Infinite separate houses

Most Desired and Least Liked

And the infinite separate houses, how they all went on,
each with its meals and minutia of daily usages

~Walt Whitman, When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed

We have been the future for a very long time, and the 2010 Census offers another official confirmation. Between 2000 and 2010, 8.6 percent of population growth in the largest metropolitan regions took place in their urban cores. Most of the growth in the decade occurred in suburbs, where more than 6 in 10 Americans now live.

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But we knew that, even as a hipper, re-inhabited downtown Los Angeles cheered planners and politicians. We knew we wanted what we have. Los Angeles is the original suburban city, with just a few square miles of urban core after 1960 and well over two thousand square miles of suburban grid. And we're rapidly become even more futuristic - a post-suburban city composed of denser corridors and nodes (in downtown Long Beach, Santa Monica, Burbank, Glendale, and elsewhere) embedded in a matrix of moderately dense neighborhoods of mostly single family homes.

And that's just fine for a majority of Americans when they were asked where they would like to live. Los Angeles - urban and suburban both in hybrid mixture - is the kind of hometown a lot of American's desire.

The built form of Los Angeles isn't much of a business model, however. No one in L.A. is taking down neighborhoods of single family houses to build denser and higher. Even the crash of the real estate bubble hasn't sufficiently reduced the land acquisition and carrying costs of converting homes into condos. Industrial brownfields, some spare retail strips, and acres of empty office space are the last frontier (which explains the haste of developers and their political allies to densify what can be made profitable under the fig leaf of "smart growth").

The Los Angeles we have is pretty much it. That doesn't please the hypothetical, 22-year-old, young professional whose preferences drive so much of the conversation about how we should live in Los Angeles. (In interviews I've done in recent months, that happy-go-lucky 22-year-old and his/her desire for a loft apartment, a Starbucks, a bar, and a dance club - all on the same block - has come up over and over again.)

What that 22-year-old wants now probably will be different 15 years from now. According to a study in 2010 by Morley Winograd and Michael D. Hais, 43 percent of those born in 1990s name a suburb as their ideal place to raise a family.

When they do, Los Angeles will be waiting, more dense in some parts, a bit more lively in others, and always someone's future.

D. J. Waldie, author, historian, and as the New York Times said in 2007, "a gorgeous distiller of architectural and social history," writes about Los Angeles every Monday and Friday at 2 p.m. on KCET's SoCal Focus blog.

The image on this page is from the author's collection.

About the Author

D. J. Waldie is the author of "Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir" and "Where We Are Now: Notes from Los Angeles," among other books about the social history of Southern California. He is a contributing editor for the Los Angeles Times ...
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When the 22 year old tires of the fact that none of his hipster friends will come downtown to his place because there's no parking, he'll start rethinking his priorities. When he gets tired of the dirt, the noise and the crime of downtown, he'll rethink his priorities. When he has a dog(s) to walk multiple times a day and he has a school age child/ren who want to play somewhere other than the concrete floors of his loft he'll rethink his priorities.

And he'll move to the suburbs.