Entries in Los Angeles (5)

Los Angeles, I'm yours - A review of No More Play

This review was published in the Fall 2011 Constructs:  a bi-annual news magazine highlighting activities and events at the Yale School of Architecture. A very big thank you to Nina Rapport for supporting the effort. 

I was wasted/ I was a hippie/ I was a burnout/ I was a dropout/ you know I was out of my head/ I was a surfer/ I had a skateboard/ I was so heavy man/ I lived on the strand

-Wasted, Circle Jerks

Courtesy ArchDaily

No More Play, besides being beautifully designed by Julie Cho, is, at its most basic level, a series of conversations on the idea that Los Angeles is in a moment of dramatic change. The argument is delivered through a palimpsest of images and discussions. Michael Maltzan's questions are thoughtfully composed and metered, elucidating a view of the city as an open framework for exploration; a city that has reached psychological if not physical limits. The discussions describe communities, public gatherings, and new neighborhoods they reveal a city that is becoming denser rather than diffuse. Catherine Opie documents the radical outcomes of gentrification in Korea town, Matthew Coolidge develops a dialogue considering the delicate use of resources and Edward Soja opens the recent political landscape of the city. Throughout Iwan Baan delivers a visual essay of the changing landscape, its faces, its colors and its complexity. All of these short dialogues highlight how Los Angeles has experimented in urbanization, outsourced resources and generated global links.

Courtesy Design Observer

Catherine Opie's is the most personal of the discussions. She describes living in a city of subcultures and subdivisions, saying at the end of the discussion "I'm afraid of fragmentation of the public space, that public space will no longer be able to hold a public” (p.55). Her photographs expose tears in the fabric of the city. Opie describes empty freeways as spaces that are for “the individual” and the collective (P.51). With Untitled #41 she depicts the empty interchange of the 105 and the 405. Opie’s description of the pyramids or monuments reminds us that these ruins of inhabitation are devoid of the public. Her newest work depicts formal gatherings in informal public spaces, and it is the juxtaposition of a political voice in the open fabric of Los Angeles that at first glance seems optimistic of activism, but upon reflection leaves one with her discussion of forces beyond the neighborhood, pulling communities apart or pushing them into new conflicting territories.

In the section Land Use Matt Coolidge conveys his first impression of Los Angeles by saying after the ’92 Riots, “Whoa, I didn’t know American cities were capable of this anymore” (P.94).  He then goes on to describe the direct redistribution of wealth between the classes; the poor simply taking the things they couldn’t afford. The “economic correction” (P.94), in many defines Coolidge's foil for seeing the city itself. Los Angeles becomes a political economy of redistribution and conflicted wealth; immigrants manufacture cheap toy empires, Signal Hill still creates private wealth and resource management refers to the city's claim to Colorado’s water.  Coolidge provides a unique and complex reworking of the Los Angeles region that redefines it in terms of a global and national reach.

Ed Soja describes what many Angeleno’s could not imagine, the political organization of transit riders to change the public transit system. In relaying the story of the Bus Riders Union, Soja reworks a city that has been known for its ability to provide private transportation into one that has a radical and active public ridership. Conversely, Soja describes Community Benefit Agreements as a strategically optimistic form of private enhancement of the public realm. In a reversal of the Public / Private Reagonite agenda, Soja describes a kind of Private / Public community centered deal, allowing organized communities to sidestep the often complex political system for direct benefit. 

No More Play describes Los Angeles as a laboratory and Maltzan and Varner go to great lengths for a call and response that reinforces their assumptions. The city today is palpably vibrant. The Downtown is bustling with crowds on Thursday’s Art Walk. Boyle Heights is home to young design studios, artists, taquerias and an entrenched Latino population. With the rail expansion TOD’s have created Wilshire Blvd. like densities from Long Beach to Pasadena and out to Burbank. Reflecting on the books call for Los Angeles to be a laboratory for the future I come full circle to The Circle Jerks lyrics. For me they present the clearest description of the city of my birth: It’s been labeled many labels, but each one is wasted as soon as it’s uttered. Los Angeles is a moving target, take aim and see it a new for yourself.

The Streetcars that Time Forgot

The Streetcars that time forgot (courtesy Los Angeles Public Library)We’ve gotten some interesting feedback this week from friends and others about Tom’s entry for the A New Infrastructure Los Angeles competition. One comment led to a quick google search for “LA streetcar”, which yielded the fascinating 1938 Los Angeles Railway route map above, courtesy the Los Angeles Public Library. Now, we knew that LA had an significant network of streetcars prior to the hegemony of the automobile—but this map suggests that its coverage was extensive enough to serve the transit needs of a diffuse urban field, something that Los Angeles and other sunbelt cities struggle to do today.


This begs an important question: what is the difference—really—between the network of streetcars that once was and the network of buses that serves LA County today, besides the mode of conveyance?  A closer look at the map above bears out this basic equivalence, revealing that the late 30's was actually a period of transition between the era of the streetcar and that of the bus: "Motor coach" lines extend from the terminus of several west and south-bound streetcar routes above.


Why do we neglect the bus in discussions on the subject of public transit? Buses hold the significant advantage of flexibility over any mode that requires fixed-rail and electric power infrastructure to operate.  Until very recently, however, the bus has suffered the stigma of bad object to the the private car's virtuous individualism. Like so much public housing, municipal bus systems have been allowed to shrink and decay, thanks to the post-war exodus of the city’s middle class tax base to the suburbs in their cars. To the point, Yonah Freemark of the Transport Politic reminds us that the cruel irony of the civil rights movement’s early triumphs in bus desegregation was the general disinvestment in municipal transportation that followed.


