Sidewalking: Along the Miracle Mile

Food trucks, public art, a vibrant and organic walking culture — the evolution of Mid-Wilshire mirrors the ongoing transformation of Los Angeles.

Los Angeles, Wilshire Boulevard. [Scott Reyes]

Even friends who had the means to help me laughed and wished me luck.
— A. W. Ross, Los Angeles Times, 1939

There’s a lot of hype tonight at the United Artists Theatre, which is perhaps as it should be. Finished in 1927, as part of what was then the United Artists building — at the time the tallest in Southern California — it sits on Broadway just south of Ninth Street, in a section of Los Angeles that was for many years neglected, although it is now being rebranded as emblematic of the ongoing revival of downtown. Half a block north is the glorious Eastern building, finest structure in the city, with its turquoise terra cotta façade and geometric art deco motifs. I always think of Edmund Wilson when I see it: “the blue Avocado Building,” he sniffed in The New Republic in 1931, a year after the Eastern opened, “bawdy as the peacock’s tail.” Both structures occupy a special place in city council member Jose Huizar’s trademarked “Bringing Back Broadway” campaign, a “Streetscape Master Plan” developed in 2009 and implemented four years later, that, the flackage assures us, “boldly prioritizes people over vehicles, reducing lanes of traffic on Broadway while also providing a showcase for urban transportation, the future Downtown L.A. Streetcar, and revitalization of Broadway.” Flackage is, of course, the operative word, with a nice new one-sheet, complete with before and after images, and a “What’s to Come” roster of future improvements, which include “new pedestrian lighting, street furniture, way-finding signage … plants and street trees … decorative paving materials … drainage and filtration system and more.” At the top of the page is an artist’s rendition of Broadway as it one day may be (and also — yes — as it once was): theater marquees lit and gleaming, sidewalks full of walkers, and in the middle of the scene a vintage Red Car, running along the pavement as if it had never disappeared. If a piece of me can’t help but be cynical, another piece is equally compelled.

That’s also my reaction to what is happening this evening: a showcase, CityLab: Making L.A., which is part of the second annual CityLab: Urban Solutions to Global Challenges conference, a two-day gathering for “global mayors and leading urban thinkers,” cosponsored by the Aspen Institute, The Atlantic, and Bloomberg Philanthropies. The event begins with cocktails in the Spanish-Gothic lobby, beneath the vaulted ceilings and ornate plasterwork. This was once the broadcast home of Dr. Eugene Scott, the hat-wearing televangelist who preached out of the theater from 1990 until his death in 2005; I used to watch him on public access cable when I lived in New York. He is said, by Hillsman Wright of the Los Angeles Historic Theatre Foundation, to have left the place in “perhaps the most turn-key shape” of all the historic theaters on Broadway, but more to the point is what his stewardship — and now its aftermath — has to tell us about the changing face of L.A. Scott, after all, is a figure from a different city, in which downtown was widely regarded as a wasteland, a place, for all intents and purposes, to avoid.

Here we see the Los Angeles that inspired the dystopian visions of Falling Down and Blade Runner, not to mention Kurt Russell’s 1996 movie Escape from L.A. Here we see the Los Angeles of Mike Davis’s City of Quartz, which imagines the city as one in which “the defense of luxury lifestyle is translated into a proliferation of new repressions in space and movement, undergirded by the ubiquitous ‘armed response.’” L.A., City of Quartz continues, is obsessed “with physical security systems, and, collaterally, with the architectural policing of social boundaries,” and is thus the embodiment of “a zeitgeist of urban restructuring, a master narrative in the emerging built environment of the 1990s.” 1 Still, if this was true in its own time, the city, as Christopher Hawthorne has written, “has changed markedly since the book appeared. It is fitfully trying to rediscover its public and shared spaces, and to build a comprehensive mass-transit system to thread them together. … We are at the beginning of a period in which the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, its coffers stuffed with $40 billion in Measure R transit funding, is poised to have a bigger effect on the built environment of Southern California than all the private developers combined. The city council earlier this year passed a bicycle master plan, for goodness sake.”

This is the Los Angeles that the Making L.A. summit intends to highlight, a city in the process of recreating itself. If that means a little flackage, a little boosterism, then so be it — or so the prevailing wisdom seems to go. The night’s participants include Kogi food truck chef Roy Choi and the Mayor, although the real draw is a conversation between Rick Caruso, the multi-millionaire developer of the retail and entertainment complex the Grove, and Los Angeles County Museum of Art Executive Director Michael Govan, titled “The Power of Place: Putting Culture on the (Urban) Map.” It’s ironic that Caruso and Govan, who, both together and independently, are working to reconfigure the Mid-Wilshire district, should be sitting on a downtown stage in a theater built around the same time as developer A.W. Ross first envisioned the mile-long stretch of Wilshire between Fairfax and La Brea as the Miracle Mile. And yet, as always in Los Angeles, there are resonances, echoes, unlikely whispers of connection — despite Caruso’s damning-by-faint-praise assessment of the Broadway reclamation project. “It’s great,” he says, “what’s going on here, but it’s fragile.”

