From Chicago to L.A.: Making Sense of Urban Theory


Edited by: Michael J. Dear

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    To Lucy Hubbard Haugh and James Calvin Haugh, friends and supporters of the Southern California Studies Center


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    Michael J.Dear

    More than seventy-five years ago, the University of Chicago Press published a book of articles titled The City: Suggestions for Investigation of Human Behavior in the Urban Environment. Six of its ten chapters are by Robert E. Park, chair of the university's sociology department. There are also two chapters by Ernest W. Burgess, and one each from Roderick D. McKenzie and Louis Wirth. In essence, the book announced the arrival of the “Chicago School” of urban sociology, defining an agenda for urban studies that persists to this day.

    The present volume begins the task of defining an alternative agenda for urban studies, based on the precepts of what some refer to as the “Los Angeles School.” Quite evidently, adherents of the L.A. School take many cues from the Los Angeles metropolitan region or, more generally, from Southern California—a five-county region encompassing Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, and Ventura counties. This exceptionally complex, fast-growing megalopolis is already home to more than 16 million people. It is likely soon to overtake New York as the nation's premier urban region. Yet for most of its history, it has been regarded as an exception to the rules governing the growth of American cities, an aberrant outlier on the continent's western edge.

    All this is changing. For the past two decades, Southern California has attracted increasing attention from multidisciplinary scholars and other social commentators. Los Angeles has become, for many, not the exception but rather a prototype of the city of the future. As the volume of academic and popular writings has accumulated, the prospect of an L.A. School of urbanism has also ascended. The purpose of this book is to critically examine the foundations and potential of a putative L.A. School.

    The present volume is the final part of a trilogy (all published by Sage) that has attempted to shift the axis in urban thought away from the Chicago School and toward an L.A. School. The first in this series, Rethinking Los Angeles (1996), defined many of the changing conditions that created the imperative for an L.A. School. The second volume, Urban Latino Cultures: La vida latina en L.A. (1999), focused on the rising Latino majority as the principal demographic and cultural dynamic in the new city. This third volume, From Chicago to L.A., critically examines some of the major precepts of the L.A. School. All three volumes could usefully be read alongside my monograph The Postmodern Urban Condition, which provides a more personal interpretation of current urban tendencies in Southern California.

    The particular conditions that have led now to the emergence of what some refer to as a Los Angeles School may be almost coincidental: (a) An especially powerful intersection of empirical and theoretical research projects has coalesced in this particular place at this particular time; (b) these trends are occurring in what has historically been the most understudied major city in the United States; (c) these projects have attracted the attention of an assemblage of increasingly self-conscious scholars and practitioners; and (d) the world is facing the prospect of a Pacific century, in which Southern California is likely to become a global capital. The vitality and potential of the L.A. School derive from the intersection of these events and the promise that they hold for a renaissance of urban theory. The validity of the school will be determined elsewhere, in careful comparative analyses that I hope this book will now encourage other urbanists to undertake.

    While the city of Chicago is used as the laboratory for this investigation, it is assumed that the processes of urban life in one community are in certain ways typical of city life throughout the United States.

    For most of the twentieth century, the precepts of the Chicago School guided urban analysts throughout the world. Shrugging off challenges from competing visions, the school has maintained a remarkable longevity that is tribute to its model's beguiling simplicity, to the tenacity of its adherents who subsequently constructed a formidable literature, and to the model's “working” in application to so many cities for such a long time. Now the hegemony of the Chicago School is being challenged by what some researchers are referring to as the Los Angeles School. This book examines the case for shifting the focus of urban studies from Chicago to Los Angeles.

    Los Angeles is the least studied major city in the United States. To outsiders, Southern California has long been viewed as an exception to the rules governing American urban development. But to insiders, Los Angeles has simply confirmed what contemporaries have known throughout this century: that the city posited a different set of rules for understanding urban growth. This alternative urban metric is now overdue; as Joel Garreau observed in his 1991 study of edge cities, “Every American city that is growing, is growing in the fashion of Los Angeles.

