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Following L.A.'s script

From its earliest boom-town days, Los Angeles has always sold itself as the city of the future. Thanks to its changeable nature and international status, it's still a model for how contemporary urban landscapes work.

December 03, 2006|David L. Ulin | Times Staff Writer

A decade or so ago, I went with my father to a Friday night concert in a Cape Cod town. It was August, and the village green -- an expanse of grass stretching off Main Street -- was packed with vacationers and locals, all eating hot dogs and drinking sodas, reveling in the coolness of the evening air. In the midst of this, four men stood beneath a gazebo, playing old-time standards: "Let Me Call You Sweetheart," "In the Good Old Summertime." After a few songs, I turned to my father and said, with something akin to revelation, "It's like a living turn-of-the-century museum."

My father took great exception to this notion, especially when I went on to suggest that, if such towns represented the past -- a last glimpse of the way we once lived in this country -- then Southern California was emblematic of the future, with its inevitable growth and sprawl. "God forbid," I think he said, which is probably how a lot of Americans feel. But the idea of Los Angeles as harbinger of the future is hardly outrageous, and has little to do with the region's traditional booster ethos, the hype that tells us we live in a city outside history, in which the old rules no longer apply. Rather, Southern California's purchase on the future has everything to do with history -- with geographic history, with demographic history, with the history of technology, with our sense of this place as a final landscape, the last territory on the American continent, where we must finally face ourselves because there is nowhere else to run.

This futuristic sensibility is a big part of how Los Angeles has always sold itself, from the first real estate boom of the 1880s to the rise of the movie business and beyond. As far back as 1904, when a syndicate of leading citizens (including Henry Huntington, E.H. Harriman and Harrison Gray Otis) got the rights to buy up huge swaths of the San Fernando Valley, L.A. was a city with its eye on the future, a city on the make.

Yes, this was an inside deal, one that ultimately yielded more than $100 million in profits because of the syndicate's secret knowledge of a plan to irrigate the arid Valley with water from the Owens River. Still, in its aftermath, Los Angeles became the template for an entirely new kind of city, horizontal, sprawling, defined less by steel and masonry than by speed and light. Nature, for the first time, was no longer an obstacle, but a challenge to be overcome. Need water? Import it. Need to connect the most far-flung districts of the megalopolis? Build a network of roads, of freeways, and in the process redefine the relationship between the city and its geography.

It's no understatement to suggest that the future identity of L.A. can be traced to the Valley land deal, which set in motion a whole host of developments that continue to unfold to this day. In that sense, it was the syndicate's ability to conceptualize the future, and the role of Los Angeles within it, that set the stage for much that was to come.

Such a future, to be sure, has not always been bright or sunny; it often comes at quite a cost. In the case of the Valley, the price was the Owens Valley, and the lingering implications of a water war that, in one form or another, has gone on for 100 years. But before we judge the past too harshly, it's important to remember that history is complicated, and that events, once set in motion, play out in a variety of ways.

Whatever we think about its origins, Los Angeles is now a laboratory for both our nightmares and our dreams. The city's sprawl, its apparent shapelessness, has for better or worse become a model for how contemporary urban landscapes work, with its de-emphasis of the center in favor of a constellation of satellite communities.

Meanwhile, L.A.'s ethnic and cultural diversity has made it a new kind of international city, belying the mythos of the melting pot in favor of something far more elusive and profound. That's a key development, because it suggests the way the rest of the country -- indeed, the world -- is going, as borders become increasingly fluid and we elide into an economy of global scale.

More to the point, Southern California's diversity adds up to a wealth of experience, of identities, that makes L.A. a city without a defining narrative. Detractors like to highlight this as emblematic of our essential rootlessness, but as usual, they miss the point. Instead, it's a three-dimensional expression of the notion that in Los Angeles, like everywhere, we are all just making it up as we go along.

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