Crowdfunded Journalism

Los Angeles: Where Geography Loses All Conventional Meaning

Colin Marshall photo
Colin MarshallLos Angeles
Los Angeles: Where Geography Loses All Conventional Meaning
In Los Angeles, even the places near can seem far. People who grew up in far-flung exurbs describe themselves, without a second thought, as "from Los Angeles." Some definitions of the "city" engulf thousands of square miles of other counties. What caused these... distinctive geographic perceptions?

Both Los Angeles' parking lots and its surprising presence and surprising absence of rapid transit suggest a distinctive relationship with physical space. So does the tendency of people who grew up hometowns not especially close to the city itself to describe themselves as “from Los Angeles.” Suburbanites do this everywhere, of course, ostensibly out of not wanting to have to explain the exact location of Evanston or Somerville or Gresham to everyone they meet. But “Angelenos” do it with what strikes me as a unique degree of license, the equivalent of people from Half Moon Bay claiming to be from San Francisco, or people from Parsippany, New Jersey claiming to be from New York.

This freedom of geographic perception, shall we say, manifests in more everyday ways as well. “Even the things near me aren't near me,” marveled one friend who'd moved from San Francisco years before, but others, even those who'd spend spent less time in Los Angeles than he had, would routinely describe places five, ten, fifteen miles away as “close.” I soon came to realize, the “close”-ness of a destination ten miles away in one direction doesn't necessarily imply the “close”-ness of a destination ten miles away in another. The concepts of near and far, in Los Angeles, had more to do with ease and difficulty than, strictly speaking, with geography.

As when grasping for explanations of most other oddities of Los Angeles (or indeed American) life, many instinctively blame the cars, even those who profess to love them. The reliance of the city's population on personal motor vehicles has, in recent years, become something of an overstatement, at least for those who live in or practically in the city proper, rather than in its many surrounding Half Moon Bays and Parsippanys. But as an animating idea, it remains relevant indeed: the car as icon, the car as tool of urban freedom, the car as agent of urban corruption, the car as whipping boy. One wonders how Angelenos processed their experience of the city before widespread automobile ownership.

When the city first boomed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it did so by selling its inherent physical characteristics: the weather, but even more so the vastness of its space. At that time, it boasted more than enough for every disaffected East Coaster seeking refuge from the grime and crowds of old industrial cities or well-enough-off Midwesterner slowly dying of boredom to start fresh on their own plot of land under the year-round sun. They may or may not have had cars of their own, but they could build houses of their own, and they could get to those houses with the aid of Henry Huntington's Pacific Electric Railway, the most ambitious land-development tool implemented by any real estate magnate to date.

And so Los Angeles grew, even without the car as we know it today, in a new way: at mechanical scale, but filled in with single-family detached houses. Those single-family detached houses, therefore, have had longer to take root than the car. (I recently wrote an entire essay on the absence of a true “car culture” in Los Angeles, rather a house culture that necessitates the car, in Boom: A Journal of California.) But when the cars did start to appear in force, the Pacific Electric Railway's level of service declined commensurately, and segment by segment shut down completely. By the time its last remaining line, running between downtown and Long Beach, bit the dust in 1961, its replacement had been arriving for almost twenty years, ever since the northern half of California State Route 110, also known as the Arroyo Seco Parkway (and for a time as the Pasadena Freeway), opened to drivers in 1940.

That venerable piece of infrastructure reveals something about the psychology of the modern Los Angeles driver. Designed specifically for a speed of 45 miles per hour, and with a considerably narrower and more snaking shape (as well as more attractive landscaping) than that of the postwar urban freeways to which it subsequently hooked up, it to this day inspires no end of articles, radio broadcasts, and commiserative conversations about how best to drive it. The many proposed solutions, running the gamut from preferred lane positions to breaking techniques to proposed modifications to the road itself, never seem to include driving at the intended speed of 45 miles per hour. You simply — and this often comes declared in the same tone Los Angeles parents use when asked why they never considered sending their kids to the local public school — can't do it.

You drive fast on freeways, after all; don't they hold out that promise and above all others? In fact, the attitude instilled by Los Angeles' once-novel network of urban freeways — the wide, elevated, theoretically unencumbered roads that run through cities, rather than just between them — has long been expressed even more specifically than that. Quantitatively, in fact: the notion of “twenty minutes to everywhere” took hold some time in the mists of midcentury antiquity and, despite never being spoken today without at least a smirk, still, on some level, compels. Angelenos will sometimes put a journey in terms of miles, but more often in minutes, and the matter always has more to do with not how far one can practically go, but how far one can rightfully go.

