Wednesday, October 7, 2009

LA's endless streets: lavish, symphonic.

Streets in LA are so long! Meandering through so many places and non-places, night life mingling strips and industrial wastelands, taking random twists, they end up in unlikely conclusions. Like a good story, not the most resolved mode of travel, but tells a complex metanarrative through its necessary structure. These roads are like symphony-length music staves waiting to be translated to notes. Not literally, like the singing road in Palmdale, which plays the William Tell Overture when you drive on it. Just take a drive on Washington Boulevard, which brings you from suburban Whittier to vacuous concrete warehouse-land, the LA River, then strattles between Korean and black enclaves, becomes Culver City's art district and results in bourgie Venice.

This one road, all with one name, is neither the fastest nor most direct way to get to and from each end of itself. There's a certain lavishness in that inefficiency. The name is asking for some connection to be formed.

I frequently get lost in this kind of thinking, map-nerd moments, overanalyzing the geography of LA, admiring how long and aimless the streets are, which is how I came up with my road concert idea. My original idea involved reconstructing a street as scores made of found materials from the street to be interpreted by viewers-turned-musicians. But I figured it'd be more interesting to be out on the street itself getting people to go from A to B inhabiting all the in-between spaces for themselves.

In LA there are massive amounts of land that everyone skips, that are as desolate and hidden from the populace as a rural mountain road. What if those places became the destinations, to skip our usual IKEAs, 405s and Denny's, to generate a new kind of LA experience by bringing meaning and attention to a collection of these less obvious spots?

So last summer I curated the San Fernando Road Concert, an all-day arts event organized to re-imagine unused urban space along all twenty-three miles of San Fernando Road from Sylmar to Lincoln Heights with experimental music performances, art installations, readings, discussions and carpool happenings by twenty-one LA-based artists, writers, musicians. You can check it out at It's like an inverted parade art concert. On the day of the event, audience members drove the length of San Fernando on a loose schedule, arriving at each spot to experience an intimate interaction with and/or by each artist. This year, on October 11th, I'm organizing another, on Washington Boulevard.

Add to the list of Los Angeles's glitz the extravagance of 30-mile streets. Some of the longest city streets in the world are in LA, Sepulveda Boulevard being the very longest in the world at 43 miles. Many other claims have been made, some also in LA. The prostitution and drug-dealer-wrought Colfax Avenue in Denver is only 23 miles. Playboy magazine called Colfax "the longest, wickedest street in America," but they're wrong about longest. The Guinness Book of World Records listed Yonge Street in Ontario, Canada, as the longest street in the world at 1178 miles. Sounds more like a country road to me. Some say LA's Figueroa is longer than Sepulveda. Figueroa has the longest street-span continuously in the city of LA; Sepulveda dips into Culver City. But both are discontinuous. Figueroa puts you on the 110 north before it restarts off to the side just a mile north. The city of Hermosa Beach voted to change their section of Sepulveda whicch overlaps to the PCH to just the PCH. Even still, the largest bit of Sepulveda is longer than Figueroa, Colfax or any municipal chunk of Yonge Street.

It amazes me how one iconic name, Sunset Boulevard, Wilshire Boulevard, even Washington Boulevard, can cover so much and so many kinds of turf. One name can have so many different meanings.

Some of the long roads of Los Angeles are so winding, even in the topographically monotonous parts of the LA Basin. Many of the lengthy LA streets originally started out as numerous disconnected streets in different towns that grew together. In 1915, the city of Los Angeles got an aqueduct, and easily convinced and annexed ten incorporated cities including Hollywood, Watts, Sawtelle and Eagle Rock. And then there are roads like San Fernando, Ventura or Valley Boulevard which were originally US Highways (US-99, US-101 and US-60 respectively) but got downgraded when Eisenhower built the Interstates. If you can imagine, most of what is now this endless metropolis was once all small towns with trolleys and orange groves connecting them. Car culture was an integral part of how LA developed, and consequently, Los Angeles has a very high concentration of flamboyantly designed drive-thrus, diners, giant statues of donuts and mechanics from the 50s, 60s and 70s. No one walks in LA, or so the song says. It’s just not reasonable unless your calf muscles outgrew New York.

It's no puzzle why Businessweek Magazine named LA the best city for artists (followed by Santa Fe, blech!). There's so much God damned space. All the old warehouses easily convert to huge studios. But kinda ironically, LA has only recently made gains as a city for public art. Because public art here is drive-by art. So either artists make works that are conducive to being seen from a quick and moving eye, or they've got to tell the public where to go. In this city, just stepping out of the car in an unfamiliar neighborhood seems like serious travel.

My father recalls LA in 1948 as a city that took a day to surpass. "There were no freeways. I can remember Olympic Boulevard, Hoover Street, Vermont. Those were the main throughways of the time. The clutch went out in my car. In those days we didn't have automatic transmissions. I don't think they existed. Whenever I stopped, came up to a traffic light, I'd have to turn the engine off, because I couldn't put it to neutral. Somebody'd have to push me. In those days we had bumpers so everyone could push each other. I'd have to get out of my car and ask someone. Going through LA, you couldn't bypass it. It took hours and hours, most of a day to get past LA. The idea of driving forever and ever without hitting a traffic light was utopian, unthinkable. The merchants thought they had an absolute right to have the main roads go past their businesses. There were no bypasses."

Whenever I try to sell LA to a skeptical out-of-towner, I explain how living here is customizable, that we can get in our cars and skip all the places we don't want to see, unlike New York where it's inevitable that you will walk every block and encounter every kind of person, not that this is a bad thing. The customizability combined with the weather is why the city attracts enclaves of large diasporas (or so claimed this Armenian lady I met on the street) like Little Ethiopia, Little Phnom Penh, from mostly-Armenian Glendale, mostly-Chinese Alhambra, mostly-black South Central LA and 79.5% white Republican Santa Clarita where the KKK has its California headquarters. And yet there are also some of the most integrated and diverse neighborhoods, like Long Beach, the most diverse in America according to USA Today: 15% black, 45% white, 36% hispanic, 12% asian, if that's how you want to measure or define diverse.

Why not have an event that exists within the extravagant car-based culture that this city was built on, instead of just seeing our gas-guzzling transit mess as a wrong-needing-to-be-righted?

—Stephen van Dyck

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