Teaching Los Angeles

Los Angeles is so often criticized in this century as a failed city, an anti-city lacking the traditional hierarchies and radial density gradient that we have come to take for granted as key characteristics of functioning large cities.  That which in our minds constitutes Los Angeles is made up of many sub-cities, analogous to the outer boroughs of New York.  However, while the boroughs of New York are more or less subservient to the traditional model of radial density, with Manhattan as the official and functional nexus, the sub-cities of Los Angeles each contain their own density gradients, resulting in a multiplicity of hierarchies that makes for a unique, if exasperating, urban condition revolving around the individual’s desire to encapsulate himself using cars, homes, and gated communities, perpetually avoiding the idea of the collective Los Angeles.

Reyner Banham, in his 1968 series collectively known as “Four Pieces on Los Angeles,” addresses this condition on multiple fronts.  He compares the topological organization to that of London, in that both cities are agglomerations of smaller towns that have come to fall, more or less, under some civic umbrella.  After admitting to an initially unpleasant experience with public transit upon his arrival in LA, Banham declares the city to be a rather mature and distinctively modern metropolis.  He claims not only that the failure of the railways was a natural occurrence brought on by the inferiority of the Pacific Electric Railroad when compared to the much more comprehensive and freely-flowing highway system, but that the railroad company was to blame for the crime and poverty of the Watts ghetto by having effectively used train tracks to inhibit its residents from circulating between their own neighborhood and the rest of the city. He celebrates the prevalence of libertarian individuality in the citizens of LA, and embraces the fetishisation of the automobile and the rejection of civic responsibility as an extension of the art of doing one’s thing. Perhaps one of the most interesting things Banham said was that the lifestyle of Los Angeles was one that appealed most, in Europe at least, to middle-aged professionals seeking a renewed sense of freedom and excitement that could not be found on either side of the Atlantic seaboard.  That is to say, Banham wrote with a half-admission that the attraction he and others of his demographic felt for Los Angeles was a desire to spin a mid-life crisis into a Wild West adventure.

What Banham was unable to foresee was the astronomical increase in traffic density that has since become the most widely and bitterly held criticism of Los Angeles.  In the four decades that have passed since he wrote these pieces, the population of Los Angeles has outgrown the capacity of its motorways, thus making it much more difficult to maintain the lone driver motoring lifestyle.  Traffic no longer moves reliably, and many people are commuting daily from places as far away as Ventura.  The solo commute, once a symbol of glorious independence from public transportation, has become a tedious and time-consuming battle against far too many other people who also happen to be celebrating their independence.  Indeed, the highway just ain’t big enough for everyone.  There are simply too many people doing their thing over too large and dense an area that the encapsulated lifestyle so easily and romantically manifested in the middle twentieth century has proven gravely unsustainable.

image courtesy <a href=”http://philip.greenspun.com/”>Philip Greenspun</a>

What Banham described as a freewheeling aversion to government oppression may be retroactively and conceptually reassessed as a refusal to accept the terms of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s liberal republicanism, which has long been the overarching standard of American social contract.  The longstanding Angelino illusion that one may escape society by moving to a major city is not one whose irony goes unnoticed, and it is genuinely impressive that so many people have been living this illusion for so long without having some revelation as to its progressing eclipse.

Perhaps it is not too late.  The real problem with ensapsulated transportation at this time is one of congestion and fossil fuel consumption.  People operating as individuals do not possess the collective mind necessary to allow a smooth flow of traffic.  Deficiencies in driver reflexes and lapses in concentration cause traffic jams, collisions, and infuriatingly long travel times, while idling motors waste energy and emit noxious fumes even while standing still.  In this new century though, Los Angeles has a truly profound opportunity to be, as it once was conjectured to be, the most uniquely modern city in the world.  As technology allows, the city could become a large-scale experiment for infrastructural swarm intelligence.

Let the people keep their capsules, but make those capsules subservient, on certain roads at certain times, to algorithms that will allow high densities of private capsules to efficiently flow between destinations.  Fuel emissions and expenditure will no longer be in vain, and Angelinos, if they so desire, will be able to maintain their sacred private interiors, isolated from the forced company of other people that admittedly make many traditional forms of public transit disgustingly unpleasant.  At times of day and in areas where congestion ceases to be a problem, private vehicles will be released from the swarm algorithm and the control of the journey will shift seamlessly back into the hands of the occupant.  A commuter will be able to cruise up to his or her guarded suburban sanctuary in full control of his or her capsule, bringing home none of the stress or anxiety that would have resulted from a long traffic jam.

While it is easy at present to deny Banham’s relevance, to demote his essays to the status of period pieces, there is something unique about the idea of Los Angeles that is worth preserving, worth fighting for.  The first experiment for the City of Angels may have ended with disappointing results, but just as every laboratory must move past its failures toward new endeavors, so too must Los Angeles explore new opportunities in radical individualism.

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