This past weekend my best friends and I took a trip to Los Angeles. I find that maintaining friendships – especially ones where we all live in different cities – requires at least a few trips together each year. We originally wanted to go to Mexico City, but the destination turned out to be cost prohibitive. Instead we chose Los Angeles, where we could rent a convertible Mustang and experience a city that was anathema to my planning sensibilities. I’m always eager to see a new city, even if I know I will dislike it, just to learn about it. But we also chose Los Angeles because of its weather and its own laissez-faire sensibilities. The thing is I found Los Angeles to be much more than I had originally thought.
Besides from the sheer joy of riding along the Pacific coast in a Mustang with the top down, certain parts of the city delighted me. We stayed in Santa Monica, which was surprisingly and brilliantly walkable. We could walk to coffee shops and an outdoor shopping mall. The Arts District was delightful, Downtown was much more busy and walkable than I had thought, Sawtelle “Japan Town” had a slew of eateries the space between walkable, etc. We did, however, have to drive to each one of these locations. It was possible to take the train between Santa Monica and DTLA, but driving was significantly faster. LA has walkable spots separated and linked only by highways and automobiles.
The city was also one to be looked at, a visible feast from certain vantage points. This is perhaps fitting for the city that is obsessed with beauty, its deep relationship with the entertainment industry. The view from the Getty was incredible, letting you eye and swallow the image of the city and its form. Its sprawl is, in some ways, beautiful. The city reclining into the zone defined by mountains and the ocean.
LA definitely is more than the stereotype of unwalkable, soul-deadening sprawl. The city does not so much slide and haphazardly slump into the interstitial space between mountains and ocean. Instead it seems to rationally fill with its boulevards and grid, with this rationality sliced by the insanity of Interstates. The city is trying to recover from this lobotomy, building public transit. The city was, in fact, created by a massive streetcar system, which many claim was dismantled by the automobile industry.
The city, in some respect, still feels young. I was not impressed by the Getty’s collection, having been spoiled by the collections of the Art Institute of Chicago, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the National Gallery of Art, etc. The walkable areas were often littered with post-modern buildings, large commercial brands, and new development sprouting up here and there. But that, in some ways, makes it exciting. It could have a bright future
I was amazed by the sheer number of scooters I saw in Santa Monica and a few other spots. Using the bicycle lane and sometimes the sidewalk, they zoomed by. Personally, I would be afraid to use one due to their speed and, even with a painted bicycle lane, the dangers of automobiles. Scooters are no doubt dangerous. And there are questions of whether they should use the bicycle lane, questions of the storage of dockless scooters (and bicycles) in public spaces, etc. But in a relatively flat urban area with a painted bicycle lane, they actually make sense as a mode of transportation. We wanted to go to Venice Beach from Santa Monica. Walking would take about 20 minutes. Driving would take 5 minutes. And scootering would also take 5 minutes. Of course bicycling could be an option at around 10 minutes.
1: The Expo Line
I wish had had a chance to ride the line to Downtown from Santa Monica, where it terminates. But, again, driving was faster and allowed us to see other areas after Downtown. It is wonderful that it connects two major areas of walkability. But its utility is limited by those who make that particular route.
2: Polycentrism and Walkability
I love Chicago. It’s the prototypical industrial, monocentric city. All lines terminate at the Loop. But LA has multiple “downtowns”, multiple cities within the county. Looking out from above, one can see multiple centers of high rises. Los Angeles is a city of cities, an ecumenopolis of the basin and valleys. This is a new model of urbanism compared to previous forms of cities, from medieval towns with the church at the center to modern metropolises with central business districts at the core. But in many ways polycentrism is sprouting up in these more traditional areas. If you look at the New York Metro area, you can see centers of highrises including Newark, Jersey City, Midtown, Downtown, Downtown Brooklyn, Long Island City, etc. Even more into the surrounding areas you have New Brunswick, Stamford, and White Plains. For a planner, the goal is to turn these polycentric centers into walkable areas and then to connect this system of regional cities with public transportation. This is more difficult as there is no central node.
3: “A giant strip mall”
My friend remarked that Los Angeles was just a giant strip mall. And I would have to agree to an extent. Many of the commercial areas were indeed strip malls, though many had parking behind with the building abutting the sidewalk. However, these strip malls hide wonderful restaurants and stores. And some of them are being rebuilt with residential units, and some are sprouting more boutique stores.
In the end, some of my notions of LA were correct and some were not. Instead of sharpening a prejudice against the metropolis, it gave me pause. It gave me the possibility of an exciting new experiment in urbanism. But it also gave the possibility of failing