City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

(Photos and links to follow)

Day three of Postopolis, and fewer sneaky excursions, so fewer observations.

I do get out to Broadway though. This is an amazing example of adaptive reuse of urban space. It’s essentially the same form it was built in, but it’s changed completely in use and occupation. And as a result, the street feels busy, alive. In this way, it validates numerous examples from the talks at Postopolis! LA – and from the city itself – about how vibrant city life can be enabled not through glittering new infrastructure (chance would be a fine thing anyway) or designed urban development, but instead by ‘subtracting’, ‘re-use’, ‘appropriation’ and ‘un-designing’.

Broadway is an amazing array of buildings – and particularly facades – from the ‘20s and ‘30s and ‘40s, but these same spaces are now home to numerous, multiple units of consumer electronics shops, jewelry and 3 pairs of sneakers for 20 dollars. It’s quite a spectacle. Broadly Latino though all with the other facets of LA’s demographics in attendance, it’s as if the city had just left a giant movie set behind to be inhabited as the city saw fit. (Hollywood did do that with aspects of LA, movie facades later adapted and appropriated by residents – this is the same principle, though more so.)

Entrepreneurial commerce fits into the tiniest of gaps here, probably on the most tenuous legal basis and in highly mobile, transient sense. Sure, the street feels scruffy. It’s low-rent, and probably does not make much money for the people working here, incredibly long hours I would guess. But is full of life nonetheless, a bit of Downtown that feels like a giant, dispersed market, in sharp contrast to the often largely empty streets of the more designed parts of Downtown or the wasteland of Pershing Square. In the context of the global financial crisis, which is on constant rotation on CNN, this part of town is redolent of a thriving economy. Many lesssons here for the urban planner, no matter how unpalatable to the traditional schools of thought and practice. This is as close to Non-Plan as you’ll get.

The downtown itself is an odd place. There are some beautiful buildings here, though not quite as well-crafted as some earlier US cities perhaps. It’s caught in the throes of these turbulent movements, eddies of activity like Broadway jostling against the new loft spaces, characterised more by plaintive ‘for rent’ signs more than activity. But there are signs of that other new resident population emerging nonetheless, with 7/11s, Rite Aids, bars and galleries dotting some streets.

The USC Geography department’s walking maps of Downtown LA explain why the area feels like a movie set:

“To the surprise of many urban experts and millions of suburban residents of Los Angeles — who view sprawling Los Angeles as "100 suburbs in search of a city" — there always has been a significant downtown Los Angeles, even before the new skyscrapers began sprouting in the 1960s. Ironically, much of the built environment of the old commercial downtown was not destroyed by new development, mainly because most new projects were located to the west and northwest of the old "historic core." Today, dozens of blocks and hundreds of buildings (most of which are exactly 150 feet tall) in this subregion look essentially the same as they did in the 1930s. The human occupance and use of this subregion, however, is very different than it was 60 years ago”

Contemporrary LA emerges from these adjacent streets called, from East to West: Spring, Main, Broadway, Hill, Olive, Grand, Flower, and Figueroa, before exploring into larger numbered grid, and then erupting at all points, in all directions.

US cities are always about myth-making, and here perhaps most of all. So there’s also an air of nostalgia that is played out on these streets, for all its post-modernity – or indeed because of that.

‘What to do with this city?’ is also a question that hangs heavy as one walks around. Its built fabric is firm, and the most obvious thought is that the streets are wide-enough to take the return of trams, or light rail, as well as bikes. That pocket parks will be cultivated in the numerous square kilometres of (generally empty) parking lots that punctuate every block. That the resident population will bring life back to all these streets, not just the frayed edges of the rapidly-dispersing Skid Row. But this is urbanism-lite, and entirely out-of-step with the city and its ability to be conceived of in such easy, over-simplified and often ethically dubious measures.

The next-most-obvious thought (usually the more interesting ones, as Eric Rodenbeck later notes) is that the city is perfect for post-boom re-appropriation and subtraction (in Bratton's sense), and that the streets of Broadway, Toy District, Fashion District (and Little Tokyo to some extent) are the places to look. Think instead of a deserted city slowly overgrown with variegated life, left to its own devices rather than planned. Those parking lots becoming parks through time and accretion of native vegetation, slowly engulfed by local weeds due to the removal of cars rather than the insertion of urban design. No need for bike lanes as peak oil wreaks its havoc on the number of cars on the street and they become safe for cycling and walking, through a more sophisticated and ‘natural’ approach of shared space. The freeways become mile-long markets or gardens, overgrown with flowers. The LA River becoming the world’s largest continuous urban park through neglect rather than re-design (although the stormwater and sewage infrastructure for LA does admittedly need altering to fully enable this – more later), its length punctuated by food production, retrofitted PV arrays, PRT hubs, snaking bike paths and Rollerball tournaments. Spending any available money on articulating new civic structures through soft infrastructure of legal, social, cultural, informatic, political approaches, and nurturing activities rather than building hard infrastructure.

I don’t mean to associate the citizens of Broadway, in all their sophisticated innate understanding of street life, with weeds and other flora, nor fall into the ethnographer's trap of seeing them as a homegenous teeming mass of sauvages noble, but I hope you see what I’m getting at. When walking through Pershing Square, what seems to be a disaster of professional planning and design, on the way to bustling Broadway, and in the context of large cities worldwide struggling to build new hard infrastructure anyway (having sold their armature long ago, through lowering taxes, encouraging private property and thus NIMBYism) tactics such as this seem the only game in town.

To Postopolis! LA, day three. Today, it’s overcast, even cold. There’s another good crowd, but it’s freezing early. (Will we ever attain an even temperature at Postopolis!?) So we move down downstairs from the rooftop at the earliest opportunity. This hurts, as the rooftop, mid-skyline location is as absolutely essential to this iteration of PostOps as the permeable Storefront was to the first, and the conference room at The Standard is just that – a conference room. But it’s warmer, and far more comfortable for all concerned.

Another great free-wheeling cascade of talks tonight. Ben Cerveny was great on new systems of urban scale inteventions through informatics (I would be interested in this, but the audience were too.) Gary Dauphin was great. I was fascinated by Austin Kelly’s comparisons of architecture practice in LA and Switzerland. Benjamin Ball, of Ball-Nogues, was also quite superb.

I thought Steve Roden’s performance was particularly fantastic. Within moments he had the audience wrapped around his little finger, engaging deeply through his slow, quiet, careful, distinctly Californian delive
ry. And featuring a short performance on a small xylophone that spell-bound everyone. In complete (LA-style) contrast, Mike the Poet brought the house down at the end.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: