Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Magnetic Los Angeles by Greg Hise

This book starts off with promise. Greg Hise, an Associate Professor of Urban History at USC, has some interesting and original ideas regarding suburbanization. The introduction is very solid, if only it were indicative of the rest of the book.

The arguments that were a crucial part of the introduction never fully materialize throughout the book. In the first few pages of Magnetic Los Angeles, Hise states that historians often perpetuate the all-too-common stereotypes about suburbs. He argues that terms such as "urban sprawl" are inadequate in describing the complex processes of suburbanization. Furthermore, Hise asserts that people were not simply moving out to the suburbs to get away from downtown, but that many were, in fact, following jobs out to the suburbs.

The problem is that not only does Hise choose Los Angeles as his case study, but he actually tries to argue that it is similar to the rest of the United States. Los Angeles is really unlike any other city in North America; and its development was unique as well. Unlike most other cities, Los Angeles does not have a well-defined, cohesive downtown area. Instead, there are three or four areas out of which the city spread. Los Angeles was also unique in that it had large aeronautical development companies on its outskirts, and shipping yards on its coast. Most other cities do not share this good, economic and geographic fortune.

The main problem with Magnetic Los Angeles is that it lacks focus. The book feels like a cobbling together of already-publishing articles (this very well may be the case). Sometimes whole chapters felt out of place. Hise spends thirty pages discussing migrant workers and their homes, but does nothing to place this chapter within the context of the rest of the book.

Basically, Hise set out to refute a specific argument. He wanted to disprove the idea that suburbanization was chaotic, and that people moved to the suburbs simplu as a way of escaping to better housing. Hise was somewhat successful in making his case within the confines of L.A. However, I was thoroughly unconvinced that this was the case in most American cities.

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