June 29, 2012 - From the July, 2012 issue

Lessons from Los Angeles’ Century of Growth and Reinvention Shared with SPUR Delegation

In May, SPUR, the San Francisco Planning + Urban Research Association, came to Los Angeles on a study trip to bring back lessons in urbanism to the Bay Area. The trip began with a panel at the LA City Hall moderated by TPR editor-in-chief David Abel. Panelists Steven Erie, a professor of political science and the author of ‘Beyond Chinatown’, and Christopher Hawthorne, Architecture Critic for the LA Times, explore themes or urbanism and infrastructure  in LA’s past, present, and future.  

Steven Erie

“In 1870 LA was half the size of the City and County of San Francisco... Annexed in 1915, the San Fernando Valley was LA’s Louisiana Purchase, dramatically increasing the city’s boundaries.” -Steven Erie

David Abel: Professor Erie, would you share your historical research on the public infrastructure investments that have created and shaped Los Angeles, propelling the city from a pueblo to a megalopolis over the last century while San Francisco’s population remained relatively static over the same period?

Steven Erie: Let’s step into a time machine and go back to 1870. The population of San Francisco was 150,000, making it the biggest city in California. It was half the state’s population and was the biggest city in the West. LA in 1870 was home to 5,700 people and had a murder rate ten times that of Dodge City. It was a dusty, nasty frontier town. In 1870 LA was half the size of the City and County of San Francisco. San Francisco was 49 square miles, and LA was a mere 29 square miles.    

Fast forward to 1930. San Francisco: 640,000 people; LA: 1.24 million. Square mileage? It stayed the same in San Francisco, though there’s a bit of a back-story here. San Francisco tried to annex, albeit unsuccessfully, San Mateo and Alameda Counties once it realized it was losing the footrace to Los Angeles. So San Francisco remained at 49 square miles, and LA in 1930 had mushroomed to 428 square miles. In 60 years LA’s size metastasized, both in terms of population and square mileage. Annexed in 1915, the San Fernando Valley was LA’s Louisiana Purchase, dramatically increasing the city’s boundaries.   

What happened between 1870 and 1930 to produce dramatic growth in LA? It’s a story of visionary leadership, massive public investments in infrastructure, and strong voter support.  Little understood is how critical the public was to LA’s big bets on infrastructure and its future.  Consider these bookends for early LA’s great leap forward.  In 1873, LA county voters agreed to give the Southern Pacific Railroad the equivalent of a king’s ransom—$602,000—to make LA the southern terminus of the transcontinental railroad.  That doesn’t sound like much today. Yet it represented 5% of the entire assessed valuation of LA County. Today that would be $50 billion in greenmail to get the railroad here rather than as a spur line to San Diego. This huge investment was a gamble on LA’s future.  

Fast forward to 1931. The voters of LA city and 12 suburbs approve a $220 million bond to build the Colorado River Aqueduct to provide water not only for the city but for the entire region. $220 million might not sound like much, but it’s equivalent to $3 billion today.  This represented 13% of the entire assessed valuation of these 13 cities. It was the equivalent of adding 13 Proposition 13s to their property tax bills. And this took place as the country slid into the Great Depression. Yet, 84% of the voters said “yes” to this enormous indebtedness placed on their property.  The public clearly understood that that was an investment in their own future as well as that of the region.     

These two critical public votes are essential bookends to understanding why LA grew so large, first as a city and later as a region.  The story starts with the Southern Pacific Railroad in 1873.  San Diego thought it would get it because it has the natural harbor. But San Diego then and today is a cheap town. All that they would give the railroad was pueblo lands. They wouldn’t give them cash. LA agreed to pay cash, and lots of it.  It even gave the railroad what is now known as the Alameda Corridor, the spur line from downtown to the harbor area.    

