The Sunday Rumpus Interview: David Ulin

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“How does a city obliterate, or ignore, its past?” David L. Ulin asks in his latest book, Sidewalking: Coming to Terms with Los Angeles, published this month by University of California Press. For Ulin, a Guggenheim Fellow and book critic of the Los Angeles Times, it’s the “lack of walking, the inability to still our gaze,” that makes for landmarks that are “overlooked, forgotten…or more accurately, disregarded, since, for many of us, it’s as if [they] were never there.” Walking “roots us, connecting us both to the city as it is, and also to its history,” and Los Angeles, where Ulin has lived for nearly twenty-five years, is “becoming more pedestrian,” he writes in Sidewalking, a brisk rumination on urban life as filtered through a city that has famously—even notoriously—flouted the conventions of urban life. That includes walking, though, according to a 2014 report cited by Ulin, “the future—of a walkable, transit-friendly Los Angeles—is being built right now.” The future is forever being built right now, of course; and the omnitemporal Los Angeles of Sidewalking is a hybrid of personal observation, literary quotation, pop-culture anecdote, and manifesto from local kingpins like “the Walt Disney of shopping,” as the Hollywood Reporter has designated the mastermind of The Grove, the faux-Italian mall that attracts more visitors annually than Disneyland and acts as a de facto center in a centerless city.

I tend, whenever possible, to conduct interviews by e-mail, but as a longtime resident of Los Angeles with a hungry interest in its history (I’m currently working on a book of my own on that very subject), it seemed foolish to interview David Ulin in the lazy, 21st-century way. We met last month outside the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and walked, appropriately, to the nearby La Brea Tar Pits. Both destinations figure in Sidewalking, and Ulin’s tidbit about the latter is a takeaway example of the book’s pleasures: the skeleton of “La Brea Woman,” whose fractured 9,000-year-old skull was discovered in the tar pits in 1914 and exhibited for decades afterward, is in fact a composite of a modern skeleton, dyed to approximate prehistoric tar stain, and a cast of the actual skull. It’s the constant intersection of stark authenticity and shameless inauthenticity that intrigues me—and, though he might phrase it differently, David Ulin—about Los Angeles.

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The Rumpus: We were neighbors, apparently, at one point in New York City. I moved to Soho at the same point you did, in 1985. I lived across the street from Madonna. Did you know that she lived there?

David Ulin: I knew that she lived there, but I didn’t know exactly where. Was she on Sullivan or was she on Thompson?

Rumpus: She lived on Broome Street above a place that sold rabbits—and, possibly, chickens as well—to, I guess, restauranteurs. I lived [in Soho] with my girlfriend, and we knew she lived there, but we never saw her. I guess this was right around the time she exploded and became hugely famous.

Ulin: Yeah, [my wife and I] knew it was time to leave when Sting moved into the neighborhood. We’d been there a few years and he moved a block or so from us. We also never saw him, but we were like, “Okay, that’s got to be a sign of something. Time to go.”

Rumpus: I guess we always feel like we live at the apex of a city when we’re young.

Ulin: When we’re young. I mean, I grew up [in Manhattan]. I grew up there in the seventies, during the fiscal crisis, when parts of it were really, really bleak, [and] I don’t think you want to go back to that, but there was an “anything goes” quality. I mean, certainly for an adolescent, it was really exciting.

Rumpus: There’s a remark in the book that was made to you around the time you first moved out here: you were crossing the street and a woman said to you, “Oh, we’re playing by New York rules.” And right after I moved out here myself, I learned the hard way that you can’t do that, because I was run over by a car on Sunset Boulevard. I still have surgeries to go on that.

Ulin: I’m sorry to hear that.

Rumpus: No, but it’s just a funny thing to think about in light of one of the main ideas of the book, which is the return of the pedestrian to Los Angeles.

 

Ulin: Yeah, for me pedestrianism is one of the main things that city life is all about. I always wanted to have that kind of pedestrian urban life, even in the early years that I was living here, when it felt like the city really kind of resisted that. I mean, growing up in New York, I would walk all over the place, and one of the things I loved about New York was that there were always people on the streets. I felt like you could walk eighty blocks at two-thirty in the morning, and I never felt like I was isolated, I never felt like I was endangered. And when we moved here in ’91, my wife and I had one car, and I was a freelance writer, and one of the places I wrote for was Creem magazine, which was still around back then, and one night I got asked to go write about a show at the Troubadour. I had never been to the Troubadour, so I kind of looked at where it was, and it was like a mile and a half from where I lived, so I was like, “Oh, a mile and a half; I don’t want to take the car for whole night.” You know, my wife wasn’t going to come. So I walk up there, no problem, I go to the show, I hang out, I do whatever; around midnight I walk home, and all of a sudden I realize I am the only person on these streets. I was like, “All right, it’s midnight. There’s nobody on these streets. If something happens, nobody’s going to see it, nobody’s going to hear me. I’m completely on my own.” I had never felt that way walking around New York at all, and that was sort of the first thing where I started thinking kind of about how different this city, LA, was in terms of its relationship to pedestrians.

