Where would you take me if I asked to see the real LA? It’s something that we’ve been talking about a lot as a group, and it’s a major focus of most of our itineraries: Where to find the categorically-misunderstood Los Angeles? How to see the “authentic” version of the largest, most complicated—insert your own favorite description: sprawling, smoggy, fake, dangerous—places on earth? And who can say what’s real, and what’s an expertly-manufactured perception, in this land where illusion is our top export? And why does authenticity even matter when it comes to the places we live?
I thought about this a lot when we visited the Watts House Project, which I’ve written about before. Since I was there last, the artist-driven urban revitalization program has managed to procure three shotgun houses to use as offices and a cafe, and have started work on another house. So what does this house—or any place that’s being renovated, for that matter—become when it’s repainted and relandscaped with grants and funds and volunteer labor that comes from outside of the neighborhood? Does it stop becoming a “real” part of the community, and instead take the shape of manufactured idealism?
The same day we visited Watts, we hopscotched one community over to Lynwood and the Plaza Mexico, an extremely believable re-creation of a Mexican city (might I say Disney-fied?), complete with a “cathedral” where you can find stores like the Hip Hop Zone. This is a Mexican mall that was designed to make local residents feel more at home; perhaps you could call it the Mexican Grove. And like The Grove, there were certainly plenty of people enjoying it. Yet was it more about perception, the feeling of being in Mexico, than it was about substance?
And what makes that space more “authentic” than this gorgeous yet down-on-its-luck Art Deco theater we found in nearby Huntington Park? As we gawked at the lacy neon and pastel terrazzo underfoot, we met a woman who was there scouting locations for the new Spiderman movie. The irony was too much: A movie theater, empty, being used as a prop to make one of the movies that used to be shown inside of it. Illusion upon layers of illusion. Has this theater lost its “realness,” then? Is authenticity determined by use?
No film location is more famous than the concrete canyon of the LA River, the 50-mile storm drain for the city that serves as our go-to dystopic backdrop. 100% manufactured, to be sure, yet it’s also one of the most vivid and memorable images of LA. So to complicate matters, we accessed the LA River through a new park in Bell, one of many new public spaces that lines the river. The fact that there’s a gateway to the river, a bike path zipping past that leads to other, greener parts of the river—and a plan to restore it completely—is something that even most Angelenos don’t know. But will the restored, and 100% re-manufactured river be more “real” to residents who have only known this river their whole lives?
Speaking of feats of engineering, what about our freeways? I was especially taken by this image I saw on a Design Observer slideshow on old West magazine covers. Say what you will about our city’s most-reviled feature: the freeways are a very authentic part of the Los Angeles experience. Will replacing them with the trains we used to have give us a sense of the “real” LA? Or is the idea of traveling via trolley around the city just a romanticized—and outdated—vision of transit?
Like any major city, we’re constantly casting and recasting our environments, I realized, as the sun was setting, and we ambled over Bunker Hill in downtown where Victorians used to line the streets. We zipped down Angels Flight, a 109-year-old funicular train which feels both more authentic and more theme-park than any place else in LA. Because these office buildings are slick, towering and contemporary, are they somehow not as real as the quaint, crumbling Victorian architecture they replaced? How much do aesthetics figure into authenticity?
But that was it, I thought, as we walked through the Bradbury Building. Our timing couldn’t have been more perfect: We were shooed out after a crew was shooting a Japanese music video. As the fog machine swirled the atrium with haze and a strobelight zapped through the wrought iron, looking every bit like Blade Runner. Our version of “real” might be just a tiny bit distorted, due to our local economy.
I’m asking all this today because in a few minutes we’re heading to Disneyland—YES! I TOLD YOU THIS FELLOWSHIP RULED!—where we hope to learn about the different definitions of false and real, authentic and fake when it comes to architecture, urban planning, even entertainment. We’re going to see how even an appropriated environment can offer plenty to learn from. And also to ride Space Mountain. And wear Mickey ears. All in the name of architecture. M-O-U-S-E!
*headline appropriated, appropriately, from my favorite Longshot magazine article