    This book is one of a growing number of recent monographs that take Los Angeles seriously. Its purpose is fourfold:

    • To uncover the underlying assumptions of the Chicago School of urbanism
    • To jettison an obsolete lexicon of concepts that have hitherto blocked our understanding of Southern Californian cities
    • To uncover and interpret the imaginative structures that people have been using to understand and explain Los Angeles
    • To examine the utility of something we call the Los Angeles School of urbanism

    In pursuit of these objectives, we have assembled a diverse group of experienced scholars from a variety of disciplines. Although each starts from a common point of departure in contemporary Los Angeles, we do not all seek, nor does anyone expect to achieve, an easy consensus about the merits of the putative L.A. School. Instead, we view the book as a process of intellectual inquiry, necessarily engaging in multiple modes of inquiry and a plurality of epistemologies that extend far beyond the confines of any single discipline.

    The basic primer of the Chicago School, The City, was originally published in 1925. Still in print, the book retains a tremendous vitality far beyond its interest as a historical document. Needless to say, simply refuting The City would be a rather pointless task because so much has changed since 1925. Instead, we prefer to regard the book as emblematic of an analytical paradigm that remained coherent for most of the twentieth century. Its assumptions include the following:

    • An individual-centered understanding of the urban condition; urban process in The City is typically grounded in the individual subjectivities of urbanites, their personal choices ultimately explaining the overall urban condition, including spatial structure, crime, poverty, and racism
    • A “modernist” view of the city as a unified whole, that is, a coherent regional system in which the center organizes its hinterland
    • A linear evolutionist paradigm, in which processes lead from tradition to modernity, from primitive to advanced, from community to society, and so on

    There may be other important assumptions of the Chicago School, as represented in The City, that are not listed here. Finding them and identifying what is right or wrong about them are two of the tasks at hand, rather than excoriating the book's contributors for not accurately foreseeing some distant future.

    Just as the Chicago School emerged at a time when that city was reaching new national prominence, Los Angeles is now making its impression on the minds of urbanists across the world. Few of them argue that the city is unique, or necessarily a harbinger of the future, although both viewpoints are at some level demonstrably true. At a minimum, however, they all assert that Southern California is an unusual amalgam—a polyglot, polycultural pastiche that is deeply involved in rewriting the American social contract. Moreover, their theoretical inquiries do not end with Southern California but are also focused on more general questions concerning urban sociospatial processes.

    In From Chicago to L.A., we use the ten original chapters of The City as points of departure for our own inquiries. Each contributor adopts some reference point from The City (typically part of a chapter or topical focus) and develops his or her own meditation on the state of contemporary urban theory. The basic harmony of our book derives from its focus on a single place, although many of our contributors extend their geographic range beyond the city of Los Angeles to the Southern California region as a whole. Many chapters also consider evidence of wider national and international trends. Another concern common to each chapter is defining the emerging urban agenda (in both theory and practice) that will guide analysts and policymakers into the future.

    This book is also, along the way, an assessment of the utility of the concept of a Los Angeles School. Perhaps this is not the moment to be suggesting an alternative urban paradigm that could become just one more metanarrative as hegemonic as the construct it purports to displace. (Indeed, the most appropriate response to the Chicago School may be some anonymous “antischool.”) Yet the variety, volume, and pace of contemporary change almost require the development of alternative analytical frameworks; one can no longer make an unchallenged appeal to a single model for the myriad global and local trends that surround us. These proliferating social logics insist on multiple theoretical frameworks that overlap and coexist in their explanations of the burgeoning world order. The consequent epistemological difficulties are manifest in the problem of naming the present condition—witness the use of such terms as postmodernity, hypermodernity, and supermodernity.

