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'Crazy Shaw's' sound advice

A colorful figure from L.A.'s past hated overdevelopment, and he's still right.

August 11, 2007|Ralph E. Shaffer | Ralph E. Shaffer is a professor emeritus at Cal Poly Pomona. .

Los Angeles social crusader Frederick M. Shaw was known as "Crazy Shaw," but this week's action by the City Council welcoming tenements in downtown L.A. shows that Shaw may have been one of the sanest people in the city's history.

In the 1870s and '80s, Shaw, Laurel Canyon's first counterculture resident and one of Southern California's forgotten dreamers, peppered the Los Angeles Times and other papers with letters warning against the urbanization of paradise. From his treehouse off what is now Wonderland Avenue, Shaw inveighed against a type of regional transformation that looks familiar today.

This week, the City Council approved zoning changes that will allow construction of buildings closer to the property line, reduce setback requirements and encourage dense high-rise housing such as has never been seen in Los Angeles. There is some justification for the new zoning as a means of providing inexpensive housing in the central city, but there are significant downsides.

These go beyond the legitimate concerns expressed by affordable-housing advocates that few of the new units will cater to those in lower incomes. A higher-priced apartment or condo will inevitably become home to multiple families that collectively can afford the inflated rent. That's the problem. Cramped living leads to health risks, social tensions and gang activity.

While supporters of the new zoning applaud our move toward Manhattanization, Los Angeles will begin to look more like New York in 1890 or Hong Kong in the mid-20th century.

It was precisely this sort of development that Shaw feared would occur in Los Angeles at the end of the 19th century, bringing with it the threat of slums and disease. Already in large Eastern and Midwestern cities, multistoried tenements covered virtually all of the land on which they were built, leaving only a small open space in the back for a single privy, one that usually served several families.

Shaw knew that epidemics thrive in crowded conditions, especially among the poor. Years later, social scientists invented the phrase "urban penalty" to explain what Shaw already understood: the noticeably higher death rate from a large number of common diseases occurring among city dwellers as contrasted with rural inhabitants. The high mortality rate among the poor stemmed directly from the squalor in which the urban lower classes lived.

Shaw was not a great advocate of cities. He liked them even less when great masses of people were crowded into dimly lighted, poorly ventilated and disease-infested tenements.

In 1873, he wrote: "The best informed look upon cities as excrescences to be avoided. They contaminate; and this contagion reaches all, whether urban, suburban, or rustic, none escape. The vices and disorders that afflict humanity originate in cities. To obtain respite and cessation from these afflictions, cities, as now known, must be abandoned."

He offered a plan for Southern California, suggesting that each family own at least half an acre. The lot size provided adequate space for both an outdoor privy and a well, situated far enough apart for sanitary purposes.

Shaw urged construction of homes meeting his requirements for ventilation and sanitary arrangements, "sold, if possible, on the installment plan."

Southern California grew along the lines proposed by Shaw. Better sewers eliminated the need for half-acre lots, but most people preferred single-family homes with outside living space. Now city planners want to reverse that trend.

Yes, the kind of apartments encouraged by the council might be suitable for a single person, and it's unlikely overcrowding will lead to the sort of epidemics Shaw warned about. But inevitably the location and desire to reduce the amount paid for rent will entice whole families, or several families, to crowd into these Lilliputian residences, and the predictable results will include squalor, crime and other hazards that haven't changed much since "Crazy Shaw" warned about them.

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