L.A. Takes the High Road

IN THE FAST LANE After decades of sprawl-induced gridlock, L.A. is now poised to become a mass-transit city.

In the summer of 1998, my wife and I left Brooklyn and gamely headed west to Los Angeles, as disaffected New Yorkers are wont to do, in search of the proverbial greener grass. We found it right away in front of the quintessentially L.A.–style rental house we had been dreaming of: a cozy 1920s Spanish Colonial Revival, complete with a yard and a bounteous garden.

One day shortly after we moved in, I found myself standing in this garden with a flowing water hose in my hand. I happily made my way from the brilliant birds of paradise to the pink-petaled bougainvillea to the explosive blue hydrangeas to the dripping honeysuckle vines, giving all a proper soaking before completing the circuit at the base of the lemon tree -- our own lemon tree! -- right outside our door. I marveled at the quality-of-life upgrade we had been granted as I drenched this lucky tree’s gnarled roots, nourishing them with a stream of life-giving water that had traveled all the way from … from … where had it come from again, exactly? I had to admit that I didn’t really know.

My reverie was interrupted by the staccato song of L.A.’s official bird, as a pair of choppers hovered overhead, idling noisily before zipping off in the direction of the nearby 10 Freeway. A few minutes later I went inside and flipped on the evening news. The helicopters, I learned, had been tracking the progress of a suspect who had led police on a zigzagging car chase from one L.A. freeway to another over the past hour. Aerial footage showed his vehicle slowly making its way through a sprawling asphalt landscape that didn’t look as if it could even be on the same planet as the lovely garden I had just finished tending. I looked out the window: there was my green grass, my well-watered garden, my lemon tree. I looked at the television: there was a never-ending freeway jammed with cars, lined with nondescript strip malls, marked by menace.

Like countless others before us, we had been lured to Los Angeles by a mythic sales pitch depicting sunny skies, palm trees, ocean breezes, new creative opportunities, and the freedom to stretch one’s legs and move about. But quickly we would come to appreciate an inescapable irony: the pitch had proved too effective. So many had heard it and heeded it over the years that Los Angeles had become a standing-room-only Shangri-la. We were free to move about, all right -- on traffic-clogged roads that made the "freedom" of driving feel more like indentured servitude. Our fantastical garden oasis was surrounded on all sides by drab, squat, utilitarian apartment complexes. Remarking on the lack of attractive public green space in our neighborhood, my wife noted sardonically that we had to drive somewhere if we wanted to take a walk.

But if there’s one city in the world that knows anything about reinvention, it’s Los Angeles. Our house happened to sit only a few blocks from the site of the movie-studio back lot where teams of brilliant production designers had once transformed a small patch of Southern California into the antebellum South, first-century Jerusalem, and the Land of Oz. Today there are equally creative, equally dedicated teams of individuals attempting to make Los Angeles into a very different place -- but not a place out of the past or a children’s fantasy book. These people are hoping to turn it into a better, more sustainable version of itself, one that will be able to meet the formidable water, air, and climate challenges the twenty-first century is sure to throw its way. With the whole city as their back lot, they’re designing the L.A. of the future.

In the beginning, by nearly all accounts, the swath of land settled by the 44 pobladores who founded the city of Los Angeles in 1781 was positively Edenic. These first settlers (largely of Spanish, African, or Native American extraction) arrived at a designated plot beside the rushing, trout- and salmon-filled Porciuncula River and began erecting their new town, on orders from the Spanish colonial governor.

Try to imagine what greeted them: the wide river, with its deeply wooded floodplain; an abundance of wildlife, including antelope, deer, and grizzlies; swamps and marshes where waterfowl loved to congregate; from the west, the salty kiss of the Pacific Ocean’s breeze-carried scent; to the north, views of tall, majestic mountains. Though the discovery of gold in 1849 made San Francisco the odds-on favorite to become California’s lodestar city, the population of Los Angeles continued to grow, from about 5,000 to more than 100,000, during the last half of the nineteenth century. By 1920 (right around the time that four brothers named Warner were cementing the deal on a lot on Sunset Boulevard, from which they hoped to produce their next batch of popular moving pictures), L.A. had overtaken its sister by the bay. San Francisco was home to half a million souls. But Los Angeles was home to 70,000 more.

As the American Eden began filling up, the powerful cluster of city managers, newspaper owners, oil tycoons, and real-estate developers who jointly mapped the city’s destiny from behind closed doors looked around and fully grasped the seriousness of the situation. First and foremost, they realized that, like any garden, theirs would need a steady and dependable supply of water. Second, if Los Angeles were to continue to attract newcomers who desired the unique version of urban living it could provide, the city would need to stretch out, not build up; its appeal was directly tied to the way it didn’t resemble the crowded corridors and vertical cityscapes of a Manhattan or a Chicago. And finally, as a function of this decision to stretch out, L.A. would need to place its bet on the ascendant culture of the automobile.

In the end, these men got Los Angeles its water; they found the city its thousands of acres of developable land; they gave it its car culture; they designed its elaborate stitchery of connecting freeways. But the Faustian bargains they had to strike in pursuit of these goals meant that the city also got a host of damnable problems to go along with them. Los Angeles got desperately thirsty, bitterly angry neighbors upstate. It got metastasizing sprawl, immortalized in satirical folk song lyrics as little boxes on the hillside, all made out of ticky-tacky, all looking just the same. It got the traffic jams and choking smog that kept Johnny Carson’s monologue writers awash in "beautiful downtown Burbank" jokes for 20 years. By the last few decades of the twentieth century, the city itself seemed stuck in an existential traffic jam of its own devising. And in true Hollywood blockbuster fashion, climate change had introduced a ticking-clock element to the whole affair. Like clean water and clean air, time was running out.

* * *

Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, which many regard as the greatest movie ever made about Los Angeles, hit theaters in 1974. Robert Towne’s Oscar-winning screenplay updated the cynical worldview of classic film noir for a post-Vietnam, post-Watergate American moment when practically every voter in the country felt like an unindicted co-conspirator. In the film, Los Angeles private eye Jake Gittes (played by Jack Nicholson) accepts a simple job tailing a man whose wife believes him to be cheating on her, only to uncover a conspiracy that leads him straight to the heart of the city’s power structure.

Towne had based this conspiracy on a real, and still controversial, chapter in Golden State history: the 1913 diversion of massive amounts of freshwater from east-central California’s Owens Valley to Los Angeles and the building of the Los Angeles Aqueduct. The city as we know it would not have come into existence without this marvel of civil engineering and the water it delivered. But if every creation myth comes with its own singular act of original sin, then a great many Californians still regard this brazen resource-grab as the tainted apple that sullied the garden of L.A.

Today, the nearly four million residents of Los Angeles still get more than a third of their water from the aqueduct. Other sources include the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, a regional cooperative of water districts that pool their efforts to provide a steady supply to L.A. and other members via the Colorado River Aqueduct, and the State Water Project, which brings water down from the Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta via the California Aqueduct. Taken together, these sources represent about 90 percent of L.A.’s total intake. The remainder comes courtesy of local groundwater and recycling efforts.

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