The bizarre is the norm in Los Angeles, but some things are so bizarre that even Los Angeles is startled. This spring, for instance, there was a proposal by the refuse disposal operation in Long Beach to buy a tract of land in Malibu, present it to the Long Beach YMCA as a camping ground, but lease most of it back as a rubbish tip. It is difficult to know what is the more breathtaking aspect of this scheme: to truck refuse slap through the middle of Los Angeles on a journey that in distance and social terms can be compared to trucking rubbish through the centre of London from Southend to Henley; or to have used the Christian, and therefore unobjectionable, YMCA as a front for the dumping of rubbish in an area that the locals, at least, regard as one of great natural beauty. YMCAs all over Los Angeles disclaimed responsibility, amenity defenders in Malibu rose in- wrath, and the proposal was shelved, But it does typify that apparently total indifference to the needs of all communities except one’s own that is one of the most continually unnerving aspects of public life in Los Angeles.

To a degree, this indifference is the ugly backside of that free-swinging libertarian ethic that makes so much of Angeleno life irresistibly attractive. The Southern Californian attitude to the law seems to be that its very existence is unnatural and improper. The refusal to accept that society has any claims on the individual reaches its extremes, of course, in cult-groups like the John Birch Society, but almost equally extreme views are held by decent, upright and humane Angelenos of many political shades. Objections to the draft can be as deeply felt on the radical right as on the radical left, but the most striking example I came across was in after-dinner conversation with an ex movie-star of some former fame. Gentle and beautiful, elegant and calm – she needs to be calm, since she now dose therapeutic work with the mentally deranged – she suddenly lost her cool over some matter of public administration and said: “No government on earth has the right to tell me to do anything”.

If this was untypical only in being so explosively explicit, how on earth is law and order preserved in Los Angeles? Not by fear: some actions of the local police get world-wide publicity because of their violence, but they are no worse than any other US Force. And Los Angeles is not conspicuously less law-abiding than other great American cities. Angelenos justify their acquiescence in the law by a kind of parable which I have heard a dozen times if I have heard it once. It concerns traffic signals. Obviously, it proposes, no government has any right to stop you driving straight through a red light if you wish. But there is clear and present need to avoid damage to your car by someone else driving through a red light because he feels like it.

So all drivers agree to accept a convention that enables them to proceed on a green light in the secure knowledge that no one is going to clout them broadside on. In fact, broadside smashes seem to be rather common in Los Angeles, but this does not invalidate the parable, whose key phrase s “clear and present need”. Where such need is agreed to exist, Angelenos will pay taxes, stop at traffic signals, bear arms in defence of their country, and so forth. Where there is clear and present need, Southern Californian cities will combine in ‘special districts’ for common purposes such as the finding and fetching of water, or even surrender their sovereignty to the State of California, as in the freeway-building activities of the Department of Highways.

Water and transport are overriding needs, of course, and the scale of these operations is quite beyond any small or ad hoc groupings of municipalities. To make a giant garden city out of a coastal desert, the Metropolitan Water District fetches vast quantities of water from sources in the Owens Valley and the Colorado River, both hundreds of miles away; this is a model operation in its far-sightedness as well as the high degree of co-operation between its member authorities. But those individual municipalities still jealously guard their rights over the surface waters and wells within their boundaries. Whatever vast and perceptive schemes may be devised for the whole of the Greater Los Angeles area, there still grins through them the visage of the intensely local and self-regarding independent community. Legally, any community that feels strongly enough, and can muster enough inhabitants, can increase its independence by incorporating as a separate administrative city; a city that can raise its own taxes, administer services Iike education and anything else for which there is clear and present local need. The process of incorporation, valuable in the pioneer stages of settlement as a way of encouraging orderly local government, now becomes a device for fragmenting the metropolis and frustrating overall authority.

Some of these cities strain a European’s credulity. We used to go and watch the drag-racing at Irwindale Speedway, a typical quarter-mile concrete strip in the middle of a wilderness of gravel-pits and scrub. Imagine our astonishment on discovering that Irwindale was a city, no less incorporated, apparently, to protect the interests of the gravel-pit operators. And, naturally, we used to go to see the custom car shows, the holy of holies of the cult of the automobile, in the exhibition hall at the City of Commerce; but I already knew that Commerce, like the City of Industry, was widely regarded as a pure tax-dodge incorporation. And I think everybody around Los Angeles knows that cities like Beverly Hills, San Marino and Palos Verdes Estates were incorporated to protect middle-class residential developments against the intrusions of the poor and unfortunate. The common characteristic of all these cities, and others, is that they were incorporated to serve a specialised body of interests, leaving general purposes to unincorporated areas of the county of Los Angeles and, of course, the city of Los Angeles itself, a giant authority within which most of the other cities are islands of independence. But at least one special interest is served by avoiding incorporation altogether: the night-club and discothèque belt on Sunset Strip remains resolutely unincorporated, in spite of years of efforts by the City to annex it and bring it to order and respectability.

