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The Emergence of Los Angeles: Population and Housing in the City of Dreams 1940-70by Bernard Marchand (Pion Ltd. distributed in the U.S. by Methuen Inc.: $28.95; 251 pp.)

July 19, 1987|Martin Zimmerman | Zimmerman, a View copy editor, lives five miles east of downtown.

As the battle over the planning of Los Angeles into the next millennium spills out of the back rooms of the city's power structure into the headlines of the daily newspapers, most of the players fall back on politically useful slogans in place of well-reasoned arguments. Unfortunately, slogans do little to illuminate a complex subject.

Not that it is easy to fit a City of Dreams into a neat package: Countless sociologists, novelists and journalists have tried to capture the essence of Los Angeles--few have succeeded.

Frenchman Bernard Marchand, a professor of urban studies at the University of Paris who taught for "one whole year" in Los Angeles as well as had "numerous" visits, is the latest to make the attempt. In "The Emergence of Los Angeles," Marchand applies a mathematical approach to understanding Los Angeles, opting for a scientific model in an attempt to describe the dynamics of change as well as point the way toward the future.

He only partly succeeds. "Emergence" has its share of hits and misses along the way.

Marchand's biggest stumbling block comes while setting up his model. It is difficult at best to use a quantitative mathematical approach to yield qualitative answers, a problem he acknowledges. He does his best to pump life into charts, graphs and thick jargon, but the reading is heavy going. To be fair, "Emergence" was written for an audience of academics.

There is also the problem of putting practical limits on the sheer mass of Los Angeles; Marchand chooses an axis that includes most of the city of Los Angeles, goes west to include Beverly Hills, Santa Monica and Culver City, and south to include Watts and South Gate. While necessary to make the model manageable, this leaves millions of people from the San Fernando and San Gabriel valleys out of the picture. A look only at Los Angeles' core offers a constricted vision of our sprawling megacity.

Another major problem: The model defines ethnic composition in terms of black and white; the impact of our significant Latino population is dismissed because it doesn't show up in his figures, which are based on the four U.S. censuses between 1940 and 1970 (this time limit is also a problem; the inner city has seen many changes since the 1970 census).

Marchand argues that the classic models of urban planning are useless when tackling the City of Angels. He dismisses urban studies of Chicago and New York because, unlike Los Angeles, those cities had continued European immigration to the cities' cores--yet he ignores the massive waves of Mexicans, Central Americans and Koreans who have transformed the heart of this city.

Marchand's model works best when defining patterns of movement in Los Angeles. His analysis of black settlement is particularly revealing: Confined by "widespread racism," black expansion is from "one block to the next and not, like the whites, by jumps to re1836020837influence and change the space they move into much more strongly than whites. Movement is also shown to be limited for lower-class whites: Social segregation has remained constant over the years.

Perhaps the most useful finding is that "Los Angeles appears as a strongly organized city, both in its evolution over time and in its structure through space"; the "most important movements of the population of Los Angeles are to and from the center." Marchand's model demonstrates that the city's "global spatial structure" has "remained surprisingly stable over" the years--a remarkable finding for this always-in-flux metropolis. The seemingly ever-shifting city may have roots after all. Neighborhoods and land use may change over time, but the city is structured within clearly defined forms radiating outward from downtown--an important fact to be considered by those mapping the city's development.

Marchand attacks one of the hoary cliches of urban theory: the flight of the upper middle class from the city to the suburbs. Marchand shows that, at least in Los Angeles, that just isn't so; the wealthy families that lived in prime neighborhoods from Los Feliz to Santa Monica have not abandoned their homes. On the contrary, the city "has become increasingly split into two parts, one quite poor while the other was never so rich. Typically, the lower middle-class and the poor move frequently, while the rich remain settled in their residences, at least as a group."

Of course, no study of the real Motor City would be complete without a look at the role of the automobile. There are references to le car throughout "Emergence," including the idea that our very low urban density "has not been created by the car, but has been preserved and extended by it. Land speculation is the explanation for the extensive land use."

Even with its flaws, "Emergence" is useful because it provides a starting point for serious discussion of an issue that will have dramatic effect on the millions of people who live and work in Los Angeles. By demonstrating the surprising coherence over time of the central city, Marchand's model can be used as a framework for considering the future.

Sadly, most of those power players--the politicians, developers, bankers and others--who should read the book will not. As far as their vision of Los Angeles in 2001 and beyond goes, they have--for economic and political reasons--already made up their minds.

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