Infrastructural Voodoo Doll

For the past few months, on various trips out west to Los Angeles, I’ve been working on an exclusive story about a new intelligence-gathering unit at LAX, the Los Angeles International Airport.

To make a long story short, in the summer of 2014 Los Angeles World Airports—the parent organization in control of LAX—hired two intelligence analysts, both with top secret clearance, in order to analyze global threats targeting the airport.

There were many things that brought me to this story, but what particularly stood out was the very idea that a piece of transportation infrastructure could now punch above its weight, taking on the intelligence-gathering and analytical capabilities not just of a city, but of a small nation-state.

It implied a kind of parallel intelligence organization created to protect not a democratic polity but an airfield. This suggested to me that perhaps our models of where power actually lies in the contemporary city are misguided—that, instead of looking to City Hall, for example, we should be focusing on economic structures, ports, sites of logistics, places that wield a different sort of influence and require a new kind of protection and security.

From the article, which is now online at The Atlantic:

Under the moniker of “critical infrastructure protection,” energy-production, transportation-logistics, waste-disposal, and other sites have been transformed from often-overlooked megaprojects on the edge of the metropolis into the heavily fortified, tactical crown jewels of the modern state. Bridges, tunnels, ports, dams, pipelines, and airfields have an emergent geopolitical clout that now rivals democratically elected civic institutions.

For me, this has incredible implications:

It might sound like science fiction, but, in 20 years’ time, it could very well be that LAX has a stronger international-intelligence game than many U.S. allies. LAX field agents could be embedded overseas, cultivating informants, sussing out impending threats. It will be an era of infrastructural intelligence, when airfields, bridges, ports, and tunnels have, in effect, their own internal versions of the CIA—and LAX will be there first.

There are obvious shades here of Keller Easterling’s notion of “extrastatecraft,” where infrastructure has come to assume a peculiar form of political authority.

As such, it also resembles an initiative undertaken by the NYPD in the years immediately following 9/11—a story well told by at least three books, Peter Bergen’s excellent United States of Jihad, Christopher Dickey’s Securing the City, and, more critically, Enemies Within by Matt Apuzzo and Adam Goldman.

However, there is at least one key difference here: the NYPD unit was operating as an urban-scale intelligence apparatus, whereas the L.A. initiative exists at the level of a piece of transportation infrastructure. Imagine the Holland Tunnel, I-90, or the M25 hiring its own in-house intel team, and you can begin to imagine the strange new powers and influence this implies.

In any case, the bulk of the piece is focused on introducing readers to the core group of people behind the program.

There is Anthony McGinty, a former D.C. homicide detective and Marine Reserve veteran, kickstarting a second career on the west coast; there is Michelle Sosa, a trilingual Boston University grad with a background in intelligence analysis; and there is Ethel McGuire, one of the first black female agents in FBI history, who undertook their hiring.

There are, of course, literally thousands of others of people involved, from baggage handlers and the LAX Fire Department to everyday travelers. LAX, after all, is a city in miniature:

At more than five square miles, it is only slightly smaller than Beverly Hills. More than 50,000 badged employees report to work there each day, many with direct access to the airfield—and thus to the vulnerable aircraft waiting upon it. More than 100,000 passenger vehicles use the airport’s roads and parking lots every day, and, in 2015 alone, LAX hosted 75 million passengers in combined departures and arrivals.

LAX is also policed like a city. The airport has its own SWAT team—known as the Emergency Services Unit—and employs roughly 500 sworn police officers, double the number of cops in the well-off city of Pasadena and more than the total number of state police in all of Rhode Island.

However, the actual space of the airport—the built landscape of logistics—is probably the main potential source of interest for BLDGBLOG readers.

For example, at the western edge of the airfield, there is an abandoned suburb called Surfridge, its empty streets and sand dunes now used as a butterfly sanctuary and as a place for police-training simulations. The runways themselves are vast symbolic landscapes painted with geometric signs that have to be read to be navigated. And then there are the terminals, currently undergoing a massive, multibillion dollar renovation campaign.

At one point, I found myself sitting inside the office complex of Gavin de Becker, an anti-assassination security expert who has worked for celebrities, foreign dignitaries, and even U.S. presidents. Protected behind false-front signage, de Becker’s hidden complex houses a full-scale airplane fuselage for emergency training, as well as ballistic dummies and a soundproofed shooting range.

I had a blast working on this piece, and am thrilled that it’s finally online. Check it out, if you get a chance, and don’t miss the speculative “case files” at the end, brief examples of what might be called infrastructural security fiction.

(Thanks to Ross Andersen and Sacha Zimmerman at The Atlantic for the edits. All images in this post from Google Maps, filtered through Instagram).

Zone for Game

[Image: Via TechCrunch].

There was finally something interesting to read about Pokémon Go. The game—which involves overlaying the physical world with a grab-bag of exotic creatures that players attempt to capture for points—might help catalyze a new form of virtual urban zoning.

In England, BuzzFeed reported earlier this week, “one person has been so unsettled by strangers turning up at their house that they’ve been forced to ask their member of parliament to intervene.” Apparently, the game’s virtual characters have been showing up within this person’s property lines, which has been “attracting people from far and wide to come and do battle.”

The peeved constituent presumably wants to establish some sort of legal mechanism for preventing uninvited virtual inhabitants from popping up on his or her private property.

[Image: Altered photo of an American front lawn, via Wikipedia].

In the U.S., meanwhile, a New Jersey man has also had enough of these sorts of pixellated guests.

As Kashmir Hill writes for Fusion, “So many people started showing up around [the New Jersey man’s] house, smartphones in hand, hunting Pokémon that he is now suing the makers of the game for creating a nuisance and unjustly enriching themselves by using his backyard as a virtual home for the game’s cartoon creatures.”

In a sense, the game’s designers are operating an illegal—albeit virtual—business on his property.

The New Jersey man’s legal complaint alleges that he “became aware that strangers were gathering outside of his home, holding up their mobile phones as if they were taking pictures. At least five individuals knocked on Plaintiff’s door, informed Plaintiff that there was a Pokémon in his backyard, and asked for access to Plaintiff’s backyard in order to ‘catch’ the Pokémon.”

