Saturday, February 2, 2008

Los Angeles: Fighting To Remain Centerless

“It is hereby earnestly proposed that the U.S.A. would be better off if that big, sprawling, incoherent, shapeless, slobbering civic idiot in the family of American communities, the city of Los Angeles, could be declared incompetent and placed in charge of a guardian…the size of the place nor the incoherence of its government accounts for the lunacy of the place (Engh).” It is this “shapelessness” and “lunacy” that most inhabitants of Los Angeles would argue makes the region so profound. In1938, when Westbrook Pegler announced this particularly strong viewpoint to the world, an enormous migration to the West had already begun to take place, altering the fundamental framework of the United States. A plethora of individuals from across the nation and often from around the world came to Los Angeles in hope of discovering a “land of opportunity.” Because modern Los Angeles developed from a conglomerate of scattered towns and villages during this time, the formulation of the city resulted with no distinct central point. Most cities today have some sort of center, offering citizens a geographical location to use as a common ground that ultimately generates a sense of harmony throughout the region. Los Angeles has been criticized for structurally going against this norm, often seen by outsiders as a hindrance in bringing it’s populous together. On the contrary, the urban center’s ability to fight off a clear-cut nucleus has served to promote a diversity and heterogeneity throughout the city, but the current “Manhattanization” of downtown Los Angeles threatens this unique identity the city lends to its members.

Before entering a discussion surrounding the development of downtown Los Angeles and the associated cultural ramifications, a deeper understanding of why Los Angeles promotes such a unique identity must be surfaced. The ethnic and racial diversity of the population that emerged in Los Angeles, coupled with the need for discovering financial success, fabricated a variety of occupational and economic opportunities that continues to persist today. Unlike other metropolises that are dominated by one industry such as steel, machinery, or automobiles, Los Angeles offers a “compound of enormously diverse, flexible production sectors, including financial and business services, high-technology industry, and various craft, fashion, and cultural products industries ranging from clothing and jewelry to motion pictures and music recording (Scott).”

The immense range of professional careers available throughout the city draws individuals with a variety of specialized talents and diverse backgrounds from around the world. The technological revolution that has been forwarded by the innovations and start up companies based in the San Fernando Valley have brought a movement of “techies” to the area. In addition, acting as the center for global entertainment hosting most of the major motion picture studios such as Paramount, Sony, Fox, Universal, and Warner Bros., an entire cast of directors, producers, actors, writers, agents and many more who whore themselves to the entertainment industry now gather in Los Angeles. The infamous depiction of the city as containing some of the world’s best food has captivated and lured culinary experts from around the globe away from the common conception that France is the only place to truly partake in fine dining. The point is that the multiethnic population that characterizes the Angelino identity resides in having massive opportunities for individuals to find their particular economic niche, whatever it might be, within the parameters of a twenty-minute drive.

The distinctive nature of the city that grew out of urbanization offers individuals today a chance to participate in a dual identity; expressing simultaneously a feeling of both small town and big city life. The particular development of the city’s geography created sub-city’s within Los Angeles, resulting in the formation of areas such as Santa Monica, Brentwood, Hancock Park, West Hollywood, etc. As a result, people today truly can become attached to their immediate suburban environment, treating it just as if they were living in a small town, while at the same time latching on to the views, beliefs, and overall identity as a member of the greater Los Angeles community.

Heathervescent, a native Angelino blogger, describes her affinity with her own defined sub-city noting, “I rarely venture east of Vine, west of Beverly Hills, not usually north of Hollywood or south of Beverly. I've got the whole of LA collapsed and distilled down to small Hollywood. Walking to the subway every day takes less time than trying to drive to work. Plus, everything I could want is right in my neighborhood (or among the other subway stops). Which is a funny thought, when you know how vast our fair city really is. (Heatherevescent).” Here, Heathervescent expresses this sentiment of a dual identity, capable of latching onto small town traditions like walking to dinner and getting to know her neighborhood while at the same time recognizing that she also acknowledges “how vast our fair city really is.” In revealing the duality intrinsic to her identity, it is apparent that the fundamental geographical structure of Los Angeles can offer its inhabitants the intimacy of a small town in the midst of one of the world’s largest metropolises.

As the population in the greater Los Angeles area continues to expand, the need for more space has become a major issue and has risen to the forefront of political and public discussion. Populist publisher Bruce B. Brugmann of the San Francisco Bay Guardian coined the term “Manhattanization,” which refers to “a vertical urbanism where the entire city serves as a bedroom for a dominant urban core that is chock-full of cultural attractions (Kotkin).” Included in this notion is the idea that the need for upward expansion stems from the tire for outward expansion and the demand to fit more and more people into developed regions of a city. Advocates of the Manhattanization of Los Angeles see the “densifying” of particular areas, such as downtown, as a solution to the current housing problem the city faces. These proponents are mostly city officials and corporate developers who are financially driven, disregarding the enormous consequences of the process.

