Taking Los Angeles from 10 million planned residents down to nearly 4 million

Today, Los Angeles has almost 4 million residents. At one point, planners thought it could have 10 million residents. What happened in local government in the 1970s helped lead to this change:

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Come 1970, there was broad support for a portentous shift: Los Angeles would abandon the top-down planning that prevailed during a quarter century of postwar growth in favor of an ostensibly democratized approach. The city was divided into 35 community areas, each represented by a citizen advisory committee that would draw up a plan to guide its future. In theory, this would empower Angelenos from Brentwood to Boyle Heights to Watts.

In practice, it enabled what the Los Angeles land-use expert Greg Morrow calls “the homeowner revolution.” In his doctoral dissertation, he argued that a faction of wealthy, mostly white homeowners seized control of citizen advisory committees, especially on the Westside, to dominate land-use policy across the city. These homeowners contorted zoning rules in their neighborhoods to favor single-family houses, even though hardly more than a third of households in Los Angeles are owner-occupied, while nearly two-thirds are rented. By forming or joining nongovernmental homeowners’ associations that counted land-use rules as their biggest priority, these homeowners managed to wield disproportionate influence. Groups that favored more construction and lower rents, including Republicans in the L.A. Area Chamber of Commerce and Democrats in the Urban League, failed to grasp the stakes.

The Federation of Hillside and Canyon Associations, a coalition of about 50 homeowners’ groups, was one of the most powerful anti-growth forces in California, Morrow’s research showed. It began innocently in the 1950s, when residents living below newly developed hillsides sought stricter rules to prevent landslides. Morrow found little explicit evidence that these groups were motivated by racism, but even if all the members of this coalition had been willing to welcome neighbors of color in ensuing decades, their vehement opposition to the construction of denser housing and apartments served to keep their neighborhoods largely segregated. Many in the coalition had an earnestly held, quasi-romantic belief that a low-density city of single-family homes was the most wholesome, elevating environment and agreed that their preferred way of life was under threat. Conservatives worried that the government would destroy their neighborhoods with public-housing projects. Anti-capitalists railed against profit-driven developers. Environmentalists warned that only zero population growth would stave off mass starvation.

Much like the Reaganites who believed that “starving the beast” with tax cuts would shrink government, the anti-growth coalition embraced the theory that preventing the construction of housing would induce locals to have fewer kids and keep others from moving in. The initial wave of community plans, around 1970, “dramatically rolled back density,” Morrow wrote, “from a planned population of 10 million people down to roughly 4.1 million.” Overnight, the city of Los Angeles planned for a future with 6 million fewer residents. When Angelenos kept having children and outsiders kept moving into the city anyway, the housing deficit exploded and rents began their stratospheric rise.

Americans tend to like local government. And this is one reason why: local citizens get involved and they are able to advocate for what they want.

Whether these local decisions are good for the broader community, city, or region is less clear. On one hand, these homeowners groups wanted their neighborhoods to be a particular way. They purchased a home in a certain setting for a reason. They tried to protect this way of life. (Even a freezing a neighborhood or community in time is difficult.) On the other hand, this had consequences for many others. These are neighborhoods within a larger city. Housing decisions contribute to residential segregation. Decisions about density reduce housing options.

The residents of these specific neighborhoods might have won but at what cost?

Agglomeration, working from home, and the character of places

Why do certain industries cluster together in one location? Social scientists have answers:

Photo by Chris F on Pexels.com

Economists believe agglomeration — like the clustering of tech in the Bay Area — has historically been the result of two main forces. The first is what they call “human capital spillovers” — a fancy way of saying that people get smarter and more creative when they’re around other smart and creative people. Think informal conversations, or “serendipitous interactions,” over coffee in the break room or beers at the bar. These interactions, the theory says, are crucial to generating great ideas, and they encourage the incubation and development of brainiac clusters. The other force is the power of “matching” opportunities. When lots of tech firms, workers and investors clustered in Silicon Valley, there were lots more opportunities for productive marriages between them. As a result, companies that wanted to recruit, grow or get acquired often gravitated to places like the Bay Area.

