Sunday, May 31, 2009

Classic American Cities - Los Angeles

Photo by Nseranno under CC ShareAlike 3.0

I don't know exactly when the story of Los Angeles began, but I know it is mentioned in Richard Dana's classic seafaring account "Two years before the mast." He said that in 1835, just as in today, it was the largest pueblo in California, and just like it's later incarnation, it was a sprawled out city of lengthy roads from many ranches and farms. Now, in the 1850's it would be briefly surpassed by San Francisco, but once again, as cities do find their natural place, it's brilliant position at the meetings of many valleys and where the coast bends from it's Southernly trejectory on the California coast, and it's place near many mountain passes, made it again the hub of California and the Southwest.

This map courtesy of Federal Government, public domain, 1920.

The history of modern Los Angeles starts with the red cars, in 1901. This 1920 map shows the extent of the red cars then through Los Angeles, Orange, San Bernardino, and Riverside counties. They carried workers from the suburbs to work and beachcombers from inland areas to the shoreline. As hard as it is to believe, traffic was actually heaviest on the weekends!

Back then, Los Angeles, with its many dispersed centers, was a place that was not so built up in one spot that an ordinary working family could not afford their own home with a view of mountains or shoreline, and the moderately wealthy could afford ocean front. It was this setting of supreme suburban spoiling that gave us "I Love Lucy."
Public Domain, courtesy of Wikicommons, Location Santa Monica, CA

Few cities are defined by trees, but the palm-lined boulevards of Los Angeles seem to call to a vision much higher, dragging it down to earth and defining a city. They speak of paradise.

One great irony of Los Angeles is that it's name means "City of the Angels," and yet is associated with the most libertine of social liberalisms. Yet this stereotype has very little truth to it. Although the city itself is very religiuosly disorganized (few cities are otherwise), Orange County to the East of LA is probably one of the most christianized parts of the US, and certainly the West.

Courtesy of Jon Sullivan. Released Public Domain.
Different parts of Los Angeles grew with different businesses: the growth of San Bernardino (according to "Fast Food Nation") came largely from heavy industry and steel, Pasadena grew with advanced science and technology (the JPL and CalTech), Orange County & Long Beach grew with the oil industry, and Hollywood, oh Hollywood. Hollywood was once just a sleepy suburb outside of the city, and now, in the minds of most, it defines it. And what a wild place too, whooey, the way those guys dress! I remember my friend Andy coming back from Los Angeles with a fur around his neck and a leather jacket. Granted, he went to Acting School, but still! This town grew up as the result of the foolishness of film producers in New York City, driving their folks westward.

It seems that when Los Angeles does well Hollywood does well (1940's-1970's), then things fall apart, it crashes (1980's), comes back again when the films improve (1990's), and crashes once again (late 2000's).
Palm trees in place, we enter 1940 and the completion of the Arroyo Seco Parkway:

Courtesy of Diane Kane of Caltrans. Public domain.
The Arroyo Seco Parkway was the first freeway built in California, and was an immediate hit. It greatly reduced travel time from Pasadena to Los Angeles, linking the two cities further, though today, just like the Alaskan Way Viaduct in Seattle, another very old but shorter freeway (1926), it is considered outdated with narrow lanes and sharp turns.

The Arroyo Seco Parkway did so well that in 1947, instead of extending the existing rail system, Caltrans built a freeway grid to expand their infrastructure. The level of freedom granted by automobiles and the prosperity created by a system that worked well for quite some time soon made LA a model for many other cities, and CalTrans a primary advisor to many state transportation boards. All their freeways are named, names like Ventura Freeway, Santa Monica Freeway, San Bernardino Freeway, and Ronald Reagan Freeway. This particular tradition is now fading, though, as many of these freeways are now simply referred to by their numbers (the 10, 22 freeway, et cetera.)

The red cars are no longer with us. Those freeways were so successful that there was no one left to ride those red cars - they were riding their own cars, sometimes even to their mailboxes!
Two American Presidents have come from Los Angeles, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan (and unlike ole' Jimmy, both were 2-term.) Nixon grew up in Orange County not long after the red cars arrived. Ronald Reagan grew up in the Midwest and then moved there to become a movie star. Ironically though, Ronald Reagan in many ways represents the values of Orange County better then Richard Nixon did, though Tricky Dick represented them a little better then most people realize.

Public Domain. Courtesy of Michael Price.

Today, Los Angeles is suffering through a hard time. It's middle-class, once the envy of the nation, is being ground to nothing against three millstones: unemployment, government debt, and housing costs. It's crime level, although now improving, is still among the worst in the nation. It's skies are polluted, and it's age-old optimism wanes to zilch. The transportation grid that was once an example to all of America is now America's most congested, and most "solutions" have been too draconian (usually involving tolls) to truly provide relief. Some say LA's narcissism and pride have finally caught up with it, but I think there's still some spirit there. Besides, the bad blood will leave first, leaving the good blood to rebuild. Let us all pray for the city of Angels.

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