The coming of the railroad produced the land boom of the 1880s. In the 1890s we witnessed the epic free harbor fight, and the very conservative businessmen of LA invoked the formidable powers of local government to foil the railroad and develop an independent municipal harbor at Wilmington and San Pedro.  The railroad has other plans.  It wanted to build its own port in Santa Monica called Port Los Angeles. Can you imagine what that would have done to property values in Brentwood and Bel Air? However, the Army Corps of Engineers sided with the city leaders, not the railroad, and began dredging and building a breakwater in San Pedro-Wilmington.  Yet LA city lay a distant 18 miles from these two independent harbor cities.  And this is another incredible and improbable LA story. How did LA somehow annex a small strip of land to connect to the harbor communities, get them to agree to consolidate into Greater LA, and then build a huge port facility?   

Roger Lotchin, the urban historian, said, “To understand Los Angeles is to realize that it is a development conspiracy by its leadership.” State historian and noted author Kevin Starr called it “Bismarckian municipal will.” Leadership wasn’t just Harrison Gray Otis and Harry Chandler of the LA Times. Joan Didion thinks that somehow they spread pixie dust and magic, and they were the ones who brought all of this into being. Baloney! It was also dedicated public servants like William Mulholland, the true founder of modern LA. He brought water in from the Owens Valley.  And he was no pawn of the land barons.      

Bureaucratic entrepreneurs played an enormous role in that early saga. LA gets the harbor. Yet circa 1900 –1910 the Port of San Francisco was the California port. Today, San Francisco’s former wharves house a chocolate factory and bevy of tourist attractions. In the Bay Area, the maritime action moved over to Oakland.  Closer to home, San Diegans a century ago derisively called LA’s fledgling port a mere “harborette.” Today, the Ports of San Pedro Bay is the largest port complex in the United States, and the nation’s gateway to the Pacific Rim.    

After the turn of the century the LA infrastructure story turns to the relentless search for adequate water supplies for a semi-arid region.  You’ve all seen the movie Chinatown. It’s magnificent, a truly great film, but absolutely lousy history. Mulholland hated Otis and Chandler of the Times. The LA aqueduct to the Owens Valley was a public project, not a private real estate scheme.  The land barons got wind of it so they made money in insider-trader fashion on land speculation in the San Fernando Valley.  But this was a voter-approved project with widespread public benefits.  The $23 million needed to build the aqueduct, an amount which approached the city’s debt ceiling, was overwhelmingly approved by the electorate.     

Unlike LA, where voters agreed to fund the entire project in one fell swoop, San Francisco’s elected officials decided to fund the Hetch Hetchy aqueduct project on an annual appropriation basis. There were lean years, however, where work stopped because there was no appropriation.  This is why the San Francisco aqueduct and reservoir took so much longer to build than LA’s aqueduct.  LA’s water project also led to public power because the Owens Valley is 4,000 feet higher than the city.  With falling water, hydroelectric power could be produced.  And public power could help pay off the water bonds.   

Then the 1920s, where two other big infrastructure projects are launched.  The LAX airport story begins in 1928 at a bean field known as Mines Field.  1928 also marked the creation of the Metropolitan Water District, with the Colorado River Aqueduct vote occurring in 1931.  Look, Los Angeles is a semi-arid desert. No water means no real LA; it’s basically Santa Barbara south. You can tell marvelous stories about real estate, and you can tell stories about branch plant industrialization. You can tell stories about Hollywood. That’s the superstructure. The foundational base for how this city and region grew consists of huge public investments in infrastructure, particularly water.    

The secret is that San Francisco got nervous as LA moved forward, and it tried to emulate LA’s infrastructure and annexation strategies. You won’t hear this in official histories: San Francisco trying to annex San Mateo and Alameda Counties so that the city limits  could grow.  San Francisco also repeatedly tried, unsuccessfully, to municipalize Pacific Gas & Electric power.          

LA’s water monopoly is a major reason why we went from 29 square miles to 428 square miles in 1930.  The city basically told communities like Eagle Rock and Venice, “join us if you want water; otherwise you are on your own.” Today, the city, at  472 square miles, is only a little larger than its 1930 boundaries.  There’s a reason for this.  Once MWD was created, the city’s water monopoly was broken.  In effect MWD created a water wall around the city, allowing other communities to tap MWD supplies, grow, and remain independent.  Thus LA’s city limits were really fixed by decisions made regarding water policy, the DWP, and the Metropolitan Water District. That’s the essential foundational story of modern Los Angeles.

