Reading L.A.: The once and future Plaza, nature in the city

This article was originally on a blog post platform and may be missing photos, graphics or links. See About archive blog posts.

Of the final three books we’ll consider in Reading L.A., two offer reflections on the complicated relationship between nature and urbanism in Southern California. The third is a detailed and thoughtful look at the Plaza, the public square where Los Angeles was founded -- sort of.

Let’s start with that ‘sort of,’ actually, since the book in question -- ‘Los Angeles Plaza: Sacred and Contested Space’ -- ranks as one of the more pleasant surprises for me of Reading L.A. At the suggestion of several readers of this blog, I added William David Estrada’s book, published in 2008, rather late in the game to my list of titles for this project. I’m very glad I did, for no survey of Los Angeles and its architectural and urban origins would be complete without at least one volume on the strange evolution of the Plaza, a place where the history and meaning of the city have been continually up for grabs. Of course this corner of downtown L.A. has also been in the news for the recent travails of the arts center La Plaza de Cultura y Artes.

Dedicated in 1781, designed according to Spanish empire-building principles and relocated after the Los Angeles River flooded in 1815, the Plaza, as Estrada puts it, has long been ‘an eclectic combination of physical, historical, and cultural resources that have been created as much by myth ... as they have by real history.”

Estrada, a prominent curator at L.A.'s Natural History Museum, details the history of the Plaza in a surprisingly propulsive narrative that is dotted with terrific photographs. He notes the effect of natural disasters and changes in the political and colonial fortunes of Los Angeles on the Plaza. He traces its history as a gateway for new immigrants to the city and the way it lost prominence after California achieved statehood in 1850 and the city’s new American leaders began building a new civic center several blocks away. He also spends a good deal of time examining its role as a location for political protest.


At the heart of the book is the tale of Christine Sterling, the so-called Mother of Olvera Street, a shrewd and often heartless political operator who controlled the look and operation of the Plaza for decades. She used that power base to launch a campaign, as Estrada puts it, to “instill an Anglo birth legend for the city’ (as opposed to the much more layered and complex story of the men and woman who were actually responsible for the founding of Los Angeles). Sterling led the charge to open Olvera Street, adjacent to the Plaza, in 1930; originally known as Paseo de Los Angeles, it created, as one headline of the day put it, “A Mexican Street of Yesterday in a City of Today,” which remains a pretty good description of its role in 2011. Sterling became the manager of the Plaza after it became a state park in the 1950s.

As Estrada points out, efforts to give the Plaza that ‘Anglo birth legend’ have a long history. Many of them were architectural; in 1900, he writes, a new bell tower was added to the old Plaza church “to make it look like a California mission.” After World War II, meanwhile, a statue of Junipero Serra was removed from its perch in the middle of Sunset Boulevard and brought to watch over the Plaza.

It hardly mattered to those running the Plaza, Estrada notes, ‘that the father of the missions had nothing to do with the founding of Los Angeles or any other California pueblo. The Plaza was an evolving narrative, and in their minds, Serra fit the bill.”

Though Estrada is clear about the ways that Los Angeles history has been bent, whitewashed or even rewritten by those overseeing the Plaza, he ends the book on a note of surprising optimism. Thanks in part to recent immigration-rights marches and the revivification of the area around Olvera Street by recent arrivals from Central America and elsewhere, he writes, ‘the Plaza continues to grow in cultural significance, especially for Latinos, who have become the city’s majority population.’

An even longer sort of historical perspective helps shape William L. Fox’s ‘Making TIme: Essays on the Nature of Los Angeles.’ Published in 2007, Fox’s book is a linked series of five essays on the complicated way that the natural world coexists with big-city Los Angeles.

By far the finest essay of the bunch is the first, ‘Tracking Tar,’ which describes how oil exploration has shaped L.A. ‘Every city has a metaphorical geography that determines and reflects the nature of its growth,’ Fox writes. ‘In Los Angeles, petroleum is a widespread fact of nature underfoot, one of the primary reasons for the city to exist, and the fuel that both allowed and necessitated the creation of a grid large enough to cover the basin, therefore determining the warp and weft of its urban fabric.”

