The End of Public Space in Los Angeles?
The End of Public Space in Los Angeles?
I have an affection for a great city. I feel safe in the neighbourhood of man, and enjoy the sweet security of the streets.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
I do too; have affection for big cities, although maybe in a different context than Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. I enjoy the multiplicity of cities and their way of blending it all together. Until now, I have only been to Berlin, London and, the only American city, New York City. Each time I visited one of those cities, I feel in love with it. I like absorbing the city, watching its liveliness and being part of it. Places that enable those experiences are the places that I still remember like Central Park in New York or Covent Garden in London, to name only the English speaking cities.
Participating in the seminar Reading American Cities, we also discussed the depiction of Los Angeles, California, as the counterpart to New York City. But watching movies like Mulholland Drive (2001) or Crash (2004), I realise that I’m not a big fan of Los Angeles. I might even say that I would not like the city or more explicitly that I would not like being in Los Angeles. After becoming aware of that fact, I started asking myself why that is. What distinguishes Los Angeles from these other cities? What makes it so different? So far, I believe that two different suggested characteristics of Los Angeles could be responsible for my disapproval of Los Angeles. Perhaps the decentralization and consequently the dependence on the car as argued by Davidson and Entrikin (Davidson, et al., 2005 p. 578) could trigger this emotion.
However, this proposition did not entirely satisfy my need for a possible explanation. Considering what I appreciate most in cities – the space to participate in the life of a city – I favour the following theory. Most of the scholars who partake in the on-going public space discourse agree that Los Angeles lacks “real” public space1. This means that the city does not offer the opportunity for the whole public including the poor, homeless people and other outcasts to join and intermingle with the community in those places actually build for the public. Michael Sorkin, to name only one of the proponents of this theory, edited the book “Variations on a theme park: the new American City and the end of public space.” This is a very radical phrasing of the problem, which I would like to challenge in the case of Los Angeles. Has Los Angeles lost its public space already?
Among other things, this paper is going to examine the contemporary level of architectural and human geographic discussion concerning the public discourse in general and in the special case of Los Angeles. Beforehand, I will try to define public space and mention the different kinds of public places that exist in cities. Additionally, there will be a brief consideration of the difference between public and civic space. Furthermore, this part will include some functions of public space in cities and the consequent necessity of public space in cities.
Besides all the features that I may not like and because I come from the seaside, I think the best thing about Los Angeles for me would be the proximity to the beach. There is always something special about the life by the seashore. This is one of the reasons, that this paper pays particular attention to the beach and the coastal area in its second part after dealing with the term of public space. The beach will be seen from the angle of the public space discourse and from the angle of the literary depiction. I will look closely at how far the coast can be counted as a public place and what those reflections contribute to the Los Angeles’ public space discourse. The beach has not only been the focus in scientific discourses but in literary discourses as well. To show only a selection of this broad spectrum, I chose the movie Blow (2001) and the popular mural “The people of Venice 1
Some literature uses “public space” and “public place” synonymously. But I prefer to use “public place” for a specific place e.g. park and “public space” for the totality of public places in a city e.g. Los Angeles. versus the Developers” which was designed by Emily Winters and painted by Jaya collective in 1975 and can be found at 316 South Venice Blvd. I will look at the depiction of the beach in those two works and interpret their relevance to the public space discourse. Both works of arts have a different approach to the topic and consequently bring across different messages to the viewer.
In the end, I will conclude what this argument and these two mediums contribute to the Los Angeles’ public space discourse and answer the question if it is the end of public space in Los Angeles.
Before we can enter into the discourse of public space, we have to understand what the term public space means. Unfortunately, like many other concepts established in the field of social science, the concept of public space is hard to define, because it is a very fuzzy one and is “characterized by indeterminacy” according to Burgers (Burgers, 2000 p. 146). But everyone has a certain idea about what public space in cities is and looks like. I will begin with a very broad definition and will narrow that down to an acceptable explanation of public space.
