The Freeway

February 12, 2016

L.A. is a great big freeway
Put a hundred down and buy a car

The freeways move you. Except when they don’t. lafreeway1They are theoretical works of genius, “existential limbo where man sets out each day in search of western-style individualism,” according to Brock Yates author, Smokey and the Bandit II and Cannonball Run scriptwriter, editor of Car and Driver magazine, but a failure in practice to efficiently and equitably move the number of people who want to use and depend on using them.

I got reacquainted with the L.A. system a couple days ago, taking the San Diego Freeway – the Fightin’ 405! – from the westside to San Pedro, the Port of Los Angeles, and back again. For the most part, it worked, for me, driving it on off-hours, such as they are here. Twenty-eight miles (45 kilometres), quickly and hassle-free, no delays except for that one with the wrong turn-off, up and over the Vincent Thomas Bridge to the ominously named Terminal Island. It wasn’t. I was able to make it back to my original destination.

The return trip home was a little less smooth, not disastrously so or even that soul-crushing although, any sort of auto-induced traffic snarl kills me just a little on the inside. lafreeway2I wasn’t pressed for time, so the wait wasn’t critical. It’s just, you know, fuck. Sitting in your car, am I right?

It was just past midday, 1 o’clock or so, on a Wednesday. Nothing more than volume, would be my guess, to explain the standstill. Bunching up at freeway interchanges. The 110-405 first and then the 405-10. That 35 minute (without traffic) Google map predicted return home now closer to double that.

Dreams turn into dust and blow away
And there you are without a friend
You pack your car and ride away

The promised ease of mobility implicit with car use comes with tons of concrete and unadvertised strings attached, asterisks and caveats. Los Angeles freeways are huge monstrosities of engineered construction. They take up a lot of prime real estate in order to provide the space necessary for drivers to access the convenience and car commercial abandon. lafreeway3And that’s just the immediately obvious roads, lanes you notice. Sound barrier walls run alongside many of the freeways, dividing them from the neighbourhoods they cut through. The massive footings that keep portions of the freeway sections elevated and looming over many of these same neighbourhoods and communities aren’t inconsequential either.

“… the freeway system in its totality is now a single comprehensible place, a coherent state of mind, a complete way of life,” Reyner Banham writes in his 1971 book Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies. “The freeway is where the Angelenos live a large part of their lives.”

Behind the wheel of a car, stuck in traffic. This expression of personal freedom exacted by heavy collective costs, it turns out. lafreewayIf too many of us are determined to pursue our individualism and freedom this way, very few of us actually achieve it. There isn’t room, at least not in cities, even cities like Los Angeles that operated under the assumption that space was unlimited. “I was amazed at the size of the city…,” Christopher Isherwood said of Los Angeles back in 1939 (h/t David Ulin’s Sidewalking). “There seemed no reason why it should ever stop.” Sprawl to a crawl was the inevitable outcome of such an impression.

“The private car and the public freeway together provide an ideal – not to say idealized – version of democratic urban transportation,” Reyner Banham wrote, “door-to-door movement on demand at high average speeds over a very large area.”

While he offered qualifiers to that statement, to the limits of who enjoyed such freedom, to the very nature of that freedom, Banham was a big fan of what he called “Autopia”, one of the ecologies in his book. lafreeway4It was certainly preferable to the mess of public transit he experienced in London, Paris and New York at the time. There were drawbacks to auto-dependence, for sure, but in the end, “the freeway is not a limbo of existential angst,” Banham concluded [italics his], “but the place where they [Los Angeles drivers] spend the two calmest and most rewarding hours of their daily lives.”

Such an effusive statement about driving seems laughable, even factoring in the time frame it was written in. It sounds more like advertising copy than the actual insightful and provocative urban thinking the rest of Banham’s book actually presents. It’s little wonder this section is the briefest of his 4 ecologies. It’s almost as if Banham couldn’t take himself seriously on the subject.

Even if the driving in his “Autopia” was as blissful and awesome as Banham claimed, it certainly isn’t any longer, more than 40 years on. It’s become more of a chore, a slog, a grind. Autopia’s been rear-ended by Carmegeddon. Here’s what we know now that previous generations either didn’t or chose to ignore: lafreeway5there’s no building ourselves out of the mess, no matter how much we keep trying. More roads won’t fix it. Self-driving cars will only make the prospect of driving more attractive which, when all is said and done, will encourage more people into cars. Where are they all going to go? Driving begets driving.

Chasing freedom and self-identity in the same fashion as everyone else doesn’t lead to much of either, regardless of the make or colour of your car.

L.A. is a great big freeway
Put a hundred down and buy a car
In a week, maybe two, they’ll make you a star
Weeks turn into years
How quick they pass
And all the stars that never were
Are parking cars and pumping gas

bacharachly submitted by Cityslikr


Downtown After Dark

February 3, 2016

I’m not a big fan of street festivals. The kind where they close down a few blocks of one street to vehicular traffic, set up information booths, food stalls and stands, roulette wheels, amusement rides for the kids. streetfestivalThe Lovin’ Spoonful’s Summer in the City invariably playing on a corner sound system.

