My Los Angeles: From Urban Restructuring to Regional Urbanization

My Los Angeles: From Urban Restructuring to Regional Urbanization

by Edward W. Soja

Hardcover(First Edition, 1)

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At once informative and entertaining, inspiring and challenging, My Los Angeles provides a deep understanding of urban development and change over the past forty years in Los Angeles and other city regions of the world. Once the least dense American metropolis, Los Angeles is now the country’s densest urbanized area and one of the most culturally heterogeneous cities in the world. Soja takes us through this urban metamorphosis, analyzing urban restructuring, deindustrialization and reindustrialization, the globalization of capital and labor, and the formation of an information-intensive New Economy. By examining his own evolving interpretations of Los Angeles and the debates on the so-called Los Angeles School of urban studies, Soja argues that a radical shift is taking place in the nature of the urbanization process, from the familiar metropolitan model to regional urbanization. By looking at such concepts as new regionalism, the spatial turn, the end of the metropolis era, the urbanization of suburbia, the global spread of industrial urbanism, and the transformative urban-industrialization of China, Soja offers a unique and remarkable perspective on critical urban and regional studies.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520281721
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 03/14/2014
Edition description: First Edition, 1
Pages: 296
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Edward W. Soja is Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Urban Planning at University of California, Los Angeles. He is the author of Postmetropolis: Critical Studies of Cities and Regions and the co-editor of The City: Los Angeles and Urban Theory at the End of the Twentieth Century among other books.

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My Los Angeles

From Urban Restructuring to Regional Urbanization

By Edward W. Soja


Copyright © 2014 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-95763-3


When It First Came Together in Los Angeles (1965–1992)

My geohistory of Los Angeles begins in 1965, in the bewildering aftermath of one of the most violent and costly riots in U.S. history. The Watts Riots burned down the core of African American LA and had an even larger, worldwide impact. As one of the leading edges of global urban unrest in the 1960s, the Watts uprising announced to the world that the postwar economic boom in the United States and elsewhere was not going to continue with business as usual, for too many benefited too little from the boom. There were riots and uprisings around the world before and after Watts, but none were as violent, as destructive, and perhaps as symbolic of the end of an era and the beginning of a new one as the events of 1965 in Los Angeles. My Los Angeles is in large part an effort to make sense of what happened to LA in the decades following the Watts uprising.

Virtually everything contained in My Los Angeles depends on and extends from this first chapter and its central argument that the Watts Riots marked the end of the long postwar economic boom in the United States and signaled the onset of a period of crisis-generated economic restructuring that would affect to some degree every major metropolis in the industrialized world. The argument goes one step further to claim and demonstrate that very few if any other metropolitan areas in the world were as deeply restructured and radically changed as Los Angeles, giving to those who study it a remarkable panorama of experiences and expressions from which to draw insight.

There is some historical sequencing to this look at the urban restructuring of Los Angeles, but what emerges is certainly not a comprehensive history of LA before or after 1965. Nor is the geography of Los Angeles presented in full and permanent detail. To keep the historical and the geographical developing together, I call what I do "geohistory." This and all the chapters that follow are attempts to capture the fluidity of geohistorical development in this constantly changing urban landscape through multiple layers of interpretation and reinterpretation.


At least three pronounced "inversions" took place in the four decades following the Watts Riots, each contributing to the city's remarkable metamorphosis. By inversion I mean a major historical reversal in which the LA that existed in the first three-quarters of the twentieth century was turned upside down and inside out. A new Los Angeles was created that in many ways was opposite to the image of Los Angeles that had developed in the academic literature and popular media up to the 1970s and which, despite its outdatedness, continues to dominate many present-day views of Los Angeles as well. One of the first tasks in looking at Los Angeles is to challenge this persistent inheritance of increasingly anachronistic imagery.

The first of these dramatic inversions had to do with the local labor movement. Once the realm of "sunshine and the open shop," to use Mike Davis's felicitous phrase, the old Los Angeles was renowned for its probusiness, antilabor environment. It stood out as a retrogressive counterfoil to New York City and its ultraliberal western outlier, San Francisco. LA had its moments—a significant flirtation with socialism if not anarchism in the 1910s, a breeding ground for revolutionary movements in Mexico and China, the groundbreaking center for the first wave of federally sponsored public housing in the early 1950s—but the dominance of institutions such as the chamber of commerce, the local manufacturers' association, and the then ultraconservative LA Times was clearly established and quite capable of breaking the back of any left-of-center trend or militant labor union activity.

The red-baiting war against public housing and the Hollywood blacklisting that arose from the inquisitions of the House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1950s confirmed and consolidated this dominance. Twenty years later, however, Los Angeles began its unexpected emergence as a leading generative and innovative center of the national labor movement, especially with regard to gender equality, gay rights, and above all, the organization of immigrants. Nowhere in metropolitan America have labor unions grown in membership and local power as they have in LA, and nowhere else have immigrants played as central a role in the labor movement. I will return to these remarkable developments in labor-community coalition building from the Watts Riots to the present in chapter 8.