David Abel: Christopher, having moved from the Bay Area less than a decade ago to Los Angeles and to being the Architecture Critic of the Los Angeles Times, please paint our visiting SPUR group a picture of Los Angeles, where we’ve been, and where we are today regarding our built environment.

Christopher Hawthorne: As a kid who grew up in Berkeley, I have a lot of thoughts on this relationship between San Francisco and Los Angeles. Given that this panel is meant to explore the big picture and overarching ideas of where Los Angeles stands, I want to start by making a couple of propositions about greater Los Angeles.    

The first is that Los Angeles is no longer producing innovative buildings and landmarks in the way that it used to. I arrived as the architecture critic of the LA Times at the end of 2004. The Walt Disney concert hall had just opened the years before up the hill from the Times office. The Caltrans building by Thom Mayne and Morphosis had just opened earlier in 2004. There was a sense that innovative public architecture in Los Angeles was coming into its own. I think, in a lot of ways, that energy and momentum has stalled, and there hasn’t been a single building to match either of those two buildings in terms of really innovative individual pieces of architecture since I’ve started.    

In fact, Los Angeles architecture has begun to export its greatest talents to cities outside of California and around the world. Frank Gehry, of course, is producing concert halls all over the world. Thom Mayne has taken his act to New York, has produced the Cooper Union building in Manhattan, and has just been named the architect of the first building on the Roosevelt Island campus. Even an architect like Neil Denari, who is really interesting and innovative, has struggled to get any commissions in Los Angeles. Finally, about a year ago, he got his first major ground-up building, and it wasn’t in Los Angeles or California but in Manhattan, the HL23 Tower along the High Line.   

That’s a real shift. This used to be a place where architects would come to get challenging and innovative projects built, and that’s no long the case in a lot of ways. But I’m also here to say that’s not such a bad thing, even as an architecture critic. What’s really needed in this city—which is really at a cross roads—is not innovation so much at the level of the individual building, which we’ve had for more than a century. We need some innovative thinking at the level of the block, the neighborhood, and the city. We need innovative thinking in particular around the issue of mobility.    

My second proposition is that LA—traditionally a private city organized around deeply private building blocks such as the single-family house and the automobile—is beginning to reembrace its public realm and character. This city that Mike Davis in the dystopian classic, “City of Quartz,” dubbed ‘Fortress City’, that fortress, if it’s not beginning to crumble, it’s at least showing some cracks. These cracks have become the center of my work as an architecture critic. What I’m really trying to write about these days is that transition more than the design of individual buildings. There are a number of examples that embrace of LA’s public side.   


The biggest example has to do with Measure R, the sales tax hike we passed in 2008, which really benefitted from being on the ballot with President Obama. There was a different kind of level of turnout in that election. It required a super majority, and most pundits in LA gave Measure R no chance of passage.    

But it passed with nearly 70 percent of the vote. Over thirty years it will raise an estimated $40 billion for a range of transportation projects (there are road and highway projects in that basket too). A lot of that money is going to transit. Measure R has allowed Metro to begin extending light rail, subway, and BRT lines across LA County.    

Even as design professionals we can sometimes forget about the direct connection between transit and the life of the street. It’s a fact that virtually every trip on public transit begins and usually ends with a trip on foot or on bike. It’s not just the change in how people get around, it’s also the space around these stations and the kind of transit-oriented development that is changing how our streets and sidewalks are being used. 

