(return to Los Angeles essays)
By five o'clock on a hazy afternoon of early April, 1920, downtown Los Angeles was a jumble. As the central banking, retail, and management core of a thriving metropolis of almost a million people, LA's downtown, constricted to about 300 square blocks, anchored the city's economy and concentrated its capital — and, it seemed by five P.M., much of its labor as well.
Indeed, the crush to catch the interurban trains had become a daily trial for the workers who, like many of their white collar contemporaries in early twentieth century urban America, commuted by streetcar to and from work downtown.
You see, the trains ran late, often as much as 45-60 minutes behind during rush hour. Automobiles, parked and moving, clogged the streets, causing the streetcars to constantly be rerouted to avoid the worst of the congestion. By this time, business downtown was beginning to suffer from the congestion. The city was simply being crushed by traffic.
With foresight, the elites firmly established at the core of this metropolis directed the city to inaugurate a planning commission to design a workable solution to these traffic problems.
Here they are—a respectable looking bunch. As their most urgent goal, the planning experts were charged with finding a way to make the urban rail system run punctually and smoothly again, as the transportation network all over the city was snarled by the congestion and delays at the downtown hub. By mid-April of 1920 the commission — fully backed by the downtown banking and retail interests — recommended what appeared to be an eminently sensible and prudent plan of reform, which the city council — again dominated by those downtown interests — promptly put into force.
The city would immediately institute a ban on automobile parking downtown during business hours. (Here on the right is the cover of the Los Angeles Times that day.) Effectively, private cars would be banished from the heart of the city.
This plan was widely considered a triumph of progressive era rational planning, and indeed, the experts seemed to have proved their worth: The day after the plan was instituted, the trains ran on time for the first time in years. April 22, 1920, was the dawning of a new era of control over automotive congestion in Los Angeles.
Downtown business leaders were thrilled — or at least they were for a couple of days. Until two in the afternoon on April 24th, to be precise. Right then, they looked out the windows of their stores and saw tens of thousands of enraged urbanites descending upon downtown. And this mob was motorized; thousands of cars deliberately clogged the streets in mass protest against the parking ban.
They were urged on by public speakers calling for boycotts and led in their protest parade by "grand marshal" Clara Kimball Young, a prominent film star of the time (the first image on the left above is her in a publicity still printed in the movie section of the LA Times that month; next are a couple of more vivid images of her — that last is with none other than Rudolph Valentino). The police department, which had confidently printed up an extra 5,000 parking tickets in preparation for parking ban enforcement, was overwhelmed.
Yes, it was true; the city was utterly dependent upon the automobile, and, once again, Los Angeles was plunged into the Babel of gridlock. This metropolis was not merely a traffic nightmare, it was increasingly confusing, disorienting, and illegible to its residents.
This incomprehensibility of the traffic jumble played into a number of doubts Angelenos were already having about their town. As the always incisive social critic Carey McWilliams put it later,
By the time of LA's international exposure via the Olympic Games of 1932, the keyword sprawl would come to serve as a primary token of the region for countless reporters and visitors to this seemingly backward Western metropolis. As Harry Carr put it somewhat later, in 1935,
Thanks to this flood of criticism, by the mid-'20s, Angelenos began to doubt whether their town qualified as a real, modern city at all. Indeed, as local real estate researcher and prolific historian W.W. Robinson has recounted, "In the early 1920's, sardonic visitors to Southern California began describing Los Angeles as 'six suburbs in search of a city.' Later the number became ninety or one hundred" (Robinson, 27). Was this a city or a sprawling jumble of housing tracts¤ In the Jazz Age, an era preoccupied with conceptions of the modern, how could this mess of movie stars and traffic jams possibly qualify as a real American metropolis¤
The Modern Metropolis
Well, what was a "real" American city in the 1920s, and what did such a place look like?
Ah, New York City — and Manhattan specifically — was the very epitome of modern American urbanism in the popular mind of the Jazz Age. And, yes, it was the skyscraper — the exemplary Chrysler Building shown here, of course — that defined Manhattan. New York City defined modernity by towering over its rivals.
