(Photos and links to follow)
Michael Dear of USC's Geography department is the first to address the conditions of the US-Mexico border with respect to LA. I hadn’t read his book The Post-Border City but I had read the excellent Princeton Architectural Press publication Hyper-Border (see also Regine's review), which covers some of the same, contested ground.
An engaging speaker, despite the gloom into which he submerged (day one, pre- speaker lights) and working without images, he sounded English (I later wonder how this affects his view of the situation).
He starts be saying that LA “is a border city. We’re now living on the border. In fact, anywhere on the US you’re living on a border”. In a sense, he sees this as the “portable border”, the “border to go”, or the ‘frontera portade’ as a colleague of his has it. He states that “the border is a pre-eminant condition defining what we are and where we’re going to be.”
Dear undertook numerous journeys along the border in researching the book (Bryan Finoki, who introduced Dear, later tells me that Dear has driven its entire length (2000 miles?), on both sides. It occurs to me that a bit of infrastructure this large, complex, variable and politically-loaded is likely to generate surreal responses.) As if to to illustrate this, Dear relates a remarkable, ludicrous situation: he asks us to imagine a large, steep canyon that existed close to Tijuana (‘Smugglers’ Gulch’?) which directly connects Mexico to US. The US have poured 2.5 million cubic yards of earth into the canyon, such that this particular border no longer exists. A dam is built to deal with the geographical impact of this, costing over 4 billion dollars to reinforce this new border zone. Yet in order to prevent the dam from being eroded, there’s a tunnel through the dam. So imagine an an earthenware dam that’s 150 feet high, with a tunnel going through it that not only allows water through, but allows people to pass through. He says a border patrol person he was talking to thought “the whole thing would last about a week … the whole project was at least 99 per cent politics”.
Another illustration: in East Colorado, it’s difficult to know where the border is. You can inadvertently cross it - and thus inadvertently break the law. It’s become an area dotted with memorials for some reason, and Dear suggests he’s become a bit of a “monument freak”. As the memorial is on the border, you can walk around the memorial taking pictures and you’re crossing the border each time. He describes doing this constantly to the delight of a few old Mexican men, cackling away and shouting out, “That’s illegal, you understand!”
He unreels another vignette, about the leader of a vigilante group (who are ostensibly citizens who take it upon themselves to patrol the border, to huge controversy) who who went to jail because he was aiding migrants across the border illegally. (This is a land of extreme contradictions.)
“LA is a post-border condition”, he says. In the last census in 2000, 46% of LA residents were of Latino origin. It will be a majority by the next census, and by 2050, the majority of California will be of Latino origin. He says that even if the boundaries were closed now and no other person crossed, the proportion would still increase, as the Latino growth is due to ‘natural increase’ i.e. people having babies. Which, he wryly points out, is what people do.
He declares that “LA is now the rule, not the exception.” This condition is increasingly applying to all American cities. And he says this is undoubtedly a good thing. “Diversity is a privilege”, he says, and one of the most remarkable features of this city in particular is its diversity.
“LA and Southern California represents a rule about the way urban centres are made”, Dear says. In the old days we had centres (Chicago, Boston etc.), and the centre expanded outwards. LA flips that logic, not building the centre first, but last. “It comes from the hinterland inwards. It gets built later. There are 26 downtowns in LA county. It was built on different principles.”
He asks us to drive out towards Palm Springs and see that there are no town centres there. “They’re added later, as a decoration, to improve consumption, to let you celebrate. We’ve reached a different kind of city-building in this region.”
Dear says he’s “driving it home as it’s the material basis for urban change. The future of cities is shown by Los Angeles more than any other city in this country. San Francisco has become so like LA they’ve become inseparable. Sure, it’s got a nice bay, but the fundamental urban organisation is the same.”
He says he first saw this in Sao Paulo. The numerous centres. He thought it looked like LA.