However, remote work could actually improve certain matching possibilities. Companies can hire smart people anywhere in the world when they drop the requirement that they physically be in a central office. Not only that, they can pay them less. Moreover, killing the office can significantly lower costs for companies, which no longer have to pay for expensive real estate.

So, in this theory, the future of work and the economic geography of America really hinges on whether companies can create those “human capital spillovers” through computer screens or in offices in cheaper locations.

This is a phenomenon with a pretty broad reach as cities could be viewed as clusters of firms and organizations. What has been interesting to me in this field in recent years is how places like this come to develop and what it means for the character of the place.

Take Silicon Valley as an example. This is the home of the tech industry and, as the article notes, the big firms have committed to physically being there with large headquarters (including Google, Apple, and Facebook). These headquarters and office parks are themselves interesting and often a post-World War Two phenomena as highways and suburbanization brought many companies out of downtowns to more sprawling campuses. At the same time, the impact of all of this on the communities nearby is also important. What happens when the interests of the big tech company and the community collide (see a recent example of a Facebook mixed-use proposal)? What did these communities used to be like and what are they?

This is bigger than just the idea of employees working from home. This potential shift away from clustering would affect places themselves and how they are experienced. If thousands of workers are no longer in Silicon Valley, what does this do to those communities and the communities in which more workers are now at home? Silicon Valley became something unique with this tech activity but it could be a very different kind of place in several decades if there is new activity and new residents.

The same could be said for many other communities. What is New York City if Wall Street and the finance industry clusters elsewhere or disperses across the globe? What happens to Los Angeles if Hollywood disperses? And so on. The character of places depends in part on these clusters, their size, and their history. If the agglomerations shift, so will the character of communities.

Neighborhood change via highway construction and the resulting change in local character

Neighborhood or community change happens over time. Yet, as this look back at a Black Dallas neighborhood that was drastically altered by the construction of a highway in the late 1960s suggests, it was not just that the physical aspects of the neighborhood that changes: the intangible yet experienced character of a community matters.

Photo by Mizzu Cho on Pexels.com

That is why these three forgotten old News stories about Deep Ellum are so important. Almost unintentionally, they document what was really lost when I-345 was built. Sure, the neighborhood lost shops, hotels, and historic buildings. But the most significant loss was something more intangible. Call it memory, or character, or spirit. Call it a continuity of shared experience, or sense of identity shaped by the ebbs and flows of prosperity and decline.

Whatever you call it, that intangible quality is the real ingredient that makes cities and neighborhoods great. You can’t plan it or build it. You can’t fund it through philanthropy or market it in a tourism brochure. It isn’t “walkability” or “urbanism.” It takes generations to take shape. If you’re lucky, you capture it by carefully preserving all the beautifully ugly conditions that feed it life.

But if you lose it, it’s gone forever.

This helps explain the anger and protests in the last sixty years or so about highways bulldozing their way through urban neighborhoods. The particular form of highways – wide, noisy, made to help people speed through the community rather than visit or stop – and consequences – often bisecting lively places, erecting a barrier, destroying important structures, and furthering connections for wealthier and suburban residents at the expense of others – could be very detrimental.

More broadly, this hints at the delicate nature of neighborhood or community character. Change will happen but it matters how quickly the change happens, what form it takes, and who drives the process. Highways do not do well in these three metrics: they tend to go from bulldozing to construction to use within a few years, it is difficult to rebuild street life around it, and it is pushed on a community by others. Could highways support neighborhood character in any form? Perhaps not. But, it is a question asked not just of highways: the issue of character comes up with structures and development of a different form including denser housing among single-family homes, a major height differential such as a 20 story tall building in a community with a current max of five story buildings, or a new kind of land use. It could be easy to write off the concerns of local residents and leaders as NIMBY concerns but they may have a point in that new construction could change the character.

And, as noted above, the character of a place is vitally important. The people who live and work there have a particular understanding of what it is. When it is threatened by something as characterless as a highway, this can be particularly painful.

The random name generator for Chicago suburbs

After thinking about Chicago suburbs with elevation clues in their names, I was reminded of the names of Chicago suburbs more broadly. To quote again from the WBEZ story:

One-hundred years ago we named places very differently, Callary says. Places were named after a town founder, or family member, or after something that indicated the place’s actual, physical presence in the world. Today, it’s more common to name a place after what you want it to be, rather than what’s actually there.

