Freeway bridge. Photo: Eric Haas

Public space is thought to mean any open space that attracts people. Yet most would agree Los Angeles, even with its crowds and parks, is not a very favorable environment. Indeed, and frankly as a shock, it is becoming almost hostile to the good life. Some blame the automobile, others planning, still others the destruction of independent politics, the police, the rise of enclaves or crime. Some, like Mike Davis and Ed Soja, have greatly advanced debate by discussing the militarization of space here. But this does not go far enough, however much it may lay the groundwork for a serious rethinking of Los Angeles. Can we be ‘urban,’ at all? The deeper problem is, we no longer understand, or can even talk about, what public space truly is. Public space is in fact a political problem as much as it is about architecture, layout, boulevards and technology. It is a problem extending into the very fabric of daily life, to the nature of our thinking processes, and the quality of our debate as citizens. Most of all, whether or not something is public space has to do with something intangible: whether or not it extends and expands political freedom.

In the last half-century, the anti-totalitarian philosopher and historian Hannah Arendt framed the issue of public space in a way which gets around arid debates on square footage, body count, and physical structures. It is not a function of urban layout per se, and not a matter of technology, spectacle, massed bodies, or, as Doug Suisman has tried to frame it, material structures of exits and entrances. Public space is the fragile, invisible tissue which makes us human beings in a functioning and vibrant democracy. It is the place we ‘appear,’ not as bodies, but in deeds and speech, preserving our differences as individuals. Only by deeds and an ongoing conversation which grasp the affairs of our world, do we become free.

Public space is not simply a place to come together. It is where we develop the ability to compare, contrast, debate, challenge, and most of all think. Without it, we are deprived not just of amenities, say, parks or entertainment. Without public space, we disappear, having nothing to protect us from the ravenous despotism of mass society, something Angelenos no longer realize, not at all inconsistent with intensive and extensive privatization. Arendt formulated this after a careful study of Nazism and Stalinism. Knowing what America was becoming, she saw the decline and destruction of true public space as the very hallmark of mass society, by which she meant not some sociological description, but something profoundly political: the active elimination and destruction of individual difference, debate, and discussion. She saw public space, and specifically the township principle, as the only way to halt and reverse our own far more subtle slide into a totalitarianism of consumption.

These might seem like lofty principles, but they show how low our classic American notions of public space have fallen. How else to account for the transformation wrought by one tiny change in LA’s urban fabric, the rise of coffee houses, where people can meet regularly to talk? In fact, deliberate disintegration and reduction lurk behind LA’s grand experiment in private intimacy. Without neighbors, friends, and perhaps especially strangers meeting consistently in a public place to discuss and decide affairs, places, no matter how ‘public,’ become precarious, intimacy is effectively rendered, paradoxically, useless, and we enter a state of permanent disappearance. The ‘urban’ world which has evolved here, as an outgrowth of suburbia, is in many ways the very antithesis of urbanity. It constitutes often, and not so subtly, a unique and unprecedented form of political despotism, through architecture, layout, and the nature of existence itself. What more evidence does one need, in fact, than that divergent, dissident, and troubling views, in fact, debate in toto, threaten Angelenos, and are kept instead to the quiet of dining rooms and whisperings in the office? The less fortunate have the street, but that is precisely because their debate no longer matters.

The problem, in short, is broader than car, urban layout, or crime. It is about culture, both physical and of mind-set, that is, about our very deepest politics. That is why, even as discussions are springing up about the need for public space from Warren Olney to workshops in South Central, how we think about public space is more critical than ever. What follows is an attempt to analyze some sacred cows and highlight over-looked spaces, in an effort to reframe how we think about the ‘public’ spaces we do or do not have.

The peril in our discussion of public space is particularly clear in the case of Venice Boardwalk, world-wide symbol of LA. Here, strangers become more strange, and neighbors – from all over the city –  become tourists. In contrast to the renovated Venice Athletic Center, separated from the boardwalk by low walls and fences, where everyone regardless of race and class can hang out playing sports and conversing, the Boardwalk is a relentless four-lane freeway traffic jam broken only by accident-viewing stations. Here, like McDonald’s, benches and tables have recently been designed to be uncomfortable. The only ‘regulars’ engaged in ongoing, day-to-day public conversation are the peddlers, hustlers, and, at dusk, drunks and homeless. These have as much right to be here as anyone. But that they are really the only regulars says it all. If one wants to see public space as it really is, both what it says about the city and about the level and spread of debate, look through fast-motion film over days and weeks. Who stays? Who returns? Who has the ongoing conversation, and what is it about? From Jody Moroni’s on the southern end, to the Fig Tree’s Cafe and Waterfront Cafe on the north bordering Santa Monica, T-shirt shops, jeans, and incense stands, it’s hardly possible to stop to discuss Iraq or Somalia or the spreading corruption in Washington or Sacramento, but instead move on or get crushed. The Sidewalk cafe and excellent Small World bookstore are buried in a chaotic din of people who do not talk to each other, only watch, consuming. Crawling GI dolls and blaring radios collide in a void of emptiness where discussion is, frankly, a mark of insanity.

