or engineer is not required to get a permit for a single-family home, and at the smaller scale, many building departments provide typical construction details for homebuilders to include in their drawing sets to speed the process along.
It is a different story when looking at dense urban housing. Building codes for any residential building larger than a duplex have been written in a way that penalizes this type of construction. In cities such as San Francisco and Los Angeles, the permitting process for a large apartment or condominium project can take years. Even adding a single additional apartment unit to an existing building can easily take eight months or more in city review time. The end result of our acres of code is a process that exacerbates our housing shortage, drives up the cost of housing, and stymies our own plans for building more sustainable cities. Each cycle of building codes generally brings more stringent sets of guidelines, the value of which is often debatable.
We could continue to tweak and tinker our way to building and zoning codes better fit for today’s purposes—but that is essentially what we have been doing for the past century. Or, we can acknowledge that addressing the twenty-first century challenges before us will not be possible with tools that are a century or more old. While California does have its own state building code, it is based on the International Building Code, which is followed by most jurisdictions in the United States. The national preference for suburban-style development means that there is little pressure for reform. If things are going to change, it will only happen at the state level.
Process 9 (A) by Casey Reas.
In Los Angeles, the tension between snarled code, angry neighborhood groups, and a city patching a badly broken process has come to a head. In 2014, the city launched Recode: LA, the first comprehensive reform of the 1946 zoning code, which was written for a city with abundant cheap land but still governs development in Los Angeles today. The original sixty-seven-page zoning code is now a jumble ten times the size, inconsistent not only with itself but with the city of nearly four million people grappling with insufficient housing, frustrating traffic, and local, state, and federal regulations, standards, and goals on energy consumption, greenhouse gas emissions, and water usage. Almost every major development requires permission from the city to deviate from some aspect of the planning code, a process that adds time and expense for the developer, and frustration for residents who never know what someone might try to build in their neighborhood.
In frustration, some activists are proposing a ballot measure that would forbid any development requiring a variance for two years. This would exacerbate an already extreme housing shortage and do nothing to move Los Angeles closer to sustainability. At the same time, some San Franciscans have been fighting a proposed program that would provide a modest amount of additional density to developers in return for building more units of affordable housing. Flyers have circulated in city neighborhoods claiming that San Francisco’s sleepy, fog-draped Outer Sunset district would turn into Miami Beach if the plan were to pass. The housing shortage that plagues all of its large cities is a huge drag on California’s economy, and it is vital that all levels of government begin to address it as a priority on par with fire safety and protecting existing property owners’ home values. Urban areas can no longer rely on sprawling single-family car-oriented neighborhoods to address the pressing need for new housing, and our regulations need to allow for alternatives.
Adding more housing to existing communities doesn’t have to mean “Manhattanization,” as is often claimed. People who grew up watching Three’s Company (set in Santa Monica) or Melrose Place (set in West Hollywood) are familiar with the type of middle-density apartment living that is not being built in most of urban California today, where the majority of the residential land in our largest cities is still zoned for single-family homes or saddled with parking requirements that make increased density unfeasible. Even the popular family-oriented 1990s sitcom Full House, a show about an extended family living together in the heart of San Francisco, features Uncle Jesse and his wife Becky living in what would, in reality, be an illegal in-law apartment upstairs.
If only life could imitate art—or popular culture anyway! New housing in California has come to mean either auto-dependent sprawl or expensive high-density apartments and condos in the urban core, but to really make a difference we have to allow the kinds of middle-density development like the low-rise Melrose Place apartments or the Full House in-law unit in all of our communities. Disallowing this kind of gentle medium density in the name of preserving neighborhood character does a disservice to those who arrived here or were born too late to afford a single-family home within commuting distance of their jobs. It also fails to recognize that making communities more walkable and sustainable will improve neighborhood character over time, not diminish it.
We cannot give up and decide our communities are full, or simply rely on the thinking of the past century to guide our regulations. It’s time to stop tinkering. At the state and local level, we must recode California.
Process 10 (A) by Casey Reas.
The art accompanying this article comes from Casey Reas‘s Process series. As Reas explains, “each Process is a short text that defines a space to explore through multiple interpretations. A Process interpretation in software is a kinetic drawing machine with a beginning but no defined end. It proceeds one step at a time, and at each discrete step, every Element modifies itself according to its behaviors. The corresponding visual forms emerge as the Elements change; each adjustment adds to the previously drawn shapes.”
1. Paul Groth, Living Downtown: The History of Residential Hotels in the United States (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), 202.
2. Christopher Silver, “The Racial Origins of Zoning in American Cities,” Urban Planning and the African American Community: In the Shadows (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1997), 23–42.
4. Groth, Living Downtown, 241.
5. Marc A. Weiss, “Urban Land Developers and the Origins of Zoning Laws: The Case of Berkeley,” Berkeley Planning Journal 3, no. 1 (1986): 11.
6. Weiss, “Urban Land Developers and the Origins of Zoning Laws,” 8.
7. Ibid., 17.
8. Marc A. Weiss, “The Real Estate Industry and the Politics of Zoning in San Francisco, 1914–1928,” Planning Perspectives 3, no. 3 (1988): 313.
9. Weiss, “The Real Estate Industry and the Politics of Zoning in San Francisco, 1914–1928,” 315.
10. Donald J. Waldie, Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996), 73.
11. Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The Case for Reparations,” The Atlantic, June 2014.
12. See the chapter “Form Follows Finance” by Carol Willis in The Landscape of Modernity: New York City 1900–1940, David Ward and Oliver Zunz, eds. (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997) for a complete account.
Editor’s Note: As the architecture critic for the Los Angeles Times, Christopher Hawthorne has an enviable beat. Not only is he charged with covering new developments in architecture and urban design in the second largest city in the United States, he gets to travel around the state, the country, and the world, thinking and writing about new buildings and how they might—or might not—change the way we live. But Hawthorne has also used his beat for something more. His subject is not just buildings, but the city itself, and how we understand it and ourselves. So he has written about boulevards and freeways, books and art, immigration and homelessness. Thinking about the built environment is never just thinking about the built environment.
Hawthorne calls his big project “The Third Los Angeles.” It’s what the changing city is becoming. And it’s what comes next—if we can make it so. Like no other critic in the land, Hawthorne has grasped the challenge of telling the story of a great city—its past, present, and future—while playing a prominent role in shaping the city’s vision of itself, intellectually, creatively, and pragmatically.
This interview was conducted by Boom editor Jon Christensen and Dana Cuff, a professor of architecture, urban design, and urban planning, and director of cityLAB at UCLA.
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti snaps a photo of musician Gabriel Kahane while Christopher Hawthorne looks on at an Occidental College event in 2014. Photograph by Marc Campos, Occidental College.
Jon Christensen: What is the Third LA?
Christopher Hawthorne: For a number of years, I’ve been writing about a significant transition that Los Angeles is going through. In a range of ways, a city that was deeply privatized in the postwar years, that was organized largely around the single-family house and the car and the freeway, is trying to rediscover and reanimate its public realm. That’s been, in many ways, my main subject, that transition and the various factors that make that transition difficult—not simply politically, but in terms of urban design and planning.