So how exactly did developers and local leaders come up with all of the existing Chicago area names? It could have looked like this:

I had to check on Willowridge because it puts together two commonly used words in suburban place names. I found some companies with this name as well as one suburban street but no official place.

Here are the next ten names generated:

Romeowoods

Franklinsville

Elmburn

Hillhurst

Musmukda

Glenside

Rolling Bluff

Hillwoods

Highfield

Crystalfield

Out of these, I would vote for Glenside as the most probable.

On one hand, this all makes sense: suburbs often want to invoke nature and idyllic settings. On the other hand, such anodyne names invoke the conformity and dullness of suburbs many suburban critiques have noted.

New-York or New York?

Mix arguments over immigration and hyphens and you have a historical debate over whether the name of New York City should be hyphenated:

Photo by Matias Di Meglio on Pexels.com

What Curran either didn’t know, or wanted to erase, was the fact that up until the late 1890s, cities like “New-York” and “New-Jersey” were usually hyphenated to be consistent with other phrases that had both a noun and an adjective. In 1804, when the “New-York Historical Society” was founded, therefore, hyphenation was de rigueur. The practice of hyphenating New York was adhered to in books and newspapers, and adopted by other states. Even the New York Times featured a masthead written as The NewYork Times until the late 1890s.

It was only when the pejorative phrasing of “hyphenated Americans” came into vogue in the 1890s, emboldened by Roosevelt’s anti-hyphen speech, that the pressure for the hyphen’s erasure came to pass.

Writing in 1924, several years after Roosevelt’s speech, Curran accused New York society of being overly judgmental, noting that “it is Ellis Island that catches the devil whenever a decision comes along that does not suit somebody. Of course, we are now in the midst of the open season for attacks on Ellis Island. We have usurped the place of the sea serpent and hay fever. We are ready to be roasted.” For the next twelve years he served as commissioner of immigration, Curran became more staunchly anti-immigrant, and his hatred was fueled by the anti–hyphenated Americanism espoused by people like Roosevelt and, later, Woodrow Wilson.

Curran was outraged that his beloved city would appear hyphenated, and he continually insisted that Morris call a meeting to pass a law that barred the use of a hyphen in New York. Meanwhile, curators, historians, and librarians banded together with antidiscrimination and immigrants’ rights defenders to defend a hyphenated New-York. Curran could not win this time, they insisted. The curators and librarians at the Historical Society bravely stood by the hyphen in their name, confirming that they had been founded in 1804, that the hyphen was in the original configuration of New-York, and that, no, this hyphen would not be erased. Hyphenated Americans and activists throughout New York City worried that this erasure would signal that they would not be welcome in the one city that was supposed to be a bastion of openness in America…

In the end, much to his chagrin, Curran lost this contest. No law was ever passed outlawing the hyphen, and it remains to this day, etched in stone on the building of the New-York Historical Society, a homage to the journey of the city and the hyphenated individuals who fought the good fight to keep the hyphen—and its many meanings—alive.

While it might be easy to dismiss this as a language debate from long ago, this excerpt highlights how language is not just about grammar or particular words: all of it is tied to how people see and understand the world. It sounds like the hyphen in place names followed conventions for the day of separating adjectives and nouns that went together. As hyphens later helped demarcate identity, they generated controversy.

Would New York be a different place today if it were New-York? Perhaps it might work like this. The hyphen implies a more hybrid identity than the solid “New York” together. Would this point people back to the original roots of the city, not as an American place but a British territory and before that a Dutch city? All of this could help put together contradictory ideas including American individualism and capitalism, colonialism, slavery, and pluralism. Add to that the immigrant history of New York from a variety of countries at numerous time points and perhaps the hyphenated version would help highlight the bricolage that is the city of five boroughs, numerous neighborhoods, and uncountable different experiences. “New-York” is still being shaped, “New York” already exists.

Los Angeles as a city state?

