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Sizing Up the City of Angels

September 07, 2002

Leaders of the San Fernando Valley and Hollywood secession movements claim that Los Angeles is so big, it's ungovernable. That's one of their chief arguments for wanting to carve this admittedly sprawling metropolis into two or three cities. But how big, exactly, is too big?

It may surprise--even disappoint--some residents to learn that Los Angeles is not the biggest city in the country, much less the world.

Oh, sure, we know that New York City tops us in population, 8 million to our 3.7 million. But how many commuting-crazed Angelenos realize we're far from being the largest U.S. city in terms of size?

That honor goes to Juneau, Alaska, at 3,108 square miles the biggest city in area in North America. OK, so its city limits take in more glaciers, ice fields, mountain ranges and ocean than people.

Runners-up include:

* Anchorage, 1,697 square miles;

* Jacksonville, Fla., 758 square miles;

* Oklahoma City, 607 square miles;

* Houston, 579 square miles;

* Phoenix, 475 square miles;

* And finally, Los Angeles, 469 square miles.

New York City, it should be noted, is not exactly minuscule, checking in at 303 square miles.

As for population, some of the world's great cities make Los Angeles look like, well, not exactly a small town but not freakishly large either. Los Angeles lags such cities as Sao Paulo, Brazil (10.4 million), Jakarta, Indonesia (8.8 million) and Tokyo (7.9 million). London has 7.3 million people spread out over 1,055 square miles. Berlin is nearly the same size as L.A., with 3.4 million people and 553 square miles.

Everyone knows of large cities that are run well and small ones that are run poorly, and vice versa. Aristotle's ideal city was small enough so that all citizens knew each other and, as he wrote in "Politics," could "elect officials and judge their fellows in a court of law sensibly." To him, 10 citizens were too few and 100,000 too many, which would make even a 1.4-million-resident Valley city less than ideal. Of course, in Aristotle's ancient Greece, citizenship was hereditary and limited to men; slaves, peasants, women and immigrants didn't count. Ideal is relative.

Anyone who has ever inched along in traffic from Van Nuys to Dodger Stadium or Tujunga to Venice Beach knows Los Angeles is big. How breaking it into three cities would shorten the drive is another question entirely.

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