Los Angeles Reinvents Itself
Aerial photo of Los Angeles. Photo by Vincent Laforet.

Los Angeles Reinvents Itself

The City of Angels is undergoing a renaissance that embraces the attributes it once spurned: verticality, density, public transport, pedestrian culture and public parks.
BySusan Bell

No metropolis has been more loved or more hated.

To its fans, Los Angeles is an urban paradise, an Eden where ordinary people are free to reinvent themselves and realize their dreams. Detractors, however, have often delighted in portraying L.A. as a bunch of nondescript suburbs in search of a city. 

This disdain was perhaps nowhere more eloquently — or comically — expressed than in Woody Allen’s film Annie Hall, when Alvy Singer (Allen), a die-hard New Yorker, mocks L.A. as a superficial place where “the only cultural advantage is being able to make a right turn on a red light.”

Singer might now be eating his words. Recently hailed by cultural critics as the nation’s new artistic and cultural capital, L.A. is enjoying a renaissance. With the city’s revitalized downtown booming as it undergoes restoration and development, a new crop of world-class museums and the spawning of Silicon Beach, L.A. has become a global magnet for arts and technology leaders.

The city is metamorphosing in surprising ways. Long characterized by its urban sprawl — fueled by a seemingly limitless, pioneering ambition to colonize surrounding land — it is now folding back on itself as desire for a different way of city living takes hold among Angelenos. This new aspirational lifestyle includes access to public transport  to create a walkable, accessible L.A. that will be more vertical, denser and more connected than ever before.

A small place with big ambitions

Founded in 1781, El Pueblo de Nuestra Senora la Reina de Los Angeles de Porciuncula began as an upstart city, a relatively small, insignificant place that by 1910 had grown to a population of merely 319,000.

Today, L.A. is the nation’s second largest metropolitan area after New York City, while L.A. County is the most populous county in the United States, with more than 10 million inhabitants. Half the population of California — 16 million people — live within 60 miles of downtown. People continue to flock here, attracted by the city’s cutting-edge industries, its diverse and thriving culture, its many service jobs for migrants and, of course, its legendary climate.

For a place that originally had limited water, no natural resources or port, L.A. achieved this remarkable feat, historian Sir Peter Hall notes in his seminal Cities in Civilization, by marketing itself relentlessly to the rest of the nation.

As the late Kevin Starr, noted California historian and USC University Professor, put it, L.A. was “the Great Gatsby of American cities; it envisioned itself, then materialized that vision through sheer force of will.”

“Part of the excitement about L.A. is the velocity with which it enters the national imagination,” said William Deverell, professor of history at USC Dornsife and director of the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West.

Part of L.A.’s population explosion is due to sheer timing, he says, pointing to the end of the Civil War, which put a lot of people on the move, eager to escape the hardships and heartbreaks of the conflict, and the arrival of the transcontinental railroad in 1876.

Another huge factor was L.A.’s burgeoning reputation as a place of health and healing sunshine.

But the factor most responsible for L.A.’s exponential growth was the intensive marketing of the city as an urban paradise to the rest of the nation by its civic boosters.

“There’s room in the Greater L.A. Basin to spread out, and by the 1880s, the real estate speculators, the orchardists and the suburban developers have grappled with the idea that what they’re building out here is going to look different than conventional or European, Rust Belt or East Coast cities,” Deverell said. “They’re going to build something deliberately horizontal and spread out.”

The idea of building a civilization that looks and acts differently than other cities or metropolitan regions and that allows nature to flourish between those dispersed nodes of population was exciting, Deverell said.

“L.A. was marketed on the idea that you can build a house with a patio where you can spend time outdoors, you can have an orange tree. It’s not built on, ‘you’ll get rich,’ or ‘you’ll get famous.’ It’s ‘you’ll live a good life; you’ll live a healthy life,’ ” Deverell said.

Now, L.A. is once again reinventing itself as it undergoes urban rejuvenation that sees it starting to leave behind its post-World War II building blocks — automobiles, freeways, single-family homes, lawns — and move toward a new urban blueprint. It’s a renaissance that puts mass public transit,  sustainable landscaping, walkability, innovative high-rise multifamily housing, park design and an ambitious Civic Center master plan at the heart of its rebirth as a model city for the 21st century.

Portrait Right

Garry Winogrand’s 1964 photograph of two women walking toward the iconic Theme Building at Los Angeles International Airport portrayed L.A. as a futuristic city. (Photo by Garry Winogrand, courtesy of Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco.)

Newfound confidence

A clear indication of City Hall’s commitment to this revitalized version of L.A. is Mayor Eric Garcetti’s recent appointment of the city’s first chief design officer, Christopher Hawthorne, the Los Angeles Times’ former architecture critic.

For the first time in decades, city officials are spending billions on redesigning the city to make it more livable and sustainable, including the creation of a world-class public transit system and the renewal of the L.A. River.