Trespassing, unlicensed business activity, illegal occupancy, even burglary—as Hill points out, this has led to a rather fascinating challenge to the limits of personal property rights.

It is “quite a novel lawsuit,” she writes, referring specifically to the New Jersey case. “It is laughable, on the one hand, yet it does raise interesting questions around who owns the augmented reality space overlaid on people’s real world properties. When you own land, there are limits to how far above and below your house you own. A new question would be the extent of your rights to the new dimension on top of your property that is augmented reality.”

For Hill, this goes on to raise a series of related questions, including, “if augmented reality really catches on, and an internet environment overlaid on our real world surroundings becomes common, what will be the rules around using that augmented space? Could anyone put a virtual billboard on the front of your house or would they need your permission?”

Could you sell, lease, or subdivide the digital rights to your own home, yard, or lobby?

Could you extract a toll, tax, or commission from virtual usage?

[Image: “With the success of Pokémon Go, we set out to discover if any of the little monsters were hiding within the walls of our own L.A. Times newsroom.” Were those little monsters digitally trespassing? Photo via the L.A. Times].

A while back, we looked at zoning rules in the U.K., hoping to learn what those rules might reveal about the extent to which everyday citizens can use, or even fundamentally transform, personal real estate. What can the state regulate—what can zoning rules control—versus what a private property owner commands? What about digitally?

These Pokémon Go examples suggest something altogether more ominous, I might suggest, wherein a digital entertainment company could prove to have de facto access to your yard, your car, your front stoop, your place of business, using any one of those merely as a stage or platform for passive economic activity.

How much would I love to read a Supreme Court decision—and its dissent!—about these very questions, posing an absolute outside limit to personal digital property rights, where virtual homesteads begin and end, or the extent to which we have the right to populate other people’s space with augmentations and intrusions.

[Image: Skid Row, Los Angeles, via Wikipedia].

Briefly, it’s worth adding that this could also have urban-scale implications.

As Curbed L.A. pointed out this week, Los Angeles “is a veritable menagerie of diverse and unusual Poké-creatures,” which means that “the city may soon be overrun with Poké-tourists,” people from diverse geographic backgrounds hoping to capture high-value targets.

Pokémon Go will disappear from public memory relatively soon, of course, yet it is all but guaranteed to be replaced by other augmented-reality games that also rely on a quote-unquote real, physical location to determine the strategic value of player actions.

To what extent, then, will entire urban entities such as Los Angeles seek to collaborate with, or even directly fund, virtual inhabitants—virtual landmarks, virtual historic sites, virtual destinations—and what are the rules or regulations that might apply to them?

Finally—as anyone who has read Delirious New York or is familiar with the work of Hugh Ferriss knows—cities are fundamentally shaped by zoning laws, literally down to the shadows cast by individual buildings. What, then, might digital or virtual zoning actually look like? How might it shape urban environments to come?

What, as Kashmir Hill asked, is “the extent of your rights to the new dimension on top of your property that is augmented reality”?

*Update* In a slightly expanded version of this post syndicated by Motherboard, I point out that Thailand is already looking “to restrict zoning for the Pokémon Go game after receiving several complaints from people who are disturbed by the trainers, or players, of the game.”

The proposed blocklist would begin with sites of national security, removing them from the field of potential gameplay. However, it is not hard to imagine private citizens using their own political influence to help determine which homes—let alone which streets or entire neighborhoods—would be added to the no-game zone. Think of it as geofencing as a form of urban design.

More over at Motherboard.

(Thanks to @AnthonyAdler for tweeting about “virtual environment policy” a few days ago).

Shocked to discover “they were living in ‘hill country’”

MysteriousUpswelling[Image: “Mysterious upswelling of Opp street above curb, Wilmington (1946),” courtesy USC Libraries].

In 1946, a “mysterious upswelling” occurred in a street in the neighborhood of Wilmington, California, near Long Beach. The photograph above, courtesy of the USC Libraries, pictures a young boy who went outside to measure it.

As part of an irregular series of short posts for KCET’s Lost L.A.—about things like Los Angeles partially illuminated by the light of an atomic bomb—I wrote a quick piece, inspired both by the photo itself and by its caption. “Surprising uprising,” it begins. “George Applegate measures mysterious swelling of Opp Street in Wilmington. Residents were shocked yesterday morning to discover they were living in ‘hill country.’ Street is seven inches above the curbing. Officials are investigating.”

Although I don’t mention this in the KCET post, I was instantly reminded of terrain deformation grenades and the instant, pop-up landforms of an old LucasArts game called Fracture. There, specialized weapons are put to use, tactically reshaping the earth’s surface, resulting in “mysterious upswellings” such as these.

There could be hills anywhere in Los Angeles, we might infer from this, lying in wait beneath our streets and sidewalks, prepping themselves for imminent exposure,” I write over at KCET. “A street today is a mountain tomorrow.”

(Also related: The previous post, Inland Sea).

Inland Sea

For two closely related projects—one called L.A.T.B.D., produced for the USC Libraries, and the other called L.A. Recalculated, commissioned by the 2015 Chicago Architecture Biennial, both designed with Smout Allen—I wrote that Los Angeles could be approached bathymetrically.

Los Angeles is “less a city, in some ways, than it is a matrix of seismic equipment and geological survey tools used for locating, mapping, and mitigating the effects of tectonic faults. This permanent flux and lack of anchorage means that studying Los Angeles is more bathymetric, we suggest, than it is terrestrial; it is oceanic rather than grounded.”

pendulums
[Image: Underground seismic counterweights act as pendulums, designed to stabilize Los Angeles from below; from L.A. Recalculated by Smout Allen and BLDGBLOG].

Because of seismic instability, in other words, the city should be thought of in terms of depths and soundings, not as a horizontal urban surface but as a volumetric space churning with underground forces analogous to currents and tides.

This bathymetric approach to dry land came to mind again when reading last month that the land of Southern California, as shown by a recent GPS study, is undergoing “constant large-scale motion.”

It is more like a slow ocean than it is solid ground, torqued and agitating almost imperceptibly in real-time.

