The City: Los Angeles and Urban Theory at the End of the 20th Century edited by Allen J. Scott and Edward W. Soja

John Kaliski

Images of Los Angeles—its palm trees, movie stars, endless summer, rows of single-family houses, and mass-produced, surrealistically collaged cultures of youth, sports, automobiles, sweatshops, violence, and kitsch—have captured the world’s fancy. This popular fascination with the city has been a motivating force in its growth from slightly more than 250,000 residents in 1900 to a multi-nucleated megacity encompassing hundreds of municipalities and more than 15,000,000 people spread across an area the size of Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts combined. Yet despite a century of growth and two centuries of history, Los Angeles has refused to realize the hallmarks of Eurocentric urbanism: a clear hierarchy of city and country, the dominance of pedestrian-oriented mixed-use districts, a functional mass transit system, comfortably utilized civic spaces, and, perhaps most important, a strong and homogeneous civic culture.

Los Angeles has defied traditional urbanism and retained instead a suburban and privatizing cultural bias even as it has intensified to the point where in places it is denser than Queens, New York.1 Given the absence of the usual spatial clues that pertain to urban culture, Angelenos are assumed by their counterparts in other cities and regions to be, like their city, anti-urban. And perhaps Los Angeles urbanism is different. While the city does offer those essential, if sometimes debilitating, urban qualities of freedom, anonymity, and opportunity, it nonetheless seems to suggest the need for a new definition of urbanism. It is the seeking of a new definition of urbanism within the context of the Los Angeles experience that motivates the writers brought together in Allen J. Scott’s and Edward W. Soja’s recent anthology, The City: Los Angeles and Urban Theory at the End of the 20th Century.

In The City, Los Angeles urbanism is a purposely moving target, an anomaly that simultaneously incorporates fact and myth. From an orange tree in every backyard to Walt’s Pollyanna-ish Disneyland, the city in this collection of essays spawns images of movie-set worlds often threatened by real-life disasters, natural and manmade. Riots, air pollution, homelessness, and earthquakes coexist with the plush landscapes of the wealthy, high rates of business formation, and the building of Richard Meier’s one-billion-dollar mountaintop Getty Center.

Although the quest to build a city as an economic garden will always be misunderstood by some, Harvey Molotch wryly notes in his essay, “L.A. as Design Product: How Art Works in a Regional Economy,” that “[i]mages of fruits and nuts have made Southern California clearly a major industrial force…”(260). In fact, fruits and nuts are an apt symbol for many of the powerful forces that define Los Angeles today. The image suggests combinations of sunshine and triviality, health and wealth, fortune-seeking and garden-tending that help shape the fractal civic sensibility and economic strength that appall traditional urbanists and define, at least in part, Los Angeles’s marked difference from most other North American cities. Sprawling across the desert and up and down the coast, Los Angeles seems perfectly capable of developing its own nutty urbanism, a mix of the metropolitan melting pot of the ever-evolving present and anomalistic exemplar of all cities’ urban futures. This is the major undercurrent of Molotch’s symbolism as well as the theme of the book’s other essays.

The City belongs to a well-established literary tradition that seeks to explain Los Angeles’s form and culture. For architects, the basic text remains Reyner Banham’s 1971 Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies. Here Banham presents a mostly optimistic physical vision of an instant city set against a wobbly though still important framework of history. With 1960s bravado he exhorts the reader to “… swing the proverbial cat, flatten a few card houses in the process, and clear the ground for improvements that the conventional type of metropolis can no longer contemplate.”2 For Banham, Los Angeles is an object lesson that other cities will want to emulate.

Twenty years after Banham, Mike Davis’s book, City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles, offers a new historical framework, one more volatile and about to explode.3 For Davis, Los Angeles is a city of shadows, an urban dystopia of class and racial tensions. Its architecture and urbanism reflect these tensions, being reduced to both commercial commodity and defensive fortress. From Banham’s open-ended “surfurbia” to Davis’s carceral “junk yard of dreams,” Los Angeles devolves from bright prototype to depraved model in less than two literary decades.

