Stéphane Degoutin
Los Angeles without Light

Night is to the American suburb what the forest was to the medieval civilization.
+ + + + + + + +
Paper originnaly published in french (
Cette page en français texte français) in Parpaings magazine (art and architecture), june 2002, and translated with the help of Daniela Pöder.

1) Blue Velvet

"...there is always that Blue Velvet sense that even in the most impossibly serene Los Angeles neighborhood the underlying order could be violated or is less stable than meets the eye."
John Chase (1)

The very specific atmosphere in David Lynch's movies relies on the confrontation of two opposite logics : disturbing, violent or incomprehensible incidents occur in the quietest and most archetypal landscape of American suburbia -- like the discovery of a human ear in the grass that opens the movie Blue Velvet.

Violence and crime are measurable, even if it may be difficult to obtain precise data. On the other hand, the feeling of insecurity is an ambiguous notion, that defies definition and pragmatical analysis. It varies upon the individual's perception, the circumstances, the cultural context... But even if it isn't suited for empirical research, it does make good material for literary or artistic description. Hollywood filmmakers have largely capitalized on the cinematographic potential of the theme -- it is not a coincidence that the cinema which illustrated the occidental XXth century the best has been produced in Los Angeles, the city that produced the most contemporary form of the feeling of insecurity.

Ordinary sidewalk, Venice, Los Angeles by night.

The character of the insecurity in Los Angeles is very different from older metropolises like New York, London or Paris. In these densely populated cities, where one faces thousands of unknown persons every day in the streets and in public transportation, everybody is prepared to get in contact with some form of "everyday violence", which is inherent to the density of the city: arguing, grumbling, looking sideways, jostling... Millions of human beings do not mix together without having some kind of micro-frictions. The inhabitants of these dense metropolises are therefore known for being nervous, stressed, or even aggressive.

The reputation of the Angelinos is exactly the opposite: they are calm, relieved from the stress of urban life, very different from the aggressive city dwellers. Since most people get around by car, going from one private island to another (residential communities, office campuses, department stores,...), it rarely happens to find oneself in an environment that doesn't match one's socioprofessional category, or find oneself surrounded by complete strangers; most of the environments are reassuring and thus feel familiar.

Residential districts offer an image of perfect serenity: peaceful houses, front yards open on the street, luxurious vegetation, gentle inhabitants -- and as John Chase points out, all this peacefulness is somehow unreal, supernatural, especially when considering the very high crime rates in the area of Los Angeles.

Every Angelino knows that violence can explode anywhere, anytime, including in the places where it will seem the most "misplaced". One can expect to be the target of a serial killer, receive a bullet by mistake, or die suddenly in a car crash. Danger does exist, but it is not preceded by any warning sign, and this absence of preliminary signs increases the feeling of insecurity.

The inhabitant of a traditional city or metropolis is able to sense the atmosphere of a district in an immediate and intuitive way because he is in direct contact with the local population. But the Angelino only meets cars, standardized buildings and billboards - and his direct contact is limited to a few human beings.

In Los Angeles, the signs that help one to understand the nature of a district are very different from what they are in other cities. Most districts offer an ambiguous image. Some look very unwelcoming, but are in fact very peaceful: the proliferation of "Armed Response" signs in the wealthy districts might give a false idea of the actual crime rates. On the other hand, some districts that look very quiet in the daytime are really dangerous at night.

House decorated for Halloween (Orange County).

It is very difficult for a person who does not live there and is therefore not familiar with the codes of the city, to notice the subtle differences that distinguish a safe area from an unsafe one, since this environment at first glance appears to be an infinite repetition of identical elements. Wherever you go, you come across the same streets, the same houses, the same anonymous buildings, the same shops, the same gas stations... most of the Los Angeles districts look the same to the foreigners, and thus it is very difficult for them to read any message in the urban landscape.

