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1. Beyond Blade Runner

Every American city has its official insignia and slogan, some have municipal mascots, colors, songs, birds, trees, even rocks. But Los Angeles alone has adopted an official Nightmare.

In 1988, after three years of debate, a galaxy of corporate and civic leaders submitted to Mayor Bradley a detailed strategic plan for Southern California's future. Although most of L.A. 2000: A City for the Future is devoted to hyperbolic rhetoric about Los Angeles's irresistible rise as a "world crossroads," a section in the epilogue (written by historian Kevin Starr) considers what might happen is the city fails to create a new "dominant establishment" to manage its extraordinary ethnic diversity. "There is, of course, the Blade Runner scenario: the fusion of individual cultures into a demotic polyglottism ominous with unresolved hostilities."

Blade Runner -- L.A.'s own dystopic alter ego. Take the Grayline tour in 2019: The mile-high neo-Mayan pyramid of the Tyrell Corp. drips acid-rain on the mongrel masses in the teeming Ginza far below. Enormous neon images float like clouds above fetid, hyper-violent streets, while a voice intones advertisements for extra-terrestrial suburban living in "Off World." Deckard, post-apocalypse Philip Marlowe, struggles to save his conscience, and his woman, in an urban labyrinth ruled by evil bio-tech corporations...

With Warner Bros.'s release of the original (more hardboiled) director's cut a few months after the 1992 Los Angeles uprising, Ridley Scott's 1982 film version of the Philip K. Dick story ("Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?") reasserts its sovereignty over our increasingly troubled sleep. Virtually all ruminations about the future of Los Angeles now take for granted the dark imagery of Blade Runner as a possible, if not inevitable, terminal point of the land of sunshine.

Yet for all of Blade Runner's glamour as the star of sci-fi dystopias, I find it strangely anachronistic and surprisingly un-prescient. Scott, in collaboration with his "visual futurist" Syd Mead, production designer Lawrence Paul, and art director David Synder, really offers us an incoherent pastiche of imaginary landscapes. Peeling away the overlays of "Yellow Peril" (Scott is notoriously addicted, c.f. Black Rain, to urban Japan as the image of Hell) and "Noir" (all the polished black marble Deco interiors), as well as a lot of high-tech plumbing retrofitted to street-level urban decay, what remains is recognizably the same vista of urban gigantism that Fritz Lang celebrated in Metropolis (1931). The sinister, man-made Everest of the Tyrell Corporation, as well as all the souped-up rocket-squadcars darting around the air space, are obvious progenies -- albeit now swaddled in darkness -- of the famous skyscraper city of the bourgeoisie in Metropolis. But Lang himself only plagiarized contemporary American futurists; above all, architectural delineator Hugh Ferris, who together with skyscraper designer Raymond Hood and Mexican architect-archaeologist Francisco Mujica (visionary of urban pyramids like the Tyrell tower), popularized the coming "Titan City" of hundred-story skyscrapers with suspended bridge highways and rooftop airports. Ferris and company, in their turn, reworked already existing fantasies -- common in Sunday supplements since 1900 -- of what Manhattan might look like at the end of the century.

Blade Runner, in other words, remains yet another edition of this core modernist vision -- alternately utopia of dystopia, ville radieuse of Gotham City -- of the future metropolis as Monster Manhattan. It is a fantasy that might best be called "Wellsian" since as early as 1906, in his The Future in America, H.G. Wells was already trying to envision the late twentieth century by "enlarging the present" (represented by New York) to create "a sort of gigantesque caricature of the existing world, everything swollen up to vast proportions and massive beyond measure."

Ridley Scott's particular "gigantesque caricature" may capture ethno-centric anxieties about poly-glottism run amuck but it fails to imaginatively engage the real Los Angeles landscape -- especially the great unbroken plains of aging bungalows, dingbats and ranch-style homes -- as it socially and physically erodes into the 21st century.

In my recent book on Los Angeles (City of Quartz, 1990) I enumerate various tendencies toward the militarization of this landscape. Events since the uprising of Spring 1992 -- including a deepening recession, corporate flight, savage budget cuts, a soaring homicide rate (despite the black gang truce), and a huge spree of gun-buying in the suburbs -- only confirm that social polarization and spatial apartheid are accelerating. As the Endless Summer comes to an end, it seems quite possible that Los Angeles 2019 could well stand in a dystopian relationship to any ideal of the democratic city.

But what kind of cityscape, if not Blade Runner, would this malign evolution of inequality produce? Instead of seeing the future merely as a grotesque, Wellsian magnification of technology and architecture, I have tried to carefully extrapolate existing spatial tendencies in order to glimpse their emergent patter. William Gibson, in Neuromancer and other novels, has provided stunning examples of how realist, "extrapolative" science fiction can operate as prefigurative social theory, as well as an anticipatory politics to the cyber-fascism lurking over the next horizon.

In what follows, I offer a "Gibsonian" map to a future Los Angeles that is already half-born. Paradoxically, the literal map itself, although inspired by a vision of Marxism-for-cyberpunks, looks like nothing so much as that venerable "combination of half-moon and dart board" that Ernest W. Burgess of the University of Chicago long ago made "the most famous diagram in social science".


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