Los Angeles is nearly built out. The last empty bits of the metropolis are already being fitted into a titanic grid of neighborhoods that extends 60 miles from south to north and from the Pacific Ocean deep into the desert. The closing of the suburban frontier in Los Angeles ends a 100-year experiment in place-making on an almost unimaginable scale. And because of its notable failures (a history of racial segregation being the worst), I’m grateful that it’s nearly over.
Still, suburban L.A. represents an enduring ideal. All those miles of sunny streets reflect a longstanding consensus about the way ordinary people ought to be housed, beginning with the turn-of-the-20th-century belief in the power of a "home in its garden" to improve the lives of working people, and ending in the 1950s with affordable, mass-produced housing for average Joes like my dad and his neighbors.
I still live in my parents’ 957-square-foot house, on a block of more tract houses in a neighborhood of even more of the same. There are Westerners who wouldn’t regard a house like mine as a place of pilgrimage, but my parents in the 1950s did. They weren’t ironists; they were grateful for the comforts of their not-quite-middle-class lives. Those who came to Lakewood — and still come — didn’t aspire to more, but only to enough.
My suburb has its share of problems. That’s what you get when you throw together tens of thousands of working-class husbands and wives without any instruction manual and expect them to make a fit place to live. Urban planners tell me that my neighborhood, like many others in L.A., should have been bulldozed long ago to make room for some better paradise of the ordinary.
Yet mass-produced and working-class Lakewood stubbornly persists, still loyal to an idea of how a neighborhood can be made. It’s an incomplete idea, but it’s still enough to bring out 400 dads and moms in the fall to volunteer as park coaches, and 600 volunteers to clean up the weedy yards of the disabled on Volunteer Day in April, and over 2,000 residents to listen to summer concerts in the park.
Mine isn’t a "teardown" suburb. It’s a neighborhood that is making some effort to build itself up.
And even though it’s never noted by the "smart growth" cheerleaders, suburban L.A. is actually something of a model for urban planners. Even Oregon, which 30 years ago adopted strict growth limits to prevent the "Californication" of its landscape, has looked to L.A. for inspiration. After a 1999 study of the nation’s 50 largest urban regions, the regional authority that manages development in Portland and three adjoining counties concluded that, "with respect to density and road per capita mileage, (Los Angeles) displays an investment pattern we desire to replicate."
The density of Portland’s metro area is about 3,500 persons per square mile. The city’s master plan for the year 2040 calls for increasing the density to about 7,000 per square mile, just like that of Los Angeles today. In Lakewood, entirely built out in the 1950s, the density is already 8,000 persons per square mile.
My neighborhood, with its small lots and pedestrian-friendly streets, shows that more density is not a bad thing. Yet in choosing to pack more people into a limited space, Portland is also getting crowded freeways, worse air quality from all those cars idling in traffic, and an over-hyped light rail transit system — all just like L.A.’s. That’s either ironic, or else simply what happens when cities reach their limits, however they’re defined.
Suburban Los Angeles isn’t what many Westerners would regard as their preferred urban planning model, but given that many planners want to increase housing density and decrease highway miles per capita (and given the overwhelming preference of most Americans for neighborhoods that look like mine), it’s easy to predict what the metropolitan West will look like in the future.
Welcome to the future, Westerners: It’s L.A.
D.J. Waldie is the author of Where We Are Now: Notes from Los Angeles.