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Babylon, Byzantium, Los Angeles

For one expert, the Southland's vitality is no urban myth

June 12, 2005|ABEL SALAS

Urban scholar Joel Kotkin waxes academic with the best, but when it comes to Los Angeles, theory cedes to worry, alternating with boosterism of L.A.'s assets, such as the giant bougainvillea in his Valley Village backyard. In his latest book, "The City: A Global History," Kotkin, an Irvine Senior Fellow with the public policy group New America Foundation and contributor to newspaper commentary pages, including those of The Times, measures urban greatness from ancient Babylon to the City of the Angels. We asked for the local perspective.

Your book lists three elements essential to a city's well-being.

One, this sense of cities being sacred. That was the biggest surprise--how important religion was. The second thing was public safety. Cities decayed because they were unsafe or couldn't control their peripheries. And third, the idea that [the city] has to be commercially viable.

Unlike some who claim creative bohemian types are a city's lifeblood, you argue that a city needs middle-class families. But L.A.'s upwardly mobile families live away from the city center, don't they?

Los Angeles is the originator of a new kind of city. My wife's family is from Paris and Montreal. Both are growing on the periphery. The inner rings of London have less people, the outer rings have more. The great target of opportunity [here] is our middle-class neighborhoods and how to keep those alive. Because of the failures of our city government, the failures of the schools, many leave these neighborhoods.

Your neighborhood focus runs counter to the promotion of downtown.

A lot of our so-called elites have what you might call a case of envy. "Oh, we've got to look like Manhattan." What is Los Angeles, chopped liver? We've managed to be a great city without a great downtown. Today, cities like Houston and Phoenix are growing without major downtowns.

So Southland sprawl is a good thing?

Los Angeles is like the Internet, a bunch of random access points. People are amazed [at] who lives here. Ray Bradbury, Al Toffler ... many Nobel Prize winners, many amazing artists. But there's not a coherent sense of that. It's hard to get a rise out of L.A. We don't care who the mayor is, particularly. We care about our neighborhood, and then we live in this organism, Los Angeles.

You're not a fan of planned downtown shopping/entertainment zones.

Downtown L.A. [already] has many classic districts, the jewelry district, the garment district, the ethnic districts. I love the garment district--this dense urban landscape with all sorts of ethnic groups and bargaining going on. To take the area around Staples and create a CityWalk--who cares?

What about the spirituality element?

In New York and San Francisco, churches are closing, being turned into stores and nightclubs. In Los Angeles, deserted synagogues become evangelical churches. We're building more churches, and in some cases synagogues and churches share space. There's a religious explosion in Southern California. And I think this is a tremendously good sign of vitality.

How does immigration fit into your Los Angeles?

Great cities have been melting pots. If you read about Babylon in the 5th or 8th century BC or Alexandria or some of the coastal cities in China in the 9th or 10th century, you see this mixing. Tenochtitlan was an Aztec city, but people from all over Mexico had to go to that place because it was the center.

Where do you weigh in on all the talk about the future L.A. as a Latino city?

I think that's a false concept. Los Angeles has in its roots and its future a tremendous role for Latinos. But I think it's a polyglot future. Latino culture will be a big part. But the Asian element is powerful. The Jewish element will continue to be powerful. I think L.A. is going to be this experimental post-ethnic city. As long as there continues to be opportunity, L.A. is going to transcend ethnicities. Look at my neighborhood: We have Orthodox Jews, Armenians, Israelis, Hispanics, African American, Ethiopian. We have people who go to evangelical churches and we have gay couples. And that's in the Valley.

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