City of Gold; Laura Gabbort; 2016

City of Gold

Perhaps the best way to the heart of Los Angeles is through its stomach. Acclaimed food writer, Jonathan Gold explores the sprawl of Los Angeles one bite at a time in this documentary that comes with a surprising side of urban planning. It may have you question your deep-seated aversion to sprawl in the city that planning forgot.

I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with Los Angeles, having lived there in the mid- to late-1980s. For someone with a planner’s sensibilities, there’s a lot to dislike: traffic, smog, air kisses, unrelenting sunshine, not having a there there. Since my escape and my later thinking about planning, I’ve tempered my bad attitude about the place and can now honestly say that I find the city “interesting.”

On the love side of the dichotomy is the food. I am not suggesting the fancy pants Polo Lounge or Spago, where Bel Air real estate deals are made and celebritities are seen (although I’m sure those places are nice too); but the sidewalk carts, where I learned that its perfectly okay to dredge a mango in chili spice; and the corner Mongolian barbecue, where I learned to never question the owner’s opinion on my personal heat preferences; and the nondescript storefront Thai place, where I learned that you can make a whole meal out of green beans.

This is Jonathan Gold territory. Gold was the first food critic to win the Pulitzer Prize for criticism. He did it by writing about real food, made by real people, out in the sprawl. Places like the San Gabriel Valley and Pico Boulevard. There was no way I would have discovered these places on purpose if it weren’t for Mr. Gold’s Counter Intelligence column in the L.A. Weekly. Gold writes about Uzbek, Korean, Peruvian and Islamic Chinese cuisine. He discovered the only Trinidadian restaurant in Inglewood.

Gold has observed that in Los Angeles, immigrants do not necessarily assimilate their cooking styles to American standards. The insular nature of the in-between places out in the Los Angeles sprawl allows them to keep their imported regional cuisines intact, sometimes traceable to the chef’s village of origin. “The difference is that in New York, they’re cooking for us,” he said. “Here, they’re cooking for themselves.” That can only be good for us.

Part of Gold’s appeal is that he writes his reviews in the second person, making the experience more direct and urgent. Many times I’ve read a Gold review and felt an urgent need to drive out to the San Fernando Valley for a sandwich. The other part of his appeal is that he doesn’t really write about food; he writes about people.

His perspective on food writing was pioneered by Calvin Trillin, the “Walt Whitman of American Eats.” Trillin’s books include: American Fried; Alice, Let’s Eat; and Third Helpings. In traveling the country in search of unique culinary experiences, he would ask his hosts for their recommendations: “Don’t take me to the place you took your parents on their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary, but the place you went the night you came home after fourteen months in Korea.”

Gold didn’t have to travel the entire country or even the world in search of the world’s best edible offerings. He could find it all in his home town. The essence of Los Angeles can be found in the diversity of its residents. It’s the kind of place where those residents, no matter where they’re from, can reinvent themselves and be successful. The small family-run restaurants and food carts that Gold writes about represent a kind of entry-level capitalism.

Gold is a critic of urban living as well as food. His columns since the mid-1980s provide a unique map to the City of Los Angeles and a frame of reference to understanding it. He insists that there really is “a thereness beneath the thereness.”

Reyner Banham, in his 1971 book: The Architecture of Four Ecologies, was arguably the first to make sense of Los Angeles from a planning perspective. “L.A. needs some explaining because it’s typically thought of as an unspeakable sprawling mess.” This film gives a short lesson on the geography of Los Angeles and includes footage of Banham insisting: “You can build a city any shape you like as long as it works.” I have to squint my eyes a little, but I can see his point. It may have everything to do with how you define “works.”

Just because Los Angeles has done everything wrong and had boldly gone against everything we’ve been taught as planners, doesn’t mean it’s not a vibrant, thriving, successful city. Perhaps, this is because Los Angeles, in all its sprawl, provides the places for people, especially immigrant people, to reinvent themselves in its nooks and crannies, its lack of a center, and its fluid boundaries. It could be that it’s easier to make a new start in the in-between.

Maybe there is an order under its chaos. But even if I’m wrong about this, it’s still a great place for lunch.

