I often surprise people in conversations and introductions when I tell them that I’m from Los Angeles. Perhaps I lost parts of the California vibe between Princeton, Germany, and Oxford, whether in clothes, accent, or outlook. Maybe it’s because my mother, who spends much of her time scouring clearance racks of department stores across Southern California, has a preference for preppy-ish clothes. Given my current sartorial budget, this means I end up with certain things in the closet. But what if people simply have the wrong idea of what Los Angeles is about, or could be about?
Tonight, I want to write a bit about my own, difficult relationship with the city and urban agglomeration – totaling about 20 million people across Southern California – where I am from and which I still, in some sense, grudgingly, call home. While I was born in Santa Monica, one of the nicest areas of the entire Southern California region, I effectively grew up and spent almost all of my childhood on the Palos Verdes Peninsula, a hilly peninsula that juts out into the Pacific Ocean and separates the Santa Monica Bay (the main bay that what most people would call Los Angeles is located on) from San Pedro (a working-class port town) and Long Beach, the major harbor for Los Angeles if not the entire Western United States. As I have traveled around the world, to places where urban spaces work well, like where I’ll be this August, to other places like Moscow where urban planning doesn’t work so well, I have, I think, gained more perspective on why LA works so poorly for me – but also which parts of it work decently, and that people should check out more.
Probably the biggest problem of all with Los Angeles, and certainly one that shapes my relationship with it, is that so many people have an idea of what the city is like without having visited it. Many people, especially Europeans, assume that it remains compact, that there is something called Hollywood where movie stars hang out, and that the beach is readily accessible from almost any point in town. It’s not. As I’m sure is true for many people who have lived in Los Angeles, life actually revolves around sitting on the 405 Freeway, the major north-south artery that connects the major districts of the region: the Valley, the West Side, the Beach Cities, Long Beach, and Orange County. When the temporary shutdown of a freeway, as the 405 will be this July 15 and 16, is hyped as a potentially “global event,” you know it’s more than a freeway for most. The doldrums of spending three to four hours a day sitting in your car and getting fat are well-known.
More subtly, the more I travel, the thing that frustrates me more about LA and its missed opportunities has to do with its culture, and what I would call the triumph of homogeneity over the tradition of California extremes. As Mike Davis (mentioned again later in this post) has highlighted in his work Ecology of Fear, the California landscape is one of extremes. While its temperature may be more mild year round than that of the East Coast, it is subject to greater extreme oscillations in weather through events like El Niño, which has caused both record rainstorms as well as 105 degree heat waves in Southern California during my life there. Compared to the stable plate tectonics of Europe and the Northeast, California is of course subject to major earthquakes. The weather system and ecology favor massive wildfires such as the ones that occurred in 2007. Compared to the relatively docile flora and fauna of East Coast and European residential life, California backyards occasionally feature rattlesnakes, cougars, and mountain lions. Mudslides and floods have devastated regions of the Foothills as well as Malibu. Southern California is ecologically different, marked more by catastrophism than the gradualist ecology of Europe and the Northeast.
One of the greatest failures of the imagination in Los Angeles has been the attempt by developers to ignore this ecological particularism and impose over it fantasies of mansions, subdivisions, and clone projects almost identical to the suburban housing units in other parts of the country. The growth agenda of the mid-20th century and the ensuing rush of people ensured that every usable piece of land would be taken for development, which has prevented the forests of the region from having natural fires and replenishing themselves. Catastrophic events become rarer, but more exacerbated. Outside of the realm of residential development, I was struck while hosting a girlfriend in the city by how homogenous many of the districts are in terms of food offerings. True, some exclaves of truly excellent Oaxacan and other regional Mexican cuisine exist around the city, but too often what distinguishes an upmarket area from a downmarket area is the presence of two or three more chi-chi stores in the local strip mall: a Jamba Juice, a Pinkberry, or, holy of holies, an Apple Store. Rather than finding some happy fusion between the mix of cultures in the space – American, Persian, Latin American, East Asian, Jewish – too often consumption, just like development, tends towards the homogenous and ignores the regional culture of the place.
Still, last September, when I spent a couple of weeks at home prior to my trip to Moscow, I discovered much to like about LA. I was stuck at home, mostly relaxing, taking my dog on long walks around the neighborhood, and spending time in the evenings with my father when he returned from work (my mother and brother spend much of the week in the forementioned San Fernando Valley in order to minimize commuting time.) But I also had my bizarre obsessions to feed, which, at the time included working on a piece on postwar Soviet documentary photography that required consulting books on … South African and Namibian photography and American photography of the Diné (Navajo) peoples at the USC and UCLA Libraries. If none of this sounds lucid to you, don’t worry – neither did it to the first round of reviewers for the piece. Making things even more incomprehensible, however, was the fact that I didn’t own a car.
