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Solving the Urban Riddle That is Los Angeles

To use a phrase not normally found in the Southern California lexicon, my childhood neighborhood was neither fish nor fowl. I grew up on the Westside of Los Angeles in the 1980s and 1990s, back when the Westside was not fashionable but merely … fine. It was then, as now, a weaker version of the Upper East Side or the Inner Richmond, desirable but utterly characterless, with very little backstory of its own. What struck me even then was the in-betweenness of it all. 

The Westside is middle everything: middle density, moderately attractive, some walkable places, but not many. It offered none of the suburban amusements—backyard swimming pools, empty streets for skateboarding and stickball, neighborhood friends close at hand—of the city’s outer sprawlscape. But it also offered none of the excitement and freedom of a true metropolis. It’s dense enough, but not in an exciting way. When I got to college and met kids who’d grown up in Manhattan, with everything from the Metropolitan Museum to Broadway to, well, less wholesome destinations at their disposal for the cost of a subway token, I realized what a bumpkin I was. 

I was in college when Bill Fulton—publisher of CP&DR and my boss of many years—published The Reluctant Metropolis, his landmark analysis of the political economy of land use in Southern California. Bill focuses on the last quarter of the 20th century, meaning that, unbeknownst to me, I had grown up in the Reluctant Metropolis. For all that has changed about the world and about Los Angeles, Bill’s analysis still rings true. His book calmly explains how financial concerns—of real estate developers, city boosters, and public officials—shaped Southern California more than any other influences, in a process that Bill calls “the fiscalization of land use.” 

I am, therefore, a product not just of the palm trees, beaches, and mountains, but also of the growth machine, riots, the stodgy Proposition 13, the (semi-racist) fight against the subway, institutionalized segregation, and strip malls, strip malls, strip malls.


I am, therefore, a product not just of the palm trees, beaches, and mountains, but also of the growth machine, riots, the stodgy Proposition 13, the (semi-racist) fight against the subway, institutionalized segregation, and strip malls, strip malls, strip malls. I grew up feeling the reluctance: the lack of neighborliness, the lack of civic pride. I grew up in a functional but uninspiring neighborhood where I don’t think I knew a single neighbor. My Los Angeles was still one where it was fashionable to praise New York City, if only to cut down L.A. 

Fiscalization of land use means that decisions often depend more on fiscal impacts than on aesthetics, livability, or social harmony. That’s how we get auto malls and tract housing rather than main streets and row houses. That’s how we remain stuck alone in cars rather than riding the rails with our neighbors. It’s how we perpetuate the feminine mystique among homemakers marooned in the suburbs, and it’s how we get the urban mystique among all of us who grew up in the city but knew that there had to be something more. 


The notion of a childhood origin story remains relevant to anyone who lives in cities because, in many ways, everyone who lives in a city is still a child. Whether we live in Beacon Hill or Greenwich Village, Livermore or Santa Clarita, or Richmond or Compton, we are all passive subjects to the decisions made by planners and developers years and generations ago. Too many Americans are resigned to living and working in mediocre places. Too many of them, like the homemakers invoked by the title of this book, live in quiet desperation, unaware of the impact their environments have on them and unable to do anything about it. 

Therein lies the urban mystique. 

I borrow the phrase from Betty Freidan, who plays a prominent role in one of these essays. Rachel Carson, Jane Jacobs, and Freidan all published enduring, revolutionary books in, miraculously, the very same year (1963). In The Feminine Mystique, Freidan described the unsung plight of American suburban housewives of the 1950s. They were meant to have “perfect lives,” lived out in deliberately nonurban places. But, predictably, isolation, uninspired architecture, unchecked sexism, and the impulse to believe in “perfection” itself became a recipe for despair. The suburban dream was one foisted upon women (and men) of the era and not necessarily one that they chose for themselves. 

Cities are wonderful places, but they can be terrible places too—sometimes all at once. Cities’ mystique lies in the idea that their value is not necessarily evident or definable. The urban mystique is different for everyone. But, as Freidan implies, we must at least acknowledge that it exists. We must acknowledge that cities can be special places and that they must not simply be a collection of demographic data, economic output, and real estate transactions. Why are they special? Because people are special. And more people live in cities than anywhere else. Cities are where some people go to survive and where some people go to chase, and sometimes achieve, their highest ambitions. Cities will never be “perfect” the way the suburbs have been rumored to be. They can be better than perfect, though, as long as we don’t pretend that perfection should be the goal. And, ideally, they require everyone to contribute to their evolution. Urban life should center on inspiration and improvement, not passivity and resignation. 