The initial confidence of the early 20th-century boosters, who were so determined to put L.A. on the map, has returned in force a century later, Deverell notes.

“If we could call up those boosters now, many of them — the most intelligent and far reaching and visionary of them — would say, ‘I told you it was going to be an exciting place,’ ” he said.

Two critical turning points

Philip Ethington, professor of history, political science and spatial sciences, argues that there are two key factors that laid the groundwork for the city’s current transformation. The first was the 1992 uprising following the beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles Police Department officers, a defining moment in the city’s history.

“That’s the critical turning point because L.A. did have a dystopic reality until then,” he said. “The LAPD acted as an occupying military force in South L.A. from the 1950s until the uprising forced that to end and caused the police department to reform and shift toward community-based policing.”

The result, he says, changed the tone of society, making people feel safer and creating greater possibilities for interaction between residents of different ethnicities.

The second factor, Ethington says, is that L.A.’s legendary sprawl “finally hit the wall,” making it impractical to commute.

“Ridin’ on the freeway of love”?

As postwar L.A. benefited from a boom economy, thanks largely to the aerospace industry, the city enjoyed seemingly endless space for affordable housing as it sprawled further into the surrounding landscape. The American Dream, it seemed, was within everyone’s reach — thanks in large part to L.A.’s futuristic freeways.

“You could live in an affordable suburb and commute because we had these beautiful highways,” Ethington said.

Indeed, the freeways were once the glory of L.A., considered one of the city’s most fascinating and attractive features, he noted.

That started to wane in the 1970s with increasingly severe pollution and congestion.

“People came to hate the freeways,” Ethington said. “People aren’t fascinated by them anymore. Nobody goes to a city now because they think it’s fun to drive on the freeway.”

An ironic reversal

As the imprint of the city reaches its maximum potential and population pressures make it impossible to build enough freeways to relieve the resulting congestion, public fascination has shifted to the nodes created by the new public transit lines and stations. When a transit line station opens, Ethington notes, land value nearby skyrockets. That, he says, is driving momentum toward the smart urbanism that is now increasingly directed toward public transit and vertical living, instead of the old model of private automobiles, freeways and single-family homes.

“It’s quite revolutionary, a completely different way of envisioning L.A. and a function of the fact it used up all the available suburban space,” he said.

“Those factors really just forced this new urbanism. But it’s definitely a sea change. It’s a reversal of a century of the way L.A. developed.”

A new way of living

The sense of freedom and experimentation with which the city is associated is reflected in L.A.’s iconic architecture — among the most filmed and photographed in the world.

From the Arts and Crafts movement expounded by its architectural masters Greene and Greene — a prime example of which is USC’s Gamble House in Pasadena — to Frank Lloyd Wright’s textile block houses to the Southern California modernist movement pioneered by Wright’s protégés Rudolph Schindler and Richard Neutra, to Frank Gehry’s Disney Concert Hall or the Capitol
Records Building, L.A. is home to some of the world’s most beautiful and experimental buildings.

The most influential, Ethington argues, belong to the midcentury modernist movement, which redefined not just architecture but a new way of living that remains strongly identified with L.A. and is as seductive today as it was almost a century ago when Schindler and Neutra first arrived
from Vienna.

“When Schindler and Neutra got here, they realized it was a perfect environment for their architectural vision, which mixed the interior and the exterior in a seamless way,” Ethington said. “They took advantage of the light and the new industrial building materials that were cheap and easy to use. L.A. became a great place to innovate.”

Once criticized by preservationists for its throwaway culture in which notable buildings were all too often bulldozed, L.A. has undergone a transformation in attitude as the city starts truly valuing its architectural heritage.

“It takes a ruling class who are proud of their city and want to protect that heritage, but L.A. also needed to create a heritage to preserve,” Ethington said. “Until the midcentury modernists, L.A. didn’t really have a homegrown architectural style. Now, of course, that’s the architectural legacy we’re most interested in preserving.”

L.A. is fortunate to have one of the best-preserved downtown areas in the country, ironically due largely to indifference and neglect. When the once bustling urban center with its elegant shops, grand houses on Bunker Hill and ornate cathedrals to cinema was abandoned by the middle and professional classes in favor of suburban single-family homes, it fell into a state of neglect that continued
for decades. Apart from Bunker Hill, which was torn down in the 1960s to create the city’s financial center, the remainder of downtown was largely forgotten by developers.

Now its handsome granite buildings are being rediscovered, with former banks converted into upscale lofts, restaurants, bars and shops as downtown L.A. hums with life anew.

Downsides: Density and gentrification

This appetite, particularly among young people, for a different way of living is, Deverell says, the result of a combination of imagination, youthful sensibilities and the harsh reality that a mortgage is out of reach.

However, Angelenos’ aspiration to live differently brings several notable downsides. First, the city’s increasing density is not to everyone’s taste.

But perhaps the single biggest problem is gentrification, which transforms neighborhoods and makes it harder for people with lower incomes to stay.