“Constant large-scale motion has been detected at the San Andreas Fault System in Southern California,” we read, “confirming movement previously predicted by models—but never before documented. The discovery will help researchers better understand the fault system, and its potential to produce the next big earthquake.”

fault
[Image: “Vertical velocities” along the San Andreas Fault; via Nature Geoscience].

This is true, of course, on a near-planetary scale, as plate tectonics are constantly pushing land masses into and away from one another like the slow and jagged shapes of an ice floe.

But the constant roiling motion of something meant to be solid is both scientifically fascinating and metaphorically rich—eliminating the very idea of being grounded or standing on firm ground—not to mention conceptually intriguing when put into the context of architectural design.

That is, if architecture is the design and fabrication of stationary structures, meant to be founded on solid ground, then this “constant large-scale motion” suggests that we should instead think of architecture, at least by analogy, more in terms of shipbuilding or even robotics. Architecture can thus be given an altogether different philosophical meaning, as a point of temporary orientation and solidity in a world of constant large-scale surges and flux.

Put another way, the ground we rely on has never been solid; it has always been an ocean, its motion too slow to perceive.

(Thanks to Wayne Chambliss for the tip).

L.A. Recalculated

[Image: From L.A. Recalculated by Smout Allen and BLDGBLOG].

London-based architects Smout Allen and I have a project in the new issue of MAS Context, work originally commissioned for the 2015 Chicago Architecture Biennial and closely related to our project, L.A.T.B.D., at the University of Southern California Libraries.

Called L.A. Recalculated, the project looks at Greater Los Angeles as a seismically active and heavily urbanized terrain punctuated by large-scale scientific instrumentation, from geophysics to astronomy. This is explained in more detail, below.

Between the drawings and the text, it’s something I’ve been very enthusiastic about for the past year or so, and I’m thrilled to finally see it published. I thus thought I’d include it here on the blog; a slightly edited version of the project as seen on MAS Context appears below.

L.A. Recalculated
Commissioned for the 2015 Chicago Architecture Biennial

Los Angeles is a city where natural history, aerospace research, astronomical observation, and the planetary sciences hold outsized urban influence. From the risk of catastrophic earthquakes to the region’s still operational oil fields, from its long history of military aviation to its complex relationship with migratory wildlife, Los Angeles is not just a twenty-first-century megacity.

Its ecological fragility combined with an unsettling lack of terrestrial stability mean that Los Angeles requires continual monitoring and study: from its buried creeks to its mountain summits, L.A. has been ornamented with scientific equipment, crowned with electromagnetic antennae, and ringed with seismic stations, transforming Los Angeles into an urban-scale research facility, a living device inhabited by millions of people on the continent’s westernmost edge.

[Image: Models from the related project, L.A.T.B.D., by Smout Allen and BLDGBLOG; photo courtesy Stonehouse Photographic].

L.A. Recalculated can be seen as a distributed cartographic drawing—part map, part plan, part section—that takes conceptual inspiration from the book OneFiveFour by Lebbeus Woods. There, Woods describes a hypothetical city shaped by the existential threat of mysterious seismic events surging through the ground below. In order to understand how this unstable ground might undermine the metropolis, the city has augmented itself on nearly every surface with “oscilloscopes, refractors, seismometers, interferometers, and other, as yet unknown instruments,” he writes, “measuring light, movement, force, change.”

In this city of instruments—this city as instrument—“tools for extending perceptivity to all scales of nature are built spontaneously, playfully, experimentally, continuously modified in home laboratories, in laboratories that are homes,” exploring the moving surface of an Earth in flux. Architecture becomes a means for giving shape to these existential investigations.

Twenty-first-century Los Angeles has inadvertently fulfilled Woods’s speculative vision. It is less a city, in some ways, than it is a matrix of seismic equipment and geological survey tools used for locating, mapping, and mitigating the effects of tectonic faults. This permanent flux and lack of anchorage means that studying Los Angeles is more bathymetric, we suggest, than it is terrestrial; it is oceanic rather than grounded.

[Image: Models from the related project, L.A.T.B.D., by Smout Allen and BLDGBLOG; photo courtesy Stonehouse Photographic].

L.A. is also a graveyard of dead rocket yards and remnant physics experiments that once measured and established the speed of light using prisms, mirrors, and interferometers in the San Gabriel Mountains (an experiment now marked by historic plaques and concrete obelisks). Further, Los Angeles hosts both the Griffith and Mt. Wilson Observatories through which the region achieved an often overlooked but vital role in the history of global astronomy.

Seen through the lens of this expanded context, Los Angeles becomes an archipelago of scientific instruments often realized at the scale of urban infrastructure: densely inhabited, with one eye on the stars, sliding out of alignment with itself, and jostled from below with seismic tides.

[Image: From L.A. Recalculated by Smout Allen and BLDGBLOG].

—ONE—
The surface of Los Angeles is both active and porous. A constant upwelling of liquid hydrocarbons and methane gas is everywhere met with technologies of capture, mitigation, and control. In our proposal, wheeled seismic creepmeters measure the movement of the Earth as part of an experimental lab monitoring potentially hazardous leaks of oil and tar underground.

[Image: From L.A. Recalculated by Smout Allen and BLDGBLOG].

—TWO—
The speed of light was accurately measured for the first time just outside this city of sunshine and cinema. Using complex scientific instrumentation assembled from rotating hexagonal prisms, mirrors, and pulses of light, housed inside small, architecturally insignificant shacks in the mountains behind Los Angeles, one of the fundamental constants of the universe was cracked.

[Image: From L.A. Recalculated by Smout Allen and BLDGBLOG].

—THREE—
In the heart of the city, atop the old neighborhoods of Chavez Ravine, erased to make way for Dodger Stadium, we propose a series of 360º planetariums to be built. These spherical projections not only reconnect Los Angeles with the stars, constellations, and distant galaxies turning through a firmament its residents can now rarely see; they also allow simulated glimpses into the Earth’s interior, where the planet’s constantly rearranging tectonic plates promise a new landscape to come, a deeper world always in formation. The destroyed houses and streets of this lost neighborhood also reappear in the planetarium shows as a horizon line to remind visitors of the city’s recent past and possible future.