The twenty-year transformation of Los Angeles, described by Davis in City of Quartz as the shift from sunshine to noir, is symbolized in all these essays by two critical events: the Watts rebellion of 1965 and the Rodney King uprising of 1992. In the book’s concluding essay, “Los Angeles, 1965-1992,” Soja, author of Postmodern Geographies: The Reassertion of Space in Critical Social Theory, articulates the difference between these occurrences, one that is key to understanding the ideology that informs this volume. For Soja, the burning of Watts was a self-inflicted wound and a cry for help from a minority population long denied civil rights and equal opportunities by a racist majority. In contrast, Soja attributes the King uprising to more than inadequate police response. Soja introduces the forces of the new post-1970s economy as the primary cause of the 1992 riots. In Los Angeles, as elsewhere, the decline of manufacturing and the growth of the service and information economy resulted in a two-tiered, low-wage/high-wage flexible labor market. The consequent loss of high-skill blue-collar jobs particularly hurt Los Angeles’s growing minority populations, and the concurrent growth of a global economy beyond the control of local business and government further shifted the city’s economy from dependence on heavy manufacturing by large corporations to flexible production by small businesses. Along with the destruction of the New Deal and Great Society social safety nets by new conservative majorities, Soja documents the emergence of a “restructuring” crisis felt most acutely by underpaid and laid-off workers, people of color, the homeless, as well as by middle managers insecure in their jobs. For Soja and the other essayists here, the beating of Rodney King was the catalyst and the 1992 riots the result of twenty-five years of post-Watts economic evolution that occurred across a topological field.

Postmodern restructuring defines the point of departure for the book and for the Los Angeles School, an informal colloquium of academics, urbanists, and the occasional architect centered at the University of California at Los Angeles. Like the earlier “Chicago School” of sociology, based at the University of Chicago, the Los Angeles School is grounded in the ethos of a particular place. Unlike the Chicago School, which hypothesized a singular model of 20th-century urbanism, the Los Angeles School accepts multiple narratives. At the same time, The City’s essayists are indebted to the neo-Marxist dialectics of Frankfurt School writers such as Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin. But unlike the Frankfurt School, which theorized an internationalist space defined by commodity production and class relations that overwhelm the dynamics of local space and custom, the Los Angeles School maintains the relevance of local space in studying these relations. In the final analysis, the Los Angeles School maintains a strong base in both camps.4 Its inclusive approach gives rise to a definition of a spatial and temporal urbanism that is heterogeneous, multilayered, and hyperreal. In short, Soja and his allies seek to discover “… a new kind of urban analysis, one that is open to a diversity of interpretive positions, yet is committed to a collective project that is theoretical and practical at the same time” (viii).

From a practical point of view, The City is a goldmine of information that establishes the area’s historic, present, and future importance. In “In the City, Time Becomes Visible: Intentionality and Urbanism in Los Angeles, 1781-1991,” the geographer Michael Dear demonstrates Los Angeles’s prescience in regard to planning. The city enacted the nation’s first zoning ordinance in 1904, established the first regional planning commission in 1923, and the first redevelopment project in the State of California. Dear clearly demonstrates that Los Angeles, contrary to popular opinion, is an intentional urbanscape, though the intentions are not always those of architects and planners. Building upon this theme, Mike Davis powerfully describes, in “How Eden Lost Its Garden: A Political History of the Los Angeles Landscape,” the city’s rapacious real estate industry, which systematically corrupted, ignored, and bought off every attempt to realize the sustainable land management systems proposed by generations of professional urbanists.

