Thursday, June 19, 2014

Overview Effect (understanding Los Angeles by being away from it): Part 1

In the interest of not creating a slideshow of my recent trip via train and boat to and from Alaska, I'll keep this relevant (over 900 photos were taken).

For much of my day-to-day observations of L.A., I am within looking within. But what if I were to be elsewhere and renew context while away and upon return see with new eyes?

On this trip I was fortunate enough to ride through the breadth of California as well as stop and explore Portland, Seattle and Victoria, in addition to the main focus of time in Southeast Alaska. Two of my favorite things in the United States are Amtrak (including the infographic aspects and the sublime interaction with the surrounding landscapes) and the National Park system (including the Unigrid brochures).


The train approaches the aging Van Nuys station in its gritty industrial setting.

I board and get situated in my private roomette in the sleeping car. Passing through the San Fernando Valley on its diagonal railway through industrial-zoned or low income neighborhoods, the train reaches the northwest corner of the municipal boundary of the City of Los Angeles. While it is popularly called a desert by casual observers, most of L.A. is in actuality simply shrubby, oak-dotted and dry like Greece or Italy without actually being technically a desert.  Here, however in the Chatsworth community, it is seemingly a well-watered high desert, looking like parts of Arizona or New Mexico. 

After a series of mountain tunnels, the train emerges in the agricultural plain of Ventura County. Here people labor in open plots, gathering well irrigated produce for transportation and consumption far and wide. Considering the agricultural output of California, chances are this is the face of much of your food. 

We find ourselves in Oxnard, the principal city of the western end of the Greater Los Angeles combined statistical area. Two assumptions are made as to the residential characteristics of this community. One is that people have settled here in preference to closer-in areas of L.A. but (2nd assumption) are growing weary and guarded. 
This is probably because Ventura County is approaching 1 million residents and appears to mirror the San Fernando Valley's transition from agricultural spaces to dense suburbs. 

After passing through the Santa Barbara area (including the Isla Vista community around the University of California campus, site of the recent shooting spree), the train is at long last alongside practically unspoiled stretches of Pacific Ocean coastline. 

At a point, the train veers inland again and San Luis Obispo County can be seen like classic non-urban California vistas of vineyards and golden hills dotted with oak trees. 

 And a prison.

Condensing my travelogue, the train is in the southern part of the San Francisco Bay Area. San Jose is the principal population center of the Bay Area, having nearly 1 million residents within city limits (to SF's 800,000) and now being the 3rd most populous in California (10th in the United States). It is decidedly Los Angeles-like, and reminds me much of the San Fernando Valley in particular with its low-rise spread and diverse population. Only the ubiquitous SF Giants apparel gives it away. In fact, it is well known by now that many well-off tech employees choose to reside in San Francisco and reverse-commute into their San Jose area offices. Many resultant area residents work in the service sector attending to their needs. 

San Jose is the home of the popular MLS soccer team, the Earthquakes and their new soccer-specific stadium rises north of the city center, as soccer becomes more popular in the United States. 
The train route goes up the East Bay side. San Francisco long ago lost its port and rail relevance to the East Bay, becoming instead a postcard-perfect tourist heaven and place of high-end consumption for its wealthy populace (I enjoy it nonetheless). Oakland and other East Bay communities are also Los Angeles-like, more so like Central Los Angeles. 

And Central Oakland is seeing higher end housing, discerning retail and entertainment, and increasing popularity as people begin to refer to it in relation to San Francisco as Brooklyn is to Manhattan. Oakland is portrayed  as more "real", more diverse, more artistic, and more affordable. For the time being Oakland is considered one of the most categorically diverse large cities in the United States (along with Long Beach, CA), with its 400,000 residents being divided almost evenly between white, black, Asian, and Latino.  There is a likelihood to falling victim to its own success in this regard, and in danger of becoming like the area it was being contrasted to. 
In fact, my Oakland-raised mother would find advertisements such as this Portland billboard surprising. 
Both Oakland and San Jose in regard to San Francisco are good examples of the core-periphery relations and multi-nucleated urban pattern with dense suburbs in between that Greater Los Angeles is known for. 
The sun was down beyond the Bay Area and I put away my camera until the next morning when I awoke in Oregon. For the time being, California  (North, South, and in-between) seemed bursting at the seams with ad-hoc human activity. It all seemed golden brown and hazy. The state-wide drought is evident and the sheer amount of people living here and resultant person-related infrastructure is incredible. California's population approaches 40 million. 18 million people live in Greater Los Angeles, 7 million in the Bay Area, 3 million in San Diego County, and over 6 million in the Great Central Valley. If it weren't for National Parks, National Forests, California coastal access laws, urban growth boundaries in some counties, and air quality mandates,  what would it be like? 

(For a good still relevant book on contemporary California, see 1986's "The New California" by Dan Walters, 1968's "How to Kill A Golden State" by William Bronson, or anything by Mike Davis). 

Part 2 coming soon: Portland & Seattle
Part 3 to follow: Alaska & Canada

p.s. While seemingly pessimistic, the jumble of humanity and the sheer variety and beauty to be find hiding in plain sight keeps me going. Don't think I am describing the negativity of California without appreciating the beauty. In fact the beauty only becomes more beautiful and the ugly also becomes beautiful. 


  1. I don't think you are at all pessimistic. When I travelled on the surfliner, I saw the transition of the cities, the graffiti, the labourers, and I spent time in Oakland. The change is apparent and had a lot potential for the good, bad, and ugly.

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