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A Los Angeles Primer: Spring Street

Walking the length of Spring Street one morning, I counted 22 surface parking lots. I do this not out of a “Rain Man”-style numerical compulsion, but a no less distracting desire to feel out the progress of a city’s urbanism. The surface parking lot test gives you a sense of density, for one thing — obviously, the denser a neighborhood, the less of itself it can devote to idle cars — but it also lets you gauge its state of flux. “This’ll be a great town,” New Yorkers have for over a century said of their home and its constant construction, “as soon as they get it finished.” Manhattan’s perpetual unfinishedness, of course, defines it as a “great town,” and its developers know they can always and everywhere put up or tear down something more ambitious than a square of paint-lined concrete. Spring Street, which still boasts a formidable collection of architectural monuments to Los Angeles’ grandly aspirant early twentieth century, now offers a window onto downtown’s modern revival, and the view from it often looks exciting indeed.

Still, enthusiast though I am, a snarkier sentiment roils within me: if your downtown still has surface parking lots, then you, my friend, do not have a downtown. Yet they have nowhere to go but away. I make bets with downtown-dwelling friends about when the last surface parking lot will have vanished. Twenty years from now, certainly. Ten years, maybe. Five years — dare we hope? Out-of-downtowners, or at least those who live far enough away from downtown, tend to respond with an interestingly point-missing question: “But then where will people park?” An absence of parking indicates not just a demand for actual buildings but no need to stash vehicles in the first place: you’ll either live downtown already, or in a place connected by rapid transit. Granted, this all sounds a tad implausible to Angelenos of thirty, forty, fifty years’ standing who came to know downtown Los Angeles as the locus classicus of the sad postwar fate of the American inner city. Recall “A Note on Downtown”, Reyner Banham’s brief chapter in “Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies”, which opens with the words, ” …because that is all downtown Los Angeles deserves.”

Read the whole thing at KCET Departures.

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