Los Angeles is a sprawling city located in Southern California. Los Angeles is an internationally renowned area, famous for its role in the film industry and home to Hollywood, the centre of modern film production.
Los Angeles is the subject of a large proportion of today’s films and it is mostly portrayed as a glamorous and prosperous place to live with films such as ‘A Star is Born’ and ‘What Price Hollywood’ glamorising Los Angeles, often inspiring people to visit and even live there in pursuit of the ‘American Dream.’
However, the Los Angeles we see in films is often a rather distorted portrayal and omits the cruel reality of life in the poorer parts of the city and ghetto culture.
As with all cities, Los Angeles suffers from many social, economic and environmental difficulties due to its ever increasing population, these problems often being overlooked in Hollywood’s idealistic portrayal of the city.
In this study I will describe and assess Los Angeles’ less promoted aspects and critically evaluate them in relation to other major cities of the world. I will highlight similarities between Los Angeles and other major world cities, such as Paris and London, in order to assess the study question and geographer Michael Dear’s claim that cities around the world are becoming more like Los Angeles.
Firstly though, we must become acquainted with Los Angeles and be aware of its location and current status.
According to the United States Census Bureau, Los Angeles has a total area of 1,290.6kmï¿½ (498.3miï¿½.)1
Los Angeles began as a Spanish settlement called a ‘pueblo’ and its population grew drastically in the 1800s when gold and oil were discovered in California. The oil discovery meant that by 1923, Los Angeles was supplying just over one-quarter of the world’s petroleum, increasing the cities population to over one million inhabitants through people moving to the city due to the newly available job prospects caused by the oil discovery.
The 1940s brought about a new industry to the city; film. Los Angeles has profited immensely from the discovery of oil and gold, but the more recent breadwinning industry is film. Los Angeles is used for filming locations constantly, in 1996 five-hundred and thirty seven films were shot in and around the city compared to two-hundred and one in New York City, thirty-six in Toronto and only nineteen in Chicago. Because of this massive advantage over the other major cities, the industry generates over twenty billion dollars for LA a year.
Hollywood became a centre for film production with studios like Paramount drawing wannabe film stars to Los Angeles, pushing the population up to over two million by 1970. This dramatic population rise resulted in the cities expansion into the desert as the increasing number of immigrant population put high demand on housing resources, causing suburban sprawl.
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This rapid expansion resulted in Los Angeles’ present population of 3,041.3/kmï¿½, making it one of the worlds most densely populated regions.
Hollywood continues to attract large numbers of people each year, wishing to work in the film industry, these immigrants putting a strain on the cities housing, therefore suburban sprawl is a continuing process in Los Angeles.
This immigration does not only affect the city’s space and development, but causes serious social problems as well.
Racially influenced crime has blighted Los Angeles due to the massive range of cultures and nationalities within it.
The year 2000 census showed that 46.93% of L.A’s inhabitants were white, 11.24% African American, 0.8% Native American, 15.81% Asian, 0.16% Pacific Islander, 25.7% Other races and 5.18% were mixed race.2
This multicultural society experienced many problems due to culture clashes, and racist attacks were commonplace.
The poverty of particular parts of the city sparks crime and lack of recognition of this by the government is a serious concern. For example, Mike Davies in his book Dead Cities stated the lack of money provided to the city by the government in comparison to other large cities of its kind:
Federal Contribution to Budgets, Selected Big Cities3
As we can see from the table, Los Angeles received a large percentage less funding from the government, a contributing factor to the high levels of crime in the city.
In 2002, Los Angeles was given the title of ‘murder capital of America’ with over 600 murders in the year 2002 alone.4
Other serious incidents constantly happen in Los Angeles, one of the most prolific being the L.A riots of 1992. Four policemen were acquitted of the racially motivated beating of black civilian Rodney King in April of that year. A heavily publicised case, with a video of the beating shown on national television, the verdict sparked violent outbreaks across the city with looting, arson and general violence, causing Mayor Tom Bradley to impose a curfew with businesses and schools being closed, and Governor Peter Wilson putting on street patrol 4,000 National Guard troops to keep order in the city.
The riots resulted in “fifty people dead, four thousand injured, twelve thousand people arrested and one billion dollars worth of property damage.” 5
This civil unrest is similar to the more recent events in the suburbs of another affluent city, Paris, France.
On the 27th October 2005, two teenagers of African origin in Clichy-sous-Bois, a suburb of Paris plagued by racial tension, Zyed Benna and Bouna Traore were electrocuted after climbing onto an electrical substation; allegedly in an attempt to hide from the police. This sparked off large riots that lasted three weeks, spreading to other areas and resulting in three thousand arrests and on one night, more than 1,400 vehicles were destroyed and like in Los Angeles, curfews were imposed and restrictions on public gatherings put into place.6
Even in Britain, racially motivated incidents have caused riots much similar to those in France and LA. The alleged rape of a Jamaican girl by an Asian man in Birmingham in October 2005 triggered violent clashes in which one man was stabbed and another 38 people admitted to hospital in one night of horrific unrest in the city.
Trevor Phillips, Head of the Commission for the Racial Equality said that Britain becoming more and more segregated and there are particular areas which have the potential to become “fully-fledged ghettos.”7
Comparisons have been drawn with the ghettos of Los Angeles illustrating the way in which major cities like Birmingham are becoming or already have become like Los Angeles in their multicultural problems.
Britain is much like Los Angeles in its population as well as its racially fuelled conflict.
