Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Informal Space

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.


hgg said...

That's a beautiful tribute to a city that so many people know for other things than what you describe. Excellent.

Anonymous said...

Another great urban design book is A Pattern Language. It's full of little 1-3 page subsections that describe how to solve a particular urban problem. I keep thinking about getting it for my sister, but it's so expensive! Luckily, the local library has a copy, so I was able to read it.

Anonymous said...

oooh, one of my very favorite books! and the reason I am considering moving back home to LA...

I will note that the density you found in LA is pretty new: when I left in 1998, the pockets of street life were very hard to find - a couple of spots on Sunset and Hollywood, and Santa Monica and Venice. Los Feliz and Silverlake in their current trendy and walkable forms hadn't yet been invented. I find it so interesting that LA has stopped spreading out and is now growing denser.

Sam said...

I read about 80% of the book before I dumped it. Its not that I didn't agree with her ideas - I think they work very well in neighborhoods where people have jobs and interests and are nice. But in that dumpy ghettos where I lived in Philly any street activity was just bad news - creepazoids wandering around harassing women, trash everywhere despite the high home ownership, people having a crapload of kids that they didn't like and so were constantly on edge, etc, etc.

The one component I don't think she touched on was that some level of top down ideology is necessary - such a a some what non corrupt govt. enforcing laws semi regularly and fining people for vagrancy or something.

ruchi said...

Thanks HGG.

Will, thanks for the book rec. I'll have to see if it's avail at my library here!

Megan, yes, I'm told that 20 years ago Los Feliz and Silverlake were dangerous areas and you did not venture there. And you definitely didn't wander around the streets at 3 in the morning. But I think you're right that the city as a whole is getting denser. Los Feliz, Silverlake, large sections of We Ho, parts of Culver City, parts of Echo Park, Santa Monica, Venice. If only they could put in a more aggressive and innovative public transit system! I think that would enhance density.

ruchi said...

Beany, well I think the point is, that diversity of buildings and what not is not a panacea. You can't solve the worlds problems with shorter blocks. I think it's more exactly what you said, where people are motivated, these ideas can help to build a good city.

Green Bean said...

I'm reading Big Box Swindle which I likewise can recommend but cannot yet review because I'm only half finished. It has a similar message. Big box stores where people have to drive to shop breaks up our community fabric whereas small, downtown stores that people walk to really creates community. You run into friends, get to know others from the slow speed of walking instead of a brief glance from inside a car window.

I live near a downtown and have to admit that we bump into friends and acquaintances down there all the time. It makes it feel so much more intimate, more reassuring.

Anonymous said...

I love that book. I don't know how car people feel connected anywhere. Even in the summer, when I ride my bike, I miss out on chatting with people at the bus stop & knowing what all the kids are up to.

The main difference between my house, which never gets robbed, and my friends two blocks away who have been robbed repeatedly, is that we have neighbors on two sides who have lots of people in & out, and kids running around the block and through the yards - if anybody was messing with our door there'd be a bunch of little boys at their elbow saying "Whatcha doing?"

Not that some fences don't help - but only in strategic places. If you restrict the non-criminal people too much you lose a lot of security.

Anonymous said...

I love, love, love that book! And I'm still searching for that kind of neighborhood.

EcoBurban said...

I'm kinda with Beany here, Detroit is a tough city to think about just wandering around and being all happy-like. There are nice parts, but for the rest of the city? Tough times. The neighborhoods of happy families, clean streets, and healthy homes are far and few in between. Shoot, we'd settle for streetlights that actually worked and a school district that could keep the heat on. It's not hard to wonder why we all live in the 'burbs here. And, when you step back and look at the architecture in our city that once was a booming place of commerce in the height of the auto-industry you realize what a travesty it is...

And, again, I agree with Beany. Detroit needs some form of non-corrupt government to get it back on it's feet. Hey, our mayor just got out of the clink yesterday, so maybe he learned his lesson? Nah... he says he's suing the county because there wasn't enough TP in the big house and the food was terrible! Can you believe it?

JessTrev said...

Wow, EcoBurbs is leaving me speechless with her mayor. But our Mayor-For-Life Marion Barry's angling for an Obama post so I'm sure my mouth will be gaping at my hometown shortly. Anyways, a little off topic (although now I want to read that book! I live in a charming little urban walkable nhood and I lurve it) -- but you made me think of a friend's blog which is about literature evoking place:


Joyce said...

Strangely, I actually DO run into neighbors at Walmart, and stand in the aisle and chat with them.

Have you read The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell? He had a section of that book that talked about turning crime-ridden neighborhoods around by tackling petty crime, broken windows, garbage, etc. It was very interesting, and kind of addresses what Eco-Burban Mom was talking about with Detroit. Where do you start when a neighborhood is just too dangerous to be walkable to begin with?

We've experienced excellent success here with creating a high density downtown with an urban scene that sort of defies the size of the town. It's very fun to go down there, especially in good weather, when everyone is sitting outside in the sidewalk cafes, etc. Yet when I was in high school it was dark, creepy, and empty down there. It does take the vision and hard work of the city government and local busnesses to make it happen, but it's doable.

EcoGeoFemme said...

This is the reason I live so far from my job. I work in the suburbs but live in a terrific urban neighborhood like you described. I can do almost everything except work in a walkable distance. I feel bad about my commute and I struggle with road rage sometimes, but I think I'd have a lot of life rage if I lived in the burbs. Interestingly, we've been in our current place for over 4 years and I still don't know many people in the neighborhood. I guess it's a combination of not working around here and not going to church or having kids. But I think we could make local friends with a little effort.

lauren said...

LA is definitely an "insider" town; I lived there for four years in college. And only when I found those places you speak of did I feel good about living there.

My friends who stayed after college are more in love with LA than I ever was.

Sam said...

EcoBurban: Wow! The Detroit mayor (ex?) does have some nerve. I followed his story with some interest just because of how audacious he was.

EcoBurban said...

Beany - Yes, he's the ex mayor, but we're not rid of him yet. He's involved in a bribery scandal regarding a waste company, Synagro. And, he's planning to sue Skytel for releasing the text messages that proved he lied under oath. And, now his hired thugs that are supposed to be his bodyguards / entourage are going to be charged with assault for hitting reporters in the face as they tried to cover his release from jail. Amazing?!?

How can a city recover, become respectable and clean itself up when goverment can't set a good example? Our interim mayor is actually doing a decent job, but it's being overshadowed by this drama.

Unknown said...

I'm from Sydney, Australia and I feel exactly the same about Sydney (I'm currently living in Germany). In a couple of inner-city areas there are friendly neighbourhoods where I feel 'at home' and when I remember Sydney that's all I miss. The rest of Sydney is a sprawl of totally unwalkable suburbs where the public transport is verging on non-existent and everyone drives every where (well, mostly to the mall). The culture, crime and quality of life out in the burbs just depress me so much.

This is the reality of Australian life and it aggravates me that most foreigners think it is all lazing around on the beach in beautiful weather - the reality is sitting in a hot car in a traffic jam on a motor way heading west (i.e. away from the ocean) after working an 11-hour day! It's not the life for me thanks, I'll take Europe anytime.