by Paul R. Spitzzeri
As greater Los Angeles radically transformed from a remote frontier region to a major metropolis and suburban hub of the American Southwest during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a key component to that dramatic change was the advent of professionalized urban and regional planning, at the city and county levels.
Today’s featured object from the museum’s holdings is a representative artifact reflecting that important development: the August 1928 issue of The Community Builder, a publication launched the prior year with Dr. Carol Aronovici as editor. Aronovici, born in Romania in 1881, emigrated to the United States at age nineteen and earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Cornell University and a doctorate from Brown University.
He embarked on work in social welfare in Rhode Island and then turned to the fields of housing, urban living and city planning and it was said that Aronovici “was the first person to give a course on city planning in the United States” when he taught at the University of Pennsylvania. He was also a guest lecturer at Harvard, Columbia, the University of Chicago and several European universities before coming to California where he worked for the state as a housing commissioner while living in the Bay Area.
During the latter half of the 1920s, Aronovici was in greater Los Angeles and he was a city planner in Santa Ana and San Bernardino before taking a position on the Los Angeles Planning Commission and working with The Community Builder. The highlighted issue here includes some very interesting and informative material, including an editorial on planning resort cities, which begins with the observation that “there was a time when only the very rich could afford vacations at well appointed resorts while the rest of us made the best of visiting an aunt in the country where we derived recreation and change from the joy of helping with the chores and pitching hay.”
There had been some change as more Americans took vacations, in which “we penetrate the most remote forests and scale the highest peaks, develop a knowledge of hotels and barbeque dispensaries” or utilize auto camping. The call here, though, was for moving away from a mindset in which people “measure the value of a vacation by the number of inconveniences we are willing to endure and by the noise and promiscuity of scenes that we vision during a short two weeks” to a different mindset.
Identifying Americans as “a restless people” who “want restless vacations” with “the jazz and commotion of masses of people trying to find rest by more activity,” the piece looked to “the quiet, peaceful, restful place” as a contrast to “noisy dance halls,” amusement parks, or places where people “run about in fast automobiles and snorting motor boats.” The beaches and mountains “have constantly to fight off the intrusion of mob amusements” with that mob comprised of those who “must always be guided and lead and fleeced in order to give them the feeling that they are having a vacation and a good time.”
Another editorial concerned housing codes and the perception that “almost every one of these codes are concerned with safety and only incidentally with sanitation.” There was also too much emphasis on “miles of well planned and well planted boulevard” that, however, “do not redeem a city that tolerates slums.” It was averred that “city planners are too much concerned with the externals of cities and often fail to realize that the best planned city badly housed does not make a high type of community.”
What was needed, then, was not just communities “in which traffic flows freely and safely,” but those “in which all of the homes represent at least a reasonable standard of sanitation, privacy, and convenience.” The result would be that “good citizenship stands in direct ration to the quality of the homes in which the people must live.”
The first feature article was by Aronovici and dealt with eminent domain. He asserted that city planning was not about architecture or engineering, but, rather, “practical sociology and economics, the former being devoted to the study of human needs and the latter dealing with the resources available for satisfying those needs.”
When it came to eminent domain, Aronovici was concerned that too many cities were planned so haphazardly that they “have issued bonds far in excess of their normal credit so that instability of land values and a high rate of taxation have resulted” and leading to poor street development and orientation leading to congestion. The key was smart land acquisition so that planners “take full account of the needs of the people in a broad and scientific sense” and this would allow for a better use of resources for proper planning.
Those needs came with an examination of “racial factors, the historical background and traditions, the density and mobility of the population, the vertical social stratification based upon background or economic differences” and other elements. Interestingly, Aronovici noted that literature could help in determining these needs, through the examination of how Emile Zola described Paris or Upton Sinclair wrote about Americans in Babbitt, his 1922 novel.
Aronovici was critical of American city planning that placed premiums on comfort and convenience, rather than on “certain civic and community character[istic]s that represent the heritage and aspirations of an urban group.” He proclaimed that
unless we give communities the deepest and most far reaching interpretation as social entities with their own peculiar individualities we shall never succeed in creating great cities, but merely technically efficient mass machines for the sheltering of human beings, and creation and distribution of goods.
The problem was to enact eminent domain proceedings to realize a desirable urban planning project, but there was also the matter of marginal eminent domain, or excess condemnation, in which additional property is acquired and when the work is finished, the excess land is sold at what would be presumably increased value because of the improvements made under the auspices of a city that could control through careful zoning what was built.
