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Reading L.A.: Robert Fogelson examines a city 'hooked on growth'

March 31, 2011 |  5:35 pm

Fogelsonpic Big but sprawling. Hungry for growth and influence yet wary of density. A horizontal behemoth.

The central contradiction that has always made Los Angeles so hard to define and govern -- that it is a huge, globally powerful city made up of dozens of smaller, largely suburban communities -- stands at the heart of Robert M. Fogelson’s “The Fragmented Metropolis: Los Angeles, 1850-1930,” the sixth book in our yearlong Reading L.A. series.

Begun as Fogelson’s doctoral dissertation at Harvard, where he studied with the historian Oscar Handlin, the book was published in 1967 -- on the heels of the 1965 Watts riots, which seemed to confirm some of its most pessimistic conclusions about the fissures splitting the city.

Fogelson’s study follows an appealingly simple format. The first half charts the growth of the city over that 80-year period, looking in depth at all the familiar themes of L.A.’s emergence as a major metropolis: oil and water, immigration and ethnic identity, boosterism and real estate. The book’s second half takes on a more novel challenge: explaining why the city, as it grew so large and powerful, could never manage to become unified socially, politically or architecturally. As Robert Fishman puts it in the introduction to the 1993 edition, “The resulting tension between the theme of growth and the theme of fragmentation gives Fogelson’s narrative its drive and complexity.” Fishman describes the book, aptly, as the biography of a city “hooked on growth [and] deeply divided.”

Along the way Fogelson provides probably the best chapters ever written on the rise and fall of the city’s "interurban," or electric streetcar, networks. Those chapters also turn out to be a study -- since the streetcars were privately owned -- of the relationship in L.A.'s early years between mass transit and speculative real-estate development. Fogelson counts L.A.'s failure to take over those rail networks in the 1920s, as they began to lose money with the rise of the car, as one of the city's most historic missed opportunities.

He also spends a good deal of time examining the emergence -- and in short order the dilution -- of professional urban planning in the city and county of Los Angeles. Striking a note we’ve heard before in Reading L.A., and are sure to hear again, he concludes that in the first three decades of the 20th century in Los Angeles “zoning was fully adopted but extensively modified” by variances, exceptions and political horse-trading, with the depressing result that planning, “far from guiding the expansion of the metropolis, merely sanctioned the preferences of private enterprise.” Sound familiar?

If Fogelson reaches a single conclusion about why big L.A. never became unified L.A., it has to do with what he characterizes as the deeply “anti-urban ethos” of many of the city’s most influential developers, patrons and political leaders, not to mention large percentage of its average citizens. Ultimately, Fogelson writes, Los Angeles, in all sorts of ways, “rejected the metropolis in favor of its suburbs” -- even if, to make matters more complicated, many of those “suburbs” were (and are) located within its own city limits.

In the book’s most provocative sections Fogelson argues that the new arrivals who settled in Los Angeles in the decades just before and after 1900, many of them from the Midwestern United States, were deeply skeptical of urbanity and density and even believed that the detached single-family house was “morally superior” to the apartment building. For Fogelson, that skepticism kept the city divided into scores of autonomous low-rise neighborhoods, which in turn only deepened its fragmentation over time.

I think this part of the book is worth quoting at length, for it gets at the heart of one of my key goals for Reading L.A.: exploring the relationship between Southern California's civic identity and its architectural form.

These new Angelenos, Fogelson argues, arrived in California “with a conception of the good community which was embodied in single-family houses, located on large lots, surrounded by landscaped lawns, and isolated from business activities. Not for them multi-family dwellings, confined to narrow plots, separated by cluttered streets, and interspersed with commerce and industry. Their vision was epitomized by the residential suburb—spacious, affluent, clean, decent, permanent, predictable, and homogeneous—and violated by the great city—congested, impoverished, filthy, immoral, transient, uncertain, and heterogeneous. The late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century metropolis, as the newcomers to Los Angeles perceived it, was the receptacle for all European evils and the source of all American sins. It contradicted their long-cherished notions about the proper environment and compelled them to retreat to outskirts uncontaminated by urban vices and conducive to rural virtues. And though … Americans everywhere shared these sentiments, they formed a larger portion of the populace in Los Angeles than in other great metropolises. Here then was the basis for the extraordinary dispersal of Los Angeles.”

RELATED:

Reading L.A.: Richard G. Lillard on the growth machine and its discontents

Reading L.A.: An Update and a Leap from 25 to 27

Reading L.A.: Esther McCoy

--Christopher Hawthorne

 Photo: Pacific Electric streetcars making their final runs in 1955. Credit: Donald Duke

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