The idea of the global city and metropolis of today as a city state is not a new one. However, I was interested to see this discussion of how Los Angeles might really fit the bill:

Photo by Roberto Nickson on Pexels.com

Los Angeles fits the city-state frame well, certainly better than it does a lot of other possibilities—if we update the model a bit. In 2010, Forbes suggested that if the criteria for a place to be considered a city-state were modernized for the 21st century, certain global capitals might qualify thanks to a few key features: a big port to sustain trade; investors from overseas; money laundering; international museums worth visiting; multiple languages spoken in good restaurants serving alcohol; and an ambition to host the World Cup…

The city-state label rings true to me for hazier reasons as well. Los Angeles lacks the bedrock Americana that anchor towns like Chicago, New York, and Boston. In terms of identity, it doesn’t attach to the state of California the way that Houston and Dallas serve Texas. As for international ties, Miami has Latin America, Seattle has Canada and Asia, but Los Angeles, perhaps the city of globalism, has everybody. We’re Angelenos first, Californians second, Americans third or not at all.

“I absolutely think of Los Angeles as a city-state,” Mayor Eric Garcetti told me a few months ago. “The root of politics is the same as the root word in Greek for “city”: polis. People engage in politics because they came to a city and vice versa.” I wanted to point out that lots of citizens don’t engage with Greater L.A. in the way he described. If anything, civic life here often feels optional. Residents stay in the bounds of their neighborhood. Voters supported a $1.2 billion bond in 2016 to build supportive housing, but progress on the homeless problem is abysmal, stymied in part by NIMBYism. To borrow Garcetti’s measure, had life in the Greek city-states been as complacent, as mean, as L.A. often feels? “The man who took no interest in the affairs of state was not a man who minded his own business,” the ancient historian Thucydides wrote, “but a man who had no business being in Athens at all.”

My unspoken question for Garcetti was a nod to the fact that the city-state label can stretch only so far, at least until Los Angeles secedes from the United States. Angelenos may not always feel particularly American, but L.A. continues to receive policies and funding from Sacramento, which receives the nod—or not—from Washington. Our tap water flows from the Colorado River. A fifth of our power is from a coal plant in Utah. Los Angeles simply isn’t self-reliant. We have plenty of investment from abroad, but no local currency. The world’s largest jail system, but no independent military. Garcetti recently proposed a guaranteed-basic-income program that would be the country’s largest experiment of its kind—but that’s only even theoretically possible thanks to funding from President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan.

The main argument here seems to be that Los Angeles has the infrastructure, amenities, and identity needed to be a city state. On the other hand, the political fragmentation and reliance on other parts of the American federal system may be obstacles. However, I am not sure

  1. Political fragmentation comes through the sprawling and decentralized landscape. Who is in change? Whose opinions should hold sway? Going further, what is the relationship between the sprawling city and the sprawling suburbs? This would seem to be in tension with the identity as Angelenos. On which issues does the identity bring political unity and where do the fault lines emerge when fragmentation bests identity?
  2. A city state could make relationships with other entities. But, this might be a little different than having steady relationships within a system versus having to negotiate new relationships if Los Angeles became a city state. Take an example relevant to sprawling LA: could a city state of Los Angeles afford to fund all of the highways that right way get monies from the federal government? Or, would this then courage a LA city state to pursue more mass transit? Right now, the highways might be an amenity but
  3. If the mayor of Los Angeles operates now as if his city is a city state, what exactly does this mean? Is there an American city that is already more city state like and provides a model of how this might look in the future?

Where are the heights, mounts, hills, and ridges referenced in the names of Chicago suburbs?

WBEZs’s Curious City looks into the elevation implied by the name of multiple Chicago suburbs:

Mount Hoy offers views of Chicago thirty miles to the east.

For real: Highland Park, Park Ridge, Arlington Heights, Mount Prospect, Prospect Heights, Palos Heights, Chicago Heights, Ford Heights, Barrington Hills, Palos Hills, Rolling Meadows.

And before you say: “But wait! There is some elevation out in the ‘burbs!” Let’s make something clear: You’re not wrong. Chicago’s Loop is at about 570 feet above sea level, and the high point of Cook County is near Barrington Hills at 950 feet. That height difference is just under 400 feet, and that’s spread over 40 miles. If we were talking about any other state in the country (besides Florida) you’d barely notice the difference. In other words, in Illinois, the default standards are low for what’s considered high…

Chicago suburbs end up with names that imply elevation in these two ways: crowd-sourced rebranding and straight-up marketing…

One-hundred years ago we named places very differently, Callary says. Places were named after a town founder, or family member, or after something that indicated the place’s actual, physical presence in the world. Today, it’s more common to name a place after what you want it to be, rather than what’s actually there.