This might sound like madness to some people. But getting around LA to get these books – at USC, in South Central, at UCLA, in Westwood, and at the Los Angeles Public Library in Downtown (closeish to USC but too far and potentially too dangerous to walk) – helped me re-appreciate the city in new ways. (It did, I should underline, also help me see how segregated the city can be.) To be critical, while I enjoyed working at both of their libraries, both UCLA and USC jumped out for me in contrast with Oxford by how corporatized they had become in the realm of student life. What seemed like the hub for social activity on UCLA’s campus, Ackerman Union, jumped out as a mix between food court, bookstore, and shopping mall: Jamba Juice, Taco Bell, nail salons, and similar businesses dominated the space.
It all makes me more grateful to live in a place like Oxford, where – rain and bad customer service aside – we get great foodie venues like Olive’s and Ricardo’s. Not only are these places unique and full of character, but the spaces they inhabit – Oxford’s High Street or the Covered Market – are superior to the food courts of UCLA and USC. Commercial activity is central to both places, of course, but after two years here, it’s quite common that I’ll zip by someone as I bike up High Street, or that I’ll cross paths with someone as I cut through the Covered Market to somewhere else. Shopping is going on in both pairs of places, true, but the consumer experience somehow seems more ancillary to the Oxford experience. What’s more, Corpus Christi, my college at Oxford, is blessed with wonderful gardens to which I enjoy taking lunch guests. We sit with a view over the Christ Church gardens, munch, talk, and laugh. We’re there consuming what we’ve purchased, but the focus is on the other person, on engaging en pleine air away from the bazaar. Somehow, my conversations in the Corpus gardens seem more powerful, perhaps for this reason, than almost any time I can remember in an American food court.
Still, to return to LA, there are other aspects of the place that I came to relish the more time I spent there. I had almost never worked at the Los Angeles Public Library prior to this previous September. And why would I? Downtown Los Angeles, as the piercing scholar Mike Davis has pointed out correctly in his book City of Quartz, is a terrifying place. What once was the commercial heart of Los Angeles was hollowed out as commerce, wealth, and political power slid down Wilshire Boulevard, and gradually towards the West Side. The wealthy moved to Brentwood, Bel-Air, Beverly Hills, and Pacific Palisades, away from the old nexus of power based around Downtown, and, as I understand it, Pasadena.
By the early 1980s, Downtown had become a ghost town – the home of some big West Coast regional banks and old-style law firms, but there was nothing to eat and no one stayed there after dark. I can recall making a few trips to what was then the ARCO Center in Downtown as a child, since the father of one of my best friends worked as an attorney for the oil company. It all seemed like something out of the set from Robocop. We had to enter through the parking garage (no street entrance that I saw). I remember eating at a bland underground food court, a hundred feet underground and eating styrofoam Chinese food when, as I would later learn, great Japanese and other ethnic food was close by. We had to stay inside the corporate monster, and when the working day was over, we slid out of the garage in our car and were out back blasting down the freeway.
Downtown today unfortunately represents the marriage of the morally bankrupt “urban professional” utopia that friends and I have discussed with this corporate security concept. There are, compared to my memories of Downtown in the 1980s,plenty of chic apartment buildings offering trendy living spaces to the bankers, consultants, lawyers, and other twenty- and thirty-somethings who still work at the skyscrapers in Downtown and may prefer to live closer to work, rather than further west along the 10 Freeway. But these buildings are also highly locked down and militarized to protect from the considerable number of homeless people who hang around Downtown at most hours of the day. (As Davis discusses, one approach that Los Angeles zoners have employed against the homeless is making loitering and panhandling illegal most everywhere in the city besides the dangerous area known as Skid Row, meaning that time and time again the homeless can be returned to this box, whence they slowly try to hike their way out.)
I remember being deeply disturbed in September when driving by one low-rise apartment building near the 110 Freeway that had just been completed. It had tall (10′) street-level windows that looked into a pleasant lobby, and the windows themselves were recessed into an overhang so that one could potentially stand or lie down there if it were raining. In the case of this building, however, the concrete for the outside window sill/ledge had been specially poured so as to have 3-4″ concrete spikes, making it impossible for anyone to lie down or stand on the window ledge. While I strongly support the right of developers to build buildings within code and to make a profit on them, as well as to defend their property from loiterers, I worry when the palaces for our professional classes become themselves so militarized and spiky. How do you have compassion as an individual when the house you live in literally has spikes jutting out of it?
It is in light of these reflections that I have fond memories of the Public Library. Getting there itself was a struggle. I had to be dropped off at a Green Line station in Hermosa Beach (incidentally next door to a giant Raytheon complex), take the Green Line through many poorer parts of Los Angeles – Gardena, Compton, Watts, Florence – and transfer to the Red Line, going north. From there we had again to pass by moments of beauty – the Watts Towers – but also moments where urban poverty meshed with the glitz of LA. Some of the areas just south of Downtown is in the process of being redeveloped into L.A. Live, a giant corporate entertainment-industrial complex, where the Grammys are hosted, where the Lakers play, and home to a huge ESPN studio and a multiplex. Still, some of the areas to the south of the complex, and particularly to the south of the 10 Freeway, are disasters – ugly industrial parks that are often underemployed and low-income residential districts. Riding between the two areas frequently, I wonder whether we have a really good development concept for Downtown beyond building temples to mass culture that will not generate the middle-class jobs needed to bring neighborhoods like the ones south of the 10 up.
