Los Angeles: The Stateless City
“Los Angeles is the city of the future,” goes the old joke, “and it always will be.” That makes it as suitable a point as any from which to begin this exploration of the world metropolises of the Pacific Rim, as does the fact that I spent the past four years living there. But I didn't move to Los Angeles in the first place because of its promise of a vision of things to come — though having arrived from Santa Barbara, the small, wealthy coastal town built a hundred miles up the coast with legally mandated Spanish Revival quaintness and home, primarily, to “the newlywed and the nearly dead,” any proper city would have seemed excitingly dynamic. Santa Barbara boasts certain lifestyle advantages, no doubt, but all of them put together couldn't ultimately compete with my sheer fascination about Los Angeles, which drew me down as inexorably as a tractor beam.
This phenomenon didn't begin with me; Los Angeles has had that effect on people for well over a century. During the city's first major population boom in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, other Americans came in to populate it from all over the rest of the country: Midwesterners who'd already made their modest-to-immodest fortunes, for instance, or farmers whose agricultural careers back home had, for one reason or another, come to an end. But as the decades wore on, farther-flung foreigners, especially western Europeans, got wind of this city that had grown with strange suddenness near the southern California coast, one that looked and felt in some ways like the urban areas they knew, but in most others resembled them not in the least.
One of my favorite expressions of this mixture of wonder and disgust takes the form of a two-minute segment of a 1969 French television documentary. “At the feet of this kingdom another decorative city bustles about and whispers,” intones the narrator (whose calm Francophone delivery puts me in the mind of Chris Marker's Sans Soleil, but then most things do) over footage of various representatively twentieth-century buildings and streetscapes captured from, of course, a passing car. “A blue, flat city: Los Angeles. Fractured into multiple working-class areas that ignore each other, inhabited by individuals who live together but never meet, a city wedged between the desert and the ocean, constantly under threat, its heaving heart torn, dislodged, deprived of a center by the existence of the desert.”
So far, this perhaps sounds like nothing more than a poetic version of a few standard criticisms. But after an offhand comparison between the land area of the city and that of the whole country of Belgium, the narration goes on: “The people of Los Angeles love to think that they live in the city of the future, but it is rather a city of the present incarnation of past times, and as a consequence the very thing that unknowingly empties our cities once the outskirts begin to grow. If you would like to know what the outskirts of Paris, London, or even Moscow will soon look like, what their problems will be, what is waiting for us, threatening us, you must go to Los Angeles.”
An astute, if dramatic, diagnosis of the population-draining problems of major cities — and most dramatically, major American cities — after the second world war. But it also hints at a kind of native vitality of Los Angeles felt as powerfully today at the time of this broadcast nearly fifty years ago, or indeed fifty years before that. “It is a true urban laboratory,” the French lady says. “Entire districts are built suddenly. Others are knocked down and re-built.” Today, these words apply much more to Seoul, the city from which I write these words and the next destination in this series, an urban entity whose development and re-development speed puts Los Angeles of any era into the shade. Yet the southern Californian metropolis remains an urban laboratory, and arguably lays a greater claim to that status than ever before. Why?
Not long after arriving in Los Angeles, I began the research that would go into a book, still very much a work in progress, that I've given the tentative title A Los Angeles Primer. The name comes — long story — from a conceptual art exhibition Dennis Hopper and the actor David Hemmings talked about wanting to put on back around the time the French TV crew came to town, but I've had to answer more often for the subtitle I've preemptively come up with (having heard from more established writer friends that if you don't do it, the publisher will slap on an even stupider one): Mastering the Stateless City. Why “mastering”? Because I find Los Angeles rewards, to an uncommon extent, efforts on the part of its visitors and residents to learn about and at least approach an understanding of its unusual nature and structure — worthwhile efforts, but ones that can also turn into frustrating struggles.
And why “stateless”? I use the word with a double meaning. First, Los Angeles is stateless in the sense that, though technically part of the United States of America and subject to the state and federal laws that surround it (not to say that their enforcement doesn't vary from block to block), no particular nation or society lays dominant cultural claim to the place. All those waves of arrival, from the Spanish to the Mexicans to the Americans to the rest of the world seemingly all at once, have produced a kind of urban global microcosm that, whatever its dysfunctions, renders everyone in it an honorary foreigner.
Second, Los Angeles is stateless in the sense of physical matter without a fixed form: it hasn't found, and may never find, a permanently solid urban form, unlike the Parises, San Franciscos, and Santa Barbaras of the world, which seem to have locked their built environments in, and consequently the images in the culture and our imaginations those built environments have produced. Despite its relatively short history — 235 years by the most generous estimate — the city has already passed through two starkly distinct iterations, which Los Angeles Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne labels the first and second Los Angeles, and somewhere around the turn of the millennium it entered its third.
The time of the first Los Angeles “stretches roughly from the city’s first population boom in the 1880s through 1940 when the city, growing at an exponential pace, worked to establish a coherent civic identity,” and the second when, “covering the period from 1940 to the turn of the millennium, the city pursued a hugely ambitious experiment in building suburbia.” The world knows that Los Angeles well from movies, television, literature, and mildly disappointing vacations, but its day has come to an end. We now witness the emergence of the third, whose “cultural center is migrating from west to east, major investments in public transit are challenging the dominance of the car, and multi-family residential architecture is gaining in popularity even as climate change threatens to make the region drier and hotter.” This third Los Angeles may not turn out to be the city of the future, but it will certainly turn out to be a city of the future.
So far, it's produced many more questions than answers, but all of them — including but not limited to whether, having spread out so far, it can double back and remake itself from within; how such a formally distinctive city can retain that distinctiveness in the face of entirely reasonable pressures to conform to other proven examples; what exactly makes people look at it and instinctively call it “ugly”; and if a new set of distinctive architectural aesthetics can develop to suit such an unprecedentedly diverse population in this historical mishmash of an era — strike me as interesting ones for our urban future considered anywhere on Earth. If they strike you the same way, do join me right here each week over the coming months, don't hesitate to get in on the conversation by becoming a supporter, and don't waste the opportunity to weigh in: for Los Angeles, will the future finally arrive?
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.