Los Angeles Plays Itself
David L. Ulin is a finalist for the 2016 PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay for Sidewalking: Coming to Terms with Los Angeles. Drawing on the author’s experience walking the streets of Los Angeles, this collection offers investigations into the history, culture, and landscape of an evolving city, as well as a reflection on the author’s own relationship to the city of angels. The following is an essay from the collection.
“I want to live in Los Angeles, but not the one in Los Angeles.” —Frank Black
One night not so very long ago, I went to visit a friend who lives in West Hollywood. This used to be an easy drive: a geometry of short, straight lines from my home in the Mid-Wilshire ﬂats—west on Olympic to Crescent Heights, north past Santa Monica Boulevard. Yet like everywhere these days, it seems, Los Angeles is no longer the place it used to be. Over the past decade and a half, the city has densiﬁed: building up and not out, erecting more malls, more apartment buildings, more high-rises. At the same time, gridlock has grown increasingly terminal, and so, even well after rush hour on a weekday evening, I found myself boxed in and looking for a shortcut, which, in an automotive culture such as this one, means a whole new way of conceptualizing urban space.
There are those (myself among them) who would argue that the very act of living in L.A. requires an ongoing process of reconceptualization, of rethinking not just the place but also our relationship to it, our sense of what it means. As much as any city, Los Angeles is a work-in-progress, a landscape of fragments where the boundaries we take for granted in other environments are not always clear. You can see this in the most unexpected locations, from Rick Caruso’s Grove to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where Chris Burden’s sculpture Urban Light—a cluster of 202 working vintage lampposts—fundamentally changed the nature of Wilshire Boulevard when it was installed in 2008. Until then, the museum (like so much of L.A.) had resisted the street, the pedestrian, in the most literal way imaginable, presenting a series of walls to the sidewalk, its cavernous entry recessed into the middle of a long, imposing block. Burden intended to create a catalyst, a provocation. “I’ve been driving by these buildings for forty years, and it’s always bugged me how this institution turned its back on the city,” he told the Los Angeles Times one week before his project was lit. When I ﬁrst came to Los Angeles a quarter of a century ago, the area around the County Museum was seedy; it’s no coincidence that in the ﬁlm Grand Canyon, Mary Louise Parker gets held up at gunpoint just a few short streets away. Take a walk down Wilshire now, however, and you’ll ﬁnd different sorts of interactions: food trucks, pedestrians, tourists, people from the neighborhood.
Perhaps only in Los Angeles would this feel like a revolution: a street with a culture unto itself. But then, L.A. may be unique among American cities for having lost sight of its boulevards as public space. Its self-image has long been one of cool containment, the autopia of Reyner Banham and Cees Nooteboom. This is a city where the most basic cornerstones are understood to be private—private life, private architecture—a city Louis Adamic once described as “the enormous village,” where the single-family house is the essential heart. And yet, in contemporary Los Angeles that is changing, as population growth forces our hand. What is the great civic projects of the twenty-first century? Light rail, subways, bike lanes, a transportation network in which the one-car-one-commuter ethos is replaced by something more inclusive, an infrastructure that reﬂects less how the city may once have seen itself than what it has become.
The irony, of course, is that such a perspective is (has always been) encoded into L.A.’s history, which means that we look forward by looking back. A hundred years ago, the Paciﬁc Electric Railroad, better known as the Red Car, offered Angelenos the world’s largest interurban public transit system, with more than two thousand trains and a thousand miles of track stretching as far as San Bernardino and Redlands. It’s been half a century since those trains ran anywhere other than a mile-and-a-half tourist loop at the San Pedro waterfront—I rode them there once, with my children—although there has been noise for almost a generation about bringing some version of them back to downtown. As recently as 2006, the now-defunct Community Redevelopment Agency was doing feasibility studies about running vintage street-cars “to create a tourist attraction of historical signiﬁcance which would also provide an additional means of transportation much like the cable cars and the Market Street Railway in San Francisco,” which averages twenty-thousand riders daily, many of them visitors traveling between Fisherman’s Wharf and the Castro on a ﬂeet of throwback trains. Some of those San Francisco trolleys, PCC-brand streetcars from the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, are painted to look like L.A. Red Cars: another irony, since the downtown trolley, if it ever gets completed, will no longer be a vintage line. Go to the project’s website, and you’ll ﬁnd a computer-generated image of a hypermodern car, green and blue, streamlined as a bullet, with the tower of the Marriott in the background, and a cyclist, wearing helmet and backpack, passing alongside.
