NOVEMBER 3, 2015
IN “STREET HAUNTING,” the most charming account of running an unnecessary errand in the English language, Virginia Woolf writes of her ecstatic nighttime stroll in search of a lead pencil:
As we step out of the house on a fine evening between four and six, we shed the self our friends know us by and become part of that vast republican army of anonymous trampers, whose society is so agreeable after the solitude of one’s own room.
Referencing Woolf’s essay in his opening chapter, David Ulin, critic, avowed street haunter, and “reluctant Angeleno,” would like nothing more than to lose himself amidst a similar throng of “anonymous trampers.” But after moving from New York City to Los Angeles in 1991, he found himself in a city where pedestrians are something of a punch line. “Where else would the simple act of walking be so loaded,” Ulin rightly asks in Sidewalking, “a source of pride and policy as much as comedy and cliché?” (Sidewalking refers to the outmoded practice of “merchants standing outside their establishments, appealing to pedestrians to come and buy.”) Among other things, his book is about how Los Angeles’s nonexistent pedestrian culture is beginning to change. Long having built out rather than up, Los Angeles has, in certain neighborhoods at least, recommitted itself to the idea of the street as a public, walkable place, though as Ulin sensibly concedes, “any city where you have to drive to a pedestrian district cannot be called a walking city.”
Barely a page into Sidewalking, which is both a personal history of a city and an account of how cities shape a person, Ulin spots some buildings on one of his neighborhood walks that causes him to reminisce about roaming San Francisco “like a mendicant” as a young man. Shortly thereafter, he takes another narrative detour to recount memories of wandering the streets of New York. Reading these opening pages as a non-Angeleno who admittedly held a prejudiced view of Los Angeles as an illegible, incoherent metropolis, I wondered whether a book about a transplant making sense of his new environment would ultimately concede the impossibility of doing so. I half-expected that each of Ulin’s attempts to “rewrite the landscape in terms [he] could understand” would lead only to reveries about more legible, pedestrian-friendly cities: a version of Out of Sheer Rage, Geoff Dyer’s book about failing to complete his book on D.H. Lawrence. But no, my initial hunch proved unfounded, as Ulin does center in on this “city without a center,” and in a series of fascinating, at times impressionistic, disquisitions unlocks some of Los Angeles’s “hieroglyphic” secrets.
Step right up then for Ulin’s tour of Los Angeles, a diffuse city full of “nonlandmark landmarks.” Among the highlights will be the eastern slope of Bunker Hill, the “Beverly Hills of the 19th century,” where one should take care to avoid the “puddles of urine” next to the old tracks of Angels Flight, a defunct funicular; Watts Towers, a “structure no one wanted in an area people go out of their way not to find,” emblematic of a “do-it-yourself city, in which the only narratives worth considering are the ones we create ourselves”; a “disregarded” plaque in Little Tokyo marking it as the site of the Azusa Street Revival, “ground zero for Global Pentecostalism”; and Grand Central Market, where, to satisfy those desiring a more traditional celebrity/ghost-hunting tour, Ulin will point out the condo that used to be the office of William Mulholland, where the victims of the 1928 St. Francis Dam collapse are said to nightly haunt the damned engineer for his “avarice [and] negligence.” (At least according to Ulin’s friend, who lives in the building.)
The pleasure of Sidewalking is watching Ulin contextualize each place by considering the way its history is preserved, effaced, or buried under the surface. Walking is crucial to this excavatory work; it’s hard to peer into a city’s past from a moving vehicle. The book’s very first line homes in on a small building that a driver might have missed: “There is a church I like on Cochran Avenue. Little street-corner church, adobe-style, like a mission in some minor key.” The “minor key” points toward Ulin’s larger aim, which is to reduce a sprawling, unfamiliar place — a “strange sort of overbuilt suburban hybrid” — to a more human scale. Ulin attempts to make sense of his “thirty-five-mile-per-hour city” by slowing down, ambling though his neighborhood, strolling to work and on errands in order to “mark [his] place in this city … [and] meander [his] universe into being.” Initially disoriented by LA’s seeming rootlessness, walking proves to be the surest way of finding his footing on shaky ground. (Ulin, who has written a book on earthquakes, here refers to Los Angeles’s “seismic existentialism […], the sense that in a landscape of constant physical upheaval, one that can, at any moment, literally erase itself, the only constant is the pace of change.”)
