Essay: The Future of Los Angeles

August 7, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: On a clear day, you can see forever. All right, so there aren’t all that many of them, but enough, and then it does seem as if you can see right to the edge of the Pacific and back again, to the edge of the mountains, and way out into the valley and over there to the Hollywood sign. My big, messy city of 3.7 million people in 465 square miles.

Who could love such a place? It has no center, no soul, and it is just so outsized, like our signature basketball star, Shaquille O’Neal. As a native Angelino, I have heard these criticisms all my life. No, Los Angeles doesn’t cosset or curry favor. There is nothing sentimental or cozy about it. But its very centerlessness always seemed apt to me, a kind of challenge.

From its earliest days, L.A. was expansive, a place where you could find your own center, define your own boundaries, and, yes, your own bliss. There were no old world rules, no old world roles, and that’s what we liked. You could stretch out here. You could reimagine yourself, chase the American dream California-style. You could be a mogul, a surfer dude, or both; a starlet or an evangelist. There were always gurus to follow and fads to try. Everything seemed possible, and people came by the millions.

On a warm summer night, looking out at the sparkling vastness from atop Mulholland Drive, it was hard not to be stirred by the audaciousness of such a civic undertaking, and hear, if only in your imagination, the buoyant, multilingual din rising up from the city floor.

But in the cold light of day, that view became increasingly smoggy and increasingly troubling. The city was maxing out. It had sold its soul– and yes, it did have one– to the automobile. The freeways were becoming jammed, the mini-malls endless, and cookie-cutter, tile-roofed subdivisions stretched mindlessly every which way. All that we loved about L.A., all that freedom, that thrust in energy, was bringing it to its knees.

Small wonder, then, that the city has, it seems, reached a breaking point– rather, the breaking-apart point. Secession fever is in the air. On November 5, the citizens of Los Angeles will vote whether to let big chunks of the city pull away, notably the San Fernando Valley, which would instantly become the sixth largest city in the country, its own suburban sprawl of 222 square miles and 1.35 million people. Little Hollywood, with its fabled sign and sidewalk stars, is also agitating to become its own small city of 160,000. Together, the two would-be seceders make up 40 percent of the city’s total population. Seceders say smaller is better, that they want their own governments, police and pothole fillers.

It isn’t about white flight. The new valley city would, in fact, be 41 percent Latino. It’s about livability and self- rule, and it’s actually hard to blame them for seeking both. Though the rest of us– the potentially abandoned– tend to feel a little churlish at their chutzpah and ingratitude, and a little sad and a little ashamed– not a usual emotion for this city– that we didn’t protect all that we’ve been given.

What becomes ever clearer is that if you don’t tend your city, don’t make a virtue of civic citizenship, don’t pay attention to the things that hold a city together, then it might, by dent of unbridled growth and non-allegiance, fall apart from mere centrifugal force. The center will not hold– but what center? Yes, we have a downtown skyline, but in effect, L.A. has many downtowns. Century City, Universal City, none any more the real downtown than another. And yes, we come together around the Lakers for a minute and a half, but the frantic, localized sports sentiments evident in many other urban areas simply don’t exist here in this land of sunny, self-fulfillment. In taking care of ourselves, we didn’t take care of our city. The so-called city of the future didn’t plan for that future.

I’m Anne Taylor Fleming