Posted by: jdantos | December 5, 2005

The Los Angeles School

Last Thursday I went to hear Antonio Villaraigosa, the new Mayor of Los Angeles, speak at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. The H-bomb has this uncanny ability to leverage its name to draw in these incredible speakers from around the world, and hey, I don’t mind being just down the street and free-riding.

As Mike keeps correctly pointing out, my perspective in this blog is clearly on a certain kind of city: strong downtown core, dense enough for competitive transit, fairly old, post-industrial, mostly to the north and east in the U.S., some hyper-segregated neighborhoods, etc. I guess this makes sense, given my past experiences in Providence, Boston, London, Paris, and (maybe) Chicago. Alot of academics call this school of thought the “Chicago School of Urbanism,” whose models and ideas don’t have much meaning for another kind of city that took off post-WWII in America, and that eventually gave rise to the “Los Angeles School of Urbanism.”

So I went to this talk wanting to learn and think more about these other kinds of cities to the south and west which I, admittedly, sometimes “love to hate.” I mean, the fastest growing parts of this country are in the southwest, LA is City #2 in America, and so many amazing potentialities exist in growth. Correcting old mistakes can be much harder than preventing new ones. Turns out that Villaraigosa was an academic before a politician, and laid out groundwork for a mayoral campaign at UCLA and USC called “Beyond Sprawl,” his plan to bridge the gap between Chicago and LA through policy prescriptions for LA. Although the subject of the talk never strayed much from unsurprising cheerleading, it was intriguing to read between the lines a little, and during Q&A he seemed to “off-script” a little more. The mayor spoke of the astounding growth of Los Angeles, its size, incredible poverty, and its oft-overlooked importance as a freight port. He also hit on a major theme I kept hearing at the Urban Age conference: that cities will begin to rival states and even nations in power and importance. He talked of LA just like Penalosa referred to his Bogota, as the laboratory, the exact pinpoint of a real place where the crusing forces of huge things like the Information Age, national policies, and globalization collide to produce innovation, violence, inequity, human relations, and progress. As the stage for all this, Villaraigosa said, he is thrilled to be the mayor of a huge city that is probably just on the verge of reinventing itself.

His other major point was the importance of improving the city’s public schools – tricky given that the mayor doesn’t control the schools. He said LA’s school system was so important to him that he basically had to break ranks with some teachers unions that had supported him during the election. He danced lightly around it, and I haven’t been following the issue in the news enough to know it well, but I think he’s trying to take over the school board. Something isn’t working in the status quo, and even though he may not be 100% right, I at least admire his willingness to expend political capital and try something.

Anyway, it was pretty exhilarating and inspiring stuff. I think I need to branch out more often!

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