I like the idea, in theory. Pedestrians taking back the streets. It’s just the inevitable crush of people, grinding things to a slow crawl, the bike pedal to the shin from a passing cyclist on foot, tzatziki on your shoe, dripped off from that guy’s gyro. People love these events! Why aren’t there more of them? Hint, hint. Hint, hint.

None of this stopped me, however, from heading downtown to check out Bringing Back Broadway on Friday night.

Wait a minute, I hear you thinking. Downtown? “Downtown”?? You’re in Los Angeles, aren’t you? What do you mean by “heading downtown”.

You snooty easterner.downtownLA

But I do understand your confusion.

Back in the day, the early-90s to be exact, the last time I spent any time here, downtown Los Angeles was something of a mythical place, a place you’d never think of going unless you had to. I travelled there once, when I had to get some visa work done. During office hours, in and out, no looking back.

Downtown Los Angeles loomed grimly in the distance, over your shoulder across the 101 and 110 freeways, when you were taking in a Dodgers’ game at Chavez Ravine. Or maybe you might venture there on Sunday mornings to walk through the farmer’s market. Downtown Los Angeles was that forbidden zone outside the convention centre if you were unlucky enough to have to attend to business there.herebedragons

“Downtown L.A. in the 1990s was the most terrifying urban landscape I have seen,” writes David Ulin in the final chapter of his book, Sidewalking.

That was over 20 years ago. Downtown Los Angeles has since been undergoing something of a renaissance. Was it that 5 stop subway, running from Union Station to MacArthur Park that opened back in 1993? Sure, why not. Let’s heap all the credit on public transit. It feels appropriately ironic.

Downtown Los Angeles is so happening these days, it even has its own little moniker. DTLA. Which doesn’t really roll snappily off the tongue, though. Like the area it represents, it is a work in progress.losangelestheatre

So ingrained is the impossibility of a downtown Los Angeles in my mind that I found it hard to grasp that there was once a vibrant downtown to revive. Yet, as Reyner Banham describes in Los Angeles: The Architecture of 4 Ecologies, Los Angeles “was an inland foundation that began to leap-frog to the sea in the railway age…” The city as we currently know it mushroomed into being from the railway lines running out from the historic core, opening up tracts of land to the coast, further inland over and through the mountains to real estate speculation and development. So successfully did the increased mobility spur the growth of people to other places throughout the region that, with the rise of the private automobile hitting its stride by the 1920s, no longer did those having the choice see the need to live or, in some cases, do business downtown. De-populating the core. A familiar pattern.

Broadway is one of the oldest streets in the oldest part of Los Angeles and, unsurprisingly, given its name, is home to the city’s theatre district. The “historic theatre district”, in fact. marqueeVaudeville and classic old movie houses dot the street. There was once a bustling commercial and retail sector in the area too, with the early-20th century vintage buildings still standing in the area as proof.

Downtown Los Angeles was so abandoned, both literally and figuratively, that many of these structures were simply left behind rather than razed to make way for new construction. Derelict through sheer neglect but not wiped from the map. Something to work with. A place to revitalize.

While Broadway itself feels and looks to be in the early stages of this revival, I think only 2 of the 13 extant theatres are up and running in any sort of fashion, many of the other buildings on the street don’t appear to be open for business either, the wider downtown area is definitely in full renewal mode. Trendy (and presumably expensive) loft apartments are now a thing. Bars and restaurants are plentiful enough to host pub crawls. marquee1Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall sits beside the Broad Museum, both across from the Museum of Contemporary Art, all atop Bunker Hill. Access to public transit abounds.

Downtown L.A. is becoming the very model of an easterner’s view of a proper downtown. There is now a there there! A destination, as evidenced by the packed crowd, fighting its way along Broadway between 3rd and 7th Streets, past the chess-boxing biathalon and silent disco, lining up for a half block for an inside tour of the Roxie or Rialto or Cameo theatre. I wasn’t able to jot down the name of which one as I was too cramped to work a pen and notebook.

I’d just have to come back to check it out another time when the place wasn’t so much less crowded as differently crowded. With fewer tourists. bradburybuildingLike me.

Which is when I realized, not that I was a tourist here in Los Angeles, I am, but that the downtown of the city was a destination for me. It didn’t sit pretty much in my backyard, an easy walk or bike ride away. To get here from where I live, I’m the better part of an hour on public transit. On a good trip.

According to every rule I’d learned in the urban playbook, I have become a suburbanite. And it happened so quickly – I’ve only been here since the 23rd of January — I hadn’t even noticed.

surprisingly submitted by Cityslikr