Reading L.A.: Think Southern California is unplanned? Think again
Debunkers and myth-busters have been among our favorite authors in Reading L.A., and in our 17th title we find a classic example of the type. In his 1997 book “Magnetic Los Angeles: Planning the Twentieth-Century Metropolis,” historian Greg Hise sets out systematically to undermine the idea that Los Angeles, particularly in the way it grew in the decades after World War II, is the ultimate unplanned metropolis.
It’s a hardy cliché, to be sure, this notion of L.A. as untouched by planning foresight of any kind. Hise, who was teaching urban history and planning at USC when he wrote the book and is now a professor in the history department at University of Nevada, Las Vegas, acknowledges the uphill nature of his scholarly climb here, noting that “planning and Los Angeles are not terms that are easily coupled.”
But he is also eager to suggest a new way to look at the history of urban development in Southern California -- and to understand how we got from the relatively small city of the early years of the 20th century to the massive, medium-density, “polynucleated” region we have today. His goal, he writes, is “uncovering the loosely knit but mutually reinforcing decisions and actions of home builders, industrialists, financiers, home buyers, and government” in shaping the urbanism of Southern California.
Far from working at cross purposes, Hise argues that these various actors together “forged a regional vision” and “thought in terms of a coordinated metropolitan system, a network of integrated communities. They did not dichotomize the urban landscape into a core and periphery, a city and suburb. And I have found it useful to view the American city from this perspective.”
Hise discovers that from about the 1920s on, planners and developers “envisioned growth and development occurring in urbanized clusters within the metropolitan region.”
“In 1922,” he writes, “the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors sponsored four conferences on regional planning devoted to subdivision regulation, transportation, and water and sewage, issues whose effects and domain elided tidy jurisdictional boundaries.” Near the end of World War II the city would sponsor a similar campaign to plot future growth in the San Fernando Valley, which was in the middle of a massive population boom, nearly tripling in size between 1940 and 1950.
And well before that -- by the late 1930s, Hise argues -- “a vision of an alternative urban future was in place.” The heart of that vision was a new sort of planned community: not just a detached suburban subdivision, but, as Hise defines it, an entire interconnected ecosystem of housing, shopping, schools and jobs. Lakewood, Leimert Park and Westwood Village are among the local examples.
At the core of Hise’s book is an effort is to study the relationship between modern community planning and industry -- particularly Southern California’s major aircraft and aerospace companies. As he puts it, the very “spatial logic of community building” was closely tied to the rise and location of industry: “Private home builders sited their new neighborhoods in close proximity to employment, aggressively marketed their projects’ location as a primary inducement for sales, and targeted wage earners employed in defense industries as their principal buyers.”
This is a significant and in some ways counterintuitive set of propositions about how Los Angeles grew. Instead of following the usual logic that the American suburb was created by people fleeing something -- usually the overcrowded, overpriced, crime-ridden city -- Hise argues that at least in Southern California suburban growth was driven by people drawn to something, primarily jobs and to a lesser extent a certain kind of community or residential architecture. Hence the book's title and its use of the word "magnetic."
The writing in “Magnetic Los Angeles” can be pretty dry. If the book has another weakness, it flows from Hise’s disinclination to examine in any detail the architectural and urban design aspects of the seams where the various postwar communities he studies came together.
There’s no doubt that modern community planning, before Hise’s book, was underexamined and underappreciated as a key element in building Southern California. But the fact is that the landscape we tend overwhelmingly to see as we move through Los Angeles is not those communities themselves as much as the commercial thoroughfares, often barely landscaped, that run between them and stitch them together.
This is precisely the vantage point that has given rise to the clichés and the stereotypes about Los Angeles that Hise works so steadily -- and for the most so persuasively –- to overturn.
We’ll meet up with Hise again very soon: He’s the co-editor, with William Deverell, of the next book in our series, "Eden by Design: The 1930 Olmsted-Bartholomew Plan for the Los Angeles Region.”
-- Christopher Hawthorne
Photo: Westwood in 1937. Credit: Dick Whittington Studios.