Dear Mayor Garcetti,
“The best place to view Los Angeles of the next millennium is from the ruins of its alternative future.”
—Mike Davis, City of Quartz (1990)
“L.A. WANTS 2 HELP U”
—Billboard Oracle, L.A. Story (1991)
What is the future of Los Angeles? This is the question everyone is asking. And it is the perennial question posed by everyone from William Mulholland to Walt Disney to Frank Gehry. In each casting of the runes, the city is both subject and object. It is a place where the wind rustling the bougainvillea is a siren song and the Santa Ana’s blowing down palm fronds is an omen. But you know this, my fellow Angelino. Just as you know that The Los Angeles 2020 Commission wrinkles its collective brow with concern as it evaluates the next six years and that the LA2050 initiative (funded by the Goldhirsh Foundation) foresees an optimistic, crowdsourced metropolis.
In his 1990 book, Mike Davis mourned Los Angeles’ unchecked growth from the foundations of the General Assembly Hall of the socialist city of Llano del Rio. He used the Antelope Valley ruins to critique the profligate sprawl spurred on by developers such as Eli Broad’s own, Kaufman & Broad, that spread out of the city boundaries and speculatively covered desert land, reaching Palm Springs and beyond.
Twenty-four years later, we are in that next millennium. We are 100-years past the heyday of Llano del Rio’s failed utopian experiment and living in at a time when sprawl has been checked (for the moment) by foreclosures and a taste for urban living, but are we any closer to an alternative future for Los Angeles?
We are in the thrall of a somewhat newfound urbanity. The return to the city—to Downtown, to Venice, to Hollywood, to Echo Park, and to West Adams—has largely taken on a positivist hue. Reinvestment and construction in “undervalued” parts of Los Angeles and increasingly comprehensive metro system suggests future density and mobility. The continued success of CicLAvia, a genuine desire to recover the L.A. River from concrete spread down by the Army Corps of Engineers, and the Great Streets program announced in your state of the city address last week all point to a Los Angeles that is, in the terminology favored mayors and placemakers, healthy, livable, and vibrant.
But let me return for a moment to the Antelope Valley, to the ragged edge of the megalopolis. The ecology of Los Angeles’ renewal, past, present, and future, operates on the assumption that there will always be ample space in Freewayland and plenty of room at home in the sprawl. The edge exists out there as a mental construct to accommodate whatever detritus the city pushes out, yet as market values in the city increase, so does displacement.
According to the L.A. Times, tenant evictions are rapidly on the rise as the market rebounds. Last year, landlords filed to remove 40 percent more rent-controlled units than in 2012, chipping away at the mere 638,000 rent-controlled units in the city. Los Angeles, a city of economic and cultural diversity, is at risk repeating mistakes made in New York City and San Francisco. These Bloombergian cities, so invested in livability ratings, farmers markets, and bike lanes have produced a staggering inequality between rich and poor. The conflict plays out over affordable housing and access to services and transportation, not organic produce.
Émigré architects drawn to Los Angeles in the last century were invested in redefining how we live through architectural and social experimentation. In 1958, Robert Alexander and Richard Neutra proposed a socialist housing plan for Chavez Ravine. The anti-public housing opposition killed the progressive scheme and raised the site, displacing the existing Mexican-American community. Today, this is Dodger Stadium, ringed by acres of parking terraces and modest bungalows with three-quarter-million dollar price tags.
#backtobasics was the Twitter hashtag of the state of the city. In that phrase are the echoes of Llano del Rio’s utopian dreams, a desire to remake and rethink our built environment. With the all the verdant plans in the works to fix Los Angeles, an alternative future seems possible. But without grander schemes to address housing and protect diversity of all kinds, we may be standing in a future ruin of our own design.