The broadest definition, in my mind, is considering only the physical form of public space. We usually associate open, outdoor places with public space that do not restrict access physically. Therefore, those places have no barriers like locked doors of residential houses or offices. A non-exhaustive list of public spaces considering the broad definition would be: parks, streets, freeways, government buildings, squares and sidewalks. But this list lacks a very important feature of public space. Based on the Grecian agora, public space offers a place where individuals “congregate to satisfy shared needs” (Lees, 1994 p. 447f). This definition would include “churches, university campuses, shopping malls, schoolyards, marketplaces, sports stadiums, and beaches” (Lees, 1994 p. 447f) which can be add to the list above. However, most of those places are physically restricted and can only count as quasi-public places.
The last necessary feature of public space is the social aspect of inclusivity. The Webster online dictionary gives the following definition that captures this trait quite precisely. One definition of public space or a public place is a place where anyone has a right to come without being excluded because [of] economic or social conditions (fees, paying an entrance, being poor, …) […].
If we consider this definition to be vital and revise the list of possible public places, then many of those spots have to be eliminated. This definition does not apply to sports 4
stadiums because to enter the premise one has to pay entrance. Furthermore, it disqualifies shopping malls, university campuses, schoolyards and probably churches, because these places restrict access to the Poor and Homeless due to the fact that they are either guarded or monitored2.
Subsequently, only a few places remain that can be regarded as public space in theory. To check if this fact coincides with reality, this paper will later discuss the example of Los Angeles. I believe many people and maybe some scholars still would not agree with that definition because they associate more with public space than the above-mentioned qualities. They mistake civic space for public space. In addition to the features of public space, civic space provides “space where communal activities link citizens” (Lees, 1994 p. 450).
Lees continues to explain that this includes place where “we participate jointly in a public realm of government, ritual and high culture; we act civilly and ceremoniously” (Lees, 1994 p. 450). This would further exclude other public place like the beach or marketplaces but the purpose of the paper is to figure out if it is the end of public not civic space. Thus, I want to look at places that serve as a chance for the whole public including every inhabitant of the city and the homeless to intermingle and to feel part of the city’s community. This definition rules out the political function that some people associate with public space, which is a feature of civic space.
Nevertheless, public space performs other important functions, which makes public space a necessity for cities. In fact, public space fulfils so many purposes that would go beyond the scope of this paper. As a consequence, I will only name a few and elaborate on even less functions.
This would have to be examined further, but I think it is usually the case.
According to Müge Akkar, the functions of public space “can be classified as physical, ecological, psychological, social, political, economic, symbolic and aesthetic […]” (Akkar, 2007 p. 115f). The most relevant functions for this discussion and later are ones that relate to the society and community of Los Angeles. Therefore, I want to discuss the economic, psychological, social and symbolic roles of public space. Considering the distinction between civic and public space, the political function will be left out as well. Throughout history, squares and plazas inside cities have been transhipment points for goods and regional products. Therefore, public space has always been linked to commerce because both parties benefit from the relation, which account for the economic function. (Akkar, 2007 p. 118)
The psychological role of public space is responsible for “the mental and psychological health of human beings in various forms.” (Akkar, 2007 p. 117). They create a place where people can get away from their often stressful life, their job and all the responsibilities they have to take care of. Therefore, those places can offer relaxation in an urban environment. (Akkar, 2007 p. 117)
The inevitable effects of the assemblage of people in one place are condensed in the social function of public space. Consequently, public space provides different people with a fixed place for them to meet and intermingle. (Akkar, 2007 p. 117) An additional aspect of the social function is that public space unifies different people “regardless of their class, ethnic origin, gender and age […]” (Akkar, 2007 p. 117)
Another significant role of public space I want to mention is the symbolic function. Usually public places have a long historical background and people feel connected to the place itself and the history it relates to. This bond between history and the place entails an identity of the city that turns the public place into “a symbol for a group of people or society […]” (Akkar, 2007 p. 118) Of course; public places can also have cultural, religious or political backgrounds which has the same effect on people, namely that individuals feel part of a community. After the clarification of the term public space and its function, the previous mentioned public space discourse in general will now be studied. Considering the title of this paper, it can be assumed that most critics see a general decrease and decay of public space in American cities (Carmona, 2010 p. 123; Crawford, 1995 p. 4; Lees, 1994 p. 443f) and that even some claim the end of public space3.
