The city rediscovers the street

Times Staff Writer

ACCORDING to urban-planning legend, the University of California at Santa Cruz, which opened in 1965, was designed without a central plaza for one reason: to inoculate the campus against the large student protests that were by that point already beginning to overwhelm UC Berkeley. Instead, students were scattered among smaller residential colleges designed, on the cloistered Oxford-Cambridge model, by Charles Moore and other leading California architects.

In truth, it's unlikely that the layout of UC Santa Cruz flowed from any deliberate anti-protest strategy, since the campus master plan was largely fixed by the time the Free Speech Movement crowds filled Berkeley's Sproul Plaza in 1964. But UC Santa Cruz's multi-centered design, whatever its inspiration, did help keep the place relatively quiet even during the height of the Vietnam War. At least to a degree, planning was destiny for the political life of that campus.

Los Angeles often seems to have been designed on the same model. Its geographical spread and lack of a single center have long meant that there's no obvious place for citywide gatherings. (If you wanted to celebrate New Year's Eve tonight surrounded by a thronging cross-section of Angelenos, for example, what spot would you choose?) Except for flashes of outrage -- the Watts and Rodney King riots and 1994 protests against Proposition 187, among others -- the city continued during the second half of the 20th century to cement its reputation as a place without much of a political street life.

Then came this spring's massive immigration-rights protests, which drew more than half a million white-shirted, chanting marchers downtown March 25 and packed another several hundred thousand along Wilshire Boulevard on May 1. Organized in opposition to legislation sponsored by Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) that would have ratcheted up penalties for entering the U.S. illegally and for assisting or hiring undocumented workers, the marches were the biggest political rallies that any American city outside of Washington has seen since the Vietnam era. Political pundits and scholars have analyzed them from seemingly every angle, concentrating mostly on whether the fervor shown by the marchers will make an impact at the ballot box. "I think it is the beginning of something," Louis DeSipio, a political science professor at UC Irvine, told The Times. "You have the foundation for a new kind of Hispanic politics."

The marches raise equally compelling and so far mostly overlooked questions about public space and the role the downtown core will play in a city that is increasingly dense and increasingly Latino. In that sense, they qualify as the biggest architecture and urban-planning story to hit Southern California this year. One way to understand them, in fact, is not as an anomalous outburst of civic anger or energy but as a particularly clear message about how the relationship between Angelenos and the physical spaces of their city is changing as L.A. evolves, however fitfully, from a private metropolis to a collective one.

It didn't take much more than a glance at the most dramatic photographs of the protest on March 25, the so-called Gran Marcha, to sense that. The photo of protesters massing at the feet of City Hall, taken from a terrace at The Times' building by photographer Bob Chamberlin, already ranks among the definitive images of Los Angeles. It is also a universe away from the iconic 20th century views of the city, most of which show serene private residences of steel and glass.

In fact, you could begin a lecture on a changing L.A. by showing Chamberlin's shot alongside Julius Shulman's famous 1958 photograph of Case Study House No. 22 in the Hollywood Hills. The image by Shulman reflects a city whose appeal had to do almost entirely with private aspiration. In Chamberlin's, the public is so determined to come together -- and to make a political point, no less -- that it simply ignores the fact that downtown Los Angeles could hardly be less hospitable to a large group of marchers. There is no plaza there to receive them, just some steps, sloping lawn and a clump of trees at the base of City Hall.

The most surprising fact about the marches is that while they seemed, from afar, to suggest a massive, unified will, they were actually more indicative of how the city is changing on a piecemeal, neighborhood-by-neighborhood basis. Gridlock and changing demographics are combining to make the sidewalk, the front yard and the local boulevard, rather than the onramp or the fast lane, the building blocks for 21st century L.A. If you have spent any time walking on Broadway downtown, for example, you understand that the marches were just an exaggerated display of the sidewalk vitality that can be seen there every day.

L.A.'s shift from an automotive paradise to a collection of circumscribed neighborhoods is not new, nor is it limited to the parts of the city where new arrivals to this country are drawn. It has been visible for years, at least in nascent form, all over the region, including in Larchmont, Abbot Kinney and other high-end, retail-driven enclaves.

