The state of theory, now and from
now on, isnt it
Jacques Derrida (quoted in Carrol, 1990, p. 63)
More than seventy-five years ago,
The present essay begins the task
of defining an alternative agenda for urban studies, based upon the precepts of
what I shall refer to as the
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THE LOS ANGELES SCHOOL OF URBANISM:
AN INTELLECTUAL HISTORY
Department of Geography
University of Southern California
Abstract: Los Angeles, or more precisely, the Southern California region, has many claims on our attention, but until recently it has been regarded as an exception to the rules governing American urban development. Since the mid-1980s, a remarkable outpouring of scholarship has given birth to a Los Angeles School of urbanism. This essay outlines the intellectual history of the LA School, explains the distinctiveness of its break with previous traditions (especially those of the Chicago School), and advocates the need for a comparative urban analysis that utilizes Los Angeles not as a new urban paradigm, but as one of many exemplars of contemporary urban process.
The Los Angeles School of urbanism emerged as a coherent challenge to established urban theory during the mid-1980s. Needless to say, there had been much work on past and present urbanisms in LA and the broader Southern California region before that date,but never before had that work been transformed into larger claims about the prototypicalityof the LA experience. In fact, quite the reverse was true: LA was almost universallyregarded as an exception to the rules governing urban growth and change. The propositionthat LA was somehow emblematic of urban process on a broad national (even international)stage was truly revolutionary, in intellectual terms.
In this essay, I shall examine the intellectual history of the LA School. I am less interested in the substantive theoretical domains of the School; in any event, it is too early to properly assess that contribution. Nor will I be concerned with my personal place in the discourses on LA. Instead, I am concerned with how an intellectual movement was formed, entered the public realm, and what response it generated. In a sense, this is primarily an essay on the social construction of knowledge. In the introductory section, I outline the chronology of the LA School. Next, I describe the intellectual faultlines separating the LA School from its predecessors, most especially the Chicago School, in order to demonstrate just how radical the break offered by the LA School is. Finally, I assess some of the responses to the ways in which the LA School has challenged our mental and material understanding of the city.
SCHOOLS IN ACADEMIC DISCOURSE
Academic discourse seems to favor the pretense that intellectual progress occurs in a reasonably ordered way, with one paradigm replacing its outmoded predecessor as a consequence of accumulated anomalies that prove the predecessors obsolescence. This mind-set encourages the belief that the search for knowledge is characterized above all by the existence of a single dominant framework, within which normal science is practiced. This is a characterization that I reject. Academic discourse, at least outside the realms of a strictly defined scientific method, tends to proceed as a consequence of a variety of impulses, most notably the influence of charismatic disciplinary leaders, fashion, plus a healthy dose of anarchy. As a consequence, I prefer to embrace the notion of a school of thought, which emphasizes the plurality of discourses occurring within andbetween disciplines.
In the case of Los Angeles, it may surprise some that a region notorious for an apparent contempt for its own history should, in fact, possess a rich heritage of intellectual, cultural, and artistic heritage. For many decades, these traditions have spawned a variety of LA Schools, involving (for instance) art, music, poetry, literature, and of course, filmmaking. Closest to my concern is the contemporary LA School of architecture, which has enjoyed a rigorous documentation due to the efforts of that most intrepid chronicler, Charles Jencks. There are many LA Schools of architecture, both past and present. These include Richard Neutra, Rudolph Schindler, Gregory Ain et al. in the 1930s, as well as members of the LA Forum on Architecture and Urban Design. According to Jencks, the current LA School of architecture includes such luminaries as Frank Gehry and Charles Moore, and was founded amid acrimony in 1981:
The L.A. School was, and remains, a group of individualized mavericks, more at home together in an exhibition than in each others homes. There is also a particular self-image involved with this Non-School which exacerbates the situation. All of its members see themselves as outsiders, on the margins challenging the establishment with an informal and demanding architecture; one that must be carefully read. (Jencks, 1993, p. 34).
Jencks concurs with architectural critic Leon Whiteson that LAs cultural environment is one that places the margin at its core: The ultimate irony is that in the L.A. architectural culture, where heterogeneity is valued over conformity, and creativity over propriety, the periphery is often the center (Jencks, 1993, p. 34). Jenckss interpretation is of particular
interest here because of its explicit characterization of a school as a group of marginalized individuals incapable of surrendering to a broader collective agenda. This is hardly the distinguishing feature I had in mind when I began this inquiry into an LA school of urbanism. My search was originally for some notion of an identifiable cohort knowingly
engaged on in a collaborative enterprise. Jencks vision radically undermines this expectation as, in retrospect, has my personal experience of the LA school of urbanism.
