On a morning visit to Silver Lake, I pass an abandoned refrigerator lying on its side with the freezer door open to native rodents. A few steps away I pick up an old hardcover duplicate of The Great Gatsby and The night is tender from the curb library of some middle-class residents. As contrasts go from high to low, this one doesn’t register here even in a city of private galleries in malls, of architectural marvels amidst whole boulevards of slag.
You see, I know the magnitude of my task here. To argue for LA as a walking city is to exude all the common sense of Michael Douglas leaving his car for a vigilante odyssey from Lincoln Heights to Venice. I’m not just against it falling down, but a bunch of ingrained clichés about perpetual urban sprawl and highways measured in light-years. They are well founded.
It’s just that most walkability rankings are hopeless. They tend to judge cities by physical distance and other measures of walking convenience. The more fundamental test is whether there is actually enough to see on the streets. Missing this point puts Washington ahead of Istanbul and Munich ahead of Bangkok. Being efficient and well put together is valued over what a city cannot design or buy: Life, whether in its smirking or stomach-churning form. Susan Sontag wrote that the urban wanderer must be in search of “sensual extremes”. This is not Bordeaux.
No western city of comparable weight is weirder or more random than LA. Not Paris: too much Cartesian order. Not New York, which has a numbered grid, a central park called Central Park, and a northeastern borough called the Upper East Side. Without renaming itself United States Population Center Number One, the city cannot increase its commitment to the rational. As for London, it has abrupt tonal shifts from district to district and building to building, but always has the coherence of an old place. Even the free-thinking Berlin is still recognizable Prussian in the grandeur and clarity of its planning.
If physical convenience is the test, LA has an advantage so large and obvious that it offsets its geographic spread. Whether a warm city is better for a pedestrian than a cold one is a matter of taste. But the superiority of a dry city over a wet one is not. London and Paris, always glorified as a hiker’s paradise Mrs Dalloway, about as much precipitation as any other. A trawl through the corresponding monthly data for LA tantalizes a northern European with a recurring phrase. “Track Amount”.
Weather and craziness combine to make LA the West’s most underrated itinerant city. If distance forces most of this to take place within and not between neighborhoods, then distance also forces those neighborhoods to have their own commercial and cultural ecosystems. If it were otherwise, as a non-driver, I would have been reassured by boredom by now, or impoverished by Lyft.
No doubt I’m writing all of this with the unusual needs of someone in the “creative industry” (their cute phrase, not mine), albeit the least glamorous of them. If your job depends on having ideas, LA’s wall-to-wall stimulation is more fertile to live in than a more coherent and ergonomic place. Every walk is a potential eureka moment.
In any case, these are bleak years for the flâneur and flâneuse. Even before the pandemic emptied city streets, the idea of aimless strolling had taken on an elitist character. The French noun doesn’t help, although no English equivalent will do, and although I’d like to have it on my business card one day, boulevard couldn’t fix the problem. Using the waking hours to roam without direction or purpose also defies a culture of productivity hacks and (often Californian) leaning. I have a delightful amount of what the 45th US President called “executive time”. Not everyone does.
Worst of all pedestrian trends, however, is the gradual loss of street-level surprises in the West’s increasingly polished supercities. A flaneur is just an observer of things, or what Baudelaire called a “plaster botanist.” LA’s are still deceptively rewarding to kick, weed and all.
Email Janan at [email protected]
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