Review ‘Sidewalking’ author David Ulin jumps feet first into trying to understand Los Angeles

By Geoff Manaugh

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Sidewalking: Coming to Terms with Los Angeles” arrives at a particularly heady moment for rethinking the identity of the city. From the promise of new Metro lines and the possibility of the 2024 Olympics to architect Michael Maltzan’s provocative idea that the city has hit its outermost limit and must now splash back on itself, talking about L.A. seems far more popular than walking in it.

For Times book critic David Ulin, Los Angeles contains multitudes. Indeed, the peculiar magic of L.A., his book convincingly suggests, is that other cities, both real and imagined, are always coming into blurred focus on the edges of its existing streets and buildings. Whether this is because of a particular L.A. street standing in for Manhattan in every car commercial or if it’s because of the city’s infamous postmodernity — L.A.’s architecture mimicking, perhaps mocking, any style, anywhere — the result is the same. Los Angeles is a kind of urban zip file inside of which every other city has been compressed.

But all of this is just camouflage. Something like a real Los Angeles remains obscured, Ulin writes, literally invisible at the speed of an automobile. He thus sets out on foot to find this hidden city, hitting the pavement from the very first sentence for some ground-truthing, hoping to see firsthand what the metropolis has become.

Exploring L.A. on foot has, for Ulin, the feel of revelation — in some senses, quite literally, as the book begins with the unexpected sight of a church, stumbled upon during one of his walks. These discoveries — the church was always there, he had just never seen it before — illustrate one of the book’s central points: We do not need an entirely new metropolis, we simply need new ways to experience the one that is already here. If the real Los Angeles always seems both notoriously hard to access and deliberately concealed from public view, it could simply be because we don’t walk enough.

In essence, however, “Sidewalking” is a book about David Ulin, documenting his own journey from the built canyons of New York City to this metropolis of heat and sunlight, where even today, he points out, he remains “a reluctant Angeleno.” This autobiographical subtext gives the book its nuanced, even confessional tone, its first-person urbanism. L.A., seen through Ulin’s eyes, becomes a city-sized hall of mirrors in which the author attempts to lose, discover, refine and interrogate himself.

For a short book, “Sidewalking” is admirably wide-ranging in its chosen odysseys. Nonetheless, Ulin anchors the book in certain key locations, revealing his own sense of the city’s geography — and, alas, these can leave a little to be desired. Somewhat worryingly, for example, Ulin becomes preoccupied with the Grove, which dominates the second half of his book. Read Rest of The Review Here

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