The attempt to create a center to Los Angeles through “Manhattanizing” the downtown area directly threatens the assortment of industries and racial versatility present by artificially homogenizing the distinct districts of downtown into one giant center. The ten-square-mile stretch of city blocks, lacking a real center, is a collection of districts thrown together that has come to be known as downtown. “Among these are the financial district; the fashion district (largely wholesalers); Bunker Hill, home to the Walt Disney Concert Hall; South Park, site of the Staples Center and the coming L.A. Live, a $2.5 billion entertainment center; and the so-called Historic Core, an area teeming with discount stores (Smith).” What is so great about the current state of downtown is the existence of all these different districts and the different cultures, lifestyles, shopping and food each has to offer. After listening to the Los Angeles Philharmonic play in Bunker Hill at the Walt Disney Concert Hall, you can head down the road to Little Tokyo, where you can then indulge in an endless number of sushi restaurants, karaoke bars, and Los Angeles’ Museum of Contemporary Art. Returning to the discussion at hand, included in the vertical housing development of downtown is the move to bring in large retailers. In doing so, local markets and the authenticity of these unique districts will be destroyed as corporate vendors take over, ultimately forcing the current and authentic residents within these areas out. This has already taken place as the 50,000 square foot Ralph’s supermarket lurks over the corner of 9th and Flower placing traditional food vendors and family owned markets in the area simply out of business.

Residential West, a real estate development company that has opened 750 residential units in the past 12 months in the downtown Los Angeles area, plans on providing its residents with retail and entertainment, offering them an Asian-style restaurant, a coffee and juice bar, and 25,000 square feet of retail space (retailers have yet to be determined) in their newly refurbished office building near the financial district where commercial space goes for about $20/square foot (Smith).” The company provides us with a perfect example of how the authenticity and the vivid cultural qualities of the region are truly being destroyed. The construction of a their Asian inspired restaurant in the location where an authentic, family owned Mexican restaurant once resided illuminates just how detrimental the gentrification and develop of downtown Los Angeles is to the city’s cultural identity.

It is important to note that I am not by any means suggesting that the current state of downtown Los Angeles is in any way acceptable. Although the preservation of the diversity in the area is essential to maintaining a sort of Angelino identity, the countless number of homeless people and safety concerns throughout the area must be addressed, especially as cost-efficient housing becomes less and less available due to development. According to the Los Angeles Times, there are estimates that around 10,000 homeless people currently occupy the area, with the majority concentrated near skid row (Third Street and the surrounding blocks). People simply do not want to go downtown because they think they are going to be harassed. “There is a perception about downtown, and it’s not just local, it’s international (Smith).” Supporters of the countless development projects taking place downtown ignore the severity of the poverty situation and fail to provide solutions and aide, disregarding that their attempt to revamp the area will only further displace the homeless, not help.

Mike Davis, author of 199’s City of Quartz and the more recent Ecology of Fear, is considered one of the city’s most influential authors and theorists. His work has redefined L.A. by analyzing the use of public spaces while also looking into the disasters that define Southern California, and he is most infamously known for predicting a period of social violence a few years before the Rodney King riots. As suggestive in my previous arguments, the unique identity of Los Angeles will be called into question as the attempt to artificially create a center to the city continues, forcing a destruction and gentrification of downtown. Davis agrees with this notion, positing his dark depiction of the areas future, purposing that the upcoming years will be characterized by “a surveillance of downtown space, private vigilante security forces, prison-like schools, and public preference for replacing social spending with prison budgets. In addition, Los Angeles’ future geography will consist of an urban core of homeless people, a violent inner-city, blue-collar crime-watch suburbs, affluent gated communities, and a gulag rim of prisons on the outskirts (Davis).” Although his arguments and propositions are definitely extreme and must be taken with a grain of salt, his work is important, as his estimations about the future have proven to be right before. His work implies that this Los Angeles identity that is so different from the personalities of other cities is what makes the city so spectacular.

Even if we are “doomed” as Davis notes, the preservation of this identity is essential to the survival of the urban center, and the Manhattanization of downtown Los Angeles must be delicately approached as not to forcibly create a homogenized center. The “shapelessness” and “lunacy” that was once thought to be so horrid has emerged as one of the city’s most essential, beautiful, and defining characteristics. The scattered towns and villages that surfaced at the turn of the twentieth century have managed to maintain their presence today as sub-city’s throughout the area, providing inhabitants a feeling of intimacy while still managing to be a member of the greater Los Angeles community. People today throughout the world still can not comprehend how such a huge city can not have a center, and how downtown Los Angeles is not where citizens flock to hang out on the weekends (at least not yet). The heterogeneity of the population, geography, and professional opportunities that persist today continue to fight for the preservation of our structureless city.

1 comment:

Christopher Nicholson said...

Before entering a discussion surrounding the development of downtown Los Angeles and the associated cultural ramifications, a deeper understanding of why Los Angeles promotes such a unique identity must be surfaced.

No offense, but that's about the most tortured way I've ever seen of someone introducing their thesis. On a positive note, it seems like (from a cursory Google search) you're the only person to ever phrase it in such language...