Mayor Garcetti recently talked about this as being a “hinge moment” in the city’s development. That idea that the city is navigating this transition has become part of the popular, broader discussion about the city. But the more that I wrote and thought about the history of Los Angeles, it occurred to me that a lot of the elements that we’re struggling to add—whether it’s mass transit, places to walk, more ambitious public architecture, innovative multifamily housing, or more forward-looking city and regional planning—we actually produced in really remarkable quantities in the prewar decades. In the DNA of the city’s history is something before the car and the freeway.
Christensen: And that’s in the “First LA”?
Hawthorne: Right. And so it struck me that rather than just going from A to B, in this binary progression, it might make more sense to think about three phases of the city’s modern civic development. For the purposes of this framework, the First Los Angeles starts in the 1880s. The city was founded a whole century before that, but I think it’s fair to say that modern Los Angeles begins in the 1880s. That’s the decade of the first population boom, the first real estate boom, right after the transcontinental railroad got here. It is the decade that the telephone system was established. The population of LA in 1880 is something like 10,000. It’s a very small place. But the population more than quadruples in that decade. And then every decade after that until pretty recently, there’s significant growth happening.
So I’m thinking of the First LA as running from the 1880s through World War II. And then the Second Los Angeles as running from World War II through, let’s say, 2000. That’s the period in which the city produced the tropes and stereotypes that most of us are familiar with: this privatized city that’s organized around the car and the freeway, but also an immigrant city, a city that continues the growth of the First Los Angeles, and really remakes its own infrastructure, with lots of subsidy and encouragement from the federal government. So think about private homeownership, the growth of the single-family house, the subdivision, and the freeway, all of that as being heavily encouraged and subsidized from Washington, too. It’s not just that we love cars and houses and lawns more than anybody else. We were growing and expanding in a time when the federal government was making it very easy to expand in precisely that way—and making it difficult to expand, in fact, in any other way. So that’s the Second LA.
And it seems to me that this phase that we’re moving into now is the Third Los Angeles. It was emerging even as I arrived in 2004, and I think its emergence has accelerated. But it’s also important to say we’re in the early stages of that transition.
In some ways, there are lessons that we can draw in this new LA from the First LA. In terms of transit, in terms of landscape, in terms of attitude toward the natural world, in a whole bunch of ways, there is this earlier history that we can draw on.
I mentioned multifamily housing. It’s interesting. LA is known as a city of houses. But think about the twenties and thirties. We produced incredible experiments in multifamily and modernist housing in those decades. Irving Gill, beginning in San Diego, but then moving up to LA, is doing work in the 1920s that is as innovative and experimental as what anybody in the Bauhaus is doing. And a lot of it is collective, cooperative, or multifamily housing, all over the region. Neutra and Schindler are not just doing single-family houses. They’re doing a lot of multifamily work. And then there’s an even bigger scale, what we think of as public housing in the thirties and into the forties, with incredible rosters of architects and landscape architects working on those projects. That history can be useful for architects trying to work on new multifamily architecture.
But there are other ways that this emerging city is completely different. First LA and Second LA are both driven by huge growth. And the Third LA is really a kind of post-growth city. Population and immigration have both slowed really dramatically in Los Angeles. Manufacturing is a shell of what it once was. So, in some ways, we have the first chance since the 1880s to really catch our breath and think about how to consolidate our gains—and about what kind of place we want to be. So that’s the basic framework. Another way to talk about what’s happening in LA is that all of the LA clichés—all the things somebody from outside of LA might think of as being the prototypical building blocks of Los Angeles urbanism and civic identity—they all have a prehistory as well as a future. They have a before and they have an after. So, if you take the long view of LA history, a lot of those things are not permanent, as we’ve been led to believe, but transitory. Think about the lawn. People think of the lawn as being so intrinsically connected with an idea of Los Angeles. But if you look at pictures of residential architecture in the late nineteenth century, those landscapes look a lot like what people are tearing out their lawns to plant now, what we would call a drought-tolerant landscape. You can say something similar about the single-family house and you can say that about the car. You can say that about the freeway and you can say that about mobility. In the First LA, we had this incredibly far-reaching streetcar system that was the envy of most cities in the country, if not the world. The river is another classic example. We had a first river, a seasonal river that sometimes flooded dramatically. Then we had a channelized river. Now we’re trying to imagine what a third river looks like. So it’s too easy and simplistic just to say, “We have lawns, and we’re taking them out,” or “We’re imagining the city after the car.” We also had a city before the lawn, before the car.
LA River/Grid Series by Victor Hugo Zayas.
Dana Cuff: Do you think that there is always a return? A number of the things that you’ve mentioned have basically been about coming back to something that was there before.
Hawthorne: It’s important to say that in certain ways, it’s very much not a return. There are certain ways in which it’s really different. We’re facing climate change, and our attitude about the natural world, natural resources has changed. What’s really come to an end is this kind of frontier mentality about the city—this idea of infinite growth and infinite expansion, and that the way to study the city is to look at the edges, where it’s gobbling up new territory. This is a city that is very aware of its limits now.
Mike Davis starts City of Quartz out on the edges, and he talks about a city that dreamt of becoming infinite. He talks about Los Angeles as the city that ate the desert. As I think about how to structure a new book, the last thing I want to do is start at the edges. I want to start in the middle of things. That’s where the city is being reinvented. It’s a city that’s folding back on itself. That’s one thing that’s really changed. This idea that we can grow our way out of any problem and that we’re always a city that’s expanding and finding or even colonizing new territory—that has ended. And water, too. This idea that we could always just find new sources of water versus thinking, as we’re starting to do now, about how we treat the water that falls here and the water we have—that strikes me as a big change in mindset.
Cuff: Well, that’s an interesting segue to talk about the LA River, because I believe there’s a kind of nostalgia for a metropolitan nature. You can understand why, because parts of the river are surprisingly beautiful as natural spaces. But the people who see it as a flyaway or as a place to kayak, or only in those ways, forget that there are all these neighborhoods of every different economic and ethnic background that front onto the river. It’s also this incredible seam through the center of the city that actually could be something unifying and maybe not just as a piece of wilderness in the city, but as something that is designed to stitch together our urban fabric.
Hawthorne: I agree. And I’ve been surprised, in the discussion about what should happen with the river, by how much power that nostalgia holds. First, restoration is not practical or feasible in terms of taking out all or even most of the concrete. But even if it were, I think we should be asking the question: What vision of the river are we trying to get back to? And did the river ever operate that way?
