Op-Ed

It's OK to miss the spread-out L.A. of yesterday. But nostalgia can't stop us from building a smarter city

I never gave much thought to the parking lots around Staples Center until they disappeared. You know the ones, occupied now by the Microsoft Theater and L.A. Live, down the street from the Hotel Figueroa, south of Olympic Boulevard. For nearly a decade after Staples opened, they remained: a peculiar Los Angeles variety of open space — blacktopped, fenced and painted with parking stalls, but at least unbuilt. Then developers grabbed them, along with other lots throughout the city, leaving downtown denser, without the breathing space, the gaps it used to have.

Don’t get me wrong — I’m not making a plea for the past, despite the fact that nostalgia has long been part of Los Angeles’ personality. The early development of the city, with its iconic Mission Revival and Mediterranean architecture, was inspired by Helen Hunt Jackson’s 1884 novel “Ramona,” which portrayed the Mission era as idyllic, romantic, pastoral. That this was untrue (and that the building style was more fantasy than restoration) was beside the point: As we like to do in Southern California, we embraced the myth.

Now we find ourselves swept up in a new romantic vision of the city, this time based on the future we appear to be building: A less sprawling Los Angeles, condensed and sustainable, identifiably urban, pedestrian- and transit-friendly, verticalized, smarter.

For some Angelenos, such changes provoke a yearning for the unapologetically spread-out, emptier city of the 1970s. That particular brand of nostalgia was the impetus behind Measure S, the recently defeated Neighborhood Integrity Initiative that mandated, among other things, a two-year moratorium on large-scale development. Its overwhelming loss at the polls is a reminder of the flip side of our culture of nostalgia: How restless we are to see what tomorrow brings.

These issues are not exclusive to Los Angeles, nor is the decentered cityscape that we are now remaking. In the years after World War II, cities across the United States suburbanized; now they are redeveloping around their once-faded urban cores. Like Los Angeles, Houston, Chicago and Miami are also wrestling with density and development, with the need for more affordable housing and the need to upgrade transit infrastructure.

The difference, however, is that Los Angeles has long considered itself exceptional, a city in which density is a dirty word. Never mind that, as community planner Eric Eidlin wrote in 2010, “Los Angeles has been the densest urbanized area in the United States since the 1980s, denser even than New York and San Francisco.”

What we’ve done is pack millions into a low-rise sprawl that spans hundreds of square miles while pretending that the common rules of urbanization don’t apply. This has made it possible to imagine something other than “city” here, even when we are standing in the midst of it. Now, though, population and space are catching up with us, and L.A.feels more massive, packed. We’re looking to stack additional millions everywhere.

Bring it on, I say: more city-ness. A city is what we are, after all. We were right to vote down Measure S, just as we are right to build up the Metro, and to try to coax Angelenos out of their cars. At the same time, change means loss as well as progress. What about those filled-in parking lots, the disappearing gaps? They were, like so much else here, unsustainable, and yet without them, it is harder to find breathing space, to see beyond the rising buildings and the endless streets.

The Figueroa is a case in point. First opened in 1926, the hotel’s “Mediterranean Spanish” flourishes qualify as a remnant of “Ramona” romanticism. It was once the landmark at Olympic and Figueroa, the tallest building in its corner of the city. I used to rely on its triple tower, its vast hand-painted billboards, to get my bearings. These days, it fades into the buildings that surround it. And more are coming: The low-slung concrete car wash to the south is due to be replaced by a 60-story tower; so, too, the parking lot on the hotel’s north side.

I miss the Figueroa, even though it’s still there. I miss the way it once stood out. But this is the nature of cities. They evolve. And I will have to find a new set of landmarks, or maybe develop a keener eye, a sharper focus, to pick out all the ways the old gets woven into the fabric of the new. At least the Figueroa has survived — indeed, is newly renovated — a victory of the old Los Angeles amid the new. Demolition isn’t winning every battle.

But as for the gaps, they will not last. We’re committed now, to a Los Angeles that wears its density on its sleeve. We’ve traded one idyll, one myth, for another. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

David L. Ulin is a contributing writer to Opinion.

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