Rumpus: I think that’s a big thing that people miss when they move out here if they’ve lived in a city like New York. There really aren’t that many cities like New York, I guess, that are kind of true pedestrian cities—in the US, I mean. Rome is like that. Paris is like that.

Ulin: Paris is a great walking city. I lived in San Francisco for a while; that’s a great walking city. I used to walk that city also, same thing, miles back and forth. One of the things I liked about walking in any good walking city, but certainly New York, was I liked watching the neighborhoods change. I like walking through them and seeing how this neighborhood bled into that neighborhood, and when I first moved to LA, driving local streets, I think that was how I got a sense of what the neighborhoods were. I think it was about ten years before I started actually using the freeways on a regular basis. I’m not a natural driver. I mean, I do it, obviously, but it’s like a chore that has to be done. I’m never actually observing anything that’s happening around me, and walking gives me that.

Rumpus: Well, there’s something contemplative, definitely, about walking. Virginia Woolf, for example, was a big walker. It was a way of sorting out her writing problems.

Ulin: Yeah, and [Woolf’s] essay, that “Street Haunting” essay, which I cite [in Sidewalking], that’s one of my favorite, favorite essays, and it’s one of the best pieces about urban walking I’ve ever read, because that whole idea of looking in the windows and imagining what people are doing, or you imagine your way into that family life—I mean, it’s exactly what it’s all about.

Rumpus: Yeah, but if LA was ever a walking city to begin with, I think maybe people are more opposed to walking than ever. I mean, [on the sidewalks] in Hollywood, there are so many bikes and so many skaters and so many people pushing things on wheels, it makes me really wary, because I was once run over by a car. I feel like there’s no refuge for me as a walker. I’ve taken to saying in this kind of shock-jock way, “Why do people even have legs anymore? We should just hack off our legs at birth and put wheels on us.” I think it’s connected to these anti-contemplative gadgets we all have. People are opposed to walking because it’s contemplative.

Ulin: I think that’s a good point, and I would never make the case that LA’s a walking city. I think that for me it’s a useful lens to interact with the city [and] I think it’s becoming more pedestrian friendly, but it is huge city and there’s a vast amount of sprawl, so walking is a limited option, and it is a city that, for better or for worse, post-World War Two particularly, was designed for the car, or redesigned for the car, so we’re not going to get rid of car culture, and I think even the development of light rail and the subway, that’ll relieve some of the stresses and it’ll do something to the culture of the city, but it’s not going to replace the car.

Rumpus: Well, the city kind of grew up with the car, which is true of so many places in America, as opposed to Europe. I mean, you talk in the book about LA exceptionalism, but I think most places in America are kind of like LA in that people don’t really walk a lot. My mom lives in the suburbs in New Jersey, and when I lived in New York I used to visit her and go for walks at night, and there was nobody on the street, and people would sort of look at you oddly, and you get that out here a little bit.

Ulin: There are parts of town where you absolutely get it, no question about it. I mean, there’s that famous Ray Bradbury story about being stopped by the cops, and they said, “What are you doing?” and he said, “I’m taking a walk,” and that was an answer that did not compute. Actually, it was right here on Wilshire Boulevard. He was walking at night in the early fifties, ’53, ’54, and it led to a short story called “The Pedestrian,” which is [set in] an unnamed city but [it’s] basically LA a hundred years into the future, and some guy is the only person walking and he gets pulled over and taken in by the automated police for violating the social code.

Rumpus: Your book actually helped to identify a villain for me, because I hate The Grove, and I never knew the name of the man responsible for it.

Ulin: I don’t think of him as a villain at all. The Grove fascinates me because, actually, as I say in the book, I should hate it. Everything about it I should hate. I should hate it politically, I should hate it economically, I should hate it developmentally, I should hate it in terms of urban life. But there’s something about it that’s fascinating, because, in the midst of its artifice, authentic urban interactions happen there. I run into people in a serendipitous way, people I’m not expecting to see, almost always when I’m there. It was a great laboratory for my kids when they were little, to have a kind of safe and controlled urban experience where I could drop them off for several hours and they could sort of figure out how to operate in some way. And then also it opened up the whole thing, which is a big theme in the book, that weird tension between artifice and authenticity in Los Angeles, that almost all of the things that we think of as authentic are actually artificial but they’ve just been around for long that they’ve become historical. I mean, this tar lake behind us, the tar pits, is the perfect example. The tar pits were here, but the lake wasn’t, and the lake was dug up in about a hundred years ago to help create a tourist attraction. Does that mean it’s fake? Not really, but it’s also a contrivance, and I like things that make me have to question my own preconceptions.