Another example: Los Angeles’ boulevards are reasserting themselves, throwing off the influence of the freeway, and establishing themselves as a place where the full range of urban life has a chance to play out. That’s a really significant practical and philosophical shift when you think about the role that the freeways played. Joan Didion argued in the 70s that the freeway was the only communal experience that Los Angeles had. David Brodsley in a great book called “LA Freeway” published in the early 80s called the LA freeway system the great synecdoche of Los Angeles, the one part of Los Angeles that this diffuse collection of communities capable of standing in for the whole. Reyner Banham in “Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies” talked of the time that Angelenos spent on the freeway as the two calmest and most pleasant hours of their day. We all know that that has shifted.   

David Abel: Professor, what took place at the turn of the 20th century that set LA on the trajectory you’ve spoken about today?

Steven Erie: It was Los Angeles’ incredible leadership, both in the private and public sectors, and their vision coupled with intense ambition.  Early LA civic leaders were so full of themselves.  The LA Chamber of Commerce had a stenographer in their board meetings taking down every word. You have to read this stuff to believe it! There are great lines in there about when they decided to evict the Navy submarine base on the doctrine that a higher use of the harbor was commercial rather than military use. The president of the LA Chamber says, “Oh San Diego, let them  have something.” This was the kind of attitude I am talking about!  

The early Southern California growth story is primarily a city story up to the Great Depression. It’s not just the Times’ Otis and Chandler and an LA Chamber story because on the public sector side it’s much like the sorcerer’s apprentice: you create these very powerful public bureaucracies—the Department of Water and Power, the Harbor Department, later the Airports Department—and they learn how to insulate themselves and control their own destinies. They become bureaucratic machines and get voters to rewrite the rules of the city charter to limit the oversight powers of elected officials.  That’s why so much so much of the early LA development is a tale of bureaucratic entrepreneurship symbolized by water czar William Mulholland, chosen by Life Magazine in the mid-1950s as one of the 100 most influential persons in American history.    

The other thing about LA that San Franciscans should know is that modern California Progressivism and reforms like the initiative, referendum and recall all started here.  LA’s great civic reformer was physician John Randolph Haynes, a friend of Progressive Governor Hiram Johnson.  Haynes sold direct democracy to LA in the early 20th century.  Haynes then sold it to Governor Johnson and it was extended statewide.  Important for today’s conversation, San Francisco was a laggard in joining the Progressive movement of a century ago.  LA was the cradle for the reform movement, which started in the political battle against the Southern Pacific Railroad.  Going forward, think about the other big California political movements and reforms.  Proposition 13, where did that start? Even the Reagan Revolution! All of these started in Southern California and then spread to the state and even nationwide.    

One final thing I want to say about infrastructure: all of that public building of critical infrastructure, LA can’t seem to do it anymore. We’re stuck in terms of airport development; we’re stuck in terms of port development. Water? The era of dam building is over. Now it’s demand management, conservation, and recycling. It’s a very different ethic about infrastructure and its use. Now it’s about efficiency and conservation.  Why? Most of the big infrastructure projects feature concentrated costs, such as noise, traffic, and air pollution, and dispersed economic benefits. That means that adversely affected communities—like the harbor communities or places like Westchester around LAX—have strong incentive to organize.  Over the years they have acquired real voice concerning infrastructure decisions affecting them.  In Los Angeles the power of neighborhoods and the environmental community has become an effective counterbalance to the old business-bureaucracy alliance that built so much of modern  LA.

David Abel: Allow me, as moderator, to add a few provocative thoughts regarding LA’s motivating vision. William Mitchell, in City of Bits, noted: “…just as railroads influenced settlement patterns and economics of the 19th century, and automobiles influenced settlement, commerce, and recreation in the 20th century, computer networks will influence how we live, work, and move (and how and even whether we move) in the 21st century.” He added: “Traditional urban patterns cannot coexist with cyberspace.” Your thoughts, Christopher, on Mitchell’s City of Bits thesis and on the dispersed nature of Los Angeles?

Christopher Hawthorne: There are a long number of caveats that should go with my earlier assertions about public-ness in LA, and they don’t have to do so much with the death of the city as much as we have remade the city to fit the car and the uphill battle we now face in trying to retrofit the city. I don’t know if we are entering a fully public phase of LA’s life, but we are catching glimpses of a post-suburban future. But getting there will require a number of changes.