[Image: From L.A. Recalculated by Smout Allen and BLDGBLOG].

—FOUR—
As the city changes—its demography variable, its landscape forever on the move—so, too, do the constellations high above. These shifting heavens allow for an always-new celestial backdrop to take hold and influence the city. A complex architectural zodiac is developed to give a new narrative context for these emerging astral patterns.

[Image: From L.A. Recalculated by Smout Allen and BLDGBLOG].

—FIVE—
Seismic counterweights have long been used to help stabilize skyscrapers in earthquake zones. Usually found at the tops of towers, these dead weights sway back and forth during temblors like vast and silent bells. Here, a field of subterranean pendulums has been affixed beneath the city to sway—and counter-sway—with every quake, a kind of seismic anti-doomsday clock protecting the city from destruction.

[Image: From L.A. Recalculated by Smout Allen and BLDGBLOG].

—SIX—
All of the oil, tar, and liquid asphalt seeping up through the surface of the city can be captured. In this image, slow fountains attuned to these percolating ground fluids gather and mix the deeper chemistry of Los Angeles in special pools and reservoirs.

[Image: From L.A. Recalculated by Smout Allen and BLDGBLOG].

—SEVEN—
The endless jostling of the city, whether due to tectonic activity or to L.A.’s relentless cycles of demolition and construction, can be tapped as a new source of renewable energy. Vast flywheels convert seismic disturbance into future power, spinning beneath generation facilities built throughout the city’s sprawl. Los Angeles will draw power from the terrestrial events that once threatened it.

28_la_recalculated_08[Image: From L.A. Recalculated by Smout Allen and BLDGBLOG].

—EIGHT—
Through sites such as Griffith Observatory and the telescopes of Mt. Wilson, the history of Los Angeles is intimately connected to the rise of modern astronomy. The city’s widely maligned landscape of freeways and parking lots has been reinvigorated through the precise installation of gates, frames, and other architectural horizon lines, aligning the city with solstices, stars, and future constellations.

• • •

L.A. Recalculated was commissioned by the 2015 Chicago Architecture Biennial, with additional support from the USC Libraries Discovery Fellowship, the Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL, and the British Council. Special thanks to Sandra Youkhana, Harry Grocott, and Doug Miller.

Meanwhile, check out the closely related project, L.A.T.B.D.. Broadly speaking, L.A.T.B.D. consists of—among many other elements, including narrative fiction and elements of game design—3D models of the architectural scenarios described by L.A. Recalculated.

Panopticops

blade[Image: Flying with the LAPD Air Support Division; Instagram by BLDGBLOG].

Over the past three years, I’ve gone on multiple flights with the LAPD Air Support Division, during both the day and night; my goal was to understand how police see the city from above.

freeway-webside-web[Image: Freeways and escape routes; Instagrams by BLDGBLOG].

Does the aerial view afford new insights into how distant neighborhoods are connected, for example, or how criminals might attempt to hide—or flee—from police oversight? Where are these other, illicit routes and refuges?

More importantly, are they temporary accidents of criminal behavior and urban geography, or are they much deeper flaws and vulnerabilities hidden in the city’s very design?

above-webgotaltitude-web[Images: Instagrams by BLDGBLOG].

Aerial patrols seems to promise a ubiquitous, and near-omniscient, amplification of police vision, even as the fabric of the city itself is put to alternative use by the activities of criminals.

I documented these flights through hundreds of photographs—many of which can be seen here—as well as in my forthcoming book, A Burglar’s Guide to the City.

However, an excerpt of that book has also been adapted for this weekend’s New York Times Magazine, including a look at Thomas More’s Utopia in the context of the LAPD, the navigational “rules of four,” and a look at the array of technical devices installed aboard each police helicopter.

screen-webdashboard-web[Images: Inside the airship; Instagrams by BLDGBLOG].

The “rules of four,” for example, as I write in the piece, are “guidelines [that] fall somewhere between a rule of thumb and an algorithm, and they allow for nearly instantaneous yet accurate aerial navigation.”

“The way the parcels work in the city of Los Angeles,” [LAPD Chief Tactical Flight Officer Cole Burdette explained to me], “is that Main Street and First Street are the hub of the city.” The street numbers radiate outward — by quadrant, east, west, north, south — with blocks advancing by hundreds (the 3800 block below 38th Street) and building numbers advancing by fours (3804, 3808, 3812, etc.). The rest is arithmetic.
(…)
With the rules of four, an otherwise intimidating and uncontrollable knot of streets takes on newfound clarity. It is no coincidence that the Los Angeles Police Department built its main headquarters at the center of it all, at the intersection of First and Main. It placed the department at the numerological heart of the metropolis, the zero point from which everything else emanates.

What fascinates me through all of this is how the city can be used as a tool of police authority, a seemingly endless crystalline grid of numbers and addresses continually re-scanned from above by helicopter—

binocs-webbinoculars-webshoulder-web[Image: Watchers; photo by BLDGBLOG].

—yet, at the same time, the city can also be manipulated from below, against those same figures of aerial power, becoming an instrument of criminal evasion and spatial camouflage.

matrix-web[Image: Night flight across the grid; Instagram by BLDGBLOG].

The very notion of the “getaway route” is revealing here for what it implies about a city’s secondary use as a means of escape, offering hidden lines of flight from figures of authority.

In the book, I explore this a bit more through, among other things, the work of Grégoire Chamayou, including his research into the history of manhunts and his brief look at the speculative re-design of Paris as a kind of immersive police catalog in which “every move will be recorded.”

subdivision-websuburbs-web[Image: Over Porter Ranch and the San Fernando Valley; photos by BLDGBLOG].

Paris, Chamayou writes, “was to be divided into distinct districts, each receiving a letter, and each being subdivided into smaller sub-districts.”

In each sub-district each street had accordingly to receive a specific name. On each street, each house had to receive a number, engraved on the front house—which was not the case at the time. Each floor of each building was also to have a number engraved on the wall. On each floor, each door should be identified with a letter. Every horse car should also bear a number plate. In short, the whole city was to be reorganized according to the principles of a rationalized addressing system.

