Friday, June 06, 2008

Learning from Los Angeles

When Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour published Learning from Las Vegas in the nineteen-seventies, they celebrated the vernacular architecture of America's Sin City in its "classic age" and also ushered in decades of postmodernism, pastiche, and the signifier writ large, so that corporate branding and eye-catching signage could rise in other urban landscapes.

For most of my adult life, I have lived in what is known as "the Greater Los Angeles area," but often I am not sure what I should be learning from my home city, which has been called "Fortress L.A." by Mike Davis and compared to a wild animal park, where one drives around with the windows rolled up, by Jane Jacobs. In recent years, there have been a number of high profile buildings erected in my native metropolis by world-class architects, who have included local son Frank Gehry, designer of the Disney Concert Hall, and Our Lady of the Angels cathedral architect José Rafael Moneo. Yet, speaking as a resident, I'm less interested in signature buildings created by auteurs and stars and more interested in how public space is imagined collectively through deliberative processes and -- as someone never hesitant to talk about failure and its rhetorics -- I think it is useful to admit that right now the downtown area is an instructive example of a city gone wrong.

Today I hosted Dutch media theorist and Web 2.0 critic Geert Lovink for the morning, and we visited local civic landmarks that included Clifton's Cafeteria, The Grand Central Market, The Bradbury Building, and The Los Angeles Central Library. As Lovink wryly observed, on our city's Broadway was a display of American socialism at its most gratuitous, since there were lots of examples of state-sponsored production taking place in the garment factories secreted in the office buildings overhead that were also advertised at street-level in the subsidized prices of goods being proffered in the often makeshift storefronts, which ranged from accordions to bootleg DVD recordings to ballet flats.

I'm fascinated with how city planners can't deal with the demise of the area's great movie palaces on Broadway, after patterns of media-consumption permanently changed in the period after the second World War. In any other city, these shuttered and under-utilized buildings would have been demolished and replaced with more viable enterprises, but Los Angeles holds the classic era of its dream factory in special regard. Unlike the historically significant Victorian gingerbread mansions of Bunker Hill, which were hauled off on trucks and deposited alongside the Pasadena Freeway as decrepit museum pieces, there are pressures for maintaining eternal "conservancy" that require that these dozen once grandiose movie palaces stay right where they are, in limbo and falling apart over time.

Since I've never known them during their heyday, I can accept that there aren't any big movie theaters downtown, but what was much more disturbing was the realization that there aren't any major bookstores either. This wasn't just true for the downtown area, which Lovink's hotel concierge reported as being essentially bookstore-free, but it has also become a reality for the rest of the city, where independent booksellers have closed down in record numbers in the past decade, during which time I have seen the demise of some of my favorites: Dutton's, Acres of Books, Midnight Special, Sisterhood Books, and La Cité des Livres. Luckily, New Mastodon Books, Hennessey + Ingalls, Amok Books, and the Technical Book Company still seem to be in business, but LA is a difficult hometown for a serious bibliophile.

One of the other depressing aspects of urban decay that was apparent was the impending demise of the famed murals on the now defunct Victor Clothing Company, which has now closed its doors after outfitting many generations of Latino and Latina customers (on credit) for weddings, quinceañeras, first holy communions, and other important celebrations in the lives of the city's working class Spanish-speakers.

After witnessing these symptoms, Lovink's verdict on Los Angeles seemed not to be as harsh as the one in Eric Kluitenberg's new Delusive Spaces: Essays on Culture, Media and Technology, which Lovink gave me from his Institute of Network Cultures press. In characterizing the socio-political detachment of onetime LA resident Francis Fukuyama, Kluitenberg described the downtown of my city as "a condensation point of material inequalities, racial segregation, gang violence and drug-related dilapidation, all probably a consequence of generations of bad governance, or the very absence of it all together" (60).

Downtown may not be the kind of segregated, gang-infested territory that Kluitenberg depicts, largely because much of the worst dysfunction has relocated to residential commuter areas, but he is certainly right that the Community Redevelopment Agency is completely paralyzed with inaction as it weighs a myriad of more bad plans for privatization. Witness the following idiotic generalizations by one city planner quoted in The Washington Post:

"Angelenos are different than the rest of Americans," said Dan Rosenfeld, a partner at a downtown real estate development firm. "We are a collection of individuals, not a community." He noted that Los Angeles has some of the best private gardens in the United States but the worst parks, some of the most stunning private architecture but disappointing public buildings, the greatest private art collections but middling museums.

"L.A. is impossible to plan," Rosenfeld said. "Its civic character is a bundle of energy and not a place."

It was well worth staying up late to read the rest of Delusive Spaces, which included several compelling essays on media theory in an age of hardware and software in which "network standards, technical protocols, industrial agreements, the formal logic of computing machineries and the software platforms that run on them affect the production of new forms of cultural signification" (21). For example, "media archeology" has become an important mode of thinking for many critics, myself included, and Kluitenberg's essay on the subject brings together Michel Foucault, Lewis Mumford, and Jacques Lacan. Unlike others in the United States, he doesn't entirely embrace Deleuze and Guattari, on the grounds that he wants to "keep some of the categories introduced above intact: the apparatus, the subject and a sense of history." (72). There are also political essays about technology, governance, and governmentality that would be of interest to American STS audiences, such as "The Post-Governmental Condition" and "Constructing the Digital Commons." In addition, Kluitenberg's essay "Media Without an Audience," which is also available online, makes a number of prescient claims about user-generated content and social media.

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Blogger Lupton said...

Touring LA with Lovink, global media theorist extraordinaire, has opened up spaces of reflection in, and on, LA's vast regions of urban dilipidation and media obsolescence. I would love to have been the Human Fly on the wall during your conversations!

12:03 PM  

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