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West Words

There's a Method Behind the Madness of the Urban Landscape

May 16, 2001|JONATHAN KIRSCH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"Urban planning in Southern California" sounds like a contradiction in terms. The distinctive look of the urban landscape of Los Angeles--the strip malls, the wood-and-stucco apartments, the gas stations and carwashes and convenience stores and drive-thru franchises--seems to be the result of improvisation and opportunism, a series of purely ad-hoc decisions about what to build and where to build it.

"Convulsive urbanism" is how Dana Cuff, a professor of architecture and urban design at UCLA, characterizes the history of urban development in L.A. in "The Provisional City: Los Angeles Stories of Architecture and Urbanism" (MIT Press, $40, 380 pages). But, remarkably, she is able to make sense of the apparent chaos, and she allows us to see the forces that were at work in shaping and reshaping the urban terrain in which we live.

Cuff calls Los Angeles a "fugitive city" with "fugitive architecture" because, as she suggests, L.A. is a place where architects and builders tend to run away from the city's own rich architectural heritage and its own history of urban growth. Some of the most colorful and vital communities in Southern California were almost hidden from sight--the largely Latino neighborhood in Chavez Ravine is a good example--until they came under the scrutiny of some ambitious developer.

FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Saturday May 26, 2001 Home Edition Part A Part A Page 2 Zones Desk 1 inches; 19 words Type of Material: Correction
West Words--A book review in So Cal Living's West Words column on May 16 referred to Westchester as a city. It is a community of Los Angeles.

Ultimately, as Cuff demonstrates, even the most visionary project may turn out to be merely "provisional" in the sense that it is always at risk of being replaced by the next project based on an even grander vision. "Each such architectural scheme denies the past as it manifests a temporary vision of a better future," she explains, "for it too will experience the surges that it rode into existence, bringing about its own demise."

To prove her point, Cuff looks at five projects that span the last half-century of Southern California history--the Aliso Village housing project in a neighborhood once called the Boyle Heights Flats; a community of 750 Quonset huts known as Roger Young Village that briefly flourished in Griffith Park; the suburban housing tract that turned into the city of Westchester; the scheme to put 3,300 units of public housing in Chavez Ravine in the decade before Dodger Stadium was built; and the current debate over the development of Playa Vista in the Ballona Wetlands.

What drives the impulse to tear down and build anew, according to Cuff, is "a weird combination of faith and science, optimism and rationalism." Sometimes the planners and builders were driven by a sense of emergency--the need to provide housing for war-industry workers during World War II, for example, or the demand created by postwar population boom in California--and sometimes by the utopian vision of replacing "urban blight" with master-planned housing developments.

"A Decent Home," goes the title of one government report from the war years, "An American Right."

Cuff, however, sees less praiseworthy motives too. A profit-seeking developer such as Fritz Burns, who built the first tract houses in Westchester and much else besides, campaigned to keep the government out of the home-building industry: He once headed an organization called the "Committee Against Socialist Housing." And the very notion of "slum clearance," which was invoked to justify the destruction of whole communities such as the one that once existed in Chavez Ravine, is tainted with racism in Cuff's eyes.

"L.A. is a place we should know more about," Cuff concludes, "since it is paradigmatic in some regards, exaggerated in others, and in some ways unique among American cities." Her book, a work of meticulous scholarship and visionary thinking, invites us to ponder the subtle process by which any city is built, a process that owes as much to politics and economics as to architecture and urban design. Having done so, however, I will never look at those strip malls and dingbat apartments in quite the same way again.

*

The next time a 1930s gangster flick called "Kid Galahad" shows up on cable, take a close look at the guy in the spectacles and the fedora standing next to Humphrey Bogart. "If you are familiar with many 'B' movies of the late '30s or '40s," writes Joan M. Cunningham in "My Father Was a Bit Player" (Rutledge Books, $16.95, 120 pages), "you would probably recognize my father's face, if not his name."

Joe Cunningham was one of the character actors who are the unsung heroes of old Hollywood, and his brief but memorable career is detailed in an unabashedly sentimental memoir by his daughter. He started out as a sportswriter and a cartoonist--"Roofus McDoofus" was his strip--but he reinvented himself as a "bit player" during the Depression. So his life story turns out to be a behind-the-scenes glimpse of Hollywood in its golden age, from the perspective of an actor who built a career out of character roles.

Joan Cunningham recalls a childhood on the margins of Hollywood. The family lived in Beverly Hills, but the house was rented. Ginger Rogers might be spotted in the neighborhood, but only if she happened to be visiting her mother, who lived in an upstairs duplex down the block. Now and then, a friend named Dave Chasen dropped by the house, and the future restaurateur would prepare an impromptu chili or spaghetti dinner.

And Joe Cunningham was present at the filming of a crucial scene in "Gone With the Wind," but only because he took his family to a hilltop in Baldwin Hills to watch the torching of some old movie sets on the MGM back lot in Culver City, a conflagration that later appeared on screen as the burning of Atlanta.

West Words looks at books related to California and the West. Jonathan Kirsch can be reached at jkirsch@kirsch-mitchell.com.

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