Los Angeles

Nobody Walks in L.A.

And that is just fine.

|

Sidewalking: Coming to Terms with Los Angeles, by David Ulin, University of California Press, 152 pages, $16.95

University of California Press

David Ulin is nothing if not indecisive. At one point in Sidewalking, the former Los Angeles Times staffer's book about walking around L.A., he listens, "by turns sympathetic and unsympathetic," to a prelate; the prelate's church, he adds, is "both familiar and unfamiliar." A few pages later, he's contemplating a moment in his life "that could have been any moment in my life or any other." In one of his most remarkable hedges, he writes: "One of the ideas I want to argue against is a sense of Los Angeles' exceptionalism, that this city is fundamentally different than any other, although in many ways it is."

He calls Park La Brea "a nonlandmark landmark." He fancies a photo montage that "reflects back to us both what we notice and what we don't." Observing another work of art, he writes: "If a piece of me can't help but be cynical, another piece is equally compelled." In Los Angeles, he declares, "order is a function of disorder, and clarity and chaos go hand in hand." Near the book's finale he poses a question that reveals nobody could have edited this book in a linear read: "Can I indulge in some Keatsian negative capability, holding two opposing ideas in my head?" As if that's the first time.

Ulin's persistent endorsement of both thesis and antithesis spills off the page. Promoting his book on a Los Angeles Review of Books podcast, he tells his hosts that "I've been thinking a lot about the fact that all the clichés of Los Angeles are absolutely true. But their inverse is also absolutely true." Discussing a moderately Disneyfied shopping mall called The Grove, Ulin tells the interviewer that it "feels both like a mall and not like a mall." He concludes, "I should hate the mall, but I don't."

Even sexuality is wrung through Ulin's ambivalence ringer. In the same podcast, he talks about L.A.'s flashiest cotton candy sexpot, a personality known to the locals as Angelyne. "When I first moved here, I couldn't stand her, because of her shallowness," Ulin says. "Then I kind of fell in love with her, because of her shallowness. Now I'm totally ambivalent about her." So whose shallowness is this, anyway?

If there is a firm thesis to Sidewalking, it is that Los Angeles is vague and undecipherable and inspires ambivalent attitudes we are to understand as interesting because they are not interesting. The book documents how a man first dislikes where he is and later evolves into a state of nearly perfect ennui regarding it. For Ulin, what's essential to L.A. is a shrug: "Is that all there is?"

Ulin's deep New York roots—which dominate the early part of the book more than Los Angeles itself does—nurture him for a mature adult life as a conflicted L.A. pedestrian. He expresses uncertainty not just about whether this trolley or that Metro line might be a good idea, but even about whether tunnels are good or bad places to be in the event of earthquakes. (They are good places, case closed.) He encounters himself on the street, the café, the sidewalk exactly as he encounters himself elsewhere: entirely irresolute. Trying to tidy it all up, he will permit himself little more than a pop-psychobabble resolution, then finally assert: "This is where I am."

Yet this slim book of padded sentences has been received rapturously. The Chicago Tribune found it "thoughtful and poetic." Los Angeles Magazine named it one of "seven books you need to read." Kirkus pronounced it full of "thoughtful personal views." The Paris Review made it a staff pick, claiming in the process that Los Angeles "is the youngest of our great American cities." (L.A. was founded in 1781, 42 years before Chicago.) The Los Angeles Review of Books called it an "always engaging, often riveting guide." Ulin's former paper, the Los Angeles Times, insists his book is "admirably wide-ranging in its chosen odysseys." Sidewalking was named a finalist for a PEN award.

It's not hard to guess why some people might welcome a book, no matter how noncommittal it is on so many details, that tries to puff up the ordinary experience of walking into a potentially revolutionary activity.