Fox is the author of several books that focus, as he puts it, on the question of “how human cognition transforms land into landscape.’ (He also directs the Center for Art and Environment at the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno.) He is at his most memorable in explaining the peculiar balance between urbanism and industry in Los Angeles; he describes a number of places where Los Angeles the global city disappears and an entirely different landscape -- wilder or more industrial -- takes it place.

This is the case, for example, in the part of La Cienega Boulevard that winds through the Baldwin Hills, a route Fox often takes to and from LAX. “There are few cities in the world,’ he notes, ‘where the road from the airport passes through a working oil field.”

The book loses some of its focus in the later essays. But Fox comes back around forcefully, and persuasively, to his strengths near the end, arguing that residents of Los Angeles have a depressingly weak sense of the ways that history, nature and the built environment interact in their city.

‘Humans have externalized memory into place for as long … as we are able to reconstruct,’ he writes. ‘The Aborigines of Australia do it in their song lines ... as do the Apaches in Arizona with their morality tales tagged to specific boulders, streams, ponds, and peaks. Los Angelenos, because of our reliance on automobiles to conquer the decentralized nature of our urban basins, have relinquished the discipline and need to reclaim this skill of memorialization. We need to walk around and make stories out of everything, not just what we take to be nature -- the ocean and beaches and mountain parks -- but also cell towers imitating a pine tree and the concrete runoff channels used by mountain lions.”

Similar themes propel Robert Gottlieb’s ‘Reinventing Los Angeles: Nature and Community in the Global City.’ Gottlieb, a professor at Occidental College and the director of Oxy’s Urban and Environmental Policy Institute, focuses on three subjects in this smart and useful summary of the contemporary city: the L.A. River, freeways (and alternatives to them) and immigration.

Gottlieb pauses to tell a number of stories about how nature has been creatively repurposed and repackaged in Los Angeles; artist Lauren Bon’s planting of corn in a park near Chinatown is recounted in detail. But no section of the book is as meaningful as the one on freeways. Especially good is the story of the tangled but ultimately triumphant effort Gottlieb helped lead to close down the Pasadena Freeway temporarily to car traffic and open it to cyclists and pedestrians. This closure -- which turned into an event called ArroyoFest held on Father’s Day, 2003 -- was not easy to achieve, as you might imagine; the number of agencies that had to sign off on it is mind-boggling, and there were times when it seemed approval would never come.

One major goal of ArroyoFest was to give residents of Northeast L.A., South Pasadena and Pasadena a chance to move deliberately along a stretch of road they usually race along and as a result to see the landscape around it in a new way. Another was to highlight the way freeways have carved up the city.

“Freeways in Los Angeles have become dividing lines separating rather than connecting communities,’ Gottlieb writes. As a result, “to close the freeway for a walk and a bike ride seemed more than just a symbolic act. It also cut to the heart of the issues of nature and community in a city and region like Los Angeles.”

Closing the freeway -- even for a single day -- was an act of real imagination as well as a major political and jurisdictional headache. As 2011 comes to a close, the gesture seems to have lost little of its symbolic or practical relevance; after all, 2011 was the year of Carmageddon, the year it became definitively clear that Los Angeles desperately needs to redefine its relationship with the freeway.

Promoting more events like ArroyoFest seems crucial in helping Angelenos define mobility in a new way. And, as Gottlieb points out, the kind of thinking that will be required to reimagine the freeway for 21st century Los Angeles is the same kind of thinking that helped create the city and its infrastructure in the first place. He reminds us in the book that the great Carey McWilliams -- one of the first authors we met in Reading L.A. -- described Los Angeles as ‘a land of magical improvisation.’

Redefining or even repurposing the freeways of Los Angeles -- on a permanent rather than merely temporary basis -- may require the biggest and most creative improvisation of all.


Reading L.A.: David Brodsly’s ‘L.A. Freeway’
Reading L.A.: The Olmsted plan and what might have been

Reading L.A.: Mike Davis, ‘City of Quartz’ and Southern California’s ‘spatial apartheid’

-- Christopher Hawthorne