The next day, a friend who was also in attendance wonders how much of the street he actually saw. “Can you imagine?” she asks. “Rick Caruso walking down Broadway?” — and I’m reminded of his comments (You’re not going to have crime, you’re not going to have graffiti) about the security, the sanctity, of the Grove. In order to succeed, Caruso suggests, the city will have to “activate” the space of downtown in much the same way as he has activated the Grove, that is, by hosting “more than three hundred events a year,” although it is not clear, and he does not explain, how such a process might work in the less controlled environment of a public street. At the same time, listening to him and Govan, it’s impossible not to see some sort of confluence between the changes on Broadway and those taking place in Miracle Mile. For one, there are the trolleys: in one case an actual city project, in another a developer’s fantasy. When asked about this, Caruso declares, “I think it’s critical. L.A. is changing because we can’t get around.” I’m reminded once again of Huizar’s press release (boldly prioritizing people over vehicles), which offers both a rhetorical posture and the message we most need to hear. In that sense, there is a connection between his attempts and those of Caruso, both trying to push, in their own ways and for their own reasons, a sense of the city as communal, a series of (yes) shared environments.

Wilshire Boulevard, ca. 1940. [Miracle Mile Historical Photo Collection]

If that sounds counterintuitive, it isn’t really, although it depends on how we define the terms. For Huizar, the council member, the goal is renewal, revitalization, whereas for Caruso, the developer, it is, as it has ever been, the creation of place. As for Govan, he sits in the middle; during the eight years he’s run the L.A County Museum, he has sought to blend tradition and innovation, refocusing the museum’s relationship to both the neighborhood and the city at large. “We need collective centers, even if they are symbolic,” he argues, referring to the museum as a kind of temple, secular or otherwise. What he’s getting at is something akin to scripted space, although, in this case on a level more aesthetic than commercial, in which experience is heightened in, for want of a better metaphor, a truly sacred way. As an example, Govan cites Urban Light, the lamppost installation by Chris Burden that has opened the County Museum to Wilshire Boulevard, and in so doing, affected the dynamic of the street itself. “I did my research at the Grove,” he jokes. “When I came to the Museum, the plan was to have an enclosed entry, but I made the decision to put the entrance outdoors. It was the beginning of my thinking about place. Whether you’re talking about a real temple or a faux temple, the key is that it has to be iconic, a landmark people recognize and where they want to gather. In the most prosaic sense, you have to take your Facebook picture somewhere, which they do at three a.m. in front of Urban Light.”

We might think of Wilshire as a model for the reframing of Los Angeles.

The following afternoon, I walk the ten blocks from my house to the County Museum, to talk with Govan in more detail. It’s a Tuesday, last day of September, sky high and open, summer blue. Coming up Spaulding to Wilshire, I pass the parking lot that may soon be developed as a hundred thousand square foot wing of the museum — assuming, that is, that architect Peter Zumthor’s proposed new building goes up as planned. First unveiled in 2013, the design has lately been adapted to address concerns raised by the Page Museum, which oversees the Tar Pits, about the continuing archeological work in Hancock Park. The original idea, for a structure that, according to Hawthorne, would “suggest the work of artist Jean Arp and architect Oscar Niemeyer along with the oozing shape of the tar pits,” raised concerns about encroachment. “If I understand correctly,” John Harris, the Page’s chief curator, told the Los Angeles Times about the pits that lie closest to the County Museum, “this would all be under an overhang. . . . It would block off the light, the rain, and that affects the vegetation.” Now, “Zumthor’s black blob,” which Hawthorne described as “a muscular graphic form” that “would have floated on its expansive site — newly cleared with the proposed demolition of four existing County Museum gallery buildings — like an all-black abstract painting on a wide canvas,” has been reimagined as “part of the boulevard and the public realm.” Its most controversial feature is a glass-enclosed pedestrian bridge that crosses Wilshire, which supporters say will integrate the vista of the street, the sweep of it, into the experience of the museum-goer, although detractors warn that it will be like creating a freeway overpass over one of the city’s signature boulevards.

As with many such debates, this one has the potential to become loaded, especially if we think of Wilshire as a model for the reframing of Los Angeles. Food trucks, public art, a vibrant and organic walking culture — it’s like moving through the streets of not another city but a more heightened city, a city finding its form. On a strip of concrete in front of 5900 Wilshire, the Wende Museum and Archive of the Cold War has installed ten panels from the Berlin Wall. At the center are two portraits, one of John F. Kennedy and the other of Ronald Reagan, as if to indicate the bookends of its history. Along the sidewalk, office workers and museum-goers stop for Vietnamese food, deli fare, Mexi-terranean tacos, an explosion of cultural foment. “This,” Los Angeles Times restaurant critic Jonathan Gold has written, “is Los Angeles, where you hear a hundred different languages on the streets and smell the cooking of a thousand different food cultures, a city so diverse that the study of postmodern urbanism is often called the L.A. School for short, a city where it is possible not only to discover a new dish on an evening out but also an entirely new cuisine. … It’s the way Los Angeles — the best Los Angeles — looks at the world.” Here, we see the vision that the mayor made explicit from the stage of the United Artists Theatre, when he recommended, in response to a question about his favorite street meal: “Go to Wilshire, across from LACMA, and have one from each food truck.”

