Street Smarts

Street Smarts

Cross section of a Los Angeles boulevard.
Courtesy Oro Editions

 

To see why and how this was so, Suisman did the unthinkable: He actually looked at the boulevards (and avenues). On them he found geography, history, culture, and politics. He traced the physical layout of the boulevards, discovering mestizos—hybrids that followed the old Spanish empire’s rancho boundaries, then conformed to the new empire’s more Cartesian grid, imposed after the region was absorbed into the Union in 1849.

Some boulevards acted as binding, knitting the little (and once independent) townships, like Hollywood and Colegrove that lay outside the original Spanish Pueblo, to the civic core. Other streets, like Wilshire Boulevard, were sequenced commercial centers, which, taken as a whole, constituted a “linear downtown,” in Reyner Banham’s famous coinage. These could be found throughout the region; upon them arose landmarks, like Bullocks Wilshire, an art deco master-piece, and Desmond’s, a sleek moderne tower. The city projected its ambitions onto these stretches, envisioning motorways to the sea and thoroughfares dotted with Manhattan-like skyscrapers.

 

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Movie studios, which might easily have erected their hangar-sized sound stages on farmland outside city limits, instead consciously plopped themselves at major intersections, imparting to their immediate surroundings “a tantalizing visual scent of the fantasy production within” and “spawning other fantastic architectural realms on the boulevards.”

Spreading out as it did, Los Angeles, nevertheless retained the contours of a typical urban city. Crowded street cars plied its boulevards, taking on and letting off passengers who filled the sidewalks and populated buildings that could have been airlifted from any mid-sized Midwestern city.

That all changed in the late 1930s. Voters turned down a massive subway building plan and, frustrated with both jammed streets and poor trolley service, the city began to build freeways. Rail, which put feet on the ground, had an affinity for architecture; cars did not. “Firmness gave way to flow,” as Suisman puts it.

The boulevards became the exclusive province of traffic engineers and their mercantile allies, concerned solely with arterial movement. The result was places like Lincoln Boulevard, a dull, elongated strip of low-lying, undistinguished commercial enterprises, dotted with surface parking lots, whose main architectural feature is the telephone polls lining the roadway. This “killing chaos,” said Suisman, was a “civic inadventure,” allowing the boulevards to suffocate beneath traffic and blight.

X-ray this surface, as Suisman suggested, and you might see the great potential that lay hidden there. In the ensuing 25 years since Boulevard was published, Los Angeles has caught up to Suisman. The city has experienced a renaissance of its boulevards, in part due to the arrival of Mexican, Central American, Korean, and Middle-Eastern immigrants who depend on the proximity of neighborhood shops and public transportation, and in part to a growing realization among Angelenos that the freeways don’t actually lead to anything in particular—you must get off of them to take advantage of all the city has to offer, which is right there, on the boulevards.

Suisman got there first, one might say, and he uses the second half of this book to review several key projects he’s taken on since 1989—many in Los Angeles, many scattered across the nation and across the globe, from Pittsburgh to Palestine—to show how his original insights informed this work. This feels like the very long way around. What one longs for, at the end of this indispensable book, is Suisman himself at the scene of the crime, X-raying the boulevards as they are today, telling us how far we’ve come, and how far we must go. Still, Los Angeles Boulevard remains a guide, even if the road ahead is unclear.

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