So as the dust settles post-recession and we find ourselves on the other side of peak oil, how will we reinvest in efficient, shared transportation? A couple things are clear: the car is too entrenched to simply be replaced in a fit of transit shock-therapy, and the cost of new infrastructure is exponentially greater in the age of global demand for scarce resources. The challenge will be to find ways to do two things synergistically: leverage some sort of new middle-class transit lifestyle as means of paying for modest retrofits of our roadways into ...


Electric highways? Park-boulevards? Bike-boulevards? Eco-boulevards? Urban Pasta?


In any case, streets and highways currently smother 26% of LA’s land with publicly-funded, uninhabited, impervious, traffic-clogged, boundary-forming heat islands, utilized by wealthy citizens for free. We can do better. High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes on the freeway are perhaps the most practical way to get the rich to start paying into transit voluntarily (with almost zero infrastructural spending), with the added benefit of relieving congestion. So-called “Lexus lanes” are essentially HOV lanes shared by Buses and those single-occupancy vehicles willing to pay a premium for their use.  As a new milieu for the “early adopter,” HOT lanes could become self-funded laboratories for almost anything good: new clean technologies and interesting hybridization of mass- and private transportation, among other things:

SELF-FUNDED TRANSIT LABORATORIES: HOT lanes are already planned for the I-10 and I-110 freeways in Los Angeles, but they will replace HOV lanes, thereby penalizing carpools. This is obviously counter-productive and suggests that HOT lanes should replace regular mixed-flow lanes instead of existing HOV.

Commuter Rail isn't the Future

For a metro region of 18 million people (including LA, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino and Ventura counties), Southern California is remarkably under-served by long-distance commuter rail. In the 3rd quarter of 2008, MetroLink, the operator of the commuter lines that serve the 5 counties listed above, recorded an average daily ridership of just over 47,000. Adjusting for return trips, that means just over 23,000 commute by train each day. Out of 18 million. Commuter Rail in the New York metropolitan region, by comparison, approaches 1 million in ridership/day, or a half million with return trips.*

The Functionality believes there a number of reasons for this incredible discrepancy. We also believe that it demonstrates that more commuter rail is not the solution to Southern California's mobility gridlock. First, lets grant that NY/LA comparison unfairly ignores the inertia of SoCal’s car culture and region’s historical emphasis on highway investment over rail. For better or worse, however, the legacy that LA inherits from the car is that of a diffuse but substantial urbanity, lacking a single, hyper-dense CBD like Manhattan. The fact that LA is a polycentric, networked city is well documented, and only underscores the fact that the spoke-and-hub style commuter system is not feasible at scale there. LA needs a flexible, networked system to match its own organization, and this should be based on analysis of existing and anticipated commuting patterns.

New theories of supply/demand in the age of e-commerce present interesting corollaries to this problem. In particular, Chris Anderson’s book: “The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More.” The book argues that as products available to the consumer have diversified, the appetite for any one product has decreased. Commuter rail is a product few in SoCal have an appetite for, because they have been more likely to live where they want rather than near a train station. Instead, we need to sell less people on more transit options by delivering a transit product that is catered to their needs. Mass customization, not standardization.

More options does not mean more modes of transit. As it stands now, commuting from, say, Riverside to Santa Monica is a version of transfer Hell: Drive to Metrolink station, Park, Metrolink to LA Union Station, Red line subway to Western Ave. terminus, 720 Rapid Bus to Santa Monica. Total trip = 3+ hours, often 4.

SoCal must design a larger network of smaller trains or buses better calibrated to specific commutes, minimizing transfers. Less people on more trains and/or buses. This is undoubtedly a huge logistical challenge to implement, much less make comprehensible to the average commuter. That’s where coordinated PDA/Cell mapping could help: imagine a unified SoCal transit authority, in partnership with Google, queueing up riders wirelessly. Bus picks up from a common point and drops off at another, across the city.

(*Note that we’ve omitted the Port Authority PATH trains from this number, which would put the total well over 1 million, but includes overlap with NJ Transit)

Los Angeles Plays Itself


Los Angeles Plays Itself Thom Andersen 2003

A brilliant and epic look at Los Angeles in film.

With Los Angeles facing plans to densify, this film really puts into perspective the history of both the real Los Angeles and the film LA we have all come to know and love.



Los Angeles: a single ecology


In the new year we plan on taking a tour of LA through Esotouric. This company takes bus tours through LA based on Reyner Banham's love of Los Angeles.  Banham's reading of Los Angeles is of a city made of smaller cities. Banham seemed to think that the ecology of the whole is really the set of relationships between the ecologies of the smaller beach cities, inland cities, port/industrial cities, downtown and interstitial suburban tissue.

We've been living back in Los Angeles for the better part of a year. And it is a truism to say that the city is changing. Cities always change. With so much academic text about the networked city and the relationships between its multiple centers, what has been missed is that Los Angeles is beginning to be a unified city.

Sure the Valley is still confronting session, Santa Monica, Beverly Hills and West Hollywood are their own cities. But today these cities are being meaningfully tied together through two major changes: zoning regulation and the development of the Los Angeles subway system.  The city is densifying. The density hawks at city hall are seeing the future of Los Angeles. It is a city that is more dense than ever before.

As residents, when gas went above $4, there was a distinct change. Less cars not more. More bikes. More people emerging from the few subway stops that we have in this city. Downtown things are buzzing during the day. People are out and walking. Grand Central Market is full of residents having their lunches. The first Thursday of every month is Art Walk. These are not new phenomena, but to me they are signifiers that the city might be ready for real change.

Looking at Banham's Map of LA's early railroads, the city hasn't changed much from its recent past. Part of what makes LA interesting is that now as the city is filling in, it might begin to be building up. Density, lets face it, is an exciting problem to have.