Frank Gehry told me that not only does he not think it is possible, maybe it isn’t desirable to take out the concrete in certain parts of the river. The reaction that I got when I included that comment in one of my pieces was surprising. People still have this idea that the river can be “restored” to some past that never really existed, a green landscape full of water, with tree-lined banks. I think that particularly when the river gets really wide as it goes south, you have this almost sublime scale of concrete. The idea that that is not an LA landscape or that we should be in a hurry to tear that out to plant some representation of a natural world that maybe didn’t ever exist, that strikes me as a misreading of our own history. What history are we talking about? It’s like Ed Ruscha and Bob Irwin never existed. If you say it’s an insult to LA to keep that concrete, that whole idea of reading the landscape here and understanding a particular kind of beauty here is out the window. Fifty years of new ways of reading the city by architects and artists alike—that’s just out the window. Or, the idea that the postwar infrastructure of the city is both beautiful and in certain political, social, or ecological ways was deeply misguided. It’s not one or the other. It’s both.
Cuff: One of the things that’s cool to me is that Gehry—and I take him at his word—says he’s starting with hydrology, which everyone agrees about. We have to reclaim the water and not let it go back out to the ocean without capturing it. But just what that would mean, and the possibility of designing around the water in a variety of ways, rather than only as a restoration project, is hard for most people in the city to imagine. We have only seen the river as a movie set for drag racing or as a myth of what it might have been as a beautiful natural setting, which I don’t think it ever was.
Hawthorne: I am really ambivalent about Gehry’s involvement. I do think there’s reason for cynicism. But I think some of the cynicism forgets the history of the river. Take this idea that what Gehry’s involvement will mean is to allow the river to become a vehicle for gentrification. I mean, we channelized the river in the first place to allow real estate development, to protect real estate interests. The whole project of the channelization was basically a real estate project driven by people who had a lot of interest in developing the city more densely, or protecting what they already owned.
Grid Series #18 by Victor Hugo Zayas.
Cuff: People may not trust Frank Gehry to have that broad-minded nature. But to me, it seems like he’s a perfect character.
Hawthorne: And we need somebody to do it. Absolutely.
Christensen: On the other hand, it seems to me, that we haven’t seen such a starkly framed battle royale over two different visions of the city since Jane Jacobs took on Robert Moses in New York.
Hawthorne: The problem is that we lack the vocabulary to talk about it. Jane Jacobs versus Robert Moses? That’s a New York sort of dichotomy, and a dated one at that. I think the challenge in any city, particularly in LA right now, is to think about the local and the regional scale together, simultaneously. We do need to have a vision for the whole river because it’s a huge piece of infrastructure. It has been since the Army Corps wrapped the whole thing in concrete. So the Jane Jacobs approach isn’t enough to solve this problem. We have to be thinking about it at a regional level.
That’s one of the reasons I did a series for the Times a few years ago on the boulevards, because the boulevard is really the only part of the built environment that operates at both scales. Sunset Boulevard, Wilshire Boulevard are huge regional pieces, but also have connections at an intensely local scale. You can talk about the meanings of a half block of the boulevard.
Cuff: Besides the river, the only two pieces of LA landscape with which the whole of the city identifies are the boulevards, especially Wilshire Boulevard, and the beach.
Hawthorne: Exactly. The problem with the boulevards is we tried to make them like freeways. And we sort of made our river like a freeway, too. We made it operate only at the regional scale. We made it a monoculture, a piece of infrastructure that achieved flood control and nothing else. The difference between the boulevard and the freeway is that the freeway does not operate at a local level, except in a destructive way, right? It doesn’t have any connection to the neighborhood. It looms over the neighborhood or under the neighborhood or destroys the neighborhood to make room for itself. And the way the river was channelized made it operate that way, too. That channelization was accompanied by cutting it off from the public, fencing it, again, like the freeway, essentially turning it into private property. It was inaccessible on a neighborhood scale.
I think the reason that there is some frustration about Gehry’s involvement among the advocates who have been working on the river for so long, Lewis MacAdams and others, is that they were attempting to make some connections at a neighborhood scale and say, “This thing is in your backyard, and it belongs to you.” And that was an incredibly difficult and important political battle. So I think seeing somebody coming in, as if from above, Robert Moses style, saying, “I’m going to produce this solution for the whole fifty-one miles”—it seems to suggest their work is being undone. And I can understand that.
At the same time, the most effective way to think about the river is as a platform for building new kinds of urbanism in the city—not getting back to something that we had and lost, but producing something we need. What are we missing in the city? We’re missing public space, green space, collective space—space where we can come together. We’re missing connections in terms of mobility across the region. And we don’t have enough housing. So rather than a rendering that shows a green riverbank—and I’m sure this is not going to please some river advocates to hear me say this—we should be thinking about using the airspace over the river. We should be thinking about building housing on the river—as long as it’s high enough not to flood—and over the river.
Maybe the best thing you can say about the river politically, as complicated as it is, is that it’s not on the West Side, which seems entirely closed off to big ideas at the moment. It runs through places that are desperate for development, that want investment. It also runs through places that are wary of development, and for good reason. So it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution. But we need to think about LA as a city that’s run out of open space to build. We have this landscape, fifty-one miles, that should be a platform to address the most basic problems that we’re facing—inequality and lack of open space and mobility. If you think about it as a spine that could produce housing, that could connect us in terms of getting around, that could be open space, the kind of shared collective space of the city, that’s an incredible opportunity.
Cuff: We have not had good large-scale infrastructure interventions in LA. Think of the freeways displacing neighborhoods—or Chavez Ravine and Dodger Stadium. People are right to be wary. But the river’s fifty-one miles are on a scale that is beyond imagination. You could talk about it being a place where you could have housing and park benches and cycling and bird sanctuaries and concrete. We don’t have any way of picturing a locally based, large-scale piece of infrastructure. We just don’t have that. That’s what the reimagined river could demonstrate: the next generation of our city, with neighborhoods linked along the way that are all part of something bigger. This would change our mindset about Los Angeles, from the “fragmented metropolis” and “suburbs in search of a city” to considering the city as a whole. This is not the way we have thought about Los Angeles.
Hawthorne: That’s a really good point because it’s also running counter to other forces in the city which are promoting a kind of balkanization, with a new focus on the neighborhood. One of the characteristics of the Third LA, as I see it, is the idea, the concept, of the greater city has broken down, largely because of freeway immobility, and because we haven’t built out a comprehensive transit system yet. People who live on one side of town once thought about the other side of town as being part of the same city in a very intimate way. That idea has been broken for a number of years, and there’s been a more of a focus on the neighborhood as a result. And there are good things and bad things about that. The good thing is that there is new attention to the neighborhoods. There’s a constituency for how neighborhoods are designed, what our sidewalks look like, whether there’s a park on the corner, what the public and collective space in the neighborhood looks like. There’s a renewed interest and focus on that, which is a very good thing.
But what makes the river tricky is that, at this moment where things are turning inward and more local, there’s this breakdown of regional connection. The river is this piece that requires a huge, wide regional vision to think about successfully. And so it’s even more challenging at the moment because our attention is fixed on a different level. We’re not thinking at the William Mulholland, Robert Moses, freeway-building scale, for better and worse. But now we have to think about that, at least in part, to make the river work.