In that context, the Air Support Division’s “rules of four” as a police-navigation strategy take on a particularly interesting nuance—as do hypothetical means of resistance to police power through the deliberate complication of local addressing systems.

mapping-webbanking-webpanopticops-web[Images: Moving maps and binoculars over L.A.; Instagrams by BLDGBLOG].

The book excerpt in the Times also briefly picks up on some themes elaborated in an article I wrote for Cabinet Magazine a few years ago, discussing how the infrastructure of Los Angeles itself inadvertently permits certain classes of criminal activity.

turning-web[Image: Night flying; photo by BLDGBLOG].

The most obvious example of this unintended side-effect of transportation planning is the so-called “stop-and-rob.” From The New York Times Magazine:

The construction of the city’s freeway system in the 1960s helped to instigate a later spike in bank-crime activity by offering easy getaways from financial institutions constructed at the confluence of on-ramps and offramps. This is a convenient location for busy commuters—but also for prospective bandits, who can pull off the freeway, rob a bank and get back on the freeway practically before the police have been alerted. The maneuver became so common in the 1990s that the Los Angeles police have a name for it: a “stop-and-rob.”

In any case, the book obviously elaborates on these themes in much greater length—and it comes out next week, so please consider pre-ordering a copy—but The New York Times Magazine excerpt is a great place to start.

points-web[Image: Somewhere over the San Fernando Valley; Instagram by BLDGBLOG].

Meanwhile, if you yourself are planning any illicit activities, as an added bonus the article includes insights from Air Support Division pilots and tactical flight officers on the limitations of their own surveillance techniques, such as how the streets around Los Angeles International Airport have become a popular hiding spot for criminals fleeing police helicopters by car and some especially unlikely tactics used to evade thermal detection by the LAPD’s Forward-Looking Infrared or FLIR cameras.

When in doubt—although this is not mentioned in the article—drive into the fog, where the helicopters can’t follow you.

horizon-web[Image: Urban horizon lines; Instagram by BLDGBLOG].

For now, here are a bunch of photos, including many Instagrams, taken from July 2013 to March 2016, including night flights in January 2014 and March 2016—

cockpit-webflying-webhollywood-webmorecityhall-webnighflight-webtennis-webbanktower-webusbank-webnickersonnight-webspot-web[Images: Night from above; photos & Instagrams by BLDGBLOG].

—as well as day and early evening flights taken in July 2013 and March 2016.

nickerson-webwattstowers-webgrid-webplane-web[Images: Note the shot of Watts Towers; Instagrams by BLDGBLOG].

Finally, a chunk of non-Instagram shots, in case those colored filters are making your eyes cross over.

jiujitsu-webcops-webgunsdrawn-webtfo-webLAKings-weblooking-web[Images: Photos by BLDGBLOG, many featuring a home barricade call in Pacoima].

Check out the article—and let me know what you think of the book, once it’s published.

sunset-web[Image: Sunset approaching downtown L.A.; cropped Instagram by BLDGBLOG].

Bomblight

Los_Angeles_Civic_Center_buildings_by_Nevada_A_Bomb_blast_1955[Image: “Los Angeles Civic Center buildings by Nevada A Bomb blast, 1955,” courtesy USC Libraries/Los Angeles Examiner Collection].

I first saw this photo back in August while searching through the archives at USC as part of the recent L.A.T.B.D. project, and was floored. The caption is awesomely, stunningly blunt: “Los Angeles Civic Center buildings by Nevada A Bomb blast, 1955.” A metropolis lit up by a weaponized sun.

Coverage at the time was Homeric and naive, with talk of two dawns ascending over the city—violent and stroboscopic, rather than the rosy-fingered morning of Greek myth—as this experimental sunrise detonated in the neighboring deserts of Nevada.

TwoDawns[Image: “Los Angeles had two dawns yesterday…” from the Los Angeles Examiner, courtesy USC Libraries/Los Angeles Examiner Collection].

In any case, I’ve written a short post over at KCET about the photo, so check it out if you get a chance.

Ghost Streets of Los Angeles

[Image: Via Google Maps; view larger].

In a short story called “Reports of Certain Events in London” by China Miéville—a text often cited here on BLDGBLOG—we read about a spectral network of streets that appear and disappear around London like the static of a radio tuned between stations, old roadways that are neither here nor there, flickering on and off in the dead hours of the night.

For reasons mostly related to a bank heist described in my book, A Burglar’s Guide to the City, I found myself looking at a lot of aerial shots of Los Angeles—specifically the area between West Hollywood and Sunset Boulevard—when I noticed this weird diagonal line cutting through the neighborhood.

[Image: Via Google Maps; view larger].

It is not a street—although it obviously started off as a street. In fact, parts of it today are still called Marshfield Way.

At times, however, it’s just an alleyway behind other buildings, or even just a narrow parking lot tucked in at the edge of someone else’s property line.

[Image: Via Google Maps; view larger].

Other times, it actually takes on solidity and mass in the form of oddly skewed, diagonal slashes of houses.

The buildings that fill it look more like scar tissue, bubbling up to cover a void left behind by something else’s absence.

[Image: Via Google Maps; view larger].

First of all, I love the idea that the buildings seen here take their form from a lost street—that an old throughway since scrubbed from the surface of Los Angeles has reappeared in the form of contemporary architectural space.

That is, someone’s living room is actually shaped the way it is not because of something peculiar to architectural history, but because of a ghost street, or the wall of perhaps your very own bedroom takes its angle from a right of way that, for whatever reason, long ago disappeared.

[Image: Via Google Maps; view larger].

If you follow this thing from roughly the intersection of Hollywood & La Brea to the strangely cleaved back of an apartment building on Ogden Drive—the void left by this lost street, incredibly, now takes the form of a private swimming pool—these buildings seem to plow through the neighborhood like train cars.

Which could also be quite appropriate, as this superficial wound on the skin of the city is most likely a former streetcar route.

But who knows: my own research went no deeper than an abandoned Google search, and I was actually more curious what other people thought this might be or what they’ve experienced here, assuming at least someone in the world reading this post someday might live or work in one of these buildings.

