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Atlantic on the move

As Los Angeles' boulevards reassert their place in the public realm, the transformation along Atlantic offers glimpses of a new city identity taking shape.

May 13, 2012|By Christopher Hawthorne, Los Angeles Times Architecture Critic
  • Pedestrians stroll along Atlantic in Bixby Knolls during the latest of the Long Beach neighborhood's monthly "First Fridays" art walks.
Pedestrians stroll along Atlantic in Bixby Knolls during the latest of… (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles…)

The 5600 block of Atlantic Avenue doesn't look like much at first glance, especially if you're zipping through at 45 mph. A dry cleaner, a pupuseria, a T-shirt shop and a medical marijuana dispensary line the low-rise street in the North Village Annex section of Long Beach. About a third of the storefronts are vacant.

But if you climb out of the car, you'll notice that this classic commercial strip — convenient for drivers, charmless and alienating for everybody else — is in the midst of a remarkable evolution.

A crosswalk cuts across the boulevard at mid-block, complete with a flashing signal for pedestrians. Orange and blue bike racks dot the sidewalks. Silk floss trees, lined up in a neat row along the median, frame a piece of tiled public art.

And the Brandon Bike Shop, which opened earlier this year behind a nondescript storefront at 5634 Atlantic, buzzes with activity. On a recent afternoon, Rodolfo Alcantara, a 19-year-old with a white stud in his lip, was working the counter while "Faded," by the rapper Tyga, thumped from speakers behind him.

He said the store caters to the growing number of teenagers and twentysomethings in the neighborhood, including him, who've become obsessed with riding and detailing their bikes.

"It's the new style," Alcantara said.

The changes along Atlantic are emblematic of the way urban planners, architects, shopkeepers and neighborhood activists are remaking the boulevards of Southern California, reversing decades of neglect.

The boulevard, in fact, is where the Los Angeles of the immediate future is taking shape. No longer a mere corridor to move cars, it is where L.A. is trying on a fully post-suburban identity for the first time, building denser residential neighborhoods and adding new amenities for cyclists and pedestrians.

In the process, the city is beginning to shed its reputation as a place where the automobile is king — or at least where its reign goes unchallenged. Cities across the U.S. followed L.A.'s car-crazy lead in the postwar era. This time around we might provide a more enlightened example: how to retrofit a massive region for a future that is less auto-centric.

Especially among younger Angelenos, including foreign-born immigrants and transplants from other American cities, there is a hunger for better-designed roadways and new ways of getting around. And L.A.'s political leadership is finally responding.

The biggest single change is the appearance of new transit lines. Flush with cash from the Measure R sales-tax increase, which is expected to raise $40 billion over 30 years, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority is extending subway, light-rail and bus networks across L.A. County, including the new $930-million Expo Line.

In addition, the city of Los Angeles is updating its basic transportation framework for the first time since 1999. It is adding more than 1,600 miles of bike lanes, backing an ambitious bike-share program and planning to hire a pair of full-time "pedestrian coordinators."

Smaller-scale and bottom-up initiatives — pedestrian plazas, food trucks, guerrilla gardening on long-forsaken medians — are also bringing new urban energy to dozens of major streets.

That transformation is the focus of a series of stories that begins with this look at Atlantic, which carves a long, gently meandering path along the eastern edge of Los Angeles County, from Alhambra south all the way to Long Beach.

"Boulevard," which comes to us from the French, shares its roots with the word "bulwark," a barricade or protective wall. In Los Angeles the boulevards have had the opposite effect, not dividing the city but stitching it together, providing a loose super-grid for the vast region.

The boulevard is the only part of the built environment in Southern California that operates simultaneously at local and regional scale. It defines the neighborhood block even as it gives sprawl a spine.

Most major boulevards in Los Angeles follow a route that represents, in essence, a series of negotiations between geography, politics and real estate. A few of the best-known boulevards trace the edges of the old Spanish and Mexican ranchos for some of their length. Others emerged as key thoroughfares later on, following the 1924 "Major Traffic Street Plan for Los Angeles," developed by the landscape architects Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. (son of the famed Central Park designer) and Harland Bartholomew.

For the last several decades, the boulevards have operated in the shadow of the freeway.

Built mostly between 1940 and '75, the L.A. freeway system ranks among the most audacious infrastructural achievements in American history. But a freeway is the antithesis of rich and layered urbanism. It offers a monoculture, a space ruthlessly designed so that one activity, and only one, can take place there.

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