Here we have a vision of the new Los Angeles, eco-friendly and sustainable, in which downtown is transformed into an emblem of the future and not of the past. Is it cynical of me to say that this is as it should be, yet another example of the city’s faith in reinvention, the idea that the past is a blank slate and the future its own kind of fantasy? “Nothing dies in California,” the poet William Everson once observed; “it is the land of non-death. . . . There is no intrinsic knowledge in the sense of locality—our graveyards have been built within living memory.” Our graveyards, and our cities too. The current downtown revival is at least the third since I ﬁrst started coming to L.A. in the 1980s, and if it looks like it is taking hold this time, it is not without its stumbles, its false steps. The downtown trolley may end up as one of them: underfunded, behind schedule, it remains more conditional than it should be, a desire if not quite a plan. Click through the website and the only links are to Facebook and Twitter, neither of which have been updated in any serious way for months.
But don’t get me wrong. This tension between past and future is precisely what draws me to downtown, where the old and new cities circle back on one another like an ouroboros. I am pulled, in other words, by the way history in these blocks exists just below the surface, a hidden language we must teach ourselves to read. For a long time, downtown was an enigma to me, an emblem of the dreamlike, ﬂoating quality of Los Angeles. On one of my early visits, ﬁve years before I moved to California, I spent a week with a friend and, every day, was driven somewhere in his convertible—to a restaurant, to a bookstore, to the movies, to the beach. That passive framing is essential, since I had no agency. I would sit in the passenger seat, staring at the soft parade of streets and structures, the bungalows and palm trees, postage stamp lawns and stucco storefronts, all of it as indistinct as a ﬁlm set, as if joined to no underlying narrative. I remember that I kept asking where downtown was, as if this might somehow root me; little did I realize that for many Angelenos) downtown (then and even now) glittered in the distance like the Emerald City, center as illusion, as the place we never reach. Half a decade later, on my ﬁrst foray as a resident, I set out to cross, against the lights, an empty boulevard (Grand Avenue? Olive Street? I have a vague memory of passing in front of the Biltmore, by the big front doors where the Black Dahlia was seen alive for the last time) only to be berated by another pedestrian. “Oh, I see,” she called scornfully, “we’re playing by New York rules today.” If I am to be honest, it was the New Yorkiness of these streets, with their turn-of-the-last-century architecture, ten-and twelve-story buildings of brick and cornices, that was part of the attraction, a cityscape that was (at least) visually recognizable, even if the sidewalks remained as empty as the aftermath of a neutron bomb. Or no, not only that, this wishful familiarity, but also the exoticism of a city that didn’t ﬁt my preconceptions, that played by a different set of imperatives. In the ﬁlm Wolf, we watch as Jack Nicholson wanders down lower Broadway in Manhattan, only to ﬁnd ourselves, once he steps inside his company’s headquarters, on an altogether different Broadway, in the lobby of the Bradbury building in downtown L.A. It is, to be sure, a clumsy bit of movie magic, especially for anyone familiar with both locations, but at the same time, perhaps it suggests a way of reﬂecting on place and how we interact with it, a lens on what it does and does not mean.