[Image: Via Google Maps; view larger].

And perhaps this is just the exact same point, repeated, but the notion that every city has these deeper wounds and removals that nonetheless never disappear is just incredible to me. You cut something out—and it becomes a building a generation later. You remove an entire street—and it becomes someone’s living room.

I remember first learning that one of the auditoriums at the Barbican Art Centre in London is shaped the way it is because it was built inside a former WWII bomb crater, and simply reeling at the notion that all of these negative spaces left scattered and invisible around the city could take on architectural form.

Like ghosts appearing out of nowhere—or like China Miéville’s fluttering half-streets, conjured out of the urban injuries we all live within and too easily mistake for property lines and real estate, amidst architectural incisions that someday become swimming pools and parking lots.

*Update* Some further “ghost streets” have popped up in the comments here, and the images are worth posting.

[Image: Via Google Maps; view larger].

The one seen above, for example, is “another ghost diagonal that begins on 8th St. at Hobart, and ends at Pico and Rimpau,” an anonymous commenter explains.

Another example, seen below—

[Image: Via Google Maps; view larger].

—is “a block in the Pico-Robertson area,” a commenter writes:

I lived there as a teenager, but never noticed the two diagonals until I looked at it with google maps. There are some lots on the west side of the next two blocks north which also have diagonals. And if you continue north across Pico Blvd, you can see diagonal property lines around St. Mary Magdalene Catholic School and the church.

Thanks for all the tips, and by all means keep them coming, if you are aware of other sites like this, whether in Los Angeles or further afield; and be sure to read through the comments for more.

*Second Update* The examples keep coming. A commenter named Lance Morris explains that he did an MFA project “about this very thing, but in Long Beach. There’s a long diagonal scar running from Long Beach Blvd and Willow all the way down to Belmont Shore. I tried walking as closely to the line as I could and GPS tracked the results. There are even 2 areas where you can still see tracks!”

This inspired me to look around the area a little bit on Google Maps, which led to another place nearby, as seen below.

[Image: Via Google Maps; view larger].

Again, seeing how these local building forms have been generated by the outlines of a missing street or streetcar line is pretty astonishing.

Further, the tiniest indicators of these lost throughways remain visible from above, usually in the form of triangular building cuts or geometrically odd storage yards and parking lots. Because they all align—like some strange industrial ley line—you can deduce that an older piece of transportation infrastructure is now missing.

[Image: Via Google Maps; view a bit larger].

Indeed, if you zoom out from there in the map, you’ll see that the subtle diagonal line cutting across the above image (from the lower left to the upper right) is, in fact, an old rail right of way that leads from the shore further inland.

To give a sense of how incredibly subtle some of these signs can be, the diagonal fence seen in the below screen grab—

[Image: Via Google Maps; view larger].

—is actually shaped that way not because of some quirk of the local storage lot manager, but because it follows this lost right of way.

*Third Update* There are yet more interesting examples popping up now over in a thread on Metafilter.

There, among other notable comments, someone called univac points out that the streetcar scar that “begins on 8th St. at Hobart, and ends at Pico and Rimpau”—quoting an earlier commenter here on BLDGBLOG—”actually has one echo in the diagonally-stepped building here, and picks up again in the block bounded by Wilton, Westchester, 9th and San Marino, and ends at a crooked building just north of 4th and Olympic.”

[Image: Via Google Maps; view larger].

You can see the middle stretch of that route in the image, above. For more, check out the thread on Metafilter.

Not only this, however, but the old right of way followed by that commenter actually extends much further than that, all the way southwest to a small park at approximately Pico and Queen Anne Place.

[Image: Via Google Maps; view larger].

In the above image, you can see a small structure—a garage or a house—turned slightly off-axis in the northeast corner, indicating the line of the old streetcar line, with some open lawns and small paved areas revealing its obscured geometry as you look down to the southwest.

Water & Power

[Image: Via the Library of Congress].

While going through a bunch of old photos of Los Angeles on the Library of Congress website for a project I’m doing at USC this year, I was amazed by these interior shots of the F. E. Weymouth Filtration Plant at 700 North Moreno Avenue in L.A.

Despite being designed for the administration of an urban water-processing site, the interiors seem to play with some strange, Blade Runner-like variation on Byzantine modernism, where federalist detailing meets a hydrological Babylon.

[Image: Via the Library of Congress].

As the open plan interior of a contemporary home, this place would almost undoubtedly show up on every design website today—imagine a better railing on the central staircase, a galley kitchen on one side, a bed lit by retro-styled fluorescent tubes at the far end, some bold moments of color—but it’s just a piece of everyday municipal infrastructure.

[Image: Via the Library of Congress].

In any case, continuing the vaguely sci-fi feel, there is even a tiled fountain—a Mediterranean concession to the building’s role in water filtration—on one wall, emphasized by these amazing lighting features, yet it looks more like a film set, both ancient and futuristic.

[Image: Via the Library of Congress].

Alas, I’m not a huge fan of the exterior, although it is, in fact, a fairly amazing example of municipal design gone more sacred than profane. But an equally streamlined modernism in keeping with those interiors would have made this place totally otherworldly.

[Image: From the Library of Congress].

Finally, the marbled lobbies continue the surreal mix-up of styles, eras, and materials with something that could perhaps be described as Aztec corporatism with its huge graphic seal and other geometric motifs.

[Image: From the Library of Congress].

For shots of the actual waterworks, click through to the Library of Congress.

“It’s almost like he wanted to collect every map ever made”

Alec Earnest recently made an interesting documentary about a house in Los Angeles whose owner died, leaving behind a personal map collection so massive that, upon being acquisitioned by the city’s public library, “it doubled the LAPL’s collection in a single day.”

When LAPL map librarian Glen Creason, interviewed for the film, first entered the house, his jaw dropped; “everywhere I looked in the house, there’s maps,” he explains in the film, including an entire floor that was “absolutely wall to wall with street guides.”

[Image: From Living History: The John Feathers Map Collection by Alec Earnest].