Urban progressives are not fans of the automobile. In L.A., as in many other cities, a phalanx of lobbyists and operatives ride herd with density-augmenting developers and the young city planners who curtsy to them. Together, they try to sell millennials on the illusion that walking and bicycling and public transit are not merely ordinary but noble and enriching activities, and that cars are violent mechanical obstacles to a sweeter, more meaningful civic life. At the same time, they throw their enthusiasm into boxy developments that are careful to allow for two parking spaces per unit because, of course, anyone who can afford such a home can also afford a car or two. Nonetheless, in order to sell the idea of transit-hub bliss to the aspiring renter, this odd marriage of social-justice revolutionary and development huckster must maintain, with a nod and a wink, that cars are the reason we don't live more deeply, more richly, with more complete knowledge; that bikes and ped power are the surest paths not only to environmental but to intellectual fulfillment.

This all registers as counterfeit to me, especially in Los Angeles. Sidewalking's idea of heightened engagement with life through walking seems false to me too. It does so not just because Ulin is even more confused about his relationship to L.A. than the lobbyists and the operatives, but because I know that in L.A.—where millions already know how to walk—the poorest, the most beleaguered, the most humble among us, who tend to be carless pedestrians, covet the purported albatross of disconnection and dissolution that is travel by automobile. Whenever I ride a bus that passes a used car lot, I see passengers giving the autos wistful glances that approximate the melancholy with which they might regard lost loves.

I am admittedly disadvantaged by my native status, unable to see my home of 58 years the way New York developers and Berkeley editors would like me to see it. But scratching the barest bit of history from the city, I know Los Angeles would be merely another Duluth but for the personal and intimate and sexy and violent and controllable and fetishized and all-consuming spaces afforded by automobiles, which L.A. has successfully and indefatigably adapted to its civic identity the same way New Orleans adapted jazz and revelry to its.

I walk every day in L.A., often for miles, and have for decades. The benefits as I understand them are not complicated: health, occasional encounters with neighbors, the incidental garnering of landscaping tips. But my L.A. existence has been facilitated at nearly every stage, and made far more meaningful, by access to an automobile. I know I could never have learned to deadhead and care for the roses at The Huntington, nor could I have met my once-far-across-town wife, nor tended to either my ailing suburban parents or hers, nor moved to the community I have called home for 25 years, nor become a vice president of a commercial bank, nor attended a college and read all the wonderful books I did there, without unrepentant access to a car. Nor did the environmental scientist and smog specialist from whose teachings I fulfilled my science requirement ever stray far from his home on the western edge of the Valley without one. Confronted once about his 80-mile round trip to campus, he grumbled to our class: "I assure you I do my part."

I am careful to include a Valley anecdote here because this book, ostensibly about Los Angeles, finds little space for that whole northern third of the city, which is even more auto-dependent than the L.A. basin. Ulin mentions in passing a Norman Klein communiqué about a single Valley intersection that on the surface is ugly but ultimately turns out to be prettier to Klein because he eventually learns it is populated by many cultures. That is not much, but at least it's a mention. Ulin does not get out to Playa Del Rey to see the gulls. He makes it down to San Pedro, to entertain his children, but says next to nothing about it other than that it features a remnant of the old trolley lines. We do not see him exploring paths in Pacific Palisades or rambling the Arroyo up around Highland Park. (He does visit Carolyn See in Topanga Canyon, but you definitely need a car to do that.) Perhaps these omissions are why this book, despite its persistent name dropping, has no index: It would be embarrassing not to list all the L.A. communities excluded from a work subtitled Coming to Terms with Los Angeles.

Ulin is not always a reliable guide to the communities he does visit. He describes the area around the County Museum as "seedy" in the early '90s. Hanging out in that place at that time, often for eight hours a day, I can report that it was not at all so. Similarly—completely contrary to my long years working there in the period—Ulin claims that downtown L.A. in the '90s "was the most terrifying urban landscape I had seen." This is a man who lived in New York City in the '70s and who experienced San Francisco's Tenderloin in its pre-Internet days. I don't understand the point of these exaggerations. I can only imagine how he would have reacted to Detroit or East St. Louis.

