To those who haven’t spent much time there, Los Angeles is a sprawling metropolis without a center. Dorothy Parker called it “72 suburbs in search of a city” and she was just one of many New Yorkers who eloquently documented their failure to understand the quintessential urban product of twentieth century America (see also: Annie Hall). If you had lived your entire life within the orbit of New York, you could aggressively pretend that your own bewilderment was everywhere else’s problem, but others weren’t so lucky. Reyner Banham, for one, attributed LA’s inscrutability to his own limitations and taught himself to drive so that he could read the city in its original language: “It’s a poor historian who finds any human artefact alien to his professional capacities, a poorer one who cannot find new bottles for new wine.”
During the past few decades, partially thanks to Banham, the popular understanding of LA has started catching up to the city itself. To many who have spent little time in LA or have viewed it mainly through the lens of pop culture, it’s still a suburban metropolis. But New York, Chicago, Boston, and San Francisco are also mostly suburban, aside from relatively small central areas where most of the conventional wisdom is generated. More people depend on cars in Los Angeles than in the aforementioned cities, and this produces a less dense built environment, but do those characteristics alone disqualify LA as an “urban” place? Plenty of well-informed people seem to think so.
Visiting Los Angeles last weekend (and many times before that) has reaffirmed my belief that it is one of the most urban cities in the world by almost any definition of the word. Among the most striking features of LA, contrary to its reputation, is its incredible density. Throughout the city, from Koreatown to the Valley, Los Angeles is packed tightly with human activity. Signs announcing 20 different stores accompany two-story strip malls; apartment complexes overlook the back edges of gas stations; and cars wring every square inch out of parking lots that are frequently too small. Instead of a suburban sprawlscape, Los Angeles is better understood as the highest possible density that is traversed primarily by automobile. Unlike New York’s three-dimensional congestion, LA’s is mostly confined to a single plane, but it fills those two dimensions almost as effectively.
The classical definition of “city” is a hobgoblin that still haunts the urban discourse: a recognizable downtown (which LA has, in fact) with a transit system connecting the periphery to the center (which LA also has). Those forces ceased to drive urban development more than a century ago, yet we still understand cities to be the residue of that obsolete growth model. LA represents a mode of development that emerged in the twentieth century, and while it may be doomed from an environmental and social perspective, its scale is more human than the modernist wasteland of downtown Newark (another “city” in the classical sense). We need to adjust our understanding of what makes a city a city, because at present there is little being built in the world that matches Woody Allen’s or Dorothy Parker’s definitions.
This post originally appeared in Kneeling Bus on September 7, 2012.