Sidewalking: Coming to Terms with Los Angeles, by David Ulin, University of California Press, 152 pages, $16.95
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.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Nobody Walks in L.A.".