If I found something of value in this book, it was Ulin's conversation with The Grove's developer, Rick Caruso, who comes across as direct, pensive, and concerned for civic welfare. The fact that he is a billionaire developer controlling acres of private space in the heart of the city does not intrude; we imagine we are reading the thoughts of just another urbanist, if an unusually clear-thinking one.

Yet Ulin feels compelled to stitch into these pages his own puzzled thoughts about the overlapping of public and private space. He wants so badly for Caruso's kind of development—a fountains-cum-café refuge that blends a vague nostalgia for a pedestrian-friendly Main Street USA with the urban escapist hope of pleasant air and uncrowded space—to be new ground, or at least to present a new conundrum for his ever-present uncertainty. "What does it mean when a setting such as this is construed and controlled by a company whose goals may not be consistent with those of the community?" he writes.

People who believe in life, liberty, and property don't really have to ask these questions. The relationship between private and public space is not made complicated simply by inviting the public onto private property. These kinds of developments, along with these kinds of mostly solved questions, have been the norm for a long time, as long as commerce has found reason to avail itself as semi-public space. When there are any jots and tittles left for dispute, we call not philosophers but attorneys.

But that truth cuts against this book's sub rosa wish: to see walking, whether on public sidewalks or private property, as no mere saunter but as a kind of intellectual or political event, some special affectation that takes us into a conundrum-riddled mental funhouse where nothing is ever resolved.

Walking in Los Angeles has never been any kind of social praxis for me, nor do I wish it to be. To walk is to walk and to trespass is to trespass and to read is to read and to write is to write. After completing this book that slops up L.A.'s pleasant sidewalks with such convoluted and pretentious flotsam, I had to take a head-clearing stroll.

NEXT: Brickbat: No Parking

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  1. This kinda stuff is why I come to reason every day. Thanks for this. So much.

    1. Indeed, nofold.

      I am impressed with Joseph Mailander.

      There are a good many quotes for me to highlight yet I liked this one quite a bit: “… a conundrum-riddled mental funhouse where nothing is ever resolved.”

      1. I am impressed with Joseph Mailander.

        As am I.

        “… a conundrum-riddled mental funhouse where nothing is ever resolved.”

        Yep, that was definitely in the top 30.

    2. Yes. Writing a paean to a city shaped by car traffic would be unthinkable where I live. So if twenty Trumpticles is the price we pay for something like this, I guess it’s not so bad.

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  5. Reading the article now, but I think P.J. O’Rourke said it best: Without the car, there wouldn’t BE an America.

    Clarifying, he pointed out that the car gave regular Americans the freedom to move and migrate out of and away from corrupt political districts. This can’t be emphasized enough.

    1. Sure, the car made it easier, quicker, safer. But to state that pre-Ford regular Americans didn’t have the freedom of movement is patently absurd.

      1. I don’t think that was the suggestion at all. I believe that what O’Rourke was pointing to was a picture of a more modern America, where moving long distances didn’t entail the dangers of pulling a wagon train over the Sierra Nevadas and resorting to cannibalism when things didn’t work out. That with the car, America and Americans remained a highly mobile society even after it settled into its “cultural” maturity. Take this section from the article:

        But my L.A. existence has been facilitated at nearly every stage, and made far more meaningful, by access to an automobile. I know I could never have learned to deadhead and care for the roses at The Huntington, nor could I have met my once-far-across-town wife, nor tended to either my ailing suburban parents or hers, nor moved to the community I have called home for 25 years, nor become a vice president of a commercial bank, nor attended a college and read all the wonderful books I did there, without unrepentant access to a car.

        The car gives us the power to experience and perceive a wider range of our own community. The urban planners claim the car “disconnects” us when in reality, it does exactly the opposite.

