"L.A. Is Changing In Some Profound and Dramatic Ways" Q&A With Christopher Hawthorne


From our 2014 report Footnotes: A Report On the State of Walking in LA. Donate to get a printed copy. Special thanks to Melendréz for funding the printing of our 2015 Footnotes report. 

Los Angeles Walks steering committee member Alissa Walker talks to the Los Angeles Times architecture critic.

Alissa Walker: First, thank you for such a great conversation with Mayor Garcetti at Occidental College in February. With Villaraigosa we saw this empire-building when it came to transit, bike lanes and CicLAvia but we didn’t get to hear him talk much about walking. Now we’ve got a mayor who walked five miles to City Hall on Walk to Work Day! How else is Garcetti’s approach different, in your opinion?

Christopher Hawthorne: Villaraigosa, near the end of his time in office, really began paying attention to pedestrian safety and the crucial connections between walking and transit. But it took almost eight years for his administration to get to that point. Garcetti is unusually knowledgeable about and genuinely interested in these issues, as was clear in the Occidental conversation we had; and we’re still very early in his term. The question with him will be execution—or maybe a combination of execution and nerve. How willing will he be to fund improvements to pedestrian access, and sidewalks when they conflict with some voters’ (and media outlets’) desires to keep car traffic moving as swiftly and efficiently as possible? And how willing is he to defend controversial or even unpopular changes to street design?

What would you like to see happen with Garcetti’s new Great Streets Initiative?

I’d like to see it ultimately produce a set of ambitious and thoughtful blueprints that can be applied—with adjustments, of course, for different neighborhoods, and topography—across the city as a whole, and not just along certain corridors. There have been some tremendously encouraging changes in L.A. in terms of how we use and think about the streets, but many have been either temporary (CicLAvia) or limited in scale (Sunset Triangle Plaza). We need a way of making these improvements both permanent and much more common, so they shape the experience of moving through L.A. in a more meaningful way.



Speaking of great streets (or Great Streets) I remember something you said about York Boulevard a few years ago where you pointed out what made it such a good street: The width of the road, the height of the buildings, the mix of uses, the lack of strip malls. You really taught me how to “read” an L.A. street and changed the way I thought about streets as important public spaces in Los Angeles. So thank you for that. York, to me, has really naturally become one of the city’s great streets.

It’s something I noticed when I lived in Eagle Rock—that York seemed much more amenable to bike and pedestrian improvements than Colorado Boulevard simply because of its modest and manageable scale, because of the fact that it operates, to borrow an old Louis Kahn phrase about urban streets, like a “room of agreement.” It’s narrow enough that you can call out to a friend on the other side and stop for a conversation or go have coffee together. Colorado, both because of its history as a major streetcar route and because of the way it was changed to accommodate cars in the post-war era, is so wide and poorly scaled as a pedestrian space that its energy just leaks away. If you saw a friend on the other side there’d be six or eight lanes of traffic between you, and you’d have to shout or wave your arms to get your friend’s attention, and even that might not work. It’s more like a room of disagreement.

These ideas should help guide our investment in new street design. It’s not that a street like Colorado can’t be made to feel more comfortable for pedestrians, but that an investment in a boulevard like York, which already has the scale of a walkable urban street, can pay surprisingly quick dividends.

Continuing on that street theme, last year you finished an excellent series looking at L.A. boulevards. What was the most important takeaway from that project?

That its basic thesis, by the time the final piece appeared, seemed like conventional wisdom. When I first pitched the series to my editors in the beginning of 2012, I had a real sense that there was a renaissance happening along the boulevards, that they were beginning to emerge from the substantial shadow of the freeways as places where the full range of urban life, not just driving, has a chance to play out. My editors, some of whom were skeptical in the most productive way, challenged me to defend and buttress that idea with reporting. And I’m glad they did, because it made all the essays better. But as I write this now, in 2014, the notion seems pretty self-evident, doesn’t it?

It absolutely does!