Of course, if the windows of the houses are covered with mesh, if facades are tagged, if there are abandoned cars in the streets, and if suspicious characters are hanging around the street corners, the district might be a ghetto. In the most dangerous ethnic districts, the police inform the few white people that it is not safe for them to hang around there. Similarly, a group of black people hanging around in a white area will quickly be questioned by the police (2).

The reality is that Los Angeles is made out of a huge variety of environments, but one has to live there for a long time to understand the codes that determine the character of a particular district. The city can't be understood in an intuitive way; it always stays at distance.

"Armed response" sign, omnipresent in the residential districts

2) Crime Doctor

To get prepared for a possible explosion of Lynchian violence, one can follow the advice the "Crime Doctor™" gives on his website (3). He explains every protection technique, from the installation of lockers to the protection of whole districts. The page "Home invasion survival tips" teaches to react to this situation:

"Imagine this scenario. After a long week at work, you are finally able to relax at home with your spouse and two teen-age daughters. You're in your living room watching TV with your spouse. [...] Because both of you have worked hard for many years, you are now able to live more comfortably in what you thought to be a safe community. [emphasis in the original]"

"At 9:00PM you hear a knock on the door and your spouse gets up to answer the door. After the door is unlocked you hear a sudden outburst as two strange young men burst through the door and into your living room. [...] The two men are brandishing guns and are shouting obscene threats and commands simultaneously as they push you onto the couch."

Once the decor is set, the Crime Doctor™ considers how it is appropriate to react :

"If you decide to strike a blow, do it fast, suddenly, and forceful to the nose, eyes, or throat without concern for the damage you might inflict. [...] In a life-threatening situation there are no rules for fighting. [...] Take a self-defense class together with your family so all can learn the proper techniques and can practice the procedures."

"Sometimes a radical escape measure pays off, in life and death circumstances, like diving through a plate glass window, jumping from a balcony or climbing onto the roof. Although you might sustain minor injuries you must weigh them against your chance of survival with the assailants."

"If the opportunity presents itself, a trained child can dial 911, activate an alarm panic button, or escape to the neighbor's house to summon the police. If they are capable, they should do it."

3) Los Angeles without Light

Paris has been called "the city of lights", New York "the city that never sleeps". In the modern city, illuminated 24 hours a day, night and day tend to merge and form a continuous and infinite loop. The American suburb in general, and Los Angeles in particular, are exactly the opposite. Just like in the countryside, a deep darkness follows the sunset.

Los Angeles is a ghost town at night. Like in a dream, it is suddenly emptied of its inhabitants, its energy, its substance; and one hangs around endless empty streets, without even recognizing the places he goes through.

Devoted to the sun and the perfect climate, Los Angeles denies the existence of the night and the Angelinos simply behave as if it doesn't exist. They go to bed early, wake up early, party in the afternoon (around a swimming pool or at the beach). They also extend the day after sunset, by buying an electric drill at 4 a.m. at Home Depot, or carrots at Ralph's, driving around the highways in one's car, or spending the night at work as if it were daytime. But this is not the night: it's only an extension of the day.

Chevrolet "Suburban"

Because of the low built density of the city, little light comes from the windows of the buildings or from public lightning. Streets are barely lit by the cars' headlights, the neon signs, or the helicopters of the police. All the lights of a district would switch off if all the cars moved to a different place -- while another area would light up. It's the movement of these lights that makes L.A. so beautiful from above at night. Superimposed to a dark layer of suburban sprawl, moving lights stand out -- the glittering headlights that form the curves of the highways and the luminous lines of the main avenues. These uneven patterns spread out as far as the eye can see, until they melt with the ocean or disappear in the hills.

On the highway, one passes through huge areas in a few minutes, carelessly looking at the endless stream of billboards, buildings, trees, cars...: the reality of the obscure city disappears in the aesthetic seduction of the play of lights. But as soon as one moves away from the major roads and goes down the background of the postcard, the darkness becomes less attractive. One finds himself lost in an impassable maze of deserted secondary streets, with frightening dull facades lit up only by the headlights of his own vehicle. The frozen darkness reveals, more acutely than the overwhelming sun, the infinite depth of the panoramas; and Los Angeles appears as a distressing orthogonal labyrinth in which it is not advised to sink.

