2020 ADAPT THIS CITY
EDITORIAL BOARD SELECTION

by Heather Pegas

Once the shock wore off, the first thing that struck me about Los Angeles, the very first thing, was the lack of green space, parks, and nature. From my former home in Oakland I could drive a short distance up the hill and find myself alone in a redwood forest. In my new home here, in Los Angeles, there was no such luck, and it shook me. 

I did not choose LA. I moved from Oakland to Los Angeles in 2015, a relocation induced by my husband’s job. After two-plus decades, the Bay Area felt so much like home that we wouldn’t willingly have left, but we had to, and so leave we did.

I mentioned my longing for nature to a colleague after I moved, one who worked at the East Bay Regional Park District, a park system that covers over 100,000 acres of sprawling green mountains, hills, wetlands, and fields. And what she said has stuck with me ever since.

This didn’t happen by accident. Oakland kept its nature by design.

Following the tenets of the famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted—gardens in reach of cities—civic leaders in the East Bay (of which Oakland is a part) thought to protect the wilderness while their city grew. In 1929, even as the country was plunged into a catastrophic depression, they hired Olmsted Brothers, a firm operated by the famed architect’s sons, and the sons produced The Olmsted-Hall Report of 1930, laying out a plan to preserve tens of thousands of acres, peppering the entire region with parks.

Throughout the ‘30s, the region’s leaders executed this plan and the park system officially opened in 1936. Conversely, at about this time, the City of Los Angeles was containing its irrepressible river in a concrete drainage ditch. The river’s meandering tributaries, and its propensity for flooding, simply stood in the way of progress. 

One of my first introductions to “nature” in Los Angeles came about one sunny September afternoon some two weeks after we’d moved. I decided that if I couldn’t have trees I’d take the ocean. I drove the three short miles to Dockweiler Beach, a state park right under the LAX flight path, just up the road from the imposing domes of the Hyperion Water Reclamation Plant. 

To the north you could see the Santa Monica Pier and the Santa Monica Mountains, so I oriented myself north and began to walk along the water. 

To my horror, the shoreline was scattered with plastic tampon applicators—and with each step, more and more plastic tampon applicators. Hundreds, thousands of them, in all colors and sizes, running at least a mile up the coast. Eventually I came across a crew in orange vests and asked them what had happened, because surely this wasn’t usual. They shrugged and told me they didn’t know; they were just doing beach clean-up for community service. I was left with the stunning possibility that this was all just a normal day in a natural setting in LA. 

When I discovered, about a week later, that a leak at the reclamation plant was the cause, the explanation didn’t comfort me. My expectation that nature should be preserved and protected in cities was beginning to unravel. Maybe preservation was something I’d taken for granted.

In no way do I want to suggest that Oakland had been perfect. Today, Oakland is known as a burgeoning, quasi-affordable-and-yet-desirable alternative to living in San Francisco. People nod their heads when you mention Oakland, and maybe they think of tattooed techies and fourth-wave coffee. But the Oakland of my youth was known for crime and blight. People would cringe when I told them where I lived. “Isn’t that California’s murder capital?” they would ask. 

I got what they meant; I’d been held up at gunpoint myself. But to me, Oakland was beautiful. The hills were rolling and green, smothered in trees. The sunset over the bay could take your breath away. The walk around Lake Merritt, surrounded by waterfowl, was just right for a lunchtime break. The weather was perfect. If others didn’t see what I saw, it was fine by me. I was busy getting lost in Joaquin Miller Park and picking blackberries alone in the woods. 

I don’t want to make unfair comparisons. On a clear day in LA, one can feel she’s in a crystalline bowl, the sky is so blue, and the far off, snow-topped mountains so distinctly juxtaposed against the sky. I often wish I was up in them, but then I remember that crisp March day when we drove an hour up into the Santa Monica Mountains for a hike and ended up on a trail that was so crowded with people it felt like a conveyor belt.

Now I know nature is just different here. Sometimes, it seems no matter where I go I can’t feel nature, which is to say, I almost never feel the peace that I once knew. 

Rivers of ink have been spilt on the topic of LA and how it grew—unruly, fast, and all over the place. Almost 1,500% growth between 1900 and 1940, with all that water sucked out of the Owens Valley just to feed it. 

For the record, I do like LA’s sprawling variety. I can go miles. I can go miles at different times, in different directions, near, far, north, south, east—and I know that no matter where I go I will to see things I’ve never laid eyes on before. I still wonder, nearly five years in, does this city ever get old? Tiresome, sure, but old? 