Think how much has changed just in two years, thanks to CicLAvia, the Expo Line, the endless, obscenely expensive 405-widening debacle, and groups like Los Angeles Walks—and in a broader sense, thanks to the national discussion about how car use is declining, especially among younger Americans. The idea that along every L.A. street and sidewalk is public space waiting to be reanimated or rediscovered is a powerful one. But it’s also one that seems more and more obvious to many people who live here. And the Great Streets Initiative suggests that these ideas are working themselves—albeit slowly—into the political mainstream in L.A.

What do you think about the People St program as far as bringing these ideas more mainstream and getting more of these projects in different neighborhoods?

I think it’s a great way to acknowledge that neighborhood residents are often way ahead of policymakers when it comes to effective and practical ideas for making streets more walkable and bikeable. In Eagle Rock, for example, the walking route from my old house to the local elementary school was pretty treacherous even for older kids—it required walking along a part of Colorado where people regularly drive closer to freeway speed than boulevard speed, and where, in fact, there are car crashes all the time. Everybody in the neighborhood recognized this and talked about it, but nothing, while I lived there, was done.

This is not just a safety or convenience issue; it’s a health issue and one related to economic development and ultimately to education, too. Creating a safer and more pleasant walk to that school would have helped the kids enrolled there. But it also would have drawn more families to the neighborhood with an interest in making the school better, activated the streets and sidewalks, and helped merchants. Now, thanks to the People St program—and in the case of Eagle Rock to groups like Take Back the Boulevard—there’s a way for residents to turn those concerns into permanent design changes.

People St is happening, and also the Great Streets Initiative. What would you like to see in L.A. as far as some really pie-in-the-sky, attention-getting, but also valuable on a day-to-day-level improvements for walkers?

There’s an interesting debate among the leaders and fans of CicLAvia about whether they ought to have an event on a freeway. So far I’ve really liked the consistency of CicLAvia and its focus on the streets we already have, as opposed to the more utopian (or at least politically fraught) project of shutting down a freeway for a day. But a CicLAvia that closed down the 10—or that combined boulevards and freeways, or let people walk from downtown, say, up the 110 and into Dodger Stadium—would definitely get tons of press coverage, just as Arroyo Fest did in 2003 [when the city opened part of the 110 freeway to cyclists]. Even better would be an effort to permanently close down an elevated freeway spur—like the tail end of the 2, as it runs through Elysian Valley and dumps out onto Glendale Blvd—and turn it into a park, so that we could have a version of CicLAvia every day.

I think closing a freeway spur would be the most symbolic move, even more symbolic than a one-day street closure. And think of the press we’d get for that!

You’ve mentioned CicLAvia a lot. What about your own connection to walking, biking and taking transit in L.A.? Did you have an epiphany that helped you realize you needed to focus on streets as much as buildings?

I think CicLAvia, the first time you try it, is an epiphany for almost everybody—it feels like L.A. at its friendliest, most connected, most diverse and most optimistic. For me, working on the boulevards series really made clear not only how different L.A.’s future might be but also how similar, in certain ways, it could turn out to be to L.A.’s pre-war past. After all, all of the things we’re working so hard to develop now—a comprehensive mass-transit system, better models for multifamily residential architecture, sidewalks crowded with pedestrians—are also things we once had and gave up (or lost sight of). So high-speed rail and apps that tell you when the next bus is coming are important—but so is looking again at the streetcar network or Irving Gill’s apartment projects or the bungalow courts in Pasadena.

I love the idea of looking back to look forward, and I definitely think that’s L.A.’s greatest strength. That’s why my favorite thing to show people are the public staircases, which exist as these relics of that era—proof that we once all walked, up really big hills!, to get places in L.A. Any final thoughts?

Only that Los Angeles ought to be one of the great walking and biking cities in the world. If you think about it in terms of climate, topography, vegetation, and how our network of boulevards lays down this kind of supergrid atop the basin, we have some major advantages in terms of urban walkability. Of course, we have a daunting legacy of car culture to deal with, and the battery of policy assumptions that come with it in terms of how we design our streets. But we sometimes overlook the remarkable potential of this city along these lines.

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