Imaginary City

Sometime in 1939 or 1940 a planner sketched out a concept for downtown. It would have assembled existing and new government buildings and oriented them toward the city plaza of the 1840s and the newly built Union Station.

Seduced by the neo-classical follies of fascist Italy, the plan put the old plaza in the clutches of a grand and brutal county administration building overlooking a Roman hippodrome. Only here, the chariots have been replaced by autos. Spring Street would have passed through portals in the encircling wings and been divided, just as in a Roman stadium, by an island. How anyone would have crossed this racetrack on foot is left unclear.

Olvera Street hangs off to one side, a block or so of "old Los Angeles" that had been recreated as a tourist attraction at the beginning of the 1930s.

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The narrative intent of this plan was, perhaps, instructional. A visitor to Los Angeles would have walked out of Union Station - a sleek interpretation of Spanish Colonial architecture - crossed Alameda Street to the enclave of tourist shops along Olvera Street, skirted the historic plaza and church, and entered the embrace of an Anglo triumph of imperial dimensions.

No mistaking here the relationship of the past to the present, of the winners to the losers.

Other American cities have historic cores, and a few of those - New Orleans is a good example - present a similar collision of American expansion with an alien culture. Los Angeles isn't unique, but its relationship to its past - to history in general - is distinct.

And when imagining a history lesson that could be made literally concrete, some functionary drew a monstrous embrace of the city's past.

Los Angeles, from the 1880s and well into the 1960s, wanted to show its residents how to live in the future. The city's fashions, its movies, its domestic arrangements, its use of landscape and nature - all of its optimistic and liberating products, as well as all of it its fears and insecurities -were schooling Americans about tomorrow. There were, of course, other schools - New York preeminently. And the lifestyles of southern California were equally wanted and mocked.

Downtown has been worked over repeatedly since 1940. Hills have been shaved down. New lessons have been mortared into place. And even newer imaginary cities are being sketched into existence now.

Here's an impossible wish. Every big plan to tell us how and where to live should be worked up in detailed drawings and left to sit for a decade. If at the end of ten years, the plan doesn't seem like a mugging or a bad joke, it might then be worth building.

The image on this page is from the USC Libraries Special Collections.

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