There is nothing like visiting other cities to put in perspective the heralded renaissance of Downtown Los Angeles, especially if those cities are New York and Shanghai.
To be sure, the new residential developments and the sprinkling of architectural attractions such as the cathedral and concert hall augur well for a Downtown that for decades has been an afterthought in burgeoning Southern California
But going back to my native New York City as I do several times a year to visit family and former haunts makes me realize how much more L.A. must do to become engagingly urbane.
That includes at the least shaping a diverting street life here to prompt me to window shop while walking from a dinner to a concert or a play. Walking. Now there’s a thought as parking considerations still wag the Downtown development dog. More hi-rises and density would help.
Not that I think L.A. should mimic New York City. Each has its own distinctive context, culture and communities to celebrate. No doubt we will never have Manhattan’s attitude and ambiance so evident on its thriving street life while that singular island will never have our moderate climate and mountains-by-the sea setting that flavors our envied lifestyle.
But lending me a refreshing, if not exhausting, new perspective on both L.A. and New York was a visit over the recent winter holidays to the emerging new China, in particular Shanghai. The bustling city on the east coast of the booming Asian nation in comparison makes Manhattan feel like its neighboring borough of Queens, and downtown L.A. like Santa Monica.
Actually, Queens where I spent several years in adolescent purgatory and Santa Monica where I persevered as a petulant resident in my middle years were not unpleasant. Just that despite some consumerist conceits, these diverse comfortable communities were similarly suburban, segregated, self-satisfied and, yes, sleepy.
Shanghai definitely is not. With an estimated 20 million residents, including a “floating” population of 3 million, the city seems in a perpetual state of becoming. To a tourist who fancies himself a “flaneur,” as I do, the city exudes a singular spirit that makes experiencing its streets, shop, eateries, and sights exciting.
Talk about densities. Walking along sidewalks is a contact sport that sweeps you along. As for design and development, it is everywhere, as an estimated 400 high rises in various states of construction accent the city’s studded skyline. (In comparison 46 are the planning pipeline for Downtown L.A.)
And while L.A. keeps holding talk fests calling for the revitalization of the LA River, Shanghai in just a dozen years has transformed what had been a mostly rice paddies east of its Huanpu River downtown into a sparkling collection of residential and office developments, plazas and parks. Known as Pudong, it is now the site of the world’s tallest hotel, Asia’s largest shopping center and the city’s new financial district, all lit up and open for business.
The resulting Capitalist-driven commercial clutter blessed by the city and the nation’s Communist rulers resemble if anything Gotham City of the Batman films, what with its spires and skyscrapers. But it is not oppressive, rather more like a high-rise backdrop to the city’s flavorful low-rise neighborhoods of streets and alleys edged by dated shops and housing.
The low-rise city hints of the China I remember of 20 years ago when hordes in brown and gray padded Mao jackets swarmed through the streets on bicycles or heads down trudging every which way. China then was still in the depressing doldrums of a recalcitrant Communism, borne of in the aftermath of a devastating occupation by the Japanese, a civil war, and an oppressive cultural revolution.
Dormant but apparently not dead was the open for- business, open for- anything, Shanghai a branch of my family experienced in the early 30s after stumbling out of Soviet Russia, along with tens of thousands of other expats.
(My uncle had gone east while his older brother, my father, had scampered west, to settle in Paris, then New York, and me eventually in L.A. The family’s choices of cities, I feel, always have been exemplary.)
The bicyclists are still there, as are the hundreds of thousands of workers from rural China pouring into the city, attracted by an annual escalating income five times the national average, due in part to the construction boom.
While the housing market has cooled recently, long-term prospects remain bullish, given the inherent demand generated by China’s population of 1.3 billion. That’s a lot of people to be housed, feed, clothed and entertained, and where else better to do that but in Shanghai.
The city also is luring the nation’s educated youth, which can be seen on the streets sporting the latest western fads and fashions. And it seems they have forsaken the bicycle for cars, which in turn has resulted in L.A.-like traffic jams. This adds to the pollution that no doubt will haunt China in its continued expansion, as will a host of other environmental problems.
Regardless of echoes of concern by academics and others for the environment and the economy, development moves forward, helped rather than hampered by a bureaucracy whose marching orders are clearly practical and focused. No community outreach here or any protracted plan reviews.
“Construction is aimed first and foremost at economic development. Everything else comes second,” the director of Shanghai planning, Jiang Wu, is quoted as saying.Still, architecture and historic preservation are a consideration, if only in the opinion of developers and designers so as to better distinguish select projects and make them more marketable. One can appreciate their candor.
Meanwhile, Shanghai lurches forward, welcoming new development, new residents and visitors, as any city must do if it is to thrive. To be sure, there are lessons in Shanghai for L.A,
Appeared in now extinct LA Magazine, picked up Downtown L.A. News, various websites etc. DATED, but still good perspective.