When city planning fails, it’s either because the plans themselves are incoherent, or because the planning process itself was done poorly. While there are plenty of examples to be found of the first category, especially in the developing world, in the latter there’s one that stands out among others: Los Angeles. Once heralded as the bright future of suburban community development, the rise of new urbanism in the 1990s combined with grisly riots and mounting traffic and pollution at the time made it the poster child of what not to do within urban planning circles.
It’s easy to point out what went wrong: the ideals of 1950s suburbia produced a car-dependent fragmented sprawlscape that hit its nadir in the 1990s, with subsequent modest reforms leading to modest improvements. But more important to consider is why this kind of planning happened. And in far too many cases, the answer is “because that’s what the people wanted.”
Chapter three of Mike Davis’s acerbic epic City of Quartz begins with a telling example of the extent to which the democratic process had sunk by 1989. Earlier that year Joy Picus, LA City Council member for the west San Fernando Valley, had been foolish enough to designate a district known as “West Hills” that included both $400,000 hilltop mansions (in 1989 dollars, mind you) and low lying districts of houses costing a mere $200,000. Hilltop elites were outraged at the thought of being included in the same neighbourhood with such riff raff, lobbying Picus to rezone the district. She obliged, sending lowlanders into a tizzy. The situation ended with everyone unhappy. Picus was voted out of office in 1993.
If this example represents only a tiny fragment of incorporated Los Angeles, it is emblematic of what goes for democracy within rich, NIMBY homeowner districts throughout the metropolitan area. To a large extent, public participation is now a luxury, available only in certain regions. In that same era in which poorer neighbourhoods were too busy dealing with devastating gang violence, police corruption and municipal neglect, wealthy Valley residents were nonetheless convinced that the greatest injustice in this city of 3 million was the drawing of an imaginary line that might bump down their property values. Mike Davis describes their behaviour as similar to the “sans-culottes” of the French Revolution; I describe it as similar to spoilt children.
Since 1989 and the apocalypse of the 1990s, Los Angeles has made baby steps toward a governmental paradigm more akin to that of a “real city”. Nonetheless, to this day homeowners’ organisations and wealthy neighbourhoods are hotspots for this counterproductive crybaby democracy, exercising inordinate and often irresponsible influence in the decision making process. Recently Beverly Hills residents banded together to fight an alignment of a new subway under a high school. They figured that producing an expensive video of the school exploding would help them look like the underdog.
But when exactly did this balkanised, egotistical form of public participation become so prevalent?
Struck out at Chavez Ravine
The postwar suburban building boom of the 50s and 60s is perhaps the most critical event to the shaping of Los Angeles into its listless, blob-like form of today. And it was this same boom that would shape voter attitudes into those seen in the homeowner groups of the 80s, 90s and today. Of all the events that took place during this time, one stands out as indicative of things to come in the democratic process of the city: Chavez Ravine.
A frequently cited example, referenced in the recent social justice “anti-tour book” A People’s Guide to Los Angeles and memorialised in an album by Ry Cooder, Chavez ravine was a massive and tragic example of voters’ attitudes toward low-income housing. Ever since LA’s early days, Chavez Ravine, roughly two miles north of the civic centre and hidden by the rolling eastern edge of the Hollywood Hills, had been home to a largely working-class population. The photos taken by Don Normark, well known among history buffs and local residents, give an idea of what the state of the area was. Despite being so close to the centre of a major metropolitan region, the area kept its rural feel; some streets remained unpaved and it wasn’t that uncommon to see people riding on horseback.
With the 1949 US Housing Act, the federal government put millions of dollars up for grabs for any city with plans to demolish poor ageing neighbourhoods and put modern housing developments in their place. And in Los Angeles, Chavez Ravine was first up on the chopping block. The city set up a housing authority and in the early 50s attempted to coax local residents into going along with a plan to build a massive modernist housing project, similar to St. Louis’s infamous Pruitt-Igoe, on the site. Naturally, most residents were unhappy with the idea. Some of them, fearing eviction, abandoned their homes, which were later bulldozed by the city or burned by the fire department for training purposes (for a more detailed account of the history of Chavez Ravine, see this extensive summary at the blog Racing the Horizons).
In the mid-50s, residents of the now hollowed-out Chavez Ravine found themselves in a sort of limbo. The threat of eviction remained imminent, but there was some chance that they would be able to vote on the matter and perhaps save the neighbourhood. Maneuvering by then state senator Richard Nixon and actions by the city government established that the city still had eminent domain over the land, on the condition that it could prove that future uses of the land were for an “appropriate public purpose.”
But before Chavez Ravine’s residents could save their homes, city hall threw them a curveball. In 1957, Los Angeles became for the first time in its history the home of a major league baseball club. The former Brooklyn Dodgers said goodbye to their old digs in New York’s largest borough and set up shop in LA, making it necessary for them to find a new home stadium.
At the same time, LA residents had become increasingly hostile to the idea of public housing in general. Post-McCarthy anti-communist cold-war logic was beginning to win them over. Even before the arrival of the Dodgers, city officials had attempted to stall the project in the name of good old-fashioned capitalism. In 1957, a significant contingent of voters continued to oppose the creation of “red” public housing projects, favouring a more “all-American” use for Chavez Ravine — perhaps a baseball stadium.
Thus, as the Dodgers began their search for a new home, city hall seized the opportunity to please their anti-communist constituents and take advantage of land that was conveniently located near downtown and newly built freeways, and cleared of many of its former residents. They created a plan for a new Dodger Stadium on the site, which would use the city’s eminent domain right to evict the remaining residents. And unlike the former plan which would give former residents first dibs on new housing, this plan would build no new housing on the site, leaving current residents homeless.
The issue remained as to whether this use was an “appropriate public purpose”. City hall put this decision up to a citywide vote. They placed measure B on the city ballot, which would affirm Dodger Stadium as a legal use of eminent domain. And on election day this plan was passed by the voters. Despite last ditch efforts to halt the plan in court, politicians in city hall saw to it that the plan went through. On 8 May 1959, LA sheriffs and demolition teams raided the ravine, evicting the remaining citizens and demolishing homes to prepare the site for construction. To this day, Chavez Ravine is occupied by a massive ballpark surrounded by a mile-long parking lot big enough to be seen from space.
It’s difficult to say whether the voter choice to spurn former Chavez Ravine residents in the name of Dodger Blue was a vote specifically against public housing or simply a vote in favour of baseball. But the new plan, in parallel with a plan to destroy nearby Bunker Hill to build an enormous concrete business district on top of old working-class Victorian homes, represented the codification of a new paradigm of displacement: that city elites could wipe out entire communities at will. Worst of all is the fact that the majority of the population, with their popular vote, showed itself to be at best indifferent and at worst complicit to this new doctrine.