A large part of the difficulty involved in identifying a school is etymological. The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (Trumble et al., 1999, p. 2714) provides 14 principal categories, including a group of gamblers or of people drinking together, and a gang of thieves or beggars working together (both 19th-century coinages). Also from the mid-19th century is something closer to the spirit of this discussion: a group of people who share some principle, method, style, etc. a particular doctrine or practice as followed by such a body of people. The dictionary gives goes on to give as an example, the Marxist school of political thought.
In a broad examination of a second Chicago School, Jennifer Pratt used the term school in reference to:
A collection of individuals working in the same environment who at the time and through their own retrospective construction of their identity and the impartations of intellectual historians are defined as representing a distinct approach to a scholarly endeavor. (Pratt, quoted in Fine, 1995, p. 2)
Such a description suggests four elements of a working definition of the term school. The adherents of a school should be:
(1) engaged on a common project (however defined);
(2) geographically proximate (however delimited);
(3) self-consciously collaborative (to whatever extent); and
(4) externally recognized (at whatever threshold).
The parentheses associated with each of the four characteristics underscore the contingent nature of each trait. Conditions 1-3 may be regarded as the minimum, or least restrictive components of this definition. Second-order criteria for defining a school could include the following:
(5) that there exists broad agreement on the program of research;
(6) that adherents voluntarily self-identify with the school and/or its research program;
(7) that there exists organizational foci for the schools endeavors (such as a learned
journal, meetings, or book series).
Most of these traits should be relatively easy to recognize, even though no candidate for the school appellation is likely to satisfy all these criteria.
Verifying the existence of a school must always remain unfinished business, not least because we, who would identify such a phenomenon, are ourselves stuck in those particular circumstances of time and place to which our bodies have been consigned. But of greater practical concern is the fourth identifying characteristic, i.e., the external recognition deemed necessary to warrant the title of School. Outside recognition traditionally arrives only after most (if not all) school instigators are dead, simply because there are so many incentives to deny the existence of a school. Accolades from outsiders are routinely refused because of professional rivalries, or routinely attacked as crass careerism. Outsiders also appeal to alternative standards of evidence in rejecting a challenge, most commonly seen in appeals to the hardness of existing paradigms, (as in hard science). Yet another variant of denial is the unthinking, perverse pleasure taken by many in puncturing a novices enthusiasm with claims like: Theres nothing new in that. Its all been said and done before. With such curt put-downs, existing orders and authority remain undisturbed, and old hegemonies once again settle about us like an iron cage.
The refusal to even contemplate the existence of a distinctive (intellectually focused, place-based) school of thought is both intellectually and politically reprehensible. It stifles the development of a critical gaze, both in epistemological and material terms; and it inhibits the growth of intellectual and political alliances. In short, the unexamined dismissal of a schools claims is a denial of new ways of seeing and acting. Thus, members of the LA School can be forgiven if they did not wait for outsiders recognition or permission before declaring the Schools existence.
THE LA SCHOOL EMERGES
Most births are inherently messy, and the arrival of an LA School of urbanism is no exception. The genetic imprint of the School lies in some unrecoverable past, though we can identify its traces in the work of inveterate city-improver Charles Mulford Robinson. In his 1907 plan to render LA as The City Beautiful, Robinson conceded that: The problem offered by Los Angeles is a little out of the ordinary (p. 4). A peculiarly Angeleno urban vision was more convincingly established in 1946, with the publication of Carey McWilliams Southern California: An Island on the Land (1973). This work remains the premier codification of the narratives of Angeleno (sur)reality, and served to establish LAs status as the great exception. It has since colored both popular and scholarly perceptions of the city. McWilliams emphasized LAs uniqueness, asserting that the region reversed almost any proposition about the settlement of western America. He
described Southern California as an engineered utopia attracting pioneers from faraway places like Mexico, China, Germany, Poland, France, Great Britain. Among the most exotic immigrants, however, were families from the American Midwestern states who, baked beneath a sun that can beat all sense from your brains (McWilliams, 1973, p. 8), were crushed beneath the heel of an open shop industrial system, and generated a hothouse of segregated communities. In McWilliams account, local communities were rife with bizarre philosophies, carnivalesque politics, and a confused cultural melange of immigrant influences imperfectly adapted to local conditions. The whole enterprise was pervaded by apocalyptic undercurrents suitable to a fictive paradise situated within a hostile yet simultaneously fragile desert environment.