But this jungle of divisiveness has its roots in more than municipal self-interest. I went up to a house in Baldwin Hills, a residential district in the middle of Los Angeles, to pick up some books. The owner, knowing my historical interests, showed me the lease of the house, which opened with the words: “That portion of the Rancho Cienega o Paso de la Tijera, in the city of Los Angeles, County of Los Angeles, State of California, as per map recorded in Book One…” Looking out of the window, I realised that I was looking out over the lands of the original Rancho Cienega-Ranch of the Swamps – and that most Angelenos, when they look out of their windows, look out on what was once ranching land. The basic rights of ownership to practically every piece of land in Los Angeles go back to ranchos granted by the Spanish Crown or the Republic of Mexico, and confirmed in United States law after 1848. The ancient ranchos provide a pattern of sub-division older than most of the incorporated cities. These land grants were huge, the size of English counties, and under Spain had almost the independent status of medieval fiefs, though the grants were, at least nominally, conditional and could be recalled if the land was mismanaged, or for other reasons. Since land was almost the only source of wealth and power in Southern California until the beginning of this century, these huge holdings were the obvious prey of all the smart Yankee operators who reached the area from the middle of the last century onwards, and they bought, finagled, foreclosed or married their way into them with a determination that is a model exercise in Victorian rapacity. Then, the land securely possessed, they began to subdivide it and sell it off in farm plots and house-lots. In spite of the speed and minuteness of subdivision, the presence of the ranchos can still be felt. Their names, and those of the original grantees, litter the topography of Los Angeles: Santa Monica, La Brea, Verdugo, Dominguez, Malibu, San Vicente. And so do those of the original expropriators, like Downey and Temple. One or two survive as ranches. The Irvine is still almost unbuilt and intact; it forms the effective southern limit of Greater Los Angeles. But others bave survived until relatively recently, even within. the built-up area, like the Rancho San José de Buenos Ayres and the Rancho Rodeo de las Aguas.

The Buenos Ayres ranch remained in the hands of the Wolfskill family, and undeveloped, until 1919, when it passed into the hands of an English developer named Arthur Letts, who broke it (very profitably) into four major parts. Two of these are residential areas Holmby Hills and Westwood; one is the model shopping centre of Westwood Village; and the fourth is now the campus of the University of California in Los Angeles. The adjoining Rancho Rodeo de las Aguas (Meeting of the Waters) was developed about a decade earlier, and with great care, under the direction of a New York town-planner, William Cook. The Rodeo Land and Water Company, determined to preserve the kind of development they had in mind against influences that might lower the social tone, got the rancho, plus a few additional acres, incorporated as a city. That city was called Beverly Hills. It is about the most defensive residential suburb in the world. Its inhabitants can send their children democratically to municipal schools without fear of their meeting any ‘unsuitable’ friends because the planning laws and restrictive covenants on property effectively exclude the poor, the coloured and other embarrassments. It remains an enclave of unrelieved middle class single-family dwellings, and although its inhabitants can ali afford the wheels on which to escape, you can see why cynical Angelenos compare the place to Watts, and say: ‘Beverly Hills too is a ghetto. At opposite. ends of the scale, luxury suburbs Iike this and disaster areas like Watts are examples of Los Angeles’s least endearing characteristic: the tendency to fragment into self-contained, specialised areas social monocultures. Functional monocultures, too: in Los Angeles you tend to go to a particular place to do a particular thing, to another to do another thing, and finally a long way back to your home, and you’ve done 100 miles in the day. The distances and the reliance on mechanical transportation leave no room for accident, even for happy accidents. You plan the day in advance, programme your activities, and forgo those random encounters with friends and strangers that are traditionally one of the rewards of city life.

The beach is about the only common ground in Los Angeles on which any kind of random encounter can happen, and I am sure that this is the reason why recently arrived European residents tend to gravitate to rather tatty beach-side areas like Santa Monica and Venice. I must say that, as a European semi-resident, I too missed the casual kerbside encounters, but at least I had wheels and enjoyed driving about to meet friends and see experts all over the area. But a very large proportion of visiting academics fail to mobilise themselves in this way. They insist on trying to use Los Angeles as if it were a compact European pedestrian city. I did myself, at first. But if you do this you become campus-bound: at the University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA) you never stir out of the Rancho San José de Buenos Ayres. You live in digs in Westwood, stroll over to classes, eat in the Faculty Club or Westwood Village restaurants, go to Village bookshops and cinemas. In short, you do exactly what we accuse Angelenos of doing, living restricted and parochial lives that never engage the totality of Los Angeles. I used to think that the amount of distorted and perverted information circulating about Los Angeles in quasi-learned journals about architecture, the arts, planning, social problems and so forth, must come from hasty judgments formed by lightning visitors. I now begin to suspect that it comes from visitors who may have spent a semester, a year, or even longer, in the city, but never stirred beyond the groves of academe-eucalypts, jacarandas, bananas, planted in the 1920s on the old Wolfskill ranch.That, too, can be a ghetto.

Reyner Banham, The Listener 5 September 1968

Immagine di copertina: Venice Beach, 2014. Ph.Emanuele Piccardo