We’ve been here before, arguing fiercely about the look of Los Angeles, memorably in the mid-1970s, when the growth machine that had boomed the city to bigness – and greatness – first stalled. It had been an epic, hundred-year bender by then, turning square miles of flood plain, valley, and foothill into single-family house lots. And it seemed that the city was sobering up – and growing up – as its development pattern matured around its low-rise, suburban-appearing uniformity. Sure, the hangover from the boomtime lingered in City Hall’s failure to notice the changing direction of the growth machine, and in Angeleños’ faith that an improved middle-class paradise – in the form of yet another subdivision – would be found around the next bend in the freeway.
Angeleños still lined up to buy that snake oil 40 years ago, even as its promise relocated beyond the San Fernando Valley and into the High Desert, stretching commutes to the breaking point. The promise had been something hopeful about making an ordinary life within the limits of suburban privacy, security, and comfort. The promise had also been something flawed about locating home at a distance from urban centers with their mixtures of races, ethnicities, and habits of living.
Both the hope and the fear had been there in 1850, with the Americanization of the Mexican villa de los Ángeles. (Shorted by English speakers to Los; the breezier LA came later.)
Anglo Los Angeles established itself as a city in opposition: in opposition to Mexican identity, to colonial history, to other cultures and languages, and to existing urban centers.
Suddenly possessors of an intact, thriving (although small) provincial Mexican city with a distinctly mestizo population, the first American immigrants here, many of them from the South, set about building an alternate Los Angeles just for themselves. Its construction would reflect their anxieties about being in a Catholic city, its capture in an unjust war, and Mexican irredentism. But the Anglo city would mostly reflect the segregationist assumptions of its builders.
Anglo Los Angeles established itself as a city in opposition: in opposition to Mexican identity, to colonial history, to other cultures and languages, and to existing urban centers. Opposition exploited the landscape – the hills above the mestizo plaza and the flat terrain west and south, where the Anglo city could rise uninhibited, white in a landscape of brown
Opposition also took advantage of the already dispersed character of Mexican-era settlement and accelerated it. Among the first actions of the new American city government was to plat and sell off (or give away) its municipal land – some 17,000 acres that Spanish kings and Mexican legislators had reserved to the city to finance and manage its growth.
When the adjoining rancho lands passed from their Californio grantees into the hands of Yankee merchants in the 1860s and from them into the hands of San Francisco capitalists in the 1870s, a pattern of development was set. A large tract of land (not always contiguous to other developed tracts) would be improved as a unit and sold, first as acreage for farms and orchards, later as house lots. As they developed, these tracts were connected by steam railways and dotted with farm towns platted along the tracks by the railways for the company’s convenience and profit. Later, Pacific Electric trolleys bound these towns together and proceeded to fill the space in between. Freeway building after World War II replicated this pattern at ever greater distances from urban centers and their pre-war suburbs.
Because the region was developed in large units by land companies with at least a rudimentary design scheme, it’s unfair to say that Los Angeles was unplanned. It might have been planned too much in the 20th century, since every solution to the problem of making a home here seemed to be a square mile or two (or ten) of single-family homes on a grid of streets lined by strip commercial. That was as true of the “bungalow heavens” of the 1890s and the street car suburbs of 1910s as it was of the freeway-adjacent ranch houses of the 1960s.
Los Angeles might also be faulted for having once been too modern, since the period of its greatest growth coincided with the rise of the planning profession and its changing fashions for what the city of tomorrow ought to look like. By the end of the 1970s, Los Angeles reflected a hundred years of formerly good ideas for being modern, from garden suburbs in 1888 to exclusionary zoning by 1910 to public housing in the 1940s to urban redevelopment in the 1960s. There have been more good ideas since.
Eventually, there were limits. Geographer Michael Dear memorably summed up the condition of Los Angeles in at the end of the 1980s. Sprawl, he wrote, had hit the wall. And if “sprawl” was too easy and contemptuous to be accurate, it was true that something had reached an end, and it was mostly the assumption of a limitless Los Angeles. The growth machine was running out of cheap dirt to build on and it was running into homeowners ready to fight.
Committed to single-family homes, owner equity, and neighborhood determinism, anti-development activists enlisted the courts, city council members, and state legislators to stall the growth machine when the machine began to build more density into existing Los Angeles neighborhoods.
