12/17/2005 02:00 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

How About One Big Backyard?

Back in June on the op-ed page of the Los Angeles Times, Joel Kotkin used the possible missteps of one project, Grand Avenue, to promulgate the myth that the sprawl of LA is working just fine, thank you, and we don't really need a downtown after all. Once again on Tuesday in the same space, Kotkin mounted the we-all-love-our-privacy offense and called for Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to wake up and stop trying to make LA someplace it's not. His homage to the deconstruction of the city smacks of what it really is: a screed that supports the status quo. In the guise of being a forward-thinking urbanist, Kotkin sets up Los Angeles as the model city of the future: downtown and density is over and economic dynamism -- a euphemism for suburban flight -- is what Los Angeles does best. Haven't we heard this before? And now that smog and freeway shootings are a staple of everyday life -- don't we know better?

As evidence that the Mayor is anachronistic, Kotkin has suggested that most people in their "low rise, single family homes surrounded by trees and blessed with backyards" are happy with the way things are. Well, maybe those folks that are indeed lucky enough to have achieved the American dream can sit back and pop a cold one, but most of Los Angeles is either spending two to three hours getting home to their little private oasis or most probably, they don't have one to begin with.

I have evidence to the contrary. For almost a decade, I have mentored approximately 25 high-school seniors each year from large, underserved high schools in the city through the One Voice, a small, Santa Monica-based social service agency. Each year, depending on the make-up of the "class," I help these students, all products of our hard-working, polyglot immigrant society, sample a variety of the wonderful public spaces and riches Los Angeles has to offer. We go to museums, cultural centers, urban parks. My students are a testament to the pathetic fallacy of this back-to-the-backyard thinking. They are so hungry to get out in the world, to experience this city in its fullness. Three things get in the way of their participation in the public realm: information, money for entry fees, and transportation. They've never attended a professional performance or been to a museum. Though some do have tiny, chain-link-fenced backyards, their version is mostly the corner bodega or a fast-food restaurant -- that is, if they can get off from work, or babysitting their younger siblings, or just find a way to be out, and safe, from gang violence. Two students from this year's class live not far from the ocean and the airport, but their one-room apartments housing their entire families don't have a lot in common with Kotkin's fabled backyards.

The Mayor needs to support replacement of low and moderate income housing in areas like downtown, where, sadly, the latest iteration of planning has had to conform to the huge economic imperatives of 21st-century commercial real-estate schemes. But it's not just housing that needs to be addressed. Previous downtown cultural efforts have already made inroads into the success of getting out of the backyard. The Colburn School, LA's self-effacing answer to Juilliard, sits right across the street from the munificence of Disney Hall, and draws ambitious music and dance students from all over the city. Check out their lobby any day after school and you will see the future of our nation's orchestras and dance companies. Or stroll around the corner to the Central Library. Throngs of students and citizens of all stripes queue daily and on weekends to check out books, DVDs and genealogy charts. (Full disclosure: my husband is the architect of these two buildings.) Or experience the sophisticated international offerings of Redcat at night. Institutions like the Colburn School and the Central Library and Redcat don't exist in hubs -- there are fabulous branch libraries and wonderful dance schools and small theatres in other parts of the city, but these one-offs of excellence belong in a designated area where access is not limited to the neighborhood.

Visionaries like Anne Philbin at the Hammer Museum and Steve Lavine at Cal Arts know that what fuels the finest arts is heat and the juxtaposition of warm bodies and minds to jump-start the cross-fertilization and are doing what they can to reverse that trend. More, by more people, not less, needs to be done. Already, smart young forward-thinking gallerists and artists are creating a hip environment in Chinatown that will bring us downtown because we don't want to miss out on the action. And action rubs off.

Kotkin would have us roll over and play dead -- for dead is what we will be if geography trumps any new core development and only colony breeding is sanctioned. We already have thriving civic outposts serving Costa Mesa, Cerritos, the West Side and Pasadena. These have stately homes, ambitious private schools, extraordinary cultural institutions and amazing restaurants. But the energy of the critical mass, that is truly bred only by PEOPLE and not institutions, is sorely missing. It's the job of forward-thinking planners to demonstrate and re-educate our citizens to the fact that the only solution to a happy life is not necessarily one for which land and economic resources continue to dwindle. And this can only come from consistent, long-term efforts that continue to try to showcase the advantages only density can offer.

Kotkin is terrified that one day he'll wake up in an "unruly, congested, dense Third World City." He cites the passage of Prop U from 1986, a 2003 poll by the Public Policy Institute that favored single-family home ownership, and urban flight from older cities as ammunition for his own retrograde position. There are those who will always prefer to be with their own kind, never venturing forth from the safety of their backyards. I live in Los Angeles precisely to avoid that kind of insularity.

Andrea Van de Kamp, ex oficio at the Music Center, once told me that there are seventeen miles between every good idea in Los Angeles. There's no getting around it: we have to push ourselves a lot harder in Los Angeles to create civic-mindedness. But in spite of Kotkin, we should be determined to try for these young people, not to shut down and stay home, but to inspire them to seek out other people and ways of mixing it up. To give them the way out of their "backyards."

Before we give up and retreat to our personal patches of turf, let's take a look at what is really going on with those we are serving. Before we envision Los Angeles coming apart, let's try to envision Los Angeles coming together.