Dana Johnson, associate professor of English and American studies and ethnicity, has experienced gentrification firsthand. A longtime resident of L.A.’s Echo Park neighborhood, she was forced to move in 2005 when rents there became too high. She relocated to downtown, which at the time was much less expensive.

There were only a couple of places to eat when she first arrived, Johnson remembers. “But forward to 2018 and, of course, downtown is booming with countless restaurants, bars, museums — it’s just a completely different place. That’s great, but the bad thing I see is that folks who used to be here are increasingly being edged out with no place to live, no place to go. So, there’s this tension between having tons of money downtown and seeing people downtown who have nothing, trying to survive.”

Johnson is aware that she is both a victim of — and a contributor to —  the problem.

“When I moved downtown, I was contributing to the displacement of folks who’d been there way before I had by driving up the prices of their housing,” she said.

She is the author of a recent collection of short stories, In The Not Quite Dark (Counterpoint, 2016), that focus on these effects of gentrification in L.A. Several of the stories take place downtown. One focuses on the challenges of raising a child close to Skid Row, witnessing people struggling with mental illness, drugs and extreme poverty. In another, the protagonist has to keep getting roommates because he can’t afford his apartment without them.

Johnson exemplifies the new desires of Angelenos to live differently in their city, not in a suburban, single-family home, but in a loft or apartment in a multifamily complex downtown — to live in a walkable city, take advantage of the culture and get around by public transport.

“The expectation always was that in order to have arrived in American culture you had to be a homeowner. I would’ve loved to be a homeowner, but not at the cost of living far away from the things that I wanted to see and do. I love living downtown.”

Lessons from the past

Interestingly, some of the current ideas transforming L.A. aren’t new. They were part of the original plans for the city in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when trains crisscrossed the L.A. Basin and downtown was the city’s epicenter.

Take lawns, for instance. Deverell noted that early migrants to L.A. in the mid-19th century were so entranced by native cactus, succulents and pampas grass that they planted those, instead.

“Our drought resistant planting today looks like the gardens they were creating 150 years ago,” Deverell said. “We’re going back to the future with them — and that’s a good thing.”

Ethington recalls the creation in the 1920s of a master plan for the city by Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., son of the great park designer, echoing his father’s Emerald
Necklace in Boston — a network of connected parkscircling downtown.

While Olmsted’s plan for L.A. foundered, ignored by municipalities that allowed wall-to-wall construction that obliterated vast swathes of green space, Ethington says the revival of the L.A. River — an important part of the city’s master plan — is part of the process of undoing that loss.

Ethington, along with Deverell and Travis Longcore of USC Dornsife’s Spatial Sciences Institute, are researching the historical ecology at the river and watershed as it would have been in 1880, before heavy urbanization.

Investigators will gather existing ecological studies and combine them into a single database. These data will
be added to the extensive set of digitized historical maps and information that Ethington has developed for his 13,000-year history of L.A., Ghost Metropolis: Los Angeles from Clovis to the Age of Nixon and Reagan (University of California Press, forthcoming 2019).

“The river still reflects the natural landscape, going back thousands of years,” Ethington said. “This research is obviously useful to this new phase of development of the city, where it’s not just smart urbanism, but also an attempt to make an ecologically sustainable development.

“What did this place actually look like before it wascovered with concrete? We’ll be able to provide the answers.”

The arts scene

The fact that L.A. is now hailed as a world center for arts and technology is an acknowledgement that’s long overdue, Deverell and Ethington agree.

“Since avant-garde artists Ed Ruscha and Ed Kienholz and iconoclastic curator and museum director Walter Hopps became active here in the 1950s, L.A. has been generating the world’s cutting-edge art,” Ethington said. However, it wasn’t until galleries and art schools accumulated a critical mass that the city was finally considered an arts capital.

L.A.’s liberal shift in the 1990s was key to creating an environment where artists can thrive, Ethington noted.

A crowning moment for L.A. came in 2007, with a major retrospective at the Pompidou Center in Paris titled “Los Angeles: The Birth of an Art Capital.”

“It’s ironic,” Ethington said, laughing. “Paris, which lost its own crown as world art capital to New York after 1940, then crowned the Big Apple’s successor by paying homage to L.A.”

A model city

If L.A. is to be considered a model city for the 21st century, Ethington argues, it is above all because of its public culture of tolerance.

“It’s something that’s hard to achieve — you can’t plan it really — and that’s the tolerance, the cosmopolitanism, the amazing cultural exchange,” he said. “That’s what will keep it attractive for people of all races and cultures.”

Deverell cautions against falling into the tired old stereotypes and tropes often used to describe L.A. Noting that
it defies easy caricature, he reminds us the city is a complicated place.

“L.A. will always have the stories that prove those caricatures wrong,” he said. “That phrase ‘only in L.A.’ means nothing surprises us anymore because the city is so complicated that anything can happen — and will.”

Read more stories from USC Dornsife Magazine’s Fall 2018/Winter 2019 issue >>