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New York! New York! (but next year, Los Angeles!!!)

April 10, 2012

I spent part of January poolside in Palm Springs, enjoying real sunshine. At the mall, movie theaters, restaurants, and even on sidewalks I was pursued by the sound of Frank Sinatra belting out the same standard from his repertoire: “New York, New York.” I imagine that local retailers were targeting refugees and retirees from a freezing Manhattan, and certainly there were lots of people penciling The New York Times crossword over their breakfast bagels. But truth be told, most of the visitors seemed to be bleached Canadians (aka “snowbirds”) doing their utmost to acquire third-degree burns before migrating back to the Great White North.

The Grids of New York

It’s hard to imagine a place less like New York City than the cluster of settlements in California’s Coachella Valley, where most of the “towns” are built around golf courses. Manahattan – which is what most outsiders have in mind when they refer to New York City – is defined by its endless grid, which makes it remarkably easy to navigate but strait-jackets the wider flights of urban imagination favored by psychogeographic explorers. Not everyone sees it this way, of course, and if you have time you might pop in to the Museum of the City of New York City, which is currently showing a panegyric to Manahattan’s orthogonal orthodoxy from1811 to the present, “The Greatest Grid”(www.mcny.org).

Most people have little difficulty in grasping the urban ecologies of Manhattan. The monumental grid is contained within a narrow peninsula hemmed in by the Hudson and East Rivers which themselves provide edges as well as enticing prospects of what lies beyond (the New Jersey Turnpike!); the network of bridges and tunnels, seen from above, appear to support the entire urban enterprise at the center of its web; but the city’s true skeleton is the subway system, even though its disconnect from the surface dweller’s mental map can be disorienting. Once you’ve acquired a minimal vocabulary pertaining to the famous districts and neighborhoods (uptown, mid-town, and lower Manhattan will do for a start) you are set to venture forth (or see the article beginning on page 1 of this issue).

As a graduate student University of Pennsylvania, I absolutely loved New York City. My regular Friday ritual involved a late-night bus from Philadelphia to hook into the city’s energies, its gorgeous architecture and generous cultural cornucopia. I first saw the unforgettable Houghton Shahnameh at the Met, spending a small fortune to acquire a hardback catalogue. Years later, my affection for New York began to unravel largely because of Los Angeles.

The Ecologies of Los Angeles

When I first came to Southern California, it made no sense to me. It was Orange County during a blisteringly hot December (I know, I know, not the smartest place to begin). Plastic reindeer, shimmering in the heat, cavorted across the rooftops of terracotta bungalows. It was a different planet. During a subsequent visit, I discovered the Santa Monica bus lines and the beaches. But it was Englishman Reyner Banham’s book on Los Angeles: Architecture of the Four Ecologies that provided me with anenduring key to understanding the city. Banham swooned about surfurbia, his term for the beach cities; autopia (the freeways) which he compared with the boulevards of Haussmann’s Paris; the foothills (Bel Air, Beverly Hills, etc.), where the financial and topographical contours exactly corresponded; and the plains, thickly carpeted by infinite sprawl.

Banham loved L.A. because it broke the rules. Now, four decades after his book was published, he would still get a kickout of the city, but recognize the need to expand his classification to take account of vast changes. He would include Tijuana because L.A. is also a Mexican border city, and find a prominent place in his revision for the Inland Empire deserts. He would revel in the mestizaje urbanism of L.A.’sphenomenal demographic diversity. He would be gobsmacked by the proliferation of Southern California’s artistic, intellectual and cultural scenes, but grieve over L.A.’s status as the homeless capital of the U.S. Even though Banham refused to make any claims about L.A.’s wider lessons for other cities, he might agree that L.A. has by now altered the ways we understand cities everywhere.

2013 AAG Annual Meeting

At this moment, by a quirk of syncopated metaphysics, geographers will conference on consecutive years in two of the world’s great cities: New York and Los Angeles. You can prepare now by accumulating your 2012 memories of New York to compare with your kaleidoscopic psychogeography of L.A. in 2013.(Leave the GPS in the hotel. Please.) And take time to antici…pate the intellectual provocations likely to be inspired by L.A: urgent sprawl set against the golden mean of sustainability; the monoliths wrought by real estate oligarchs intent on transforming downtown L.A. into a 24/7 global entertainment spectacle; the multicultural revolutions being wrought by major art institutions as well as a resurgent grassroots; and a dazzling demographics that are literally altering the face of America. If you are nervous about stepping out of an orthogonal urban world and making the trip to the amorphous Left Coast, rest assured that you can still buy The New York Times every day in L.A. You’ll have to manage without Frank Sinatra, but there’ll be plenty of psychogeographers helping you search for the beach beneath the street. ¡Buena suerte!


Michael Dear
Professor of City and Regional Planning
University of California, Berkeley

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