Davis resurrects two important planning crossroads that, if followed, would have resulted in an urbanscape of national importance quite different from the existing “intentional” sprawl. The first is the late Robert Alexander’s (Richard Neutra’s partner in the 1950s) postwar zoning plan for the San Fernando Valley. This implemented plan sought to foster an intimate relationship between existing truck farming and postwar house building clustered around village centers. But this attempt to combine aspects of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Broadacre City and Clarence Stein’s Radburn-like Baldwin Hills Village was ultimately buried by the production methodologies of the tract builders who persuaded Los Angeles’s City Council to rezone lands set aside for agriculture. Garrett Eckbo’s even more heroic if equally futile effort to create an open space system preserving the “citrus belt” around urbanized areas met an equally frustrating end. Davis’s essay leaves the reader outraged by the specificity of the environmental vandalism wrought by unchecked development, and nostalgic for Los Angeles’s opportunity to control industrial urbanism and preserve a city within a garden, a place that could still fit Louis Adamic’s dreamy idyll of Los Angeles as an “enormous village.”5

Like Dear and Davis, The City’s other essayists use previously hidden histories to reveal powerful shaping narratives. In “A City Called Heaven: Black Enchantment and Despair in Los Angeles,” Susan Anderson relates how Los Angeles was the first American city to recruit blacks to its police force and fire department, an indication of an earlier era of social relations quickly repressed by growing racism. Anderson goes on to describe how, in response to increasing restrictions and enforced spatial apartheid, Los Angeles became a “leading center for legal challenges to restrictive covenants” (344). Anderson relates the “92nd Street Outrage,” the story of a black family sent to jail for moving into a house restricted by covenants to whites. This case became instrumental in the overthrow of these covenants by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1948.

In aggregate, the histories of The City describe the loss of an awesome natural landscape and the receding of a multiplicity of golden L.A. eras based upon cheap land, plentiful jobs, ready labor, good climate, and inexpensive power. In this context, the city’s consequent rise to become the nation’s largest manufacturing center (432) is understandable. Even more remarkable is its fitful yet sure shift to an international economy that combines aspects of both manufacturing and image production. From an industrial standpoint, this evolution is encapsulated by the rise, fall, and resurrection of the city’s automobile industry. While Los Angeles was once the United States’ second center for automobile manufacture, by 1990 the factories and the high-paying blue-collar jobs were gone. Harvey Molotch describes how, from a region offering skilled vocational workers the chance to earn middle-class incomes, Los Angeles became the global center for the design of cars by white-collar specialists. In essence, the city’s economy was increasingly focused on the invention of images and lifestyles and the manipulation of media, even as Los Angeles continued to be a center for the production of things by low-wage workers. For Soja, Los Angeles mutates into the “… influential center for the manufacturing of hyperreality” (453). In the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, Los Angeles, cradle to Hollywood and birthplace of Disneyland, restructures as the “… world’s prototypical post-Fordist industrial metropolis…” (439), and becomes a locale of harsh extremes.

No essay demonstrates this last point better than Jennifer Wolch’s contribution, “From Global to Local: The Rise of Homelessness in Los Angeles during the 1980s.” Wolch describes a horrifying confluence of restructuring economies and mean-spirited politics that led to the city’s designation as “homeless capital of the United States” (390). On any given night in 1991, experts conservatively estimated that 38,420 individuals and families were homeless in Los Angeles. Wolch demonstrates that, with a few notable exceptions, the municipal response amounted to little more than cruel paralysis, as unimaginative politicians and officials consistently shuffled the problem onto adjacent municipalities that in turn used the same reactionary tactics. In this regard it is almost perverse to read Richard Weinstein’s optimistic words in “The First American City,” in which he states that “Los Angeles is the first consequential American City to separate itself decisively from European models and to reveal the impulse to privatization embedded in the origins of the American revolution” (22).

