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Los Angeles: A city of neighbourhoods or of cars?

April 16th, 2012 · 22 Comments

Those following on Twitter know that I’m in Los Angeles at the moment, a city that I love in spite of all of its problems.

This is my fourth trip here in recent years and I discover new things all the time. This time around: Echo Park, the neighbourhood where we’re staying. Yet another of the great neighbourhoods that LA has, filled with local small businesses, parks, strong community organizations and a sense of place, bike lanes and more.

And for my purposes, ideal. Two miles from downtown, so I can get to culture stuff there — and there is a lot. Four miles from the heart of East LA, so a quick dash for antojitos, poblano stew and more. Five miles to the heart of Los Feliz and Thaitown near East Hollywood, giving me access to Skylight Books, Cafe Figaro and Jitlada.

The mayor said at the American Planning Association conference here that Los Angeles has a weak centre but many strong neighbourhoods, which I’d note makes it more like a European city that many others in North America. While we tend to think of sprawl as defining LA, that’s true more of the outlying suburbs than the city proper, which is filled with low-rise apartment buildings and small bungalows on tiny lots in many parts.

As various LA lovers have noted, too, the density here is actually higher than places like Portland, so beloved of planners, and it has fewer freeway miles per resident than many other North American cities.

What I like about it is the sense of a city of small working-class neighbourhoods that are dominant here, behind all the glitz of Beverly Hills. Every one has interesting history and buildings, often along with ethnic enclaves and mixes that make Vancouver look positively whitebread.

That was all on display Sunday, as me and a couple hundred thousand of my new friends rode our bikes through 10 miles of streets shut down for a huge ciclovia ride.

Everyone was there: an elderly Japanese woman riding her bike holding an umbrella with one hand, whole Mexican families with kids on tandem bikes, young Mexican and black teens with boom boxes playing pop-y Latino or other music in their packs as they zipped through the crowd, the professional guys with their $5,000 bikes and cycling-jester outfits, and more.

Funny how LA can organize something like this, when Vancouver — the alleged king of bikes and green — hasn’t yet.

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  • gasp

    Well, Vancouver certainly isn’t a City of neighbourhoods any more. Neighbourhood groups have no say over the type of neighbourhoods they live in since these are all defined by the types of BUILDINGS allowed by City Hall, rather than by the people who actually live there. That’s why the Arbutus Ridge area is now an area of big houses rather than a neighbourhood for Vancouver people, see:

  • gmgw

    If you haven’t been before, and since you’re in the neighbourhood, sort of, on no account should you fail to visit the Soap Plant/Wacko/La Luz de Jesus complex at 4633 Sunset. You won’t learn a damn thing about New Urbanism there (although they usually have some great architecture and design books in stock), but it’s simply one of the most delightful retail experiences on the planet, the kind of pop-cultural shrine that stupefyingly dull Vancouver hasn’t a clue even exists. God, I miss the place– been shopping there since 1984. Their Web site has never done it justice:

    Incidentally, distances in LA are never, ever measured in miles but in driving times: i.e. “Oh, downtown is 20 minutes from here…”, or “there’s a great new Thai restaurant in west LA; it’s only about 15 minutes away…”. This legitimization of the automobile as mode of transport would no doubt horrify the Green Taliban among the Visionistas, but without the car, LA would probably cease to exist (and to all of you inclined to respond that that would be a Good Thing, kindly stand down this once).

  • Funny how LA can organize something like this, when Vancouver — the alleged king of bikes and green — hasn’t yet.

    Vancouver has equivalents but in bits and pieces, i.e. car free days. There are group rides aplenty in Vancouver whether destination rides, cruiser rides, exclusively vintage, etc. that organize throughout the year. It’s easy enough to learn about the rides by visiting a bike shop.

    They don’t shut down roads and create structure the same way Ciclavia does but perhaps someone might want to propose that form of civil organization to the people behind ‘critical mass’, which in effect creates the de facto equivalent once a month.

    In socially isolating, automobile stressed LA, I can see how Ciclavia can draw out 100K people to mix it up for a change of pace. Like the time I as a long-time resident took the subway to Hollywood Blvd and actually walked it for the first time – feeling like a tourist. But in Vancouver is that much of a feat? What bike owner hasn’t already explored most of the city?