Let’s take pedestrian amenities and walking. We have designed our city to such a degree around the car that we now face this absurd task of retrofitting the city just to make the experience of putting one foot in front of the other no longer unsafe, unreasonable, and eccentric, as it can be in many parts of Los Angeles. This should be a walking and biking paradise given the climate and given how flat much of the basin is.   

I think one of the goals of this visit for you is to begin to chip away at some of the clichés and stereotypes about LA. One of those is that this is a completely unplanned city and region. That’s not to say that the history of planning here is not checkered and complicated. But think about the incredible ambition and planning required around water, around the aqueduct, around the expansion of the city. Think about the ambition and audacity of the freeway system.    

Also there’s a history of ambitious private planning. The history of the boulevards goes back to a private street commission in the 1920s. A major traffic street plan by the Olmstead and Harlan Bartholemew developed through private sponsorship and initiative. The Olmstead brothers came back to do a major plan for park space in this city, sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce in 1930. It’s an astonishing document, and it suggests that we have in periodic moments had incredibly ambitious planning, though not all of it executed. The document even included in its appendix sample legislation to get this open space plan passed and paid for. It’s incredibly sophisticated not only from a design point of view but also from a political point of view.

David Abel: I hope our visiting SPUR group will come away from this Los Angeles experience seeing that LA has been and remains a city and region of “ambition and reinvention.” When developers and architects come here from Boston, New York, or San Francisco they often begin their conversations with: “Take me to your leader; I want to understand the rules here.” For better or worse, Los Angeles may be less hierarchical than they imagine. There are few land-use and design codes and rules written in stone here. Like in E-topia, LA reinvents itself continuously. It is a dispersed, multi-centered, multi-led geography whose algorithm is often open to most anything that works.

Christopher Hawthorne: This goes back to the point of the city being at a crossroads and to your point of the difficulty of this kind of public ambition now. That’s the tricky part. LA is trying to re-embrace its public side at this moment in urban history when cities don’t make this kind of investment anymore. Cities are not in the business of making public space anymore. We have neglected that kind of investment for so long and the task is bigger, but we are also at a moment where we are trying to do something while most cities are turning the other way.

David Abel: Professor Erie, what really is being reinvented in Los Angeles? Don’t we now have ubiquitously present telecommunications networks, smart phones, and intelligent buildings, combined with an imported water supply, sophisticated waste removal, evolving energy distribution, and new transportation systems? Haven’t we created a wherever-whenever globally interlinked world city? It appears to some that the old social fabric tied together by forced commonalities of location and schedule no longer coheres in Los Angeles. What will replace the latter?

Steven Erie: LA is at a crossroads and doesn’t seem to have the leadership it once had. Look at today’s politicians, bureaucrats, and business community. The LA Chamber of Commerce is a pale imitation of what it was 60 or 70 years ago when it was the most powerful local business organization in the country. The Chamber is having difficulty recruiting in part because of the demographics of this place have changed so dramatically in a relatively short period of time.   

The demographic shift is extraordinary.  I was born in Glendale, raised in Eagle Rock, and went to high school in Arcadia, all Anglo bastions at the time. There were no Asian Americans in Arcadia when I was growing up. It’s now more than half Asian American, all in the twinkling of an eye time-wise.  The challenge for LA going forward is to engage the newcomers and incorporate their entrepreneurial energy and vision. Back in the 1920s writer and satirist H.L. Mencken came to LA and called it “Double Dubuque” because there were so many Midwesterners here. Today this is the nation’s new Ellis Island, the most diverse region in the country.  The shift is a complicating factor but also an incredible opportunity. Organizations like the LA Chamber are having difficulty engaging the new ethnic entrepreneurs. Further, the old infrastructure formula for growth no longer works and that’s a real challenge as the region is poised to add millions of new residents.  But the city’s demographic transformation holds such potential.  Based on LA’s pattern of continual reinvention, I’m optimist about the future.


© 2024 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.