Downtown L.A., Photo: © Ofer REYHANIAN

Night is to the American suburb what the forest was to the medieval civilization. As the medieval forest was frequented by wolves, highwaymen, sorcerers, elfs, trolls, ogres, and other mysterious creatures, L.A. nights belong to the frightening population of serial killers, freaky policemen, homeless people, drug addicts, street gangs, and the mentally ill. Every Angelino's fear is to find himself being stuck without gas in their territory.

Los Angeles's urban landscape is often described as a catalogue of cinema scenes : fragile buildings made out of perishable materials, flashy colors, ever-changing shapes, billboards... Under the sun, it is easy to forget that this is scenery ; but at night, because of the disappearance of colors, L.A. seems to lose its physical weight and reality. The whole city seems to be made out of cardboard, and appears like a very fragile, vulnerable, unsafe and frightening environment.

At night, the feeling of insecurity is strenghtened by the custom of entering buildings by the back door, by side roads, which gives the impression of getting behind the scenery, and evokes a feeling of being misplaced. The back door of the stores is used more frequently than the front door (if there is a front door at all). And if the sun humanizes the least welcoming street corner, the darkness does not make more attractive the deserted parking lots, hidden doors, interlaced small dark streets, decrepit neon signs lost in the middle of nowhere, backstairs, courtyards, narrow corridors -- that form the night environment of the Angelino, which is so much different from the environment of the New Yorker or the Parisian, for instance.

"Welcome to Los Angeles"

4) One Last Dance before the End of the World

In Los Angeles, having fun at night always seems strange. Angelinos do get out at night, but that custom, inherited from the urban culture of the modern metropolises, is unsuited for a suburban way of life. Of course, one could also find New York style trendy parties in L.A., but the subdued light does not fit the bronzed and healthy Californian bodies : it makes them look like they are in an underexposed movie, they need plain sun and frank shades.

At the very deep bottom of L.A. nights, the further it is possible to go in the city, i.e. at the geographic center, in the huge industrial zone south of downtown, one finds places that might have looked trendy in the 1980s. Large deserted avenues are bordered by empty industrial buildings, yellowed by old street lightnings. Black homeless people sleep in tents or in jerry-built houses, among the waste. Sometimes a human shadow seems to be passing in the background. That sordid landscape would be the perfect scene for a Hollywood movie on the seedy districts of the megalopolis. But this is one of the rare areas in Los Angeles where no one ever comes to film (except John Carpenter "They live").

Lost in that decor, there are a few house music night-clubs. Even if you park two blocks away from one of these clubs, a security guard wearing a prominent weapon will fall on you as soon as you get out of your car, and will escort you to the entrance of the club. He spotted your car when you arrived (nobody would just hang around here with no reason in the middle of the night).

At the entrance of the clubs, you are frisked by other armed guards who screen for weapons. Inside the clubs, there are even more armed guards. Their presence does not dampen the dancers' enthusiasm -- on the contrary, its role is to reassure them. If the guards who work outside the club are old black men, it's because their lives are considered to be less valuable than the ones of the white guards inside the club. Private policing offers a large selection of these kinds of low-paid and dangerous jobs.

Dancers come here from all around L.A. to take ecstasy and dance in an "end of the world" atmosphere - but if you start lighting a cigarette inside the club or try to order a beer at the bar after 2 a.m., you'll be immediately pulled out (hey, it's California, what did you expect?); even if everybody (including the guards) is under ecstasy. Neglecting the twenty years gap between them and the young dancers, the security guards bustle their grease like damned souls, streaming with sweat, dribbling of pleasure, showing off their weapons as if they were their genitals.

