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Rethinking Eden What’s left for those who missed out on that great little house and garden?

Christopher Hawthorne is the architecture critic of The Times. Contact him at

For much of the 20th century, Los Angeles was one of the few major cities in the United States--maybe the only one--that offered so much promise to new arrivals when it came to residential architecture. In New York and other large cities on the East Coast, showing up as a new resident without a trust fund has always meant scratching out a living and moving slowly up the housing totem pole, from undersized apartment to slightly-less-undersized apartment. But Los Angeles long glittered as a city where you could arrive as a middle-class family and afford your own slice of Eden: a single-family house with a sizable garden on a nice block.

Nobody moved to London or Tokyo expecting to land in a house like that. But in Los Angeles it was possible, even easy. This was our own version of the American dream, more potent in some ways than the original; it’s how L.A. was marketed to potential residents from its earliest days as a big city. Even if the house itself was small, you could, with a bit of ingenuity, turn it and your garden into a showpiece, a lush oasis in the city.

Indeed, there was something almost colonial about the way so many less-than-rich homeowners were able to live here, taking breakfast on a shaded terrace every morning (while reading, don’t forget, their plump and ambitious local newspaper), driving a gigantic, plush-seated automobile to work on wide and free-flowing roads and generally living as large as an American diplomat in Calcutta or Sao Paolo, Brazil.

Those days are becoming a fading memory: For anybody now moving into the city, or trying to go from being a renter to a homeowner, that kind of life can seem locked up tighter than Dodger Stadium in January. The run-up in prices that began in the mid-1990s, combined with rising density, has made the goal of luxurious middle-class living largely unattainable. And it may be that way for good: A decline in the housing market like the one we’re seeing now simply isn’t going to be enough to bring back the days when a nice three-bedroom on an 8,000-square-foot lot was affordable for the majority of new arrivals.

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So what does that mean as far as making a life for yourself in L.A.?

It means first of all learning something from New Yorkers--specifically that making your house or apartment enviable takes work. The potential for creating a kind of residential oasis in L.A. is still quite possible, but it won’t happen by itself. Earlier arrivals discovered nature outside their front doors and simply had to cultivate or tame it; new ones will have to strive to produce or reproduce it. That might mean planting a garden on your apartment patio or returning a cement backyard in Highland Park to its original green state.

Some new forms of creativity will also be required from architects, planners and developers. So far they, as a group, have been slow to produce a new vision for a more crowded and more expensive Los Angeles that combines density and greenery. But a few examples have begun to emerge. One of the most striking is a design by French architect Jean Nouvel for a high-rise condo tower in Century City. Nouvel calls the building “the green blade.” Tall and very thin, it would be draped from top to bottom in lush hydroponic gardens suspended from the exterior of each floor and watered by a remote, automated system.

Don’t get me wrong: There is nothing middle class about the project. It would be pitched to the richest of the rich. But the renderings Nouvel produced for the building, which could break ground as early as next year, are a reminder that we live in a place where even high-rise living can be garden living, where the climate means that you can surround yourself with nature even if you live high above the ground. That combination is possible in affordable housing too.

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As a political reality, the disappearance of the L.A. dream also means that the city increasingly is divided into two camps: the housing haves and the housing have-nots. The haves are those who moved here long enough ago that they are now the proud owners of handsome single-family houses with low mortgage payments. The have-nots include those who came after the real estate market went crazy and all those yet to arrive.

The ways in which these two groups of Angelenos see the city and its future could not be more starkly different, and, indeed, their competing visions will probably set the agenda for nasty political debates on a number of hot-button issues. The haves are worried about density, growth and development; they have something to protect. They want to conserve the low-rise, essentially suburban quality of the city that has been so good to them but now is changing in ways they find unsettling, if not downright frightening.

The have-nots, on the other hand, will push for the emergence of a much different city: one where density and growth are givens, where transit and walkability and the creation of open space are a priority. Because they live mostly in apartments and condos, they don’t have access to the spacious private realms that the haves do. They will demand that the city pay more attention to shared spaces. They will push for new parks and attractive sidewalks in ways their predecessors never needed to; at the same time, they won’t be nearly as concerned as the haves if single-family neighborhoods are rezoned for higher density.

The struggle between those two visions of the city will dominate politics here for the foreseeable future. It is shaping up to be quite a battle.

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