The subjectivity of the urban experience unites this collection of essays, written roughly over the course of the past decade for the California Planning & Development Report, Planetizen, and other city-focused publications. I use “unite” loosely, though. I’ve covered a collection of themes and topics that are, I think, every bit as jumbled as city life itself. They range from grave issues like crime and housing to aesthetic niceties of starchitecture and setbacks. I hope it will all—through praise, criticism, or something in between—lead to provocation, consideration, and, ultimately, action to create better cities, especially here in California, where I still—for reasons I can’t always explain—reside. 

I’ve been lucky enough to write during a fascinating decade. Cities have grown more quickly in other decades (1980s). And they have suffered more problems in still others (1970s). But, I’d argue, the 2010s have been about as interesting it gets. Much of the stuff about which I am most cranky has been improving. I have many fellow members of Gen X who felt about their upbringings just as I did and have been working like crazy to reclaim the urban experience for themselves and the next generation (and their parents’ generations, in some cases). Principles of smart growth, new urbanism, and environmentalism have permeated the mainstream so fully that we rarely even refer to them as such anymore. 

What makes Los Angeles frustrating and unpleasant is the very same thing that makes it fascinating: it was built imperfectly, at an imperfect time. Now, Los Angeles—along with the rest of California—is trying to reinvent itself. That’s a difficult process: to shoehorn a new city into the old. In a 2015 CP&DR article on Los Angeles’s new mobility plan, I equated the process of urban redevelopment to the infusion of adamantium into the bones of Wolverine. It’s the geekiest thing I’ve ever written (and I don’t even like comic books), but it’s apt because, well, they are both unspeakably painful processes. This evolution stretches all the way back to Frederick Jackson Turner’s Frontier Thesis, on which I wrote my undergraduate thesis. He described the continent’s endless tracts of empty land as America’s escape valve and the thing that made America uniquely American. Turner pronounced the Frontier “closed” in 1890. By then, San Francisco had a population of 300,000 and Los Angeles 50,000. But the Frontier found new life in the suburbs, as cities expanded and conquered their own hinterlands. That lasted for another century. 

I’ve called it “the backwash of sprawl.” The unseemly metaphor is deliberate. We’re built some heinous stuff: cheap, low-density development from the coast to the mountains to the desert. Now this form of urbanism faces a reckoning.


This process is what former Los Angeles Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne refers to as the “Third L.A.”—the pioneer city and the post–World War II boom town being the first two. I’ve called it “the backwash of sprawl.” The unseemly metaphor is deliberate. We’ve built some heinous stuff: cheap, low-density development from the coast to the mountains to the desert. Now this form of urbanism faces a reckoning. 

The political element of these challenges has gotten more contentious and more colorful of late. The YIMBY (“yes in my backyard”) movement and its venerable predecessor and antagonist, the NIMBY movement, have both gotten more active with the rise of the housing crisis in the early 2010s, as the recession wore off and young Californians with disposable incomes—and penchants for urban living—found themselves with far too many homes to choose from. 

This debate also includes the social justice community, which rightfully fears for low-income residents who are being displaced, and it includes what I call the “radical left,” which is more outspoken, more militant, and reviles for-profit development. That’s why, for every great new development, be it a renovated loft building, light rail line, affordable housing complex, or community garden, there are countless others who cherish (or at least tolerate) the 20th century model of urbanism. And there are discontents who, either out of spite or genuine concern for their livelihood, resist the changes that many of us believe cities need. 

In that sense, the title of Bill Fulton’s book is as apt as ever. Any place housing 15 million people is nothing if not a metropolis. But many of Los Angeles’s citizens still resist metropolitan life. They didn’t buy into it 50 years ago, when center cities were genuinely unpleasant (and when white people were more overtly racist), and they don’t want to buy into it today. Sometimes, the best thing you can say about Californians is that we couldn’t care less about one another: you do your thing, I’ll do mine. That attitude might be great if, say, you want to become a Hollywood star or just put food on the table as a day laborer, but it is not a recipe for a great city. 