In order to understand this drastic statement, we have to remind ourselves what public space is. In accordance with the Webster online definition, public space functions as a free place for all members of the public where interactions and intermingling of people is not influenced by any institutional power. (Mitchell, 1995 p. 115) But unfortunately in reality, another perception of public exists which is often shared by city officials, city planners, politician and private owners of public space. For them, it is a place for entertainment and recreational activities for civilly and orderly behaving citizens which is planned and controlled to ensure the users of this place that they will not to feel disturbed “by unsightly homeless people or unsolicited political activity” (Mitchell, 1995 p. 115).
Hereby the concept of “citizenship” is coined by the exclusion of all unwanted people that pose a threat to the neat “theme park”, as public space is called in the title of Sorkin’s book3. Despites his doubt about the end of public space that Mitchell expresses, he admits if the current development progresses that the second image of public space will become the dominating one in most cities and that real public space will be a faraway fairy-tale place. (Mitchell, 1995 p. 115)
For the majority of writers, the best example of the decline of public real is Los Angeles.
See title of the book edited by Sorkin: Variations on a theme park: the new American City and the end of public space
(Davis, 1992; Lees, 1994; Crawford, 1995) But if we look at a map of Los Angeles, we can see many places which could function as a public place e.g. the beach, Pershing Square, MacArthur Park and so on. Hence, public space has not yet disappeared from Los Angeles and as Lees points out, the actual problem obviously is the quality rather than the quantity of public space. (Lees, 1994 p. 448)
To describe the quality of public space in Los Angeles, I will check how far public space in Los Angeles meets the criteria especially the functions of public space that have been established above.
The primary role of public places in Los Angeles is a commercial one; public places most often fulfil an economic function (Davidson, et al., 2005 p. 583). This does not necessarily have to be a bad thing but in Los Angeles, the economic use usually goes hand in hand with restriction on access for poor and homeless people. Sadly, this applies to many parks just as much. There are still many parks left in Los Angeles that function as a place for relaxation but they don’t allow people that would actually need it the most. Therefore, hardly any parks meet the requirements of a social function for the whole public anymore. This is attained by benches in parks that provide barely any comfort when sitting on them, let alone sleep on them. Some designers even created benches that make it impossible to sleep on them because they are shaped like half a barrel facing down. Mike Davis concludes this thought by realizing that “public amenities are shrinking radically” (Davis, 1992 p. 156) in Los Angeles.
Nevertheless, Los Angeles still has places with a social function but they are redesigned in a way that does not invite people to spend some time there, because they do not look very appealing. The change in design also involves the destruction of another important function mentioned before. Using the example of Pershing Square, one can see that this place lost its symbolic function because it does not represent any (historical) value anymore (Crawford, 1995 p. 5) However, critics differ about the reasons for this development. Crawford blames the shape and structure for the decay of public space. He argues “[…] the city’s low-density development and widespread dependence on the automobile have eliminated street life and public interaction.” (Crawford, 1995 p. 5). Hence, public space became expendable and consequently useless.
Other writers like Mike Davis explain the deterioration with the middle and upper class’ growing sense of fear in public places. Therefore, the city and the owners of public and quasi-public space established a fortress for them to feel safe. He says, “the universal consequence of the crusade to secure the city is the destruction of any truly democratic urban space” (Davis, 1992 p. 155). The adjective “democratic” in that sense does not mean the right to exercise one’s democratic right but the equal rights for everyone to use public places, because he continues that “[…] public landscapes and parks [are designed] as social-valves, mixing classes and ethnicities in common (bourgeois) recreation and pleasures […]” (Davis, 1992 p. 156). Overall, he laments the destruction of those socialvalves.
Otherwise, this would follow the track of civic space, which should not be mistaken with public space. If we look at civic space in Los Angeles briefly, then we would have to agree with the statement at Los Angeles achieved the end of civic space. There are many studies according to Lees that prove that “[…] lively civic space in Los Angeles is hard to find, […]” (Lees, 1994 p. 450). For example, Lees examined the political activities that were initiated by the public and found out that the city “is so radically decentralized that citizens have no obvious places where they can gather to express their political will or their solidarities.” (Lees, 1994 p. 454).