In any event, we would eventually arrive at Metro Center, one of the main stations in Downtown, and I would make my way to the Library. The Main Building of the place, a delightful California neo-Gothic construction by Bertram Goodhue, represented for me the best parts of what California or LA could mean – a commitment to Enlightenment values and learning in the Western tradition, but recaptured in an American Western idiom. Goodhue worked under Ralph Adams Cram, a major American architect of the early 20th century who oversaw the construction of many neo-Gothic campuses. But architects operating in this tradition could find ways to adapt what they saw as the necessary components to American institutions of higher education to regional variations. Rice University was refigured in a Byzantine-Mediterranean language for the hot and sticky Texas climate. Los Angeles and San Diego were refigured into Spanish Colonial Revival. Lincoln, Nebraska got a mix of Classical and Gothic architecture for its state capitol building.
The point is that the building itself, at least the older parts, represented for me a vision of California at its best – anchored in some Anglo-European-East Coast tradition, but striking out, picking off intellectuals, designers, and artists from that tradition to fuse them with the Spanish colonial and Mexican tradition to create something uniquely Californian. Similarly in the culinary realm, for me there was no better way to spend days working at the Library than to break a day of reading on, say, European intellectual history, with a trip to the Los Angeles Central Market … for a carnitas burrito and a Mexican pastry. California works best for me, as I discovered in these trips to Downtown, when it’s about the fusion of the European with the Latin. Perhaps this is why I never feel quite at home on the East Coast (too button-up, too obsessed with intellectual prestige, not entrepreneurial enough), but have felt unanchored in any tradition during the times I’ve spent in Argentina and Mexico. I love California as a concept when it straddles these two worlds of a WASP-Northeast tradition with that of Latin America. Sadly, the strip malls of the Valley and complexes like LA Live represent the bulldozing of this uniquely Californian tradition with a mass commercial architecture. At least the former can hold interesting small businesses.
As you entered the library and went further into its bellows, especially those of the attractively designed New Building, things got more interesting. If there’s one common feature to other great libraries I’ve used – the Niedersächsische Staatsbibliothek in Göttingen, the Staatsbibliothek in Berlin, Firestone at Princeton, Widener at Harvard – it’s that most of the people in them are there to use the library. That is, they’ve come to take out books, to read, and to do work.
Not quite so at the LA Library. As I mentioned before, homeless people abound in Los Angeles, and the Library – with free Internet access, comfy chairs to sleep in, water fountains, and bathrooms is one of the few “soft” spaces in the city for them. When even the window sills have spikes on them, it’s nice to be able to get a drink of water and read. The Library employs security guards to try to run the homeless out of the place, but the complex is too big, and has too many entrances to effectively do so. And so the Los Angeles Library becomes home to a strange mix of clientele. On one day, I sat thumbing through rare books from Jesuit missionaries in Baja California in the 17th century as a dissheveled man dozed on a sofa behind me. The Rare Books staff, attentive and professional workers, didn’t mind that they were there. Other times, men (they were mostly men) who had nowhere else to go would spend their days on the computers, trying, often vainly to find work. Others would thumb through the Library’s huge collection of travel books, reading about places they had never been to.
Some people might find this off-putting, but it is one of my favorite memories of the Los Angeles Public Library. Libraries at their worst can cultivate an aire of over-specialization and distance from the public. Rather than serving as a home to interested, intelligent audiences, they become the nest for eunuch-scholars who scurry from reading room to cafeteria to their office at home. The street doesn’t intrude on the library, and the librarians wouldn’t have it any other way. But at the Los Angeles Library, the poverty of Downtown walked into the Library and sat there – never threatening – in front of you. It made it more difficult, I would argue, for the person working there to lose themselves completely in their research. Scholarship might never claim to be able to resolve the difficulties that these homeless people faced, but their mere presence in the place made me more grateful for the opportunity I have with my free time to read and write. And it motivated me to do something more tangible with my education than to … sit in libraries for the rest of my life.
So that’s my initial essay on my feelings about my home city. I may never wish to live there long-term again – there’s not that much there for me professionally in the long run – but there are parts of it I’m quite fond of. Whenever I get frustrated with the inutility of scholarship, I long for a place where, as one fellow Angeleno at Oxford said to me, knowing seemingly anything beyond what was on reality TV last night makes you an intellectual. When I get on the plane flight from stuffy London, boring Frankfurt, or self-important Dulles, and see plenty of bleached-blonde hair and breast implants on board, I know I’m headed home. I touch down on the runway of LAX, thinking, for the nth time, that the whole place really is not much better than a Mexican bus station, but as I walk out into the smoggy, often humid air of the pickups section, and we speed off onto Pacific Coast Highway or the 405, I know that I’m somehow, ineluctably, home.