The City of Angels is the whipping boy of urban planners, mocked by cultural critics, and disliked even by many visitors. One of them is Bernard Henri Levy, the French writer famously sent by The Atlantic to follow in the footsteps of Tocqueville.
His worth-your-while, multi-part exploration of America gets a lot right, and some wrong, about our nation. Nowhere is his criticism farther from the mark than when he arrives in Southern California, muses that there is a language of cities, and wonders if Los Angeles is "the prototype of a city with a poorly developed language, the prototype of unintelligible, illegible discourse."
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.
One immediately wonders about all the other cities without a center of the kind he describes. Tell a New Yorker that Times Square is the center of his metropolis and you're liable to get stabbed. Midtown is its business center, Wall Street its financial center, Williamsburg its hipster center, and on the list goes. The geometric center of Paris is the Arc de Triumph, sitting at one end of that most grand boulevard, streets radiating out from its roundabout, but is it the hub or focus of Parisian life? Where is the center of San Francisco? Is Seville's hub its cathedral or the Guadalquivir? The tiny town of Ord, Nebraska, has a downtown square with a county courthouse that is plainly its center. Is it therefore a more intelligible city than any of the others? This metric cannot stand up to scrutiny.
Mr. Levy goes on:
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.
This is overwrought. On what we'll call its western edge, Los Angeles has as stark a border as any urban area: the Pacific Ocean, which stops any notion of sprawl at its shoreline. Greater Los Angeles is also hemmed in by some rather majestic mountains. It is easy enough to see the city's limits from the air, conceding sprawl that extends interminably in other directions -- one is hard-pressed indeed to state the precise moment one is moving from Los Angeles into Orange County.
Of course, Los Angeles is hardly alone in its sprawl, and is very much alone in the starkness of its physical boundaries, so it hardly seems the appropriate example of the quintessential city without defined limits.
Mr. Levy writes:
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.
What a peculiar criteria to set forth as a standard that an intelligible city must meet, and not only because atop Notre Dame one can hardly embrace Paris in a single glance. Elsewhere in his travels, San Francisco seemed to strike the author as a perfectly intelligible city, but if there's a point where the whole metropolis can be seen in a single glance I don't know it, and the hills and fog do far more than the smog in Los Angeles to obscure the view on a regular basis. I've stood atop the highest points in Rome, never seeing the whole city at once spread before me, and the list of cities that fail on this metric goes on.
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.
A Parisian can be forgiven for sensing the dearth of old things even in East Coast cities, and Los Angeles is certain to seem shockingly new. I'd counsel spending some time at the Santa Monica Pier if one wants to see a location whose appeal has been surprisingly consistent since its first incarnation. That LA makes the writer think of fake heritage towns is actually itself a sign of enduring themes, since between Hollywood and Disneyland greater Los Angeles basically invented the fake landscape, perhaps to its shame rather than its credit. On the other hand, whether on Cannery Row in Monterrey, sitting at a cafe in the Latin Quarter, or traipsing through the Roman ruins, great cities often see one era's heart turned into the next era's heritage town.
Mr. Levy concludes:
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.
I am a conservative gambler. And I'll go all in on the proposition that Los Angeles isn't going to die in my lifetime or that of my grandchildren, hostile attacks from nuclear powers notwithstanding.
None of this is to say that Los Angeles is without its flaws. Take a look at this post, and tell me about them by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org