McWilliams exceptionalism was confirmed and consolidated by Robert Fogelsons The Fragmented Metropolis, which in 1967, the year of its publication, was the only account of the regions urban history between 1850 and 1930. Fogelson summarized the exceptionalist credo: The essence of Los Angeles was revealed more clearly in its deviations
from [rather] than its similarities to the great American metropolis of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (p. 134). But perhaps the canonical moment in the prehistory of the LA School came with the publication of Reyner Banhams Los Angeles:
The Architecture of Four Ecologies (1971). Responding to the notion that Southern California was devoid of cultural or artistic merit, Banham was the first to assert that Los Angeles should not be rejected as inscrutable and hurled as unknown into the ocean (p. 23). Rather, he argued, the city should be taken seriously and read on its own terms instead of those used to make sense of other American cities. But while LA was an object worthy of serious study, according to Banham its structure remained exceptional: Full command of Angeleno dynamics qualifies one only to read Los Angeles. [The] splendors and miseries of Los Angeles, the graces and grotesqueries, appear to me as unrepeatable as they are unprecedented (p. 24). More that any other single volume to that date, Banhams celebration of LA landscapes served to legitimize the study of Los Angeles, and to temporarily neutralize (in some small extent) the propensity of East Coast media and scholars to chart with mock amazement the eccentricities of their West Coast counterparts with mock amazement.
During the 1980s a group of loosely associated scholars, professionals, and advocates based in Southern California became convinced that what was happening in the region was somehow symptomatic of a broader sociogeographic transformation taking place within the United States as a whole. Their common, but then unarticulated project was based on certain shared theoretical assumptions, and on the view that LA was emblematic of a more general urban dynamic. One of the earliest expressions of an emergent LA School came with the appearance of a 1986 special issue of the journal Society and Space, which was entirely devoted to understanding Los Angeles. In their prefatory remarks to that issue, Allen Scott and Edward Soja (1986) referred to LA as the capital of the 20th century, deliberately invoking Walter Benjamins designation of Paris as capital of the 19th. They predicted that the volume of scholarly work on Los Angeles would quickly overtake that on Chicago, the dominant model of the American industrial metropolis.
In this same journal issue Ed Sojas celebrated tour of Los Angeles was published (1986; 1989). In that essay, Soja most effectively achieved the conversion of LA from the exception to the rulethe prototype of late 20th-century postmodern geographies:
What better place can there be to illustrate and synthesize the dynamics of capitalist spatialization? In so many ways, Los Angeles is the place where it all comes together one might call the sprawling urban region a prototopos, a paradigmatic place; or a mesocosm, an ordered world in which the micro and the macro, the idiographic and the nomothetic, the concrete and the abstract, can be seen simultaneously in an articulated and interactive combination (p. 191).
Soja went on to assert that L.A. insistently presents itself as one of the most informative palimpsests and paradigms of 20th-century urban development and popular consciousness, comparable to Borges Aleph: the only place on earth where all places are seen from every angle, each standing clear, without any confusion or blending (p. 248).
As ever, Charles Jencks quickly picked up on this trend quite quickly, taking care to distinguish its practitioners from the LA School of architecture:
The L.A. School of geographers and planners had quite a separate and independent formulation in the 1980s, which stemmed from the analysis of the city as a new postmodern urban type. Its themes vary from L.A. as the post-Fordist, postmodern city of many city of many fragments is search of a unity, to the nightmare city of social inequities (p. 132).
This very same group of geographers and planners (accompanied by a few dissidents from other disciplines) gathered at Lake Arrowhead in the San Bernardino Mountains on October 1112, 1987, to discuss the wisdom of engaging in an LA School. The participants included, if memory serves, Dana Cuff, Mike Davis, Michael Dear, Margaret FitzSimmons, Rebecca Morales, Allen Scott, Ed Soja, Michael Storper, and Jennifer Wolch. Davis later provided a wry description of the putative School:
I am incautious enough to describe the Los Angeles School. In a categorical sense, the twenty or so researchers I include within this signatory are a new wave of Marxist geographers or, as one of my friends put it, political economists with their space suits on although a few of us are also errant urban sociologists, or, in my case, a fallen labor historian. The School, of course, is based in Los Angeles, at UCLA and USC, but is includes members in Riverside, San Bernardino, Santa Barbara, and even Frankfurt, West Germany (1989, p. 9).
The meeting, I can attest, was insightful as it was inconclusive, as exhilarating as hilarious.
Davis described one evening as a:
somewhat dispiriting retreat spent wrestling with ambiguity: Are we the LA School as the Chicago School was the Chicago School, or as the Frankfurt School was the Frankfurt School? Will the reconstruction of urban political economy allow us to better understand the concrete reality of LA, or is it the other way around? Fortunately, after a night of heavy drinking, we agreed to postpone a decision on this question. So in our own way we are as laid back and decentralized as the city we are trying to explain (pp. 910).