It was not a city of stone or wood, but of steel and glass. And in New York, it was the skyscraper, not the private automobile, that was the predominant symbol of modernity. In magazines, newspapers, and the increasingly ubiquitous picture postcards of the 1920s, the skyscraper reigned as the embodiment of modern progress.
Perhaps most striking in this respect were the famous King's Views of Manhattan and Brooklyn. Beginning back in 1891, Moses King began producing a series of tour guides of New York City. These "handbooks" were lavishly illustrated, furnished both with line drawings and, increasingly, with photographs — pictures, almost exclusively, of tall buildings.
By 1896, King had spun these pictorial features of his guide books off into separate paperback volumes of "Views" of the modern city. Before long, most New Yorkers, and quite a few other Americans, thought of Gotham in terms of these popular representations of iconic buildings.
Historian David Nye terms this obsession with the towering metropolis the allure of "the vertical sublime."
And King's Views played on this "vertical sublime" by presenting the tall building as a sort of fetish item. The skyscraper was effectively compacted for mass consumption: Reduced to folio size, to two dimensions, and to ink on pulp. The depicted massive skyscraper somehow became a sort of miniature souvenir of itself. In this way, King's chapbooks trafficked in the very currency of modern urbanism, allowing the consumer to covetously possess a token of these edifices that were so fundamentally the product of massively co-ordinated labor and concentrated corporate capitalism.
And it was in this way, as well, that King's Views helped associate the skyscraper with the future of urbanism. Early on, Moses King and his renderers began to add fanciful, futuristic urban scenes to his collections of profiles of notable buildings.
The image on the far left, from 1908, shows the future as King and his men envisioned it. It was — not surprisingly — a city of taller and taller buildings. He called it "King's Dream of New York," and it proved so popular that he had his artists revise the vision again and again in subsequent editions.The next image is from the 1911 edition — by now the cover piece for that year's book of Views. The existent and the merely imagined came to imperceptibly merge in this vertical sublime fantasia.The rightmost picture is of the 1915 edition, and once again these images revel in the play of multiple spatial planes; they present the viewer with urbanity in depth, a rich tableau of towers and flying ships and elevated roadways.
By this time, this vision of modern urbanity had become a hegemonic discourse within American popular culture as a whole. Through the famous image of such films as 1933's King Kong, filmgoers across the country, and indeed around the world, became familiar with the vertical city. Other films, reveled in the vertical sublime of the modern metropolis, but none more so than the influential Science Fiction movies of the era. The fantastic notion of this skyscraper urban future burned itself into the popular consciousness in countless scenes, such as these from 1926's Metropolis — the idea for which, by the way, Fritz Lang later traced to his first sight of the Manhattan skyline.
In novels and short stories, as well, this vision of the future metropolis circulated widely during this era, dominating popular fiction in this age of pulps. Indeed, for many people in the 1920s, the towering city of skyscrapers defined modern urbanism — and it was an alluring image to many.
Traffic & Modernity
So, what does this "vertical sublime" have to do with Los Angeles and its traffic crisis? Well, the intrusion of the private automobile onto the landscape of the American city was never a simple affair.
Yet, this was not always the case in early twentieth century America. Many cities managed to weave the automobile into their urban fabrics with much less anxiety and disruption. For some time at least, these cities managed to reconcile automobility with Jazz Age verticality.
Indeed, I would like to argue here that the vertical sublime was not in fact restricted to the urban booster or the wide-eyed visionary, but that it spread into what Antonio Gramsci calls the "common sense" of the Jazz Age city and its observers. Although these vertical metropolises were, like sprawling Los Angeles, deluged with automotive traffic, that gridlock never raised such profound questions about the very character of their urbanity.
One of the leaders in this respect was Chicago. By the 1920s, the city suffered from fairly intensive congestion of its own; yet over the course of the decade, Chicagoans self-confidently embarked upon a variety of ambitious programs designed to integrate this crush of cars into the existing topography of modern skyscrapers.
One example of this is 1926's Chicago Jewelers' Building. It was one of the first in the nation to be designed specifically with the automobile in mind. It may look here like an ordinary skyscraper, but the bulk of this tower houses not people, but cars. They were ferried between levels within the structure by massive elevators. Clearly, this was a solution to the urban parking problem animated by the dominant discourse of the modern city.