Walking, then, is “a way to keep the city bounded.” Sidewalking’s subtitle is “Coming to Terms with Los Angeles” (emphasis mine), and “terms” derives from terminus, a fitting word for a book about boundaries, both personal and geographic:
[…] I had come to the end of the line, the place where the myths of possibility and reinvention butt up against the edges of the continent, and the vanishing point of the horizon becomes the vanishing point of the known world.
Los Angeles is thus a terminal environment, a city on our nation’s edge — “the quiet limit of the world,” Evelyn Waugh, quoting Tennyson, calls it in The Loved One. But it is also, as Ulin writes, a “landscape of fragments where the boundaries we take for granted in other environments are not always clear” — a city of porous boundaries on America’s boundary.
Ulin is a thinker attracted to such paradoxes or tensions: how the relationship between private and public space gets muddled during urban renewal; how the artificial can become authentic; how the city’s future is often envisioned as a return to a past one (pedestrian-friendly and trolley-filled); how Los Angeles exists as both an Edenic space and a terrifyingly apocalyptic one; how a site like the La Brea Tar Pits lays bare “the juxtaposition of the ancient, the prehuman, against the thin sheen of the city we have built”; and how to sort out the layers downtown, “where the old and new cities circle back on one another like an ouroboros.”
Skeptical about LA’s history of “boosterish hubris” and claims about exceptionalism, Ulin also has little patience for glib cultural analyses from those “who have parachuted in from other, more established locales.” He briefly but memorably puts Truman Capote in his place for suggesting, in one such flyover piece, that Los Angeles’s weather somehow makes it an unfit place to celebrate Christmas: “But what is the weather in Bethlehem in December? And what does that suggest about authenticity?”
This notion of authenticity comes up repeatedly, particularly because of the ersatz quality of many of Los Angeles’s “urban renewal” projects that seek to create the kind of walker-friendly community spaces Ulin craves. Reading his account of these projects once again calls to mind The Loved One, in which an English poet is “exiled to the barbarous region of the world,” that is, Los Angeles. (Much early literature of Southern California, Ulin notes in Sidewalking, is the “literature of put-down.”) The Loved One is set largely on the grounds of Whispering Glades, a fictionalized version of Forest Lawn cemetery, in which one has the option of burying loved ones in themed mausoleums, be it a modest cabin on the Lake Isle of Innisfree or a statelier structure such as Oxford’s Christ Church. Of the latter, the cemetery’s copywriters assure clients that the edifice
is more than a replica, it is a reconstruction. A building-again of what those old craftsmen sought to do with their rude implements of by-gone ages. Time has worked its mischief on the beautiful original. Here you see it as the first builders dreamed of it long ago.
Waugh’s satirical description of Whispering Glades, a “mecca of replicates,” takes familiar aim at Southern California culture as one of facsimiles. Ulin would agree, but only up to a point. As he remarks of constructed urban spaces like China City, which replaced a Chinatown cleared out in 1938 to make room for Union Station, or Olvera Street, “which purports to offer an authentic taste of the old pueblo” but was constructed in the 1930s: “Illusions all of them, fakes, replicas … except that now they have become a part of L.A.’s history as well.” The artificial has a stubborn habit of morphing into the real thing.