Despite these ambiguities and tensions (with their curious echoes of the experiences in the LA School of architecture recorded by Jencks), Davis is clear about the schools common theme:
One of the nebulous unities in our different researchindeed the very ether that the LA School mistakes for oxygenis the idea of restructuring. We all agree that we are studying restructuring and that it occurs at all kinds of discrete levels, from the restructuring of residential neighborhoods to the restructuring of global markets or whole regimes of accumulation (p. 10).
Davis also recorded some of the substantive contributions made by the schools early perpetrators:
To date , the LA School has contributed original results in four areas. First, particularly in the work of Edward Soja and Harvey Molotch, it has given placeness, as a social construction, a new salience in explaining the political economy of cities. Secondly, via the case studies by Michael Storper, Suzanne Christopherson, and Allen Scott, it has deepened our understanding of the economies of high-tech agglomeration, producing some provocative recent theses about the rise of a new regime of flexible accumulation. Thirdly, through both the writing and activism of Margaret FitzSimmons and Robert Gottlieb, it has contributed a new vision of the environmental movement, with emphasis on the urban quality of life. And, fourthly, through the collaboration of Michael Dear and Jennifer Wolch, it is giving us a more realistic understanding of the homeless and indigent, and their connection to the decline of unskilled inner city labor markets (p. 10).
Davis was, to the best of my knowledge, the first to mention a specific LA School of urbanism, and he repeated the claim in his popular 1990 contemporary history of Los Angeles, City of Quartz (1990). But truth be told, following those strange days of quasi-unity at Lake Arrowhead, the LA School had already begun to fracture, even as the
floodgates opened and tentative claims for a prototypical LA began to flow.
Journalist Joel Garreau understood more clearly than most urban scholars where the country was heading. The opening sentences in his 1991 book, Edge City, proclaimed:
Every American city that is growing, is growing in the fashion of Los Angeles (p. 3). By 1993, the trickle of Southern California studies had grown to a continuous flow. In his careful, path-breaking study of high technology in Southern California, Allen Scott noted:
Throughout the era of Fordist mass production, [LA] was seen as an exception, as an anomalous complex of regional and urban activity in comparison with what were then considered to be the paradigmatic cases of successful industrial development [Yet] with the steady ascent of flexible production organization, Southern California is often taken to be something like a new paradigm of local economic development, and its institutional bases, its evolutionary trajectory, and its internal locational dynamics providing important general insights and clues. (1993, p. 33).
Charles Jencks added his own spin on the social forces underlying LAs architecture when he argued that:
Los Angeles, like all cities, is unique, but in one way it may typify the world city of the future: there are only minorities. No single ethnic group, nor way of life, nor industrial sector dominates the scene. Pluralism has gone further here than in any other city in the world and for this reason it may well characterize the global megalopolis of the future (p. 7).
The foundations of a putative school were completed in Marco Cenzattis 1993 examination of the thing called an LA School of urbanism. Responding to Davis, he underscored the fact that the Schools practitioners combined precepts of both the Chicago and Frankfurt Schools:
Thus Los Angeles comes into the picture not just as a blueprint or a finished paradigm of the new dynamics, but as a laboratory which is itself an integral component of the production of new modes of analysis of the urban (p. 8).
During the 1990s, the rate of scholarly investigations into LA accelerated, just as Scott and Soja predicted it would. For instance, in their 1993 study of homelessness in Los Angeles, Wolch and Dear situated their analysis within the broader matrix of LAs urbanism. However, the pivotal year in the maturation of the LA School may prove to be 1996, which saw the publication of three edited volumes on the region: Rethinking Los Angeles (Dear et al., 1996); The City: Los Angeles and Urban Theory at the End of the Twentieth Century (Scott and Soja, 1996); and Ethnic Los Angeles (Waldinger and Bozorgmehr, 1996). The 40 or more essays in these volumes represent a quantum leap in the collective
understanding of the region and the implications of their new insights for national and international urbanisms. By 1996, there were also a growing number of university-based centers that legitimized scholarly and public-policy analyses of the region, among them USCs Southern California Studies Center, UCLAs Lewis Center for Regional Policy Studies, and Loyola Marymount Universitys Center for the Study of Los Angeles. Other institutions consolidated parallel interests in regional governmental and nongovernmental agencies, including the Getty Research Institute, the Public Policy Institute of California, and RAND.
But what were the substantive visions being offered by the Angelistas? How much did they differ from conventional wisdom?
