In the usual telling of it, the Los Angeles basin of the mid-20th-century was paradise of open spaces and orange groves, an endless vista of new suburban ranch houses and freeways without traffic jams. If the American dream was an abstraction, the California dream was something tangible. For Culver City, the mythic past lies somewhere between Mayberry, a David Hockney painting, and the glittering silver screen. But the usual telling of anything is rarely complete. The California dream was not for everyone. California has been a place of conflict, scarcity, struggle, and exclusion. Culver City is no exception. Some sunsets cast long shadows.
Multinational media giants have chosen Culver City for their headquarters, and the City is reclaiming its place as a creative center. Yet our exclusionary housing policies remain a relic of the last century.
Today we are entering a new phase of our history, which we should approach clear-eyed, without myth-making. In the 21st century, Culver City finds itself embedded in a growing metropolis, tightly cabined between the mountains and the sea. Multinational media giants have chosen Culver City for their headquarters, and the City is reclaiming its place as a creative center. Yet our exclusionary housing policies remain a relic of the last century. According to the City of Los Angeles, the rate of population growth in the metropolitan area exceeded housing growth by 42% from 1980 to 2010. Not surprisingly, housing has become scarce and both rents and home prices are now out of reach for most people.
With the citywide General Plan under review, this is our time to reimagine our future. The Culver City of the mythic past had three key characteristics: it was small, affordable, and desirable to live in. It is not possible to have all three now, if it ever was. We must pick two.
Culver City could, for example, choose to be small and affordable, but not desirable. That is all too easy to accomplish. Shut down city services, stop spending on roads, bridges, parks, and schools. Between decay and crime, the city will be an undesirable place to live, but small and affordable. I can safely predict that nobody wants to go in that direction.
Another option is to be small and desirable, but not affordable. That is the path Culver City is on right now, careening like a bullet train into a priced-out future. If we do nothing, we will become like the Palisades, San Marino, or even Beverly Hills, a monochrome place drained of vitality and diversity where only the rich and the old can afford to live. Failure to address the price and availability of housing also threatens our sense of community. The exclusionary policies of redlining and racial covenants may be behind us, but we do little better if we let housing costs do the work of displacement and segregation. Just as bad, we are pricing out our own children. Moreover, racial diversity is key to the future of our city. Given the context of history, we now need housing policies that explicitly affirm the value of persons of color in Culver City.
The third option, therefore, is the best option for Culver City. Culver City can be affordable and desirable, but we will have to adapt and grow a little. We have had plenty of commercial construction here. Now it is time to make housing a priority in Culver City. We must redress the gap between the housing stock and our regional population growth.
What we need above all is a new vision that allows for more than just one kind of California dream. Not just of a split-level ranch on a cul-de-sac at the end of a 90 minute commute, but a city apartment with easy access on foot and microtransit to the sustainable farmer’s market, the grocery store, the school, the park, the beach, and the theater. A place where all the different people who work in our community can afford to live.
Imagine if our boulevards felt like public spaces, not moats. Combined with inclusionary zoning and affordable housing set-asides, we can begin to build our 21st-century Culver City that works for all of us.
This is all within our grasp. We have wide commercial corridors with low-slung one- and two-story buildings but zero housing. There are similarly rows of fortress-like apartment complexes without a place to buy a cup of coffee. These are places we can begin to re-invent as neighborhoods. In the commercial corridors of other small cities, there are three or four stories of apartments or condominiums above ground-floor retail or office space, corner grocery stores, and coffee shops. Imagine if our boulevards felt like public spaces, not moats. Combined with inclusionary zoning and affordable housing set-asides, we can begin to build our 21st-century Culver City that works for all of us.
Most importantly, we can do all this without displacing anyone or shortchanging our existing residential neighborhoods. Living in the more urbanized parts of Culver City will not be everyone’s choice, but our community needs that option. Walkable, bikeable, transit-oriented neighborhoods will enliven our commercial districts and re-establish the much-needed missing middle of our housing market. Our small city can set the example for all of west Los Angeles.
The time is now. As I write this, Culver City is experimenting with the closure of some downtown streets to give public space back to the people. The way we solve the housing crisis will be the same: bold efforts that leave mythmaking in the past.