The Urban Dictionary calls Los Angeles "a massive tangle of highways and roads, also rumored to contain people and houses."
In the last century, the rise of the automobile, decades of highway construction and an assortment of other pressures drove people away from urban centers all over the country and around the world, but nowhere was that phenomenon more pronounced than in Los Angeles. It left the city with such a remarkable absence of a clearly delineated central downtown that even now, as "DTLA" rises again, local officials believe it does not contain a highly symbolic target for post-9/11 terrorist attacks.
In the finally-happening revivification of L.A.'s downtown, you can see the backlash against urban flight, as Americans, suffering from automotive and suburban remorse, seek out walkable city neighborhoods nearer where they work, with staple businesses, restaurants and night life, and services like grocery stores, dry cleaners and shoe repair shops. A notable architectural version of this is the New Urbanism movement that began in the 1980s, an attempt to re-create the city neighborhood of yore, even with something of a small-town vibe, by increasing population density in new developments centered around purpose-built mini-downtown business districts that seek to be pedestrian-friendly.
Mayor Eric Garcetti's "Great Streets" program follows in this tradition, though at a scale whose ambitions are currently constrained by a lack of "the money and the space to add the types of transportation that would significantly reduce traffic congestion, such as widening streets or adding expensive mass transit," write David Zahniser, Matt Stevens and Laura J. Nelson in the Times.
"In a process the mayor describes as 'urban acupuncture,' the city plans to add bike racks, plazas, crosswalk upgrades and other amenities aimed at drawing in pedestrians and attracting new businesses" to 15 thoroughfares.
Some Angelenos are skeptical. They worry Great Streets will fail, as have similar initiatives attempted by Garcetti's predecessors. Or they worry the changes will screw up traffic, a perennial problem in the city.
Then there are those — like me — who worry it will work, in the form of gentrification.
The Times story focuses on a few examples: "In Highland Park, once sleepy York Boulevard has become a magnet for an array of middle- and upper-middle class needs: coffee, comic books, vegan ice cream, and $5 donuts. Abbot Kinney Boulevard in Venice, once favored mainly by locals, is now a regional tourist destination with prices to rival Rodeo Drive. Backers of the Great Streets program hope to achieve similar success."
Success? Overpriced coffee and pretentious desserts "improve" a neighborhood by driving up rents and expelling longtime residents who can't afford the change: older people, immigrants and minorities. A lot of the time, the businesses that can afford to move in are the same ones populating the local mall. (I'm OK with stores that sell comics, though.)
Aside from inconveniencing poor people with evictions, and forcing them to commute from more distant suburbs to their jobs, urban gentrification strips neighborhoods of their ethnic flavor and makes them bland. Surely it should be possible to attract pedestrians to city streets minus gentrification — a mix of commercial rent control, careful curation of businesses and guarantees to long-term residents that they will be priced into the mix — but how sure is anyone that will happen?
Isn't it far more likely that Great Streets will become Great Streets for Upscale People, and the developers who love them.
Follow Ted Rall on Twitter @tedrall