FROM CHICAGO TO LA
The basic primer of the Chicago School was The City. Originally published in 1925, the book retains a tremendous vitality far beyond its interest as a historical document. I regard the book as emblematic of a modernist analytical paradigm that remained popular for most of the 20th century. Its assumptions included:
a modernist view of the city as a unified whole, i.e., a coherent regional system in which the center organizes its hinterland;
an individual-centered understanding of the urban condition; urban process in The City is typically grounded in the individual subjectivities of urbanites, their personal choices ultimately explaining the overall urban condition, including spatial structure, crime, poverty, and racism; and
a linear evolutionist paradigm, in which processes lead from tradition to modernity, from primitive to advanced, from community to society, and so on.
There may be other important assumptions of the Chicago School, as represented in The City, that are not listed here. Finding them and identifying what is right or wrong about them is one of the tasks at hand, rather than excoriating the books contributors for not accurately foreseeing some distant future.
The most enduring of the Chicago School models was the zonal or concentric ring theory, an account of the evolution of differentiated urban social areas by E. W. Burgess (1925). Based on assumptions that included a uniform land surface, universal access to a single-centered city, free competition for space, and the notion that development would take place outward from a central core, Burgess concluded that the city would tend to form a series of concentric zones. The main ecological metaphors invoked to describe this dynamic were invasion, succession, and segregation, by which populations gradually filtered outward from the center as their status and level of assimilation progressed. The model was predicated on continuing high levels of immigration to the city.
At the core of Burgess schema was the Central Business District (CBD), which was surrounded by a transitional zone, where older private houses were being converted to offices and light industry, or subdivided to form smaller dwelling units. This was the principal area to which new immigrants were attracted; and it included areas of vice and unstable or mobile social groups. The transitional zone was succeed by a zone of working-mens homes, which included some of the citys oldest residential buildings inhabited by stable social groups. Beyond this, newer and larger dwellings were to be found, occupied by the middle classes. Finally, the commuters zone was separate from the continuous built-up area of the city, where much of the zones population was employed. Burgess model was a broad generalization, and not intended to be taken too literally. He anticipated, for instance, that his schema would apply only in the absence of opposing factors such as local topography (in the case of Chicago, Lake Michigan). He also anticipated considerable internal variation within the different zones.
Other urbanists subsequently noted the tendency for cities to grow in star-shaped rather than concentric form, along highways that radiate from a center with contrasting land uses in the interstices. This observation gave rise to a sector theory of urban structure, an idea advanced in the late 1930s by Homer Hoyt (1933, 1939), who observed that once variations arose in land uses near the city center, they tended to persist as the city expanded. Distinctive sectors thus grew out from the CBD, often organized along major highways. Hoyt emphasized that nonrational factors could alter urban form, as when skillful promotion influenced the direction of speculative development. He also understood that older buildings could still reflect a concentric ring structure, and that sectors may not be internally homogeneous at one point in time.
The complexities of real-world urbanism were further taken up in the multiple nuclei theory of C. D. Harris and E. Ullman (1945). They proposed that cities have a cellular structure in which land uses develop around multiple growth-nuclei within the metropolis as a consequence of accessibility-induced variations in the land-rent surface and agglomeration (dis)economics. Harris and Ullman also allowed that real-world urban structure is determined by broader social and economic forces, the influence of history, and international influences. But whatever the precise reasons for their origin, once nuclei have been established, general growth forces reinforce their preexisting patterns.
Much of the urban research agenda of the 20th century has been predicated on the precepts of the concentric zone, sector, and multiple nuclei theories of urban structure. Their influences can be seen directly in factorial ecologies of intra-urban structure, land-rent models, studies of urban economies and diseconomies of scale, and designs for ideal cities and neighborhoods. The specific and persistent popularity of the Chicago concentric ring model is harder to explain, however, given the proliferation of evidence in support of alternative theories. The most likely reasons for its endurance are related to its beguiling simplicity and the enormous volume of publications produced by adherents of
the Chicago School (e.g., Abbott, 1999; Fine, 1995).
In the final chapter of The City, Louis Wirth (1925) provided a magisterial review of the field of urban sociology, titled (with deceptive simplicity, and astonishing self-effacement) A Bibliography of the Urban Community. But what Wirth did in this chapter, in a remarkably prescient way, was to summarize the fundamental premises of the Chicago School, and to isolate two fundamental features of the urban condition that were to rise to prominence at the beginning of the 21st century. Specifically, Wirth established that the city lies at the center of, and provides the organizational logic for, a complex regional hinterland based on trade:
Far from being an arbitrary clustering of people and buildings, the city is the nucleus of a wider zone of activity from which it draws its resources and over which it exerts its influence. The city and its hinterland represent two phases of the
same mechanism which may be analyzed from various points of view (p. 182).