"No drugs sold on this property", sign on a house's window, in a black ghetto (Venice Beach)

5) Gated Communities

In a completely different atmosphere, gated communities proliferate everywhere around the city. Gated communities are private residential districts, separated from the public space by walls and gates, protected by private militias and/or surveillance cameras, and applying specific rules inside their gates. The fastest growing habitat type in the USA, they proliferate around the major megalopolises, especially in the Sunbelt. They are a response to the feeling of insecurity of suburbia.

Even during the day, the gated community of Manhattan Village is invisible from the outside. One can pass in front of it without any suspicion of its existence. The little cabin of the watchman is hidden behind a dense line of trees along a deserted avenue in Manhattan Beach, Los Angeles. This line of trees is the only "street facade" of this development, which contains about one hundred units.

At the entrance, a black watchman -- who looks very different from the black security guards at the entrance of downtown's clubs -- welcomes very politely the inhabitants and the visitors. To let a visitor enter, the guard must have been informed of his arrival by his hosts beforehand. Yet, he will still take note of the registration number of the car and the driving license number. With ethe help of a map, he will then point out to the visitor the way to the house where he wants to go. Eventually he opens the entry gate not without wishing the visitor a nice day.

Opening of the gate of the gated community "Cardiff by the Sea" (San Diego)

The first street of the development is free of any construction and bordered by trees, as a buffer zone between the community and the rest of the city. Sinking slowly in the community, one discovers how different it is from the outside: silent, clean, and peaceful. Even if Manhattan Village is not one of the richest gated communities in the L.A. area, it represents perfectly the ideal world that most people are looking for when moving into a gated community. It is a perfectly serene residential development, that radiates with American optimism, recalling from the guileless Hollywood movies of the 1950s. Streets are clean, trees are healthy and well kept, houses look perfectly pleasant to live in, and pedestrian paths look perfect for a promenade. Houses and buildings are distributed along "noodle" streets ending in culs-de-sacs. Inhabitants look like "real Americans" : tall, strong, gracious, smiling, white and wearing shorts - the kind of American that is getting more and more rare in the "open" areas of Los Angeles.

The main advantage of this community is to be located a few minutes drive from Los Angeles International Airport. Thanks to this very favorable location, it attracts a specific population: notably L.A. Lakers basket-ball players and "international executives", who need to travel often for business purposes.

Every house of the development has been designed by a different architect. Because of the high prices of building land in the Los Angeles area, these are big houses on small lots. The community also includes a few apartment buildings, which is a rather unusual mix for this kind of development, but can be explained by its location in an urbanized area. The inhabitants are conscious of the fact that they could own much bigger yards and houses for the same price in Florida or in Arizona -- but they would lose the advantages of "living in the city", as a housewife told me without irony.

Indeed, living in a gated community does not imply to renounce the outside context. The inhabitants of such developments still want to benefit from the advantages that the city gives them (jobs, facilities, cultural life), but they refuse to suffer the drawbacks usually attached to it : density, noise, crime, physical proximity with other human beings, the obligation to frequent public space, the presence of the poor and of other ethnic groups, the tax system... They want to choose which relations they have with society, but they don't want the society to choose the relations it has with them. It's a one-sided relationship to the society.

A cul-de-sac street in the gated community " Manhattan Village ", Manhattan Beach (Los Angeles)

© Stéphane Degoutin

/\ (1) John Chase (architect, lives, works and teaches in Los Angeles) , "My urban history", in Nan Ellin ed., Architecture of Fear, Princeton University Press, NY, 1997

/\ (2) In City of Quartz, Mike Davis says that "Don Jackson, an off-duty Black policeman from Hawthorne, precisely in order to make a point about de facto apartheid, led some ghetto kids into [Westwood] Village. They carefully observed the law, yet, predictably, they were stopped, forced to kiss concrete and searched. Jackson, despite police identification, was arrested for "disturbing the peace"." Mike Davis, City of quartz, Excavating the future in Los Angeles, Vintage, Londres, 1992. Jackson then repeated the experience with a similar "success".

/\ (3)