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Notes on the Geography of The Western United States: Los Angeles 2011

It's been a decade since we've spent even a day in Los Angeles. What shall we look at?

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Housing, for starters. We've come to Ladera Ranch, 50 miles southeast of LAX. Several thousand houses have been plopped into the green and golden hills east of San Juan Capistrano.

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The development has several sections, one of them called Covenant Hills. Don't be misled into imagining biblical austerity. Think Prosperity as Virtue's Reward, the Protestant Ethic combined with 24-hour security and a manned gatehouse.

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The Craftsman style is popular here.

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Pergola and palms, with underground wiring.

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Alternatively, a hilltop eyrie in a Spanish mood.

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What style so cruel? Work seems to have been suspended. Covenant Hills: meet the Great Recession.

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Here's another Ladera Ranch neighborhood, this one called Terramor. The name connotes an ecological devotion. The mood is gentle, which means we've got traffic circles forcing drivers to calm down.

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Bicycles are at least nominally encouraged, although hills and distances are suited to cyclists preparing for Le Tour.

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There are no curbcuts here, and houses are set back from the street.

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An even more verdant barrier.

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The stairs lead to sidewalks so narrow that they seem almost designed to make walking a solitary experience.

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The secret is out back, where even through those garage doors you can hear SUV's growling.

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There's no secret about the shopping center at Ladera Ranch. It is old-fashioned in both architecture and nomenclature.

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You have to hunt a bit to figure out that this is really a spiffed-up Safeway.

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Speaking of shopping centers, let's to go the Southland's biggest: South Coast Plaza, in Costa Mesa. It's got five department stores--Sears to Saks--along with regiments of expensive designer boutiques. For all that, the mall's focal point is unbelievably tedious.

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Mall developers sometimes try to build something more interesting. One small experiment is just down the road from South Coast Plaza. It's the Lab.

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Offbeat.

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What better kind of fountain for a site that was once a factory? In that life it made night-vision goggles.

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A restaurant here has a full house for Sunday brunch.

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We've gone to Glendale, just at the southern entrance to the San Fernando Valley. Why on earth would we drive to see the Glendale Galleria? Good question, since you're already yawning.

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The mall's most striking attraction is this three-story Target. If you want to take a picture without cars, you'll have to phone in a bomb threat.

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But across the street is something different. It's called Americana at Brand. The name is a bit puzzling, but Brand is the street on the center's east side. As for Americana, who knows?

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It doesn't look especially American. On the other hand it's a walking-talking textbook illustration of the New Urbanism, which maybe makes it American.

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The layout is around an open square reminiscent of town squares, though few if any real town squares ever had playing fountains as sybaritic as this. On the far side is a three-story Barnes and Noble with umbrellas, tables, and chairs on the accessible top-floor balcony.

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From there, the view shows rooftop greenery.

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Looking the other way.

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The quasi-Eiffel Tower houses three elevators serving a massive garage.

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If you really want something American, come around to this motel on the south side of the center. This is one of the last pictures to be taken of it, because the developer of Americana at Brand, Ric Caruso, had bought the site and was ready to demolish the building. In its place, he had persuaded Nordstrom to abandon the Galleria a block away and move into a new home here. This was a blow to the Galleria, which in previous years had fought a long and unsuccessful legal battle to block construction of Americana, but the Galleria (one of General Growth's many malls) more or less made peace with its neighbor, perhaps because there wasn't a lot of competition between them. It might turn out that each benefited from the other. Right turn for fancy stuff, left for cheap.

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No, we haven't forgotten downtown. Here, near the growth pole called the Staples Center, two hotels--a Marriott and (higher in the tower and much pricier) a Ritz-Carlton--share a building with condominiums.

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The blocks around the Staples Center have been almost completely rebuilt.

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A lineup of new accommodations.

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More striking yet, here's Ralph's. Downtown L.A. had been without a supermarket for several decades when this one opened. And it's no convenience store; it's the real thing.

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On the north side of downtown, the former Cathedral of St. Vibiana, desanctified in the 1990s, has been redone as an event venue, caterers at the ready. Behind it, the monolith of the Caltrans Building.

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Plenty of people were downtown on May 8th for Fiesta Broadway, which promoters called the "largest Cinco De Mayo celebration in the world."

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Skidrow was a more permanent feature, right up against the walls of LAPD's Central Station.

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Two blocks away, the original Rosslyn Hotel was now lofts, though residents had to accommodate themselves to the many hardluck stories nearby.

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Next door to the hotel was the Rosslyn Hotel Annex; it was still closed.

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Many nearby office buildings had gone the lofts route, including some with plenty of history.

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Another block of lofts within earshot of Skidrow. James Boon Lankershim was the founder of North Hollywood, a part of the San Fernando Valley where his father-in-law had established a huge farm growing wheat.

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Despite the new construction and conversions, many downtown buildings remained distressed. That includes the Los Angeles theater, which closed in 1994 and now opens only for special events.

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The Tower Theater remains closed.

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So, too, the United Artists theater, for a time used by Los Angeles University Cathedral.


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