Aronovici identified three primary uses for marginal eminent domain: for street improvements, broader enhancements to regions and zones, and for replatting. The first “is the only type used in this country” through the taking of land “on either side of an improvement” and offered many advantages in terms of well-integrated parcels for development; better civic control of the development of the land; enhanced values for both the city and property owner, which reducing speculation; relieving property owners the cost of development and increased taxation because of improvements; inspires faster development when the city imposes time limits for projects; benefits to adjoining areas because of the improvements made; resizing lots from excess land to maximize marketability; and controls in architectural style and height limit to get the best economic return.
Yet, he observed, the other two uses could also be of great help to cities, so that the application for regions and zones “is particularly of value where there are slum districts which could not be removed without help from the community.” If individual property owners would not remediate these areas, Aronovici argued, marginal eminent domain could be used for this purpose. This “would help the property owners to rid themselves of unprofitable holdings and at the same time develop better housing conditions without any loss to the public treasury.”
In terms of replatting, the idea was for government “to acquire large tracts of land which been laid out so badly that they cannot serve the immediate needs of their residents and are wholly out of harmony with the needs of the community.” Aronovici argued that government could acquire “the entire area and after replanning sells it in the open market’ or a specific parcel could be evaluated “taken over by the government at a stated value and at the end of the replatting each property owner gets his equivalent in land on the new plan.” He identified the second as “the most equitable and practical” for subdivisions.
While Aronovici held that marginal eminent domain “would make all city planning more effective and more economical” through “equitable economic principles” that would rehabilitate land and raise values “without risk on the part of the individual property owners,” there are obvious questions in terms of the willingness of landowners to comply with the proceedings and how values would be determined that would avoid conflict between property holders and governments.
A piece on street development by Amos Potts, an engineer for the Portland Cement Association in Los Angeles, discussed planning methods for those thoroughfares that were highways, major arteries, local streets and so on. Particular attention was paid to street widths, with the recognition that acquiring enough land economically to do so could be problematic.
So, for residential streets, a 36-feet width allowed for two 10-foot lanes and 8-foot parking lanes on the sides. Commercial roads generally were 56 feet wide, with four 10-foot lanes and the two 8-foot parking lanes. For those thoroughfares with angled parking, an additional twenty feet would be appropriated and 96-feet wide larger arterial roadways allowed for additional 10-foot lanes in each direction.
Naturally, other considerations were part of the calculations in terms of volume and load for thickness of pavement, support in the grading, bow to secure joints between concrete sections, and other factors. The idea for planners was “to determine the specific use to be assigned to each street and highway unit” and then decide upon widths, pavement specifications, and other elements “for facilitating traffic and saving in the construction.”
Thomas Adams, in his “Statement of City Planning Principle” discussed the fundamental issue of taking advantage, in city planning, of the benefits of urban life in the concentration of industry, communication and cultural and social connections with mindfulness on overcrowding and its effects on those benefits. He identified eight core principles including: improved living conditions; a balance of buildings and open space and in marrying construction and building use with adequate streets; the free circulation of traffic and transport terminals; concentrating economic activities for efficiency while balancing these with residential needs; efficiency in travel and freight distribution; “dignified” order to the development of building; keeping public expenses limited to “essential local needs;” and keeping all aspects of city development as part of unified planning.
A staff member at the powerful Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce wrote on the importance of these entities in city planning, particularly in promotion and education. C.J.S. Williamson wrote that chambers “are morally responsible for the success or failure of City Planning in their community” and he noted that his chamber promoted the idea of having the county surveyor and county road commissioner be seated in the regional planning commission to link planning with execution. It also advised having three subdivision engineers be a committee to assist with strengthening policies and procedures for developing such tracts.
Such coordination of subdivision development not only provided for the betterment of residential and commercial lots, but assisted with street and highway planning and improvements. Williamson argued that city planning was not an esoteric science only understood by architects and engineers, but “is the simplest and most elementary proposition in the world.”
Members of chambers of commerce had skills in terms of community promotion, a sense of broad vision, a desire for betterment of their communities, practical experience and other attributes that made them particularly well-suited to assist planners. Moreover, they would do so “quietly, sincerely, [and] without official recognition and without any financial compensation.” If people could see “their city as their larger home,” then chambers of commerce could be vital in “stirring public opinion and securing public consent” for the planning process.
It won’t be discussed further here, but there is a very interesting article on “The Paris Plan” devised by modernist architect Richard J. Neutra, whose forward-thinking designs in 1920s Los Angeles remain justly celebrated. The general idea was to take the haphazard streets and districts of the City of Light and devise a more orderly and efficient concept.