There is a diversity of communities on the river. Some are desperate for investment and change. They can’t wait for things to happen. Others feel that their neighborhood already has a strong sense of community, and they want to protect it, and they’re worried about that for good reason.
Grid Series #25 by Victor Hugo Zayas.
Cuff: How do you think about the housing affordability problem?
Hawthorne: In general, I try to be careful not to say that things are generational. It’s too easy sometimes. But I think in the case of housing production, it’s very much the case. It goes back to state policies like Proposition 13, like CEQA, and a generation of homeowners that, in my opinion, has been extraordinarily fortunate and…
Cuff: …basically pulled up the ladder after itself.
Hawthorne: Yes. And is very active in doing whatever it can to protect what is at stake in whatever city they’re in, whether that’s Berkeley, Oakland, San Francisco, Los Angeles. If you bought your house in the 1970s, it’s not just that its value has doubled or tripled. I would be thrilled if the house that I bought a couple of years ago were to someday triple in value. But the houses people bought in the 1970s? They might be worth 30 or 40 times what those homeowners paid. And these are the same people, thanks to Prop 13, who are paying a tiny fraction of the property taxes of their neighbors. So there are larger questions about what kind of reform we can talk about with Prop 13 and CEQA.
There has also been an attitude among the political left that sees development—even smart growth—as suspect, always, that sees the larger environmental project as including opposition to development, even in cities, even near transit. And this is perhaps most extreme in places like San Francisco and Santa Monica, where people see opposing development—and even mass transit—as consistent with the left, progressive environmental and political agenda. I think that is, in many ways, directly responsible for the housing situation that we’re in now. People in very good conscience who live in Santa Monica or San Francisco think of a moratorium on development as a progressive thing to support rather than reactionary or conservative or just in their own political self-interest. I don’t have a problem with somebody who bought a house at a certain point saying, “I bought into a certain place, you know, I want it to stay this way, and I’m going to use whatever resources I can to keep it that way.” They have every right to say that, even if I disagree. I have a problem with people saying that’s consistent with a progressive agenda about cities or a forward-looking attitude about the environment or about resources. It’s not.
Christensen: Do you think the discourse around climate and urbanism is going to change that?
Hawthorne: Yes. I think the conversation is changing. The conversation around climate change sees densification, urbanization as part of the solution. And think about water. The New York Times did a piece about whether the water crisis and climate change and all of these shifts meant the end of the California dream, the end of growth, when in fact, as that piece itself acknowledged, growth is the only thing that has saved us in terms of our water. Our water use in Los Angeles has gone down since the 1980s—and not just per capita. Our total water use has gone down. Now, that has to do with efficient appliances, in part, but in the city, it’s also gone down because we’re living closer together and we’re not building subdivisions in the same way.
So it doesn’t make sense to say that the water crisis is a challenge to the idea of growth. Growth and densification is the one thing that is going to help us solve the water problem. But there’s this idea that those things are at odds. That to me is a direct product of exactly what we were just talking about, this idea that opposing growth or being wary of it, being wary of densification, is consistent with a progressive or environmental agenda. I think climate change is going to expose the contradiction in that. It already has in many ways.
Cuff: We seem to be arguing that the LA River could give Los Angeles an identity, but the key is also how you recognize the differences along the river and still make that a single thing. I wonder if there’s a way to do that with the high-speed rail, so that it stitches the state together, but every time it stops, there’s a station identity that’s related to Fresno versus LA versus San Francisco.
LA River 11 by Victor Hugo Zayas.
Hawthorne: I have some doubts about that approach because I’ve seen it play out locally, in LA, with the design of the Metro stations in a way that I don’t think was successful. When transit was controversial and Metro needed to get community buy-in to get different lines approved, one of the ways that they did that was to have stations whose architecture reflected the neighborhood. From an architectural and a practical point of view, it was a disaster. Just think about maintenance. You can’t clean the stations in the same way. You can’t replace the lightbulbs in the same way, because each one had a different design.
On top of that, I think it was important to say that the city as a whole—and the region as a whole—was putting in a new generation of transit and that those stations would relate to each other as a system rather than to each different neighborhood. And Metro has finally, I think, seen the light on that issue.
That colors how I think about high-speed rail. It’s a little different because those cities do have really distinct identities in the way that parts of LA might not. I would be interested to think about it. But I’m still baffled that high-speed rail is even controversial. I mean, it’s been horribly mismanaged. Putting aside the question of how it’s been rolled out, which has been a disaster, this is proven technology, in use for decades all over the world. As someone who drives and flies this corridor all the time, I guarantee you the high-speed train will be wildly popular from day one.
Cuff: What’s your explanation of the opposition, then?
Hawthorne: I think there is an incredible amount of distrust of public projects. I think the opposition is different in Northern and Southern California.
I think here, it was such a privatized landscape that there is a lot of doubt about what the public bodies can accomplish in terms of infrastructure. They see both the transit system and the freeways as failures for different reasons. That breeds a lot of anxiety—and a lot of cynicism.
In Northern California, unfortunately, I think a lot of the opposition comes from Silicon Valley. It’s connected to the libertarian distrust of government that is really rampant in Silicon Valley. And that is connected to this idea of Silicon Valley wanting to secede and form its own state, and to its enthusiasm for projects like Hyperloop, for example.
Christensen: Well, let me ask you a visionary question to conclude. What do you think the city of Los Angeles is going to look like in a generation or so? Say, around 2050? It’s a time far off, but close enough that anyone under forty is very likely to still be alive. Is LA going to be more like the movie Her or Elysium?
Hawthorne: I don’t think it’s going to be either of those things. I think we’re going to do what we always do, which is muddle through. Despite these big changes, I don’t think that’s suddenly going to either allow us to magically solve the political obstacles or produce a dystopia. I think we will continue to build transit. I think the obstacles to new housing, though they are substantial now, will begin to fall away over time. So we’ll be smarter, hopefully, about how much housing we can produce and where it goes.
We’re going to have a new transit measure on the ballot in the fall, the new Measure R. And if it passes, it will probably raise at least $100 billion. Now, not all of that will go to mass transit. There’s always some road money in those things, but the lion’s share of it will. And that’s enough money to reshape the landscape of the city around transit, in much the same way that we reshaped it around freeways. That’s enough money to put a train tunnel under the Sepulveda Pass. That’s enough money to think in a really ambitious way.
That said, I’m still pretty pessimistic about the leadership of the various agencies and how much they see themselves as being in a position even to think in this visionary way, let alone their ability to execute visionary plans. So I don’t think we’re magically going to get good at doing that. But we are in the midst of reshaping the whole landscape of the city. That’s just going to accelerate. We’ll do some things well. We’ll do some things not so well. But we’re already further into this transition than people realize.
“The balls are American, the bats are American, the bases were bought in America, the shoes that we have on, the New Balances, I got them because I have a contract with them,” says Pooky Gomez, who’s also American, as we watch the teams warm up at the beautiful Estadio Gasmart in Tijuana. “So the only thing that’s done in Mexico is the uniforms.”
