In L.A.'s Regime of Speed: 'Change and Velocity'

Earlier this month, Bill Deverell, chair of the Department of History at USC and head of the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West, spoke at the launch of a new initiative called Future of Cities: Leading in Los Angeles. Deverell, whose focus is on the post-Civil War West and the place of Los Angeles within that extraordinary time, evoked in his remarks an image of "change and velocity" to characterize the city's past.

Future of Cities is focused on the pace of change today and aims "to marry vision, leadership, and results to fulfill L.A.'s ambitions and uplift this city." That last aspiration is more than a century old.

Early efforts to "uplift" Los Angeles began in parallel with booster ambitions to make Los Angeles a better paradise of the ordinary. The uplifers were sure that their violent boomtown, after Progressive social and political reforms, could be a place where all of nature and all of industry were in harmony.

The Reverend Dana Bartlett (1860-1942) was the pioneer of the uplifters. In 1907, he appealed to the city's educated, middle-class, and church-going in "The Better City: A Sociological Study of a Modern City." He asked them to join him in the moral reconstruction of Los Angeles.

A better made Los Angeles, he said, would be "a place of inspiration for nobler living" -- a place that would shape lives to better ends. Bartlett was many things -- an opponent of racial and ethnic discrimination, a supporter of workers' rights, and an urban visionary. He advocated single-family homes rather than tenement blocks for working-class Angeleños. He supported the city's new zoning law that put manufacturing plants beyond the edge of residential areas. He told his readers to imagine a park-like city of homes and gardens woven together with wide boulevards.

| Photo collage by the author Creative Commons License

Bartlett desired, with all of the flaws he could not see, the city we have. Future Cities, like the uplifters of the past, wonder if that city is the city we should have, if Los Angeles is adequate to the demands of their desire.

Los Angeles Times architectural critic Christopher Hawthorne -- whose essays have imagined a taller, denser, and less suburban Los Angeles -- was skeptical of the new uplifters he heard at the Future Cities launch. He wondered about their disengagement from the Garcetti administration, about their own political ambitions, and about the means (left unclear) by which they would revive civic life in Los Angeles.

Aspiring to bring civic life to Los Angeles is almost as historical as boosting and uplifting. Dana Bartlett's program for better citizens was followed by Clifford Clinton's reform movement, which led to the election of liberal Mayor Fletcher Bowron (from 1938 to 1953) and the Democratic coalition of Mayor Tom Bradley (from 1973 to 1993). But as Hawthorne implied, 21st century civic engagement won't mean a reunion of Tom Bradley's coalition of westside liberals, southside African Americans, and the editors of Otis Chandler's Los Angeles Times.

None of the coalition partners is what it once was.

Perhaps, as urban historian Dana Cuff has suggested, the city's rapid changes of self-definition have made it difficult to for us to see Los Angeles as it is. Los Angeles is, in Cuff's apt metaphor, a "convulsive" landscape, always twitching with big ideas about building the next utopia on the demolished remains of the last one.

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The ruined, suburban paradise of L.A. strains under Henry Adams' iron law of the acceleration of history. His own 19th century past he found barely comprehensible as a narrative of large political forces, and he despaired of the far greater velocity of the 20th century just beginning. Adams (1838-1918) was right about making sense of a life lived in a regime of speed. Our past dwindles incoherently, rushing from us like a landscape seen in the rear view mirror of a car fleeing a crime scene.

Speed and momentum are this city's medicine for its anxieties about the permanence of palm trees, sunshine, and radical self-reinvention.

Bill Deverell situated the acceleration of history in Los Angeles within the city's imperial regimes -- from colonial Spain through Manifest Destiny America to frictionless digital L.A. He marked the transition from the mostly Anglo city of 1950 to the profoundly diverse city of 2015. He referenced Hawthorne's own notion of a new-made "third Los Angeles" -- not the agri-industrial metropolis of 1900 tamed by Bartlett's civic religion or the suburban everywhere that developers delivered by 1960, but a changed again Los Angeles that would be -- perhaps -- another kind of city entirely.

To get there -- if that other city is what we want -- will require faith. "I find optimism in our very gathering," Deverell told the Future Cities audience, "with the caveat that we all know that optimism alone won't take us very far. History can help, I think; history should always be one of the tools by which individuals, groups, or entire societies tackle their present or future. It exercises its power regardless; better to acknowledge and learn from it than to ignore it. First, second, third L.A. -- history marks those sequential divisions and has so much to teach us."

 Loss | | Photo collage by the author Creative Commons License

But can any part of that past be of use to us, who are mostly along for the ride, except as irony (as it had been for Henry Adams) or nostalgia? Angeleños are uncertain if they want any history at all, with its complexities and its claim that we cannot reinvent ourselves and the city endlessly.

I'm not entirely skeptical of the future of uplift, although history shows its crooked trajectory in Los Angeles. I'm persuaded that our stories bleed through the city's glossy lifestyle packaging as if the stories themselves knew how much we needed them.

Deverell ended his remarks with a comment about what those stories might mean for a future Los Angeles. As a historian, he did not see the past as a golden age to be mourned or a chamber of horrors to be repudiated. As an Angeleño (in the largest sense), he did not see the city as a blank surface on which anything might be inscribed. He said, I think, that we might have more confidence in the city we have.

He said, "We can and must maximize creativity and imagination by doing more to enhance our lack of strictures (and) ... enhance our westernness, our Californianess, our L.A.-ness."

It seems odd at this juncture, when the past and even the present are regarded as so unsatisfactory, that anyone would put any trust in what makes us "of the West, "of California," or "of Los Angeles." What is that L.A.-ness? Was it harnessed to do big things in the past? Is it sufficient for more big things in the future?

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