Also of note is Pasadena parks and recreation head Gilbert Skutt’s “Use of Public Funds for Recreation Programs” and its discussion of developing programs based on five standards from the Playground and Recreation Association of America. These included play lots of between 6 and 10,000 square feet for children under 5 within a quarter mile of their home; the neighborhood playground of 4-10 acres for children from 5-14 within a half mile of residences; the district playground of 10-24 acres; the recreation park of 100-250 acres; and “the reservation” for regional use involving cities, counties or inter-county agencies. Beyond these were county, state and national parks and monuments.
Skutt noted that “from the general fund an average City is justified in spending from 6 to 10% of its total revenue for maintenance and operation” while bond issues for the capital to build parks would involve 10-year bonds for equipment, 20-year ones for buildings, and 30-40 year bonds for land acquisition. He added that economy was always the goal, so that art, memorials, and “other super refinements” should be done through private donations from individuals and groups. Moreover, “service should be entirely democratic and afford universal participation.”
Interestingly, Skutt opined about the traditional public square losing its value, literally in economic terms, as downtowns become congested commercial centers so that “many public squares [are] serving only a few loafers spraying nicotine on the sidewalks and starved grass.” Those working near these squares did not use them, he state, and went home or to other activities in “suburban territory.” These older public park spaces could be sold and cheaper property acquired for parks—imagine if this was done with the Plaza or Pershing Square, for example—though he added the caveat that cities may retain these “as measures of public safety and health” and he excluded “Plazas around Public Buildings” from his prescription.
Skutt also differentiated between cities that were primarily industrial and commercial, those that were resorts cities, college towns, and those in the suburbs. There was also the question of climate regarding those who had shorter outdoor seasons than others. Additionally, there was the horizontal urban environment, like Los Angeles, where
the tendency should be outward from the center of the City for all forms of recreation rather than spending millions to keep a bit of nature in a district that nan has builded up and shut out every vestige and true form of nature.
He concluded by advising that there should be “an advanced scientific program” for developing recreational resources including accounting for “sports, community arts and recreational activities.” This program, lastly, “should be comprehensive including studies that will benefit and not embarrass posterity.”
Faith Holmes Hyers, the only female writer in the issue, discussed the “Planning of the Los Angeles Public Library,” which opened its doors two years earlier, on 6 July 1926. She noted that the project was largely modeled on the Cleveland Public Library in terms of “placing all reading rooms around the exterior areas of the building reached by means of passages from a central opening.” A drawing of the main floor showed the concept and there were then ten main departments and fifteen reading rooms.
She also discussed the layout in terms of working with four entrances from Figueroa Street, Grand Avenue, Fifth Street and Sixth Street and accounting for what the needs and wants of specific clientele entailed, so that, for example, children were naturally likely to use that portion of the library allotted for materials tailored to them, and the art and music rooms were sequestered in the southeast corner and the science and industry room was in the opposite corner to the northwest. The stacks were partitioned in four large areas surrounding the main rotunda with the reading rooms on the outer edges.
The third floor was exclusively for administration and the executive offices, as well as for the ordering and cataloging of books, totaling some 500 a day of which 60% were sent to the several branches throughout the sprawling city. Hyers concluded by noting the achievement of architect Bertram Goodhue, best-known for the exuberant Spanish Colonial Revival style of structures in San Diego’s Balboa Park for the Panama-California Exposition of 1915. Yet, the Los Angeles Public Library was a dramatically different blending of Mediterranean and Egyptial revival styles, though Goodhue died in 1924 well before it was completed. Also noted were the decorative elements and murals, still in process, by Dean Cornwell, Albert Herter, and Julian Garnsey, the latter having done mural work for Walter P. Temple’s movie theater bearing his name in Alhambra and finished in late 1921.
There are other elements to the magazine, including the awarding of grants to developers for parks and playgrounds by the Harmon Foundation and a provisional schedule for a six-day Institute of Municipal Administration held at the University of Southern California—the latter showing further how far professionalized city planning was advancing at the time.
The magazine appears to have lasted just a few years and, after 1930, Aronovici was back on the East Coast pursuing his avocation. He returned to the Bay Area in 1955 and died two years later, recognized in obituaries as “one of the founders of modern city planning.” This issue, then, of The Community Builder is a notable representation of the development of the profession as applied to greater Los Angeles during the late 1920s.