Jon Christensen writes: LA Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne has a grand narrative. And he's not just a chronicler of the Los Angeles story. He's a cheerleader. A goad. And a protagonist now.
Beginning this week, Hawthorne is taking his campaign on the road in a series of public events meant to spark conversations and get citizens behind a vision for a city that he argues is moving into a dramatically new phase.
Hawthorne calls this "the third Los Angeles." The first event in his series with the same title is "Welcome to the Third Los Angeles" at Occidental College this Thursday evening, February 12. Hawthorne hopes not only to be present at the transition to this new era, he wants to help usher it in. Regular readers of his columns in the Times will know the broad outlines of Hawthorne's story.
The "first Los Angeles," Hawthorne argues, lasted roughly from the 1880s to the eve of World War II. The city grew at an exponential pace, but it had a "dense, compact and walkable downtown," Hawthorne wrote recently in an email announcing the Third Los Angeles Project, "and a comprehensive streetcar system along with a string of great public buildings" and "inventive multifamily residential architecture."
The "second Los Angeles" ran from World War II to the turn of the millennium. It was the era of suburbs writ large, at the scale of the metropolis. "Our most important and innovative architecture, to a dramatic and new degree, was the detached single-family house with private garden," Hawthorne wrote, and "our public realm shriveled as we built freeways and tore out streetcar lines." In time, LA became Mike Davis's dystopian City of Quartz, which marks its 25th anniversary this year.
Now we are entering the third Los Angeles, or maybe just "on the cusp of it." Hawthorne doesn't seem sure which. But he is sure that "Los Angeles is in the midst of profound reinvention," as he put it. "Or perhaps it's better to call it a profound identity crisis," he added.
"Having run out of room to sprawl, virgin land to conquer," Hawthorne wrote, "the city is doubling back on itself, constructing more infill development and experimenting with denser housing and vertical architecture. We are finally building a comprehensive and public mass-transit system to match the privately run one of the First L.A."
But, Hawthorne hastens to add, this third LA is no utopia. At least not yet. "For many Angelenos, its emergence threatens to wipe out what has always made the city singularly attractive," he wrote, "notably its great supply of single-family neighborhoods with private gardens. Fault lines are opening up between longtime residents and younger ones frustrated by the price of real estate or eager to see long-awaited transit lines and new park space finally completed."
Environmental challenges loom. Global warming will make LA--once known for its climate of ease--hotter, drier, and harsher. Sea level rise will eat away at our coast. And "we will have to figure out a way to capture and store more rainwater instead of sending it efficiently to the ocean," Hawthorne observed.
At the same time, he wrote, "a city known for inventing, for saying yes, is becoming more skilled and more active at protecting, for saying no--a shift that has profound implications for how we see ourselves and how the world sees us."
And if Angelenos are getting better at saying "no," the coming of Hawthorne's third Los Angeles may not be a foregone conclusion after all. This might actually be one of the defining political and cultural battles of our times.
Photo of Christopher Hawthorne and Mayor Eric Garcetti at Oxy's Keck Theater last year courtesy of Occidental College.