Chris Burden, Urban Light, LACMA. [Daryl Mitchell]

Govan considers the County Museum an essential component of this process — and this process as essential to the museum. His office has windows that look onto the boulevard, as if to keep the relationship in mind. “You have to be an idiot not to see that this is a key piece of real estate in Los Angeles,” he tells me, sitting at a long conference table, sipping from a bottle of water, comfortable in white dress shirt and light blue tie. “If there’s a geographic center, halfway between the beach and downtown, between the Hollywood Hills and the 10, this is it. I’m not saying there isn’t Pasadena, or the Valley and everything else, but even for them, as L.A. stretches all the way to Long Beach, this is the center, and you can see the pendulum that’s swung.” Center is an interesting word to use in Los Angeles: the word, perhaps, of an ex-New Yorker, which, Govan acknowledges, he is. But then, why not? I am one also, which is a big part of the reason I’m drawn to his vision of the boulevard, the museum campus, as epicentral (to borrow a word from Mike Davis) to the city’s redevelopment.

At the same time, Govan is not arguing for Manhattanization — at least not in terms Manhattan might recognize. He’s talking more symbolically, more … aesthetically, thinking about the city as a template, a canvas, and how we want to fill it in. That this reflects the history of Miracle Mile is part of the equation; indeed, we might say, a similar set of intentions motivated A. W. Ross when he bought his eighteen-acre strip of Wilshire (for $54,000) in 1921. “From the way you talk, A. W.,” a friend purportedly told him, “one would think this is really a miracle mile” — and if this story is, as historian Nathan Masters has suggested, apocryphal, it’s representative, as well. For all that Ross may have been more of a Caruso figure, his sensibility and Govan’s coincide in interesting ways. For one thing, both are true believers. “I’m obviously an enthusiast,” Govan admits. That’s why, when he came to the County Museum, one of his first acts was to remake the museum’s entrance, from the recessed set-back it had long been to something more open and engaged. “This was still a city street when I got here,” he says, gesturing towards Ogden Drive, which no longer runs through the campus, but now dead-ends across the boulevard from Urban Light. “I got rid of the entry pavilion, with some consternation from my trustees, but if the Grove can be outside, we can be outside. Because they have to make money. If they can survive with an outdoor plaza, we can survive with an outdoor plaza. It’s about the image it projects to everyone about the openness of the museum as a place.”

Openness, of course, is what Wilshire lacked until the County Museum began to turn it around. In that regard, Urban Light is a key piece of the puzzle, a precipitating element. Among L.A.’s anomalies is that it is a city without a lot of landmarks; when Ahmed Ressam, the so-called millennium bomber, was arrested on December 14, 1999 in Port Angeles, Washington, after trying to smuggle a Chrysler filled with explosives from Canada into the United States, his target was LAX. It’s impossible (for me, anyway) to imagine another city in which the most obvious point of attack would be an airport, in which there is no symbol more potent or profound. “Everyone carries around a mental image of the place they inhabit,” Govan insists. “Whether it’s their bedroom or their house or their neighborhood. Or the metropolis. The distinctiveness itself is important, which is why, if you can create a thing that has layers of meaning inside it, that’s what a great landmark is.”

What he’s talking about is both iconography and spectacle; Urban Light fulfills both roles. As the putative entry point for the museum, it is a locus, a fulcrum, but it is also an installation that folds back on itself, distinctive and sardonic at once. On the one hand, the colonnade satirizes the solemnity of Greco-Roman architecture, the self-seriousness of the traditional museum. On the other, the fact that Burden’s 202 lamp posts all come from Los Angeles gives the project an unlikely authenticity. “These are Los Angeles streetlights from the 1920s and the 1930s,” Govan says, “Greco-Roman inspired streetlights, and I always joke that if the Met in New York has its Greco-Roman temple façade, we have our faux façade, but actually it’s real.” I’ve never thought about the Burden piece in quite these terms, but as Govan speaks, I get a sense of all these interlocking levels, the layers of meaning to which he refers.

The irony (or one of them) is that Burden’s installation almost didn’t make it to Los Angeles; before the County Museum became interested, it looked as if it might end up at the Museum of Applied Arts in Vienna, which also co-owns West Hollywood’s Schindler House. Now it seems not only inevitable, which is to say that it is difficult to imagine Wilshire Boulevard without it, but also like the advance guard in a move to turn the museum campus into quasi-public space. I say quasi because it is both public and not quite public, reliant on a 30-million dollar annual subsidy from L.A. County, but also on an array of private support. The Zumthor building offers a case in point; more than three-quarters of its 600-million dollar price tag will be raised from private donors, but its completion depends on 125 million dollars in county funds.

