Los Angeles has been dining out on its postmodern myth of itself for too long, it seems. The city is like an aging intellectual hipster whose love of the ineffable fragmentary nature of the decentered urban experience has gotten old. We're looking for a steady long-term relationship now, a story we can believe in.
Maybe it's just me, but I don't think so. I think this is the secret message at the heart of three very different works--an opera, a memoir, and an economic history--that have struck a strangely similar and resonant chord in Los Angeles this fall.
This came home to me while watching "Hopscotch," the drive-by opera, which closed this weekend after taking the city by storm over the past month. Underneath all of the very cool postmodern tricks--the opera is broken into 36 chapters scattered around different locations, which the audience experiences only in pieces, while traveling on three different routes through the city--"Hopscotch" is a good old-fashioned love story with a happy ending. There was something oddly touching--and maybe oddly touched, too--about driving downtown to put on headphones to watch people driving around the city in search of what: meaning, love, relationships, a story, all of the above? Yes, all of the above.
I wasn't surprised to find an essay by David Ulin, the LA Times book critic, in Hopscotch: The Mobile Opera, which is something of a cross between a long program and a short book for sale at "the central hub" in the Arts District, where audience members could watch the opera unfold on video screens if, like me, they were unable to snag a ticket to ride along. Ulin takes a somewhat similar journey, on a smaller scale, and on foot, in his new memoir Sidewalking: Coming to Terms with Los Angeles.
Ulin's book is also composed of different routes through the city--mostly the mid-Wilshire neighborhood, but sometimes farther afield--that don't necessarily, on the surface anyway, add up. And Ulin explicitly doesn't seem to care if they add up. That they don't add up is, in fact, an important part of his experience of Los Angeles. And, yet, there is in his perambulations, too, a palpable craving for meaning, love, relationships, a story to believe in.
"We each create our own Los Angeles," Ulin said in a recent conversation about Sidewalking and "the future of the urban experience in Los Angeles" sponsored by the Ruskin Art Club, LA's oldest cultural institution. "There is no master narrative," he said. "We're all forced to take it and make it our own."
And, yet, Ulin sees the possibility of a common urban experience and relationships emerging in Los Angeles, and at the Grove, of all places--the popular shopping complex that masquerades as a Main Street urban village in the mid-Wilshire area, a postmodern trick in its own way. Ulin said the Grove is cultivating a new kind of pedestrian experience in Los Angeles, even if most people do drive there. The Grove, he asserted, may be inauthentic, but it is "an inauthentic space in which authentic interactions can happen."
Relationships are also at the center of The Rise and Fall of Urban Economies: Lessons from San Francisco and Los Angeles, an economic history written by Michael Storper and colleagues. I wrote about their book previously here. If I were to boil down to one sentence their analysis of why the San Francisco Bay Area won the new tech economy and LA did not, it would be this: Relationships matter.
Storper was part of the so-called "LA School," a loose group of urban scholars who argued that Los Angeles represented a new kind of postmodern, decentered, fragmented metropolis that required a new kind of postmodern urban theory. Postmodern Los Angeles emerged from the deindustrialization and decentralization that started around the 1970s and has defined the metropolitan region ever since, though there are signs everywhere that a new vision of the city may be emerging.
It's telling that an age-old question is now crying out at the heart of this new city struggling to emerge from the postmodern metropolis: How can we cultivate relationships?