KEN BERNSTEIN’S new book, Preserving Los Angeles: How Historic Places Can Transform America’s Cities, contends that protecting Los Angeles’s architectural and cultural history is vital, and he details with pride the city’s determined efforts at preservation. The city, however, was built imperfectly, in imperfect times, and thus continually stumbles as it tries to reinvent itself in fits and starts. So observes Josh Stephens in his new book, The Urban Mystique: Notes on California, Los Angeles, and Beyond, a collection of his insightful planning and development essays. History as rendered in landmarks interests him less than the human experience, which he feels defines a city.
Both books must meet the headwinds of enduring clichés about Los Angeles as a pretend city — an adulterated public relations conceit, pasted on an arbitrary political construct, or perhaps a movie set hastily erected overnight for a day’s filming, to be demolished afterward by stagehands or an earthquake. To the general public, the persisting image of Los Angeles is not one of a livable city but rather something darker and more nebulous, having been variously depicted in a wealth of films and fictions. Before I migrated west on a whim from my native New York City, my condescending vision of Los Angeles was a black-and-white wasteland, as seen in films such as Sunset Boulevard and The Big Sleep. Then there were the gray and gritty books by Raymond Chandler, John Fante, Chester Himes, Budd Schulberg, and Joan Didion, among others, and the poems of Charles Bukowski.
My jobs as the urban design critic for the Los Angeles Times and, later, as a local television commentator allowed me to get to know the real city, and a book contract subsidized my discoveries down the off-ramps, beyond the freeways, and into the muddling sprawl. There I found, clustered in scattered neighborhoods, an array of distinctive design delights — dated houses and idiosyncratic structures, evidence of a city with a rare sense of time and place. Here also was a plurality of cultures nurtured by the styles and tastes of seemingly endless waves of purposeful immigrants, drawn to the city’s abiding promise of new beginnings.
I was not alone in my appreciation, for as I embraced Los Angeles, a fledgling cadre of committed preservationists — not to mention an increasingly erudite public — was emerging to champion the city and its history. Then as now, historic preservation was a challenge, obscured as landmarks and cultural enclaves tend to be in a fractured and evolving political-physical cityscape constantly compromised by indifferent public governance and rapacious private interests.
For a relatively young city that, at its founding in 1781, was a desolate cow town with a population of 44 (and, a century later, just 11,000), Los Angeles has generated a wealth of landmarks. With the railroad, it became a boomtown, a resort and tourist destination, spurred on by imported water, the discovery of oil, motion-picture making, the aircraft industry, and continued migration. Taking root was a cityscape of distinctive architecture and neighborhoods, as well as the infamous suburban sprawl that still defines swaths of Southern California.
But the landmarks have persevered, as Bernstein’s book documents, distinguished by their diversity and random locations. Featured are the obvious historic projects and places that have been restored in the historic downtown and elsewhere across the city, dutifully described by Bernstein and well photographed by Stephen Schafer. A more revealing portrait of Los Angeles can be found in the book’s expanded appendix, entitled “Survey: LA Discoveries,” which displays everyday residential, commercial, and industrial buildings — many, to be sure, of historic interest. And lending the portrait additional color is a survey of the city’s many cultures, corroborated by its estimated 220 spoken languages.
Essential to identifying the landmarks was the impressive help of some 300 professionals and volunteers involved over a dozen years in an unprecedented digital survey of structures and locales of potential historic interest — no modest undertaking in a city of 470 square miles. That is about 10 times the size of San Francisco, 20 times Manhattan. Los Angeles is, in fact, just one of 88 cities in the 4,700-square-mile Los Angeles County, albeit with the largest population of nearly four million (in a county of 10 million). For administrative as well as political necessity, Bernstein’s survey was limited to the City of Los Angeles — thus not included are the prominent landmarks of the county’s many other cities, such as Pasadena, Beverly Hills, and Santa Monica. For those, I would recommend An Architectural Guidebook to Los Angeles by David Gebhard and Robert Winter (in the revised sixth edition published by Angel City Press).
For a broader perspective on Los Angeles, and for more critical insights into its shaping and misshaping, there is Stephens’s The Urban Mystique. The author writes in short, breezy bursts, jumping from rock to rock in the swirling political waters (most of the essays first appeared in the California Planning & Development Report, a professional newsletter he edits). Stephens’s peripatetic commentaries are very site-specific, personal, and welcome, even his embarrassing attempts to be humorous. He is at his best when taking exception to the foibles and contradictions of often sanctimonious neighborhood groups, smug insular institutions, and blathering politicians, his observations astute, his writing refreshingly candid.
By contrast, Preserving Los Angeles has an academic and bureaucratic tone no doubt influenced by the groups involved in its production. Most prominent on a long list of preservation-oriented public agencies, institutions, and private firms was the munificent J. Paul Getty Trust and its Conservation Institute, whose funding was critical to the extended effort. All were under the umbrella of the City Planning Department’s Office of Historic Resources — a municipal first, headed by Bernstein.
The involvement of this typically cautious cast of preservationists and planning researchers might explain the book’s omission of some of the more heated local battles waged in the past over the designation of problematic landmarks. Most involved a politically sensitive City Hall and a capricious consortium of real estate interests, including the building industry, construction unions, and conflicted community groups. However covertly, this erratic gaggle has at times colluded to frustrate worthy preservation efforts and, not incidentally, compromise a leadership sensitive to staffing and funding as the noble endeavor became institutionalized (and, some might say, too circumspect in its aims and actions).
Among the glaring omissions were the recent protests by an assemblage of redoubtable preservationists and the design community against the ravaging of the iconic Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and its dubious redesign. This estimated billion-dollar boondoggle was resolutely exposed in LARB by the architecture critic Joseph Giovannini, and subsequently cited in the Los Angeles Times by Christopher Knight, for which he was awarded a Pulitzer Prize. Meanwhile, the desecration of the museum continues.
Bespeaking its deference to the surreptitious politicizing of the preservation movement as it has gained prominence and influence, Preserving Los Angeles allocates numerous pages to gratuitous personal profiles, written by the subjects themselves. Still, the listings in the survey of individual buildings, historic districts, noteworthy projects, and praiseworthy programs are engaging and informative, offering valuable lessons for city planners seeking to repair and revive their historic neighborhoods and buildings. As Bernstein writes in his afterword: “Just as historic preservation tapped into deep-seated human needs for community, authenticity, and continuity to create a more vibrant city before the pandemic, so it can also become a source of a post-Covid urban renaissance.”
To that end and beyond, Preserving Los Angeles could serve as a guide and a goal, its politics notwithstanding. But the more candid view proffered in The Urban Mystique is also much needed, and thus one hopes that Stephens will continue writing. After all, for cities to survive, their architectural and cultural histories not only need to be preserved but also critically interrogated.
Sam Hall Kaplan is a distinguished print and broadcast journalist, author, and teacher, who has pursued parallel careers as an urban designer and planning strategist. He has been an Emmy Award–winning reporter/producer for Fox Television News in Los Angeles, the design critic for theLos Angeles Times, an urban affairs reporter for The New York Times, an editor of the New York Post, and a contributor to popular and professional publications and broadcast outlets.