A similar role reversal and image inversion took place with regard to neighborhood identities, place-based politics, and the activities of community-based organizations. For most of the past century, Los Angeles has been seen as the epitome of automobile-based urbanism, with residents creating far-flung "autopian" networks of contacts and attractions rather than forming "proximate communities"—well-defined neighborhoods where pedestrian life flourished and everyone knew and relied upon their neighbors. Berkeley urban planning professor Melvin Webber famously described LA in the 1970s as a "non-place urban realm," where distances were elastic and the local meant little, where many households had unlisted phone numbers and nestled behind high walls and a sign or two reading "Trespassers Will Be Shot." Since 1985, for many different reasons, just the opposite has been happening to community identity and activism. Perhaps nowhere else in the country today are neighborhood, community, and other place-based organizations as numerous, active, and successful, a topic that will also be explored further in chapter 8.

A third material and reputational inversion has transformed Los Angeles from the least dense and most destructively sprawling major metropolis in America—literally and figuratively seventy-two suburbs in search of a city—into the country's densest urbanized area, surpassing the twenty-three-county New York City urbanized area in 1990 and widening its lead ever since. Several factors contributed to this stunning reversal. One of the largest city-focused migrations in world history (at least BC, before China) added almost five million people (almost all from developing countries) to the population of the inner urban core alone. In all, since 1975, nearly eight million were added to the five-county LA urban region, by far the largest growth spurt among cities in the developed world outside Japan and comparable to the expansion of the great Third World megacities, such as Lagos, Dhaka, and Mexico City.

Also contributing to its overall density has been an extensive urbanization of LA's suburbs. For most of the twentieth century, Los Angeles was seen as the model for the sprawling suburbanizing western cities of North America. Today it is the prototype of what I have called regional urbanization, a new mode of urban growth defined primarily by the densification, if not full-scale urbanization, of suburbia and the replacement of the domestic population in the urban core with large numbers of Third World immigrants. I will discuss what I see as an epochal shift from metropolitan to regional urbanization in LA in later chapters. Mentioning it here serves to reinforce and exemplify further the argument that the Los Angeles city region has changed more substantially since 1975 than almost any other in the world. Its iconic suburbia of the past is fast disappearing, the "seaport of Iowa" is now being called the "capital of the Third World," what were once minorities are now in the majority, and the ultimate WASP city is now predominantly Catholic and Evangelical.

Beyond all doubt, Los Angeles is no longer what it used to be. It remains an exemplar of many contemporary urban trends, but these trends are very different from those exemplified by Los Angeles in the first three-quarters of the twentieth century. To cling to these earlier images can lead only to misunderstanding.


Although it was nearly impossible to tell where LA was going in the 1970s, things were undoubtedly changing very quickly. It soon became abundantly clear to the growing cluster of urban researchers trying to make theoretical and practical sense of what was happening in this period that Los Angeles was moving in directions that differed greatly from other major cities in the United States and that these differing paths demanded new ways of thinking about urban development and change. As the material landscape of LA changed dramatically, so too did the methods and means of studying it, to a degree that was just not as pronounced in New York or Chicago or even Atlanta, Miami, or Houston, at least until very recently.

Making theoretical and practical sense of the social and, more emphatically, the spatial patterns of urban restructuring in Los Angeles became the research focus for a group of critical scholars, led primarily at first by urban and regional planners and geographers at UCLA. The first challenge faced by this emerging research cluster was to make their voices heard over the highly influential interpretations of urban change that had emerged among urban analysts and policy makers east of the Mississippi.

The eastern academic and political establishment had already quite confidently assumed they had the answer to what was happening after the end of the postwar boom. To begin with, the United States was experiencing a kind of role reversal in regions and regional development, a "power shift" between the Frostbelt—the heartland of American industrialization, stretching roughly from Saint Louis to New York City—and the Sunbelt, led by the "New South" from Texas to Florida, with a sunny outlier on the Pacific Rim. Enhancing this interpretation were census statistics for 1970 and 1980, which seemed to indicate, especially through the overall decline in manufacturing employment, the beginning of a postindustrial era, with America the affluent at the forefront of an emerging new kind of capitalism.

In this emerging postindustrial society, it seemed that manufacturing no longer mattered, as jobs and the economy as a whole shifted into various tertiary or service activities, from burger flipping to high finance. The resulting deindustrialization of America, as it was called, was painful for many, including nearly all the once thriving communities in the American Manufacturing Belt, as well as African Americans and other members of the new "urban underclass," who were seen as being left stranded in the decaying cores of nearly all Frostbelt cities. Also suffering were the big industrial unions and the unionized workers that had benefited so fulsomely from the postwar boom. Economic restructuring—defined almost entirely as deindustrialization—was destructive but necessary, the theoreticians and policy makers claimed. It was deemed an essential part of any recovery from the widespread urban upheavals of the 1960s and the global economic downturn of 1973–74.