As the Los Angeles Times described Feathers’s house upon its discovery back in 2012, it held “tens of thousands of maps. Fold-out street maps were stuffed in file cabinets, crammed into cardboard boxes, lined up on closet shelves and jammed into old dairy crates. Wall-size roll-up maps once familiar to schoolchildren were stacked in corners. Old globes were lined in rows atop bookshelves also filled with maps and atlases.”

It went on and on and on: “A giant plastic topographical map of the United States covered a bathroom wall and bookcases displaying Thomas Bros. map books and other street guides lined a small den.”

Urban atlases, motoring charts, pre-Thomas Guide local street maps—Feathers collected seemingly any cartographic ephemera he could get his hands on.

[Image: From Living History: The John Feathers Map Collection by Alec Earnest].

Earnest’s short film has more information about Feathers himself, and can seen in full either above or over on YouTube.

Although the story of the collection would lend itself well to longer journalistic exploration—and map librarian Glen Creason has actually written up some thoughts for Los Angeles Magazine—it feels like an amazing jumping off point for a piece of fiction, either cinematic or literary.

Perhaps some sort of Chinatown or True Detective-like property speculation noir, where parcels of land and off-books deals are being tracked by a lone collector through generations of local maps, marking boundaries, street names, omissions; or perhaps something more like “X Marks the Spot,” where an old Spanish-affiliated property from the pre-Los Angeles era is rumored to have once had vast brick vaults stocked high with gold, buried beneath the main ranch house, a property long since absorbed into the supergrid of Greater Los Angeles… but the vaults are still down there—along with the gold—if only you can dig up the right map to go find it.

[Image: From Living History: The John Feathers Map Collection by Alec Earnest].

In fact, there could be a whole genre based purely on the unexpected narrative side-effects of people attempting—and failing—to map Los Angeles.

It Came From Below

Formless and ancient things from the depths of our planet move beneath Los Angeles, unexpectedly setting fire to sidewalks and burning whole businesses to the ground. Welcome to urban life atop a still-active oil field.

This post was originally published on The Daily Beast.

Sliding around beneath the surface of Los Angeles is something dark, primordial, and without clear form. It seeps up into the city from below through even the smallest cracks and drains. Infernal, it can cause fires and explosions; toxic, it can debilitate, poison, and kill.

Near downtown Los Angeles, at 14th Place and Hill Street, a small extraction firm called the St. James Oil Corporation runs an active oil well. In 2006, the firm presided over a routine steam-injection procedure known as “well stimulation.” The purpose was simple: a careful and sustained application of steam would heat up, liquefy, and thus make available for easier harvesting some of the thick petroleum deposits, or heavy oil, beneath the neighborhood.

But things didn’t quite go as planned. As explained by the Center for Land Use Interpretation—a local non-profit group dedicated to documenting and analyzing land usage throughout the United States—“the subterranean pressure forced oily ooze and smells out of the ground,” causing a nauseating “goo” to bubble over “into storm drains, streets, and basements” as far as two blocks away.

The sudden appearance of this black tide beneath the neighborhood even destabilized the nearby road surface, leading to its emergency closure, and 130 people had to be evacuated. It took weeks to pump these toxic petroleum byproducts out of the basements and to resurface the street; the firm itself was later sued by the city.

While this was an industrial accident, hydrocarbons are, in fact, almost constantly breaking through the surface of Los Angeles, both in liquid and gaseous form. These are commonly known as seeps, and the most famous example is also an international tourist attraction: the La Brea Tar Pits, with its family-friendly museum on Wilshire Boulevard.

The “tar” here is actually liquid asphalt or pitch, and it is one of many reasons why humans settled the region in the first place. Useful both for waterproofing and for its flammability, this sticky substance has been exploited by humans in the region for literally thousands of years—and it has also given L.A. some of its most impressive paleontological finds.

[Image: Tar pushes up through cracks in the sidewalk on Wilshire Boulevard, near the La Brea Tar Pits; photo by Geoff Manaugh].

In other words, precisely because they are so dangerous, the tar pits are a veritable archive of extinct species; these include mastodons, saber-toothed tigers, and dire wolves, examples of which have been found fatally mired in the black mess seeping up from the deep. Groups of these now long-dead creatures once wandered across an otherworldly landscape of earthquakes and extinct volcanoes, an active terrain pockmarked with eerie bubbling cauldrons of flammable liquid asphalt.

What’s so interesting about contemporary life in Southern California is that this surreal, prehistoric landscape never really went anywhere: it’s simply been relegated to the background, invisibly buried beneath strip malls, car dealerships, and sushi restaurants. Every natural tar seep and artificial oil well here can be seen as an encounter with this older, stranger world trying to break back through into our present experience.

What humans choose to do with this primordial stuff leaking through the cracks can often be almost comical. Architect Ben Loescher, who has given tours of the region’s oil infrastructure for the Center for Land Use Interpretation, points out that many buildings near Lafayette Park must contend with a constant upwelling of asphalt. He sent me a photograph showing a line of orange utility buckets arranged as an ingenious but absurd stopgap measure against the endless and unstoppable goo.

[Image: A makeshift system for capturing the near-constant tar and liquid asphalt leaking up from below a building near Lafayette Park; photo by Ben Loescher].

Nearby, Loescher added, parking lots are a great place to see the onslaught. Many are constantly but slowly flooding with tar and asphalt, to the point that one lot—run by a karaoke club—is struck so badly that the tar is actually visible on Google Maps. “That parking lot is riddled with seeps, as well. When it gets hot, the parking lot sort of re-asphalts itself,” Loescher explains, “and they have to put down tarps on top of it so the cars don’t get stuck.” A much larger gravel lot across the street also exhibits multiple sites of seepage, as if pixelating from below with black matter.

Loescher emphasized that these sites are by no means limited to the La Brea Tar Pits. They can be found throughout the Los Angeles basin, beneath sidewalks, yard, parking lots, and even in people’s basements. To exaggerate for dramatic effect, it’s as if the premise of The Blob was at least partially inspired by a true story—one that has been taking place for hundreds of thousands of years throughout Southern California, and that involves, instead of a visitor from space, something ancient and pre-human forcing its way up from below.

