Following L.A.'s script
A decade or so ago, I went with my father to a Friday night concert in a Cape Cod town. It was August, and the village green -- an expanse of grass stretching off Main Street -- was packed with vacationers and locals, all eating hot dogs and drinking sodas, reveling in the coolness of the evening air. In the midst of this, four men stood beneath a gazebo, playing old-time standards: “Let Me Call You Sweetheart,” “In the Good Old Summertime.” After a few songs, I turned to my father and said, with something akin to revelation, “It’s like a living turn-of-the-century museum.”
My father took great exception to this notion, especially when I went on to suggest that, if such towns represented the past -- a last glimpse of the way we once lived in this country -- then Southern California was emblematic of the future, with its inevitable growth and sprawl. “God forbid,” I think he said, which is probably how a lot of Americans feel. But the idea of Los Angeles as harbinger of the future is hardly outrageous, and has little to do with the region’s traditional booster ethos, the hype that tells us we live in a city outside history, in which the old rules no longer apply. Rather, Southern California’s purchase on the future has everything to do with history -- with geographic history, with demographic history, with the history of technology, with our sense of this place as a final landscape, the last territory on the American continent, where we must finally face ourselves because there is nowhere else to run.
This futuristic sensibility is a big part of how Los Angeles has always sold itself, from the first real estate boom of the 1880s to the rise of the movie business and beyond. As far back as 1904, when a syndicate of leading citizens (including Henry Huntington, E.H. Harriman and Harrison Gray Otis) got the rights to buy up huge swaths of the San Fernando Valley, L.A. was a city with its eye on the future, a city on the make.
Yes, this was an inside deal, one that ultimately yielded more than $100 million in profits because of the syndicate’s secret knowledge of a plan to irrigate the arid Valley with water from the Owens River. Still, in its aftermath, Los Angeles became the template for an entirely new kind of city, horizontal, sprawling, defined less by steel and masonry than by speed and light. Nature, for the first time, was no longer an obstacle, but a challenge to be overcome. Need water? Import it. Need to connect the most far-flung districts of the megalopolis? Build a network of roads, of freeways, and in the process redefine the relationship between the city and its geography.
It’s no understatement to suggest that the future identity of L.A. can be traced to the Valley land deal, which set in motion a whole host of developments that continue to unfold to this day. In that sense, it was the syndicate’s ability to conceptualize the future, and the role of Los Angeles within it, that set the stage for much that was to come.
Such a future, to be sure, has not always been bright or sunny; it often comes at quite a cost. In the case of the Valley, the price was the Owens Valley, and the lingering implications of a water war that, in one form or another, has gone on for 100 years. But before we judge the past too harshly, it’s important to remember that history is complicated, and that events, once set in motion, play out in a variety of ways.
Whatever we think about its origins, Los Angeles is now a laboratory for both our nightmares and our dreams. The city’s sprawl, its apparent shapelessness, has for better or worse become a model for how contemporary urban landscapes work, with its de-emphasis of the center in favor of a constellation of satellite communities.
Meanwhile, L.A.'s ethnic and cultural diversity has made it a new kind of international city, belying the mythos of the melting pot in favor of something far more elusive and profound. That’s a key development, because it suggests the way the rest of the country -- indeed, the world -- is going, as borders become increasingly fluid and we elide into an economy of global scale.
More to the point, Southern California’s diversity adds up to a wealth of experience, of identities, that makes L.A. a city without a defining narrative. Detractors like to highlight this as emblematic of our essential rootlessness, but as usual, they miss the point. Instead, it’s a three-dimensional expression of the notion that in Los Angeles, like everywhere, we are all just making it up as we go along.
Like it or not, of course, the detractors have no choice but to deal with us, as L.A.'s aesthetic spreads. You can see it in every mall, every planned community, in the blurring of so-called high and mass culture, in the ascendancy of noir. Most tellingly, Los Angeles has begun to influence the way even the most traditional cities are reconfiguring themselves -- just take a look at Times Square. In his 1998 book “Team Rodent: How Disney Devours the World,” Carl Hiaasen lamented Times Square’s reinvention as “home to MTV, Conde Nast, Morgan Stanley, the world’s biggest Marriott hotel, the Ford Center for the Performing Arts, and soon a Madame Tussaud’s wax museum.... The dissolute, sticky-shoed ambience of Forty-second Street has been subjugated by the gleamingly wholesome presence of the Disney Store.” Yet if Hiaasen was on the right track, he missed the larger picture; it’s not Disney that’s the template, but the Grove.
Ever since the opening of Universal CityWalk in 1993, Los Angeles has been on the cutting edge of what social theorist Norman M. Klein calls “scripted spaces” -- sites that eclipse the line between public and private, designed to resemble organic urban settings when they are, in fact, elaborately planned. The re-development of Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade is emblematic of this concept, as is Beverly Hills’ Two Rodeo and, indeed, the Grove. The new Times Square is just a larger, gaudier scripted landscape, reconstructed almost entirely in the style of L.A. What does it say when New York, which as much as any city thrives in opposition to Los Angeles, adopts a quintessential Southern California strategy to revitalize one of its most iconic sites? It can only mean that the future starts with us.
In 1991, shortly after I moved to Southern California, I interviewed Carolyn See at her Topanga Canyon home. During the conversation, she said some things about Los Angeles that helped to clarify the way I thought. First, she told me that L.A. was its own place, fundamentally different from other cities, where “you don’t go down to the cafe and drink a lot of coffee.... You get in the car, drive for an hour, have a long leisurely lunch in a beautiful yard.” Then, she cited Paris in the 1920s, envisioning Los Angeles in the 2020s as a city that might have a similar sort of influence and reach.
Fifteen years later, See’s assessment remains not just possible but prescient, although I might give it a slightly different turn.
Yes, L.A. is a city of global impact. And yes, we are a testing ground for the future: our own, and that of cities everywhere. I don’t think, however, that Los Angeles will ever be like Paris. Instead, it is Paris (as well as New York, Chicago, London, you name it) that will -- that have already -- become increasingly like L.A.