Rumpus: Well, the book forced me to confront my own prejudice against [The Grove]. I was thinking, “Why do I hate this place?” I’ve never liked malls; that’s the first part of it. And then it’s what I call karaoke architecture. It affects being a Roman piazza. The first time I went there, I thought it was actually inspired by that fake Roman piazza at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas.

Ulin: That’s one of the weirdest places I’ve ever been, and you’re right, there is a lot of similarity to it, although it doesn’t have the weird ceiling that goes dark.

Rumpus: And it doesn’t have the Bacchus statue that comes to life and says, “Hello! I am Bacchus!”

Ulin: I had forgotten about the Bacchus statue. There is something kind of movie-set cool about that, though, in a weird way. I feel like I’m in a Philip K. Dick novel or something when I’m in a place like that, and I think there definitely is an element of that to The Grove. I mean, Rick Caruso’s great hero is Walt Disney, and he modeled The Grove in part on Main Street Disneyland. And yet what do we do? I know what they want. It’s a commercial space, right? We’re supposed to go there and stay there so we’ll spend money. So the whole thing is geared towards that, but I am also interested by what it inadvertently does, and for me what it inadvertently does is create a kind of petri dish of urban life.

Rumpus: There’s that Henri Cartier-Bresson remark that there’s no such thing as a bad thirty-year-old photograph, and I feel that way, maybe, about architecture. There are buildings that you think are hideous when they’re first built, but then later on they accumulate a kind of charm, and I think that if I’m going to condemn The Grove, then I would have to condemn a lot of Los Angeles, because there’s so much karaoke architecture in LA. There always has been.

Ulin: Architecture is one of the most prominent lenses through which outsiders critique LA. You see it in the literature about LA all the time, going back to the early twentieth century. Eastern observers come out here and make fun of the architecture. They make fun of the restaurant that looks like a derby hat. They make fun of the hot-dog stand that looks like a hot dog. They make fun of the house that looks like a French château or the one that looks like the fairy-tale cottage with the weird droopy roof, and they just say, “This is why Los Angeles is stupid, and this is why the people who live there are shallow and stupid. Why is there a French château in the middle of Southern California?” But from my point of view—and not only from mine—it’s a symbol of a central democratic impulse of Southern California, which is part of the draw of the place. I mean, there are a lot of problems with that democratic impulse, but you could come here and if you wanted to build a château and you had the means to build a château and the land, build a château. We don’t care. You want to build a château? You want to build a Rhine castle and walk around in lederhosen? Be my guest.

Rumpus: Well, one thing that has not aged well, in my opinion, is the mini-mall or strip mall. I think there was a building boom beginning in the late seventies, when a lot of these things went up, and they’re still there, and they really are a blight.

Ulin: They’re a total visual blight; I agree. They may actually be the exception that proves the rule of the thirty-year-old photograph or thirty-year-old building. I’m not sure that those things thirty years on are going to look any better to us.

Rumpus: I don’t think they are, and we’re in the middle of another building boom right now, and all of it is what, again, I would call karaoke architecture. I think that the [trade] term for these types of structures is “small-lot subdivisions,” and I think they’re being built in anticipation of a lot of young techies moving to LA, and techies aren’t known for having a highly developed aesthetic sense.

Ulin: Or really being part of their communities. Their community is a technological community rather than an urban community.

Rumpus: I notice that the word “campus” seems attached to a lot of these buildings. There will be a sign outside [the construction site] saying “The New Creative Campus!” and I always think to myself, “It is neither a campus nor creative.”

Ulin: Nor particularly new.

Rumpus: Touché. I often think that the Internet is imbued with this kind of California mindset, because social media reduces everybody to what are called driveway neighbors. You kind of wave at them from a distance, [but] you never really interact with them.I noticed it a lot when I first moved out here, because I was used to going out and getting into some huge conversation at the coffee shop or at a bar with strangers in New York. And then, out here, it seemed like the minute that anything touched a nerve or it delved in any way, people were sort of beginning to, mentally at least, back away.

Ulin: Yeah, it seems to be in keeping with that kind of private life. I mean, it’s still, to a large extent, a private-life city, although it’s becoming less so. A lot of the dynamics take place inside the home, or inside people’s home. There are reasons why you can’t do that in New York, mostly because nobody’s got an apartment big enough to have more than one other person come over. There was a New Yorker cartoon I saw once, which I think caught the dynamic between the two cities really well. It was two images [of] two people approaching each other on the street, and under one it said “New York” and under the other it said “LA,” and under the New York one, they were approaching each other and they were both saying “Fuck you” and thinking “Have a nice day,” and under the LA one, they were both saying “Have a nice day” and they were both thinking “Fuck you.” I always kind of liked that.


D. R. Haney is the author of a novel, Banned for Life, and a nonfiction collection, Subversia. He's known to friends as Duke. More from this author →