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Where Is the City of the Future?: So Close Yet So Far

Cotf Los Angeles 3-2

I spent a few of my years in Los Angeles hosting a podcast called Notebook on Cities and Culture, which began with me interviewing writers, comedians, filmmakers, architects, and other such cultural types not just in a variety of locations around the city (often wherever the interviewee of the week felt willing to meet, as effective a manner as any of getting to know the terrain) but also, in one way or another and no matter the subject more directly at hand, about the city. In later seasons, the show expanded and had me recording in places like San Francisco, Toronto, Mexico City, London, Copenhagen, Osaka, and finally Seoul, where I live now. No matter the city under discussion, Los Angeles served as a basis of comparison. While a guest there might offhandedly say that “here, of course, you need a car,” a guest somewhere else might offhandedly say something like, “Now, in Los Angeles, of course, you need a car, whereas here…”

Usually I cut them off right there, declaring that I’d got along without a car in Los Angeles just fine. This motivated one listener to come up with a Notebook on Cities and Culture drinking game: take a shot every time Colin says he doesn’t have a car in Los Angeles. I endorsed it, not just for its inherent humor value but also because it allows its players to feel, in a visceral way, the persistence of myths about the city. My own experience, and that of more and more friends I came to know as time went on, told me you don’t need a car there, but most of the people I talked to about the city insisted that you do. This held truer among those not resident in Los Angeles at the time than those who were, but even lifelong Angelenos — the ones who’ve presumably seen the past thirty years of new urban rail construction happen before their very eyes — held fast to the perception of private automobile dependence.

This isn’t to say that Los Angeles has never suffered from that disease of twentieth-century America, booming into its own as it did in twentieth-century America. “One way or another, a member of the L.A. middle class should have his (or her) four wheels to be effective, and few but the very poor — the Negroes, Mexicans, old people, and less fortunate students — are without them,” wrote the New Yorker’s Christopher Rand in the mid-1960s. These poor may ride on buses, but preferably for short hauls only, as a citywide bus trip takes up hours. There is no other cheap way to move unless one counts walking, which is thought eccentric, is seldom adequate for the time and distance involved, and is not encouraged by the city’s layout: some streets have no sidewalks along them; many others are dreary stretches scaled to the automobile.”

Read the whole thing at Byline.