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BOOK REVIEW / ESSAYS

A Penetrating Look at Life in the Big City : THE CITY Los Angeles and Urban Theory at the End of the Twentieth Century Edited by Allen J. Scott and Edward W. Soja; University of California Press $40, 483 pages

December 13, 1996|SUSAN SALTER REYNOLDS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Did you learn in school the phrase "Ontogeny recapitulates Phylogeny"? In case you did not, it means: The biological development of the individual imitates the evolutionary development of the species (forgive me, but it seems so unlike the hard science taught today in its wandering philosophizing, that it may have been "disproven" since I was in school).

Nonetheless, I was impressed, reading this very wide, very deep study of the city we live in, by how completely Los Angeles turns this, like all principles and theories, on its head.

"The City" is a collection of essays, primarily by professors of urban planning, architecture, history, political science, geography and transportation studies, mostly from UCLA, but not all. While the authors agree on the slippery nature of the subject, on its many disparate elements, they do not pretend to fashion essays that hang together, they do not pretend to create a discussion about Los Angeles. They cannot.

"Uncertainty and change," writes Richard S. Weinstein, "will continue to be a persistent reality and will continue to produce an urban fabric of growth and decay . . . a kind of uncertainty principle should affect the attitude of urban designers and planners as they approach the problems of the extended city."

The nature of the organism precludes definition, agreement and even prediction. Phylogeny recapitulates ontogeny.

"Los Angeles is a city without a past," begins Michael Dear, whose essay contains the highest percentage of declarative sentences ("Land use planning, as it has been practiced for most of this century, is now defunct, irretrievable, and . . . new legitimacies and intentionalities must be sought if L.A.'s urban development is to be channeled away from a dystopian future").

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Yet every essay in this collection describes, to some extent, a version of the city's history. "All great cities, to use Rainer Maria Rilke's words about Rome, have an abundance of pasts," quotes Susan Anderson in her piece, "A City Called Heaven: Black Enchantment and Despair in Los Angeles." So the quest to find roots, to fashion an identity at least as strong as that of New Yorkers, should not be beyond the reader's grasp.

Everyone agrees that the city is, as Charles Jencks puts it, "the ultimate urban bouillabaisse." "Los Angeles," he writes, "has been diverse since its foundation as a pueblo in 1781. The 44 who took the site over from the Gabrieleno Indians numbered two Spaniards, two blacks, 11 Indians and 29 . . . mestizos." Currently, "There are 18 urban village cores," writes the same author, more than 140 incorporated cities . . . 13 major ethnic groups . . . 86 languages spoken in its schools."

This kind of information helps the reader to better understand the city's development. The essays on homelessness, on black and Latino experience and history, on "Income and Racial Inequality" are fascinating and informative. Some of the essays are nostalgic, like Anderson's.

Mike Davis, the author of "City of Quartz," has a chilling essay called "How Eden Lost Its Garden," in which we learn that in the 1950s, "at least 1,000 citrus trees were bulldozed and burned every day. Between 1939 and 1970, agricultural acreage in Los Angeles County south of the San Gabriel Mountains . . . fell from 300,000 to less than 10,000 acres. . . . A half paragraph in the Orange County Register (Oct. 17, 1994) announces that the Anaheim City Council is preparing the way for the transformation of the city's last remaining orange grove, planted in 1892, into a seven-acre parking lot."

The essays on regional planning boards and agencies and report-making describe a process that, while forward-thinking, loses its experimental thrill in translation. The reader looking for a piece of the city, an urban identity, will not find it in essays on the city's bureaucracies. The creation of markets for the dwindling commodities of water and air eases us into the "Blade Runner" scenario described by Edward W. Soja, in which he coins the term " 'Exopolis,' literally the 'city without' in the double sense of the expanding outer (versus the inner) city as well as the city that no longer is, the ex-city."

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The essays on architecture and the arts, particularly Harvey Molotch's "L.A. as Design Product," seem to retain the greatest proximity to the actual organism, while fashioning an identity that we insecure urban dwellers flail for. In it, he takes on critics like Jean Baudrillard (who described L.A. as "the world center of the unauthentic"), crediting L.A. with inspiring its artists to "make art as moments of life experience rather than things to hang on walls.

"Rather than being a place without culture," he writes, quoting Bill Moggeridge, head of the California Design firm IDEO, " 'the apparent culturelessness of the place, the endless process of willfully sweeping aside what has gone before . . . is the culture.' In contrast to Baudrillard's sentiment, real things happen as a result."

Anyone who has ever written about Los Angeles, the authors of these essays included, knows this to be true: Neat ideas unravel before your very eyes. Real things happen all right. Just not the ones you planned.

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