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Back to the Future of L.A.

To arrive at a new vision of the city's direction, leaders must stimulate an imaginative rethinking of its past, a professor says.

September 10, 1996

The book "Rethinking Los Angeles," to be published this week by Sage Publications, looks at this region as a subject of serious academic study. The collection includes essays and artwork on the city, its past and the future by a diverse set of writers.

This is a condensed excerpt from a chapter titled "Reimagining Los Angeles" by Robert Fishman, a professor at Rutgers University.

Other contributors include Steven Sample, president of USC; Mark Kroeker, head of the Los Angeles Police Department's South Bureau; the Rev. Cecil "Chip" Murray of the First AME Church in Los Angeles, and Margaret Crawford, professor at the Southern California Institute for Architecture.

The book was edited by Michael Dear, director of the Southern California Studies Center at USC; H. Eric Schockman of USC's Center for Multiethnic and Transnational Studies, and Greg Hise, assistant professor of urban and regional planning at USC.

Los Angeles in our time has imagined itself as a different kind of place, the capital of the 20th century Good Life, the anti-Paris or more precisely, the anti-New York.

From our vantage point at the end of the 20th century, we can see that the Los Angeles "city of the future" has no future. The dream of limitless mobility has been swallowed up in endless sprawl and nonstop congestion. Now among the densest of American cities, Los Angeles has generated its own form of hierarchical constriction, and its own form of slums.

To be sure, new developments at the edge of the region still push out into the desert in a naive search for open spaces and uncrowded freeways. But they are like the provincial acolytes of a dying religion who haven't heard that the temples of the metropolis are already closed.

How, then, to reimagine Los Angeles when the very idea of the "city of the future" has itself been discredited? I would suggest that the key lies not in a more extravagant science fiction rendering of the city of limitless mobility. Still less can the reimagined city be found in a passive acceptance of the Los Angeles of today, rebaptized as "the postmodern metropolis" and all its sins forgiven.

For me, the way to reimagine the future of Los Angeles lies paradoxically in an imaginative recon- struction of its past. Before the freeway-and-sprawl Los Angeles took shape in the mid-20th century, there was another city, built on the armature of perhaps the best mass-transit system of any region in the world. A city that embodied both human-scale communities and a healthy balance between nature and the built environment.

This "other Los Angeles" still exists, buried beneath the sprawl-city, but still available as a vital alternative form. In the 1920s, the Los Angeles region possessed three great attributes. There was a balanced transportation system where the emerging highway system coexisted with the thousand-mile Pacific Electric trolley system. Second, "decentralized" growth was still disciplined into well-defined towns and villages laid out along the main Pacific Electric routes. Third, these routes converged to maintain the downtown as a lively, open and diverse regional center.

The extraordinary personal ambition of Henry Huntington, founder of the Pacific Electric system, exploited the opportunities presented by a lightly settled but booming region to push the technology of electric traction to its limits. He tied streetcar service to real estate speculation: Each new line or extension meant land that could be very profitably developed along its corridor. Huntington dramatically flung his lines out from central Los Angeles, crossing open countryside to connect the downtown to the Pacific Ocean, the San Fernando Valley and the San Gabriel foothills. Los Angeles in the 1920s promised to become a new kind of urban region. Freed from smoke pollution, overcrowding and slums, Los Angeles would become "the garden metropolis."

The crucial decision which I believe has shaped Los Angeles since came when Angelenos were forced in 1924-25 to choose between upgrading the Pacific Electric system (now out of Huntington's control and a quasi-public utility) and a "Major Street Traffic Plan" put forward originally under the auspices of the Automobile Club of Southern California. The automobile plan was the real estate speculator's dream: a vast grid of wide boulevards which would put any potential subdivision "inside the grid."

By contrast, the Pacific Electric plan would have inevitably resulted in development limited to the light-rail corridors. This would have preserved the townscape of the Los Angeles region, both in the walking-scale vitality of the villages and in the greenbelts that surrounded them. It also would have kept the downtown as a lively and necessary urban core for the region. But the Pacific Electric plan would have sold fewer lots.

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