    By the way, since we’re comparing, any sense of what housing affordability is like down there, along some of their seaside cities/communities like Santa Monica, Venice, etc. in neighbourhoods that are in walking distance of the ocean?

  • gmgw

    @Think OutsideaBox:

    You might want to take a look at this for Santa Monica, tho it’s hardly exhaustive:

    A Venice example:

    Santa Monica has an extraordinary mix of income levels. For most of century the streets above Montana Avenue on the north side of the city, bounded on the north by Pacific Palisades, have been the home of the wealthiest Santa Monicans; if there’s any “affordable”housing to be found, it’s in the flatter inland areas on the south side of the business district bordering on Venice. In Venice itself, the area near the famous boardwalk is awash in examples of extraordinary, cutting-edge residential architecture, inhabited by wealthy bohemian types like Matt Groening and the late Dennis Hopper, whose house was a long-time landmark (of course, Santa Monica is home to Frank Gehry and his asphalt-floored kitchen…). There is a range of incomes and of housing in Venice as well, but it’s definitely not the place to commence one’s search for a cheap LA apartment.

    As in Vancouver, in LA living near the beach is considered extremely desirable, not only because of the oceanside aesthetics. Santa Monica in particular, thanks to prevailing onshore winds, tends to have the best air quality in the LA basin. The price of real estate and of housing in beachfront communities– and there are many of them in the LA area– tends to range from merely high to stratospheric. The farther inland you go, the more prices start to drop off. The Long Beach/San Pedro area, which has a large industrial base, is probably the most normalized in terms of affordability, but has little or no snob appeal compared to legendarily expensive communities like Malibu, or Laguna and Newport Beaches in Orange County.

    Myself, I’d settle for a nice place with a view on a few hilltop acres in Palos Verdes. Shouldn’t cost that much more than a hunk of West Van waterfront…

  • Agustin

    Sounds interesting, Frances. Any photos? 🙂

  • “but without the car, LA would probably cease to exist”

    There were over a 100,000 people living there by 1900. Why would a lack of cars have eliminated them?

  • Dan Cooper

    My child’s mother, my former spouse, was from Alhambra just next to LA on the east side, and so I visited there often back in the day (1990s). Every time I visited I got sick, and she was pretty much constantly sick until she moved away. (She had also never in her life seen falling snow, and had no idea what a “scraper” was before she saw one, but you could argue that as either good or bad I guess.) One day – grand total out of all my visits to the area – suddenly there were these huge mountains looming over us just a few miles away. “My word!” I exclaimed, “Where did those come from?” “They’re always there,” she explained, “You just can’t see them most of the time because of the smog…”

    Just sayin’.

  • Dan Cooper

    Oh! another good one. So we got married and moved to a smallish city with a hugish university somewhere in the US Midwest. Our first New Years together, she’s sitting there on the couch and looking like she’s listening for something, with an odd look on her face. I ask her what’s up, and she says, “Where’s the gunfire?” I had to explain to her that most places, you don’t have people randomly shooting into the air (or at whatever/whomever else), even on New Years eve. *heh*

  • gmgw

    @Chris Keam #6:

    Um, well, things have changed a bit in the past 112 years.

  • MB

    My first trip to LA was in 1971. Back then the megopolis was only a blur at 70 mph on the freeways (everybody did at least 80; the accidents we heard about were horrific), and it took an hour to pass through to the orange groves to the south.

    We were invited to crash in a Redondo Beach apartment with a bunch of Bostonians we met at a theatre showing Jimi Hendrix’s Rainbow Bridge, a concert doc that I don’t recall made it to Canada. The theatre was a beautiful Art Deco building located on, I believe, Wiltshire Blvd. I have no idea if it’s still there.

    While poking fun at each other’s uproarious accents the next morning, one fairly deranged Vietnam vet pointed to a building two miles away and said, That tower will disappear by noon. No way, we said. It did, even though the beach and offshore breezes were fairly close.

    That experience stood out going back to LA years later after a Green Taliban prez got elected and lowered the speed limit to a more reasonable 55 mph, and another Green Taliban gov’nor enacted emissions standards on cars.