To researchers working in and on Los Angeles, this seemed a rather misleading if not wholly inaccurate picture of what was happening. Almost unknown to the eastern establishment, LA had for decades been the country's largest industrial metropolis. To call LA postindustrial seemed absurd, especially since the manufacturing sector had been booming in the 1970s. Relatively few of the nearly one million African Americans in LA were "stranded" far from suburbanizing jobs through some "spatial mismatch." In this mixed urban-suburban landscape, jobs were relatively close by, although racial barriers made these nearby jobs difficult to obtain. Furthermore, unemployment and welfare dependency were not big issues, as the huge Hispanic immigrant population held multiple jobs, forming what was better called an agglomeration of the working poor rather than a welfare-dependent underclass. Even the term Hispanic was locally disdained in favor of the ambitiously inclusive new term Latino, referring expectantly to everyone coming from south of the U.S. border.

More than a third of Los Angeles's population, the working poor were unable to bring in enough income to rise above official poverty levels despite holding multiple jobs per household. They certainly were not dependent on public welfare, although many claims arose and many studies were conducted as to whether the working poor contributed more than they took from the local economy. Most studies showed they added much more than the welfare they received, although anti-immigrant elements within the Anglo (non-Hispanic white) population continued to demand more discrimination against the working poor, such as denying resident noncitizens the right to public school education. Similar problems were growing in other major metropolitan areas, but they were contextualized and interpreted very differently than they were in Los Angeles, given the ethnic cleansing or bleaching (into Anglo or non-Hispanic white) that Spanish-speaking Californio LA experienced after the U.S.-Mexico War.

Exploding the myths of postindustrialism further encouraged the LA researchers. After an initial period when the new writings from Los Angeles were dismissed as marginal quirkiness or irrelevant banter, there emerged a national and indeed worldwide expansion of interest in what was happening in Los Angeles, especially with regard to what became known as industrial restructuring and the related formation of a new post-Fordist metropolitan economy and geography. What was coming to an end was not urban industrial capitalism but a phase in its development that came to be described as Fordism, a phase that began in the interwar years, helped the United States and other countries out of the Great Depression, and led the way to the boom years following the Second World War.

As the Los Angeles experience became more widely known, post-Fordist (or postfordist) rather than postindustrial became the more widely used term for the emerging New Economy, although the postindustrial label is still widely used to describe cities such as New York or Detroit. One hopes, however, that it is no longer possible for a referee for the National Science Foundation to dismiss an application for support to study industrial restructuring in Los Angeles by saying, "But there is no industry there." Or for the self-proclaimed capitalist's tool, Forbes magazine, to publish a map of the hottest high-technology areas in the United States in the early 1980s and ignore LA and Orange County, then containing more high-tech workers than Silicon Valley or Route 128 around Boston. After years of relative neglect, Los Angeles was finally being put on the national and international map as a model of the new post-Fordist industrial metropolis.


One of the main sparks for all this attention to LA was the publication in 1983 of "Urban Restructuring: An Analysis of Social and Spatial Change in Los Angeles," which I coauthored with Rebecca Morales and Goetz Wolff (app. 1, source 1A). Morales, one of the early graduates from the urban planning program at UCLA and then a member of the urban planning faculty was at the time engaged in research focusing on the uses of immigrant labor in the economic restructuring process, especially in the automobile industry. This early research is the source of an anecdote that vividly sets the scene for our analysis and understanding of what was happening in Los Angeles in the early 1980s.

Nose and mouth covered against possibly poisonous dust, Morales entered the back room of a small factory in South LA that produced, if I remember correctly, car hubcaps. As she wandered among the immigrant workers, she saw a pile of the final product against the wall. Getting closer, she saw the last step in the production process: stamping each hubcap with the words MADE IN BRAZIL. What in the world was going on? Was this just a minor scam, or did it represent a more widespread phenomenon associated with the emerging New Economy and the particular form it was taking in immigrant-filled Los Angeles? It suggested that wages were so low and immigrant labor so abundant that LA-based manufacturing could, with some transport savings and other conditions, compete with Third World producers—as long as the unions and policy makers did not interfere.


Excerpted from My Los Angeles by Edward W. Soja. Copyright © 2014 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations



1 • When It First Came Together in Los Angeles

2 • Taking Los Angeles Apart

3 • Inside Exopolis: Views of Orange County

4 • Comparing Los Angeles

5 • On the Postmetropolitan Transition

6 • A Look Beyond Los Angeles

7 • Regional Urbanization and the End of the Metropolis Era

8 • Seeking Spatial Justice in Los Angeles

9 • Occupy Los Angeles: A Very Contemporary Conclusion

Appendix 1: Source Texts by the Author

Appendix 2: Complementary Video Sources


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