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The city rediscovers the street

No official place to rally? No problem. The protests for immigrant rights showed how L.A.'s public spaces are a product of their communities, not a planner's desk.

December 31, 2006|Christopher Hawthorne | Times Staff Writer

ACCORDING to urban-planning legend, the University of California at Santa Cruz, which opened in 1965, was designed without a central plaza for one reason: to inoculate the campus against the large student protests that were by that point already beginning to overwhelm UC Berkeley. Instead, students were scattered among smaller residential colleges designed, on the cloistered Oxford-Cambridge model, by Charles Moore and other leading California architects.

In truth, it's unlikely that the layout of UC Santa Cruz flowed from any deliberate anti-protest strategy, since the campus master plan was largely fixed by the time the Free Speech Movement crowds filled Berkeley's Sproul Plaza in 1964. But UC Santa Cruz's multi-centered design, whatever its inspiration, did help keep the place relatively quiet even during the height of the Vietnam War. At least to a degree, planning was destiny for the political life of that campus.

Los Angeles often seems to have been designed on the same model. Its geographical spread and lack of a single center have long meant that there's no obvious place for citywide gatherings. (If you wanted to celebrate New Year's Eve tonight surrounded by a thronging cross-section of Angelenos, for example, what spot would you choose?) Except for flashes of outrage -- the Watts and Rodney King riots and 1994 protests against Proposition 187, among others -- the city continued during the second half of the 20th century to cement its reputation as a place without much of a political street life.

Then came this spring's massive immigration-rights protests, which drew more than half a million white-shirted, chanting marchers downtown March 25 and packed another several hundred thousand along Wilshire Boulevard on May 1. Organized in opposition to legislation sponsored by Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) that would have ratcheted up penalties for entering the U.S. illegally and for assisting or hiring undocumented workers, the marches were the biggest political rallies that any American city outside of Washington has seen since the Vietnam era. Political pundits and scholars have analyzed them from seemingly every angle, concentrating mostly on whether the fervor shown by the marchers will make an impact at the ballot box. "I think it is the beginning of something," Louis DeSipio, a political science professor at UC Irvine, told The Times. "You have the foundation for a new kind of Hispanic politics."

The marches raise equally compelling and so far mostly overlooked questions about public space and the role the downtown core will play in a city that is increasingly dense and increasingly Latino. In that sense, they qualify as the biggest architecture and urban-planning story to hit Southern California this year. One way to understand them, in fact, is not as an anomalous outburst of civic anger or energy but as a particularly clear message about how the relationship between Angelenos and the physical spaces of their city is changing as L.A. evolves, however fitfully, from a private metropolis to a collective one.

It didn't take much more than a glance at the most dramatic photographs of the protest on March 25, the so-called Gran Marcha, to sense that. The photo of protesters massing at the feet of City Hall, taken from a terrace at The Times' building by photographer Bob Chamberlin, already ranks among the definitive images of Los Angeles. It is also a universe away from the iconic 20th century views of the city, most of which show serene private residences of steel and glass.

In fact, you could begin a lecture on a changing L.A. by showing Chamberlin's shot alongside Julius Shulman's famous 1958 photograph of Case Study House No. 22 in the Hollywood Hills. The image by Shulman reflects a city whose appeal had to do almost entirely with private aspiration. In Chamberlin's, the public is so determined to come together -- and to make a political point, no less -- that it simply ignores the fact that downtown Los Angeles could hardly be less hospitable to a large group of marchers. There is no plaza there to receive them, just some steps, sloping lawn and a clump of trees at the base of City Hall.

The most surprising fact about the marches is that while they seemed, from afar, to suggest a massive, unified will, they were actually more indicative of how the city is changing on a piecemeal, neighborhood-by-neighborhood basis. Gridlock and changing demographics are combining to make the sidewalk, the front yard and the local boulevard, rather than the onramp or the fast lane, the building blocks for 21st century L.A. If you have spent any time walking on Broadway downtown, for example, you understand that the marches were just an exaggerated display of the sidewalk vitality that can be seen there every day.

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