I have a request for greater Los Angeles in the coming decade. It's not a simple request, but it's simply stated: Over the next 10 years, I want you to become a city--that's right, a real city, like London or New York, Paris or Tokyo.
Okay, maybe a collection of cities.
In any case, I mean you should try to cease being a collection of freeways and malls, a sprawl of half-imagined neighborhoods, or a loosely-shuffled deck of cluttered boulevards and cultural icons.
Over the next 10 years, I want to find myself joining large crowds strolling nighttime streets. I want to hop cheerful and efficient subways and find them filled at all hours. I want to leave a theater at 11:30 and stop off next door for a late night snack. I want to visit many highly charming parks, where I find numerous benches and baby prams and pushcarts selling popcorn and hot dogs. I want to encounter endless stretches of outdoor cafes, competing fiercely, and pushed one up against the next. I want to book streetside tables and sip coffee while watching masses of humanity transported on shoe leather.
In fact, I want to find it harder and harder to get around in a car, and easier and easier to get around on foot. I want to visit fewer big venues and encounter more little shops; climb fewer on-ramps and drop quarters into more parking meters; stop at fewer mini-malls and walk on wider sidewalks.
In general, greater LA, I want you to finally give up that weird, tedious, half-ironic "no there there" aesthetic and adopt a "there everywhere" chic. I want you to give up being an awkward beast, and evolve into a coherent metropolis.
Okay, I know you have your challenges: fragmented government, weak city planning, absentee landlords, ferocious gangs, too few cops, too many noir film locations, a focus on glitz instead of substance.
But you've shown it can be done. I mean, when I look around, I can see you've made a lot of progress over the last 30-odd years, and you could be on the verge of something big. You built a few rail systems. You fixed up Pasadena, Glendale, Culver City, Santa Monica, Beverly Hills. Parts of West Hollywood and Downtown. Yes, I can now stand on certain corners in such centers, or stroll three or four blocks at selected hours, and almost believe I am in a real city...as long as I don't wander too far from my car, or turn down a side street.
You've made progress, but I'm sorry: I want Rome, or at least Chicago. Not as shopping mall theme parks operated by Rick Caruso, but as true city blocks. I want genuine urban experiences, and I want them here.
Don't tell me that a "world city" kind of life is impossible in Southern California, third wealthiest urban area on earth. Don't explain how you seem to attract strange, intensely private people, only interested in fixing up living rooms and backyards; folks only interested in cocooning in cars or museums or concert halls; only interested in creating rec rooms or theme bedrooms, building "outdoor rooms" to be featured in L.A. Magazine or decorating hip minimalist parlors to be profiled in Angeleno.
And if we really are like that, then I want us to change. In the coming decade, I want us to become different than we have been. I want us to want to be more like the people in other great urban areas and less like our cliché vision of ourselves.
I know this will take extraordinary effort, because yes, in a real city, people become passionately involved in civic life. They care what happens down the street and in city hall. They take an interest in the whole curio shop and not just their own velvet-lined box.
I want to begin by appealing to our wealthiest citizens, whether they owe their fortunes to TriStar or Coldwell Banker. Not just because they have the means, but because they know how to get things done. Over the coming decade, I want to challenge our wealthiest citizens to get out of their estates and Maseratis and theaters and galleries and pour their hearts into public parks and bike paths and open areas here in the town in which they have made their fortunes. Maybe that means adopting a recreational facility or an urban square, a stretch of beach or the boulevard around a favorite concert hall. Maybe it means sponsoring an outdoor festival or supporting the politicians who care about trains and trolleys.
Yes, we have Eli Broad. But I figure we need at least six more Eli Broads, and we need at least five of them to focus on public space. Millennium Park, anyone?
But of course I really mean to direct this request to the whole metropolis. As the New Year starts, I want to challenge all of greater LA to take a moment and imagine what the best aspects of the word "city" might mean to you and yours and everyone who lives in this remarkable but as-yet-unfinished place.
Follow Marc Porter Zasada on Twitter: www.twitter.com/theurbanman