Public/private, private/public, the great back-and-forth of Southern California, making even its most accessible spaces complicated, testing our understanding of the city and how it works. Although I walk through Hancock Park on an almost daily basis, on Wednesdays, I have to make adjustments: the museum is closed, its corner of the park gated off. I understand the logic, but still, I wonder: Is it possible to have a relationship part-time? This remains the challenge of a city that even now defines itself through the lens of the enormous village, yet that is in the midst of a transition, which is another way of saying it is not yet here or there. “I agree,” Govan notes, “that traditionally Los Angeles has a fear of shared spaces. But that was the lesson from the Grove: when you do it, people like it. I know that here, people like seeing two thousand people for Friday night jazz, and by the way, it changes generationally.” What else is left us, then, except to build it incrementally, within existing structures, to let it take its course? Seen in such terms, perhaps, the expansion, or reinvention, of the County Museum can be regarded, not unlike the Grove, as another test case, an urban laboratory.

Michael Heizer, Levitated Mass, LACMA. [Kent Kanouse]

At heart is the ideal of place, whether public or quasi-public … or some other variation on the theme. It’s not just Urban Light but what Urban Light signifies: the sacred or the heightened once again. At the same time, we live in a post-sacred age, which means that any such sensibility must be tempered — it is a temple, yes, but a postmodern one. Both landmark and spectacle, in other words. And yet, if this has a lot to do with irony, it’s not irony as mockery but rather as an opening, a strategy for serious play. In Govan’s estimation, Urban Light is both “a temple and it’s not. It’s a pop temple. It’s art you can touch. It’s made of enamel; you can hug it, you can take your picture kissing it. That tactility and spectacle, there’s a constant back and forth between aspiration and the everyday.”

Something similar marks the other landmarks on the museum site, most notably Michael Heizer’s Levitated Mass. Heizer was born and raised in Berkeley, the son of an archeologist; both experiences have influenced his work. In 1969 and 1970, he carved what arts reporter Jori Finkel has described as “a pair of gashes into the Mormon Mesa, not far from Las Vegas” — a fifteen-hundred-foot-long earth work called Double Negative that is both enormous and virtually invisible to the eye, at least at ground level. Owned and overseen by L.A.’s Museum of Contemporary Art, it is best perceived from above, like Los Angeles: From Space. In the aerial view, we see two long trenches, with the mesa in between then, tracing the extension of a broken line. On the ground, this gets more complicated, which is, of course, the whole idea. “There is nothing there, yet it is still a sculpture,” Heizer has said, which highlights the essential conundrum: what defines the work is its emptiness, the removal of what once occupied the space. In that sense, we are being asked to face an absence, with all the uneasiness, the contradiction, this provokes. Where is the art, and what does it tell us? What is the message in its paradox?

As it turns out, these are the questions that much of Heizer’s art confronts. His ongoing project City, more than forty years in the making, is a conglomeration of wedge-like steles and structures covering a location in the Nevada desert about the size of the National Mall in Washington, D.C. “As long as you’re going to make a sculpture,” he notes, “why not make one that competes with a 747, or the Empire State Building, or the Golden Gate Bridge?” The same might be said of Levitated Mass, a 340-ton diorite granite boulder suspended over a 456-foot concrete trench dug into the northwest corner of the County Museum campus, where it offers a symbolic counterweight to the La Brea Tar Pits, among other things. Part of the point is spectacle, an intention driven home during the rock’s eleven-day journey, in March 2012, from a quarry in Riverside to the installation site. “I think people need a religious object,” Heizer said of public reaction to the transport, which included, as Catherine Wagley reported in LA Weekly, “a ‘Rockapalooza’ party in Bixby Knolls [a neighborhood in Long Beach], where children made pet rocks and people consumed Rockstar Energy Drinks,” and culminated in a late-night, slow-speed passage along Wilshire Boulevard. Much discussed, much delayed, covered by both local and national media, the movement of the boulder became a phenomenon in its own right, a piece of public performance art. “In Los Angeles,” environmentalist Char Miller observed, “where mobility is so important, the idea of movement, and closing down streets, may have been more impressive than the art installation itself, which is static.” Little wonder, then, that once Levitated Mass was installed, it seemed anticlimactic; there is a difference, after all, between a contained event, especially one that stirs up such excitement, and the day-in, day-out reality of art as monument.

Still, if anticlimax is, perhaps, an inevitable response, it is also part of the challenge of the piece. Spectacle, monument … the more we live with it, the more familiar it becomes, the more it represents a kind of necessary double vision, internal and external, by turns part of the imagination and of the world. Irony again, or perhaps a way in which the city is transformed. My own experience may be instructive. I was out of town for the rock’s slow ride down Wilshire, although I had anticipated it for months. I wanted to see what it would look like, a giant boulder juxtaposed against the temporary city, an expression of the prehistoric brought to life. I wanted to be awed, to be pulled outside myself, to consider this place not only on human but also geologic terms. That is the key contradiction of Los Angeles — or this section of it, anyway — a contradiction to which we all must keep returning, the juxtaposition of the ancient, the prehuman, against the thin sheen of the city we have built. It’s what the Tar Pits insist we recognize, with their mix of archeology and contrivance, which is (come to think of it) a pretty good description of Heizer’s aesthetic as well. “It’s a play with spectacle and observation and definitions,” Govan tells me, voice rising with excitement, face opening like that of a precocious child.