But it would be dishonest not to state the obvious, which is that immigrant neighborhoods, and particularly Latino ones, are driving the change, and that it has accelerated noticeably as Angelenos who arrived here in the 1980s and 1990s put down deeper roots. Indeed, a whole category of urban-planning theory, known as Latino Urbanism, has grown up to explore the ways that arrivals from Latin America have changed L.A. and other major cities over the last several decades. With California expected to gain 21 million new residents by 2050 -- more than 85% of them Latino, according to one estimate -- the focus of the new research is anything but academic.

"Latinos, like any other immigrant group, re-create what they know," James Rojas, a planner at L.A. County's Metropolitan Transportation Authority and founder of the Latino Urban Forum, has written. "In many parts of L.A. streets no longer feel like suburban America but have a look, feel and use of Latin American streets. From the numerous street vendors selling on Pico Union's narrow sidewalks to the murals of East Los Angeles, L.A. is changing from auto-oriented to pedestrian-oriented."

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CHANGES FROM BELOW

ANOTHER example is MacArthur Park, staging ground for the Wilshire march May 1. In the last decade it has become the focal point for a host of community activities -- paddle boats, art classes -- serving the area's mostly Central American population. The move toward localism in that neighborhood is particularly dramatic given a key fact about the shape of the park itself. As Times reporter Christopher Reynolds has pointed out, it was sliced in two in the 1930s when Wilshire Boulevard was extended to reach downtown. Metaphorically, at least, foreign-born residents are now stitching the park back together. Because these changes have been driven from the bottom up, pushed more by individuals than large-scale planning initiatives or well-known architects, they haven't yet received the attention they deserve. There's also an obvious risk of treating a highly diverse collection of immigrant subcultures as a single group with monolithic desires, or forgetting that new immigrants inhabit the city quite differently from the way in which their children or grandchildren do. But after the marches, the idea of thinking of these various neighborhood shifts as part of a larger change in the way the city is organized -- and how we experience it every day -- began to make more sense.

The protests also happened to arrive during a year when the idea of actually building a large plaza downtown was finally killed for good. For a while, the block bounded by 1st, 2nd, Spring and Main streets was in contention to become a civic park; located across 1st Street from City Hall, and squeezed between the offices of this newspaper and Thom Mayne's new Caltrans building, the site would have been a natural for a public rallies of all kinds. But when the LAPD won the right to build a new headquarters building there, a hulking design by the local firm DMJM, this idea was sunk. (The Grand Avenue Project, if it ever gets built, does call for a 16-acre park space.)

The demise of the plaza proposal raises an intriguing question about how the city's planners and architects ought to respond to the marches. After all, the marchers communicated their message perfectly well without a large plaza to gather in, or even a network of sidewalks big enough to carry them from one end of downtown to the other. They simply filled the streets, most of which had been closed off in advance, and squeezed between trees and around corners -- adapting amoeba-like to a car-centric city.

Since the real foundation of the marches was the local change reinvigorating neighborhoods all over L.A., it follows that the official reaction should happen in that spirit and at that scale. That would require something of a philosophical adjustment for a civic elite that has in recent years spent a good deal of its political and P.R. capital supporting large-scale destination projects such as L.A. Live and the Grand Avenue development.

It would mean sustained support for a diverse network of corner parks instead of grand civic ones -- and making sure that the sidewalks and crosswalks leading to those new green spaces are designed with pedestrians in mind. It would mean formalizing the effort now underway in certain neighborhoods -- Eagle Rock, for one -- to lure local businesses instead of chain stores. It would mean considering zoning changes to allow in-law apartments as a way to boost density, which is what many neighborhoods need to create a critical mass of local shoppers capable of supporting businesses they can walk to.

It would mean acknowledging, in other words, that this year's marches were inspired by an interest in the kind of solidarity that is as much about shared space as shared politics.

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christopher.hawthorne@latimes.com

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