    For the first time in 30 years the air over LA cleared remarkably with measureable effects on resident’s health.

    Sorry to dissapoint you, gmgw, but the Green Taliban have now infiltrated Disneyland government at all levels and they’re now building a vast metro system, with the latest line proposed to LAX, and despite cutbacks, California may still be the first jurisdiction in North America to build high-speed intercity passenger rail.

    What is the world coming to?

  • Thanks gmgw for that info.

    Dan Cooper: One day – grand total out of all my visits to the area – suddenly there were these huge mountains looming over us just a few miles away. “My word!” I exclaimed, “Where did those come from?” “They’re always there,” she explained, “You just can’t see them most of the time because of the smog…”

    Just sayin’.

    Despite improvements, the air quality there for me is still not that great. I find I have to take a decongestant within hours of landing and a jog on the street, or a hike on Runyon Canyon seems to take more out of me as if I’m in higher altitudes with thin air.

  • gmgw

    Re air quality in the LA area: Riverside and San Bernardino, forty miles inland in the northeast corner of the LA basin, routinely have the worst measured air quality in the region. This is due to the same reason that that great brown cloud hangs over the Fraser Valley on hot summer days: Not only temperature inversions and prevailing west winds, but the fact that two large mountain ranges converge immediately to the east of the two cities, trapping the brown stuff. Not literally “trapped”, of course; Palm Springs, over the Cabazon pass from Riverside, has been having smog alerts of its own since at least the mid-80s; not only because of the absurd overdevelopment that’s taken place in the Coachella Valley in the last couple of decades, but also because that murky LA air filters through, often all the way to the sparsely populated high desert east of Palm Springs.

    The personal air quality-measurement device I use when visiting LA is my hair. I wash it every morning, and when I’m in Los Angeles– notably in inland Orange County (yes, OK, Disneyland) –it sometimes feels so grungy by noon that I feel compelled to wash it again. In Vancouver, thankfully, that’s seldom necessary.

  • Frances Bula

    Well, I’m not versed in the air-quality levels over time, but I did notice today when I was on a walk in Griffiths Park that there was a noticeable layer of brown air over most of the city, in spite of the fact that there was a breeze. Not a good sight.

    I also got to have a real LA traffic experience by heading east at afternoon rush hour to Pomona (Bon Iver, Fox Theater). A whole different perspective on LA.

  • gmgw

    @MB, #10:
    I’m in favour of greenness as much as anyone (well, maybe not as much as some). I think anyone who’s familiar with LA and is halfway intelligent will acknowledge that the Los Angeles urban model is non-sustainable in the long term, as is the automobile as a mode of transportation, and I applaud any changes in infrastructure, planning or technology that address that reality in real, practical, and egalitarian terms (please, no more SegWays). When I was last in LA, in ’07 and ’08, it was my first visit in some years and I was startled and encouraged to note the number of mass-transit stations that had popped up around the region. I hope that the system will continue to expand, although the considerable distances and complexities involved in getting, say, from Anaheim to Sherman Oaks and thence to Santa Monica and back again in a single day (the kind of driving day that not only tourists have) necessitate that the LA Metro system will likely service workday commuters, primarily, for the foreseeable future.

    My use of provocative nomenclature stems from my severe allergy to sanctimony, something that is on frequent display among the Visionistas as they take an increasingly punitive attitude toward drivers (who seem to be regarded as some kind of collective Antichrist)– in a city that offers wholly inadequate mass-transportation alternatives. I don’t want to get into a dialogue about this, as I have not merely been flamed but nearly charbroiled after expressing similar sentiments in this forum in the past. Even so, the post-automobile Utopia is still a ways off, I think. I can remember, back in the mid-70s, an environmentally aware friend who’d just bought a (secondhand) car telling me “…most of us who are buying cars now recognize that this will probably be the last car we buy”. I guess she was a little ahead of her time… and she still would be, it appears.

  • Frances, if you like deli and want to try the real deal check at Greenblatt’s on Sunset. I met Rodney Dangerfield there (God rest his soul). You never know who you’ll run into there for a late night bite, or just coming out of a gig at the Laugh Factory next door.

    Or Canter’s on Fairfax. Open 24 hours – they even have a food truck!