He also noted that the development of satellite cities is characteristic of the latest phases of city growth, and that the location of such satellites can exert a determining influence upon the direction of growth:
One of the latest phases of city growth is the development of satellite cities. These are generally industrial units growing up outside of the boundaries of the administrative city, which, however, are dependent upon the city proper for their existence. Often they become incorporated into the city proper after the city has inundated them, and thus lose their identity. The location of such satellites may exert a determining influence upon the direction of the citys growth. These satellites become culturally a part of the city long before they are actually incorporated into it (p. 185).
Wirth further observed that modern communications have transformed the world into a single mechanism, where the global and the local intersect decisively and continuously:
With the advent of modern methods of communication the whole world has been transformed into a single mechanism of which a country or a city is merely an integral part. The specialization of function, which has been a concomitant of city
growth, has created a state of interdependence of world-wide proportions. Fluctuations in the price of wheat on the Chicago Grain Exchange reverberate to the remotest part of the globe, and a new invention anywhere will soon have to be reckoned with at points far from it origin. The city has become a highly sensitive unit in this complex mechanism, and in turn acts as a transmitter of such stimulation as it receives to a local area. This is a true of economic and political as it is of social and intellectual life (p. 186).
And there, in a sense, you have it. From a few, relatively humble first steps, we gaze out over the abyssthe yawning gap of an intellectual fault line separating Chicago from Los Angeles. In a few short paragraphs, Wirth anticipated the pivotal moments that characterize Chicago-style urbanismthose primitives that eventually will separate it from an LA-style urbanism. He effectively foreshadowed avant la lettre the shift from what I term a modern to a postmodern city, and, in so doing, the necessity of the transition from the Chicago to the LA School. For it is no longer the center that organizes the urban hinterlands, but the hinterlands that determine what remains of the center. The imperatives of fragmentation have become the principal dynamic in contemporary cities; the 21st centurys emerging world cities (including LA) are ground-zero loci in a communications-driven globalizing political economy.
The shift toward an LA School may be regarded as a move away from modernist perspectives on the city (à la Chicago School) to a postmodern view of urban process. We are all by now aware that the tenets of modernist thought have been undermined, discredited; in their place, a multiplicity of new ways of knowing have been substituted. Analogously,
in postmodern cities, the logics of previous urbanisms have evaporated; and, absent a single new imperative, multiple (ir)rationalities clamor to fill the vacuum. The LA School is distinguishable from the Chicago precepts (as noted above) by the following counterpropositions:
Traditional concepts of urban form imagine the city organized around a central core; in a revised theory, the urban peripheries are organizing what remains of the center.
A global, corporate-dominated connectivity is balancing, even offsetting, individual-centered agency in urban processes.
A linear evolutionist urban paradigm has been usurped by a nonlinear, chaotic process that includes pathological forms such as common-interest developments (CIDs), and life-threatening environmental degradation (e.g. global warming).
In empirical terms, the urban dynamics driving these tendencies are by now well known. They include: World City: the emergence of a relatively few centers of command and control in a globalizing economy; Dual City: an increasing social polarization, i.e., the increasing gap between rich and poor, between nations, between the powerful and the powerless, between different ethnic, racial, and religious groupings, and between genders; Hybrid City: the ubiquity of fragmentation both in material and cognitive life, including the collapse of conventional communities, and the rise of new cultural categories and spaces, including especially cultural hybrids; and Cybercity: the challenges of the information age, especially the seemingly ubiquitous capacity of connectivity to supplant the constraints of place.
Keno capitalism is the synoptic term that Steven Flusty and I have adopted to describe the spatial manifestations that are consequent upon the (postmodern) urban condition implied by these assumptions. Urbanization is occurring on a quasi-random field of opportunities in which each space is (in principle) equally available through its connection with the information superhighway (Dear and Flusty, 1998). Capital touches down as if by chance on a parcel of land, ignoring the opportunities on intervening lots, thus sparking the development process. The relationship between development of one parcel and nondevelopment of another is a disjointed, seemingly unrelated affair. While not truly a random process, it is evident that the traditional, center-driven agglomeration economies that have guided urban development in the past no longer generally apply. Conventional city form, Chicago-style, is sacrificed in favor of a noncontiguous collage of parcelized, consumption-oriented landscapes devoid of conventional centers yet wired into electronic propinquity and nominally unified by the mythologies of the (dis)information superhighway. In such landscapes, city centers become almost an externality of fragmented urbanism; they are frequently grafted onto the landscape as a (much later) afterthought by developers and politicians concerned with identity and tradition. Conventions of suburbanization are also redundant in an urban process that bears no relationship to a core-related decentralization.