However, the aim of this paper is to analyse the situation of public space in Los Angeles, not civic space but so far, one could assume the situation of public space is very similar to civic space. That is even true for many parts of the city like the city’s centre and Westside (Davis, 1992; Crawford, 1995). But because Los Angeles is such a special-shaped, decentralized city, one has to look for public space at the edge of the city. The one big open, marginal area that catches the eye is the Los Angeles coastal area and especially the beach. It is often overlook space, which is a public space for many reasons. Again, I will consider the functions of public space to verify that the beach should count as a public place.
First, the beach has a social function for all citizens because the right to visit the shore is a constitutional right of California (Davidson, et al., 2005 p. 586). Unfortunately, in Los Angeles private properties have been built which block many of the ways to access the beach. But the coast is very important to Angelinos who are often portrayed with an attitude of pro-development and pro-modernity. Therefore, they have always fought to defend their right. In 1972, citizens initiated the Proposition 20, which was a public campaign to ensure that the development of privatisation, which took place in the city, would not endanger the coast or the access to it.
In terms of inclusivity, the article in the Los Angeles Times “Homeless people can find compassion at the beach” (Saillant, 2010) shows how Angelinos and private civil organizations are fighting for the right of homeless people to access the beach. They are also equal members of the society and public space becomes their private realm because it is the only place for them to live. For example, “Laguna Beach agreed to rescind an anticamping ordinance and set up a program allowing homeless people to sleep overnight in a portable shelter purchased by the city, said John Pietig, assistant city manager” (Saillant, 2010). This indicates that Angelinos have not yet given up maintaining the beach and the coast as a public space.
But why is the beach so important to them? It represents the decentralized shape of Los Angeles with beach’s location at the edge of the city and it definitely represents the way of life associated with Los Angeles (Davidson, et al., 2005 p. 584). We assume that life is easy going, that city dwellers are mostly happy, tanned and open-minded. This does not only applies to Los Angeles but to other cities as well that are located close to the beach e.g. Rio de Janeiro (Davidson, et al., 2005 p. 581). Moreover, the “sheer usage makes the beach important” (Davidson, et al., 2005 p. 584). This demonstrates that the beach represents the culture and its people, which make the beach an important symbol of Los Angeles. Another, historical example illustrates the symbolic function of the beach and the coast. In the early 1990s, a gang war was going on the coast, which caused many victims on both sides and killed numerous innocents.
However, the casualty figures were not the reason why this outrage was such a severe incident for all Angelinos. Davidson and Entrikin refer to another writer, Starr, who claims that such violence “would […] not have mattered to the city as a whole” if it would have taken place in South Los Angeles (Davidson, et al., 2005 p. 585). This episode emphasizes the symbolic role of the coast and the beach for Angelinos who admire the beach as a sacred public place. A new facet of the symbolic importance of the beach is reflected in the route of tourist spots. At least one stop at the beach is included in every city tour (Davidson and Entrikin, The Los Angeles Coast as a Public Place 585). In addition, this can be regarded as an economic function, which was another vital role of public space. As a last point, the beach is a place for people to relax and enjoy the atmosphere.
Therefore, the psychological function is a given because there is no doubt that a wide open space with warm sand, the rhythmical sound of waves has a recreational effect on its visitors. In conclusion, the beach and the coastal area of Los Angeles should be considered a public space because it unifies different people, cultures, religions and ethnicities residing in Los Angeles with the common aim of protecting the beach as a public symbol that should be accessible to every Angelino. The movie Blow (2001) visualizes this demand by portraying the use of the beach how it should be. It also relates to the people and the way of life, which the beach represents. In contrast to the busy, cheerful life in Blow, the mural “The People of Venice versus the Developers” laments the destruction of the easy-going, unfettered community that inhabited the coastal area.
