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Is Los Angeles a Private City?

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Architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne partners with Artbound for an episode that looks into the future of Los Angeles. "Third L.A. with Architecture Critic Christopher Hawthorne" considers the city's changing architecture, urban planning, transportation and demographics. From Venice Beach to Leimert Park, and Hollywood to East L.A., the program also analyzes long-held cliches and stereotypes about city. 

The following column reflects on the idea of Los Angeles as a private city.

Is Los Angeles a private city? If that means a city where people live chiefly indoors, I’d say no. The notion of a private city is contradictory. The whole point of an urban landscape, even one as horizontal as L.A., is to be a kind of giant buffet table where residents routinely gather together and graze on offerings that range, from malls to museums, office buildings to dog parks, concerts to sidewalk cafes. Granted, L.A. is atypical among urban landscapes because it’s so amorphous. It’s both the city you think it isn’t (Venice, Hollywood, Watts) and not the city you think it is (Santa Monica, Beverly Hills, Culver City, Compton). It spans as much ideological ground as actual ground and therefore has always had lots of buffet tables, some not as plentiful or as popular as others. Some are being developed or redeveloped as we speak. But the fact is that people here do live outdoors, because they kind of have to -- wherever you live in this landscape, chances are that what you need on a daily basis isn’t within reach, also known as walking distance. It’s just a matter of how much you have to travel to get to a place where you can plant yourself for a while to commune, work or shop or watch a movie before returning to your suburban-ish corner of this very big, sometimes ungainly city that most of us unselfconsciously call home.

And yet Los Angeles is a private city, in a more subtle way: in public spaces we tend to act as if we’re in private. Out and about, even in increasingly dense enclaves like downtown, Angelenos strive to observe the unwritten rules of personal space that we’ve devised for ourselves and that many people associate -- not always positively -- with California culture. What this culture has meant in my experience as a native Angeleno is that when gathered at a civic buffet table, we give each other plenty of room on the sidewalk or on the manicured paths of malls and shopping centers or lifestyle centers. We don’t stare or catch each other’s eyes for more than a couple of seconds. We don’t chime in on other people’s conversations. Indoors, wheeling carts around grocery stores or browsing at Macy’s, we tend to reflexively say “excuse me” in a hushed or absent tone even though we’re not even close to physically touching or otherwise offending the person we’re addressing: we’re reflexively apologizing for even looking like we might violate the all-important code of personal space. The notion of sitting elbow to elbow at a restaurant or having to talk loud enough to be heard over subway or some other common urban noise, as is often the case in New York or even San Francisco, is more than a little foreign to us.

I have to confess such closeness doesn’t exactly appeal to me, even though I observe people for a living. When I visited New York for the first time back in the early ‘90s, I was so thoroughly discombobulated by the crush of people on the street -- I spent the better part of my first day there trying to figure out how to get across an intersection on a green light -- that I had to sit alone in my hotel room for several hours that evening to recuperate. My impulse was not to dive into all this in-your-face energy, but to retreat from it. While I did enjoy Manhattan, I would never consider living there. It was during that visit that I realized how much I need my bubble of privacy in public, and how much of a luxury that is in other places. In horizontal L.A. there’s simply more space to go around, and we guard our individual allotments of that space pretty zealously, like a birthright. Maintaining space in public may be disconnecting for the group, but as an individual it makes me feel more hopeful, like there’s literally room for me to expand. I feel possible. Walking in New York, I immediately sensed that all the space had been claimed and re-claimed and was constantly being priced, renegotiated and haggled over. Call me a wimp, but I’m just not up for that kind of fight.   
Maybe I treasure my public privacy because of family history. Both sides of my family moved to L.A. from New Orleans in the ‘40s and ‘50s, partly to escape the segregation that so publicly hemmed black people in. Los Angeles wasn’t heaven by a long shot, but it did have more space between people. You could walk down the street here and not worry about giving over the sidewalk to a white person. You could live in a house that had trees and grass and other kinds of space between you and a neighbor. Eventually you could cross the color border and begin to realize a dream of social mobility and freedom that included the freedom of keeping to yourself in public if you chose. L.A. never rid itself of its own brand of segregation that partly comes from having so much space. But it is, on its best days, an open city that gives us all cover. There’s equality in that.

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