And since the museum is also something that covers ancient to modern cultures, I can easily read it as: The rock is as ancient as it comes. Mike Heizer always says his work is about — we live in primordial and modern times simultaneously. So how do we court both? He said, “Do you want this rock?” And I pictured the thing rolling down Wilshire Boulevard, and I said, “Damn right I want that rock.” That’s exactly what I had in mind. I want to make a sense of place.

Not only that, but “pretty much every culture has moved big rocks from somewhere else, because that’s part of the marking and place making.” In that sense, it’s a monolith, an obelisk, albeit one with which, not unlike Urban Light, we interact.

Such an interaction takes place across both time and space, which is also the essence of a neighborhood. We live here, we walk through, we define ourselves in terms of our passage through this campus, through these streets. I’ll be honest: I was disappointed with Levitated Mass when it opened; it was smaller than I had expected, less profound. I wanted it to be ten times its size, or one hundred, so massive it provoked a kind of claustrophobia. Instead, the boulder sat in the center of an empty sandlot the size of two football fields, where it appeared, at certain times of day, in certain lights, almost like an afterthought. This is it? I remember thinking the first time I saw it. Now, I’d argue that’s precisely the idea. Like the Tar Pits, which I walk past all the time without overtly noticing, its purpose is to function as both spectacle and background, to unsettle us just slightly, on a cellular as much as a conscious level, by expressing what let’s call the limits of our power. By power, I don’t mean political so much as existential, a distinction about which Govan is explicit, framing Levitated Mass as an alternate universe take on Cleopatra’s Needle, the ancient Egyptian obelisk that sits behind the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan’s Central Park.

Like Heizer’s boulder, the Needle caused a frenzy when it was brought to New York in 1880, although for decades now, a century, it has blended into the cityscape of which it is a part. At the same time, it possesses none of the self-reflecting irony, the recognition of our evanescence, that the rock embodies at its core. “It’s not just the gravitas or beauty of an image,” Govan says,

It’s that there are indeed multiple approaches to reading it. When New York wanted the Needle, which they took in complicated times of government in Egypt, when you could extract it — it was literally obelisk envy, of Paris, Rome. Culture equaled a thing you brought from Egypt. New York wanted to be a world-class city in that way. A century later, in Los Angeles, it’s not an obelisk that stands tall like a phallus, it’s a negative space. It’s a parable of observation, in the sense that it’s a heavy object that has this sense of mass, but you can observe it not only from every side but underneath. You can see the bottom of the sculpture. So it’s a parable, or a process of observation, of close observation, not one of the projection of power.

Peter Zumthor, proposed addition to LACMA.

Something similar, or so the argument goes, may be at the center of the proposed new County Museum building, which, initially at least, sought to echo the Tar Pits and to integrate their ancient shape. A more recent iteration, the Los Angeles Times reported in March 2015 , is “noticeably more angular and muscular” than the earlier “free-flowing, biomorphic design.” That both shapes are also contrivances — remember, the tar lake was only dug out a hundred years ago — is both appropriate (whatever form it ultimately takes, after all, the building, too, will be a construction, an attraction) and yet one more layer of irony. In a piece for Architectural Record, Sarah Williams Goldhagen digs into Zumthor’s process, reminding us that “designs are not buildings. Designs are not even half buildings. Designs are promises, flashbulbs of an idea.” The reference is to the bridge across Wilshire, which, depending on your perspective, is either an assault or an enhancement, but in any case represents a far more direct assertion of the museum upon the street than even Urban Light does.

What does this mean, this imposition of the private on the public? How does it change our experience of the street? These questions seem especially important given the other changes in the boulevard over the last several years, as well as those that will come when the subway arrives. Zumthor, who is Swiss, has been criticized for not “getting” Los Angeles, although he did teach at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, in downtown’s arts district, in 1988. More to the point, Goldhagen suggests, is his belief (with a focus not dissimilar to Heizer’s) that “the city matters, but so does the Ice Age site on which LACMA sits.” Goldhagen continues: “Looking at art, Zumthor has said, can be a profound, even transcendental experience. For Los Angeles, Zumthor is less focused on the perpetual transience of the city than he is on the permanent — on what was there in Los Angeles before there even was a Los Angeles.”

What does this mean, the imposition of the private on the public? How does it change our experience of the street?

What he’s presenting, then, may be a deeper integration, in which the human scale of Wilshire begins to recognize, and to mirror, the natural landscape of which it is a part. This has always been the disconnect in Southern California, between its edenic myths and its more elemental realities, between the history of forgetting and the forgetting of history. “Those tar pits are the soul of that site,” Zumthor declares, and he’s right, as they are in many ways the soul of the city itself. It’s no coincidence that, in works as disparate as Helena María Viramontes’s 1995 novel Under the Feet of Jesus and the 1997 blockbuster movie Volcano, tar is a metaphor for dislocations social and geologic. “Black bubbles erasing him,” Viramontes writes. “Finally the eyes. Blankness. Thousands of bones, the bleached white marrow of bones. Splintered bone pieced together by wire to make a whole, surfaced bone.” There is erasure here, but equally the inevitability of that first place, that elemental center, that prehistoric world that underlies the floating human grid. “No fingerprint or history, bone,” Viramontes continues. “No lava stone. No story or family, bone.”

