Tag Archives: stations

PHOTO ESSAY | Oddballs and Curiosities in Los Angeles

There are few cities in the world more perplexing than Los Angeles. The reasons are many. The Outlaw Urbanist will take a closer look at some of the reasons in a multi-part, photo essay series. Today, we look at oddballs and curiosities in Los Angeles. If you dare to walk in Los Angeles (let’s face it: if you dare, you will have to walk a lot as the price paid), you never know what you might find in the City of Angels.

Los Angeles has been in the midst of a drought for nearly five years now. The evidence of ‘brown lawns’ is everywhere as well as a few, industrious solutions such as in front of this apartment building where AstroTurf serves as a grass substitute.

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‘Forever green’ AstroTurf law in front of a Los Angeles apartment building (Photo: Mark David Major).

By all appearances, this ‘rock garden’ in front of a Wells Fargo building on Wilshire Boulevard is not in response to the long-term California drought but represents a purposeful landscape design choice. To say it is ugly is an understatement. You can also physically feel the temperature increase in proximity to this rock garden (which is much bigger than shown here). It should be filed under “What Were You Thinking?”

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Rock garden (courtesy of Home Depot?) in front of a Wells Fargo building on Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles (Photo: Mark David Major).

For the most part, the Los Angeles Metro is impressive and growing. This seems to include putting in the hard work of stations in the right locations as opposed to only conveniently available ones. However, there were a few, odd things about the L.A. Metro. The stations I used did not have above-ground buildings but rather large stairways/escalators opening up to street level with associated signage. This makes the station entrances difficult to see from a distance, for example compared to the distinctive, red tile buildings of the traditional London Underground stations or the most flamboyant designs of its newer stations. The lighting in these underground stations is incredibly subdued. The purpose of the ‘romantic lighting’ is unclear since it tends to render a somewhat unsafe feeling to these underground spaces  (even though the stations seemed perfectly safe). I noticed the same subdued lighting at some downtown underground stations on the St. Louis MetroLink. The brighter lighting in stations on the London Underground is preferable in my opinion.

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East Hollywood Metro station in Los Angeles (Photo: Mark David Major).

The other noticeable thing about these L.A. Metro stations is the manifest lack of advertising on the walls. There are gobs and gobs of wall space, which are left completely unused. It is unclear why the L.A. Metro would forego the additional revenue stream of advertising in their stations to help offset the operating costs, especially if they control where and how that advertising is located. It is a bizarre choice, especially in a city where the film industry thrives (e.g. movie posters). London Underground generates significant revenue from advertising in their stations, on platforms and along escalators. Why leave all of that money on the table in L.A.? It doesn’t make any sense to me.

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Wilshre Boulevard Metro station in Los Angeles (Photo: Mark David Major).

Nothing destroys the street frontage quicker than a continuous row of garage doors such as this recently constructed apartment/condominium building in Mid Wilshire. Ahem.

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A row of garage doors for a newer apartment building in Mid Wilshire, Los Angeles (Photo: Mark David Major).

Or the continuous blank wall of a massive parking garage such as this one behind the Petersen Automotive Museum along South Fairfax Avenue. The pitiful – almost apologetic – street trees do very little to mediate for this massive blank wall. Walking around L.A., I reached the point where I swore “if I see one more insensitively designed parking garage, I’m going to scream.” I was screaming a lot after that ill-advised vow.

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The blank wall along South Fairfax Avenue is a massive parking garage behind the Petersen Automotive Museum on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles (Photo: Mark David Major).

There are some interesting (current and past) rehabilitation projects in Los Angeles. For example, this conversion of what appears to be an extremely old motor inn (or perhaps hotel bungalows) into an apartment/condominium complex one block south of Hollywood Boulevard in Hollywood.

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Apartment/condominium complex one block south of Hollywood Boulevard in Hollywood, Los Angeles (Photo: Mark David Major).

This adaptive re-use serves as quite a contrast to the standard, courtyard apartment building typology found in many neighborhoods of Los Angeles such as this one in La Brea.

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Typical courtyard apartment building in La Brea, Los Angeles (Photo: Mark David Major).

The coolest alley in Beverly Hills (yes, they have alleys in Beverly Hills, quite a lot of them) is located between Dayton Place and Rodeo Drive (at the far end of this photograph). This alley is called Fred Hayman Place. Fred Hayman was known as the ‘Godfather of Rodeo Drive.’ To the right, is The Grill on the Alley restaurant.

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Fred Hayman Place alley between Dayton Place and Rodeo Drive (Photo: Mark David Major).

One of the most charming buildings along Wilshire Boulevard is Bernie’s Coffee Shop (formerly Johnie’s Coffee Shop) at the northwest corner of South Fairfax Avenue. It is more interesting than the Peterson Automotive Museum sitting on the opposite corner. Wikipedia even attributes a style to this type of building called Googie architecture, described as a form of modern architecture, which is a subcategory of futurist architecture influenced by car culture, jets, the Space Age, and the Atomic Age (Source: Wikipedia). Personally, I’ve never heard of this architectural style. It only looks like an old Denny’s Restaurant. In any case, it is listed as a Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument. The building has appeared in several movies including Volcano, The Big Lebowski, Reservoir Dogs, American History X and Gone in 60 Seconds. You might be able to tell from this photo the owners of Bernie’s Coffee Shop were ‘feeling the bern’ for Democrat Bernie Sanders at the time.

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Bernie’s Coffee Shop (formerly Johnie’s Coffee Shop) at the northwest corner of South Fairfax Avenue and Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles (Photo: Mark David Major).

