Beautiful town


I gave a talk the other day as part of a panel assembled by the Los Angeles Region Planning History Group,. The subject was the 100-year history of property zoning in Los Angeles.

(Yes, I know. This makes me terminally geeky. But you've been reading these posts . . .so . . . )

The panel included Greg Hise, PhD, a historian of American cities; Stefanos Polyzoides, an architect and co-founder of the Congress for the New Urbanism; and Jane Blumenfeld, a Principal Planner for the city of Los Angeles.

I told the hundred or so planners about the making of Lakewood.

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I live in a beautiful town. Beautiful, at least to me, although its beauties are admittedly subtle.

It is also place . . . or a kind of place . . . that has regularly been called terrible.

In fact, in a memorable speech by James Howard Kunstler at the 1999 Congress for the New Urbanism, the kind of place where I live was described as a perversion of a place . . . as an "anti-place." "It is the dwelling place of untruth." The place where evil dwells.

My town's beauties and terrors flow directly from a complex history . . . of aspiration for working class people, of assumptions about social hygiene, of fear of labor unrest, of messy politics and abstract legal argument, and of the many things that planners do as they impose their imagination on the landscape.

It has become commonplace to understand the outcome of land use planning in places like my town as perverse. And because much of the Los Angeles Basin looks roughly the same, to see Los Angeles as uniquely perverse, largely because of the form of its built environment.

In the case of every post-1945 suburban tract, can we assume that the working out of this plan represents a failure of the imagination? In Kunstler's terms, can we assume that the plan was a failure of the moral imagination?

A zoning map . . . a tract map . . . a General Plan . . . these are imprecise and imperfect projections of a "sense of place" into the future . . . They are an imaginative mapping the future, and as soon as they are inked out, they are yesterday's tomorrows.

But they also are abstract projections, limited by aerial perspective, by the reductive conventions of cartography, by politics, ideology, and aesthetic privilege.

We have been trying to determine how Americans should make their home here since before the Civic War, and the only conclusion that I can come to is that each of us is certain about our choice of the home we've made . . . and deeply suspicious about everyone else's choice.

However imperfect, people make use of the materials of place. They become part of its history, which isn't abstract to them at all.

However imperfect the plan might be in its conception and however imperfectly the plan is subsequently filled in, it becomes the geography of home for someone . . . answers someone's longing . . . lives in someone's memory.

Where and how I live has a long, complex history that includes King Carlos of Spain, the American occupation of Mexican Alta California, the race and class anxieties of turn-of-the-century Anglo Angeleños, and the convictions, assumptions, compromises, shortcuts, and mistakes of many long-ago planners.

I live here, in Lakewood.

It is a beautiful place, although its beauties are subtle.

The impages on this page are from the author's collection.

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