The paradox is that the tar, or its by-products, nearly derailed the subway — in fact, did derail the subway for more than twenty years. On March 24, 1985, Ross Dress for Less, a discount clothing store a few blocks east of Fairfax on Third Street (directly across the street from the site that would become the Grove), exploded after a methane build-up in its basement, the entire building “rising just slightly with an enormous burp,” notes William L. Fox in Making Time: Essays on the Nature of Los Angeles, “then settling back down, although twenty-two people were injured.” 2 In the aftermath, Henry Waxman, who represented the district in Congress, sponsored legislation that banned the use of federal funds for subway construction in the area, a ban that wasn’t lifted until 2007. We can talk all we want about the wisdom (or lack thereof) of digging subway tunnels in a landscape as unstable as Southern California. “Tunnels are the safest place during an earthquake because tunnels move as one unit with the ground,” insists Krishniah Murthy, of the L.A. County Metropolitan Transit Authority, although the system has not yet had to ride out anything bigger than Northridge, which at magnitude 6.7 was terrifying, disruptive … and yet packed only a fraction of the force of the so-called Big One most Californians dread. Who knows what would happen if a 7.8 were to strike? Perhaps Waxman was right, although by this point, we’ve moved beyond such concerns and into the realm of aesthetics and policy. “We’ve got the best weather in the world and we put people underground,” sneers Rick Caruso, a long-time critic of the subway, even as he acknowledges that Los Angeles is changing because people can’t get around. “That’s why it’s critical to connect neighborhoods,” he adds, arguing once again for his trolley, the glue, as it were, that he believes would help the neighborhood cohere.

Whether or not this is the case remains a matter of conjecture; as a friend likes to remind me, it’s only ten blocks from the County Museum to the Grove, no more than fifteen minute’s walking time. I do it a few times a month, passing through the museum campus to Sixth Street, then west on Sixth and north on Fairfax to Third. It is hardly the prettiest saunter in the neighborhood, along the narrow sidewalks that skirt the walled-in edge of Park La Brea, but it’s not without a certain oddball charm. There are people, buses, a sense of streets that are, that have been, lived in; if nothing else, it comes with a low-level urban buzz. In any event, the trolley “is not happening any time soon,” admits Govan, although “with the subway coming in and LACMA growing, it becomes more relevant.” A key issue remains where to put it. “Traffic on Fairfax is a disaster,” Govan says, “so the county and the city will never put a trolley there.”

One potential solution involves running tracks through Park La Brea, although this comes with problems of its own. Park La Brea, after all, is gated, landscaped, set back from the surrounding streets as if it were an island on the land. First developed in the 1940s, influenced by Le Corbusier, it has become another of L.A.’s strange non-landmark landmarks, most notable (perhaps) for being there. As long as I’ve lived in the neighborhood, I have thought of it as a roadblock, an impediment, the place where the street comes to die. For Govan, this is the whole idea. “Fencing off Park La Brea — they have to change that,” he insists, although he recognizes the difficulties. “It’s all private, and I think it would take a pretty big act to change the permissions they got to build the fence. So they would have to want to do it. We’re not trying to force anything.” And yet, the vision he articulates is an enticing one, in which the property is redeveloped, opened up. Rather than remaining behind walls and gates, it would blur into the broader community, not unlike the museum, with its ongoing reconceptualization, its integration of the street. “I don’t know Park La Brea,” Govan says, “I’m not trying to take it over” … but then he is off and running: “Maybe we could create this north-south access, with walking traffic and retailers. It could improve real estate values, help with historic buildings. And between the twenty million people visiting the Grove and the subway stop here, think of the street traffic. That would be fantastic. So maybe the trolley could come through Park La Brea.”

The subway may be less important as transit system than as metaphor.

What Govan’s really describing is density, which is coming (has come) to Los Angeles, with or without its gates and walls. That’s the charm, for me, of this corner of the city, with its horizontal downtown and its public art, its sense of the boulevard as a “great street.” It is Wilshire, in other words, that is the destination, the street as landmark, or experience. Of course, as Govan notes, “when we talk about density in L.A., we’re not talking about the overall packed density of Manhattan. Manhattan is a small island. Los Angeles is a massive horizontal surface. So you’re not going to get density everywhere.” He’s right; even at its most urbanized, L.A. remains loosely packed. It’s tempting to consider this in terms of sprawl, although it’s more accurate, I think, to read it as the function of a decentered urban landscape, in which even downtown is just one in a series of contiguous districts, isolated and connected all at once. That is why the subway remains so essential, despite environmental analyses that indicate, the Los Angeles Times reports, “only limited relief on Wilshire and nearby surface streets and little or no relief for the area’s freeways.” I don’t mean to suggest that these analyses are incorrect; one rail line (or even two if we count the Expo Line, which will reach Santa Monica by way of Culver City in 2017) won’t, can’t, make that much difference to the toxic gridlock of the streets.

