Inventing Autopia

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Jeremiah B. C. Axelrod. Inventing Autopia: Dreams and Visions of the Modern Metropolis in Jazz Age Los Angeles. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press. 2009. Pp. xii, 401. $24.95.

Summary

Chapters:

Introduction. Looking toward Autopia

Prologue. A City That Does Not Move

1. "Los Angeles Is Not the City It Could Have Been

2. Paradise Misplaced

3. Imagining the Metropolis in a Modern Age

4. Modern Los Angeles

5. Metropolis at a Crossroads

6. Gardens and Cities

Epilogue. A City That Moves

Conclusion. "To Dream Dreams and See Visions"


Jeremiah Axelrod argues that, contrary to much of the historiography of the early 20th Century development of Los Angeles, planners had a central role in actively creating the decentralized sprawl centered on motorways that has come to symbolize the dysfunction of the modern city. These planners (rarely singled out for biographical illumination by Axelrod) acted out of a simultaneous popular embrace of the ideals of Ebenezer Howards “Garden Cities of To-morrow” for contained urban areas with satellites of smaller population centers and industrial areas, as well as distaste for the “vertical sublime” of Eastern U.S. cities that embraced skyscrapers, subways and elevated railroads. This tension had a real effect on citizens, creating what Axelrod describes as an “epistemological emergency … a crisis in urban legibility within Jazz Age Los Angeles.” [11]

Axelrod demonstrates how this competition for planners’ vision was decided by contingent interests (business owners, developers, motorists, etc.) that shaped the epistemic debate in favor of an automotive-centered landscape that displaced streetcar and regional rail systems. Even the railroads themselves played into the hands of the Garden City advocates as they proved unwilling to accommodate themselves to the degree of local cooperation required to overcome objections to the “vertical sublime” that would have made vertically sublime business district viable.

Ultimately, the Los Angeles that emerged was, “one that preserved the larger urban community characteristic of traditional concentric urbanism but removed the central business district from its position of absolute dominance.” [313] Axelrod argues that planners like Gordon Whitnall envisioned a “horizontal sublime” [319] in place of the vertical of the East. However, Axelrod sees even that this vision ultimately failed. Where parkways blended into the landscape might have “realized the epistemological potential of the mobile gaze” [317], Los Angelenos settled instead for a “sprawling and discordant posturban topography.” [318]

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