Real estate development is a powerful driver. How could developers and communities differentiate themselves from the hundreds of other suburbs in the Chicago region? Pick an idyllic name and hopefully the moniker plus the new development brings in people and businesses. The image of a mountain or hill would be an attractive one; they are both pleasant to look at and offer vistas from the top.

While none of the communities near me are named after a higher elevation, this story did remind me of the highest height around (see the picture above): a small hill made out of a landfill. Because the area is so flat, on a clear day you can see the tallest buildings in downtown Chicago thirty miles to the east. All this from an artificial 150 foot hill:

Starting in 1965 trash collection agencies and community members were invited to drop off junk and other discarded garbage items. At the end of each day county workers spread the clay, which they had excavated, onto the growing pile of garbage named Mount Hoy after the pioneering family.

Mount Hoy quickly earned its nickname of Mount Trashmore. As the Chicago Tribune article in 1973 announcing the competition of the project read, the hope was to create a popular ski destination by literally “turning garbage to ski slopes.” Although the idea seems a bit farfetched, the City of Evanston was undertaking a similar project and many were trying to convince the City of Chicago to do the same thing.

Overall three millions cubic yards of garbage and clay went into Mount Hoy, becoming a 150 foot hill. By 1974 Mount Trashmore was supposed to host four ski slopes, a snow machine and a chair lift along with two toboggan slides, however a less elaborate setup welcomed skiers and tubers to the area.     

Ignore the venting for the gasses in the landfill and it is almost like a real hill…if we know what those are in northeastern Illinois.

A fossilized Shanghai Tower

I have read numerous versions of how modern civilization might appear in the future archaeological record. However, I liked this particular exploration of what Shanghai Tower, a 2,000 foot structure, might become over millions of years.

Photo by Manuel Joseph on Pexels.com

Almost immediately, water making its way down to the lowest levels it will react with the calcareous material in concrete, to form cathelmites – stalactite- and stalagmite-like growths that form in human-made environments. These will continue to grow for thousands of years, transforming the shopping mall into something akin to a horror movie set. If humanity is still around, most things of value will have been stripped out before the Tower is completely abandoned, but perhaps not everything. Aluminium in the ventilation system, stainless steel in the food court – maybe even a few cars in the garage levels will be left to perform remarkable transformations…

The story continues even deeper underground. The entire Shanghai Tower sits on top of a concrete raft, one metre thick and covering nearly 9,000 sq m (97,000 sq ft). Beneath this are 955 concrete-and-steel piles, each a metre in diameter, driven up to 86m (282ft) deep into soft ground. After several million years, as the weight of the sea water and sediment warps the subterranean layers beyond recognition, some of the foundation piles will fracture, twisting within compacting mudrock formations like the fossil roots of an immense, long-vanished tree.

As millions of years stretch into tens of millions, the transformations come more slowly. Rare earth minerals, leached from discarded mobile phones and other electronic devices, may begin to form secondary mineral crystals. Glass from windshields and shop windows will devitrify, darkening just as obsidian does after long burial. By now, the entire city is compressed to a layer perhaps only a few metres thick in the strata. All that is left of Shanghai Tower is a geological anomaly studded with the fossil outlines of chopsticks, chairs, sim cards, and hair clips.

All of this will be deeply buried, in some cases thousands of metres down. But geology never stands still. After around one hundred million years, as new mountain ranges begin to form, the layer of compacted rubble that was once Shanghai Tower may be pushed upwards, and revealed. 

A tower is not just a modern landfill or a single-family home; it is a monument to modern society in a similar way to the massive temples of past civilizations.

The idea that the tower would emerge again as part of a new mountain range is an interesting one. The assumption in a lot of these modern fossil/future archeology writings is that modern civilization will mostly disappear from the Earth’s surface. Many science fiction writings have the same idea: all that modern humans prize in the Industrial Revolution and urbanization will fade away just as everything else has in the past. Certainly, modern structures and infrastructure will only last for so long. What exactly is the predicted lifespan of a major skyscraper, let alone a single-family home or a big box store? Or, all of it will go away due to disaster, war, or the accumulation of garbage and self-induced environmental catastrophe.