And yet, I want to tell you that this doesn’t matter, that the subway may be less important as transit system than as metaphor. Don’t get me wrong: I’m as eager as anyone (more eager, I would wager) to travel the basin via underground railroad, any time of day or evening, fourteen minutes from the County Museum to downtown. I’ve been waiting for it for a generation, would use it now if the expansion were completed, and regret, then and now, my inability to take a train to hear Govan and Caruso at the United Artists, registering it as a lost opportunity, symbol (still) of our dislocation, the distance between where we wish to be and where we are. At the same time, I’m skeptical, it’s in my nature to be skeptical, especially when it comes to the promises L.A. makes. As early as the 1880s, Carey McWilliams writes in Southern California Country, “it began to be said that Southern Californians ‘irrigate, cultivate, and exaggerate’” 3 — an observation that lingers even now. Back to the future, forward to the past: the story that the city tells about itself.

Does that sound like yet another whisper of Los Angeles exceptionalism, the sensibility I want most to avoid? Maybe so, although I think it’s more complicated than that. For McWilliams, who coined the phrase, exceptionalism was a double-edged sword, connected to what we might regard (without irony or subtext) as manifest destiny. “Californians,” he argues in California: The Great Exception, “are more like the Americans than the Americans themselves.” And later: “California has always occupied, in relation to other regions, much the same relation that America has occupied toward Europe: it is the great catch-all, the vortex at the continent’s end into which elements of America’s diverse population have been drawn, whirled around.” 4 Such a sentiment, suggests Mitchell Schwarzer in Harvard Design Magazine, predicts Wallace Stegner’s famous “California was America only more so,” which also cuts both ways. 5 On the one hand, each of these writers is referring to energy, innovation, the constant cycles of a boom economy; on the other, to the exploitation of resources and human beings. “The state is always off balance, stretching itself precariously,” McWilliams lamented, 6 and sixty-five years later, it’s not hard to hear that imbalance echoed in the rhetoric of civic leaders like the mayor, who claims that the subway “will help people get to where they need to go, cut traffic and boost the economy,” or his counterpart in Santa Monica (where, it must be said, this train isn’t going), who told the Los Angeles Times, “if the car is king of L.A., then the Purple Line will be the queen of L.A.” Queen of L.A. The City of Our Lady the Queen of the Angels. As Richard Rodriguez noted in 1992: “Americans have their leveling ways: La Ciudad de Nuestra Señora de los Ángeles de Porciuncula has become, in one hundred years, L.A.”

LACMA courtyard. [Edward Conde]

LACMA courtyard, view to Wilshire Boulevard. [Jessica Wilson]

All the same, can I say that I want to believe it, that this is the city (or a version of it) in which I want to live? Can I indulge in some Keatsian negative capability, hold two opposing ideas in my head at once? Yes, I am skeptical about the effects of the subway, about ridership, about whether it will alleviate the gridlock, and certainly about what happens in an earthquake. Even so, I look forward to its arrival, to the changes it will bring to my relationship with the city, to its sense of depth. I am skeptical, too, about Zumthor’s design for the County Museum, which in a recent computer-generated image appears a bit flat, a bit low-slung, its bridge close in upon the boulevard, its western edge too near Urban Light. At the same time, how can I not be drawn to Govan’s notion of the museum as “the park for the neighborhood. For the world, too, but for the neighborhood specifically. That was the idea, that eventually you can walk your dog through the museum because you can see art though the glass and walk through the park, and the museum is in the park.” As for the overpass, he says, “Everyone asks, ‘Will it be dark under there?’ Would we build it if it were going to be dark? This isn’t a highway overpass. We’re talking about twenty-two feet in the air, we’re talking about glass and light and art.” In regard to its impact on Wilshire, there is a kink, a slight hiccup, in the boulevard between Spaulding and Stanley Avenues — “so sightlines converge.” He goes on, rolling now, swept up in the vision: “It’s actually an ideal point for a cross, for a visual marking of Wilshire, because you see the long lines out. It makes the boulevard a monument, which it is. And there’ll be a restaurant with glass looking at Urban Light and you’ll be able to see through the building, right to Sixth Street, right through the building because it’s all open and glass. You’ll be able to see the Page Museum from the main plaza. So it’s anything but constraining. In fact, it’s going to be like lifting a blockage out of the site.”

It is Wilshire itself that is the destination, the street as landmark, or experience.