 

Book by Jonathan Gold: Counter Intelligence: Where to Eat in the Real Los Angeles, 2000

Article about Jonathan Gold: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2009/11/09/the-scavenger

Ms. Jane – City Naturalist

This year of the Jane Jacobs centenary has brought us a documentary film and a few new books by and about the inimitable urban thinker.

Matt Tyrnauer tells of Jacobs’ showdown with Robert Moses in the new documentary: “Citizen Jane: Battle for the City.” Owen Gleiberman, in his review of the film for Variety, puts the battle in a contemporary context, linking it to our recent election and referring to Moses as a Trumpian urban planner. You can read his review here.

In an article for The New Yorker, Adam Gopnik recollects his meeting with Jacobs toward the end of her life. He describes the aura of sainthood about her that comes from a radiant self-reliance and he talks about how she was able to hold two opposing thoughts at once, gaining admirers at polar opposite ends of the political and social spectrums. Gopnik gives a measured look at Jacobs’ influence, while providing a few things you may not have known about our favorite neighborhood watcher in: “Street Cred: What Jane Jacobs got so right about our cities—and what she got wrong,” The New Yorker, September 26, 2016.

Many of us are guilty of thinking of Jane Jacobs as an ordinary mom, who stumbled upon great insights into city life while fighting her neighborhood’s battles in New York City. But Jacobs was forty-five when she wrote The Death and Life of Great American Cities. She had a whole life before that.

Fun facts about Jane Jacobs:

  • Her original name was Jane Butzner.
  • She staged a grade-school rebellion against pledging to brush her teeth. For this she was briefly expelled. She didn’t mind the brushing – it was the pledging.
  • She managed to avoid higher education.
  • She wrote propaganda for Amerika, a U.S. State Department publication distributed in the Soviet Union.
  • She was married to a nonconformist architect, Robert Jacobs.

While Gopnik has high praise for Death and Life, he finds fault with her later works. With Cities and the Wealth of Nations, Jacobs may have bitten off more than anyone could hope to chew. When she moved away from the topic of city neighborhoods, she lost her expertise, he argues, but her confidence remained.

It would be interesting, if Jacobs were writing today, to hear her thoughts on the modern problems of many of our cities, based on overabundance rather than want. Gopnik makes the very good point, that if we are to provide affordable housing where it’s desperately needed, it probably wouldn’t look much like Jacob’s West Village. She may have been right about the natural order of cities and self-organizing systems, but self-organizing systems will not provide free streets and fair housing. That takes politics, and planning—more like a battle than a ballet.

Nathaniel Rich gives an expanded view on the legacy of Jane Jacobs in his essay for The Atlantic: “The Prophecies of Jane Jacobs,” November 2016.

Rich provides context for Jacobs’ theories of economics and democracy with a story of her early life experience in Higgins, North Carolina. Jacobs had written about Higgins in Cities and the Wealth of Nations and in Dark Age Ahead. What was once a thriving Appalachian hamlet, where residents prospered in a variety of businesses, had slid into a seemingly inescapable decline by the time Jacobs arrived. She carried the Higgins experience with her throughout her life and it drove her biggest fear—stagnation.

It seems obvious to us now that cities thrive on diversity, that public investment in transit reduces traffic, and that historic buildings should be preserved. But it wasn’t so obvious when Jacobs was writing in the 40’s and 50’s. Before then, these things were not even obvious to her. Her own thinking took years to evolve.

More fun facts about Jane Jacobs:

  • She wrote about New York’s fur, diamond, leather, and flower districts for Vogue.
  • Columbia University Press published her first book, Constitutional Chaff, when she was twenty-four. The book compiled the failed proposals from the Constitutional Convention of 1787, such as a third house of Congress.
  • In 1943, she wrote propaganda for the U.S. Office of War Information.
  • She was for slum-clearance, superblocks, and high-rise apartment towers before she was against them.
  • She was suspected (unfairly) by the federal government of un-American activities. J. Edgar Hover insisted on overseeing her investigation himself.
  • Before Death and Life, Jacobs had been writing about urban redevelopment for almost a decade for Architectural Forum, without a byline.
  • She was for city planners before she was against them: “the first-the most elementary lesson for downtown is simply the importance of planning.”
  • She was for shopping centers before she was against them, even calling for downtowns to model themselves after suburban malls.
  • Not surprisingly, she had never visited the cities she was writing about in those early days; she knew them from photos and blueprints.
  • She saw planners as “neurotic,” “destructive,” and “impossibly arrogant.” (She was, perhaps, not too far off the mark.)

