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Narrowing Down LA’s Streets

February 9, 2010

Our streets and neighborhoods are living monuments to the era in which they were built. The recently constructed subdivisions of the Inland Empire and southern Orange County are a suburbia executed with a half century of experience. The mid-century neighborhoods of much of the Valley and South Bay speak of a time when the autopian suburb was still a new thing; people reveled in driving to roller-skate restaurants and drive-in theaters instead of drudging to Wal-Mart in a giant SUV. Mid-City, though contorted toward car-centrism over many decades, still shows signs of a time when the auto was peer to the streetcar. In Los Angeles, there is one remaining example of a street which predates even the streetcar: Olvera street. It is but one small block amid millions of miles of broad thoroughfare, but take a walk through it and you come to appreciate, if only to a small degree, the 18th century life that our Spaniard Angeleno forefathers once led.

Sometimes, streets and neighborhoods are rebuilt or destroyed entirely, and with them the history they once carried. There was a time when there was no Four-Level interchange between Angelino Heights and Bunker Hill; before the freeway came they were considered adjoining neighborhoods, now they are thought of as different parts of the city. And look at Bunker Hill: what once was a residential neighborhood has been transfigured into a concrete business district where every street is a freeway. It seems that whenever streets are rebuilt in Los Angeles, they are rebuilt in the image of the automobile. The dynamic community life of the old neighborhoods is simply an anachronism, it needs to be paved.

But fortunately, this clamor for cars and wide streets seems to be slowly fading. In its stead are ideas from such visionaries as David Yoon, a writer, photographer and web designer. David has recently founded Narrow Streets LA, which reimagines some of LA’s less pleasant thoroughfares as pedestrian friendly havens by thinning them to the scale of Olvera, LA’s original narrow street. The site is only a few months old, but David has already built a sizable repository of photoshop-based renditions of future narrow streets. He is open to requests; I suggested he write about Olvera as an example of one LA street that requires no narrowing, and he was kind enough to run it as a feature.

It’s taken us the better part of a century to even begin to learn that wide thoroughfares generally make cities an unpleasant place to live. Sure, they have their place; I have always been a fan of freeway cover parks, which preserve the functionality of the freeway while making them significantly less ugly. But we could really do with a few less arterial wasteland boulevards and a few more of David’s walkable, enjoyable avenues. Here’s to a future of narrow streets and broad possibilities.

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