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The Post-Mall World

Joel Kotkin, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a public-policy fellow at the Pepperdine Institute for Public Policy and the Pacific Research Institute

For 10 years, the idea of place has taken a beating. Once the world seemed to be made up of special, nonduplicable locations--Texas cattle towns, old New England villages, relaxed beachside cities. Yet, many now believe that technology, industrial change and globalization are rapidly transforming places into little more than anonymous territories competing for the attention of largely indifferent capital markets.

“We are entering the age of everything, everywhere,” business consultant William Knoke insists in “Bold New World: The Essential Road Map to the 21st Century.” In this era, Knoke suggests, location decisions will distill to a matter of personal choice and convenience. Companies or individuals will no longer have to stay in any place that does not fit their particular fancy.

For some companies and industries, as well as individuals, “placelessness” has become as much an assumption of the business environment as the direction of interest rates and emerging markets. Companies move from region to region, not only in search of lower costs but also of ultra-safe, homogeneous environments favored by the managements of many major corporations.

In spite of these trends, many Americans still crave some sense of identity unique to the places where they live. This has been reflected in successful campaigns against Disney’s attempt to build an amusement park near the site of the Manassas, Va., Civil War battlefield and a real estate firm’s scheme to construct condominiums adjacent to Walden Pond in Massachusetts.

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To some extent, growing interest in creating or preserving historic places constitutes a reaction against the proliferation of “edge cities"--super-suburbs attached to virtually interchangeable shops and malls, chain restaurants and low-rise corporate architecture on the fringes of metropolitan areas. In these communities, the dictates of economic “efficiency” have produced, along with growth, a dulling uniformity. Nearly two-thirds of the nation’s office space is in edge cities, 80% of which did not exist a quarter century ago.

The revival of interest in place may prove to be the cities’ last great advantage in their sometimes desperate battle to stay competitive with both edge cities and rural areas. In an analysis of economic growth rates during the early 1990s, corporate demographer David Birch found that activity picked up most rapidly farthest from central business districts. Twenty-five miles out, 2% annual job growth was the norm; within 10 miles, it was 1.5%; 0.5% within five miles, and negative growth within the central business districts themselves.

With large-scale federal efforts to restore urban cores at an end, cities have little choice but to find ways to slow, even reverse the hemorrhaging of jobs, human resources and capital. To accomplish this, most successful mayors have put crime reduction, streamlined regulations and upgraded infrastructure at the top of their agendas.

But, long term, a strategy focusing on reestablishing a sense of urban identity and place may prove more effective. Only when great cities offer something special and different from smaller towns or edge cities can they begin to lure the young, creative people, entrepreneurs and tourists necessary to sustain their economies. Recognition of this possibility has sparked a rash of new urban construction aimed at creating trademark attractions, as evidenced by the development of scores of new aquariums, art galleries and sports complexes in cities across the country.

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Such attractions, however, will not alone reverse urban decline; it will take a major revitalization of urban retail districts as well. Given their relatively weak economic performance over the past decade, major cities are understandably eager to lure large retail chains--Banana Republic, Starbucks, Blockbusters, Planet Hollywood or Benetton--to trendy areas such as Manhattan’s 57th Street, Old Town Pasadena, Melrose Avenue or Chicago’s Old Town.

Yet, the influx of too many such chains threatens to create “edge cities” downtown. Absent the willingness of civic leaders, local residents and entrepreneurs to nurture a singularly exciting urban environment, these neighborhoods could experience the decline that has turned Westwood, once a dynamic hub, into an economically moribund and utterly uninteresting urban version of a second-rate suburban mall.

As in so many things, re-establishing the primacy of place in Southern California presents both greater challenges and unrivaled opportunities than in older, more established eastern cities. In a Boston, New York or Chicago, the most critical development issues concern the central-city environs and receive enthusiastic support from downtown-oriented local media. By contrast, Southern California’s sense of place generally has fallen victim to its ‘90s reputation as a failed, racially charged suburban utopia without any distinguishing marks.

For many, the decline of downtown Los Angeles is proof positive of the region’s inability to create a compelling sense of place. Although finding a role for downtown remains important, few recognize that the focal points of place in Southern California lie beyond downtown, particularly in such districts as Melrose Avenue, Los Feliz, La Brea Avenue, Leimert Park, Hollywood Boulevard, Studio City, Venice, the Sunset Strip, Pacific Boulevard in Huntington Park and downtown Santa Monica.

This fits perfectly into the grand tradition of Southern California. Tourists, new residents and immigrants come to Los Angeles not in search of a mini-Manhattan but of a place in one or more of the “urban villages” that collectively define the city. It does no good to recreate Gotham, Paris or Mexico City in Los Angeles; as the late poet Allen Ginsberg once put it, when all is said and done, “L.A. is L.A.”

L.A.'s competitive advantage lies in its capacity to offer a diversity of place options unsurpassed anywhere in the world. The region’s dynamic Asian business hubs--Koreatown, Little Tokyo, the San Gabriel Valley and Westminster’s Little Saigon--have no real analog, in scale and scope, anywhere in the nation. Similarly, Whittier Boulevard, First Street in East L.A. and Pacific Boulevard in Huntington Beach rank among the nation’s most successful Latino shopping districts. Venice Beach, the Third Street Promenade and Melrose epitomize the eclectic, slightly off-base individualism that is classically Southern California, while Glendale, Studio City, Burbank and Larchmont provide an amalgam of small-town feel and big-city sophistication found virtually nowhere else.

Retaining, redefining and burnishing these districts and urban villages has broad implications not only for tourism and developers of retail space, but also for the region’s broader economic future. As UCLA’s Allen Scott points out, much of Los Angeles’ growth in “culture products"--in entertainment, multimedia, fashion, furniture, product design and textiles--draws its inspiration from the region’s sense of diverse possibilities.

Happily, many Angelenos seem to be rediscovering and embracing L.A.'s sense of place. A recent poll by Fernando J. Guerra at Loyola Marymount University, for example, found that while many residents remain pessimistic about the city overall, far more thought that their own neighborhoods were getting better than getting worse.

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This sense of local improvement is further boosted by a growing number of local business-improvement districts, including relatively new ones in Hollywood, along Ventura Boulevard, the Wilshire corridor, downtown and even Westwood; signs proclaiming new commercial zones--the Fashion District, Los Feliz Village and Sherman Village in the Valley--reflect a renewed pride in specific shopping areas. Similarly, homeowners have petitioned City Hall to proclaim new or restored neighborhoods, including Harvard Heights in South Los Angeles, North and West Hills in the San Fernando Valley, Yucca in Hollywood and Happy Valley on the Eastside, salvaging their communities from the curse of placeless anonymity.

Despite all the talk about new technology and placelessness extolled by self-style futurists and consultants, people still seek a sense of uniqueness, of home and history wherever they live. The new patterns of settlement and technology may have changed the nature of place, but they have not eliminated our need for it.


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