Second on the list of most people’s favorites, Olvera Street, as the ‘old pueblo’ of Los Angeles, had, by 1870, ceased to exist as community center, reborn – and characteristically named for a US government judge – in the ’30s as a ‘Mexican-style’ marketplace. But this marketplace was unique. It contained neither vegetables nor necessities. The very design was antithetical to the community, except in the most limited way. Now, masses of Mexicanos and Chicano families do take children to baptisms at a nearby church, but they leave behind barely a straggler. With ‘authentic’ restaurants as payoff for the colonization of ethnic and public imagination, mixing not community and outsiders, but instead ‘color’ and tourists, the quarter-block-long ‘historic’ park’s public events – Cinco de Mayo and Dia Los Muertos, as well as the bandstand turned beautiful creche at Christmastime-  serve to tragically highlight the bloody, government/corporate gulf separating the ‘color’ from LA’s founding here in 1781 by eleven Indian-Mexicano and black families.

Like Olvera Street, and near it, Japanese Village Plaza continues the destruction of public life through pseudo-multicultural internment and burial. Designed as the center of Little Tokyo, local elders chose tourists and businessmen as their clients, deciding specifically against integrating daily community activities with outsiders, replacing such a vital linkage with the simulation of public life, the ongoing ethnic ‘festival.’ Unlike the public life, from which it once derived, the festival is now little more than a Chamber of Commerce promotional activity, designed not to incite and develop public conversations or discussion of politics and how a specific community is being run, but to sell ritual, tradition, and goods. Little Tokyo, already a simulated street, moves through angled buildings and blue-tiled roofs, its restaurants, record stores, and fast-food joints like another LA river reduced to a trickle between militarized dikes. At one end, the Koyosan Buddhist temple, a logical, regal anchor to public life, is hidden behind prison-like four-story walls, the only access a narrow, prison alley. At the other end, passing the Japanese American Theater, the ‘village,’ a travesty of community life, terminates in a cold, brick plaza and a ‘contemplation’ garden imprisoned in a corner behind metal bars.

Physically near Olvera Street and Little Tokyo, but humanly and temporally a continent away, downtown’s Grand Central Market, crunched between Spring and Broadway and 2nd and 3rd streets, as old as modern LA. remains invisible to western LA, showing just how threatening the city’s true multicultural history has become. Regarded almost like garbage tossed down from the imperium’s towers and museum on the hill, its noise, activity, aromas, antique neon, food counters, and constant food chopping make it the equal of great markets the world over. Sawdust floors wind through a profusion of fresh vegetables, gourmet items, and necessities. Homeboy Tortillas, a youth-run business bom of Father Greg Boyle’s inner-city jobs program, stands near the 60 yr-old family-run dried fruit and nuts store, Bardovi and Kazan. Pork butts, chicken feet, five kinds of chorizo, crushed pepper, dried shrimp, and beans stand cheek-by-jowl with two locally-favored central-American food counters and the superb Maria’s, a seafood joint with soups, ceviche, and charbroil. One afternoon, two Mexicano elders in cowboy hats crushed ripe avocados into broth, dispensing advice.

The exhaustion and imprisonment of public life by short-sighted political and corporate interests, symbolized in Little Tokyo and Olvera Street is posed most clearly by the Beverly Center. A shopping gulag rising like Garagantua between La Cienega and San Vicente and 3rd and Beverly, it destroys everything inside and outside for a mile around, not only aggressively killing off the delicate tissue of common life, but resolutely cutting it off, containing and privatizing it inside prison walls. From the ease with which one can get lost, to the marble skating rinks with ‘living’ plants and the reduction of humans to the sounds and smells of a zoo, this epitomizes the human as animal, reduced to labor for consumption. This is not shop until you drop. This is don’t you dare drop until you’re finished shopping. Toddlers and teens love this galleria model because human adulthood is effectively neutralized. Zoos, after all, are fun, animals are amusing and entertaining, precisely because they are behind bars. Next to the cineplex with its pay-per-view mortuaries, Sam Goodies’ offers the one Cyclopean window, surveilling all who come and go, waiting to devour anyone who dares to exist, and suggesting, finally and succinctly, those who shop are superior, above, and can see what you will never see.

