I added some time on following the excellent SASE conference in Philadelphia to do a bit of exploring and see some friends. This included the somewhat jolting experience of wandering around South Philadelphia one day, and driving around Los Angeles the very next.
The identity of 'America' is America's own preoccupation. And not only America's either. Rob Kroes argues in the stupidly titled If You've Seen One, You've Seen The Mall that some imagination of what lay out west was integral to European identity even before anything had been discovered. Jumping from some of the oldest streets in the United States, directly into Los Angeles, a different thought struck me very strongly: that there is America as imagined and built by Europeans, for Europeans, using European technology, and then there is America as imagined and built by Americans, for Americans, using American technology.
The former has always excited me - New York and Chicago mostly. Yet with the exception of the skyscraper, these cities grew out of European conditions, rationalities and constraints. French and German organisational innovations (statistics and bureaucracy) combined with British technological innovations (manufacturing, especially textiles, and industrial agriculture), but with the added pressure of rapid population growth and aspiration. Even the aesthetics with which we like to associate a city like New York - 1920s lights and modernism - initially trailed behind Paris.
Philadelphia conforms to this, only more so. Its historical political status adds to the sense of being an experimental outpost of Europe. One touching representative detail is in the city's Old Swedes' Church, in which models of the boats that carried 18th century emigres hang from the ceiling like icons. Again, with apologies for convoluted Kantian jargon, this is European technology as the condition of America's possibility, hanging there in recognition of this fact.
The old streets of South and East Philadelphia are strangely reminiscent of Hampstead, London, and certainly no more modern. The technological resources are similar - paper, bricks, carts. The development of decisive twentieth century, American innovations - the hierarchically integrated business corporation and steel - occur fractionally after the largest waves of 19th century European immigration. The sociological difference between 1870s Manchester and 1870s Philadelphia would have been heavily ideal in character - the associated dreams of the latter.
Maybe this is a way to understand Los Angeles, and side-step the now burnt-out debates about post-modernism: as a city imagined and built by Americans, for Americans, using American technologies. The issue of the imaginary is no different in either case, whether 'modern' or 'post-modern'. An 18th century American city on the east coast is no less mired in fantasy and myth than a 20th century one on the west coast. The difference is technological: the invention of celluloid and the automobile transforms the latter. If we have never been modern, but simply equipped with tools to produce such an effect, then equally I wonder if we have never been post-modern, but simply equipped with the giant problem of Los Angeles. Every cliche of 1980s post-modern sociology (the public that is private, the private that is public; the loss of spatial reason; cultural schizophrenia; image-based production) might actually be traceable to this one urban region, arisen from there to dupe Jameson et al into envisaging a new epoch altogether. How different would the Dialectic of Enlightenment been had it been theorised in New York, and not LA? As Mike Davis points out, LA was founded as a post-industrial city, but surely this raises questions about the prefix 'post' in that instance.
Driving around in Los Angeles for the first time, you can imagine how it must have felt to go on a train or a motorway for the first time, attaining an entirely new experience of space/time. That an hour can pass or 40 miles, and yet nothing appears to have changed, is a different modernity altogether. And while Europeans can get romantic about New York's critical edge or Chicago's modern architecture, one has to remind oneself that it's the hazy drift of parking lots, freeways, drive-throughs and architectural anarchy that resulted once Europe was finally off the nation's back. The historic dream of freedom is seductive in the alleys and industrial districts of the East Coast - that is, while it remains frustrated - but California possesses freedom as technological practice, while dreams themselves head off into David Lynch-style mania.
In the 1980s, my dad got very into Sodastreams. He had all the bottles, the concentrates, gas bottles and went through a number of the machines themselves. It meant that for years, my family never bought a single bottle or can of fizzy drink. It could have been the future. The production of soda could have been so privatised as to render public outlets for Coca-cola and Sprite redundant or, alternatively, illegal. But one can imagine the additional strains and stresses this would have placed on consumers, as all their soda needs had to become served by themselves.
Mobility in Los Angeles has become trapped in its imagined Sodastream future, with the most absurd form of technological lock-in that any city can have produced. That a capitalist city can function so inefficiently is a marvel in its own right. The absence of what I once termed 'free market collectivism' is only just about accomodated for via strange traffic management innovations and parking etiquettes. In the imagined Sodastream future, had Coca-cola and Sprite factories all been forcibly shut down, society would have to develop weird new coping mechanisms - patience as drinks exploded, co-operation for when gas canisters emptied. Technological privatisation eventually encounters its own limits. I found something similar with Los Angeles driving etiquette, that strange new rules and practices seemed to have emerged organically, to make the whole dreadful experiment manageable. The other absurdities, so beloved of the 80s po-mo theorists, such as private malls that resemble bustling East Coast or European town centres (the one I visited possessing the very public transport system that is absent outside), are further compensation mechanisms for several thousand square miles of grave technological error.
But to say there is no public space is surely incorrect. No less than Paris or New York, the street is public space. It's just not a place for walking. Flaneur-style behaviour exists, but between cars (or maybe it was only me) and forms of communication emerge accordingly. I encountered less aggression than in the traffic jams of London and greater use of tacit knowledge, even sympathy. Whole lanes exist, purely to be adapted for whatever contingent uses they may be put to - slowing, parking, shopping, looking. Is it impossible that people might occasionally flirt with one another or, in a fit of Habermasian hubris, debate politics from the car? In his status as Los Angeles's Walter Benjamin, Mike Davis never quite captured these arcades - not the malls which pastiche Paris and fascinated the po-mo sociologists, but the city's more distinctive contribution to urban mobility, the public mingling of automobiles.