NY Times, March 29, 2009
By NICOLAI OUROUSSOFF
THE country has fallen on hard times, but those of us who love cities know we have been living in the dark ages for a while now. We know that turning things around will take more than just pouring money into shovel-ready projects, regardless of how they might boost the economy. Windmills won’t do it either. We long for a bold urban vision.
With their crowded neighborhoods and web of public services, cities are not only invaluable cultural incubators; they are also vastly more efficient than suburbs. But for years they have been neglected, and in many cases forcibly harmed, by policies that favored sprawl over density and conformity over difference.
Such policies have caused many of our urban centers to devolve into generic theme parks and others, like Detroit, to decay into ghost towns. They have also sparked the rise of ecologically unsustainable gated communities and reinforced economic disparities by building walls between racial, ethnic and class groups.
Correcting this imbalance will require a radical adjustment in how we think of cities and government’s role in them. At times it will mean destruction rather than repair. And it demands listening to people who have spent the last decade imagining and in many cases planning for more sustainable, livable and socially just cities.
The changes needed may seem extravagant, but they are not impossible. Many of those who see the current economic crisis as a chance to rebuild the country’s infrastructure have pointed to previous major government public works projects, like Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Work Projects Administration in the 1930s and 1940s and Dwight D. Eisenhower’s 1956 National Interstate and Defense Highways Act, as a reminder of what this country was once capable of.
Although the W.P.A. is mostly associated with rural dams and roadways, there’s hardly a city in America where it didn’t leave its mark, from riverfront parks to schools and housing projects.
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As far back as the 1930s Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. proposed digging up parts of the Los Angeles River’s concrete bed and transforming its banks into a necklace of parks that would extend most of the 51 miles from the San Fernando Valley through downtown Los Angeles to Long Beach and provide green space for some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods.
Almost 70 years later the Los Angeles City Council, prodded by a mix of local advocates and architects, revived that vision. Recognizing that the river has become both an industrial blight and an impenetrable barrier between the Latino neighborhoods of East Los Angeles and the white enclaves of downtown, the council developed a plan that would tear out part of the concrete bed and return it to its natural state, while repaving other areas in stone. At some points the sides of the riverbed would step down to allow for landscaped walkways. Parks and bike paths would be built along the banks.
So far, however, there is little money to pursue the plan. About $6 million in state grants to help develop the greenway were postponed in December. And so far the federal government has allotted only enough money for the Corps of Engineers, which oversees the river, to continue a feasibility study for concrete removal.
According to Ed P. Reyes, a member of the City Council and a major sponsor of the plan, an investment of $100 million would allow the city to complete a significant section of the plan near downtown, which would provide valuable parkland to one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods and also offer the public a tangible example of the project’s transformative power.
Wilshire Boulevard is another favorite cause for the architects and city planners of Los Angeles. In the early 1990s Frank Gehry and I took a drive down the city’s once-great commercial spine, which stretches 16 miles from downtown Los Angeles to Santa Monica.
Mr. Gehry guided me through the range of communities that the boulevard intersects, from the Latino neighborhoods near MacArthur Park to Koreatown to the many cultural institutions that include the Wiltern Theater, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Hammer Museum. The philanthropist Eli Broad is currently planning yet another museum at the corner of Wilshire and Santa Monica Boulevards in Beverly Hills.
Mr. Gehry suggested that by concentrating more public transportation and cultural institutions along this thoroughfare, Los Angeles might finally find its center, both geographically and socially.
He is not alone in this fantasy. Los Angeles has the most talented cluster of architects practicing anywhere in the United States, and at one point or another most of them have invested significant brain power in figuring out how to remake Wilshire Boulevard. Michael Maltzan has looked at how new public school construction could be connected to the public transportation network along Wilshire, a plan that not only would be cost effective but also could begin healing some of the city’s deep class divisions.
There was an ideal moment, about a decade ago, when this vision might have taken hold; the county’s Metropolitan Transit Authority was just then in the midst of constructing a federally financed multibillion-dollar metro system, including a line that would have run the length of Wilshire Boulevard. The Los Angeles Unified School District was building scores of new schools. And the city’s rapid growth had led to a boom in new development.
Work on the metro ground to a halt several years ago after costs spiraled out of control, and when it was discovered that the district’s flagship school had been built on a toxic waste site, the agency quickly scaled back its goals.
Now a new mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa, is trying to revive the idea of expanding the metro. Without an overhaul of the city’s transportation network it is only a matter of time before the city breaks down, a victim of pollution and overcongestion. A citywide plan that anchored Los Angeles along two major axes — the green river and the asphalt boulevard — could save it from becoming a third world city.
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