The Bradbury, after all, is one of Los Angeles’s ﬁnest landmarks, a ﬁve-story gem of a building erected at the corner of Third and Broadway in 1893, when the city’s population was in the range of sixty thousand, although downtown was already (relatively) urbanized. In an 1889 photo, taken to mark the opening of the Downey Avenue Cable Railroad, we see Broadway four years earlier: a wide street, somewhat sleepy, pocked with trolleys and horse-drawn carriages, horizon tapering off to ﬂatness as the edges of the city assert themselves. Little more than a decade later, a 1902 shot of Spring Street looking south from First (the current location of the Los Angeles Times building) reveals a cityscape transformed. In the foreground, the Hotel Nadeau sits across from Western Union, and the pavement is cluttered with electric streetcars, at least seven I can count. There are, as before, horse-drawn surreys and hansom cabs, but now we see the ﬁrst intrusion of the automobile. Buildings of ﬁve and six stories are not uncommon, and the sidewalks are dense with people walking, people standing, people talking, loitering, mostly men but a few women here and there. By 1909, a panoramic map reveals the conﬁgurations of the modern city: blocks of taller buildings (ten, twelve, fourteen ﬂoors) framing the urban core, factories and rail yards stretching along the river; by then, more than three hundred thousand people lived in L.A. The original name of Broadway, when it was still a dirt road in the years before Los Angeles began to play itself, was Eternity Street; it led, ﬁttingly, to a cemetery. Such a resonance suggests an almost perfect symbol for the city and all its layered meanings, the way past and present intertwine at the level of forgetting, like a nineteenth-century graveyard in which the few remaining monuments insist that we remember we are part of something bigger than ourselves.
Such an interplay of present tense and history occurs, of course, in any downtown. One of the ideas I want to argue against is a sense of Los Angeles’ exceptionalism, that this city is fundamentally different from any other, although in many ways it is. If that sounds like a contradiction, that is also part of the point. Los Angeles continually evades us (or evades me), forcing us to rethink what we take for granted about how it, how any city, works. This is why I both love and hate the place, source of my fascination and my resistance, my efforts to remake the city, or my experience of it, in a way I can recognize. Downtown is a perfect case in point. Once or twice a year, I lead a group of students on a walking tour intended to get at these very oppositions: not negations, exactly, but complications, struggles, inconsistencies. Like everything else in Los Angeles, pedestrianism comes with its own context, its own set of crisis points. Walking is a joke, a punch line, the lyric to a bad pop anthem: “Nobody walks in L.A.,” sang Missing Persons’ Dale Bozzio in 1982. Walking is a conundrum, a question mark. When I ﬁrst began to think about walking in Los Angeles, a friend asked, “You’re not going to make the case for L.A. as a walking city, are you?” It’s an excellent question, one that (again) highlights the complexities, the ongoing tension between hype and what, for want of a better word, let’s call reality.
According to a 2014 report by SmartGrowth America and George Washington University, Los Angeles is becoming more pedestrian; although it tied for sixteenth (with Kansas City and Columbus, Ohio) among thirty metropolitan areas in regard to walkability, “the future—of a walkable, transit-friendly Los Angeles—is being built right now.” The future, yes, and also the past. To live here is to play an elaborate Situationist game of psychogeography, in which we displace ourselves by interposing the psychic map of one city over another city’s terrain. Sometimes, this is the city in which we were raised, the city that imprinted us, which is why I have created in Los Angeles a lifestyle more suited to New York or San Francisco, walking to the bank, to the dry cleaner, to the grocery store, to a restaurant or coffee shop, to the La Brea Tar Pits and the County Museum. Sometimes, it is the city Los Angeles used to be. Here we see the appeal of downtown, which because of neglect, perhaps, and now also changing attitudes, holds the DNA of L.A., our collective heritage, at street level, if we know how to look. No, Los Angeles is not a walking city, to answer my friend’s question, and despite the promise of the SmartGrowth America report. Any city where you have to drive to a pedestrian district cannot be called a walking city, no matter how much we might want it to be one. At the same time, we create, or recreate, public space to suit ourselves, to mirror our interior, our private lives. If we do it right, this allows us to discover something not only about who we are but also about where we live—how it is and how it once was, and how, we hope or wonder, it may one day become.
Excerpted from Sidewalking: Coming to Terms with Los Angeles, by David L. Ulin, published by the University of California Press. © 2015 by David L. Ulin.
Read more from the finalists of the 2016 PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay
- Irreparable Harm by Renata Adler
- Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
- “The Disappearance Approach” by Susan Howe
- “Humanism” by Marilynne Robinson
Read other excerpts from the 2016 PEN Literary Award winners and finalists here.