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L.A.: A "Both/And" City

February 15, 2013

When you arrive in Los Angeles for the AAG Conference in April, do not expect the city to fit snugly into any conceptual model you may have already inserted into your mind. Los Angeles is not one fortified force field of a gated community, everyone hiding in fear and loathing as they tremble behind grates and security bars. Neither is it a postmodern roundelay, with no sense of reality attached to it, all its residents dazed and confused as they wander through the labyrinthine lobby of the Bonaventure Hotel. Neither is it a non-city, a jarring antithesis to any conceivable conception of a city whatsoever. And surely it is not the utopian essence of American civilization, the final resting place on the western horizon where oranges as big as Zeppelins are only matched in their overwrought size by the hope glittering hope in the eyes of actresses stepping off Greyhounds from Dubuque, Tallahassee, and Paris, Idaho.

Despite the attempts over the last century of urban theorists, city “fathers,” and real estate hucksters to package Los Angeles as this or that kind of a city, L.A. resolutely maintains its status as an additive rather than a subtractive city. It is a both/and not an either/or city. Los Angeles is carceral and postmodern and every huckster’s dream and it is not a city at all. And yet it is more than all that as well.

“The greatest blonde of them all”

Much of the misconceptions about Los Angeles have arisen due to the tendency of writers to fit the subject to their ideology. Rather than regarding the city with at least some sort of semblance of objectivity, they have pounced on it as proof-positive of an already distilled idea. The boosters are the most obvious example of this, as their project was patently commercial and their method unadulterated hucksterism. Touted as being capable of selling wind, the early boosters of the late 1800s and early 20th century adapted a hard sell because they had to push a difficult product: an isolated city (just a town, really) on the edge of the desert with no obvious cultural amenities. The climate with its supposedly curative powers was the most obvious selling point and so the sick and dying were the first customers. In Southern California: An Island on the Land, Carey McWilliams reports that the region was advertised as the cure-all for everything from halitosis to carbuncles, cancer to corns, diphtheria to hysteria, the grippe to cases of “frigidity” and impotency, which had hitherto resisted every known treatment.

Once the movie business got off the ground, the “magic” of the silver screen was added to the sales pitch. Hollywood became synonymous with hope, its thrilling façade the antipode to the Midwestern blues from which so many of L.A.’s prospective residents were fleeing. “The folks,” a term coined by writer Louis Adamic to refer to the anonymous huddled (white) masses who migrated in droves from the Midwest to Southern California during the 1920s and ‘30s, wanted allotments of glamour rather than lots full of piglets sucking on sows. L.A. was hawked as the place where they could gain such an elusive condition. That L.A. inevitably disappointed, that not everyone was destined to be a starlet, that some who came here for a revival of life ended up dying instead, all served to create a sense of Los Angeles as nightmare, as a place of bitterness and heartbreak, and, ultimately, as the capital of noir.

Though it may have donned a more sophisticated veneer, the booster strain is still extant. When the Getty Center opened in 1997, local radio broadcasters such as Ruth Seymour of KCRW, a PBS affiliate based at Santa Monica Community College, instantaneously christened the museum the most important cultural institution in the world. Disney Hall was invested with legendary status even before its first concert was held. And when Gustavo Dudamel was hired as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the boosters and brayers were out in full throttle again, trumpeting the city as the capital of classical music. But L.A. detractors can be viewed as boosters as well, for in a perverse kind of way they also promote the city, boasting that there is nothing more dangerous and dystopic than the so-called City of Angels. Here, of course, the number-one “promoter” would have to be Mike Davis.

The City Behind Bars

Geographers who have nursed themselves on the image of Los Angeles as a locked-down fortress of gated communities, CCTV, and rabid racist cops are often disappointed when they arrive in the city and discover that security bars are not cordoning off every possible ingress and egress to L.A. Where is the dystopia we have been promised? Where is the ecology of fear? Where are the trembling white people, quivering in fear? The successful dissemination of Mike Davis’s version of Los Angeles is not often matched by its successful instantiation in the urban landscape of the city. This is not meant as a claim that Davis did not capture a good portion of the reality of Los Angeles at a certain point in time – the 1980s and the first half of the 1990s – but it is meant as a claim that Davis’s portrayal of the city in The City of Quartz and The Ecology of Fear did not freeze-frame the city as a perfect reflection of these books. Things change and no place stays still long enough to serve as a reification of anyone’s pronouncements, no matter how incisively powerful they may be.

In many ways, Davis’s work replicated what it condemned. His portrayal of the peril of South Central L.A. was not all that far removed from the hysteria with which South Central was depicted by the shrill voices of the local media. In effect, he was following the creed, “If it bleeds, it leads,” as he waxed melodramatic about the pervasiveness of guns in the ghetto without adding that guns are also widely available in Tacoma, Toledo, and Tampico. He also seriously misread the ferocious tenacity and wily resilience of capitalism, especially in his judgment of Hollywood as a “hyper-violent slum” constitutionally incapable of ever remolding itself into anything other than a serial disaster. Now that Hollywood is somewhat revitalized, this judgment looms as a serious error of prognostication. Here, I am not commending gentrification or pushing a Floridian renovation of the urban milieu, but I am suggesting that those who want to take on capitalism must do so with the full appreciation of its powers: as Marx says, it is a regime with the eyes of a lynx. The other item that Davis did not interpret correctly is the power of people to catalyze reform. True, reform may not be revolution, but Los Angeles has witnessed somewhat of a renaissance of progressive change since the 1992 Rodney King upheaval, much of it arising from grass roots organizing. Here the recent unionization of carwash workers in several operations in Los Angeles (two in L.A. and one in Santa Monica) should be noted as well as the more renowned Justice for Janitors campaign. However, retrieving the additive method referred to previously, Davis was right: Los Angeles is a carceral city; it’s just that this is not all that it is, as it is a postmodern city as well.