Urban planner William Fulton described what happened next in The Reluctant Metropolis: The Politics of Urban Growth in Los Angeles. He chose an unexpected example to illustrate the entanglement of politicians, developers, and activists (not all them stereotypically white and middle class) as each exploited weaknesses in the city’s land use policies when there was no more empty land to build on.
When city planners proposed greater housing density as part of the rebuilding of a stretch of Vermont Avenue erased by the civil unrest of 1992, African-American suburbanites in the adjoining Vermont Knolls neighborhood of single-family houses rebelled. They allied themselves with white anti-tax activists in the Valley and defeated state legislation that would have given the city’s redevelopment agency more freedom to create project areas in neighborhoods like theirs. That success slowed densified construction in their neighborhood, but it also delayed rebuilding in other burned-out zones of the post-riot city. Then the neighborhood won Mayor Richard Riordan’s veto of the project, even though it now reflected the lighter densities neighborhood activists had demanded. Then the City Council overrode the mayor’s veto, partly as a slap at the mayor but mostly to preserve council members’ direct control over development in their district. Development meant developers, and developers meant campaign money. From Fulton’s perspective, every project, however seemingly benign, was going to be this mixture of the adversarial and the collusive.
In the formerly limitless Los Angeles, raw land was turned into house lots through massive government subsidization of infrastructure – principally water systems and highways. In built-out Los Angeles, the empty air over low-rise commercial property is turned into high-rise and high-rent housing units through massive developer subsidization of city election campaigns.
This is the process today that is bringing the city of tomorrow into being. In the formerly limitless Los Angeles, raw land was turned into house lots through massive government subsidization of infrastructure – principally water systems and highways. In built-out Los Angeles, the empty air over low-rise commercial property is turned into high-rise and high-rent housing units through massive developer subsidization of city election campaigns. (Former Los Angeles City Planner Dick Platkin has estimated that Los Angeles city council members and mayors have accepted upwards of six million dollars in campaign money since 2000 from developers and real estate companies.) City council members and mayors have approved a lot of questionable development projects by spot amendments to the city’s planning guides. And community groups have pushed back through litigation, stopping some of these projects and stalling others.
A measure aimed at the March 2017 city ballot proposes a remedy. Called the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative by its sponsors, the Coalition to Preserve LA, the NII would suspend piecemeal amendments to the city’s outdated General Plan, impose new oversight responsibilities on planning officials, and place a moratorium – that could last two years – on non-complying projects until the General Plan and the associated neighborhood plans are updated.
Preservation is at the core of the NII, according to Los Angeles Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne, who opposes to the measure. But, he asks, what’s to be preserved?
“(T)wo historic qualities of LA are running into one another,” Hawthorne wrote in a series of tweets about the NII. “And we can't preserve both. The first is a city whose chief industry was growth, that was always in flux, that prized newness and change. The second is a horizontal city, a city that passed municipal height limits before WWI and doubled down on privatization after WWII. Remarkable thing about LA is that it was for a long time roomy enough to accommodate both sets of ideals, even tho they're clearly at odds. But now something has to give. And we need to have a more substantive conversation about what precisely we are trying or want to preserve.”
Whatever future is ultimately legislated for Los Angeles, it won’t be ideals that are preserved. It will be a history of opposition, first as Anglo opposition to the disquieting mestizo city of Mexicanidad, later as urban reformers’ opposition to the diverse, crowded, and vertical cities of the industrial East and Midwest, and then as homeowner opposition to anything that would change the charmed pattern of their suburban manners. Today, it’s opposition to the city’s frustrating, lovely, and always inadequate self (as opposed to the perfected Los Angeles of tomorrow, where none of us actually live). What eludes planners and politicians and neighborhood activists is a consensus about place making that will be as generous to the aspirations of ordinary Angeleños as the one that built out Los Angeles.
Longing for tomorrow’s city should be tempered by our encounters with the city of today.
Longing for tomorrow’s city should be tempered by our encounters with the city of today. Los Angeles is what it always will be: relatively dense and multi-polar, mostly urban but suburban-appearing, characterized by single family homes on small lots in neighborhoods with strong – but always provisional – dependence on more “urban-appearing” nodes along axes of transportation or around cultural institutions (like universities) or in zones of lifestyle or ethnic affiliation.
Los Angeles, one civic booster early in the 20th century claimed, had “everything in the future.” That’s the problem – everything in the future and nothing for today. Recognizing where we are now – and how we got here – requires a certain humility, equally from the homeowner, the social critic, and the impatient urban planner, if opposition to the city as an alien construct is to end and we begin to embrace the city of history as our city.