London was the first large city to widely sprawl and as it becomes Europe’s most populated and influential city it sprawled horizontally.
The more recent cities of the nineteenth century in England like Manchester and Liverpool were described as acting in a very similar way to American cities such as Baltimore and Chicago. Friedrich Engels described the ‘unbroken girdle of working-class neighbourhoods in central Manchester that extended out from the commercial district for a mile and a half in every direction and beyond as the quarters of the upper and middle bourgeoisie.”8
This statement could easily have been about any industrial city in America in the late nineteenth century. American suburbs in the twentieth century were often located far from the city centre for example Sewickley outside Pittsburgh.
“In short, whether residential or commercial, year-round or seasonal, contiguous with the settled area of the city or scattered across the hinterland, suburban or exurban, decentralization and sprawl were already widespread in large cities throughout the developed world by the end of the nineteenth century.” Robert Bruegmann, Sprawl, 2005.9
In his 1902 work Anticipations British author H.G. Wells foresaw with faith that by the year 2000, a citizen of London would have “a choice of nearly all of England and Wales south of Nottingham and east of Exeter as his suburb.”
In the process, Wells believed, the city would diffuse itself to such a point that the old divisions between city and country would be eliminated. “There will be horticulture and agriculture going on within the urban regions and ‘urbanity’ without them,” he wrote, stating that the network of roadways, wires, and railroads would make urban amenities available almost everywhere. As strikingly prescient as this sounds today, in reality, like a great many successful predictions about the future, it was mostly an intelligent extrapolation from what Wells could see around him.10
Los Angeles, like London grew rapidly to be the most densely populated area in the United States, presently with more than seven thousand people per square mile.
Los Angeles attracts people continually due to its consistent glamorisation in the press and media. The film ‘The Toolbox Murders’ portrays the side of Hollywood hidden by the glamour, “that side of Hollywood that sees thousands of hopefuls each year have their dreams ground down; that side that sees a small few disappear never to be seen again!” 11
This is a rarity, a film that exposes Los Angeles for what it really is, a cruel world of rejection and dearth, where people, blinded by the bright lights of Hollywood are brought back down to earth in a pitiless and apathetic manner.
Los Angeles attracted so many people due to the appeal of Hollywood, but large amounts of people become move to city to ‘become stars’ and end up living on the streets due to the lack of opportunity in the city.
In February 2003, the American Civil Liberties Union sued Los Angeles and police Chief William Bratton for enforcing an LA law criminalizing the sleeping, lying or sitting on sidewalks in downtown’s Skid Row -an area with the nation’s highest concentration of homelessness.
Over the course of one year, it has been estimated by the Weingart Institute For The Study of Homelessness And Poverty that 254,000 men, women and children experience homelessness in the Los Angeles County.12 In Los Angeles the average homeless family has two children. Also, African Americans are disproportionately represented among the homeless population in Los Angeles, while the Latino, White and Asian groups are underrepresented. A number of studies also indicate that one-third or two-thirds of single individuals have been homeless for more than one year in LA and roughly half of familes and single individuals experience repeated incidents of homelessness in the Los Angeles county.13
This indicates just how huge the problem of homelessness and poverty in Los Angeles is and we can draw similarities to places like London in this aspect.
According to figures published in May 2005, the amount of people living on the streets of London has risen by thirty-seven percent in the past four years, indicating the extreme problem with homelessness the city has.
The London mayor’s office revealed the number of families recorded as homeless increased between December 2000 and December 2004 by 18,000.
This sparked calls from Shelter, an organisation for the homeless, for new affordable housing.
A spokesman for the mayor’s office stated “The number of new homes built in the capital in 2004 was at its highest level in more than two decades. With the mayor’s target that 50% of new homes in London should be affordable, we anticipate the number of new affordable homes will this year rise to 10,000 for the first time for many years.”14
The baby boom that came after WWII increased Britain’s population dramatically and the Government, under pressure from the increasing housing demand provided suburban housing and Garden Cites such as Welwyn Garden City.
Planned with the quality of life of the inhabitants as the main focus, these garden cities were to be located in the Southern countryside away from the pollution of a large city but with the amenities a city provides.
However, only two of these cities were completed, Welwyn Garden City and Letchworth and a new plan of development in 1945 introduced the growth of London’s outer boundaries. This was called the Abercrombie Plan (1945.)
This sprawl pushed London’s suburbs as far out as Stevenage, destroying Greenfield sites, much like Los Angeles.
The sprawling of Los Angeles is used often as a classic example of urban sprawl. “No other urbanized area provides so little land per resident as Los Angeles (0.11 acre.)
“Despite this the LA area has sprawled across three hundred and ninety four square miles of orchards, farmlands, natural habitat and other rural land due to the additional 3.1 million residents.”15
Professor Robert Bruegmann wrote that “Sprawl has been as evident in Europe as in America and can now be said to be the preferred settlement pattern everywhere in the world where there is a certain measure of affluence and where citizens have some choice in how they live.”
Bruegmann says that cities have always sprawled throughout history as Los Angeles has.16
I conclude that cities around the world are indeed displaying more and more characteristics similar to those that Los Angeles exhibits including destructive
racial conflict due to intense amount of people from a variety of cultures attracted to the city and extreme and damaging suburban sprawl into greenfield areas.
However, if Bruegmann is correct in his belief that cities always have and always will sprawl, sprawling is not necessarily a defining characteristic of Los Angeles itself, more a commonplace phenomenon found in all world cities.