Sunday, December 9, 2007

LA Experience, Weiss

I got off of the metro at Union Station. The immense ceiling of a cathedral hung above my head, beckoning me farther into the belly of a church for those who do not navigate the streets of Los Angeles by car. I studied a map of the city at an abandoned information desk. Cartoon icons marking different historical districts in Los Angeles sat upon a vast cushioned throne of street grids. I decided that I would head towards Olvera Street on the way to my ultimate destination, Little Tokyo. Before leaving Union Station, I made a short and silent prayer to the neglected gods of public transportation who, I figured, could use all the encouragement they could get in a place where there are more cars than people and more smog and particulates in the air than any other city in the United States.

Union Station map in hand, I quickly found my way to Olvera Street. I wandered through a small park and down an alley; the paint on the buildings had begun to peel and crack. The architecture had started to crumble from lack of attention. Clearly I was in the heart of El Pueblo. What remained unclear was whether the organ pumping life into this landscape was mechanical or natural. Was that paint really peeling? El Pueblo is not the town or any town, but the performance of a town. I wandered across the park, passing an “open market” which consisted of several booths resembling fruit-stands that sold El Pueblo souvenirs. What were the forces that were driving this performance— the forces that made a stage out of the landscape?

I kept moving. For most people in Los Angeles this means driving, means individually wrapping and importantly isolating themselves in two tons of steel. For me, movement meant placing one foot in front of the other on the cement sidewalk hugging Main Street. I looked up to my left. Plastered on the side of a modern grey building was a sign: NO SKATEBOARDING. NO BICYCLE RIDING. NO ROLLERBLADING. NO SCOOTERING. Of course I thought, looking back towards the traffic on Main Street, movement in Los Angeles means the movement of cars. I hadn’t recognized the full irony of the sign’s message until I examined the building itself more closely. This was not any piece of architecture; this was the California Department of Transportation— what I later realized to be the recently constructed Caltrans District 7 Headquarters.

Standing before the cold angled body of the building, something ugly began to crawl its way into my system. The irony I had recognized was purely symbolic. The sign’s demands were intended to control the use of the buildings’ stairs and entrance area—to prevent them from becoming Main Street’s new skateboard park. But in that moment, the intentions of Caltrans crumbled under the weight of the sign’s symbolic meaning. Too many limitations were being imposed on my mobility. The sidewalk felt claustrophobic, the landscape hostile. Interestingly, while the grey mass looming above me appeared windowless and uninviting, it was, in actuality, "Enrobed in a constantly changing mechanical skin that is alternately open or closed depending on the conditions of outside temperature and sunlight…. At dusk the building is transparent—textured and windowed everywhere to invite the voyeur—while at mid-day it is buttoned up against the sun, appearing to be devoid of windows entirely" (

But who was this architectural performance for? It wasn't for pedestrians like me. This was a show one could only appreciate from a distance— from a car. Walking along the side of the building, I encountered the same sign once more. This time however, below NO SCOOTERING someone had scrawled the words “Know Hypocrisy.” And as a pedestrian, I felt I did; a feeling of isolation and resentment wrapped itself around me. Whoever had altered the sign must have been feeling a species of the same frustration; they had disrupted the linguistic power and control of the sign— had disrupted the power of the building itself and its impressive performance. Perhaps the person had not been satisfied with his or her mobility in Los Angeles—with such limited access to and choice of transportation —and had identified architecture as an active participant in shaping that experience.

The negative commands on the signs had carved away many layers of mobility’s linguistic meaning; in telling me and other Los Angelenos what mobility wasn’t allowed to look like, they were also telling us what kind of transportation is valued. But it wasn’t just the signs that bothered me— it was the coldness of the architecture itself— that opaque expanse—and the harsh angles of the building’s design that made it difficult for me to find its entrance. The conflict between the signs’ message and the building’s purpose may have been symbolic, but the message that the architecture communicated was obvious and concrete. It said: PEDESTRIANS NOT WELCOME.

I don’t know how long I stood in front of the Caltrans District 7 Headquarters shaking my head, but when I escaped the landscape of my mind and returned to the physical streetscape, I decided it was time to move on. I had acquired a map and a corresponding list of historical sites of Little Tokyo at a public library downtown; but even with this map, navigating the commercialized landscape of Little Tokyo by foot was a challenge. This was a city designed for people who knew exactly where their destination was and who were, of course, traveling by car. Searching for a Buddhist temple, I ended up in the entrance to a parking garage. Attempting to find a museum, I found instead, The Little Tokyo Shopping Center. Frustrated, I stopped at a Japanese bakery and ordered a green tea cookie from the Spanish-speaking bakers behind the counter. I wondered—is this just another simulation—another Olvera Street performance? As I examined the map once more, I started to wonder whether the historical sites listed still physically existed downtown, or whether the map recorded the memory of a place. One of the historical sites I couldn’t find was a grape fruit tree from a citrus orchard that at one time extended all the way into downtown Los Angeles. I tried to imagine what the landscape must have looked like then; I wondered how healthy that grapefruit tree could be in its current environment. Did it suffer from the same nostalgia as the antique store in The Little Tokyo Shopping Center— appropriately but sadly named “Nostalgic Gallery of Fame?” Did people exploit the historic value of the tree in attempt to make a profit, just as the skateboard shop in little Tokyo had appropriated the name “Fish Market” for its business? I’m convinced that the places listed as historical sites do exist, partially because before leaving Little Tokyo, I found the Buddhist temple for which I had been looking earlier. It was crammed between immense skyscrapers on every side. The only access pedestrians had to the temple as far as I could tell, was a dangerous trek through a small but very active parking lot.

Riding the train back into Claremont, I struggled to make sense of my interactions with downtown Los Angeles. What was the relationship between Olvera Street, the signs at Caltrans District 7 Headquarters, and Little Tokyo? I looked at the landscape outside of the train as it rapidly entered and exited the frame of the window. Using public transportation was, in many ways, a very different experience than that of driving or riding in a car. Yet the experience, or rather lack of experience with the physical landscape through which one travels, is strikingly similar. In Los Angeles we’ve carved a landscape using fear as the force behind our chainsaw. In doing so, we’ve eliminated direct interaction—not only with our environment, but also with other people. We may have gained control over the landscape, social interaction, and public action (especially riots), but that control is locked to a feeling of loss and dissatisfaction. In a desperate (but failed) attempt to fill the void, we have resorted to simulating the experience that we crave.

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