Road Trip: Part II

What would Tocqueville say? A journey continues, from Seattle to San Diego via Alcatraz and an obesity clinic
The Anti-City

A city is like a text, Roland Barthes once wrote.

Just as there is a language of dreams, so there is a language of cities, more or less well articulated, more or less elegant or legible.

I wonder, then, if the prototype of a city with a poorly developed language, the prototype of unintelligible, illegible discourse, isn't Los Angeles.

For after all, what must be true for a city to be legible?

First, it has to have a center. But Los Angeles has no center. It has districts, neighborhoods, even cities within the city, each of which has a center of some sort. But one center, one unique site as a point of reference for that law of isonomy the Athenians believed was the principle behind every city, a hub or focus with which the inhabitants of Beverly Hills, Hollywood, Venice, Chinatown, Koreatown, Little Saigon and Little Tokyo, Malibu, Inglewood, Pico Union (and I could go on, since Los Angeles officially numbers eighty-four neighborhoods, where 120 languages are spoken), could have a relationship at once distinct and regular—nothing like that exists in Los Angeles.

Second, it has to have a border beyond which it dissolves or breaks apart. But Los Angeles has no border. Along with Tokyo, it is the limitless, indeterminate city par excellence. Or if there is one—if there is, necessarily, a space that is the city proper and another that is not yet the city—the property of this border is that it is undetectable, impossible to determine or situate. I looked out for it when I arrived from San Francisco. It's like the border that separates night from day, or day from night, about which I swore to myself every night, and every morning, when I was a child: "There, that's it, I'm going to trap it, I'm going to keep my eyes wide open, and this time I won't miss it"—but no, I failed, every time I mysteriously failed. Night fell, day broke, and once again I had missed the instant of transformation—just as here I missed the borderline of Los Angeles, this burgeoning city that goes on indefinitely, interminably stammering, a huge slow animal, lazy but silently out of control.

Third, it has to have a vantage point, or several, from which it can, as in the Paris of Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre Dame, be embraced with a single glance. But is it because of its gigantic size? The immensity of the five counties—Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, Ventura, Los Angeles—over which it is spread? The fact that the County of Los Angeles alone, with its nine million inhabitants (17 million in greater Los Angeles), extends more than fifty miles from east to west and sixty from north to south? Is it this precocious horizontality, the product of earthquake threats, which so clearly distinguishes it from New York and Chicago? Is it the smog, the smoke and fog, that envelops it for most of the year and makes it one of the most polluted cities in the country? The fact is, these viewpoints do not exist. There is the classic vantage point of Mulholland Drive, of course, but nowhere can the traveler find a place from which the city in its entirety can be the object of this panoramic gaze—Hugo likened this gaze to "the flight of a bird"—that alone would qualify it as a city. There are other viewpoints: the U.S. Bank Tower; in the east, the Gas Company Tower; in the west, next to the Spanish Steps, the 444 South Flower Street building; in the south, the First Interstate World Center, which, with its seventy-three floors, is the tallest building on the West Coast. But again, from none of these buildings is Hugo's cavalier gaze possible. From none of these heights is the city as a whole perceptible. From Griffith Park's observatory you can see to the horizon in all directions—at least when the air is clear; but Los Angeles itself extends beyond the horizon in a blur. And I realize, as I reflect on this and gather the few memories I have of arriving by plane in Los Angeles, that not until you see it from the sky is the same image offered, from whatever direction you're approaching, of a city that isn't just formless but also elusive. I see that because it is always identically illuminated as far as the eye can see, as in the opening scene of Mulholland Drive, it has the singular quality of systematically concealing itself from the double grip of the eye and the intelligence.

Finally, a legible city has to have a heart, and this heart must be pulsating. It has to have, somewhere, a starting point from which, one feels, the city was produced, and from which its mode of production is still intelligible today. It has to have a historical neighborhood, if you like, but one whose historicity continues to shape, engender, inspire, the rest of the urban space. But this place, too, is nonexistent. In Los Angeles there is nothing like the old neighborhoods from which you feel, almost physically, that the European cities, or even New York, have emerged. They do show me the old neighborhood. Kevin Starr, the excellent California historian, takes me not far from Chinatown, to Olivera Street and Old Plaza, which are supposed to be the nucleus of what was once called El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de Los Angeles. But they are dead places. It's a neighborhood frozen in time. However much Starr leaps from house to house, with his considerable bulk proving surprisingly agile, with his ink-blue too-warm suit and his bow tie that makes him look like a private eye out of Raymond Chandler, to explain to me how gargantuan Los Angeles was born from this tiny seed; for all this, something isn't right. You don't feel any possible common denominator between this stone museum, these relics, and the vital, luxuriant enormousness of the city. And the truth is that with its pedestrian islands and its restored façades, its profusion of typical restaurants and its stands selling authentic Mexican products, its wrought-iron bandstands, its cobblestones, the varnished wood of the Avila Adobe, which is supposed to be the first house in the neighborhood, this street makes me think of all the fake "heritage towns" that I keep running into in America.

For an illegible city is also a city without a history.

An unintelligible city is a city whose historicity is nothing more than an ageless remorse.

And a post-historical city is, I fear, a city about which one can predict with some certainty that it will die.

Presented by

Bernard-Henri Lévy

Bernard-Henri Lévy is a writer and philosopher who lives in Paris. He is the author of many books, including Barbarism With a Human Face, Who Killed Daniel Pearl?, and War, Evil, and the End of History. This is the second of several articles.

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