        1. I get the jist, just believe it to be hyperbole. No one met people from across town, or went to college and read books before the car? Even if his point is that no single person could do all these things pre-car, I’d call bullshit . Yes being able to move quickly and safely may open up some new experiences, but how many people exhaust all the experiences they may have available to them in their own backyard?

          1. I think you’re taking it too literally. His point was (one with which I agree) that if you have a population that largely lives without cars and is fully dependent on urban mass transit corridors, you’re at the mercy of the political districts. But when entire populations can literally migrate away, the individual is considerably empowered. Look at so-called ‘white flight’ in Detroit. That was essentially a mass migration away from an utterly corrupt political district, and this all happened within my lifetime. The political significance of that can’t be understated.

            Also, to put a slightly different spin on it, look what cities were and meant in the early industrial period before the mass acceptance of the car, compared to what they became after the automobile.

            Cities were places where people moved to because you had to. That’s where the jobs were. Some people in those cities would live an entire life within a few urban city blocks. Now cities are places people largely choose to live in for various reasons largely surrounding lifestyle (which encompasses a large number of things I won’t mention).

            1. … contd

              If you take your modern urban district, the poorer people are generally moving out to the suburbs, leaving urban centers largely left to white, upper middle class professionals. While this disturbs urban politicians and progressives to no end, it’s actually empowered by the car. Even most lower income people have access to cars and therefore can escape the high cost of urban living and with mobility, achieve a better standard of living. This isn’t a failure, this is a success. Urban young people who can afford to pay $200 a month on a parking space to live in the swanky gentrified urban neighborhood (looking at the guy two cubicles over from me) do so out of choice. And when that choice no longer makes sense because life delivers children and other things, they can quickly shift gears and move to an outer neighborhood or even the suburbs but keep their job and commute.

              1. The automobile represents the American spirit of independence and self-reliance.

                1. The automobile represents the American spirit of independence and self-reliance.

                  What does the Prius represent?

                  1. The automobile represents the American spirit of independence and self-reliance.

                    Masturbation metaphores, etc.

                    What does the Prius represent?

                    In the context of above, using a dildo?

                  2. pris + puss = Prius

              2. Okay, I may be simplifying things but when I hear is “modern society wouldn’t be possible without modern things” , I think “well no shit, thanks for playing Wheel of Tautology.” The only thing I was disagreeing with is that without cars people couldn’t move and society/culture would stagnate, when the entirety of history pre-1900 civilization rebukes that.

                1. “Modern things” may not be a rigid designator.

                  Explaining this is fun. The Hyperbole must be loads of fun at parties.

        2. Huh huh, you said “pulling a train”

          1. Grab its motherfucking leg

  6. Nobody walks in L.A. (or so I’ve heard).

    1. Dammit that was my one chance to post a topical video and you beat me to it. I even have the album for that. Oh well, how about this

      1. Yours has layers, JG43.

        Here are only a few that I want to mention:

        Neil Diamond/”Coming to America” – Neil was born of Polish immigrant parents and Los Angelos (from what I am led to believe) has a number of individuals from Polish decent.

        The Border Patrol Agents in the linked video are non-violent and this should appeal to those who visit H&R.

        Individuals and families used to admire and want to resettle in the United States for its seemingly abundant freedoms (as opposed to the idea that now, at the least, the U.S. is not as horrible as where some of them are fleeing from).

  7. they throw their enthusiasm into boxy developments that are careful to allow for two parking spaces per unit because, of course, anyone who can afford such a home can also afford a car or two.

    I had the occasion to be traveling through Bozeman, MT a couple of weeks ago. I was struck when passing these tiny little boxy developments that appeared to have been cooked by a local urban planner who traveled to much more dense, urban city and wished with envy that they could duplicate the quirky, urban living these foreign places enjoyed.

    There you’d see a block of maybe fifty houses, all jammed together, literally surrounded by what appeared to be alfalfa fields and various patches of empty, undeveloped flat land. It was actually depressing to look at.

