The last time I checked, the government of Dubai did not have to negotiate with rice farmers in Umm Al Quwain over its allocation of fresh water. The government of Singapore does not have to devise an elaborate financing scheme to entreat a government 2,500 miles away to fund its transportation system. Kuwait is not restrained by a property tax law approved 40 years ago by millions of voters who do not actually live there. Monaco has no poor people to take care of.
And yet: Rosecrans Baldwin has declared that Los Angeles is roughly the same sort of entity and polity as those cities are, not to mention historical predecessors Athens, Sparta, and Venice. In a quest to make sense of Los Angeles, he has personally declared it a “city-state.”
Baldwin’s revelation comes in the form of an essay in The Atlantic, “L.A. is a City-State,” and a forthcoming book, Everything Now: Lessons From the City-State of Los Angeles. (Disclosure: I have not yet read the book.) He seems dazzled by both the internal complexity of Los Angeles and its global prominence. Los Angeles has the biggest port complex on the continent, more residents than entire countries, an economy larger than those of most countries, and cultural influences from every corner of the globe.
I get that Los Angeles is confusing. Few human creations are less scrutable than the region’s tangle of freeways, neighborhoods, peoples, natural landforms, and jurisdictions. People can live years in the Los Angeles region without fully discerning the difference between the City of Los Angeles, the County of Los Angeles, the county’s component cities or—hang on to your hats—the four other counties and dozens of other cities that make up the metro region.
Sure, Los Angeles is a mess. But we should be honest about what kind of mess it is—or, at least, what kind of mess it isn’t.
Sure, Los Angeles is a mess. But we should be honest about what kind of mess it is—or, at least, what kind of mess it isn’t. Whether you prefer metro area, urban region, Metropolitan Statistical Area, conurbation, tri-county area, or whatever cute name the weather forecasters use, nothing in the United States qualifies as a city-state (states in the United States aren’t even states).
Himself a transplant to Los Angeles (by way of Connecticut), Baldwin adopts the tired insouciance common to newcomers, through which they feel entitled to declare Los Angeles whatever they want it to be. Often, these declarations involve insipid observations about yoga and natural foods (according to quasi-regular quips in The New York Times style section), but they don’t usually rewrite the rules of political geography.
Baldwin cites Aldous Huxley’s trope of L.A. as “19 suburbs in search of a city” (nope, never heard that one before) to explain why we need some other way to conceptualize the city. He writes, “people use Los Angeles to refer to both the city and the county, which in fact is composed of 88 separate cities,” as if that’s a news flash. He writes, ”To call L.A. a city doesn’t account for its game of thrones, the ways that county supervisors, city-council members, and eccentric billionaires tug at power.” But that’s exactly what a city is, whether you’re referring to a municipality or to the more expansive notion of a metro area, which is really what Baldwin is talking about. Metro areas are and have always been dynamic entities strained, on the one hand, by higher-level governments and markets and, on the other hand, by their component parts, which, in turn, experience their own internal tensions.
Baldwin briefly mentions a faraway place called Sacramento (California’s capital, in case you didn’t know), and a certain entity called the federal government, as if Los Angeles’s size renders them mere curiosities.
Baldwin briefly mentions a faraway place called Sacramento (California’s capital, in case you didn’t know), and a certain entity called the federal government, as if Los Angeles’s size renders them mere curiosities. Here, he ignores what makes a city-state special: it’s not the city—it’s the state. Los Angeles is about as sovereign as Sheikh Maktoum is modest.
Sacramento influences, directly and indirectly, Los Angeles’ and other cities’ budgets, transportation projects, housing plans, educational resources, redevelopment regimes, and everything else from speed limits to building codes. Debates are taking place in the Sacramento Capitol now about what sort of housing cities may be forced to allow or, more bureaucratically, what sort of development cities may be forced not to prohibit. If Sacramento approves a $15 billion tunnel to save the smelt and deliver water to farmers, Los Angeles will pay its share. And, because state policy must apply to all citizens fairly, the needs and desires of 10 million people in Los Angeles County are no less valid than those of 1,200 people in Alpine County.
Cities and the state don’t even like each other. Take housing: the state recognizes a shortage of over 2 million units and wants cities to do their part. Cities believe their zoning powers are sacrosanct and cry out to defend their “local control.” The state usually prevails, as cities exist only because the state recognizes their charters. But almost everyone is bitter.
Meanwhile, Washington, D.C., floats loans for Los Angeles’s transit projects, sends varying amounts of funding for housing, and, at times, has facilitated the destruction of entire neighborhoods in the name of “urban renewal.” And until Los Angeles adopts Dogecoin as its currency, ATMs in Beverly Hills are still spitting out the same greenbacks as they do in Bismarck, Boca Raton, and the Bronx. The twin ports would grind to a halt if not for the warehouse and rail infrastructure in the two counties of the Inland Empire and would have no purpose if not to transport goods to the 320 million Americans who don’t live in Los Angeles.
Don’t get me started on metropolitan planning organizations.
Baldwin ignores these provincial annoyances and instead marvels at Los Angeles’s global prominence, citing everything from overseas real estate investors to launderers of drug money who pass through the city. But, again, none of this is necessary or sufficient to qualify it as a city-state. Saskia Sassen devised her “global cities” theory three decades ago, describing the central role of cities in the network of global capitalism. Her point is that some cities are, economically, more powerful than their host countries. But they still have host countries.
Whatever “Los Angeles” may be, it does not print its own money. It does not have its own justice system. It does not issue passports, enter into trade deals, or set immigration policy.
Whatever “Los Angeles” may be, it does not print its own money. It does not have its own justice system. It does not issue passports, enter into trade deals, or set immigration policy. It does not defend its homeland. It does not fund and develop hundreds of thousands of units of public housing. It has none of those powers that enable true city-states to punch above their weight.
In fairness, Baldwin briefly acknowledges many of these realities, from the currency to the water supply to the total lack of sovereignty. Then he merrily goes on his way, contradicting the very definition of “city-state” and making meaningless assertions such as, “We’re Angelenos first, Californians second, Americans third or not at all.”
Baldwin’s city-state fallacy is still instructive, though—not because it is correct, but because it reflects many people’s misunderstandings about how metro areas actually function in California, and throughout the U.S. There are dozens of them, from Boston to Seattle to Miami to San Diego, and many places in between. Though most of them carry the names of their central cities, they each consist of many different entities that attempt to coexist with each other, and they are all connected in different ways to the country and world around them.
The average urban citizen in California can surely be forgiven for not knowing where a city boundary is or for blaming a local official for a mess rooted in Sacramento. California’s urban policy often stagnates under the weight of bureaucratic complexity and stakeholders’ misconceptions. But it’s one thing to express a misconception in a city council meeting. It’s another thing to base an entire book on it.
The subtitle of Baldwin’s essay reads, “No one seems to know what Los Angeles is.” Not exactly. I know what it is. Anyone who regularly reads this publication knows what it is. I know plenty of other people who know what it is. Every city council member, state legislator, and urban planner in California knows what it is. It would be a better place if more people knew what it is, so that maybe we could realistically solve its problems rather than get mired in misconceptions. Glib takes like Baldwin’s do not help.
Let’s instead be aware of the interplay of governments and appreciate their powers and limits. Let’s be fascinated by the tendrils that extend into the hinterlands and the capillaries that tie urban regions together. Let’s get comfortable with ambiguity rather than wish it away.
Featured image: Echo Park Lake, Los Angeles, via Wikipedia.