Dream On, by John Chase – September 1991

Architects and city planners don’t always see eye to eye with the public about the desirability of increasing the density of existing urban neighborhoods. A case in point is the show “RE: American Dream”, recently on view at the L.A. Municipal Art Gallery. The architects whose conceptual projects were on display made little, if any, acknowledgement that density is the great Bogeyman for many Los Angeles residents. This fundamental flaw in the schemes’ premises renders them formalist exercises rather than real possibilities for improving the suburban landscape and/or community. People in Southern California generally will do anything possible to have a physical buffer of space between them and their neighbors even if that means getting up at 4:00 A.M. to commute from the Moreno Valley to downtown L.A. Lots of human beings in the street are scary to residents of Southern California. People on the street represent crime, danger, and the suspect condition of being an automobile-less pedestrian.

Los Angeles views itself as a series of small towns and neighborhoods. Densification represents the death of these neighborhoods as their residents know them – witness the ferocity with which Southern California residents band together in protective homeowners groups. I found the show’s assumption that lower density neighborhoods would inevitably become outmoded by some kind of mutually agreeable environmental agenda and go the way of leaded gas and styrofoam fast-food containers naive and wildly optimistic. This is not a politically plausible premise, given that most homeowners groups have fought tooth and nail to get their neighborhoods downzoned to protect them from the threat of greater density. Some of the proposals in the show call for mandatory reconfiguration of property lines, a process which would ultimately require government condemnation of privately owned property. The proposals in the show that advocate measures such as losing parts of backyards for an alley would undoubtedly provoke open warfare. Why, I wondered as I looked at the show, would any homeowner who likes the way his/her neighborhood looks now, be willing to watch it be completely transformed?

Districts where these proposals would stand the greatest chance of being adopted would be where more transient rental populations and nonconforming housing already exist. In economically deprived sections of the city, smaller allowable lot sizes and greater density could act as a de-facto urban opportunity zone. (Although some low-income neighborhoods may be just as adamantly opposed to the measures as any other single-family neighborhoods.) Some of the ideas in the show seem more applicable to the development of raw land in Palmdale than well established neighborhoods in Los Angeles: Instituting these proposals there does not require an existing population to accept a totally altered environment. (Residents might as well be told that they should stop driving cars because they pollute and stop watching TV because it rots their minds.) New high density housing might be more appropriately introduced in some other zoning category such as commercial land use.

In short, the show had the vices and virtues of a paper project. Its idealized program allowed architects to develop ideas that push back the boundaries of existing possibilities, but these ideas were weakened as actual solutions by the fact that they ignored some very real socio-political considerations.

John Chase

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