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LA: the great walking city

On a morning constitutional in Silver Lake, I pass an abandoned fridge that lies on its side with the freezer door open to local rodentia. Some steps away, I take an old hardback double-edition of The Great Gatsby and Tender Is the Night from the kerbside library of some civic-minded residents. As contrasts of high and low go, this one doesn’t even register in a city of private galleries in strip malls, of architectural miracles amid whole boulevards of dross.

Look, I know the size of my task here. To argue for LA as a walking city is to exude all the good sense of Michael Douglas as he deserts his car for a vigilante odyssey from Lincoln Heights to Venice. I am not just up against Falling Down, but a raft of ingrained clichés about eternal sprawl and highways measured in lightyears. They are well founded.

No western city of comparable heft is weirder or more random than LA

It is just that most rankings of “walkability” are hopeless. They tend to judge cities on physical distances and other measures of convenience for pedestrians. The more basic test is whether there is enough on the streets to see in the first place. Missing that point is how Washington comes to rank above Istanbul, and Munich above Bangkok. Being efficient and well put-together is prized over the one thing a city cannot design or buy: life, whether in its smile-raising or stomach-turning forms. Susan Sontag wrote that the urban wanderer must be on the search for “voluptuous extremes”. That isn’t Bordeaux.

No western city of comparable heft is weirder or more random than LA. Not Paris: too much Cartesian order. Not New York, which has a numbered grid, a park in the centre called Central Park and a north-eastern district called the Upper East Side. Short of renaming itself United States Population Centre Number One, the city cannot strengthen its commitment to the rational. As for London, it has abrupt tonal shifts from district to district, and building to building, but always the coherence of an ancient place. Even free-thinking Berlin is still recognisably Prussian in the grandeur and clarity of its planning.

If physical convenience is the test, LA has an advantage so large and obvious as to compensate for its geographic spread. Whether a warm city is better for a pedestrian than a cold one is a matter of taste. But a dry city’s superiority over a wet one isn’t. London and Paris, glamorised as paradise for walkers since before Mrs Dalloway, get about as much precipitation as each other. A trawl through the equivalent month-by-month data for LA torments a northern European with a recurring phrase. “Trace amount”.

Taken together, weather and weirdness mark LA out as the west’s most underrated walking city. If distances force most of it to take place within and not between neighbourhoods, then distances also force those neighbourhoods to have their own commercial and cultural ecosystems. Were it otherwise, I, a non-motorist, would by now have been tranquilised by boredom or pauperised by Lyft.

No doubt, I write all this with the unusual needs of someone in the “creative industries” (their preening phrase, not mine), albeit the least glamorous of them. If your job depends on having ideas, the wall-to-wall stimulation of LA is more fruitful to live amongst than somewhere more coherent and ergonomic. Each walk is a potential eureka moment.

Being efficient and well put-together is prized over the thing a city cannot design or buy: life

Either way, these are bleak years for the flâneur and flâneuse. Even before the pandemic emptied city streets, the idea of aimless urban strolling had taken on an elitist air. The French noun doesn’t help, though no English equivalent will quite do and, while I want it on my business card one day, boulevardier might not fix the issue. Using one’s waking hours to roam without direction or purpose also goes against a culture of productivity hacks and (often Californian) leaning-in. I have a pleasing amount of what the 45th US president called “executive time”. Not everyone does.

Of all the trends, though, the worst for pedestrian idlers is the gradual loss of street-level surprises in the west’s ever more polished super-cities. A flâneur is just a noticer of things, or what Baudelaire called a “botanist of the pavement”. LA’s are still deceptively rewarding to tread, weeds and all.

Email Janan at janan.ganesh@ft.com

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