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A Los Angeles Primer: Park La Brea

How many degrees could possibly separate any given Angeleno from someone who lives, or has lived, in Park La Brea? The well-known, highly visible apartment complex, located just north of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, seems to bring forth an anecdote from just about everyone. At a Q&A session after a screening of his documentary "Los Angeles Plays Itself," I heard filmmaker Thom Andersen mention having once moved there after regarding it for years as the most glamorous place imaginable. (He has since climbed what many Los Angeles architecture buffs would consider more than a rung or two up the glamor ladder, to a Rudolf Schindler house in Silver Lake.) A friend of mine told me of his own experience with a girl briefly dated years ago; as soon as he made it into her apartment, high in one of Park La Brea's eighteen thirteen-story towers, he took one glance at her awful furniture and knew they would never work out. Another regularly gives tours there to Los Angeles-transferred professionals in need of living space. My own girlfriend also put in some time there, albeit as a little kid.

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Everyone comes to Park La Brea for their own reasons; I, as a non-resident but regular visitor, have linguistic ones. In the course of my Korean language study, I met a Korean family who, impressed at my determination to practice their mother tongue — impressed, I assume, for the same reason Dr. Johnson regarded the proverbial upright-walking dog as impressive — they generously invited me to stop by their home each week for additional instruction in Korean language and culture. With the wife on sabbatical from her job teaching economics at a Seoul university, the family had decided to spend the time off in Los Angeles, moving into one of Park La Brea's two-story garden apartments. The first time I tried to stop by, I promptly lost my way in the complex's series of roundabouts and radiating diagonal paths. Luckily, I'd allowed time for just such a navigational struggle. Flying into LAX, I'd always taken note from above of Park La Brea's geometry which, though precise and immediately recognizable, gave me a sense of trouble. I count myself lucky that I haven't lived there yet and haven't had to go through the nighttime ordeal of getting home drunk.

Still, a sizable, aesthetically unified, separate-reality-creating (or at least separate-reality-attempting) development like this one challenges your sense of place enough throw down a gauntlet, daring you to master it — or, in any case, to consistently find your way in and out of it. After managing to locate the correct unit, I asked the father of the family what he thought of life in Los Angeles so far. He replied, without hesitation, that it bored him. And what, exactly, did his experience of this city lack compared to his experience of Seoul? His explanation provided the occasion for him to teach me the Korean term for "population density": Los Angeles, he found, simply didn't have enough of it. A fair point, I thought, especially given how much infill the Miracle Mile nearby still has to accomplish, but Park La Brea itself, with its 11,000 residents living on a quarter square mile, boasts a density still quite enviable to the rest of the city. Yet gated, quiet, and distant from any currently operational rapid transit, it also perfectly illustrates Los Angeles' unfortunate tendency to corral what density it has into near-isolated pockets.

These pockets, needless to say, usually come built with ample parking. Every time I visit Park La Brea and take a few always-enjoyable cycling laps around its circular roads, the sheer number of idle cars I see around astonishes me. But they do stand in evidence of the unspoken dream of modern Los Angeles: to somehow cram suburban lifestyles into areas fast approaching urban density — a dream whose unsteady execution puts me in the mind of the First World War, that vast, complicated methodological and technological mismatch between nineteenth-century strategy and twentieth-century weaponry. But this complex has its origins in the America of World War II and, in fact, the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company had the lower Modern Colonial apartments built during the war, between 1941 and 1942, with the distinctive, view-maximizing X-shaped towers to come just after it, in 1948. The first half of Park La Brea's life story sounds like that of one of those huge, half-utopian housing projects that would ultimately surrender to a wrecking crew sometime in the seventies; and it did fall into some degree of unfashionability and decrepitude in that era. But over the ensuing decades and rounds of renovations, the place has endured, continuing to enjoy the oddly specific, but oft-repeated distinction, of "America's largest housing development west of the Mississippi River."

Though I've spent more time among the two-story buildings, my eye looks instinctively to those towers which, while not especially tall by global standards of urban housing, loom large in their context. They stand out the same way dormitory buildings do on college campuses, and, at least on their exteriors, bear a strong design resemblance to them as well. To those responsible for polishing and promoting Park La Brea's image, that quality must seem, above all others, like the bane of their existence. But I personally find that it brings back interesting late-high-school memories of touring universities, a process which, to many aspiring college students, reveals the countless pleasures of life outside suburbia for the first time. I remember my own astonishment at the fact that someone living in the dorms could, without the use of a motor vehicle, simply walk to an on-campus corner store, barber shop, or video arcade. Higher education, to my mind, became about this very convenience, and since I never really figured out its greater purpose in my student years — or indeed since — about that it remains.

Several of Park La Brea's towers, I notice, even have signs indicating the sort of amenities whose presence so captivated me on college tours: health club, library, video, aerobics studio, dry cleaner, computer hall. Elsewhere in the complex, I've run across parks, a pool, a coffee stand, and something called a multimedia theater. The arrangement has the same effect as certain other Los Angeles developments which, seemingly premised on the assumption that the larger city surrounding them will remain essentially dysfunctional, they must turn inward and grow their own gardens — or, in this particular case case, their own Corbusian stretches of lawn. Such projects feel doomed to vaguely dissatisfy, but I do have an instinctive optimism about a place like Park La Brea, which seems structurally well-suited to that dimly envisionable day in a decade or so, when its residents will find themselves only a ten-minute walk and a ten-minute subway ride from downtown. Perhaps I've just bent to the will of those in charge of branding Park La Brea, who have successfully returned to it a measure of the "cool" it enjoyed back in the fifties. But then, the very essence of Los Angeles has long had to do with the branding of place — and with keeping your mind just slightly in the future, an effective opiate for the imperfections of the present.


Photos by Colin Marshall.

About the Author

Colin Marshall hosts and produces the podcast Notebook on Cities and Culture. These columns present essays adapted from his book-in-progress, "A Los Angeles Primer: Mastering the Stateless City."
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