  8. I should hate the mall, but I don’t.

    I wish he’d deeply ponder why he thinks he “should” hate the mall. And why he doesn’t hate it.

    it “feels both like a mall and not like a mall.”

    HOW? Fuck this pablum. If you have to say nothing, just say nothing.

  9. I enjoyed reading this, but soon after I finished I found myself wallowing in a state of melancholy, asking myself whether or not I really enjoyed reading this, and then I decided that I did enjoy it, even though it did not seem enjoyable.

    1. Kudos, you did actually read the article.

      1. Paul, when a couple of elderly gentleman like you and Charles recommend something be read, I read it, because I figure if you spent what little precious time you have left on this earth reading something, then dammit I can spend a little of my time reading it, too.

        1. (was going to chime in, decided didn’t want to come to Crusty’s notice cause he’s a bully, says nothing)

          1. Oh you. I’m just tugging on Paul’s pud because he is very cool.

            1. These masturbation euphemisms continue to become less and less euphemistic….

  10. Walk, don’t walk. Drive, don’t drive. Who cares. The city exists for you to make your name or fortune, not for you to comment on your neighbors’ commuting habits.

    1. Some people make a name controlling other people’s habit.

    2. Yep. I hate cars which is why I live in a city where it’s easy not to own one. LA can do what it wants for all I care.

  11. Using personal transport is selfish and greedy. We’re supposed to use communal transport. That way we all kill the planet together with good intentions, and that makes it OK.

    1. Since mass movements away from corrupt political districts are made much easier by the existence of modern personalized transport (as opposed to mass transit), the implications for the future are interesting.

      Consider: assume for the nonce that AGW is indeed true and furthermore, that it’s gonna be game over for all the existing coastal regions of our planet within the next 100 years. If so, would you rather (a) people be able to take their migration into their own hands and on their own timeline, or (b) would you trust governments to try to make that happen for them?

      I know I’d pick (a) in a heartbeat. I wonder if people who believe in catastrophic AGW and also dislike private transpo have ever thought about this?

      1. I know I’d pick (a) in a heartbeat. I wonder if people who believe in catastrophic AGW and also dislike private transpo have ever thought about this?

        I think they have and they would reliably choose B.

      2. Have you read Cities in Flight? In the story, entire cities leave Earth to escape a tyrannical government.

        1. Loved that series. Blish and Simak were two of my fave SF authors when I was a kid.

          1. I liked Simak. Maybe you, or someone else, can help me track down a book I read years ago. I throw this out into the webs every now and then, hoping someone can help.
            Their was a book, maybe by Heinlein, about a brother and sister, twins maybe, sent by a corporation to govern Earth, which by this point has become a primitive back water. I still am amazed about how well the author predicted our current communications technology. Only instant communication and data retrieval were done via a chip in the head rather than a cell phone

            1. Hmmmmm. It does not sound like Heinlein, though it’s been forever since I read his Future History stuff etc. I’ll have to scour about a bit. Twins showing up in dystopian sci-fi is not exactly a barren field…

              1. Not sure if it was necessarily dystopian, I mean, most of the galaxy was doing fine. Not sure they were twins. Male and female, I’m almost sure, but it’s been decades. Was it Asimov who invented the communications satellite? Maybe it was him.

                1. Just googled up Asimov, Thurber his did, wasn’t him. Think Heinlein is right, wasn’t he kind of a proto libertarian?

                  1. “Thurber his” i have no idea what that was supposed to be. Also they weren’t kids. Adult siblings. And the satellite coverage of earth had degraded, so most of the communications was handled by their ship. Could pull up emails, but email wasn’t invented yet so it was called something else. I think the siblings used IM. I think I recall a part where the guy pulls up the equivalent of Google Earth.