As cities will, a counter-move sprang up across the street, not only completely overturning these agendas, but subversively linking either side of the deadly DMZ of La Cienega. The designers of the Beverly Connection deliberately kept the building low, integrating older structures and surroundings, a visually noisy dynamic of nestled space, vegetation, movie theater, food store, and book shopping. Lingering is a pleasure, as is, even, sometimes, discussion. At a third the size, with a miniscule fraction of the stores, it has as many visitors, by my car-per-minute count, as the prison across from it. Parking is integrated as display, palms and greenery are even visible to cars and ramps, helping create a circulating, yet stationary, space that checks and reverses the mass and void. Importantly, the neighborhood is served by the old Rexall’s drug/hardware store and a new Ralph’s market, connected brilliantly to parking by a moving ramp.

At the intersection of Wilshire and Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, the rethinking of our relation to the car, visible with the Beverly Connection, expands radically. It is hardly perfect, but it points to an entirely new way of thinking about density in an automobile world. Two Rodeo, unlike either malls or theme parks, makes real use of SoCal’s one historic – and almost terminated – innovation in public life: the drive-in. Like Beverly Hills as a whole, the building, a striking edifice which, from the back, looks like a colossal movie studio, violates every rule of neighborhood linkage, yet unlike Beverly Hills, works hard to create a place for pedestrians safe from the death derby outside. Entering an underground ‘hotel’ lobby with attendants, one ascends by elevator to the ‘street,’ joining, or not joining, tourists, wandering or sitting with locals at the cosmopolitan Piazza Rodeo (no cover). Absolutely central, one can leave, and is perhaps unintentionally encouraged to, without spending a cent. It is not because it is obscenely expensive and too cramped that Via Rodeo is wrongly compared to Disneyland’s Main Street. In terms of creating a non-commercial zone that is public as well as safe from the automobile, it is actually more populist than the supposed populist Disneyland or CityWalk. It is not by chance that Disneyland and CityWalk produce simulation nausea: they keep cars segregated and life cut off, totally controlled inside fortress walls, out in the middle of nowhere. This is absolutely critical to the corporate agenda, a fact those who cite the broad class spread of malls and theme parks fail to address. Via Rodeo, by contrast, even with its failures, takes on the city and works to reintegrate it, ritualizing car and fracturing space into new and striking perspectives. This is a perfect definition of the physical component of public space. Glimmering fountain and glow at night, foreign voices echoing back from hard stone – all offer a glimpse of another life. Where the new corporate simulations of public space seek to re-engineer us as automata navigating a virtual realm in order to expend, this saves, giving back to the city the tissue of life. That is to say, in its own still rudimentary way, it becomes a generator rather than a vacuum, a producer of life rather than a consumer of it. It offers, however briefly and shyly, a glimpse of something beyond pure society. It tries to break the implosive mass of one of the most undemocratic intersections in the world.

Montana Ave, between 7th and 17th street in northern Santa Monica, has gone precisely in the opposite direction, replacing an existing sleepy actual village serving retirees and locals with a drive-through Rodeo simulation. In 1967, rent was $.80. In 1987, at the beginning of the recession/ depression, rent was hiked to $3.00 from $2.20. First gas stations closed, then two and three story buildings went up, and finally long-held neighborhood like Santa Monica Stationers and Evans’ Hardware were forced out. At least one couple was ruined, unable to make the adjustment. Now, those businesses which stayed at the higher rent have closed, while yuppie chain stores linger like sharks. Starbuck’s characteristically offers cut flowers, gorgeous men and women, and counters too high to lean on. Here the good life becomes a club to beat over the less fortunate, less beautiful, and less young, the kind of playground where only Schwarzenegger would flaunt his military vehicle. People radiate ease of wealth and beauty, knowing full well how hard it is for the rest of us. Don Henley may smile frailly waiting for a light, but most think they’ll stay permanently at the top.

