I'm reading The Death and Life of Great American Cities right now by Jane Jacobs, which is a really, really fantastic book. I'll do a review when I finish it, but after 84 pages, I can already recommend it to you all.
It's about building cities, you know, for people. Jacobs wrote the book in 1961, when things like sustainability and climate change and what not were not on anyone's radar. So it's alternatively amazing and alternately life-affirming that what makes cities good for people is exactly what makes cities good for the environment.
The things Jacobs mentions? Lively sidewalks. People out on the streets. Informal gathering places. Small shops.
It's interesting, in retrospect, because the discussion takes me back several years to ... 2003. I had been living in LA for two years, and I really, really hated it. The city seemed to me to be a maze of concrete and palm trees. It was an awful, artificial city, and I leaped at any chance to leave for a weekend or two.
And then, and I honestly, don't remember the details of how this happened, but through a friend, I ended up spending all my time in a neighborhood in LA with lively street life. Where people would hang out at the coffee shop until 2:00 am playing chess. Or drink cheap wine at the Italian restaurant down the street. Or have a cosmo at the hipster Indian restaurant up the street. Where everyone knew the name of the guys who worked at the 7-11, and they, in turn, knew our names.
Gradually, as I started spending more and more time in the neighborhood, I became more and more woven into the fabric of its streets. And as the city started to mean more to me than an assortment of freeways, I became more and more of an Angeleno.
As I got busier with my job, I spent less in the neighborhood. I no longer had time to hang out at the coffee shop, or eat at the Indian restaurant. And yet, my walk from the metro to my apartment continued to take me through the neighborhood. And even though I no longer participated in the 'street culture' per se, I was still a part of the fabric of the neighborhood. I still ran into acquaintances right and left. And the street was still littered with my many memories of Los Angeles.
Now some might think that the point of this story is that love for a city is about forming long lasting solid friendships with your fellow city denizens. But this is emphatically not the point. Instead, the point, as Jacobs explains, is about forming a strong web of connections with strangers, acquaintances, and friendly acquaintances.
Indeed, I have only stayed in touch with a couple of the people who I met on this street. Most of my strong friendships were formed elsewhere. And yet, when I think of LA, when I think of where I left my heart in Los Angeles, I think of this street. And all the assorted people who wandered through it, who wandered through my life from time to time. I think of the sense of belonging I felt as I walked down the street.
And that's what is so interesting about LA, and I think, might have something to do with my LA experience versus ... everyone else's.
My love of LA stems from a neighborhood in LA where everyone walks to the neighboring restaurants, the coffee shops, the bars, the grocery, the bank. A bunch of my acquaintances from the neighborhood didn't even have cars! Sidewalks were wide to allow outside seating at the many restaurants on the street, and pedestrians remained until the wee hours of the morning.
When you find these pockets of LA, there isn't really much that can beat it. Because, frankly, the weather is fabulous, you get local strawberries in January, the restaurants are amazing, and the city is one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the world.
Unfortunately, too many people in LA get caught in the concrete, unsustainable jungle. They spend too much time in their cars, sequestered away from everyone else. But if people in Los Angeles would just get out of their cars a little, they would find out that they live in a city filled with vibrant, eclectic, creative people. That off the freeways, you smell jasmine, and not smog. And that walking in LA is the only way to you are ever going to hear the heartbeat of the City of Angels, a city, truly deserving of its name, if ever you take the time to get to know it.
2 weeks ago