Reading through the extraordinary facts and “firsts” scattered throughout the book’s 483 pages, one is left with the impression that many of the authors are passionate dystopic boosters of a city run amok. They love Los Angeles because, from their perches in academia, it is a badge of honor to live in and observe a city that is experiencing all those difficulties that other cities seem destined to experience. However, in contrast to the turn-of-the-century Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, which flooded the nation with brightly worded flyers that unleashed a speculative boom, these writers of the Los Angeles School fear that no one will attend to their darker message. Susan Anderson expresses this concern succinctly when she states that, despite dizzying growth, restructuring, and two urban riots of unprecedented scale, Los Angeles remains an “oracle … the prophetic urban place that utters a message no one wants to hear” (357).

Notwithstanding such concern, each contributor attempts to project his or her observations and interpretations into future practices. This push to create a foundation for action is based not simply upon the persistence of injustices and problems, but also upon the fact that the Los Angeles region continues to grow. As the Los Angeles Times recently reported, the region is anticipating 6.7 million additional residents by 2015.6

The dilemmas that such growth will bring and the policies needed to address it are well illustrated by Margaret FitzSimmons and Robert Gottlieb in “Bounding and Binding Metropolitan Space: The Ambiguous Politics of Nature in Los Angeles.” The authors first establish that Federal “command and control” mandates implemented by a regional authority have resulted in significantly cleaner air over the past twenty years, despite a sixty percent increase in population. However, they also illustrate how such progress is threatened by the recent infatuation with market-based controls that favor large Fordist industries that maintain their polluting plants while employing few workers. In the authors’ view, a program of market-based pollution credits creates no incentive to support cleaner industries that meet strict environmental standards and generate jobs for a growing population (217). FitzSimmons and Gottlieb call for increased local control and public participation in all aspects of pollution regulation, arguing that this will produce both more responsive clean-up mechanisms and job-producing industrial policies.

To address the crowded and contentious future of Southern California, most of the contributors echo FitzSimmons and Gottlieb’s appeal for increased access to and democratization of planning. For instance, in “High-Technology Industrial Development in the San Fernando Valley and Ventura County: Observations on Economic Growth and the Evolution of Urban Form,” Allen Scott calls for creating coalitions of business, labor, community groups, and local government. In “Latino Los Angeles: Reframing Boundaries/Borders,” Raymond A. Rocco also emphasizes increased community participation; as he says, “[I]t is not until we reconceptualize what we mean by community, refashion how we define the criteria for assigning privileges, responsibilities, and rights, that we are likely to begin to find a basis for political and social reconciliation” (387). Richard Weinstein also focuses on community and coalition building, pushing for a definition of local that moves beyond neighborhood boundaries. He imagines democratically competing virtual communities debating local interests. “… [V]alue-oriented institutions and voluntary civic and community associations, combined with public service institutions (e.g. education), constitute the seed that—planted in a mixed-use, higher-density environment—will grow into a public realm” (36). Scott and Soja summarize these calls for increased local participation and present a reform program that calls for 1) coordinating industrial and environmental policy, 2) emphasizing local economic strengths, such as the entertainment business, 3) concentrating on development that generates job growth, and 4) encouraging the development of coalitions and institutions that can advocate progressive and collective positions in the local and regional arena.

While theoretically well framed, this program is long on strategy and short on tactics. Although this book will lead the reader to a rich understanding of Los Angeles’s history and to a framework for the theoretical reconceptualization of this city (if not of all cities), the calls for action are too general. This critique is not meant to denigrate the need for democratization and sound economic policies, but rather to suggest that a junior staff planner in any Los Angeles councilperson’s office would have as much and maybe more to say about how you organize, when you organize, and what you are organizing for than do the authors in this book. While professing an interest in the future, The City provides few representations of any possible urban futures, and on the whole remains suspicious of them to the detriment of its stated goal of establishing, from a theoretical position, a practical project.