    Part I of the book begins by sketching a broad picture of Los Angeles and the rise of what has come to be called the L.A. School (Chapter 1). The special socio-demographic characteristics of Los Angeles are highlighted by comparing the region with Chicago, New York City, and Washington, D.C. (Chapter 2). Finally, an alternative model of urban structure is proposed, based on Los Angeles (Chapter 3).

    The economy of cities is one important facet of urban process that was downplayed in the Chicago School's presentation in The City. To correct this imbalance, and to expand our description of the region, Part II of this book examines Los Angeles as a city of industry. Chapters 4 and 5 develop important themes in L.A.'s economic history, and Chapter 6 brings the historical record up to the present, focusing on trends in regional economic restructuring.

    The theme of community lay at the heart of the Chicago researchers' agendas. In Part III, important aspects of contemporary community are explored. These include the significant role of immigration in the emerging character of Southern California (Chapter 7) and the growth of homelessness as a consequence of the region's burgeoning socioeconomic polarization (Chapter 8). Less anticipated in The City, perhaps understandably so, is the increasing presence of gangs (Chapter 9), religious communities (Chapter 10), and virtual communities in Los Angeles (Chapter 11). Taken together, these five chapters presage new ways of examining the social contract of America's urban democracies.

    Finally, in Part IV, contributors begin the task of retheorizing the twenty-first-century city. Chapter 12 considers the place of the new media in representations of Southern California, and other contributors reconsider the utility of the original ecological metaphor of community adopted by the Chicago School (Chapter 13).Any urban theory for a new century cannot avoid confronting environmental issues (Chapter 14), as well as the challenges of postmodern thought in ways of understanding the city (Chapter 15).

    Each of the chapters in this book begins with a short editorial introduction followed by a brief excerpt from The City, to provide an orientation to each topical focus and a point of departure for the contributor's discussion. Page numbers in these introductions and excerpts refer to the 1984 Midway reprint of the original text.


    I am deeply grateful to contributors from many academic disciplines who made this volume possible and to the University of Chicago Press for generously allowing me to reproduce selections from The City.

    At Sage Publications, I once again thank Catherine Rossbach, whose sustained support and encouragement brought this project to fruition. She also made valuable suggestions that have greatly improved the text. Thanks also go to Marquita Flemming, a model of an agreeable and efficient editor, who took over from Catherine when she moved to another position at Sage. Diana Axelsen has been my production editor on all three of the books in this trilogy. This team knows how to make a book look good, how to solve seemingly insuperable production problems expeditiously, and how to have fun while making books.

    Special thanks go to the volume's contributors, and to J. Dallas Dishman for helping me assemble the manuscript, making invaluable design and layout suggestions and contributing one of his own chapters to this collection. Mike Murashige did a wonderful job in editing the entire volume. I would like to express my gratitude to Richard Parks and Clare Walker for their assistance in the assembling of this manuscript. Kathy War, at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas Special Collections, provided expert and efficient assistance from afar.

    This project was supported by the Southern California Studies Center of the University of Southern California, through the office of its provost, Lloyd Armstrong Jr. USC's president, Steven Sample, and former dean of the College of Letters, Arts, and Sciences, Morty Schapiro, have also been strong supporters of the center. Additional funding was provided by The James Irvine Foundation.


    1. Michael J. Dear, The Postmodern Urban Condition (Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2000).

    2. Robert E. Park, Ernest W. Burgess, and Roderick D. McKenzie, The City: Suggestions for Investigation of Human Behavior in the Urban Environment (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1925, 1967; Midway reprint, 1984), 143–144.

    3. Joel Garreau, Edge City: Life on the New Frontier (New York: Doubleday, 1991), 3.

    “Route 66” Lyrics by Bobby Troup.

    Copyright 1946 by Londontown Music; used by permission.

  • About the Contributors

    Michael J. Dear is Professor of Geography and Director of the Southern California Studies Center at the University of Southern California. In 1996, he was a Fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford, and he held a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1989. He received honors from the Association of American Geographers in 1995 and has also received the University of Southern California's highest honors for creativity in research, teaching, and service. His most recent book is The Postmodern Urban Condition (2000).