About a mile north of the ballpark is the Foxconn factory where 4,500 employees make LCD screens for American phones, televisions, and computers. Tijuana is a city that typically offers itself to its northern neighbor—its wild nightlife and its cheap labor force—its baseball team relies on American goods and workers hopping the border in the opposite direction.
Lew Ford, who lives in Long Island most of the year, is hitching his hands back and down — shades of Ted Williams, mechanically — then mashing batting practice pitches into the Tijuana hills, two green backdrop bumps.
Ford, 39, played in a low-paying independent league in the States during the regular season but was signed as a well-paid mercenary for the Tijuana Toros’ playoff run.
For baseball-obsessed Americans like Ford and Gomez, Mexico is the land of opportunity.
Back in Los Angeles, Gomez, 35, drives a truck delivering 7Up to retailers 32 hours a week for the health insurance.
Down in the Mexican League, a minor league branch of Major League Baseball in name only, he’s a respected broker, someone who understands baseball on both sides of the border.
During the game, he sits directly behind home plate, sporting nice sunglasses, sharing the box with scouts and Toros executives who rely on him for his knowledge of American ringers like Ford. He also sells MaxBats for the Minnesota-based company, a job that gives him access to locker rooms and front offices throughout the United States and Mexico. “They would call me for bats,” he says, “but then they’d be like: you came from America, do you know any players available?”
Today is the fourth game of the semi-finals and Gomez, whose parents came to L.A. from El Salvador, where they play even less baseball than in Mexico, is leaning on the railing of the dugout with a veteran’s calm as the sunset’s afterburn plays off the hills just like it does at Dodger Stadium. There’s a baseball-addicted pain behind his eyes. It’s common, I think, among the American players and agents in Mexico.
Lew Ford, who garnered an MVP vote after an excellent season with the Minnesota Twins in 2004, looks haggard on the sidelines but more alive than most people when he’s in a batter’s box.
“The money is better here than in independent leagues,” says Ford, a father of three, “but if you’re in the independent league you’ve got a better chance to get picked up by an affiliated team. If you think, ‘hey I’m probably done MLB-wise,’ you can come down here and make some money.”
It’s different for Mexican-born players who, though paid well—$2,500 to $10,000 per month—are trapped by never-ending contracts that often keep Mexican talent from making it to the MLB.
“My opinion, it’s manageable,” Gomez says of the contracts for the Mexicans. “Why is it manageable? Because you still make a living. At the end of the day you look at it like what else are you going to be doing? Are you going to be driving a taxi?”
The league itself is a bizzaro version of the major leagues. In the United States, Mario Mendoza gave his name to the “Mendoza Line,” a batting average of around .200, below which a hitter is considered to be incompetent. In Mexico, where he spent much of his career, he’s a Hall of Famer with the nickname Manos de Seda: hands of silk. It’s a league where a team stacked with former MLB heavyweights Kyle Farnsworth, Armando Galarraga, and American League MVP Miguel Tejada failed to make the playoffs. It’s a league where Jorge Cantu, who once signed a $4.5 million contract, rides a bus through a lonely desert mountain pass to play in a 9,000-seat stadium.
Baseball is, at best, the third most popular sport in Mexico, behind soccer and boxing—a convenience store clerk a mile from the stadium had never heard of the Toros. But for the playoffs, hundreds of dedicated fans show up.
Before game four they are tailgating outside or watching the entertainment behind the grandstands, which consists largely of scantily clad women in thigh-high boots repping various local brands. A man without legs is wheeled out to the center of the plaza and placed on the ground to sell sodas. The music is a mix of banda and American pop songs. The smell of burning radiator fluid mixes with the smell of overfried churros.
By the second inning, every one of Estadio Gasmart’s 16,000 seats is filled. Petco Park—which, to be fair, has many more seats—was only at half-capacity for the San Diego Padres game twenty miles north that night.
The roving vendors are a glorious hodgepodge, a far cry from the corporate hawkers in the States. One man with a graying beard, wearing a black leather vagabond hat, sells nuts and local candies. A kid wearing a pot leaf shirt takes michelada orders. An old woman adds hot sauce to Styrofoam plates of fruit salads topped with crackers and pineapples.
Beyond the fence are flecks of light move up and down the hills, hundreds of them. It’s unsettling at first. An ignorant gringo, I assume desperation in the large swaths of people moving at night in Tijuana. Later, I learn they’re hikers taking in the view from atop Cerro Colorado.
The game itself is unremarkable. Offense is strong in the league because pitching is weak, or vice versa; most pitching prospects are quickly gobbled up by major league clubs. There are lots of calls to the bullpen so the game lags in the late innings.
Fans pump air horns and plastic trumpets in unison, sounding like the staccato discordant soundtrack from a horror flick. Cheers are loud throughout, though more likely to erupt for a long fly ball, mistaken, at first, for a home run, rather than quieter plays like a ground ball that advances a base runner.
“Blurred Lines” is blasting on the stadium speakers. It cuts abruptly as the pitcher comes set. He winds up, pitches, and the moment the ball hits the catcher’s mitt, the song resumes exactly where it left off, like musical chairs. On the field a chicken and monkey mascot make obscene gestures at one another. Everybody get up!
“It’s kind of like a constant party,” Toros pitcher Barry Enright tells me. Lanky with red hair, the Northern California native was drafted high by the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2007. He ascended quickly to the big leagues, where he struggled and was ultimately cut.
After a big strikeout in an earlier game, I saw Enright storm off the mound screaming like he was pitching in the World Series.
American minor league games are essentially tryouts for players fighting to make it to the next level. The centerfielder might be competing with the leftfielder, a teammate, for the same roster slot. The great players are promoted, gone from the team before the playoffs. The competition and camaraderie just isn’t there.
In the Mexican League, the players aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. They stick around for decades. Chemistry develops. And while the level of play is often worse than the American minor leagues, the games are more competitive. “This is their big leagues,” Enright tells me, “so it’s my big leagues.”
He pitched well during the season, something he attributes, in part, to being able to forget about the never-ending fight for a spot in the majors.
“Being here has helped me stay in the moment and just enjoy it,” he says. “I’ve always loved baseball and getting back here and being around a fun atmosphere has let me kind of clear my head. Who knows if I’ll ever go back over there or play in the big leagues again but it’s helped me not think about next year.”
Many of the players, including Ford, live out of the team hotels but Enright got himself an apartment in San Diego.
“Passing the border’s pretty easy,” he says, “I’m always going the opposite direction of traffic.”
After the Tijuana series, I was fairly certain I had everything I needed for the story I was working on at the time (about a now-erased blacklist) but I kept traveling to games. As a middle-schooler, I’d wake up every morning at 5 a.m. to lift weights in the hopeless pursuit of playing professional baseball. It’d been more than a decade since that dream died and I think I kept traveling to games because I liked being able to stand, as a member of the press, on the field with the players.
