Kevin Lynch on Los Angeles

Kevin Lynch -- The Image of the CityI love that LA is one of the case studies in Kevin Lynch’s The Image of the City (see his broader arguments in parts 1 and 2). It was almost disconcerting realising that this was written in 1960, when LA was such a different place. Bunker Hill still there, Pershing Square still a proper landscaped square not a barely functional ugly unwelcoming space covering a parking lot. But this is also a city I know very well through personal experience and study, so could bring both to bear, and this offered a good perspective on the limitations of the book.

This description of (white, professional) views of downtown are also startling:

The general image is remarkable for its emptiness east of Main or Los Angeles Streets, and south of 7th Street, except for the extension of the repeating grid. The central area is set in a vacuum. This L-shaped center is liberally sprinkled with remembered landmarks, chief of them being the Statler and Biltmore Hotels… But only two landmarks were described in any concrete detail: the ugly, black and gold Richfield Building and the pyramided top of the City Hall (35).

Wow — first, city hall makes sense but the Statler Hotel? Not a landmark I would have given, and one now torn down (for the story, see the great blog from Paradise Leased).

hotel-statler

Second, the Richfield Building ugly? I confess I didn’t actually know this as the Richfield Building, but I did know the building itself and quite love it:

Richfield Building, Los Angeles

Third…this is such a white view of downtown LA — as Lynch himself shows later. So to look at the white map of downtown LA:

Kevin Lynch Los Angeles

Kevin Lynch Los Angeles from interviews

In describing the areas, Lynch writes:

Bunker Hill is not as strong an image, despite its historical connotations, and quite a few felt that it was “not in the downtown area.” Indeed, it is surprising how the core, in bending around this major topographic feature, has succeeded in visually burying it (36).

I suppose that made it much easier for them to tear it down, that and the way it was full of poor people and people of color, which as later findings on LA seem to show means such areas are erased from mental maps of those in power. I am still mourning Bunker Hill.

Kevin Lynch Bunker Hill

Then there is the shock of Pershing Square being a decent public space….though given his list of its uses, it’s very clear why the city council should have destroyed it.

Pershing Square is consistently the strongest element of all: an exotically landscaped open space in the heart of downtown, reinforced by its use as an outdoor political forum, camp meeting, and old people’s rest. (36-37)

Pershing Square LA

So now we get to why I should bring race into things (if you were not already on board with that and wondering):

Broadway was perhaps the only path which was unmistakable for all…Although conceded to be the core, if anything is, yet Broadway was not a shopping area for most of these middle-class persons. Its walks are crowded with the ethnic minorities and lower-income groups who living quarters ring the central section. the subjects interviewed regarded this linear core as an alien one, looking at it with varying degrees of avoidance, curiosity, or fear. They were quick to describe the status differences between the Broadway crowds, and those to be seen on 7th Street, which, if not elite, is at least a middle-class shopping street. (38)

Yes, Lynch did, in fact, only interview professional white folks working in the downtown core. It is the ‘ethnic minorities’ and ‘lower-income groups’ whose living quarters form the ’emptiness’ of the white maps, their streets the ‘no-go’ areas. This is a vision of the ‘other’ with a vengeance, the alien. It is not one that is taken up or questioned. It is just left there. Broadway is highlighted as a landmark mostly because it was the corridor for street cars rather than buses — streetcars! The destruction of public transportation networks and fear generated through racism…a pretty good explanation of what happened to LA.

What is curious, though, is that even for these white respondents fearful of Broadway, Olvera Street was special. That surprised me, but perhaps its mixture of genuine history and culture with a facade of touristy Mexican-ness rendered it palatable. Lynch writes of the courtyard at its South end:

Not only is this small spot visually very distinct, but it is the only true historical anchor-point in the city and seems to generate a fierce attachment (39).

Interesting.

He continues:

When asked to describe or symbolize the city as a whole, the subjects used certain standard words: “spread-out,” “spacious,” “formless,” “without centers.” Los Angeles seemed to be hard to envision or conceptualize as a whole. An endless spread, which may carry pleasant connotations of space around the dwellings, or overtones of weariness and disorientation, was the common image. Said one subject: “It’s as if you were going somewhere for a long time, and when you got there you discovered there was nothing there, after all. (40-41)

This note on trying to find something to hold on to is interesting.

Another frequent theme was that of relative age. Perhaps because so much of the environment is new or changing, there was evidence of widespread, almost pathological, attachment to anything that had survived the upheaval.

Yet they kept tearing things down. Bunker Hill was just about to go…Another thing I am so sad I never saw:

In Los Angeles, on 7th Street at the corner of Flower Street, is an old, two-story gray wooden building, set back some ten feet from the building line, containing a few minor shops. This took the attention and fancy of a surprising number of people. One even anthropomorphized it as the “little gray lady.” (81)

Kevin Lynch - The Grey Lady

Lynch continues:

In Los Angeles there is an impression that the fluidity of the environment and absence of physical elements which anchor to the past are exciting and disturbing. Many descriptions of the scene by established residents, young or old, were accompanied by ghosts of what used to be there. Changes, such as those wrought by the freeway system, have left scars on the mental image. (45)

LA as a city of ghosts.

In looking at the specifics of how the city space works, Lynch writes:

…more abrupt directional shifts may enhance visual clarity by limiting the spatial corridor… one was prevented from sensing the vacuum in which central Los Angeles is placed by the grid shifts which close off the outward view. (56)

Once again, let us remember that the ‘vacuum’ consists of the homes and neighbourhoods of poor people and people of colour. Maybe I shouldn’t be, yet I remain astonished at the lack of self-reflexivity in these statements. The degree to which the book and this kind of scholarship is rendered shoddy by a lack of questioning such constructions, and the reality that as part of a privileged group, Lynch is completely unable to see, much less understand, how other groups move through and understand the city he is studying. To end with perhaps one of the most insightful points Lynch makes (without quite realising it I think):

The psychological distance between two localities may be much greater, or more difficult to surmount, than mere physical separation seems to warrant. (85)

More on building social spaces…

and even more…

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