The previous argument makes aware that the beach symbolizes and represents Los Angeles, its people and its diversity. Unsurprisingly, many art forms address the beach as a public place. The first representation that will be discussed is the popular Jaya mural, which is also known as “The People of Venice versus the Developers” (Fi gure 1 )4. The mural shows a small house or hut close to the coast, which is bulldozed by an almost faceless construction worker who is painted in black in white. The bulldozer is leaving a black trace, which seems to be very long. Next to this instance, there is an angry looking crowd (though only seen from behind) that is protesting against the demolition. In contrast to the construction worker, the protesting crowd is painted in colour. Therefore, the viewer can recognize very different (looking) people. Both males and females appear, one person has grey hair, others wear braces and one wears a headscarf. To left of the crowd, one of the protesters is spraying “STOP the PIG!” on the wall and another construction worker is just standing by, only watching the whole scene.
On the right side, the small house, which is being destroyed, is collapsing while a woman with a blue-scarfed head is sitting cross-legged on the floor in that house. Her cat is breaking away from the (coming) danger. The mural was painted at a time when the Proposition 20 was enacted. Hence, at time when the development of the city or “growth-machine” was quickly progressing and the Angelinos were trying to save the beach from such a transformation. It was also the time of gentrification when “Hollywood […] and other hip bourgeoisie [were] driving property values into the millions of dollars” (Davidson, The Beach versus “Blade Runner”: Recasting Los Angeles’ Relationship to Modernity 57). According to Davidson, many wealthy investors bought properties along the beach and turned it into their private backyard. This expansion led to an almost uninterrupted line of houses and estates that still makes it very difficult to access the beach.
Even painted in 1975 the mural’s depiction of the protest against the development is still true today. They strive for the preservation, or in the current context for the reestablishment, of an exceptional community. The use of colours stresses this point immensely. The people of Venice are painted very colourful and we can see a woman who looks like belonging to the hippie culture of the 60’s. She is probably in middle of a religious ritual, maybe even praying. One could assume that she belongs to a spiritual group and feels very down to earth because she does not have much. Her small house is enough and she is happy with only necessities.
However, she leaves much room for nature and the beach. There are no fences obstructing the way to the beach and no signs that indicate private territory. Overall, the colourfulness and richness of detail represents the diversity and heterogeneity of people and nature. A colourful nature – in this case the coast – can reflect an unspoiled countryside. The bulldozer and the construction worker, on the other hand, stand for the upcoming shift of landscape and are depicted low-key in colour and details. The monochromic portray can signify the sameness which is boring and represents the standardization of people in terms of sexuality, ethnicities, cultural and historical background and nature.
Therefore, the choice of colour could also hint at close houses without much space in between and a downtown made of concrete. This provides only little room for cultural diversity and lively public space to enjoy this diversity with all its intensity. All in all, the grey space depicts the undifferentiated space of modern planning that allows the emergence of a dull and forlorn city with hardly any public space (Davidson, 2007 p. 59). In connection to the two opponents, one can be interpreted the mural as a sign that “the city is replacing a unique beach community with the homogeneity of middle- class suburbia” (Davidson, 2007 p. 57).
Another aspect of the mural worth discussing is the portrayal of the construction worker. The other people are presented in a very detailed way, but he is almost faceless without any expression of feelings or compassion. The agents who enforce this project are obviously unscrupulous, unaware or careless about the emotions that can be attached to this certain place, which is associated with the symbolic function of public space in general (Davidson, 2007). They ignore the beach residents’ bond with nature and the beach. All they care about is to turn the beach into the same grey unitary landscape and culture like they did before. Consequently, they would bury the colourfulness under castles or – in Davis’ words – “fortresses” for the rich middle and upper class.
Of course, the mural portrays this development in Venice, but as history has shown, this problem is not exclusive to Venice. Many other coastal areas experienced the gentrification and thus the mural “can be seen as reflecting the larger dynamics of modernist development in twentieth- century Los Angeles.” (Davidson, 2007 p. 57). Therefore, it is legitimate to choose another fictional work that does not represent Venice beach but a different beach; the development still applies. Manhattan Beach is the setting of the movie Blow. George, the protagonist, and his best friend Tuna moved from Massachusetts to Manhattan Beach, California in 1968.
