Reading L.A.: Richard G. Lillard on the growth machine and its discontents
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‘The orange groves ... have been uprooted, replaced by housing for those who came to see the orange groves,’ Richard G. Lillard writes in ‘Eden in Jeopardy: Man’s Prodigal Meddling with His Environment: The Southern California Experience.’
The fifth title in our Reading L.A. series -- and a circuitous title it is, with that pair of colons -- is full of paradoxical laments along those lines. Published by Knopf in 1966, in the middle of another of Southern California’s many boom decades, the book is a sustained, detailed complaint about the various ways that developers, highway builders and other ‘replanners of the earth’s surface’ were muscling their way across the region in the postwar years.
By the early 1960s, Lillard notes, ‘California was taking 375 acres of open land each day to meet the urban needs of newcomers.’ The result in the southern part of the state is a region where ‘all construction is temporary.’
‘One wrecking company,’ according to Lillard, ‘has men make notes and drawings as buildings go up so that tearing them down in a few decades can be safe and efficient.’
A remarkable 70% of Orange County residents moved at least once between 1955 and 1960, Lillard reports, ‘most into brand-new’ houses or apartment buildings. And in a region that seems to crave mobility and novelty in equal measure, even institutions have trouble putting down roots; the main branch of the Los Angeles post office ‘has moved twenty times since 1849.’
‘No group of any importance has any idea of staying put, of leaving well enough alone,’ Lillard writes. ‘The one remaining permanent thing in Southern California is men’s endless starting of things -- of demolishing, subdividing, road making, migrating, building, changing, improving.’
These themes were of personal as well as professional interest to Lillard, a Southern California native who earned degrees from Stanford and the University of Iowa before becoming chairman of the English department at Cal State Los Angeles and settling in a Spanish Revival house in Bel Air. As Kevin Starr writes in ‘Golden Dreams,’ his history of California in the 1950s and early ‘60s, ‘bulldozers operating in the canyon above Lillard’s home in 1952 pushed tons of mud on houses below, including his.’ Nine years later, Starr reports, ‘Lillard lost his home in the great Bel Air fire, which tended to further concentrate Lillard’s mind on the problem of runaway growth.’
Indeed, Lillard argues that Los Angeles County is ‘always the pacesetter in catastrophe’ and writes at length about the always-unsettled quality of the region’s relationship with ‘a nature still unpredictable, however domesticated.’
‘Eden in Jeopardy’ was part of a wave of 1960s books -- including Jane Jacobs’ ‘The Death and Life of Great American Cities’ and Rachel Carson’s ‘Silent Spring’ -- warning readers about the dangers that relentless development posed to cities, culture and the environment. (For Starr, Lillard’s book ranks as ‘the most powerful Southern California jeremiad of the decade.’) Today, as Los Angeles continues to expand its transit system and debate the role of the car in shaping the city, Lillard’s chapters on an era of massive freeway building -- and its impact on pedestrianism, health and the physical landscape of Southern California -- seem particularly relevant.
But there was also something not just nostalgic but anachronistic about the book even when it was new, particularly in terms of its refusal to see anything worthwhile in L.A.'s low- and middle-brow architecture. It’s astonishing to think, for example, that it appeared the same year as Ed Ruscha’s ‘Every Building on the Sunset Strip,’ a deadpan celebration of the cityscape as seen from a moving car, and a year after architect Charles Moore’s groundbreaking essay ‘You Have to Pay for the Public Life,’ a layered and forward-looking piece of architectural criticism that cites Disneyland -- with its scaled-down architectural replicas -- as an example of homegrown Southern California culture.
‘By almost any conceivable method of evaluation,’ Moore wrote, ‘Disneyland must be regarded as the most important single piece of construction in the West in the past several decades.’
Lillard, not surprisingly, had a tough time taking places like Disneyland seriously, to say nothing of billboards or dingbat apartments. ‘Culture,’ he writes in his book’s most inflexible and out-of-step line, ‘is the singular, not the plural. Culture is not the copy or the duplicate. It is the ‘real thing.’'
If Lillard’s pessimism grows predictable in spots, ‘Eden in Jeopardy’ is full of surprising historical tidbits. He points out that it was cyclists (rather than drivers, carmakers or oil companies) who were ‘the first to push for better roads’ in Southern California. L.A.'s first major roadways ‘began to appear during the bicycle craze of the 1890s... Cyclists laid out a path from Santa Monica across the open countryside to Los Angeles, and in 1902 the California Cycleway Company started building a wooden freeway along the Arroyo Seco between Pasadena and Los Angeles.’
That is not to say, of course, that he sees the car as a benign force. He bemoans its ‘smashing, rhino-like impact on Southern California.’ He is no kinder in taking on the region’s rising sea of parking lots and other byproducts of the car’s dominance.
‘For every hour an automobile races, giving off gases on a roadway, it stands sparkless and cold, immobile, for eleven hours,’ he writes. ‘The time-honored solution in Southern California cities is to raze downtown buildings and use their ground area for parking lots--a solution that consists of destroying the city in order to save it. The result is a quickened destruction, more exact than wartime bombing, of useful buildings that stand in the way of cars that need to stand idle. More and more the Civic Center area in Los Angeles looks like Arizona’s Monument Valley, with monolithic buildings scattered across a vast desert of hot, sterile pavement.’
The poor Los Angeles pedestrian, meanwhile, has by mid-century ‘ceased to be a respectable or desirable individual. In Beverly Hills and rich subdivisions like Bel-Air, pedestrians are suspects per se and are questioned or frisked by policemen in patrol cars. To have no car is to be poor and vagrant and criminally inclined.’
All in all, Lillard despairs, Southern California has become a place speeding ‘from one brilliant improvisation to another, valuing means, neglecting ends.’ The result is a battle of ‘Nature’s contours versus Man’s ever stronger bulldozers, the historic past versus the politically expedient, the private vale versus the public highway, the orchard versus the subdivision, the wilderness versus the gasoline engine, the person versus the populace, contemplation versus action.’
That last phrase -- contemplation versus action -- has significant implications for some of the overarching themes in Reading L.A., particularly the notion that Southern California has never been especially good at analyzing itself. For Lillard, it’s not hard to understand why. As he saw it, to be an observer rather than a doer -- to contemplate an idea instead of setting it into instant, churning motion -- was to be quite clearly out of step with 1960s Southern California, if not estranged from the place altogether.