[Image: Liquid asphalt leaking upward into the parking lot of a Los Angeles karaoke club; photo by Geoff Manaugh].

In a short book called Making Time: Essays on the Nature of Los Angeles, writer William L. Fox explores the remnant gas leaks and oil seeps of the city. At times, it reads as if he is describing the backdrop of a Hieronymus Bosch painting. Such is the strange and permanent apocalypse of 21st-century L.A.

Fox writes, for example, that “a methane vent opened up in the middle of Fairfax Street” back in 1985, and that it “burned uncontrollably for days before it could be put out.” At night, it was a world lit by flames. Astonishingly, he adds, in 1962 “a Hawthorne woman had a fire under her house—a house with no basement. She located the source of the problem when she went outside and touched a match to a crack in the sidewalk: A flame ran down to it.”

This city where sidewalks burn and sewers fill with oily ooze is a city built here almost specifically for that very reason; Los Angeles, in many ways, is a settlement founded on petroleum byproducts, and the oil industry for which the city was once known never actually left. It just got better at hiding itself.

It is already well known that there are oilrigs disguised in plain sight all over the city. The odd-looking tower behind Beverly Hills High School, for example, is actually a camouflaged oilrig; an active oil field runs beneath the classrooms and athletic fields. Even stranger, the enormous synagogue at Pico and Doheny is not a synagogue at all, but a movable drilling tower designed to look like a house of worship, as if bizarre ceremonies for conjuring a literal black mass out of the bowels of the Earth take place here, hidden from view. If you zoom in on Google Maps, you can just make out the jumbles of industrial machinery tucked away inside.

However, amidst all of this still-functional oil infrastructure, there are ruins: abandoned wells, capped drill sites, and derelict pumping stations that have effectively been erased from public awareness. These, too, play a role in the city’s subterranean fires and its poisonous breakouts of black ooze.

As Fox explains in Making Time, a labyrinth of aging pipelines and forgotten wells crisscrosses the city. He explains that the Salt Lake Oil Field—which underlies the La Brea Tar Pits, sprawls below an outdoor shopping center known as The Grove, and continues deep into the surrounding neighborhoods—once contained as many as 1,500 operative oil wells. However, most of these “have long since been abandoned and are virtually invisible,” he writes, and, alarmingly, “roughly 300 are unaccounted for.”

These “unaccounted for” oil wells are out of sight and out of mind—but it should not be assumed that they are safely or permanently capped. Indeed, the Salt Lake Oil Field actually “appears to be repressurizing with oil and water,” like an underground blister come back to life, Fox writes. This only raises the stakes of “a hazard already complicated by the lack of knowledge about the exact location of all the wells on the property.” Only 10 years ago, for example, “an orphaned well in Huntington Beach blew out in a gusher forty feet high, spraying oil and methane over one-half square mile, a hazardous-waste problem that will become more common.”

[Image: The Baldwin Hills old field; photo by Geoff Manaugh].

Due to its centrality, the Salt Lake field plays an outsized role in terms of strange petroleum events in the city. The Salt Lake was behind the multiday methane fire in the middle of Fairfax Avenue, for example, and behind arguably the most well known and certainly most destructive reminder of the city’s subterranean presence.

In 1989, in a busy strip mall at Fairfax and 3rd Street, a Ross Dress for Less began to fill with methane gas leaking up from a large pocket connected to the oil field below. Somehow, it had broken through the natural clay boundary that should have held it in place, and the methane thus easily seeped up into the storage rooms, closets, and retail galleries of the discount clothing giant.

Before long, the methane ignited and the entire store blew up.

[Image: Screen grab from YouTube].

This was by no means an insubstantial explosion—you should watch the aftermath on YouTube—as the entire façade of the building was blown to pieces, the roof collapsed, and dozens of people were disfigured by the detonation.

The resulting fires burned for hours. Small fires roared out of nearby sewer grates, and red and orange flames flickered out of even the tiniest cracks in the sidewalk, like some weird vision of Hell burning through the discount blouses and cheap drywall of this obliterated shopping center.

[Image: Flames burn through cracks in the sidewalk; screen grab from YouTube].

While reporting the tragedy, a local newscaster worryingly informed his viewers that it was simply “too early to tell where or when [the methane] might surface again”—in other words, that there could very well be further explosions. This paranoia—that there is something down there, some inhuman Leviathan stirring beneath the city, and that no one really knows when and where it will strike next—continues to this day.

Even at the time of the explosion, the possibility that city workers might inadvertently drill into a methane pocket beneath the neighborhood became one of the chief reasons for blocking the construction of a new subway line in the area. This same fear has recently resurfaced as the number one excuse for blocking a proposed subway through Beverly Hills.

Back in 2012, local parents released a video urging the city to stop the expansion of subterranean public transit through their neighborhood, concerned that it would cause Beverly Hills High School to explode. (The fact that stopping the subway would also keep certain economic undesirables out of their streets and shopping districts was just a fringe benefit.)

In any case, the narrative resonance of all this is impossible to deny. Formless and ancient things from the depths of our planet move beneath the city, unexpectedly setting fire to sidewalks and burning whole businesses to the ground. Taken out of context, this could be the plot of a new horror film—but it’s just urban life atop a still-active oil field.

As Matthew Coolidge, director of the Center for Land Use Interpretation, explained it to me, the city “is really just a giant scab of petroleum-fueled activities,” an impermanently sealed cap atop this buried monstrosity.

It is worth considering, then, next time you step over a patch of tar on the sidewalk, that the black gloom still bubbling up into people’s yards and basements, still re-asphalting empty gravel parking lots, is actually an encounter with something undeniably old and elementally powerful.

In this sense, Los Angeles is more than just a city; it is a kind of interface between a petrochemical lifestyle of cars and freeways and the dark force that literally fuels it, a subterranean presence that predates us all by millions of years and that continues to wander freely beneath L.A.’s tangled streets and buildings.

(Note: This piece was originally published on The Daily Beast. I have also written about the La Brea Tar Pits and William L. Fox’s book in Landscape Futures. Opening image: a close-up of Hell, from “The Garden of Earthly Delights” by Hieronymous Bosch, Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain).