City Journal

Joel Kotkin
City of Villages
Vibrant ethnic neighborhoods, not tall buildings, define the real Los Angeles.
Winter 2014

Los Angeles is unique among the big, world-class American cities. Unlike New York, Boston, or Chicago, L.A. lacks a clearly defined core. It is instead a sprawling region made up of numerous poly-ethnic neighborhoods, few exhibiting the style and grace of a Paris arrondissement, Greenwich Village, or southwest London. In the 1920s, the region’s huge dispersion was contemptuously described—in a quotation alternately attributed to Dorothy Parker, Aldous Huxley, or H. L. Mencken—as “72 suburbs in search of a city.” Los Angeles’s lack of urbane charm led William Faulkner to dub it “the plastic asshole of the world.” But to those of us who inhabit this expansive and varied place, the lack of conventional urbanity is exactly what makes Los Angeles so interesting. My adopted hometown is the exemplar of the modern multipolar metropolis: less a conscious city than a series of alternatives created by its climate, its diversity, and a congested but still-functional system of freeways that historian Kevin Starr calls “absolute masterpieces of engineering.”

Photographs by Ted Soqui

Transplants from the East Coast make great sport of belittling Los Angeles as an adolescent New York or a second-rate Chicago. Developers and city boosters, eager to counter that image, placed their hopes on big projects such as the region’s ultraexpensive rail system. Yet billions of investment dollars have done almost nothing to increase the L.A. Metro’s ridership, which remains stuck at 6 percent of city population. By contrast, a majority of New Yorkers and about a quarter of Chicagoans use their cities’ public transportation. Critics also (rightly) depict the downtown residential revival as a misguided attempt to create a mini-Manhattan. That’s not in the cards: downtown L.A.’s 50,000 or so residents—about on par with San Fernando Valley neighborhoods such as Sherman Oaks and suburban areas such as San Bernardino County’s Eastvale—are a drop in the bucket for a region of some 18 million people. And despite billions in direct and indirect public subsidies, downtown boasts barely 3 percent of the region’s jobs. In the minds of most Angelenos, the only reason to go downtown is for jury duty or the occasional sporting or cultural event.

626 Night Market, at the Santa Anita track

The “real” L.A., as experienced by most residents, exists at the neighborhood level. Spread across the region, a multiplicity of neighborhoods offers an unusual variety of housing options in a great global city. Gardener Aurelio Rodriguez and his family choose to live in Sylmar, where he keeps a lush half-acre filled with fruit trees, tropical plants, and aging farm equipment, while remaining within the Los Angeles city limits. It’s the kind of place where pedestrians need to keep an eye out for more than just cars. Like Juan, some residents amble through the narrow streets on horseback.

Juan on horseback in Sylmar

Los Angeles’s myriad little villages are enjoying a new surge of interest. City politics are at a low ebb—with voter turnout in 2013 the tiniest ever for a contested citywide election—yet neighborhood groups proliferate, including some 90 neighborhood councils. People may not be passionate about what goes on at City Hall, but they care deeply about where they live.

I live in Valley Village, a tree-lined corner of Los Angeles made up of single-family houses built on lots that range from 5,000 to 20,000 square feet. Enclosed between four major thoroughfares, my part of Valley Village manages to be both diverse and highly cohesive—a city within a city. Crime tends to be limited to petty thefts from cars. Monthly neighborhood-watch meetings draw middle-class families as well as gay and childless couples. Armenians and orthodox Jews live side by side. The local markets have an ethnic flavor. At the Cambridge Farms supermarket on Burbank Boulevard, signs are posted in English and in Hebrew. Oxnard Boulevard has an Armenian feel, with a functioning lavash bakery and restaurants selling kabobs.

“We fell in love with the neighborhood once we got settled in,” says Grettel Cortes, who lives in a modest house several doors down with her husband, Efraim, and her three young children, Gaea, Eva, and Benjamin. “There’s a great family feeling here. If I need something, I ask Patty across the street. It’s a great place for kids to grow up.” Cortes manages the neighborhood’s heavily trafficked Shutterfly site. A recent article about a coyote devouring a local cat was big news for weeks.

The hot topic in Valley Village these days is the rise of the McMansions. New homes are going up on a scale that feels out of sync with the neighborhood’s low-rise character. One of the larger parcels has sprouted a gigantic, two-and-a-half-story monstrosity that neighbors have christened “the hotel.” During construction, the property’s owner chopped down several trees, some of which may have been protected by city ordinances. Only relentless protests from the locals kept him from further destruction.

“We love the neighborhood but hate the mansionization,” notes Tim Coffey, a 30-year resident whose wife, Chary, led the fight to save the trees. “To us, chopping down trees ruins what this place is all about.”

Despite the McMansions, Valley Village has remained mostly unchanged since I moved here over a decade ago. The area’s appeal lies in the quality of its private spaces—backyards, front yards, gardens—and its neighborliness: people actually say hello to strangers on the street. The many trees also provide an ecosystem for a vast array of birds, from hawks to hummingbirds, as well as various mammals, including raccoons, opossums, and, as we now know, the occasional coyote.

As neighbors, we share a fierce determination to protect and preserve our shaded enclave. Yet the people here are not your stereotypical suburbanites. Chary, for example, sells her own line of lingerie. Grettel is a website developer. Many others work in the entertainment industry. Studios such as Disney, CBS Radford (where Seinfeld was produced), NBC, Universal, and Warner Brothers are all a ten- to 15-minute drive away. Many of my neighbors work from home, including a voice-over artist, a scriptwriter, several actors and musicians, and even a magician. It turns out that Hollywood people want many of the same things from a neighborhood that the rest of us do.

Grettel Cortes’s neighbor Patty
Blind Melon guitarist Brad Smith

Native Mississippian Brad Smith, a successful songwriter and performer with the band Blind Melon, sees Valley Village as a refuge from the insanity of the entertainment business. Brad and his wife, Kim, a Michigan native, like the homey and familiar feel. They have lived here since 2000 and are raising a young daughter, Frankie. They have a dog and a trampoline out back. “In L.A., a lot of places seem like you can live there but never leave the car,” he says as he strums a tune in his backyard. “But here, it’s different. You come home from tour, and you come to a neighborhood with dogs, cats, and kids. It makes living in the big city far more palatable, even for someone from a small town.” This is one of L.A.’s enduring charms: the option to live in a quiet neighborhood in the heart of an important city.

Los Angeles is constantly reinventing itself, combining and recombining people and neighborhoods from the ground up. Out of its crazy quilt of ethnic enclaves, new districts arise all the time, often spontaneously, notes Thomas Tseng, a native of the suburban San Gabriel Valley and a student of urban planning. Take the neighborhood now known as “Little Osaka,” which follows along Sawtelle Boulevard in West Los Angeles. Forty years ago, when I lived there, the area was home mostly to working-class Japanese and Mexican families. The few modest restaurants were far from fashionable, mostly offering ethnic home-style cuisine. But over the past few years, Tseng says, many of the old families—as well as investors from Korea, Taiwan, and China—have opened new restaurants, bars, and clubs in the neighborhood. Far from the downtown hotspots and the Hollywood scene, Little Osaka’s streets bustle with young people, a majority of them Asian. Many live in the area or attend nearby UCLA. “There was nothing planned,” says Tseng, who has been getting his hair cut and belly filled in the area for years. “It just happened.”

Little Osaka
Little Osaka

Even more impressive is the 626 Night Market in the parking lot of the Santa Anita Track. Every month, some 160 food vendors descend on the place. You can get everything from preserved fertilized eggs to sea-urchin rice balls (my favorite), lamb skewers, stinky tofu, and grilled squid. Up to 40,000 people gather in this monthly celebration of L.A.’s entrepreneurial grassroots food scene. After all, Los Angeles invented the food truck—the perfect analogy for a city perpetually on the road and spanning hundreds of neighborhoods.

Los Angeles may lack the kind of dynamic urban core that we associate with traditional great cities. But to most of its residents, the city is an urban feast on a gourmet scale. We wouldn’t trade it for the world.

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