James Rojas holds an MA in City Planning and an MS in Architecture Studies from MIT. He works as a city and transportation planner, and is the founder of the Latino Urban Forum, a non-profit dedicated to increasing awareness of planning and design issues facing low-income Latinos, and Place It, a design-based urban planning initiative that uses model-building workshops and on-site interactive models.
After reading the new book Los Angeles in Maps (by Glen Creason, and featuring D.J. Waldie, Joe Linton and Morgan P. Yates), I was left with one overriding question: what's next? The book's historical and archival maps of Los Angeles give a powerful account of the city's growth and development, highlighting how topography, policies, resources and infrastructure systems shaped L.A.. The maps start with the Spanish ranches and L.A.'s early street grid, and move from there to early rail maps that predict the region's development patterns. Small towns surrounded by farms were located along rail lines. Oil wells and movie studios grew around those towns and shaped how we used our resources. All this helped create our messy, vibrant urban sprawl.
Today, it is impossible for any single policy, resource, or system to reshape L.A. the way those early systems did because we are just too massive in scale. We also no longer have plentiful tracts of empty land, nor the capital to build major projects. (Or, maybe we just built the wrong major projects, like massive housing on former orange groves at the urban edge?)
Industries like movies, manufacturing, aerospace shaped many parts of the region but we will not see their like again. The inter-urban rail line that Henry Huntington built continues to be the foundation to present day L.A.. Odd-shaped Culver City was the product of such an intervention, but planned transportation projects like the "Subway to the Sea" are not going to reshape the region in a drastic way. Freeways, L.A.'s gift to world (which also helped create our massive size) are too expensive and are, frankly, environmentally impossible to build today.
Looking at all this, I realized that Los Angeles is no longer being shaped by infrastructure and development. Today, L.A. is being transformed by ethnic and cultural diversity. Today, Latinos, Asians and hipsters are reshaping the look and experience of Los Angeles while the shrinking middle class looks on.
These groups are occupying increasingly larger slices of our city and region, and in the process they are transforming the environments in these areas. Take, for example, how the suburb, that great by-product of the classic "American Way of Life," is being altered by different ethnic groups. As large numbers of Latino immigrants settle into more and more of Los Angeles, they bring a different way of using urban space to the already existing built environment. Their homes, ciudades, pueblos, and ranchos in Latin America are structured differently both physically and socially than the American suburb, so Latinos introduce a rich and novel tradition of literally public life to their new communities. This phenomena can be seen in the way Latinos retrofit the urban design of the street itself: Street vendors carrying their wares, pushing carts or setting up temporary tables and tarps; vivid colors, murals and business signs; clusters of people socializing on street corners and over front yard fences, the furniture and props that make these front yards into personal statements. All of this contributes to the vivid, unique landscape of our city.
At same time, large numbers of Asians are moving into the San Gabriel Valley and Koreatown. They bring an altogether different use of public space and activity. From the humongous restaurants of Eastern San Gabriel Valley, to a unique take on car culture, a new urbanism is being forged out in staid America neighborhoods.
At the same time, as millions of L.A.'s urban underclass wrestle with the inadequate infrastructure of the city, hipsters flock to the open vistas of cyber space and social networking, as well as to their associated brick and mortar venues. This extends Los Angeles' class divide, Latinos shopping off the sidewalks in Pico Union, hipsters shopping online, or in their designer boutiques or farmers' markets. Since each group occupies a completely different economic strata, they rarely cross paths.
In light of these developments, the urban structure of Los Angeles becomes less relevant as ethnic and cultural diversity plays an increasingly critical role in how our city functions. But unless we understand the diverse stories of these different communities, we will never bring the big picture - and those communities - together.