Rich circles back to Higgins, North Carolina, in this article and relates its decline to our current political implosion: “One Higgins is dangerous enough for both its residents and the republic to which it belongs. But the nation’s Higginses have proliferated to the point that their residents have assumed control of a major political party.

Might be a good time to reread Dark Age Ahead while we’re at it.

Recent books by and about Jane Jacobs:

Becoming Jane Jacobs, Peter L. Laurence

Eyes on the Street: The Life of Jane Jacobs, Robert Kanigel

Vital Little Plans: The Short Works of Jane Jacobs

Jane Jacobs: The Last Interview and Other Conversations

Show Me A Hero; David Simon

Show Me A Hero

HBO Six-part miniseries

Written by William F. Zorzi and David Simon

Directed by Paul Haggis

This is what David Simon does best: politics, race, and housing projects. New Orleans too, but that’s Treme

Show Me a Hero is based on the nonfiction book by former New York Times reporter, Lisa Belkin. It dramatizes what happened when federal authorities ordered the construction of public housing in the white middle-class areas of Yonkers, New York. The city’s young mayor, Nick Wasicsko carried out the mandate amid an atmosphere boiling over with fear and racism.

Wasicsko became the youngest big city mayor in America at the age of 28. He lived with his mother and drank Maalox out of the bottle, sometimes mixing it with vodka—something we all may have considered after a disrupted public meeting. Before even taking his oath, he was faced with the challenge of reversing the city’s long history of intentional segregation.

This series gives valuable insight into the motivations of all sides of the public housing debate. It brings up issues and ideas of social engineering and draconian HUD policies, while questioning accepted American ideals. It shows the vitriol that happens at public hearings and also the political bargaining that happens behind closed doors.

The NIMBYs claim it’s not about race: “it’s about economic issues, property values, drugs, and crime.” They try to mask what they’re really thinking: “Guys like that, they learn how not to say the bad words. No more coon. No more nigger. Underneath it all is fear. Same as it ever was.”

At a meeting for future tenants of the public housing, the language of housing is discussed: “‘Projects’ make us feel like a science project…‘Low income’ isn’t low class.” Words matter.

Oscar Newman  makes an appearance as a hired consultant. You may remember his Defensible Space Theory from planning school, including his thoughts about how public housing should have no interior public areas: “Nebulous public areas are like a no man’s land. That’s the space that gets trashed. That’s what gets used for loitering and drug dealing.” Design matters.

One of my favorite quotes comes from a councilman. Discussing possible sites for low-income housing, he insists: “Not in my backyard. That’s literally in my back yard.”

Perhaps the best lesson here for planners can be found in the character of Mary Dorman. She was long a vocal opponent of the housing in her neighborhood. But she starts to question her own values when she sees the ugliness exhibited by her neighbors. She’s co-opted by the project organizers to help ease the neighborhood transition and to serve as a liaison between the new and the established residents. This involved first going into the projects and meeting the hopeful residents and their families where they live. As a result, Mary had a change of heart and mind. She continued to work with the residents for years after the initial project was finished.

This strategy served me well in my own planning practice when I had angry opposition to contend with. Include the loudest resistors. Involve them in productive ways and keep them busy. They may surprise you in the end.

Show Me a Hero is heavy on the Springsteen. And there’s also music by Steve Earle, who has been following David Simon since The Wire and Treme.

From Amazon:

 In an America generations removed from the greatest civil rights struggles of the 1960s, the young mayor of a mid-sized American city is faced with a federal court order that says he must build a small number of low-income housing units in the white neighborhoods of his town. His attempt to do so tears the entire city apart, paralyzes the municipal government, and, ultimately, destroys the mayor and his political future. From creator David Simon (HBO’s Treme and The Wire) and director Paul Haggis (Crash), and based on the nonfiction book of the same name by Lisa Belkin, the six-part HBO Miniseries presentation Show Me a Hero explores notions of home, race and community through the lives of elected officials, bureaucrats, activists and ordinary citizens in Yonkers, NY.