Getting a read on the city with Edward W. Soja's 'My Los Angeles'

Getting a read on the city with Edward W. Soja's 'My Los Angeles'
Author Edward W. Soja and his book, "My Los Angeles: From Urban Restructuring to Regional Urbanization." (University of California Press)

When people say that Los Angeles is hard to read, as they often do, they're usually not talking about books. They're talking about the city itself or rather the megalopolis, made up of dozens of cities. It is this sprawling, tangled, confusing, seemingly homogenous but in fact diverse, mixed-up urban and suburban landscape that people describe as illegible.

Edward Soja, a geographer at UCLA, has spent much of his long career trying to read Los Angeles. Along the way, he developed innovative and sometimes controversial theories of urbanization and became a founder of a dynamic "L.A. School" of urban studies — an admittedly loose-knit "school" whose members, like Groucho Marx, have been known to disclaim membership in the club that would include them. That club has included, from time to time, "City of Quartz" author Mike Davis, architecture critic Charles Jencks, and other scholars of urban planning and geography who are world famous in their fields.


"Los Angeles seems to break every rule of urban readability and regularity," Soja writes. "It is no surprise, then, that Southern California has become a center for innovative and nontraditional urban theory and analysis."

Soja has been a constant center of gravity in the L.A. School. His influential theoretical work — spread across several books with titles such as "Postmodern Geographies," "Thirdspace," "Postmetropolis" and "Seeking Social Justice" — can sometimes seem impenetrable even to the initiated, but his new book, "My Los Angeles," is an accessible, informative and often entertaining intellectual memoir and tour of the city as seen through the L.A. School, which has contributed some of the most provocative and productive ideas to our understanding of cities in recent history. Soja makes contemporary Los Angeles legible, which is no small feat. And he shows how learning from Los Angeles can help us understand our urban century worldwide.

The heart and soul of Soja's argument can be summarized simply as "space matters." In the past, Soja has criticized other social scientists — especially economists — for analyzing social change as if it played out on the head of a pin: Things change over time, but there is no sense of how things change in space. People not only shape city spaces over time, he argues, they are shaped by those spatial arrangements. And that interplay is what most interests Soja.

In "My Los Angeles," Soja is concerned with L.A. after what he calls the "justice riots" after the Rodney King verdict in 1992. In Soja's reading, the riots grew out of a much deeper crisis generated by economic restructuring that had changed spatial relationships in the city. Deindustrialization — the closing of manufacturing plants in the auto, aerospace and other industries — had left nearby working-class neighborhoods stranded far from work. Meanwhile, reindustrialization in technology and media had dispersed lower-paying jobs across the metropolitan region. Immigration concentrated low-wage workers in neighborhoods surrounding downtown. And with continuing population growth, Los Angeles became the most densely populated urban area in the country.

In Soja's telling, savvy union and community organizers and scholars in the L.A. School studied these challenges together and grasped opportunities to make space a matter of social and economic justice. The Bus Riders Union asserted that a dense network of bus routes is a higher priority for most working people than high-profile rail lines in the city. The Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy was at the center of negotiating "community benefit agreements" that include provisions for living wage jobs, affordable housing, local hiring, and green space as part of major development projects such as LA Live downtown.

If two recent movies, "Elysium" and "Her," offer alternative visions of the future of Los Angeles — a dystopian city in a "planet of slums" or a utopian metropolis of modern high-rises and mass transit — "My Los Angeles" offers a road map to a real city of the future.

Los Angeles today, Soja suggests, is an incubator for this city, which could have a new economy with jobs paying decent living wages, a transportation system that works well for everyone, and neighborhoods where L.A.'s diverse residents mix it up in public spaces instead of retreating in their individual automobiles to segregated private spaces.

Why is it important that the spatial politics of Los Angeles be made legible to the world? In recent years, the whole planet has been swept up in a demographic transition that England experienced in the 19th century and the United States went through in the early 20th century. Most people on Earth now live in cities. In the next 30 to 40 years, as the worldwide population grows from 7 billion to 9 billion and possibly more, all of that growth effectively will be absorbed in cities, doubling the urban population on Earth.

That means the urban built environment will double too. The shape of those urban spaces, as Edward Soja shows, will fundamentally shape the future.

Christensen is editor of Boom: A Journal of California and an adjunct assistant professor, senior researcher, and journalist-in-residence at UCLA.

My Los Angeles
From Urban Restructuring to Regional Urbanization

Edward W. Soja
University of California Press: 296 pp., $34.95