I. Overture

Los Angeles is a city dreamt into existence. Unlike the great cities of the old world (or even the American east and midwest), which emerged organically around rivers and harbors, supporting trade which supported life, Los Angeles was simply willed into being: in a desert, the product of salesmanship, speculation, and solipsism.

Truly the “postmodern city”, nestled at the edge of the world: it means nothing, and can thus mean anything.

II. Context

In his ambitious and wide-ranging City of Quartz, historian Mike Davis tells the story of early Los Angeles as one of boosterism, with land speculators imagining and selling an image of Southern California to midwestern retirees – leading to a massive internal migration west and making Los Angeles an unexpected bastion of anglo-protestant power. This influx of wealth, earned elsewhere, shaped Los Angeles into a city of consumption, not of creation. It was a place people came to relax and enjoy, not to struggle and create. A consequence of this is of course, the sloth of being too well-fed: a resistance to change, a streak of conservatism, and an apathy towards the (myriad) other which shades and colors Southern Californian politics to this day.

During the first half of the 20th century, when the prime land of the coast was virgin and undeveloped, and “high modernism” the civic ethos of the day, there seemed like nothing more worthwhile than to envision and build entire communities whole-cloth (like the pioneering, and infamous, Lakewood). Water was stolen, and the then-abundance of land obscured the contradiction inherent in its commodification. The American dream was shrink-wrapped and sold, creating vast communities lacking an orienting mythology, propped up by the (then) large and growing defense industry. Unlike other great cities, Los Angeles never had to produce itself.

Culturally, the gravity of Hollywood distorts the arts, its inexorable logic turning creative output towards profit and mass appeal – the experience of which gave rise to noir, the genre of disillusionment. As Davis observes, this unique distortive force is compounded by the city’s relative youth; unlike Paris or New York, Los Angeles lacks the “accumluated patrimony” of successive generations of homegrown cultural movements. Lacking these roots, the cultural topsoil easily erodes, leading to a city of passing fads and weird cults.

There is no one in charge. The monocentric anglo Downtown power structure of the early 20th century gave way to polycentrism, with the newly risen Jewish Westside vying for influence; the California and Jonathan Clubs contending with Hillcrest. Both live in the shadow of international capital, which can enter freely and distort the economic orbits nigh at will.

III. Trendlines

Where to go? What is the future for the postmodern city which means nothing and therefore can mean anything?

The tragedy of Los Angeles seems to be that, despite its abundance of natural beauty, it is a city which consists mostly of non-space, a graph of vital nodes and hostile edges. For somebody plugged in, the city has treasures to offer. But for a physical body in the physical space, there is nothing but heat and asphalt.

Fortunately – even miraculously – we live in an exceptional time, where the ground (to use a perhaps too-apt metaphor for a California city) is shifting beneath our feet. Decades-long trends are reversing, and an imaginative space is opening up. From the perspective of a native Angeleno recently returned after twelve years away, it seems as though we are witnessing the following:

  • The failure of anti-development Measure S seems to have marked a watershed moment, in which the multi-decade slow-growth wave has begun to break.
  • The completion of the Exposition Expo train line, and the continuation of Wilshire’s Purple line, points to the increasing effectiveness of the transit lobby.
  • The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has shattered conventional practices and expectations around work and home, creating space for entirely new (and low-congenstion) patterns of travel.
  • The recent protests contra police violence, leading to proposals to reduce LAPD funding (defundthepolice) and Mayor Garcetti’s comments that DA Jackie Lacey “might” have to go, suggest a break in the city’s longstanding, unquestioning support for law enforcement.

In these events we see an opening – towards a higher-density, transit-friendly, peaceful city – and what could be the beginning of a transformation from a militarized urban sprawl into a lively urban field. Los Angeles (and America) of the 2020s is not the violent place of the 70’s or 90’s. We live in a more peaceful time, and it is time to begin the work of slowly and carefully taking down the walls of our guarded enclaves and militarized public spaces.

America’s lack of empathy has always been our fatal flaw, but it is never too late to change – and in that change, to revitalize and renew. In the words of the Lebanese poet Kahlil Gibran, “to withhold is to perish”. Ultimately, to borrow a phrase from Lévi-Strauss, the mythic energy of America as a strong and muscular power has been spent. It will not return. We must begin to reimagine our national myth as one of empathy in a time of abundance; only in such a renewal is there hope for a new vitality. There is not so much to fear.

IV. Housing

Housing is where we begin. The remarkable dysfunction of California’s housing market is well-known, but less obvious is exactly why it should be so. Good treatments of the subject matter can be found in City of Quartz, as well as the more recent Golden Gates; here is a summary of the main trends.

California’s housing crisis can be understood as the intersection of a number of forces.