In the desert between Monterrey and Monclova, a baseball-crazy steel town with a fire-spewing mill whose flames could be seen from behind home plate, my bus broke down. I’d read, the night before, on the State Department’s website, that Americans should “defer non-essential travel” throughout almost the entire state of Coahuila, where I was stranded.
“The state of Coahuila continues to experience high rates of violent crime, including murder, kidnapping, and armed carjacking,” it said.
Gomez, Ford, and Enright make road trips like this all the time for a chance to stand out on the field. Mexican immigrants make even more astounding trips across similar landscapes to make it to the United States.
Sitting on the side of the road, a dusty mountain pass, I tried to define the word “essential.”
At a party not long ago, I met Nick Stockton, a journalist who had just relocated to San Francisco. A reporter for Wired, Nick said he had come from New York but that he was originally from California.
“Northern California?” I asked. He said no.
“Oh, where in SoCal?” I followed.
“Actually, I’m from the part of the state no one thinks about,” he replied. He was from Shafter, a small agricultural town in the Central Valley.
It was an embarrassing moment. It hadn’t crossed my mind that a professional journalist from California might have come from anywhere other the greater San Francisco or Los Angeles areas. Maybe San Diego. But while that was a prejudiced and dumb assumption on my part, unfortunately it wasn’t entirely unfounded. “Nobody leaves, ever,” Stockton says of his hometown. Heading to New York for journalism school and then taking a job with Condé Nast in San Francisco was not a standard trajectory.
Stockton was talking about leaving town in a literal sense, but lack of mobility is an increasing problem in the United States in more ways than just that. By many measures, socioeconomic mobility—a key component of the American dream—is becoming in America even more of a dream and less a reality.
It’s not just access to magazine jobs that vary by where you live. Numerous things that shape your future are determined by where you were born. Whether a kid has access to a good school and a safe neighborhood where children play outside—these things vary from region to region, even across city blocks. Researchers call these kinds of differences “social determinants of health.”
It’s easy to look at an adult’s life—whether they go to college or stock shelves or spend time in prison—as the result of personal decisions. And that’s not entirely wrong. But our decisions are shaped, and too frequently limited, by where we live. One way to visualize this is by looking at how life outcomes cluster geographically.
In 2012, researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University dug into health statistics for Alameda County, where I live. Alameda is home to the University of California, Berkeley and is just across the bay from San Francisco. Not surprisingly, there are neighborhoods where people are doing quite well. But that’s only part of the story. In their report, part of a series called Place Matters, the researchers found differences in life expectancy of more than twenty years between neighborhoods in the same county. Poverty, education, and income levels all showed huge variations.
You can predict a lot about a person by where he or she lives. Start with life expectancy. If you want to reduce health and quality of life to a single number, it’s hard to do much better. Exercise, diet, income, stress—they all affect how long a person lives. And average life expectancy incorporates the effects of violence, as well; if a high proportion of young men are dying, that can bring down an overall average.
Data sources: per capita income by census tract and race by county from the United States Census 2013 American Community Survey. 2010 life expectancy by census tract from Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) Center on Human Needs (CHN). Count incarceration rates created from the California Department of Corrections “Year at a Glance” 2010 report, which gave the county of commitment, with thanks to the Prison Policy Initiative. I used 2013 American Community Survey population data to generate the rates.
When I was old enough to have a car but too young to have anywhere to go, late in the night on weekends my two best friends and I used to drive to downtown Los Angeles. This was in the mid-1980s. The parts of downtown that weren’t Skid Row were as empty as if they’d been neutron-bombed. We were looking for Blade Runner; we got The Omega Man.
We’d head for Bunker Hill and Grand Avenue, carving through the middle of what city mapmakers used to call the “central business district.” In the city’s infancy, grandees lived on the hill in Victorian mansions. Twentieth-century business ambitions replanted the landscape with a forest of skyscrapers amid a brutalist-meets-futurist combination of super-wide surface streets, overpasses, underpasses, below-ground malls, and elevated pedestrian paths.
My friends and I would park in front of the then-new Museum of Contemporary Art—as sci-fi-looking a building as any Angeleno could have hoped for. The lights suspended above the empty streets gave the whole experience an acid, radioactive glow, bouncing off the smog corralled against the mountains. Other than our voices, there was only silence, which is downright eerie in a city.
When we goaded each other into it, one by one we’d walk out into the middle of Grand, and we’d lie down.
We were not risk-taking kids, particularly. Honestly, it was probably as safe as lying down in our backyards. We could hear cars coming miles away, and two of us always stood guard. That didn’t matter, though. None of us could manage to stay prone against the asphalt for more than a minute or two. It felt wrong. Streets are not for lying down on.
Like all good Angelenos, we had grown up thinking about movies. We watched a lot of them. We went downtown chasing the peculiar authenticity of being in parts of the city we’d seen on screens. The ubiquitous orange hue of the streetlights was part of our actual experience of Los Angeles—and also the experience of the city we shared with anyone who had seen the thousands of TV shows and films set there.
Neither of those cities, real or cinematic, exist anymore. Illuminated nighttime Los Angeles is in flux. Today, if I went downtown in the wee hours and laid my head against the Grand Avenue pavement—well, for starters I’d get run over, now that people work and play downtown again. But the last thing I’d see before the Prius crushed me would be a black sky, not an orange one. The glow around me would be bright blue-white. A citywide program, one of the most innovative in the country, is swapping out a half-million streetlight bulbs for the colder, paler glow of light-emitting diodes.
In a city with as long-term a relationship with electric light as Los Angeles has had, that’s a striking difference. The color of the city is changing, literally. Not during the day—as writers from Raymond Chandler to Michel Foucault have pointed out, LA’s stark, raving sunlight bleaches color from the wide, flat city. That’s still true. But at night, lights bring color back to LA—in a characteristic, unnatural spectrum. Now that spectrum is changing, which means the city’s identity will be transformed, too.
Photograph by Alex Scott.
Los Angeles electrified its streetlights early. The first pole with lights on top illuminated downtown in 1881, just a year after New York first installed arc lights—high voltage, power-hungry, and burning in air (as opposed to a competing technology, Thomas Edison’s incandescent lightbulb, which used an electrified filament that glowed in a vacuum). Soon enough, LA, filled with boosters whose pride belied a certain, let’s say, insecurity about the metropolises of the East, was touting lights more brilliant than Chicago’s and a Great White Way to rival New York’s. Leapfrogging to electric technology gave the city’s leaders a kind of legitimacy. “You can imagine that in New York and Boston the gas industry fought against electrification,” says Sandy Isenstadt, an art and architecture historian at the University of Delaware who studies city lights. “But Los Angeles had this intimate start.”
