9. Trivial stories

Where are we? We're in a lot of books. Books since 1990 about Los Angeles (although most of them are really about L.A. and many of those are really about southern California - spelled with a lower-case “s” these days; capitol “S” was a marketing thing, to distinguish us from them, meaning San Francisco). In one of these books I was criticized (but mildly and only in an endnote) for being insufficiently solicitous of theory. For being the Los Angeles Times go-to, actually, for resistance to theory-as-subject when otherwise talking about L.A. For a preference for history-as-story when talking about us. (An unraveling thread winds from a preference in 2008 for the evaporation of story into theory back to Henry Adams’ regret and confusion in 1908 that his story of himself had become of so little use in the making his theory of history, was worse than useless actually, because he had failed to keep pace with the “acceleration of history,” as Adams called it.)

Theory versus story sounds like an academic argument, but academic arguments frame how public policy is developed here. Consider sprawl and the metrics that define it in the making of policies about, for example, what your neighborhood should look like. Seen from an altitude that encompasses an entire metropolitan region, the Los Angeles region is more densely settled than the New York region despite the hyper-density of Manhattan (because the New York region takes in the sprawling suburban acres of less settled communities outside the city). Or take a slice into the endless working-class suburbs of L.A. - small houses on mostly 5,000-square-foot lots. They’re much denser than similar working-class suburbs of Minneapolis, Atlanta, or Denver. They’re as dense as or denser, for example, than model “new urbanist” communities, although of course they don’t look like them.

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Perhaps density as a measure doesn’t apply well to a theory of L.A. sprawl, although the density/sprawl arrangement underlies an array of new policies to reduce sprawl (whatever it might be in a Los Angeles context) by increasing neighborhood density. Density can be measured by persons-per-acre or dwelling units-per-acre. There is no similar definition of sprawl. Some planners define sprawl as “dispersed development outside of compact urban and village centers along highways and in rural countryside.” L.A. sprawled once, by that definition, but is it sprawling now? Relatively dense suburban development in L.A. already extends to the limits of the available buildable land (some of it not so buildable, but still part of the overall density). What is sprawling now depends (looking back) on what you define as L.A. (Don’t get too elastic.) Or “sprawl is characterized by housing not located within walking distance of any retail.” Where I live (built ca 1950, built on the cusp of the next wave of development) was built to be walkable by moms pulling a red wagon with two kids in it. (Not many strollers then.) No house is further than a quarter-mile from a neighborhood retail center. (No strip malls then.) I’m glad I don’t live in your neighborhood.

But then, again, we’re so ready to abuse your choice of a place to live and so protective of our own. If walking to retail is defined (and it’s just me doing the defining) as a quarter-mile to some form of everyday retail, then the highest density strips of “Manhattan-style” development along the western end of Wilshire Boulevard sprawl terribly and my town of small houses on small lots extending as far as I can see doesn’t sprawl at all. But no one would frame land use policy on so trivial a story as my neighborhood’s.

The image associated with this post was taken by Flickr user buenosaurus. It was used under Creative Commons license.

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