And then there’s the Grove, an immensely popular, open-air retail space not too far from his own neighborhood, that Ulin calls “a cross between a mall and Main Street USA at Disneyland.” The developer, Rick Caruso, tells Ulin that his “public boulevard” was inspired by Via Veneto — all roads, even those looping around an outdoor mall, lead to Rome — “where he saw centuries-old buildings redeveloped for commercial use.” Unencumbered by any ancient structures to repurpose, however, Caruso was free to construct a thoroughly contrived urban space without a history, a mall as the first commercial developers dreamed of it long ago.
It is tempting to dismiss Caruso’s project as yet another instance of Los Angeles’s obsession with surface, or as an example of urban renewal as crass commercialism that excludes undesirables, that is, those unwilling or able to shop. (See Mike Davis’s City of Quartz for a heated denunciation of such “megalomaniacal complexes.”) Despite his prejudices against such constructed environments — he describes himself as “hard-wired” to dislike them — Ulin takes a middle path between Waugh’s satirical glee and Mike Davis’s condemnation. Despite its patent phoniness, he is surprised to discover that the Grove has given rise to something resembling urban life:
[…] what the Grove provides may be a testing ground, inadvertent though it may be: a place where the community, the neighborhood, can learn, or relearn, sidewalking, street life. It’s a conundrum, that in an ersatz space real things happen […].
A flaneur manqué for so many years, he’ll take what he can get.
In his meditations and meanderings, Ulin is at his best when he sets his sights on archival photographs, maps, outdoor art installations (e.g., Michael Heizer’s Levitating Mass, a “giant boulder juxtaposed against the temporary city”), or popular culture (Falling Down) that captures the complexity of city life. Occasionally, though, he has a tendency to spin his wheels (“meaning accrues not just from the landmarks but also from how we interact with them, the way we do, or do not, connect the dots”) or to pose inflated rhetorical questions:
How do we engage with the city as an actual place, with actual people and actual problems, when it remains, even for those of us who live here, tempting to read as metaphor?
Unless the temptation is very strong, I suspect one manages.
Elsewhere, the metaphorical is again assigned outsized importance. The Purple Line subway expansion “[…] won’t, can’t, make that much difference to the toxic gridlock of the streets,” Ulin tells us, but no matter, “the subway may be less important as transit system than as metaphor.” I see what he means, that it represents a commitment to reducing sprawl and “returning […] to a city of neighborhoods,” but I can’t resist peddling that slogan to every incompetently run mass transit agency from coast to coast, including my own: “Washington Metro: Less Transit System Than Metaphor.”
Ulin sees his engagement with the city as a generative, self-fashioning endeavor, “an act of creation, of mutual creation, in which I remake L.A. in my image […] even as it remakes me.” His rhetoric here strikes my ear as at least a tad overblown, as it does when during his urban peregrinations he twice refers to the Keatsian notion of negative capability. This he mistakenly glosses as holding “two opposing ideas in [his] head,” which is not how Keats defined negative capability but how F. Scott Fitzgerald (another reluctant Angeleno) defined a “first-rate intelligence.” Ulin is in no short supply of the latter, but it is a reach to describe his astute analyses as the products of a poetic imagination “capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts.”
More frequent in Sidewalking are sharp, lyrical observations like the following: “What else is a city but a dream in three dimensions, inhabited by succeeding generations who create identity in the muscle memory of its streets?” Working off of this formulation, the book aptly closes with a scene that looks at Los Angeles through the eyes of a new generation. Ulin and his son take the subway to a resurgent downtown, pick up lunch in Grand Central Market, and then spend the afternoon leisurely “wandering the city, staking our place.” Though enjoying the urban landscape with his son, he nonetheless expresses a certain wistfulness:
L.A. remains elusive to me even now. So much of what I want I have to wait for, so much remains distant, out of reach. By the time the subway reaches Westwood, I’ll be in my seventies. Will I still live here (or still be living)?
That’s where he leaves us — or we leave him — looking out on the pedestrian Promised Land, having, with this always engaging, often riveting guide, firmly inscribed himself on the story of the streets of Los Angeles.