  • MB


    LA used to be a streetcar / interurban collection of towns, as was Vancouver, until the well-known conspiracy (uh oh, that’s a hot button word here … nonetheless) by Mobile Oil, Goodyear Tire, GM and others to buy up and then kill electric tram companies. They were fined a grand total of $5,000 I believe, but the cost of re-engineering North American cities over the next eight decades, largely through public coin I have to say, was mind-blowing.

    It will be equally mind blowing to re-re-engineer them back now that the cheap oil these urban and global economies were built on is now in decline (since 2006 — we’re riding a plateau at present).

    Look at it this way, though, efforts to ease the pain with public transit and transit=otriented development for those who can no longer afford long commutes in 2025 will at least be a giant job-creation project.

    Going ‘green’ can pay.

    But I do admit to an affinity for Hotel California shirts and 50’s optimism.

  • Guest

    Maybe LA can shut down the streets because the impact isn’t all that great – because they have redundancy / alternative routes with their freeways.

    That said, Vancouver just shut down its streets for the annual Vancouver Sun Run last Sunday – without much impact.

  • MB

    gmgw #14:

    …they take an increasingly punitive attitude toward drivers (who seem to be regarded as some kind of collective Antichrist)– in a city that offers wholly inadequate mass-transportation alternatives.

    I’m not one given to charbroil debating opponents, but permit me just one flick of a Bic under your left front tire.

    The city (i.e Vancouver) does not build transit, but it does participate in some projects by donating land or topping up station features, or managing a private sector bus shelter replacement project. Transit is in the purview of regional and senior governments.

    It does, as we all well know, build bike lanes.

  • gmgw

    @ThinkOutside aBox #15:
    To that short but impressive deli list I would add our old fave, Nate ‘n Al, which has graced Beverly Hills since 1945 ( Though I have to say that eating there has not been the same since they stopped bringing in the staggeringly good chocolate cheesecake from New York. Of course, now that I’ve become diabetic, the point’s all but moot, but still…

    Art’s in Studio City used to be good as well (their motto was “Every sandwich is a work of Art”!), but I haven’t been there in 20 years.

  • Bill Lee

    Fabula wrote : “Well, I’m not versed in the air-quality levels over time, but I did notice today when I was on a walk in Griffiths Park that there was a noticeable layer of brown air over most of the city, in spite of the fact that there was a breeze. Not a good sight.”

    The University of Maine a few days ago announced a small ‘app’ for online display of US cities air quality
    Seattle is 7, L.A. is 3 Higher is better.

    Linkname: How healthy is the air in your town? New web tool reveals all

    The App is at
    If you do several cities (nothing in Canada for the moment) you accumulte them on the screen by last-visited for comparison.

    Meanwhile, Health Life News TV announced:

    “A company called Bike Nation recently announced their plan to roll out 4,000 bikes across the city of Los Angeles in the next 18 to 24 months — at no cost to the taxpayer.
    “You’re able to reduce your carbon footprint, you’re able to get people on bikes on out of cars, which is a great health benefit, too,” Navin Narang, the CEO and Founder of Bike Nation, tells HLN.”
    … “You’re then charged a trip fee: 60 minutes, for example, will cost you $1.50. Riders will be responsible for bringing their own helmets.
    The system encourages short rides by making the first half-hour free (it wouldn’t be called bike sharing if everyone hogged the bikes!). Narang also says they’re trying to place kiosks within a 30-minute ride of each other so you could easily go from kiosk to kiosk without paying a trip fee.
    The bikes are designed to make things easy for riders by removing two of the most frustrating things about biking: flat tires and broken chains. Bike Nation’s bikes have composite rubber tires (they don’t need air) and run off of a shaft-driven system (no chains!).
    They also have a GPS system installed on board. Not only does this help with theft, but it also provides some really cool features to riders. Riders can download a mobile app or log on to a website to see how many miles they’ve ridden, how much they’ve reduced their carbon footprint and share the ride with friends on social networking sites.”

  • MB

    Bill Lee 20, I swear you’re more hard-wired to the news feeds than Sparti.

  • gmgw

    Interesting LA Times story about problems on LA’s oldest light-rail line:,0,591963.story