NYU's Animated Map of Los Angeles: A Piece of Fiction?

The New York University Stern Urbanization Project recently posted selections from a new series of animations to show the expansion of "global cities" over the past 200 years. Los Angeles is one of those cities, and the NYU Stern map balloons a tiny dot of 1781 Los Angeles into a pool of deep red by 2000. The red that fills Los Angeles County is filigreed around the edges with large pods and tendrils that appear to extend from Ventura to south Orange County and eastward to Riverside and San Bernardino.

A similar presentation of the evolution of Los Angeles County -- but much more detailed and historically nuanced -- was prepared by Professor Philip Ethington of USC (with Samuel Krueger and Adrian Almer) for the Getty exhibition "Overdrive: L.A. Constructs the Future" in 2013. (Examples of the maps for Overdrive are here and here.)

There are problems with any representation of Los Angeles through time, and the NYU Stern attempt suffers from the worst of those problems of representation.

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The NYU Stern animation is free of geographic context. The city is an abstract, Jackson-Pollock-esque dribble of shades of red over a white background (as are all the animations in the series). The physicality of Los Angeles -- its entanglement with the landscape -- isn't there. The city's evolution is divorced from the contingencies of its place.

Worse, the mapmakers have chosen to show change through time -- if I'm seeing this correctly -- as spreading from three or four origin points, starting with the old Plaza along the Los Angeles River. That's accurate. The Villa de Los Angeles (so named by the Mexican Congress in 1835) was one center of a region that was thinly dotted (as the animation shows) with rancho-based communities and church establishments by 1850.

But the map's subsequent bursts start in what looks like Monterey Park and then the San Fernando Valley. The tides of red iris out from these places with no relationship to when and where anything was actually built. The growth of Los Angeles is presented like the growth of mold in a Petri dish from a single spore.

Fungal Los Angeles is a trope of the city's mistaken interpreters. A truer representation of Los Angeles through time would look like a flowering shrub, with hundreds of individual blossoms and connecting branches that merge into a mass of color. Los Angeles did not grow outward but filled in the spaces in between the lines of its transportation grid.

And just how are Costa Mesa and San Bernardino to be re-imagined as the thing named "Los Angeles" on the NYU Stern map? Those unlike communities -- with their individual histories and self-definitions -- might be lumped into the big thing we call "L.A." but they aren't Los Angeles. The conflation of city, county, and region masks too much. The distance from Tustin to Ventura is almost exactly the distance between Manhattan and Philadelphia, yet no one would lump those places together as New York.

The NYU Stern map of Los Angeles is a reduction that serves an argument about planning for the growth of cities. It's a simple argument: cities will inevitably grow larger in the 21st century and their growth ought to be intentional if cities are to be livable.

But I wonder if the NYU Stern map helps us see Los Angeles any better in order help us to decide how it should grow better.

We're always trying to see Los Angeles against the glare of its celebrity culture, in the darkness of its noir mythologies, and through the haze of our willful amnesia about its history and its people. Some maps offer a rough guide through the city and the region. Some maps displace our vernacular geographies with an argument about who and what we are and should become.

Every map is a fiction, but some are more fictional than others.

About the Author

D. J. Waldie is the author of "Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir" and "Where We Are Now: Notes from Los Angeles." He is a contributing editor for the Los Angeles Times.
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