Replay 10/18/07: Los Angeles/Oakland Reflections: Privatization of Urban Public Space

2 Sep

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.

One Response to “Replay 10/18/07: Los Angeles/Oakland Reflections: Privatization of Urban Public Space”

  1. Daniel Schulman (das88) September 2, 2009 at 9:08 am #

    City of Quartz is quite good. I read it over 15 years ago and still vividly picture the pictorial of bus benches and other “sitting” areas purposely made to be uncomfortable. Does the book still hold up?

    Mike Davis also came to speak a couple of times at seminars I took in the Urban Planning Dept at UCLA in the early ninties. I remember him as being a bit off-putting. He would come to academe and play that only he knew what was up because he was an organic intellectual, SDS member, urban organizer type dude. However, I had the feeling that among working folk he’d play that only he knew what was up because he was an academic.

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