They all have this LA “scrim”. A “decentralised fragmented urbanism”, and this place is the best place to start looking at this.
(This is all fascinating, and I would broadly agree with much of it. However, I’m not sure LA as a model can stretch quite as far as Dear and others imagine. Here, partly due to his impassioned delivery pushing him to it perhaps, he’s perhaps pushing LA too far as the model for all US cities, and cities elsewhere. He doesn’t quite say that LA is the city that can tell us most about the world, but he’s not far off. Los Angeles will do this to you. It’s the kind of ‘solipsurbanism’ that almost traps Kazys Varnelis too, in the introduction to his otherwise thoroughly excellent book ‘The Infrastructural City: Networked Ecologies in Los Angeles’. We can learn from Los Angeles, clearly (and rather more than Las Vegas) but the applicability of its lessons, characteristics and modes to all other cities ignores vast local differences in urban culture elsewhere.)
(Again, I wonder if this is because Dear is also migrant (English > New World), who can tend to romanticise and exaggerate difference c.f. Banham, to some extent. I do this all the time in Australia, and here, as you’ll have noted.)
(This idea of building the centre afterwards, if at all, is a fundamental problem in LA. It leaves a city bereft of civic gestures, with a concomitant reinforcing effect on the individualism that can affect Anglo New World cities. The solution is not clear, not easy, of course, but it’s a problem nonetheless and not necessarily to be celebrated. The idea that a civic loam is thriving in LA in certain areas, certain communities is certainly true, and a more interesting aspect to observe. But is it enough to bind a city?)
(And I should note that LA always had a downtown, a centre. So the thesis is a little oversimplified in that respect. It’s a minor quibble however - the ‘improvise numerous centres as you develop, and post-habitation’ thesis is broadly true, and as noted previously this polynodal aspect of LA is now a hugely desirable model for cities over 2 million inhabitants. If the civic space can emerge too.)
Dear concludes by looking at the border region, again “as a manifestation of all these changes”. He says “What’s happening here is what’s going to happen to the country - and I for one will be very glad about that. America was not founded by closing its doors to immigrants, me included. It’s greatness is in assimilating all those things. The sooner we absorb the postmodern condition, the sooner we will get over so many of the hang-ups that infect our discussion of what this city is becoming …”
It’s a great talk, and helps frame numerous subsequent discussions over the next few days.
(I’m also intrigued by the focus on the border, in a way. Even in framing the talk as ‘post-border’ or ‘portera frontade’. Obviously it’s an important facet of the relationship between the US and the south, but as LA makes abundently clear - as does Dear talking about the census - the border may as well not exist. In that LA is a city centred on far more complex organisations than a sharp line in the sand. Rather, the way it moves is far more diffuse, dissolving such structures in hybridised networks. As Varnelis et al make clear, a vast stew of variable, transient, occasionally interdependent networks is a more promising organising model for the city, if more complex. Dear clearly understands this, but I wonder if it makes more sense to just ignore the border altogether.)
Bryan asks some questions in follow-up, around these ideas of diversity and control. Dear’s responses are around the ideas of “the spaces we see in cities as function of the fragmented, decentralised city.” He says “you’re going to go on building spaces of difference. We’re not building spaces of diversity, as diversity is overcoming the physical space”. He says that “all cities have their gated communities now. There is no integrated city being developed, I don’t think. The contemporary example is Dubai, jewels scattered throughout the city … I think this is OK (perhaps he means 'understandable' here) because we don’t have old forms of society.” (This is at the heart of my note above - do we still have the need for civic spaces as we society has changed? I think we do, but am aware that could be wishful thinking.)
He then flips up “the more optimistic side of the coin. That people have long time found ways of overcoming the physical space.” His example here is of Brasilia (I think I heard him say Brasilia) where people arrived there and destroyed all of that symmetry … People have a way of overcoming space. People have a way of overcoming international boundaries. And that particular boundary is only since 1848.”