                2. I always thought that the comm sat was a creation of the fertile mind of Arthur C. Clarke. Hmmmmmm…

              2. I think I’ve read most if not all of Heinlein (although it was quite awhile ago). Does not ring a bell with me.

        2. When the Tsar (probably Nicholas I) began ignoring the promises his predecessors made to the them (namely not to be drafted), nearly entire villages of Volga Germans packed up and moved from Samara-Saratov area to the US and Canada.

          Some even kept the same name (translated into English), like Katherinstadt became Catherine, KS.

    2. Driving is heavily subsidized in the US. http://www.theatlantic.com/bus…..ts/412237/

  12. Ulin mentions in passing a Norman Klein communiqu? about a single Valley intersection that on the surface is ugly but ultimately turns out to be prettier to Klein because he eventually learns it is populated by many cultures.

    What intersection is that?

    1. Fulton and Burbank

      With a busway crossing diagonally across, over by Sharky’s and LA Valley College.

    2. Jesus Christ, that’s pathetic. Even something as primal as beauty has to be subsumed to the political hive mind.

  13. I know Los Angeles would be merely another Duluth

    While the North Shore bares a slight resemblance to coastal California there are substantial climactic differences between the two metropolises.

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  15. I’m all for having every urban Californian having their motor vehicles confiscated, crushed and repurposed as organic pogo sticks or double ended butt plugs. One end for each of their pieholes. There is also a never ending supply of Mexicans to man sedan chairs for every wealthy lib in San Francisco, Malibu and Beverly Hills.

    1. You have some weird fetishes.

      1. It’s not easy being green.

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  18. There’s nothing wrong with the freedom to get around by car. But there’s also nothing wrong with the freedom to just walk where you are going sometimes. I have heard that people walking on L.A. sidewalks (if there are sidewalks) are sometimes considered “suspicious” by police simply because they are walking. That is something that shouldn’t be.

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  21. Not owning or advocating to not own an automobile in California is absurd. How can you possibly get around such a vast and unique landscape with so much to see? If I understand correctly, the book seems to focus on Los Angeles; talk about parochialism and impractical. And from what I recall (it’s been a while but it was an impression), I didn’t feel L.A. to be as *walkable* a city as New York or Boston. You can walk for blocks and blocks and blocks in NYC and enjoy it to no end in my personal experience.

    1. I wouldn’t call you a nobody, R.C., that would be rude.

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  24. I love Reason, but you guys have a tendency to go completely off the rails (pun…sort of intended, I guess) when it comes to transportation policy. Driving is heavily subsidized in the US; the idea that drivers are self-sufficient while transit riders get a subsidized sweetheart deal is a complete fantasy: http://www.theatlantic.com/bus…..ts/412237/

    Additionally,

    At the same time, they throw their enthusiasm into boxy developments that are careful to allow for two parking spaces per unit because, of course, anyone who can afford such a home can also afford a car or two.

    The reason that these developments have two parking spaces per unit is almost always because of government-imposed parking minimums embedded in zoning codes. It costs a ton of money to build parking; what you get is government mandates pushing up prices on everyone instead of developers being allowed to choose for themselves what amount of parking they think the market is demanding. http://shoup.bol.ucla.edu/HighCost.pdf

    1. Well, yeah. In an ideal world, there would not be city planners and zoning regulations. As with all centrally planned projects, there will always be “unintended consequences.” American cities were all built/reconfigured for cars 70 years ago. Now cars are bad? And we should trust this opinion, why? I don’t know what’s correct and neither do our betters in government. Let’s let the free market determine the best course forward.

  25. Fine with me too. For starters I hate progressives and progressivism thoroughly and do not believe that anything of importance ought to be decided by counting the opinions or votes of the people.

    When I was more fit, say five years ago before the heart attack, I loved urban walkable neighborhoods, especially poor and deteriorating ones, where behavior was unregulated activity diverse and prices low. I can’t stand to even visit gentrified areas.

    But always liked to drive, and used to be expert at it. Sure a car-oriented landscape is far different. But if one wants affordable housing that’s how it is done.

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