    J. Dallas Dishman is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Geography at the University of Southern California. His master's thesis, “Digital Dissidents: The Formation of Gay Communities on the Internet, ” focused on the myriad ways that gay men engage with virtual communities on the Internet. He has received numerous awards from USC for his political and social activism as a graduate student. His doctoral dissertation work examines the role of place in antigay violence in the city of West Hollywood, California.

    Steven P. Erie is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of California, San Diego, and is a leading authority on urban political and public policy. His book, Rainbow's End: Irish- Americans and the Dilemmas of Urban Machine Politics, won the best urban book award from the American Political Science Association and the Robert Park award from the American Sociological Association. He has completed studies for the California Policy Studies Seminar on Latino and Asian American political empowerment and on international trade and job creation in Southern California. Currently, he is completing Globalizing LA: The Politics of Trade Infrastructure and Regional Development, a study of L.A.'s harbor and airport agencies and their roles in the region's emergence as a global trade center.

    Philip J. Ethington is Associate Professor of History at the University of Southern California. He is the author of The Public City: The Political Construction of Urban Life in San Francisco, 1850–1900 (1994) and The Metropolitan Moment: Creating the Twentieth-Century United States in Boston, Chicago, New York, and San Francisco (forthcoming).

    Steven Flusty is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Geography, University of Southern California, where he is currently engaged in the study of quotidian globalization. He has previously been in the employ of architects, landscape restorationists, and the Community Redevelopment Agency of the city of Los Angeles, and he is author of numerous essays and the book Building Paranoia: The Proliferation of Interdictory Space and the Erosion of Spatial Justice.

    Greg Hise is Associate Professor of Urban History in the School of Policy, Planning, and Development at the University of Southern California. He is coauthor (with William Deverell) of Eden by Design: The 1930 Olmsted-Bartholomew Plan for the Los Angeles Region (2000), author of Magnetic Los Angeles: Planning the Twentieth-Century Metropolis (1997), recipient of the 1998 Society of Architectural Historian's Spiro Kostof Book Prize, and coeditor of Rethinking Los Angeles (Sage, 1996). His current research focuses on nineteenth-century landscapes in Los Angeles and the environmental history of Southern California.

    Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Southern California and author of Gendered Transitions: Mexican Experiences of Immigration (1994), coeditor (with Mary Romero and Vilma Ortiz) of Challenging Fronteras: Structuring Latina and Latino Lives in the U.S. (1997), and coeditor (with Maxine Baca Zinn and Michael Messner) of Through the Prism of Difference: Readings on Sex and Gender (1997).

    Darnell M. Hunt is Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Los Angeles. Previously, he was Chair of Sociology at the University of Southern California and worked within the media and as a media researcher, including as a staff social scientist for the United States Commission on Civil Rights. He has published in the areas of race, mass media, and popular culture.

    Malcolm W. Klein is Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the University of Southern California. With specializations in juvenile delinquency, crime measurement, and comparative justice systems, he is internationally acknowledged as a leader in street gang research. His latest books are Responding to Troubled Youth (1997) and The American Street Gang (1996).

    Cheryl L. Maxson is Assistant Professor of Criminology, Law, and Society at the University of California, Irvine. Her research interests include juvenile violence, street gangs, and community attitudes toward crime and policing. Recent books include The Modern Gang Reader (second edition, 2001), with Jody Miller and Malcolm W. Klein, and The Eurogang Paradox (2001) with Klein and Hans-Jurgen Kerner, and Elmar Weitekamp.

    Martin Meeker received his Ph.D. in the Department of History at the University of Southern California for his dissertation Come Out West: Communication and the Gay and Lesbian Migration to San Francisco, 1940's-1960's. He has published in the Journal of the History of Sexuality and is the coeditor (with Joseph A. Boone, Martin Dupuis, and Karin Quimby) of the anthology Queer Frontiers: Millennial Geographies, Genders, and Generations (2000).

