Los Angeles/Oakland Reflections: Privatization of Urban Public Space

18 Oct

My trip to LA last week made me reflect a lot on the differences of urban planning and living in Los Angeles and Oakland. Part of my thoughts reflect on my experience growing up in LA, and other thoughts might be influenced by a book I’m in the middle of reading, City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles, by Mike Davis. So I thought I’d write a series of posts about my Oakland and Los Angeles inspired reflections on urban space.

Growing up in LA, my concepts of public space were limited to parks and beaches. The closest I ever got to an urban public center was an indoor mall in the San Fernando Valley.

One of the things that struck me and ultimately drew me to the East Bay was the amount of public space here and how effectively this space was used. I remember my first trip to Berkeley, which happened to be during the Telegraph holiday street fair. I was enthralled by the vendors lining the streets, the cars being held back, and the people crowding the pavement.

I soon learned that Telegraph wasn’t always such an expansive, car-free street, but it didn’t matter. There were other public spaces and events to enjoy: a jazz band playing near the downtown Berkeley BART stop, a rally at Sproul Plaza on the UC Berkeley campus, the San Francisco Mime Troup performing in Cedar-Rose park, a picnic in the Berkeley or Oakland rose gardens, or a stroll around Lake Merritt.

I’ve come to take this public space for granted, but I was jolted out of this complacency in LA last weekend. Unfortunately, the conference I was attending was at the Sheraton in Universal City. I could write several posts about the ridiculousness of Universal City being a separate city from Los Angeles, but I won’t. Suffice it to say that I think it’s even more useless and disruptive than Emeryville is to Oakland.

After days of hotel food and deliveries from Vegan Express, some of my friends and I decided we wanted to go out to eat but didn’t want to hop in a car. So our only option was hopping on the shuttle to City Walk. In my many years of Los Angeles living, I had managed never to step foot into City Walk, and I quickly learned that I hadn’t missed a thing.

As you walk “inside”, you are immediately surrounded by lights and sounds. There are stores and restaurants everywhere, everyone brighter and louder than the next. Music plays, but it changes as you enter into different “zones.” Water spurts from the ground in the most inelegant arches I’ve ever seen.

But wait – this isn’t Hollywood, or Times Square. There are no homeless people. There’s no litter on the ground. Cars don’t zoom buy and practically run you over as you cross the street. There’s no smell of urine in the air.

I guess the absence of these urban features must relieve the average City Walk goer, but it really freaked me out. Needless to say, after we ate our sushi, we got out of there as quickly as we could.

City Walk was clearly created for tourists, but not just for tourists from other countries and states. It’s aimed at pleasing suburban tourists. It’s aimed to make them feel like they’re having an urban Hollywood experience, without all the annoyances of a real city.

Yesterday, I walked through the Oakland City Center to get some soup, and I realized that the City Center is not nearly as bad as I had thought it was. It’s more open and less intrusive than a mall or City Walk. If that’s the worst Oakland can do with privatizing public space, I can live with that.

Mike Davis (and others) often write about Los Angeles as being the model city of the future, for better or worse, but I’m more hopeful than that. If he’s right though, I hope Oakland never follows LA in privatizing public space.

3 Responses to “Los Angeles/Oakland Reflections: Privatization of Urban Public Space”

  1. Marc October 20, 2007 at 9:56 am #

    Very interesting. I hadn’t thought about the two areas in terms of public space, but next time I visit LA I’ll be thinking about that.

    I haven’t been to City Walk, and probably never will. The idea of creating a “City” from scratch is absurd, as Jane Jacobs so eloquently explained in The Life and Death of Cities. Cities just happen. Sure, there is a bit of planning needed, like providing zoning flexibility to allow business, retail and residence to coexist, but the true transformation is unpredictable.

    One part of LA that has always been a mystery to me is the stretch of tall residential buildings on Wilshire just east of Westwood. As far as I can tell (from my car), there is absolutely no retail below these tall residential buildings, and thus the residents need to drive for everything. But it seems odd to build such density without any services around. Perhaps the residents are extra wealthy and have ‘people’ to do stuff like grocery shopping.

  2. Becks October 21, 2007 at 10:46 pm #

    Unfortunately, Wilshire’s not the only street that’s like that. Growing up in the San Fernando Valley, there were tons of residential areas (including streets filled with apartment buildings) that were out of walking distance of any basic service (except maybe a liquor store or fast food restaurant).

    It does seem that LA is starting to change though, and it’s beginning to embrace more mixed-use projects. It’s going to take a LONG time for it to overhaul it’s stigma of being a car-dependent city though, a phenomenon I’ll cover in a future post…

  3. Rosalinda Zambrano Chacon March 24, 2008 at 11:03 am #

    I have lied in L.A, and have been to Berkeley, and yes there is a big difference. Los Angeles is a beautiful city, but it is a cold city. It is a city generally designed for the car, and not for the pedestrian. Except for maybe the oldest parts of L.A.

    I live now in Venezuela, and I must say that we have almost no appreciation for public urban spaces. Most of our urban spaces are located within shopping malls, universities, and small parks located in such way that only the nearby residents can visit it. I wouldn’t be able to say who should we blamed for this.. Maybe its just us, as citizen, for not challenging the city to give more…. Or is the government for not allowing our cities to grow in an connected matter… or is the business that are using the streets and walkways as visual screens for there marketing. In this case I am referring to main cities in my very young country.

    The cities are dynamic, and grow in various ways and forms. But the important, thing I think, is that they should livable cities, where we can find anything we need within a couple a blocks, were we are comfortable to walk, breathe and exist.

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