Symbolizing everything Montana is losing, Larchmont Boulevard, or ‘the village’ to locals, a place of outdoor cafes, trees, and peace, is very un-PC. All the more surprising, it is now used by urban planning workshops in neighborhoods struggling to build themselves up. Community life is integrated because merchants and neighbors work to preserve the tissue of life worth living. It’s not just that proprietors smile and learn your name. Yes, it feels like it’s for the rich. Yes it’s boring. But a shoe repair place re-stitched a shoe of mine no one else would, for $10. Stores make home deliveries and special order as a regular service. When corporate chain Payless threatened to move in and undercut locals, circled by the same yuppie chains as Montana, “Shop David, Fight Goliath” signs sprang up as a community mobilization. This is not Nimbyism, but reflects the real damage big store-employment bonanzas and malls can do to a neighborhood in the wink of an eye, this lesson holds for everyone, rich and poor. Simply setting up a boundary – which some accuse Larchmont of doing – is insufficient, as shown by the less successful, still into struggling, renovated Whittier Boulevard to the east, with the vibrant Boyle Heights section cut off and doing quite well on its own.

Small, less self-conscious, and sometimes filled only with a few elders at a table, Leimert Park, at the intersection of stately Leimert and South-Central’s aorta, Crenshaw, gives the lie to common-sense assumptions about public space, primarily the link to quantity of bodies or vast open voids. A tiny patch of green, sidewalk and shade, the square and its old fountain stitch together neighborhood and its sinew, history. Hit hard by the riots, last year the Vision Complex theater abutting the park, under the old Watchtower beacon, hosted a good part of the LA Festival. The square sports the Kaos network, an ongoing neighborhood-based video production, film, and distribution workshop. Nefertiti watches from the lintel of the still-bustling House of Beauty, while 5th St. Dicks serves coffee at tables built specifically for wasting away the afternoon.

Finally, the most under-rated public space in the city remains Lincoln Park. In east LA, just north of the joint USC Medical Center and City Coroner, it is marked at its western end by a statue of Lincoln, one of the few in the area – mostly of Spanish conquerors – not to have been defaced. A well-preserved oasis of green and quiet, it is the only park in LA equal, acre for acre, to Olmstead’s Central Park in New York. Unlike Griffith Park, which is mostly inhospitable scrub and mountain, this integrates both nature and urbanity. With two baseball diamonds and playgrounds, one containing an LA icon, an Aztec pyramid for kids to climb on, each with clean sand, kids, and elders, a row of constantly-occupied chess tables, and a huge well landscaped hill covered with old trees and spots for lovers and the solitary, all is centered by a soothing pond with ducks, fountain and boat house undecorated by trash. All told, it is far more beckoning than the tiny thread rimming Echo Park or the garbage pit the city has turned MacArthur Park and its untouchables into.

Plaza de la Raza, at the center of Lincoln Park, has a community swimming pool serving both Asian and Mexicano kids, a large community that sponsors over 90 different classes as well public performances, a basketball court and a rec room for community meetings, comes closest to being a true and financially accessible town center for all. Naturally, the city, in a typical concession to the automobile, has left the park cordoned off by thoroughfares, industrialized zoning, and railroad tracks. But, while this severs the park from the community, it has also served the unanticipated effect of making the park seem even more of an isolated oasis in a barren desert of smog and fast-moving war mobiles.

Emerson once spoke of the town meeting as ‘the unit of the republic and the school of the people.’ This is the true model of public space, and should again be our reference point. Few spaces in LA, or anywhere in the United States for that matter now, can measure up to this profoundly political, democratic standard. Without such a model though, our discussions of public space will remain as impoverished as the barren life their absence has left us trapped within. LA is plunging us ever further into a mass of electrons, subject to a million spins, where we labor barely to feed, collide, and disappear. This world of the collectively privatized is a dead world, and it can only be over businesses turned by beginning, at last, to think carefully about the real contribution of architecture, space, and community planning to the secure and ongoing life, and freedom, of the people.

Fred Dewey has written for London’s New Statesman, LACPS’ Framework, the L.A. Weekly, and the Wild Palms Reader (St. Martin’s). In 1993, he organized “Town Meeting” panel discussions on “Legacy of the Panthers,” “Council Democracy,” and “Cyburbia: New Frontier or Grave?” at Beyond Baroque. He resides in Los Angeles. Portions of this article were excerpted in the October, 1993 “The Best of L.A.edition of the L.A. Weekly. It has been reprinted here in the interest of presenting his argument intact.


Grand Central Market. Photo: Peter Samarin


Grand Central Market. Photo: Peter Samarin

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