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Op-Ed

What lies beneath L.A.

For close to 20 years, my favorite landmark in Los Angeles was a pair of plastic sawhorses, each emblazoned with “City of Los Angeles Dept. of Public Works Street Services.” The sawhorses straddled a patch of pavement at the southwest corner of Wilshire and Curson, across from the La Brea Tar Pits, in front of the Craft & Folk Art Museum. They were there to warn pedestrians away from the small puddle of tar that continually seeped out of a seam in the sidewalk, a constant reminder of the instability of the ground on which this city is built.

Then the sawhorses disappeared. The seam had been repaved — a victory of human will over nature. But now, a year-and-a-half or so later, the sawhorses are back.

I don’t believe in victories of human will, especially in a landscape as elemental as Los Angeles’, which is, as we all know, riven by active faults, disfigured by tar seeps, reeking of gas leaks. In 1985, 23 people were injured when methane ignited and destroyed a Ross Dress for Less across from the Farmer’s Market, and just last year, another underground explosion blew open a manhole at this very intersection.

This is the Los Angeles that fascinates me, a human creation encoded with its own ephemerality.

This stretch of Wilshire is anchored by the Tar Pits, which are both natural and constructed, a neat simulacrum for the city we have made and its wild terrain. Here we find office towers and food trucks, a museum campus: the reassuring sprawl of urbanity. Here we find an ancient tar seep carved into a lake a century ago by human hands, and now ringed by plaster mastodons.

What we’ve built and what we keep building is transient, of course; none of it will last. What is always just beneath the surface, the stuff of Los Angeles, is a more essential reality. The combination offers a living illustration of cognitive dissonance. Or perhaps we should call it double vision, the overlap of the future and the past. 

As for that past, we rarely think about it; that is one of the clichés of this place. The irony is that it is waiting to reclaim us — or if not us specifically, then the metropolis in which we live. Look at photos of the city — of Wilshire Boulevard itself — from 100 years ago and you can get a glimpse of how thin, how shallow, is our history — just a handful of derricks and a narrow strip of blacktop, stretching out empty in both directions.

Whatever else Los Angeles is, then, it is a testament to human ingenuity and perseverance, an example of what Jan Morris has called “the know-how city,” a result of many overlapping acts of resolve.

“There has never been another town, and now there never will be,” Morris wrote in 1976, “quite like El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de Los Angeles de Porciuncula, Southern California, where the lost American faith in machines and materialism built its own astonishing monument.”

And yet the tar seeping through the sidewalk insists that machines and materialism were never more substantial than a chimera, because nature always wins. It may take a while — another century, a millennium — but then, nature isn’t interested in time, at least not human time, measured out in days and years.

That suggests, I think, the most essential conundrum of Los Angeles: How close to the edge it is. This isn’t a superficial city or a false one but rather a settlement that exists not so much in harmony with nature as at its mercy. If you don’t believe that, the fossil excavations by the Page Museum offer evidence, along with the slow seepage that brought the sawhorses back to the corner of Wilshire and Curson, an everyday testament to the transitory nature of the place.

I missed the sawhorses while they were gone. It felt as if a necessary marker had been stripped from the cityscape. Now that they are back, a strange sort of order, the order of impending disorder, has been restored. 

Standing at the corner of Wilshire and Curson, waiting for the light to change, I take solace in knowing I am in the middle of a city where the tar simply won’t stop bubbling, no matter what we do.

David L. Ulin is the author of “Sidewalking: Coming to Terms with Los Angeles.”

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