The new highway was on the site of the city's old market district, then known as South Water Street. The newly renamed Wacker Drive would take traffic entirely off the city's surface streets, carrying the cars instead through a dedicated multi-level, grade-separated corridor.
As one architectural historian has put it, "both the [Jewelers'] building and its adjacent street ... were designed as an integral and functioning unit" (Sennott 1988 166). In Chicago — and in the imagination of the Jazz Age metropolis — automotive traffic could be easily assimilated into the complex play of vertical spaces, depths, and levels in which the modern city reveled.
Even more ambitious measures were contemplated in New York City, where respected city planners and architects were consumed with imagining new ways of accommodating the automobile into the existing cityscape. Perhaps most notable among these urban professionals were Harvey Wiley Corbett and Hugh Ferriss.
Starting with a series of sketches, the two collaboratively proposed double-decking all of Manhattan's streets, and further removing pedestrian traffic to its own discrete level. Here, the urban modern — serious and practical — mirrored the fantastic.
New York would be criss-crossed with mounting courses of roads, overhead walkways, and cloistered arcades. Ultimately, Corbett and Ferris suggested, urban blights and dangers could be cured by partitioning conflicting urban elements into stratified vertical space. A ravenous verticality would consume and annihilate all the inconveniences of the modern city. Eventually, Manhattan would become a metropolis of spires, a towering utopia of vertical urbanism.
By 1931, the Regional Plan Association of New York and its Environs had thoroughly bought into this vision of the future. As we see in this image, from their Master Plan for the Metropolis, massive grade-separated automotive highways — on a larger scale even than Chicago's Wacker Drive — would course through the canyons of towering skyscrapers; the car would be fully absorbed into the vertical city, occupying one level among many.
Thus, by the end of the 1920s, a powerful collective set of urban visions, all smoothly juxtaposing automobiles and skyscrapers, was dominant within both popular and professional planning circles within the Jazz Age city.
Los Angeles at a Cross-Roads
Yet, in the 1920s, Southern California resisted this alluring image. Angelenos feared the dark streets under the 'el' — shadows cast over the bucolic bungalows of sunny Southern California. And they feared the sort of congestion — human, not automotive — that all this dense urbanism might cause.
But by the mid-1930s, the automobile had brought chaos to the region. As shown in this traffic analysis from the period, motorists were commuting in unpredictable, contradictory patterns that was producing widespread gridlock.
In fact, an influential proposal put forth in 1937 by the Automobile Club of Southern California portrayed these new motorways passing over and through them in a fantasy that might have come from one of King's Dreams.
But they were not predominantly vertical things in of themselves. So, what was developing in Southern California by the postwar period was something compatible with, but significantly different from, the modern vertical sublime of New York and Chicago.
We might call this new aesthetic the 'horizontal sublime.'
By the 1950s, social critics were bemoaning the "sprawl" of Southern California, and now commenting critically upon the new freeways as the cause of it. Within the decade, the freeway and the sprawling, gridlocked urbanity that it now seemed to represent, were frequently cited as the undesirable outcome of progress run wild.
Here was the very epitome of the modern city. This smog, this traffic, these new downtown skyscrapers: They were all seen in this postwar era — so far removed from the optimistic fantasies of the Jazz Age — as the way modern urbanism itself had gone terribly, tragically wrong.
The author would also like to gratefully acknowledge the following sources of the images used in this essay: The Los Angeles Times; the Los Angeles Examiner; the Los Angeles City and County Regional Planning Commissions; the Los Angeles Department of Transportation; the Los Angeles Public Library; the University of California, Los Angeles; the Automobile Club of Southern California; the California Department of Highways [CalTrans]; the Long Island Historical Society; the Museum of the City of New York; the Chicago Historical Society; the Avery Library; The American City magazine; the Library of Congress; and the Smithsonian Institution.
Jeremiah Borenstein Axelrod
Copyright © 2000 Jeremiah Borenstein Axelrod. All rights reserved.
Last updated 16th November 2000