The Impermanence of LA’s Built Environment?

What deserves protection?


The 6th Street Viaduct, Photo via L.A. Magazine

With every announcement I read about the construction of a new building, new museum, or a park redesign comes my inevitable questions: what was there before? Is there anything worth saving? And how will these new spaces shape L.A. in the 21st century?

My latest pondering of these questions has to do with L.A. Magazine’s recent discussion about the transformative effects the new 6th Street viaduct might have on Los Angeles. The viaduct’s architect, Michael Maltzan, believes the new design will help foster greater connections between communities, while still respecting neighborhood identity. The redesign looks pretty fantastic, and of course The High Line in NYC was one of the first comparisons that came to mind, in terms of the new viaduct’s potential to encourage both a sense of respite and a vibrant urban community. At the very least, I think it will inspire tourism from locals and visitors. But can it help create a new public identity for Los Angeles?

That question about the public identity of Los Angeles is one that I find endlessly engaging, and I’ve written about it at length. At the heart of the endless chatter about L.A.’s urban identity is the belief in reinvention. Maltzan himself argues that “the impermanence of L.A.’s built environment is no vice.” Rather, he sees it as a “real advantage” in a city that lacks a “longer history” of solving urban problems “in a particular way.” Instead, Angelenos have the freedom to approach contemporary challenges with fresh ideas without being hindered by the past. Yet, I found his statement rather glib. Should we be cautious about encouraging a sense of impermanence here?

L.A.’s reputation as a place of creativity, of innovation and experimentation, a place where you can throw off old ideas and start fresh, has existed for more than a century. These qualities are certainly what draws people here. There is nothing more exciting than imagining what new and untested ideas might spark a more vibrant urban life. But what deserves ‘permanence’ or protection? Who decides what built spaces are in need of reinvention? These questions touch on the complex issues historic preservationists deal with when determining whether a building or space is worth preserving. The work of the LA Conservancy comes to mind. 

As a historian, I can’t help but look to the past when I consider the reinvention of L.A.’s built environment. Some instances brought unquestionable benefits to the city, such as the Music Center and Grand Park. Other instances remain contentious moments in the region’s history, like Dodger Stadium, and the destruction of the Bunker Hill neighborhood. Were these tragedies or triumphs, and at what cost? The revitalization of the L.A. River comes to mind as an especially poignant example. And what about those spaces still up for grabs? Pershing Square is a perfect case study–the space has been reinvented many times over; what will its next incarnation look like? Is there anything currently there worth preserving? What even makes a ‘good public space‘? Maybe that’s a question for another blog post. 

In the case of the 6th Street viaduct, Maltzan “hopes it will be the symbol of a city bounding joyfully into the future.” It will be a modern landmark, to be sure. But does it have the power to transform Los Angeles? If not, what will?


Is L.A. Designed to Work?

Outgoing L.A. Deputy Mayor Rick Cole recently remarked that “L.A. is not designed to work.” Could he be right? Is L.A. too big for true civic engagement? Or do projects like CicLAvia and the L.A. River Revitalization prove this contention wrong?

Before I delve into my opinion regarding this question, let me provide a little context for Cole’s remark. In June, a group of 150 upper echelon Angelenos convened at a private home to discuss the future of Los Angeles. At the event, former Tom Bradley aide Donna Bojarsky spoke to the crowd about the “pitiful state of civic engagement in Los Angeles.” (For more on the meeting and guest list, see LAT Architecture Critic Chris Hawthorne’s coverage here. [1]) While Bojarsky acknowledged there has been an upsurge of civic engagement and exciting projects in recent years, something must be done to harness that civic spirit if Los Angeles is to become a “world-class” city. Hmmmmmmm. Haven’t the most elite Angelenos been chasing after this elusive ‘world-class’ status for more than half a century? What will it take to reach it? Perhaps that is a subject I can revisit again another time.

While Bojarsky may be right that there is a need to create a stronger interest in civic engagement, I’m not convinced her plan to address this issue is the right path.

Bojarsky is heading up a new civic initiative called Future of Cities: Leading in L.A., launching this month at LACMA. In the ‘About’ section of the organization’s website, it tells interested readers that, “We are hindered by a traditionally weak civic fabric.” This is true. And here is the organization’s approach to remedying this fact: through “meaningful collaboration across LA’s civic tapestry so that all our residents can thrive.” Future Cities is issuing a “call to action…[to] encourage greater ambition and meaningful change,” by bringing together leaders “across sectors, cultures, and geographies.” And finally: “this is the perfect time to promote a new kind of civic stewardship representative of today’s Los Angeles – a region of unparalleled diversity, technology, entertainment, media, venture capital, environmental consciousness, and creative capital.” The goal, it appears, is to create a “vibrant” future, “to marry vision, leadership and results to fulfill LA’s ambitions and achieve our potential.” My question is: Whose vision?

You can explore Future of Cities’ website further to see how the group envisions its role in crafting a new generation of civic leadership. I will admit I am intrigued by the list of movers and shakers invited to participate in its October summit. But I am not totally convinced this is the right approach. Isn’t this group just another incarnation of elites coming together to achieve what they believe would be best for the city? L.A. has a long history of producing civic organizations ostensibly interested in civic growth and change. Bojarsky herself expressed “some nostalgia for the efficiency and effectiveness of the Committee of 25,” [1] a group of white elite businessmen, including Norman Chandler, Neil Petree, and Asa Call, whose members ruled the city as what some have called a “shadow government.”[2] And while they succeeded in large degree, they pursued a rather narrow vision for L.A.’s future based on commerce and grand civic projects like the Bunker Hill Urban Renewal Project and the L.A. Music Center. There have been numerous civic initiatives, before and since the Committee of 25, that have sought such change. Yet, what did they accomplish? Not much apparently, if we are still trying to achieve ‘world-class’ status.

Indeed, things have changed since the days of unchecked power by the likes of a cohesive downtown business community. At the turn of the twenty-first century, the power structure of Los Angeles has shifted: “what had been a vertical apparatus has flattened out over time, reflecting the fundamental transformations of the city’s demographics and economics.” Residents demand greater power in city politics through city-charter supported neighborhood councils, and through social activism; labor unions also wield a significant amount of influence in city politics, as do lobbyists, developers, and big business.[3] In today’s Los Angeles, each of these factions must compete for power in a city with a formal and informal power structure more diffuse than ever before.

So who should we believe? Cole’s view that L.A. is not designed to work? Or Bojarsky and the Future of Cities initiative? I’m inclined to side with Bojarsky, for now, primarily because I tend to be an optimist. But I have to temper that optimism by noting that I’m disappointed by the group’s inaugural event. For an organization dedicated to fostering civic leadership to create a vibrant and inclusive future, why does the least expensive ticket cost $110? That feels rather prohibitive to me. Still, as long as there are people hopeful that L.A. can ‘work’, that the citizenry is capable of and interested in civic engagement, then yes, I believe there is potential for true civic engagement in L.A. What are your thoughts?


[2] Quote from: Mike Davis, City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles (London: Verso, 1990), 126. For more on the Committee of 25, see: Hillel Aron, “Who Runs Los Angeles? A Search for Today’s Power Brokers,” USC-Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism, accessed August 8, 2013.

[3] Hillel Aron, “Who Runs Los Angeles?”