Tiresome indeed is the Gordian Knot of our highway system. With its long and fraught history of prioritizing automotive travel, LA planners created lots of different ways to get there from here, but almost none of them are quick or convenient today. 

Early this year, I had to travel from my Westside home to a meeting north of downtown, near Silver Lake. That morning there was a wreck on every highway, so Google Maps took me overland all those miles. I passed some neighborhoods I knew, and as usual, many more I’d never seen. I was bringing coffee to the meeting and I was late, so I took the time at stoplights to update colleagues on my progress. At one stop, after reading a text, I looked up and was stunned to see a pedestrian lying, shaking, in the middle of the intersection. One shoe lay about 10 feet away from him and another man was kneeling over him, holding his shoulder and talking on his phone. People on the street corners were taking photos.

I slowly came to realize that while my attention was on my phone, someone had been hit right in front of me. But the light was green, and the traffic was building up behind me. I still had miles to go. 

I wondered what to do. To stop and slow progress to a halt, angering all the Angelenos behind me? Or to continue on my way—as carefully as I could—around the man lying in the road?

I went on. I heard the sirens as I drove by, but people needed coffee, so I went on. Just like LA has always gone on, sweeping along everything in its path. 

A lot of cities are like that, too many grasshoppers and not enough ants. 

Recently, I read How to Do Nothing by Jenny Odell, a young artist and writer, and her book made me thoughtful, not least because she muses as she wanders through the same urban spaces where I spent my youth. The gorgeous Morcom Rose Garden in Oakland where dear friends were married, the parks and streams that the city’s founders so carefully planned and preserved.

Odell coins a term, “manifest dismembering,” a thought-alternative to America’s tradition of Manifest Destiny. As she conceives it, manifest dismembering is an act of reclaiming the land from the constraints we’ve put on it, tearing down the dams and letting the river flow—a selective but radical dismembering of things the city has built. In other words, putting it back the way it was. 

Here in LA, the work of FoLAR, Friends of the LA River, comes to mind. According to their website, in 1986, an activist named Lewis MacAdams cut a hole in the chain link fence that kept people from the water, helping ignite a movement to reclaim that river from the concrete, to undo years of careless un-planning. There are now beautiful sections of the river north in the Valley, I’m told, and I vow to go and see for myself—even though I may have to brave a traffic jam to get there. This act, this un-building, will be wonderful to see. 

And it makes me wonder, if they knew what we know now, would LA’s founders build the city the way they did?

First, I doubt that they would do anything different, and then I wonder if it matters. 

Every few months now, California catches fire, the state closing major freeways on multiple occasions since I’ve lived in Los Angeles. I’ve also learned that the Venice Canals might be underwater in 20 years. I mean the canals in West LA, not the canals in Italy. And I see now that when reclamation comes, it might not be voluntary. Change can come by fire, water, wind, quake, or some other entirely unexpected calamity. Something small and unseen, for instance, with the power to clear the freeways and the air, putting the people back in their rightful place. 

So, what does that mean for us now, we who live in the city? If the time for preservation was 100 years ago, what agency is left? Random acts of recycling and redemption? Constant repair or wholesale retreat? For now, perhaps, we must live gently here, learn to give nature some breathing room. But whether we make this choice or not, I fear, change is coming to the cities we love.  

Oh how I want a happy ending; that is my nature. But this ending is just out of view. We must leave it up to time, and time runs like a river that will not be contained. 

When the dust does settle, those who are here may face unfamiliar territory, along with the precious opportunity to reconsider what we need from a city. And if we get that do-over, we’re going to have to really plan this time. 

~

References:

Laura McCreery, Living Landscape: The extraordinary rise of the East Bay Regional Park District and how it preserved 100,000 acres. Wilderness Press: 2010.

Historical General Population City & County of Los Angeles, 1850 to 2010, http://www.laalmanac.com.

Jenny Odell, How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy. Melville House: 2019.

Friends of the LA River, Tribute to Lewis MacAdams, 1944 – 2020. https://folar.org/2020/04/21/folar-founder-lewis-macadams-passes-away/ .

Venice Sea Level Rise Vulnerability Assessment, a study for the Los Angeles Department of City Planning. May 25, 2018.


Heather Pegas

Heather Pegas is a writer and grant professional whose essays have appeared in Brevity Blog, The Coil, and the Longridge Review. A life-long Californian, she now lives in Los Angeles.

SLAG GLASS CITY · Volume 6 · May 2020
Header image by Steve Boland