The timing wasn’t accidental. After staying roughly stable for 300 years, the raw price for artificial light—any kind, all the way back to fire and whale oil—began to drop precipitously around 1800. By the early decades of the twentieth century, lighting cost a fifth of what it had a century before,1and the technology—multiple technologies, actually—took off.2What really made Los Angeles special happened in 1924: the word Packard, glowing orange at Seventh and Flower3in the heart of today’s downtown, a few blocks south of where I used to lay in the street. It was part of the country’s first crop of neon signs. Later improvements in the coating of the glass tubes that contained the light, and the use of gases other than neon, expanded the color palate to two dozen. The night no longer meant an absence of color; it was quite the opposite.4
To commemorate the completion of Hoover Dam in 1936, which would provide a surplus of power to booming Los Angeles, a billion-candlepower beacon surrounded by pinwheeling searchlights turned the sky over downtown white. Over the next few years, those same type of searchlights would come to arc and dance in front of movie theaters lining the new cinematic corridor of Hollywood Boulevard, a symbol of local industry and glamour visible from anywhere in the Los Angeles basin.
The mid-century city, with neon signage blaring from high buildings, entire skyscrapers awash with light, streets blazing with hundreds of thousands of streetlights, had become something entirely new, unlike any city on Earth.
Fighting back darkness over 500 square miles of city isn’t easy—or cheap. “I’ve been here since 1977, since I was 17,” says Ed Ebrahimian, director of LA’s Bureau of Street Lighting. “I’m very aware of what a huge city Los Angeles is, and how many miles of streets and streetlights it has.” (For the record, it’s more than 4,500 miles of lit streets, second only to New York City.)5By the time Ebrahimian took over the bureau in 2005, the city’s annual bill for streetlight electricity was $16 million a year. In 2008 he pitched a new approach: convert the mostly sodium-vapor bulbs in the “cobrahead” streetlights, tall towers with big, flared-out heads that cantilevered over major thoroughfares, to a relatively new technology: light-emitting diodes, or LEDs.
It made sense. Sodium bulbs heat sodium metal until it vaporizes; in a gaseous state, the metal glows when current runs through it. LEDs last years longer and kick out more than double the light per watt.6Their lighter draw on the grid appealed to then-mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who wanted the city to have a smaller carbon footprint. Ebrahimian predicted saving $7 million a year on electricity and $2.5 million in maintenance.7
Photograph by Alex Scott.
For once, history was on Los Angeles’s side. Other cities have been trying to make the same switch—Seattle, Austin, Las Vegas—but because LA is so big and was first, its demands can drive the market toward certain technologies (and a more palatable price), and street lighting is an infrastructure improvement the city can actually afford. Back in the 1930s, LA created a maintenance assessment fund to pay for street lighting; anyone with a streetlight in front of their property pays into it, and the money can only go to streetlights. “Because of that, funding has not fluctuated like it has in other big cities,” Ebrahimian says. “All those other cities, they use the general fund for street lighting, and it competes against fire, police, and other priorities.”
The trick for Ebrahimian was picking the right kind of light. The noontime sun contains roughly equal measures of all the wavelengths of light visible to humans, plus some infrared (heat) and ultraviolet (suntan, cancer). Artificial sources of light are wildly variable. Incandescent bulbs emit the whole visible spectrum, but they favor the red end over the blue—meaning no ultraviolet to tan by, but lots of infrared, which is why they burn your fingers. Sodium lights emphasize yellow-orange wavelengths almost to the exclusion of all others.8
But a light’s spectrum is actually less important than what people see—and believe it or not, those things are different. The color of an object is a combination of the wavelengths of light hitting it, the wavelengths it reflects, and what your eye can actually register. (You don’t see ultraviolet, for example, but some insects do.) What really determines what color you see—and this is the most important part—is how your brain combines all that information with the light and context around it.
This dynamic plays out in real life all the time, but the most famous recent instance might be the Internet meme flare-up over a photograph of a dress that appeared blue and brown (or black) to some people and white and gold to others. Passed through Photoshop, the actual pixels that comprised the photographed dress were indeed blue, and the trim was brown. But something about the lighting around it—the time of day it implied, the position of the sun, maybe the suggestion of shade—made the image of the dress polarizing. People saw colors that were really there, but weren’t real, if there can be said to be such a thing as real when it comes to color.
Color, if you ask a philosopher, is a big problem. If it arises from a blizzard of photons descending on and then bouncing off an object (and then funneling through the lens of an eye, triggering uncountable biochemical reactions among the pigments and neural connections of the retina, setting off even more biochemistry in the interconnected neurons of the visual cortex), then do objects actually possess intrinsic color at all?
For now, put those late-night-dorm-room thoughts aside and light a candle at the altar of neuroscience. The human eye and brain together create an image of the world, in part by doing all that analysis of photon wavelength unconsciously. Lighting can change the color of something as effectively as a coat of paint; that streetlight orange you see in a movie might well be an effect of a gel like Rosco’s “Urban Vapor,” designed to make lights simulate sodium’s glow. But in real life, our brains fight the effect. They try to keep the color of an object constant even as the light around it changes.
So LEDs, for example, look white or blue-white to the naked eye. But they often drop the blues or reds at either end of the spectrum. Things that would look yellowish under full-spectrum sun or incandescent light may look white under LEDs. Skin tones look unnatural, even dead.
Lighting specialists try to avert those kind of catastrophes by carefully measuring the color of light. One metric they use, the Color Rendering Index, measures the fidelity with which a light reveals the color of an object (the accuracy of CRI is a matter of some controversy).9A second measure, color temperature, gauges the color of the light itself. Its units are degrees Kelvin, because it calculates what temperature you’d have to heat an idealized object called a black-body radiator so that it would glow the color you were looking for. For example, 4,000K is a sort of bluish white, and 3,000K is more yellowish. Incandescent bulbs tend to register between 2,700K and 3,000K. For Los Angeles’s needs, LED manufacturers pitched Ebrahimian 6,000K—the hard-edged glare of an electronic flashbulb.
Ebrahimian didn’t go for it. A city needs romance, not 5,000 miles of lights that evoke nothing more than paparazzi and selfies. His group did a little research and figured out that the color temperature of the moon was about 4,100K. So that’s what they asked for. All the new cobrahead lights are 4,000K, plus or minus 300—tiny grids that shine like moonbeams. “Downtown, you really notice it,” Ebrahimian says. “Go to Pinks on La Brea, or just walk on Sunset or Hollywood, and it’s an amazing feeling.”
Los Angeles and lights evolved in parallel. As the city went nonlinear in its expansion—or rather, rectilinear but in every direction until it ran up against the mountains or the Pacific—cars needed lights to follow new routes. Isenstadt, the architecture historian, points out that bright streetlights were perfect for the 1930s and 1940s, when the city wanted to extend shopping hours and connect multiple urban cores.10Illuminated buildings, neon apartment building signs, and bright movie theater marquees, all aimed at people driving cars, became the defining characteristics of Los Angeles.
The proliferation of glaring lights marked, as one book put it, a “victory of symbols-in-space over forms-in-space in the brutal automobile landscape of great distances and high speed.”11That book was Learning from Las Vegas, and it didn’t come out until 1972. But the lessons that the other pop-up city in a desert teaches were apparent in LA thirty years earlier, had anyone cared to learn them.
