Joe Mathews: Los Angeles no longer dreaming big

Tents used by the homeless line a downtown street with the Los Angeles skyline behind them. Joe Mathews says that officials are thinking smaller about L.A. these days.
Tents used by the homeless line a downtown street with the Los Angeles skyline behind them. Joe Mathews says that officials are thinking smaller about L.A. these days. The Associated Press

Has Los Angeles downsized its dreams?

In the last century, Southern Californians dreamed so big that our aspirations defined this place. “People cut themselves off from their ties of the old life when they come to Los Angeles,” former Mayor Tom Bradley famously said. “They are looking for a place where they can be free, where they can do things they couldn’t do anywhere else.”

Today, ambition has given way to trepidation. Our most powerful aspirations are no longer about growing the city, but about splitting it into smaller communities, self-contained and sustainable. Squeezed by inequality, we struggle to find a grip on some small ledge of L.A.’s economy. We no longer want to attend big schools (we’re creating charters), work in big industries (we prefer startups) or drive on big roads (we’re narrowing them to fit bike lanes and rail lines).

We’re told a splintered L.A. will be better because it will run at a slower pace, organized around everyday needs. We may live narrower lives, but we’ll be healthier and feel a sense of belonging.

Could we become the Agoraphobic City? We know all too well the dangers of our sprawling, car-centric metropolis. But there are obvious threats if we split apart into smaller, like-minded enclaves – to our diversity, to our economies of scale and to the very idea of Southern California.

The biggest danger is to our already frayed commitment to democracy. Too many of our planning exercises are democratic dodges. The Los Angeles 2020 Commission was created by the City Council during the 2013 mayoral election explicitly to push big questions about the future beyond the election season. And in all the schemes to break Southern California into smaller communities, you will search in vain for plans to let these smaller communities govern themselves.

Today’s nerdier L.A. elites (with a Rhodes scholar mayor) revere data and talk about L.A. as if it were a test lab, where they can create “models” of living they can export elsewhere. In the Broad Foundation’s plan for charter schools, Los Angeles offers “an opportunity to create a national proof point for other states and cities.”

This stuff sounds bold, but it’s small-think that answers the challenges of a metropolis with small-town plans. If our thinking were bigger, we would aspire to build a shared sense of citizenship across the region. We would work harder to develop industries and attract immigrants to renew our region. We would further break down barriers of class and governance.

Good news: We are building public transit to connect ourselves better. Bad news: Our weak democracy – with its low engagement and two-thirds vote requirements for local taxes – won’t let us build nearly enough of the transit, housing and parks we need. Environmental protection and government frugality have become reasons for saying no to just about anything not backed by a billionaire.

Los Angeles is already too separated, too walled-off. Will splitting us into self-contained enclaves really simplify lives and give us time to connect in other ways?

Or will these aspirations for a smaller L.A. merely add to the complexity of navigating this complex place?

Today there is a fashionable nostalgia among elites for early 20th-century L.A., a smaller, denser, segregated city with streetcars. According to this revisionism, Southern California went wrong in the sprawling, suburban late 20th century. The revisionists forget how the late 20th century made L.A. more diverse, safer and less polluted. We need more of that spirit of breaking boundaries, not plans to erect new ones.

The aspiration for a smaller L.A. reflects an understandable weariness with all our earlier ambition, but it isn’t a recalibration for a new century. It’s more of an abdication.

Joe Mathews is California & innovation editor for Zócalo Public Square, for which he writes the Connecting California column. This essay is part of the “Is L.A. a City of Big Dreams?” project.