By Catherine Wagley
By Catherine Wagley
By Wendy Gilmartin
By Jennifer Swann
By Claire de Dobay Rifelj
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Catherine Wagley
By Zachary Pincus-Roth
Throughout the 1920s, Los Angeles was busy becoming the city it is today, paving, spreading, subdividing. It expanded at an unprecedented speed -- in 30 years, the region’s population had ballooned by a factor of 20. These boom years coincided with the rise of the automobile, a beast that was quickly transforming the shape of urban living, decentering it, stretching it, flattening it out.
In its rush to sell off every empty parcel of land, the growing city neglected to leave itself much in the way of open public space. By 1927, the problem was glaring enough that the Chamber of Commerce hired the landscape-and-urban-design firms of Olmsted Brothers (heirs of Frederick Law Olmsted, creator of New York‘s Central Park) and Bartholomew and Associates to prepare a report surveying the city’s existing parklands and planning their expansion. What they produced and published three years later was far grander, a $233 million, 40-year plan not only to buy up beachfront land and build more playgrounds and athletic fields, but also to redesign the city itself around a system of interlocking ”pleasureway parks,“ 440 miles of highways built for pleasure cruising, lined with 70,000 acres of elongated parkland.
The Olmsted-Bartholomew Plan, as it came to be known, was dead before it hit the press, killed off not only by the Great Depression, but by the very forces that commissioned it, which were threatened by the broad powers it would have given to a planned metropolitan parks board. A scant 200 copies were printed, and only a few of its less ambitious propositions were, in a slow and piecemeal fashion, ever realized. Known since only to scholars and urban planners, it has nonetheless won a nearly mythical status as, in Mike Davis‘ words, ”a window into a lost future,“ a vision crafted at the crossroads of what was and what might have been. William Deverell and Greg Hise, professors at Caltech and USC respectively, tracked down one of the few surviving copies, digitally reproduced it, sandwiched it between a careful, informative introduction and an interview with landscape architect Laurie Olin, and released the study early this summer under the title Eden by Design.
The report, ably contextualized by Deverell, Hise and Olin, is a strange artifact, invaluable for the relief into which it throws the decisions Los Angeles made, consciously and unconsciously, as it groped its way through the 20th century. Magnificent in its breadth and daring, it is also bizarre and even worrisome in many of its details. Displaying remarkable prescience, its authors were keenly, urgently aware of the dangers L.A. faced, of congestion, diffusion, all those things we throw today under the rubric ”sprawl.“ Most of their complaints, of canyons ”fast being subjected to subdivision and cheek-by-jowl cabin construction,“ of ”traveling on congested roads, through long, tedious stretches of unrefreshing, monotonously urbanized territory,“ are now familiar refrains.
The Olmsted-Bartholomew vision for the city, though, is an odd one. Employing a pastoralism that is at the same time resolutely modern, the planners combined a 19th-century faith in the curative power of the outdoors with a romantic fascination with the automobile. They imagined a vast city of single-family homes, small parks and playgrounds scattered liberally throughout, its outer limits joined by a skein of leisurely park-lined highways, beside which one might hike and picnic and play, and on which ”one may drive . . . for pleasure, and with pleasure.“ They planned to turn Santa Monica Bay into a ”pleasure harbour“ by encircling it with ”a long breakwater or chain of narrow islands connected by bridges and carrying a park drive,“ so the Pacific could be enjoyed from the car as well as from a sailboat. Theirs would be a paradise that could be fully enjoyed at 40 mph, not a city so much as a more-perfect suburb, Mayberry blown up to gross proportions.
If it is unlikely that the Olmsted-Bartholomew Plan would have created, as Davis predicted, ”a vigorous social democracy of beaches and playgrounds“ -- Davis overlooks the paternalistic ease with which its authors planned to replace poor neighborhoods west of downtown with parkland, and Chavez Ravine with a golf course, all to create space for recreation that, they hoped, would soothe the class-bound fury of the masses -- it might at least a have produced a dystopia as interestingly bizarre as the one we now inhabit. As Olin says in the afterword, ”Had it been done, I don’t know what the hell we‘d think of it, but it would have been marvelous and unique and the world would have never seen anything like it.“
If one man more than any other can be said to have left a physical mark on Los Angeles, it is William Mulholland, patron saint of L.A.’s green lawns or sly thief of the Owens Valley‘s water, depending on whom you ask. His granddaughter Catherine Mulholland is eager to dust off his much trampled laurels and has penned a lengthy biography to staple them back on his pate. Titled William Mulholland and the Rise of Los Angeles, her tome offers few deep insights into either of its subjects, but rather expends most of its energy laboriously, and at times disingenuously, refuting the various conspiracy theories surrounding the city’s purchase of Owens Valley land and the construction of the Los Angeles Aqueduct.
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