Artificial lights don’t illuminate everything equally. Brighter nighttime lights leave darker nighttime shadows. They call attention to edges, outlines, themselves. The movies solidified the role of lights in Los Angeles’s mythology. Noirish writers like Chandler and directors like Billy Wilder loved the irony of a city so brightly lit (day and night) hiding horrors in its shadows. By the 1950s, garish neon on screen was a shorthand for harshness and danger.
Neo-noirs made artificial light sources glorious. In Chinatown, the classic of the form, detective Jake Gittes smashes the taillight on the car of someone he’s following so he can track the car at night. That’s as much of a foreshadow of what happens to the dame in question, Evelyn Mulwray, as the imperfect mote in her eye. (Spoiler: She gets shot through the eye in Chinatown—right in the headlight, as it were.)
And then there’s Blade Runner. The Los Angeles that director Ridley Scott constructed owed more to Kyoto and Times Square than to LA, though it did absorb the Las Vegas lessons on signage. Flying cars require skyscraper-sized animated billboards, and permanent acid rain refracts a vast plain of yellow-orange street lighting. Somehow Blade Runner managed to frame what LA might become without being much like LA at all, except for the color of the streetlights, which felt right even if the idea of rain in LA now seems more like science fiction than ever.
Photograph by Alex Scott.
But then movies have their own authenticity; for an Angeleno steeped in them, they become as real as the city outside. When Michael Mann made the movie Collateral, one of his goals was to make nighttime Los Angeles a character, and the city’s lights—shot with a dizzying array of digital technology—have never looked better. Mann started his career on Miami Vice and made the heist movie Heat; he is arguably Hollywood’s king of depicting cities at night. But the effect he creates is just that—an effect. Mann thought the combination of LA’s actual sources of illumination looked weird on his monitors; he and his crew tweaked it in post-production to look “real.” 12
Lights are not the same as movies of lights. And memories of lights and movies? That’s a whole other thing. Color and the memory of color, already filtered by the eye and brain, dance a few steps even further away from whatever we might call the color of reality when recorded by technology, by a camera. “Remembrance of the city is mediated by a technology that is itself sensitive to the way the light is produced,” says Bevil Conway, a neuroscientist at Wellesley College who studies color and vision. “In very blunt terms, there’s a difference between your experience of the sodium light and your experience of a picture or movie shot using sodium illumination.”
To Conway, the key is that trick the human visual system plays. It’s called color constancy. In essence, it’s the ability of the eye and visual cortex to correct for the color of illumination that’s spilling across a scene and reflecting back to an observer. Most of the time, humans can subtract the “spectral bias” of a source.
Photograph by Alex Scott.
Occasionally, artificial or external effects break color constancy—accidentally, as with the dress, or intentionally, in the theater or a movie. Our brains “see” a color that isn’t really there. Different light sources can set off the same color coding in the eye under one set of conditions, but not another. Look at a shirt in the store and it matches your pants; get it home and it doesn’t. Color constancy has played you for a patsy. “As you switch from one lighting condition to another, from sodium to LED, you are profoundly changing the way color objects appear,” Conway says. “And that’s huge. It’s going to change the associations people make.”
Sodium lights are effectively monochromatic, which means that while you can see by them, you essentially have no color vision, though just as in dim lighting you’re unlikely to notice. As with black-and-white images, Conway argues, memories add a kind of personal retrospective colorization, but LEDs drag everything into full color. “I wonder whether your nostalgia for sodium-illuminated LA has something to do with this,” Conway emails later, after we talk. “Under sodium lights, you can experience the city with your own private visualized colors, and these don’t align with the real colors given to you with LED lights. It’s disappointing, just as seeing a movie based on a favorite book is rarely satisfying.”
The lights of Los Angeles are going to keep changing. Now that he has converted the cobraheads along commercial streets, Ebrahimian is targeting the 50,000 or so decorative streetlights in residential areas. He figures the city has 400 different styles. And they need a different color temperature, he says; the bureau is going with the more yellowish-incandescent hue at 3,000K. “It keeps the neighborhood feel,” Ebrahimian says.
Because LEDs can essentially be turned into computer chips, it’s easy to attach them to a network. Philips Electronics is working on adding to every cobrahead fixture a wireless connection to the Bureau of Street Lighting. It’s just a little control module that plugs into the light and then sends its status back home, via the Internet, to Ebrahimian’s bureau—on, off, broken, whatever. It won’t let anyone change the color of the light—that would need a different kind of LED—but it will mean that the fixtures will deliver more than just illumination. They’ll deliver information.
Maintenance is just the beginning. Streetlights could flash in unison when paramedics barrel down a thoroughfare. You could guide people to certain streets to control entry and egress to a mass event, like a ball game at Dodger Stadium. How about connecting real-time traffic information collected from a phone app like Waze? If that sounds like the exposition that comes before a villainous hacker brings Los Angeles to its knees, well, wait for it. I’m sure that script is already in development.
In cities, light defines space. In a way, the placement of every source of artificial illumination encodes a priority of the city. People chose to illuminate this, not that.
Artificial light, though, also defines time. “By night, motion is calibrated against an episodic, even flickering visual field rather than the uniform rendering of form that comes with an even wash of daylight,” Isenstadt writes. “By night, Los Angeles is a radiant and reflective construct, no longer beholden to the geometric structure and material resolution of the day.”13The nighttime downtown where my friends and I lay on the street twenty-five years ago did indeed have a certain radiance and reflectivity. But I don’t remember—or at least I don’t remember remembering—light decoupling from the geometry of buildings and the street grid. The light didn’t just define the city; the city defined the light.
Any new memories of the city I form will be literally colored—tinged, maybe—in a new way. Old movies star my city; new ones will feature the city. The same apocalyptic fate that always seems to come to Los Angeles in movies has finally arrived in my orange-lit, neon-bordered version: Fade out.
2 John A. Jackle, City Lights: Illuminating the American Night (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001), 73.
3 Lydia DeLyser and Paul Greenstein, “Signs of Significance: Los Angeles and America’s Lit-Sign Landscapes,” Overdrive: LA Constructs the Future, 1940–1990, Wim De Wit and Christopher James Alexander, eds. (Los Angeles: Getty Publications, 2013), 104.
4 John A. Jackle, City Lights: Illuminating the American Night (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001), 86.
10 Sandy Isenstadt, “Los Angeles after Dark: The Incandescent City,” Overdrive: LA Constructs the Future, 1940–1990, Wim De Wit and Christopher James Alexander, eds. (Los Angeles: Getty Publications, 2013), 49.
11 Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour, Learning from Las Vegas, Revised Edition, (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1977), 119.
13 Sandy Isenstadt, “Los Angeles after Dark: The Incandescent City,” Overdrive: LA Constructs the Future, 1940–1990, Wim De Wit and Christopher James Alexander, eds. (Los Angeles: Getty Publications, 2013), 62.