I am insisting on the term postmodern as a vehicle for examining LA urbanism for a number of reasons, even though many protagonists in the debates surrounding the LA School have explicitly distanced themselves from the precepts of postmodernism. I have long understood postmodernism as a concept that embraces three principal referents:
A series of distinctive cultural and stylistic practices that are in and of themselves intrinsically interesting;
The totality of such practices, viewed as a cultural ensemble characteristic of the contemporary epoch of capitalism (often referred to as postmodernity) ; and
A set philosophical and methodological discourses antagonistic to the precepts of Enlightenment thought, most particularly the hegemony of any single intellectual persuasion.
Implicit in each of these approaches is the notion of a radical break, i.e., a discontinuity between past and present political, sociocultural and economic trends. My working hypothesis is that there is sufficient evidence to support the notion that we are witnessing a radical break in each of these three categories. This is the fundamental promise of the
revolution prefigured by the LA School; this is why it is so revolutionary in its recapitulation of urban theory.
The localization (sometimes literally the concretization) of these diverse dynamics is creating the emerging time-space fabric of a postmodern society. This is not to suggest that existing (modernist) rationalities have been obliterated from the urban landscape or from our mind-sets; on the contrary, they persist as palimpsests of earlier logics, and continue to influence the emerging spaces of postmodernity. For instance, they are presently serving to consolidate the power of existing place-based centers of communication technologies, even as such technologies are supposed to liberate development from the constraints of place. However, newer urban places, such as LA, are being created by different intentionalities, just as older places such as Chicago are being overlain by the altered intentionalities of postmodernity. Nor am I suggesting that earlier theoretical logics have been (or should be) entirely usurped. For instance, in his revision of the Chicago School, Andrew Abbott (1999, p. 204) claimed that the variables paradigm of quantitative sociology has been exhausted, and that the cornerstone of the Chicago vision was locationpoints of departure that I regard as totally consistent with the time-space obsessions of the LA School of postmodern urbanism. Another example of overlap between modern and postmodern in current urban sociology is Michael Peter Smiths evocation of a transnational urbanism (Smith, 2001).
Since its inception, the writings on the LA School have generated a significant criticism, as should be expected. I will not attempt to survey these critiques, since this would require a separate essay in order to do justice to the volume of work. Suffice it to say that the complaints have sprung from many sources, including those who persist in the belief that Los Angeles adds nothing that is not already known to contemporary urban theory, those who are opposed to postmodernism, those who object to the perceived dystopianism of the LA School practitioners, and those who simply dislike Los Angeles. Despite their attacks, the literature on Los Angeles has flourished. What began as inquiry into economic restructuring has blossomed into a wide-ranging critique of urban history (Hise, 1997), environmentalism (Pincetl, 1999; Wolch and Emel, 1998), race (Bobo et al., 2000; Pulido, 2000; Roseman et al., 1996), cultural diversity (James, 2003; Kenny, 2001), and internationalism (Cartier, 2002; Flusty, 2003; Heikkila and Pizarro, 2002).
Moreover, the theoretical challenge posed by the LA School has generated a far-ranging debate on general urban theory (Harris, 1997; Keil, 1998; Beauregard, 2003; Brenner, 2003; Dear, 2003), which has spilled over into the general media (Miller, 2000).
The opening created by the LA School has also been exploited by others anxious to challenge the traditions of Chicago and LA. Recently, a Miami School (Nijman, 1996, 1997; Portes and Stepnick, 1993); a Las Vegas School (Gottdeiner et al., 1999); and even an Orange County School have arisen. For example, Gottdeiner and Kephart (1991, p. 51) claimed that in Orange County:
We have focused on what we consider to be a new form of settlement space the fully urbanized, multinucleated, and independent county. As a new form of settlement space, they are the first such occurrence in five thousand years of urban history.
While those who are familiar with Orange County might regard this assertion as a somewhat exaggerated if not entirely melodramatic gesture such counterclaims are in fact an important piece of the comparative urban discourse that I believe to be the single most important research item in contemporary urban theory.
Let me conclude by elaborating on the challenges posed by a polyvocal urban discourse. In these postmodern times, the gesture to an LA School might appear to be a deeply contradictory intellectual strategy. And yet, despite its inherent plurality, the notion of a school has semantic overtones of codification and hegemony; it has structure and authority. Modernists and postmodernists alike might shudder at the irony implied by these associations. And yet, ultimately, I am comfortable in proclaiming the existence of an LA School of urbanism or two reasons. First, the LA School exists as a
body of literature. It exhibits an evolution through time, beginning with analysis of Los Angeles as an aberrant curiosity distinct from other forms of urbanism. The tone of that history has shifted gradually to the point that the city is now commonly represented as indicative of a new form of urbanism, supplanting the older forms against which Los Angeles was once judged deviant. Second, the LA School exists as a discursive strategy demarcating a space both for the exploration of new realities and for resistance to old hegemonies. It is proving to be far more successful than its detractors at explaining the form and function of the urban.