The Postmodern City

When Frederick Jameson immortalized the Bonaventure Hotel in “Postmodernism or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism” in 1984, he took the hotel as the metaphor for the city and the city as the metaphor for the transition from Fordism to Post-Fordism. However, if he had simply probed a bit deeper into the operations of the hotel itself, he would have come up with more than shimmering surfaces that result in postmodern disorientation. Despite its veneer of unreality, the hotel employs actual people, including clerks, maids, busboys, a janitorial staff, a managerial staff, and so on. This is, of course, quite obvious. Yet, despite his ostensible concern with the fate of the working class and the transformation of the economy, Jameson seems oblivious to this. He also remains much too steadily on course, not deviating from his tracks in the site he has chosen as his object of analysis. A few miles southeast of the Bonaventure, in the industrial town of Vernon, Jameson at that time could have easily met many a displaced industrial worker recently laid off from the Bethlehem Steel Plant. And a few miles to the west, he could have witnessed another stark reality as Pico-Union and the MacArthur Park were filling up with immigrants who had fled from the brutal civil wars of Central America. However, none of these “real” scenarios would have fit the bill as markers of the postmodern essence of the city. Therefore, Jameson missed what could have been a much more comprehensive examination of both Los Angeles and late capitalism.

However, the scope of Jameson’s misreading of L.A. pales in comparison with the “investigation” of the city performed by the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard. Incredibly, the main metamorphic fulcrum of Baudrillard’s interpretation of Los Angeles is a tornado effect at Universal Studios Hollywood (the theme park, not the actual studio). Even worse, he mistakes a tourist attraction version of a movie studio as an actual movie studio. Then he parlays this mistake into a congeries of “correlated” metonyms: the tornado effect is Los Angeles, Los Angeles is California, and California is the United States of America. He also decodes the freeway as a site of aimless wandering, with every Angeleno drifting from nowhere to nowhere on an endless maze of concrete. It never seems to occur to him that there may be destinations in Los Angeles, arrivals and departures, jobs and errands, or any other of the banal everyday obligations and duties which make up life for most people, even in the simulacrum of Los Angeles. And so postmodern Los Angeles can only be established by a willful deflection of the billions of ordinary things that happen in this city, day in and day out, year after year.

Edward Soja and Michael Dear climbed aboard the postmodern edifice that was already in creation; and here I want to confine myself to making one stipulation that in my estimation should be made mandatory within the field of urban theory: no one living and working in a city should ever claim their own city as paradigmatic of anything.           

The Non-City

That Los Angeles does not even deserve the title “city” is a canard that has often been hurled at L.A. The most egregious example of this is contained in Bernard-Henri Lévy’s American Vertigo, Lévy’s account of his hubris-inducing replication of Tocqueville’s journey through America. That Tocqueville never travelled to Los Angeles is the least of the many problems with this book. Lévy condemns Los Angeles as non-city according to criteria that he has seemingly pulled out of the air, one of them being that L.A. cannot be viewed in one fell swoop. That he has conflated the City of Los Angeles with the greater region of Los Angeles, which includes Ventura, Orange, Riverside, and San Bernardino Counties as well as L.A. County, of course makes this impossible, as one would have to be able to take in the Pacific as well as Death Valley, San Juan Capistrano as well as Ventura, and Malibu as well as Needles. Oddly enough, he does not base the inclusion of this item in his criteria on his own visual experience of Paris, his hometown, but on Victor Hugo’s description of Paris in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Hardly a scientific metric, on any account, especially given that Hugo was composing this book some 150 years ago. That Lévy did not have the wherewithal to trek to the top of Mt. Hollywood where, on a clear day, one can see much of the City of Los Angeles as well as a good deal of the adjacent areas, only reflects the weak intellectual coherence of Lévy’s project.

That Los Angeles is a city, albeit a different kind of city, seems to me to be beyond dispute. That it may exist beyond the boundaries of typical urban typologies only testifies to the antiquated nature of those types, metrics which have pretty much been abandoned due to their inefficiency in encompassing the city as it exists today from Lusaka to London and from La Paz to Cairo. However, retrieving our main thesis once again, simply out of the overwhelming generous latitude of our method, let it hereby be granted: Los Angeles is not a city. Its non-city status is merely one more additive element to add into the mix.

So What is Los Angeles?

I have tried to suggest that Los Angeles is a both/and additive city rather than an either/or reductive city. It is carceral, postmodern, a bleak blight of a non-city blubbering upon the urban horizon and a fascinatingly perplex conurbation of suave urbanity. It is a blob and a beauty, a city that defies categorical thinking and disrupts ideological typification. But it is also an everyday place, in which people work, love, sleep, die, give presentations, deliver speeches, chatter, drink, eat, and attend conferences.

Welcome to L.A.

Rob Sullivan

Rob Sullivan is a lecturer in the geography department at UCLA. His book, Dyspeptic Utopia: Los Angeles in the 21st Century, is forthcoming from Ashgate.


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