Bicycles Run Through It: L.A. 20 Years On

For five hours, miles of streets connecting Hollywood and East L.A. through downtown Los Angeles were closed to cars and became a great festival of mostly cyclists, but also skateboarders, roller-bladers, and pedestrians.
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The American Planning Association (APA) held its annual National Planning Conference at the Convention Center in downtown Los Angeles from Saturday, April 14 through Tuesday the 17th. This made it easy for me to attend, since I live in Santa Monica, part of "L.A.," if not part of "Los Angeles, City of."

As a typical local I spent most of my time at the conference attending panels about L.A. But the conference coincided with two events that made me think even more about the metropolis I live in and love: the upcoming 20th anniversary of the 1992 riots (or, as you wish, uprising) that followed the acquittal of the police officers who had beaten Rodney King, and the fourth iteration of CicLAvia, the semi-annual bicycle festival that Los Angeles imported two years ago from South America.

It also didn't hurt that the APA's press, to coincide with the conference, had published a new book about how L.A. had come to be what it is: Planning Los Angeles, edited by USC planning professor David C. Sloane, is a collection of articles by several dozen expert chroniclers of the city about the shape and meaning of L.A. and the region.

Planning Los Angeles is only the latest addition to the large literature about L.A., which was the subject of a conference panel that featured Jennifer Wolch, Dean of the College of Environmental Design at Berkeley and a longtime observer of L.A., Robert Gottlieb, an author or co-author himself of a dozen or so books about the city, and Christopher Hawthorne, architecture critic of the L.A. Times.

I spent most of the panel scribbling down titles of books I have not read, but I was reassured that there still seems to be agreement on the three most important books about L.A., and I've read those: Carey McWilliams' 1945 Southern California: An Island on the Land, Reyner Banham's 1971 Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies, and Mike Davis' 1990 City of Quartz. The first two of these books have been iconic for so long that when I moved to L.A. in 1978, long before I had any specific interest in urbanism, a friend here gave me both books to help me acclimate.

Davis' book became iconic because its pessimism about L.A. expressed where the metropolis was a century into its long boom. In retrospect the book predicted the 1992 riots. The 1994 earthquake soon followed and that also seemed like something Davis had predicted. Those two events, along with a collapse in housing prices precipitated by the post-Cold War decline in defense spending, rampant gang violence, and the general sense that L.A. had become the locus and symbol of postindustrial urban poverty, caused L.A. to doubt its destiny for the first time.

But 20 years enable some perspective. I recommend all of Planning Los Angeles, but its third chapter, "Evolving Demographics," explains a lot. In a nutshell, during the past 40 years L.A. absorbed millions of immigrants from outside the U.S., most of them poor and uneducated, many of them illegal. This immigration peaked in 1990; for various reasons, including the cost of housing here and a lack of jobs, foreign immigration then began to shift slowly to other parts of the country. At the same time, for the first time in its history, the region became a net loser with respect to domestic immigration, as more middle-class (and mostly Anglo) residents moved out of Southern California than moved in.

Looking back, it was convenient for analyzers of L.A. from both the left and the right to act as if these historic changes shouldn't have had any consequences. The right was outraged that there was now disorder and dysfunction in a city that had always seemed under control, with clear lines of authority, even though there were now vast linguistic and cultural differences between public institutions and the population. The left was outraged that there was poverty where there had previously been opportunity and good jobs, as if they expected uneducated and penniless immigrants from Mexico or El Salvador to slide right into the middle-class.

Everyone agreed there was chaos.

On Oct. 10, 2010, Los Angeles held its first CicLAvia, based upon ideas organizers from the arts and urbanism communities had sold to the administration of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. For five hours, miles of streets connecting Hollywood and East L.A. through downtown Los Angeles were closed to cars and became a great festival of mostly cyclists, but also skateboarders, roller-bladers, and pedestrians. Like New Yorkers or Angelenos driving around Kansas, people suddenly became acquainted with the "drive-over" city.

The fourth CicLAvia was held April 15, which happened to be the second day of the APA conference. I decided to participate, and I joined a "feeder route" that began at the Santa Monica Pier and connected to CicLAvia in Hollywood. I rode the CicLAvia route as far as the Fourth Street Bridge over the Los Angeles River, and then headed to the convention center for more panels at the APA conference.

CicLAvia was both fantastic and fantastical, but my return trip made the most lasting impression on me. I rode my bike, this time in normal traffic, back towards Santa Monica on Pico Boulevard, which took me through the heart of immigrant-L.A., through neighborhoods of Oaxacans, Central Americans and Koreans.

What I saw, block after block, were storefronts bursting with activity. Twenty years after foreign immigration peaked, it's clear that those immigrants and their children are making their own version of the California Dream. Whether they stay where they are and "rebuild L.A." or move to hinterlands now full of foreclosed-upon houses, will depend on whether local government understands the potential they represent.

As I rode, I couldn't help but wonder if the fourth iconic book had not already been written about L.A.: Hector Tobar's novel from last year, The Barbarian Nurseries. It's a book about Southern California today that leaves it for the reader to decide what turn will be taken.

Frank Gruber is the author of Urban Worrier: Making Politics Personal.

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