Still, I acknowledge the danger that an LA School could be perceived as yet another panoptic fortress from whence a new totalizing urban model is manufactured and marketed, running roughshod over divergent ways of seeing like the hegemonies it supplanted. The danger of creating a new master narrative stands at every step of this project: in defining the very boundaries of an LA School itself; in establishing a unitary model of Los Angeles; and in imposing a template of Los Angeles upon the rest of the world. Let me consider these threats in turn.
The fragmented and globally oriented nature of the Los Angeles School will counter any potential for a new hegemony. Those who worry about the hegemonic intent of an LA School may rest assured that its adherents are in fact pathologically antileadership. Nor will everyone who writes on LA readily identify as a member of the LA School; some
adamantly reject such a notion (e.g., Ethington and Meeker, 2001). The programmatic intent of the LA School remains fractured, incoherent, and idiosyncratic even to its constituent scholars, who most often perceive themselves as occupying a place on the periphery rather than at the center. The LA School promotes inclusiveness by inviting as members all those who take Los Angeles as a worthy object of study on a contemporary urbanism. Such a School evades dogma by including divergent empirical and theoretical approaches rooted in philosophies both modern and postmodern, from Marxist to Libertarian. Admittedly, such a school will be a fragmentary and loosely connected entity,
always on the verge of disintegrationbut, then again, so is Los Angeles itself.
A unified, consensual description of Los Angeles is equally unlikely, since it would necessitate excluding a plethora of valuable readings on the region. For instance, numerous discursive battles have been fought since the events of April 1992 to decide what term best describes them. Those who read the events as a spontaneous reaction to the acquittal
of Rodney King employ the term riot. For those who read the events within the context of economic and social polarization, the term uprising is preferred. And those who see in them a more conscious political intentionality apply the term rebellion. For its part, civic authority skirts these issues by relying upon the supposedly depoliticized term, civil unrest. But others concerned with the perspective of the Korean participants deploy the Korean tradition of naming an occurrence by its principal date, and so make use of the term, Sa-I-Gu. The loosely-constituted polyvocality of the Los Angeles School permits us to replace the question Which name is definitive? with Which names should we use, at what stage in the unfolding events, at which places in the region, and from whose perspective? Such an approach may well entail a loss of clarity and certitude, but in exchange it offers a richness of description and interpretation that would otherwise be forfeited in the name of achieving a homogeneous narrative.
Finally, the temptation to adopt LA as a world city template is avoidable because the urban landscapes of Los Angeles are not necessarily original to LA: the luxury compound atop a matrix of impoverished misery or self-contained communities of fortified homes can also be found in places like Manila and São Paulo. The LA School justifies a presentation of LA not as the model of contemporary urbanism, nor as the privileged locale from whence a cabal of solipsistic theorists issues proclamations about the way things are, but as one of a number space-time geographical prisms through which current processes of urban (re)formation may be advantageously viewed. Thus, the School categorically does not represent an emerging vision of contemporary urbanism via a single, hegemonic paradigm; instead it is but one component in an emerging new comparative urban studies working out of Los Angeles but inviting the participation of (and placing equal importance upon) the on-going experiences and voices of Tijuana, São Paulo, Hong Kong, and the like. One consequence of a postmodern perspective is the insistence that all theoretical voices should be heard. And to put it bluntly, we (as urbanists) need all the help we can get, if we are to understand contemporary cities.
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An earlier version of the paper was presented at the Annual Meeting of the Association of American Geographers in New Orleans, 2003; I thank the conference participants for their critiques. This essay draws on ideas developed in my book, The Postmodern Urban Condition (2000), and also the edited collection by M. Dear titled From Chicago to LA; Making Sense of Urban Theory (2001). I am especially indebted to Steven Flusty, who has helped immeasurably in the development of these ideas (see Dear and Flusty, 1998, 2001; Flusty, 2003). Thanks also to Tony Orum, who arranged an exchange on the idea of an LA School, which was published in the inaugural issue of the new journal, City and Community (Abbott, 2002; Clark, 2002; Dear, 2002; Molotch, 2002; Sampson, 2002; Sassen, 2002). I have also benefitted greatly from conversations on this topic with Bob Beauregard and Bob Lake.
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Michael Dear, Department of Geography, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, CA 90033; telephone: 213-740-0743; fax: 213-740-0056; e-mail: email@example.com