Glass and light and art, the integration of street and subway, a vista through which you can walk your dog. Street life, in other words, although at the same time something more and less than that, which brings back all the city’s paradoxes, imprinted, like footprints, loosely on the shifting, prehistoric ground. As for the Zumthor project, it seeks to function, at least in part, as something of a mirror, regardless of the ongoing evolution of its design. What we see in its gaze is our complexity, our inscrutability, and (equally important) those of the earth itself. We see the curious mix of contrived and elemental, our own construction beside the ancient tar. “It’s by being out of synch with the ongoing present, or what we refer to as ‘real time,’ through experiencing the past and imagining the future,” William Fox writes, “that we’re able to perceive where we are, what our place is.” This is exactly the sensation the Tar Pits provoke. And yet, Fox continues, “almost everyone, except for the kids in the LACMA parking lot, walks too fast to notice the tar oozing up through the asphalt or, seeing it, fails to consider what it means.” Little wonder, then, that in Volcano — inspired, perhaps, by Waxman’s concerns over the Ross Dress for Less explosion — “the construction of a subway tunnel was the fictional pretext leading to the eruption of the La Brea Tar Pits.”

You can read such a plot point in a couple of different ways: as an example of the silliness of Hollywood, or as an expression of the apocalyptic impulse that has defined L.A. pop culture since there was an L.A. pop culture, a fantasy of devastation on the grand scale. In Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster, Mike Davis catalogues 138 films and novels (including Volcano) in which the city is destroyed — and that’s only though 1998. Such a list reveals something about our unease with the volatility of this landscape, the elemental underpinnings of a city that can feel conditional even in its densest neighborhoods. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this in the years I’ve lived here, the psychology of the disaster zone. This afternoon, however, as I leave Govan’s office and make my way back out to Wilshire, I find myself reflecting in far more pedestrian terms. It’s been a few hours, and the sun has sunk below the midpoint of the sky; I turn east and wander beyond the bend where the overpass will go and watch the boulevard extend. To my right, the Craft Museum, to my left, the artificial shape of the tar lake, like Park La Brea, sequestered behind a fence with those plaster mammoths struggling on the shore. I can see myself here at many ages, six and thirty-six and fifty-three. I can see my children, or the afterimage of my children, rolling down the slope that presses against the Page Museum, climbing on the statues of the sloth and the short-faced bear. It is my history, our history, the history Los Angeles claims to forget. It is what roots us here. In front of a bench, a man plays the blues on a banjo; as I pass, he nods at me. I encounter him most days when I walk through this park, another of the loops by which I mark my place in this city, a walkabout, a songline, a way for me to meander my universe into being.

And I know that this is just a passing fancy, but today it all feels real to me in a way I can’t quite name. Not lasting, never lasting, but connected, as if I can walk a bridge between the present and the past. A bridge that stretches across Wilshire, a bridge by which we come to some acceptance, to sacred ordinariness. This is my neighborhood, my community; as was true for La Brea Woman, it is where I live. And if she is just a facsimile, then I am one also, a conglomeration of my influences. I drift around the park, cross the lawn where in the summer there are salsa concerts, move out to the plaza of the museum. In the near distance, Levitated Mass reddens, pale as watercolor, in the sunlight, while before me Urban Light marks the border of the boulevard. As always, there are tourists snapping pictures, children pressing up against the lampposts, the imprint of a landmark, the way the city grows into itself. On the facing sidewalk, I see the subway site, construction on the station, and for a moment, I want to live forever, to experience Los Angeles as it will be in forty years, fifty, in a century, to engage with the urban landscape it becomes. This too is a fantasy: of a neighborhood that works on many levels, cars and trains and walkers flowing in and out of public/private spaces like the tar beneath our feet. And yet, why not? What else is a city but a dream in three dimensions, inhabited by succeeding generations who create identity in the muscle memory of its streets? What else is a city but an imaginatorium, where the surface, the public record, is constantly collapsing into the interior landscape, the streets as markers, territorial or otherwise, the building blocks, the triggers, of identity? That is how cities develop, that is how they evolve. “The Boulevard itself,” Reyner Banham reminds us, “was the creation of years of ad hoc subdivisions, beginning with a quarter-mile stretch west of the present MacArthur Park laid out in 1895 by the ineffable Gaylord Wilshire.” 7 Little more than a century later, I cross it heading south, a part of my daily peregrination, in a city that neither Wilshire nor (for that matter) Ross would recognize, and make my way through “streets devoid of meaning to the driver” — but not, I want to tell you, to the walker who, like me, is where he or she belongs.

Editors' Note

This essay is excerpted from Sidewalking: Coming to Terms with Los Angeleswhich will be published this fall by University of California Press. It appears here courtesy of the author and the publisher.

  1. Mike Davis, City of Quartz (New York: Verso, 1990), 223.
  2. William L. Fox, Making Time: Essays on the Nature of Los Angeles (Berkeley: Counterpoint Press, 2006), 3.
  3. Carey McWilliams, Southern California Country: An Island on the Land (New York, Gibbs Smith, 1946), 101.
  4. Carey McWilliams, California: The Great Exception (original publication 1949; Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), 87, 83.
  5. Mitchell Schwarzer, “Off-World in the Far West,” Harvard Design Magazine, No. 4, Spring/Summer 1998.
  6. McWilliams, California: The Great Exception, 17.
  7. Reyner Banham, Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies (original publication , 1971; Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009), 66.
David L. Ulin, “Sidewalking: Along the Miracle Mile,” Places Journal, September 2015. Accessed 04 Oct 2023.

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