At one time, when freeway-building enjoyed its heyday, Los Angeles seemed to have the right, or arrogate to itself the right, to limitless expansion. That perception crossed the divide between the city's boosters and its detractors. In his contemporary New York Review of Books review of booster Reyner Banham's 1971 Los Angeles: the Architecture of Four Ecologies, Francis Carney describes “a city of just under three million people occupying the central chunk of a sprawling county of over seven million. Let’s throw in Orange County, which flows unbroken out of the southeast side of Los Angeles County, with its million and a half people, and another million persons in the San Bernardino-Riverside desert area to the east, and we have an integral metropolitan area of some ten million people all knit together by the freeway system, the L.A. communications network and the common scourge of smoggy skies.”

Yes, let's just throw those in. Such blithe aggregation of such vast and disparate spaces (Orange County feels, in my experience, not much like Los Angeles, but exactly like what those with little experience of Los Angles assume Los Angeles is like) into one “integral metropolitan area” has fallen somewhat out of favor today, the recent vogue for the concept of the “megaregion” notwithstanding. But studies of a certain era do it almost automatically, as if the city, or county, or cluster of counties, or nearly half the state of California (I've even read considerations of Los Angeles as everything south of Santa Barbara and north of San Diego, because why not?) had no greater advantage, or more defining characteristic, than sheer expansiveness.

Maybe it didn't, but its time of expansion, as well as its time of large-scale freeway construction, has gone. Having come up against the limits of the first two dimensions, Los Angeles in the 21st century faces the challenge of turning back and seeing what it can do with the third. On a visit to Tokyo, Paul Auster, I believe, remarked that the city combines the verticality of Manhattan with the horizontality of Los Angeles, and I occasionally entertain the notion that the result of the Southern Californian metropolis' ongoing and accelerating infill and densification (to drop two trendy urbanist terms) will look and feel more than a little like the Japanese capital. But will the process take twenty years? Fifty years? A full century?

Tokyo and Los Angeles already share a somewhat cellular nature, whereby each area exists as a kind of “village” possessed different combinations of and variations on the necessities of life. The trick, for Los Angeles, lies in multiplying and compressing the size of those villages until, as in Tokyo, they span only about a human's convenient walking distance across. More and more parts of Los Angeles where much can be accomplished on foot from one's home — not usually, by necessity, the entrenched single-family detached house — have won the coveted designation of “walkable,” but as with “twenty minutes to everywhere,” the meme that “nobody walks in L.A.” has, especially outside the city, held fast.

It doesn't take long in Los Angeles before you realize that some do walk there, just as some take buses and trains, some ride bicycles, and many drive, though fewer of the new arrivals than in previous generations. At the moment, for each and every journey in the city, a different one of these modes — again with the 21st-century urbanese, I know — makes sense. And each one of these modes still comes with not-intuitively-graspable definitions of which destinations count as near or far. Catching the train from my officially walkable neighborhood of Koreatown, a trip to South Pasadena, twelve miles away, felt closer than a trip to downtown's Arts District, seven miles away. Going to Larchmont Village, less than two miles away, ruled out the train (no line runs anywhere near it, at least not for the next couple decades), felt “far” on the bus (half an hour with a transfer in the middle), and yet by bike (a ten-minute ride) felt “nearer” than most anywhere.

One evening, I found myself at a get-together with the designated conversational topic of, perhaps unsurprisingly, transit. It happened at a friend's house, built in the standard detached-single-family manner back when Los Angeles gave little thought to expanding with any other building block. But now it houses several occupants, each renting their own part of the place, and stands about a mile or two from the Chinatown train station, which opened in 2003 (“close in” to downtown by the standards of decades past). But a mile or two's walk by definition makes any train journey feel “far,” unless combined with a bike, a form of — last one this time, I promise — multimodality that much of Los Angeles, in its current transitional state, often seemed to me to require.

At the end of the night, we placed our bets as to the dominant form of transportation in the city twenty years hence. Pessimists, or at least contrarians, put their money on the stubborn endurance of the car; optimists, also contrarians in their way, plumped for bikes and public transit. But personally, pressed to imagine the Los Angeles of the near future, I couldn't imagine any scenario more plausible than a relatively even spread across an even wider variety of ways of getting around, feet, wheels, rails, and other technologies yet to be considered. “The language of Los Angeles,” wrote Reyner Banham 45 years ago, “is the language of movement.” Just as number of languages used in Los Angeles has so increased since then, so, I think, shall the number of languages of Los Angeles, toward 2026 and beyond.

See also my site, or follow me on Twitter and Facebook. Many episodes of my video essay series The City in Cinema cover Los Angeles, as do some of the pieces I write for Guardian Cities. If you'd like to subscribe to the Where Is the City of the Future? mailing list, which offers updates on this project as well as a curated selection of other articles related to the cities it will cover, please become a supporter here on Byline.

#Los Angeles, #urbanism, #travel, #cities, #development, #culture, #multimodality