They move into a one-bedroom apartment, which has a view of the ocean and they bring only few belongings with them. Their neighbours are two women of the same age as Tuna and George who are welcoming them and offering help. Later, they introduce George and Tuna to other people at the beach. It is a very nice day, the sun is shining and the beach is very crowded. On the face of it, the two newcomers don’t really fit in with the crowd because they wear unseasonable long-sleeved shirts and unhip black socks instead of bikinis or bathing suits as the rest of the group. However, they are accepted instantly.
When the camera gives the viewer a wide shot of the scene, we can see people enjoying the sun, the ocean and the beach, drinking beer, making out and smoking joints. It is a big party where a wide range of ethnicities and genders mixes. In the back, we can catch a glimpse of Los Angeles and see that there are only two-story apartments at the edge of the beach.
During this one minute scene, George’s voiceover is telling the viewer that he never seen anything like California before and that the people are full of new ideas, independent and liberated. They also use words like “groovy” or “right on”, which obviously seems strange to him. By the end of the day, George and Tuna have many new friends. In a later scene, they sell marihuana on the beach, and everyone is buying from them including surfers, lifeguards, hippie professors and bikers. In the last relevant scene, we see the group having a campfire on the beach. They are all sitting around the fire and George is finally feeling home and very happy with his new girlfriend (one of the neighbour girls).
One can deduce from that scene various allusions to the current situation of the beach as public space and of course the past.
First, we notice that the two geeky outsiders are welcomed into the beach community very quickly. It does not matter what they look like or that they can’t afford a big house or any other amenities. The beach is depicted as a place for very different people to get together and enjoy their life, the nice weather and each other. Angelinos and especially the beach community are portrayed as free of prejudices against the two new men and probably against all newcomers in general. They are open-hearted, free-spirited and the interpersonal relationship is not hindered by any preconception. This unrestricted human relation is reflected in the easy access to the beach.
There are no big mansion at the edge of the beach but only small house that don’t block the view of and the access to the beach. Furthermore, there are no fences or guards trying to control the beach. For example, nobody prohibits the campfire romanticism or the use of drugs. This freedom is emphasized by George’s utterance that they all are liberated and independent. Even the drug consumption can be regarded as liberation from external coercions and the beach is the place for this to happen.
In my opinion, those scenes refresh one’s and in particular Angelinos’ memories of how the beach was once used. It was a real public space where all levels of society blend into one community that enjoys the advantages of the access to the beach. Nevertheless, it is also a plea for the revivification of the beach as an inclusive, uncontrolled and public place.
Both fictional works portray the beach as a public place that needs to be saved. The mural shows against what the beach has to be protected whereas the movie Blow suggests reasons for that protection. Even if the whole city is turned into a grey monotonous area, the beach should be restored and preserved as a lively and vital public place in Los Angeles.
In conclusion, Los Angeles is having a rough trot concerning public space. Inner-city public places, which fulfil all the criteria including inclusivity are scarce. However, due to the decentralized form of Los Angeles, Angelinos should use this circumstance to their advantages. The coastal area and the beach, that is located at the edge of the city, is an important place, which arguably should be added to Los Angeles’ public space. The visual and audio-visual media I chose had the purpose of stressing that demand. The beach is a place for all citizens to feel as part of the society and community, which should not be destroyed under the excuse of modern development. Consequently, it is not yet the end of public space in Los Angeles but Angelinos will have to keep fighting for their right if they want to maintain the coastal area a public place, which probably will be the last chance for true public space.
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Saillant, Catherine. 2010. Homeless people can find compassion at the beach. Los Angeles Times. [Online] 17 March 2010. [Cited: 24 March 2012.] http://articles.latimes.com/print/2010/mar/17/local/la-me-beach-homeless172010mar17. Winters, Emily. 1975. The People of Venice versus the Developers. Citywide Mural Project , 316 South Venice Blvd : 1975.
University/College: University of Chicago
Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter
Date: 18 December 2016
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