    Donald E. Miller is the Leonard K. Firestone Professor of Religion at the University of Southern California. He is the author or editor of six books, including the recent published volumes Gen X Religion (2000) and Reinventing American Protestantism: Christianity in the New Millennium (1997). He is the Executive Director of the Center for Religion and Civic Culture at USC, which is compiling a large archive of research on faith-based community organizing and development in Southern California.

    Dowell Myers is Professor and Director of the Master of Planning program at the University of Southern California. He is a specialist in urban growth and development with expertise as a planner and urban demographer. An adviser to the Bureau of the Census, he has authored the most widely referenced work on census analysis, Analysis With Local Census Data: Portraits of Change (1992). His program of research has pursued two contributions to the planning field: (1) bringing people back in as the focus of planning success, and (2) understanding planning as a temporal process of developing the future. He has published recent articles in the Journal of the American Planning Association, Demography, American Sociological Review, and Journal of Housing Research.

    Stephanie Pincetl is Research Associate Professor of Geography and Coordinator for the Sustainable Cities Program at the University of Southern California. She earned her doctorate in urban planning at UCLA. She is an expert on the history and politics of land use and environmental planning in California. Her book Transforming California: A Political History of Land Use and Development was published in 1999. She has written on issues of natural resource management, environment, and urban growth in the United States and France, examining questions of governance, democratic participation, and immigration. She has received a V. S. Ciriacy Wantrup fellowship and two William Fulbright awards and has been a visiting scholar at the French Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique.

    Laura Pulido is Associate Professor of Geography at the University of Southern California. She is the author of Environmentalism and Economic Justice: Two Chicano Struggles in the Southwest (1996) and is currently working on a comparative history of radical politics among various communities of color in Los Angeles in the 1960s and 1970s.

    Allen J. Scott is Professor jointly appointed to the Departments of Policy Studies and Geography at the University of California, Los Angeles. He was a recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1986- 1987 and was awarded honors by the Association of American Geographers in 1987. Born in England and educated at Oxford University, he was elected as Corresponding Fellow of the British Academy in 1999. In the winter of 1998–1999, he occupied the André Siegfried Chair in the Institut d'Études Politiques, Paris. His most recent books are Regions and the World Economy (1998) and The Cultural Economy of Cities (Sage, 2000).

    David C. Sloane is Associate Professor in the School of Policy, Planning, and Development at the University of Southern California. His recent research includes projects on urban landscapes and environments, health care facilities, community health disparities, and community surveys on community policing and civil gang injunctions. He is author of The Last Great Necessity: Cemeteries in American History (1991) and coauthor (with Beverlie Conant Sloane) of Medicine Moves Into the Mall: The Architecture of Health Care (forthcoming).

    Madeleine R. Stoner is Professor in the School of Social Work at the University of Southern California. She is the author of two books on homelessness, The Civil Rights of Homeless People: Law,Social Policy, and Social Work Practice and Inventing a Non-Homeless Future: A Public Policy Agenda for Preventing Homelessness, and numerous journal articles dealing with the problem.

    Jerome Straughan is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Sociology at the University of Southern California. He is currently researching Belizeans in Los Angeles.

    Ashwani Vasishth is a doctoral candidate in the School of Urban Planning and Development at the University of Southern California, studying the historical relationships between theories of nature and of society. He has a research background in ecologically constrained vernacular architecture and settlement patterns in indigenous societies. His dissertation research focuses on the implications of contemporary knowledge in evolutionary ecosystem ecology for planning theory and nature management.

    Jennifer Wolch is Professor of Geography at the University of Southern California, where she is also Co-Director of the Sustainable Cities Program. Her research on nature-society relations in cities and attitudes toward wildlife has been published in Society & Animals; Capitalism, Nature, Socialism; and Environment and Planning D: Society & Space. She is coeditor (with Jody Emel) of Animal Geographies: Place, Politics, and Identity in the Nature-Culture Borderlands (1998).

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