Given the book’s feast of theorizing and thin gruel of proposed action, it is fascinating to consider the power of two specific proposals: Martin Wachs’s call for expanded definitions of mobility and Richard Weinstein’s “morphology of a public realm.” Wachs challenges urbanists who remain infatuated with centers-based models to reconsider the relationship of land uses to the flexibility of the car. While he discourages the use of single-occupant automobiles and advocates the removal of hidden subsidies, he also encourages “automobility,” including “car pooling, van pooling, shared-ride taxies, jitney services, local buses, and employee operated buspools… ” (153). Arguing in the tradition of Melvin Weber’s now classic essay, “Order in Diversity: Community without Propinquity,”7 Wachs projects a decentralized city that includes and supports a variety of simultaneous overlapping urban typologies.

Weinstein, in his projection of the extended city, pushes Wachs’s vision into the realm of city design. He imagines the matrices, linear developments, and nodes of the extended city of automobility evolving into an active and intricately connected physical and virtual network of enclaves, “messy edges,” underutilized spaces, negotiated public and private places, permeable street frontages, and opportunistic building programs. The imperfect city that results includes giant “incubator” zones that are often unregulatable except by the unending choreography of voluntary and established institutions that politically jockey back and forth, creating, undoing, and recreating the physical and political balance of power.

Weinstein’s vision, translated through the filter of Los Angeles, is both liberatory and dystopic. It is a vision of a city where the debates are about specific actions, and where policy is translated through building and rebuilding. Weinstein states, “[b]eneficial changes are most likely to occur when policy is able to focus … transforming energies around an existing potential, enhanced by transit, to produce a new social circumstance, restructured institutional arrangements, and the physical correlative with which they interact and through which they are reinforced and a public realm established” (44).

Unlike most of The City’s other authors, Weinstein argues for the critical contribution of architectural representation and action within the arena of political debate. Despite their professed interest in place, the other essayists on the whole do not share Weinstein’s emphasis on “physical correlatives.” An open political process might reject the specifics of either Wachs’s or Weinstein’s vision; however, without the ability to envision in the context of a place, the inclination is to avoid place and establish policies based purely on theory—an inclination that the Los Angeles School surely rejects. Given their position as theorists, adherents of the School too often end up professing general abstract practices with little real-world bite.

Nonetheless, The City is an important effort that elucidates the class tensions and economic restructuring inherent in the design of most cities today. It presents a useful critique of top-down planning and urban design and as such challenges the superficial coherence of New Urbanism and any other school of thought that preaches with certainty about “correct” urban form and process. The Los Angeles of The City dares the urbanist to consider that the democratic city is not beholden to traditional forms, but rather must be open to debates and ideas about all types of creative urban form.

Whatever its faults, Los Angeles continues to attract. In part this is a testament to the enduring legacies of climate and myth that The City so skillfully debunks. However, despite the new paradigms of harshness and disorder described in this book, these themes do not substitute for Molotch’s aforementioned fruits and nuts, and this is perhaps the most important lesson uncovered here for architects, urbanists, and Los Angeles naysayers. As Molotch says, “… fruits and nuts sustain, they innovate” (260).

Soja encapsulates the complexity, if not the promise, of Los Angeles when he presents a new vocabulary for urbanism that describes the city’s dynamic. At once “exopolis” or no-where city, “flexcity,” concurrent “cosmopolis” of local and global forces, “splintered labyrinth” of intertwined extremes, “carceral city,” “simcity,” and “scamscape,” Los Angeles is fascinating precisely because it cannot be easily categorized. In his contribution, “Hetero-Architecture and the L.A. School,” the always theoretically up-to-date Charles Jencks argues that the resultant heteroglossia (“… that which a systematic linguistics must always suppress”8) is “a precondition for meaning” (75). Of course, most great cities throughout history could be construed to have the qualities that Soja and Jencks describe. Perhaps the greatest difference between Los Angeles and other urban places that is revealed here is that Los Angeles accepts a lack of definition, revels in it, and increasingly plans its (and others’) future based upon this order of disorder.

Harvard Design Magazine Issue No. 1
Issue No. 1