Given how we dig and reconstruct the past, I still find it interesting to ponder that someone might come along and dig down and discover a major city that looks abandoned. What was life like there? Why did the city disappear? This was a global city?

Developers not willing to build a particular Chicago project because of affordable housing requirements?

Chicago, like many American cities, asks developers of particular projects to include a portion of the space for affordable housing. But, developers argue this may make an entire project not worth their while. Here is a recent example from proposed developments on Chicago’s North Side:

Photo by Chait Goli on Pexels.com

But those fees and the sites’ location within a pilot area where there are higher affordable-housing requirements – 20%, all on-site – have made some projects difficult to finance. The 700 W. Chicago project also has been made more difficult by the COVID-19 pandemic, which leaves a record level of vacant office space in downtown Chicago…

Omni Group appears to have been able to overcome financing challenges in part because it negotiated a lower purchase price for the site – $38 million, down from an initial $50 million deal with Greyhound – in response to the affordable-unit requirements

The firm is also known for keeping apartment buildings it develops, rather than selling them after they’re built and filled with renters. The decades-long investment strategy may help offset the 500-plus affordable units, which typically lose money for developers because of high construction costs.

The affordable housing requirements are not the only factor at work here but they are a regular part of proposals in many locations. The goal is to have some of the benefits of a new development in a desirable urban location – a valuable asset – address the important issue of affordable housing. If developers have no or little interest in constructing affordable housing on its own, the construction of desirable projects can still help lead to affordable housing.

What would be very interesting to know is how exactly the money, including financing, costs, and profits, works out with the requirements for affordable housing. Can the developers here not make any money or does it reduce their profits below acceptable levels? It is one thing if money will be lost but another if the affordable housing requirements limit the profit. How much return do they expect on a large project like this? Is the goodwill of participating in providing affordable housing worth anything (status, money down the road, favorable approaches to future projects, etc.)? While this is likely firm-specific proprietary information, I imagine some money still could be made.

Pushing to ban grass in Las Vegas

Americans like grass lawns. Las Vegas is not an environment where it is easy to grow grass. What has to give? The city of Las Vegas wants to ban ornamental grass:

Photo by Kromatos on Pexels.com

Las Vegas-area water officials have spent two decades trying to get people to replace thirsty greenery with desert plants, and now they’re asking the Nevada Legislature to outlaw roughly 40% of the turf that’s left…

They say this ornamental grass requires four times as much water as drought-tolerant landscaping like cactus and other succulents. By ripping it out, they estimate the region can reduce annual water consumption by roughly 15% and save about 14 gallons (53 liters) per person per day…

The proposal is part of a turf war waged since at least 2003, when the water authority banned developers from planting green front yards in new subdivisions. It also offers owners of older properties the region’s most generous rebate policies to tear out sod — up to $3 per square foot…

Last year was among the driest in the region’s history, when Las Vegas went a record 240 days without measurable rainfall. And the future flow of the Colorado River, which accounts for 90% of southern Nevada’s water, is in question.

There are multiple interesting components to this. Here are at least a few:

  1. I remember flying into Las Vegas a few years ago. The difference between the desert and the city and suburbs was remarkable. I do not remember too much grass outside of the very green golf courses that stood out. Even without much grass, the city in the desert is a different sight.
  2. As the article notes elsewhere, this sounds like efforts in California during their big drought. At the same time, the article also mentions how other locations like Phoenix and Salt Lake City are not interested in curbing the grass.
  3. More Americans than just people in Las Vegas might be rethinking the lawn. In addition to the need for watering, there is fertilizing, mowing, keeping out weeds and leaves, designing features, and more. Who has time and money for all of that?
  4. Las Vegas is a sprawling metro area and the single-family homes of American suburbs are often surrounded by green lawns. It is part of the package tied to kids playing and a green nature buffer around the private dwelling. Are the suburbs the same without these patches of grass?

Perhaps this becomes a model for communities, in the desert or not, across the United States.