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News From Up North 

What the City of Smog can learn from the City of Light

Wednesday, Aug 7 2002
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PARIS IS A CITY OF THE NORTH, LOCATED ALONG THE SAME 49TH PARALLEL that forms the U.S.-Canada border. That's why, in mid-July, you still need your sunglasses at 9 p.m. and twilight waits until 10:30 to conquer the day. During their warm and blessed 10-hour summer afternoons, couples and families cluster in the parks and along the Seine's newly improvised two-mile beachfront. Maybe because this is (according to the newspapers) a stay-home summer for Parisians, they're all out there filling in for the tourists that the planet's most toured city is a bit short on this year. The Tuilleries of Marie Antoinette have become the city's central Coney Island; the bumper cars and the merry-go-round are packed with local children with amazingly extended bedtimes, running past 11 p.m.

But when dusk finally does set in, the fun retreats to the neighborhoods where things keep on happening under the lights for which the city is famous. Where people can't seem either to sleep or to get enough of one another. Whether it's on the Left Bank, in Montmartre, off in the rich Northwest or in the poor Southeast, the proper study of Parisian mankind is man and woman. And here you come to one of the biggest contrasts between Paris and Los Angeles -- that strangers, meeting on ground level, eye to eye and foot to foot and face to face, are intensely, completely interested in one another.

People watch people walking past. They watch from bancs publiques and from sidewalk cafés. Walkers watch the seated people watch them. And, of course, walkers watch one another. Everyone sees everyone with some level of comprehension and acceptance. Even we tourists absorb quickly the habit of being seen and watching, taking into account, silently acknowledging the others with whom we share this huge city. The French word for this casual, walk-by connecting is flâner. What happens among the flâneurs and flâneuses is as different as can be from the usual Angeleno edgy glimpses of one another driving our cars. On their own automotive turf, the Parisians are just as obsessed as we are with moving ahead at all costs while pushing the ever-competing other behind. In all the world, driving is the classic zero-sum game: Your inch gained is my inch lost, my every extra second of driving time an atom of my defeat and loss in the never-ending game of staying ahead.

But as pedestrians, Parisians are quite the opposite, and after two weeks of simulating one, I'd say that sharing a city with your fellow groundlings is as close as most of us want to be to the avowed benefits of communal living. For the strolling participant, there is enough room, enough society, enough civilization for all. The more that people want to be together, the greater the civilization. And the better, in my view, the place is governed. So what has all this holiday fun really got to do with Los Angeles? The cities are 6,000 miles apart, and Los Angeles is in every sense a metropolis of the South. What do they have in common? Or what should they?

What can L.A. learn from Paris about being a better, bigger city?

One thing you realize from being away is that many who live in Los Angeles simply don't approve of big cities in general and our city in particular. For instance, there's Valley Vote, which presents itself as a sort of anti­Urban League, spurning not just L.A. but the very concept of city itself. Why else do Votistas cite Burbank as their goal of urban nirvana? Is it because, of all the prosperous Los Angeles­adjacent towns, only Burbank completely lacks urban character, nightlife or ethnic diversity? It's a little amazing that secessionists laud the Beautiful Downtown Burbank that Johnny Carson disdained on behalf of the nation. But if you are so much in love with Burbank, you shouldn't be busting up Los Angeles. You should be calling your real estate agent.

The Valley Vote ideal (ironically, since Ventura and upper Van Nuys boulevards are two of the city's urbanite treasures and potentially among the greatest strolling streets anywhere) is really all about living in a stupor, in the suburban equivalent of the Matrix's umbilicus world. Valley Vote's proposal is the idealization of what U.S. Easterners -- who've had this thing down for over a century -- call a bedroom borough, a town where people sleep, literally at night, figuratively all the time, and interact over their backyard fences or not at all. It is about the happy, illiterate media-besotted future suburbanites in Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451.

It's about living in a place about which you really haven't to care much about anything. Let alone everyone else out there, whom, in a real city, you can meet as equals just by walking down the street during a long, summery dusk. I still can't be sure why the habit of strolling should strengthen the effectiveness of local government, but somehow, I believe, it does. From 6,000 miles away, I read last month that the City Council rejected the borough system proposed by state Assemblyman Bob Hertzberg (D-Los Angeles). This city government thing works pretty well as it is, said Councilman Hal Bernson, leaving unanswered the question of why, if this is so, he seems to be the biggest secession partisan on the council. L.A. scholar Raphe Sonenshein suggested that the council was caught in a double bind: If its members had endorsed the borough proposal, the Votistas would have accused them of diluting the secession vote. But the real issue, as to whether a borough system can make for a better city, pretty much got dodged. The number of large, mature cities that have embraced the system suggests that it can.

I AM WRITING THIS IN A CITY OF 20 BORoughs, each with its own elected representative to the city government, its own local elected council, its own city hall and mayor and four designated subjurisdictions called quarters. Paris has fewer than 3 million people, making it not much smaller than L.A. But it works better in almost every way -- the services, spark-plugged from the smallest jurisdictions, operate seamlessly. Like Los Angeles, it's got plenty of immigrants. And like Los Angeles, it is also a city of newcomers -- only one resident in eight has even one parent who was born there.

Office and housing towers are moving in on downtown from the far fringes, but it's not yet a true high-rise city. Still, it squeezes 85 percent of the population of our 460-square-mile Los Angeles into less than 90 square miles. It's got a perfect subway system, but it's still choked with cars. It also has an overwhelming sense of history and popular empowerment (in 1789, the crowds tore down the Bastille; 82 years later, they burned City Hall), but its other decisive lifestyle advantage may be that it has three times as many (15,000) cooks as lawyers. Each year, it hosts four times as many visitors as it has residents. It is, of course, Paris. And if Los Angeles wants to be a great city, it's what I'd recommend as a model instead of that Warner-Disney factory town near Toluca Lake.

The strangest thing about the Valley secession movement is how it differs from every other populist movement in California history. By pleading for more services, it's really demanding more government. A good borough plan could provide this, but Los Angeles should come up with its own proposal instead of swallowing Hertzberg's. Last Saturday, nearly 900 enthusiastic -- if wonky -- supporters of neighborhood councils met in Universal City to hear each other talk about how L.A. can be made more representative. This is the kind of assembly from which a more appropriate city borough plan could emerge.

At best, boroughs could bridge the gap between neighborhood councils and City Hall. Just as they have in Paris, where the council districts have become boroughs -- called "arrondissements" -- in and of themselves, and the system seems to be working on every street corner. (The city is now in the midst of a two-year project to make its system work even better.) Maybe someday, a similar system will work in Los Angeles. And maybe someday, O'Melveny & Meyers will have to contract a personnel-retraining program with the Culinary Institute of America.

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