We conclude today’s essay with a great find, a discovery made only possible by doing the unthinkable: walking a lot. The largest section of the Berlin Wall outside of Germany is located in Los Angeles in front of the Sprüth Magers Art Gallery on Wilshire Boulevard. You would think its proximity across the street from the heavily-visited Los Angeles County Museum of Art would mean this section of the Berlin Wall was easily-found and visited a lot. However, it was deserted most of the day. Most everyone ignored the history located a short walk just across the street from them.

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REVIEW | Dead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism

dead_end_Benjamin_RossREVIEW | Dead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism | Benjamin Ross
Review by Dr. Mark David Major, AICP, CNU-A, The Outlaw Urbanist contributor

The first half of Benjamin Ross’ Dead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism (2014, Oxford University Press) is a majestic masterpiece of objective, clear, and concise diagnosis about the political, economic, and social origins of suburban sprawl in the United States with particular emphasis on the legal and regulatory pillars (restrictive covenants and exclusionary zoning ) perpetuating  suburban sprawl to this day. It is required reading for anyone interested in the seemingly intractable problems of suburban sprawl we face today in building a more sustainable future for our cities. Chapters 1-10 (first 138 pages) of Dead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism warrants a five-star plus rating alone.

However, Ross’ book becomes more problematic with the transition from diagnosis to prescription, beginning with an abrupt change in tone in Chapter 11. This chapter titled “Backlash from the Right” is, in particular, so politically strident that it reads as if the staff of Harry Reid’s Senate office wrote the text (the political left’s favorite boogeymen, the Koch Brothers, are even mentioned); or perhaps, the text of this chapter sprouted wholesale like Athena from the “vast right wing conspiracy” imaginings of Hillary Clinton’s head. This is unfortunate. In the second half of the book, Ross starts to squander most – if not all – of the trust he earned with readers during the exemplary first half of the book. It is doubly unfortunate because: first, it is done solely in the service of political dogma as Ross unconvincingly attempts to co-opt Smart Growth as a wedge issue for the political left in the United States; and second, it unnecessarily alienates ‘natural’ allies on the conservative and libertarian right sympathetic to Ross’ arguments for strong cities and good urbanism.

In the process, Ross tends to ignore or paper over blatant contradictions littering the philosophy of the political left in the United States when it comes to cities. Of course, this is a common Baby Boomer leftist tactic of absolving their generation for the collective disaster they’ve helped to create over the last half-century by confusing ideology for argument (and hoping no one will notice there’s a difference). For example, if you want to see what the policies of the political left look like after three-quarters of a century of dominance, then look no further than East St. Louis, Illinois. What has happened to that once vibrant city is absolutely criminal; literally so since several state and city Democratic officials and staffers have been sent to jail for corruption for decades.

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Downtown Today in East St. Louis, Illinois.

During the second half of Dead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism, Ross also promotes the classic Smart Growth fallacy that public rail transit is the ‘magic bullet’ for reviving our cities. Indeed, public rail transit is important but too often Ross – like many others – comes across as unconsciously applying Harris and Ullman’s multi-nuclei model of city growth, which conveniently holds almost any function (in this case, rail stations/lines) can be randomly inserted almost anywhere in the fabric of a city without repercussions as long as land uses are ‘compatible.’ Of course, this is the ex post facto theoretical underpinning for the very ideas of Euclidean zoning and the common umbrella providing regulatory cover for all sorts of disastrous decisions in the name of “economic development.”

This is a potentially dangerous self-delusion shared by many in the Smart Growth movement. For example, what Ross attributes as the cause for the failure of some rail stations (lack of walkable, urban development around these stations due to the over-provision of space for ‘park and ride’ lots in catering to the automobile) is often really a symptom. The real disease is these stations were put in the wrong location in the first place due to local opposition, regulatory convenience, and/or political cowardice (i.e. that’s where the land was available). There is an inherent danger in approaching pubic rail transit as a cure-all panacea for the city’s problems. If our leaders, planners, and engineers take shortcuts in the planning, design, and locating of rail lines/stations, then we leave the fate of our cities to happenstance. It is far too important of an issue to approach in such a cavalier manner, as some Smart Growth advocates appear so inclined.

In a general sense, this is not really different from the arguments made in Dead End but, specifically, it is an important distinction that is glossed over or not properly understood when drilling down into the crucial details of Ross’ prescriptions. That being said, there are some interesting tidbits and ideas in the ‘prescription phase’ of Dead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism. However, the reader has to be extremely careful about filtering out Ross’ political agenda from the more important morsels. For example, Ross correctly points out Americans’ disdain for buses is rooted in social status. However, he fails to point out – or perhaps even realize – that this peculiar American attitude is indoctrinated from childhood due to the expansive busing of kids to school in the United States (e.g.. only the poor and unpopular kids take the bus). In order to change this attitude, you have to radically change public education policies, something contrary to the invested interests of the political left. In fact, Ross has very little to say about schools, which seems like an odd oversight.

Too often, Ross’s prescription for building coalitions comes across as the same, old political activism of the counter-culture Baby Boomers that doesn’t really rise above the level of gathering everyone around the campfire and singing “Kumbaya, My Lord” (absent the “My Lord” part in the interests of political correctness). In the end, this suggests Ross has a well-grounded understanding about the historical, political and social impact of legal and regulatory instruments at work in our cities (exemplified by the first half of this book) but only a superficial idea about the design and function of cities and movement networks (including streets and rail) as witnessed by the lackluster second half, which is barely worth a two-star rating. Because of these strengths and weaknesses, Dead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism is a four-star book in its entirety but you might be better served by reading the first half of the book, ignoring the second half, and having the courage to chart your own path in the fight for better cities.

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dead_end_Benjamin_RossDead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism
by Benjamin Ross
Hardcover, English, 256 pages
New York: Oxford University Press (May 2, 2014)
ISBN-10: 0199360146
ISBN-13: 978-0199360147

Available for purchase from Amazon here.

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