The first and simplest is that we ran out of land. Well, not land per-se, but rather prime, easily-developed coastal farm and ranch land. With a remarkable lack of foresight, early southern California was developed with an aggressive suburban attitude, as large tracts of farmland were divided up and freestanding white-picked-fenced homes were mass-produced and priced-to-own, often purchased by the factory workers drawn by the region’s defense and aerospace manufacturing. When the land ran out – and it did, abruptly, mid-century – it was like a splash of cold water after a night of heavy drinking. Supply froze, and so prices went up… and up.

This seemingly abrupt but basically inevitable housing shortage had the awkward consequence of creating an essentially random distribution of political power. Whoever happened to have bought a home in the “before times” was now a part of an abruptly wealthy and powerful interest group; wealth and power which was predicated on the maintenance of status quo – as evidenced by the passing of the highly regressive Prop 13 in 1978, which reduced property taxes significantly. These peculiar political dynamics are explored by Conor Dougherty in Golden Gates, and he makes the point that much of the state’s housing dysfunction is due to the asymmetry in political power between owners and renters: for any given proposed development, the current residents are well-defined, while the potential future residents are not. Building housing for 100 people in a neighborhood of 50 means fighting against that 50 without the 100 to back you up, since they don’t exist yet.

For any given development, this asymmetry holds, which is why local control biases towards stagnation and “NIMBY”-ism. At the municipal and state levels, however, the political calculus changes, as the renter bloc becomes increasingly politically well-defined – as we saw with the decisive failure of Measure S in 2016, the pro-growth bloc, at least at the city level, has overtaken its slow-growth counterpart. As such, it seems that forward-thinking decisions about California housing will inevitably need to be made at the city, county, and state level – neighborhoods thusfar have been unwilling to do the job.

Central control, of course, is not without risk. As strikingly described by James Scott in his excellent Seeing like a State, too much central control and we risk ending up with high-modernist wastelands like Brasilia and Chandigarh, where shallow notions of visual order and harmony preclude the development of the cozy corners and impromptu interactions which (famously described by Jane Jacobs) form the public good of a vibrant urban life. Balancing central and local control is a problem as old as philosophy, and the only way out is through. Ultimately, we must transcend the consumptive retiree mentality and the intense class and racial divides and individually acknowledge the city as a commons, the obligation to which there is no individual exit. To fail in this recognition is to sign up for a long and losing battle, propping up failing levees in a storm.

How, concretely, can we move forward? Culturally and politically, we were unprepared for the abruptness of the crisis, leading to a series of questionable policy choices (along with Prop 13, we have in the 1950’s the emergence of similarly regressive “contract cities”), which functioned ultimately to shift tax burdens from the rich to the poor, the legacy of which we live with today in the form of underfunded city services and high consumer taxes. Where from here?

One idea, too radical for this moment but something to keep in the back of our minds, is the elimination of single-family zoning in its entirety. New York, considered by many one of the most exciting and dynamic cities in the world, famously included no single-family zoning at all in its 1916 zoning plan. California, with its imaginative legacy of the “open west” will need to make some mental shifts and appreciate that it is time to do the same. The market will put the suburbs where they belong.

A second idea, also ambitious but slightly more practical, is the joint repeal of Prop 13 and the elimination of rent control. It is crucial that they occur together, as these two programs represent the yin and yang of housing misallocation: Prop 13 suppresses the cost of ownership by suppressing property taxes, while rent control supresses the cost of renting by suppressing rent. In both cases, skewed incentives discourage movement and invariably result in individuals living alone in three-bedroom apartments or five-bedroom houses, while a few streets down, families of five share a single room. Removing one without the other would be rightly seen as classist – pro-owner, pro-renter – but removing them together makes sense.

Realistically, we should proceed with incremental zoning changes, along the lines of SB 50. Here Scott Weiner seems the one to watch.

Ultimately, it is possible to believe in the value of home ownership without needing homes to be speculative assets, and nowhere are we guaranteed a fixed, unchanging urban landscape.

V. Transportation

Housing changes, of course, are impossible without corresponding changes in transportation; they support and enable each other. How we get around determines where we live, and where we live determines how we get around. Density and transit are like two wings of a bird – without them both, it cannot fly.

Ultimately, the Los Angeles of low-slung sprawl is over. It is not wanted or needed. The long parched boulevards of single-story (often auto-focused) retail must be reimagined and rebuilt as two to three story mixed-use districts. There is no need to erect skyscrapers and block out the sun, but new usage patterns which allow for street life on all (or at least, most) of the streets is essential. Rather than separating residence from commerce via tremendous distance, instead mix them more often together, allowing a higher density of residence to support a wider variety of retail and commerce, and breaking the suffocating strangehold of the car on the city. There is nothing wrong with taking a car to see a friend or to go to a show (discretionary, irregular activities well-served by ride-sharing), but having to take a car to buy milk or a sandwich seems more and more like a tragedy – in which we build more housing for cars than we do people, and high costs of housing subsidize our so called “free parking”.

