A dream that we can see and feel

David Ulin on the landscape of Los Angeles @ Design Observer.

During the late 1980s, when I was first feeling out my relationship with Los Angeles, I used to visit from New York on a semi-regular basis, staying with a friend in his duplex in West Hollywood. Back then, I knew nothing about Southern California: The whole region was a question mark, or more accurately a sprawling emptiness, an outline with just the broadest strokes (Melrose Avenue, the area around my friend’s apartment, the Venice Boardwalk) etched in. All these years later, I’ve come to think of this as somehow representative, since even after nearly two decades of living here, I still find the place elusive, difficult to see except in pieces that often confound my sense not just of what this city is, but of what cities are, how they grow and operate, the processes by which they are made.

L.A. is, after all, among the most constructed of urban environments, a landscape almost completely dependent on technology to survive. Such an imperative is rooted into its very history: Perhaps the most important act in the development of Los Angeles — its creation myth — is the 1904 real estate deal in which, equipped with secret knowledge of a plan to irrigate the arid San Fernando Valley with water from the Owens River, a cabal of civic leaders including Henry Huntington, E. H. Harriman and Harrison Gray Otis bought up huge swaths of the Valley at cheap prices; the arrangement ultimately yielded profits of more than $100 million. The story is an almost perfect metaphor, with its insider intrigues and hidden agendas, and its tension between vision and corruption, by which L.A. is revealed as a territory of overlapping surfaces, where private and public aspirations collide. Still more, it is the incubation point of the modern city, streamlined and speed-obsessed, built on stolen water and expansive freeways, a landscape of celluloid and light. Were it not for the Valley land grab, there would be no need for the vast civic infrastructure without which Los Angeles could not exist, nor for the mythologies by which the place has come to define itself. “I smelled Los Angeles before I got to it,” Raymond Chandler would write forty-five years later in his novel The Little Sister. “It smelled stale and old like a living room that had been closed too long. But the colored lights fooled you. The lights were wonderful. There ought to be a monument to the man who invented neon lights. Fifteen stories high, solid marble. There’s a boy who really made something out of nothing.”

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