In Los Angeles and across the state, we do some things really well and some things really badly—sometimes at the same time. We protect some environmental treasures while bulldozing others. We preserve historic architecture while putting up crap left and right. Most notably, I think, we have ourselves one of the most spectacular natural environments in the developed world, and, excepting some gems, we delight in sullying it with utterly mediocre cityscapes. On the days when Los Angeles gets me down, I find some solace in looking up at the Santa Monica Mountains. 

To its credit, Los Angeles gets better year by year—in some ways. I get excited about new transit lines and many of the new developments. Sure, I try to stay balanced and objective in my news reporting, but I’m still a human being and a resident. The city is different enough now to keep me interested. I realize, of course, that the things I love aren’t universally loved. Much of the backlash against so-called gentrification and hipster-fication is understandable (if not always warranted). My fear is that these rivalries are going to lead to stagnation, at best. I hope they will not. Our greatest challenge is to make sure that urban life serves everyone so that rich and poor, marginalized and powerful are all enriched by one another. 


Though I majored in English, I took a class entitled “The American City” my senior spring in college. I read Kenneth T. Jackson, William Julius Wilson, Yi-Fu Tuan, and Jane Jacobs for the first time. I discovered that, indeed, cities result from choices. They do not arise by the forces of nature. And they cannot be dreamed up whole like the plot of a novel. 

I’m not a planner as such. I was not trained to write precise ordinances or ensure that things were up to code. The literature student in me was, and still is, accustomed to ambiguity, interpretation, and argument. Walt Whitman even taught me to be OK with contradiction—and to appreciate multitudes. And what has more multitudes than a city? 

The essays in this book, spanning 2007 to 2018, do not hold the solutions to California’s or America’s urban challenges. Again, I’m in the storytelling business, not the solutions business. Taken together, I hope they convey equal parts outrage and hope. They cover the big issues, like housing and gentrification. They cover fun issues like transit and design. They comment on urban-related art and on the culture of urban planning. They comment on, of all people, Donald Trump. 

Many of these pieces may come off as critical or combative, and I pick my share of fights. I realize that it’s easy to criticize, but I do so in the hope that cities can be marketplaces not only of goods but also of ideas. I am not a planner, a developer, a policymaker, or an architect. I am, for lack of a better description, an informed consumer of cities. I hope that my observations inspire practitioners to do their best work and envision the best possible projects and policies. I believe that anyone who works in the public realm deserves at least the potential for admiration, but they also must be held to account. Their work deserves as much scrutiny as any movie, artwork, or, indeed, book. I hope, of course, for every critique to include a glimmer of hope or a constructive suggestion. I do not want to wallow in quiet desperation. 

There’s another reason for negativity. In many ways, we already know everything we need to know about what constitutes great cities. We don’t need a book for that. We can experience urban greatness in places all over the world, from Kyoto to Istanbul to Munich to Paris to New York to Vancouver, to name just a few. These places are not flawless, but their success proves that great urbanism can transcend cultures and centuries. Indeed, though every city has its own streetscape and its own style, great cities have a lot in common with one another no matter what continent they’re on. 

Any time I think long enough about California, I come back to Joan Didion’s exquisite description: “here … is where we run out of continent.” Didion captures California’s essential ambivalence: an intense bipolarity that, in many ways, cancels itself out. California is the triumph of American ingenuity and the culmination of the great American experiment in land use: that of Manifest Destiny, in all its heroism and horror. It represents the celebration of conquering the American landmass as well as the melancholy that sets in when a great mission is finished, leaving uncertainty in its wake. It speaks to California’s sometimes naive fixation on the future and its often perilous disregard for the past. 

California’s cities were established almost as afterthoughts once the pioneers and rancheros faded away. Far be it for California to build cities like its East Coast forerunners. Indeed, how can a society built on forward movement ever seek to contain itself? To build lovely, lovable cities—of the type where you really want to settle down—would be to contradict the American spirit. And yet, as Didion tells us, that spirit became outdated a long time ago. As Freidan tells us, we cannot settle for desperation, quiet or otherwise. 

Featured image Wikimedia Commons.

Josh Stephens’s new book The Urban Mystique, from which this essay is adapted, is available from Solimar Books.




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