Ultimately, rather that inhuman distances necessitating personal cars for quotidian activities, we would like a gradation of distances for different activities, with the proximity of goods and services being directly linked to the frequency of their need. Daily essentials should be accessible by foot; infrequent needs met by rideshare or bicycle. Owning a car in Los Angeles must become an option, rather than a necessity, for a significant part of the population.

Curiously, the coronavirus presents us with a rare opportunity in this regard. With surge in people working-from-home, the country’s entire private sector is learning just how little a daily commute is needed to run a successful organization. Certainly, video conferencing can never fully replace in-person, face-to-face interaction, but for many people, a lot of the time, it is unneeded. Making a guess, we should expect a permanent post-virus reduction in the amount of time spent in an office of anywhere from 10-20% – leading to a corresponding drop in commute days. If 1/5 of workers spent any given workday in their residential neighborhood, rather than commuting to a commercial center, we would simultaneously see a drop in road congestion and demand for parking in these commercial centers, while seeing an increase in demand for business (food, retail, etc) in the residential neighborhoods. More demand for business in the residential neighborhoods means more business density, which will make these neighborhoods more pedestrian-friendly. Overall, a greater uniformity of population distribution over the course of the day (vs. large daily migrations from residential to commercial center and back) allows for a wider variety of businesses to thrive over more of the city’s area, reducing the need to cover large distances on a daily basis.

With fewer cars on the road at any given time, alternative modes of transit can be set up for success. Taking cues from other cities, we can permanently designate certain boulevards bicycle-and-pedestrian only, doing for cyclists and pedestrians what Robert Moses did for Long Island’s beachgoers – giving them pleasant, relaxing ways to get around (and with great opportunities for sidewalk dining). In fact, we have already begun. Fewer cars on the road means more opportunity for dedicated bus lanes, which, if run properly, represent an invaluable supplement to the city’s earnest-but-outmatched rail system, allowing us to provide effective transit beyond the city center.

That said, access to a car is a great convenience, and ride-sharing and one-off rentals can be expensive and are impractical for, for example, camping trips. An easy proptech-adjacent entreprenial solution would be to offer “shared-cars-as-a-service”, where groups of people can subscribe to a personal car. The subscription would include normal maintenance and a group driver’s insurance policy, and gas usage would be tracked and the costs distributed automatically. That or something like it would fill an important niche very nicely, allowing two or three cars to meet the needs of perhaps six or ten people living in proximity.

As an aside, Los Angeles could be a cyclist’s paradise. It is relatively flat and the heat is dry, not humid, making cycling suitable for daily use by professionals (no working up a sweat). If the city’s ameneties and points of interest were more evenly distributed (as they will likely become), the addition of one or two cyclist-friendly east/west boulevards could greatly expand the potential of cycling in the city. Imagine if Olympic Blvd was reduced to two lanes of car traffic, freeing the rest for a large, protected bike path – crossing the city would be a breeze. And if that same boulevard were lines with residences, eateries, and light commercial spaces?

One could argue that a long-term coronavirus-related reduction in driving would make transit less relevant, rather than more, as it would be consequently easier to get around by car. While there is likely some truth to this, congestion remains half the equation, with parking being the other. As long as every Angeleno needs a car, parking subsidies will continue to be built into the costs of housing, exacerbating the city’s housing affordability crisis. We must seize the opportunity to build transit back into the city.

As memorably put by technology investor Ben Horowitz, “there are no silver bullets, only lead ones”. No single intervention will solve Los Angeles’ substantial transportation problems, but a variety of interventions can interact to provide an effective multi-modal transporation grid. A multi-modal transporation grid allows for more heterogenous movement patterns, meaning the load on any system is reduced – but if everyone has to drive, we could build freeways for one hundred years and never get the capacity we’d need.

VI. Outro

As mentioned in the introduction, Los Angeles is a postmodern city – a product of idea more than of material. While at first blush this might seem like a weakness or fatal flaw (“a meaningless city”), it may yet be the city’s great strength, as a postmodern city can more easily be imagined and re-imagined again.

There is an opportunity to re-imagine Los Angeles, not as a harsh urban sprawl, but as a vital urban field. A city where a density of variously-priced residences, spread throughout the city, supports a vibrant commercial life throughout. A city where lush, pedestrian-and-bicycle boulevards complement light rail and well-run protected bus routes to make getting around the city easy and pleasant (complemented by ride-share and – gasp – even some car ownership).

This is not wild speculation – much of this, at least directionally, is happening now.

Further, there is a chance to make the postmodern city – one of the most diverse on earth – into a racially integrated city, and to continue to take steps to heal the racial divides which sit at the very heart of American identity. Here again the postmodern city shines – for where else can old and tired myths be reimagined and renewed? Can we find the courage to take funding away from security and from fear, and to put it towards culture and creation? And while we’re at it, make peace with the towns upstream whose water we stole?

None of these aspirational outcomes, of course, are guaranteed. But they are possible. The trendlines are all there. With vision, leadership, courage, and fortitude, they may even be achievable. And that is something.

Selected Sources