It all depends, of course, on one's point of view. Mr. McWilliams's 1946 prediction can be taken as a sage bit of urban futurism, or tossed aside as just another line of hype from a city born of boosterism. Clearly, it's a question of urban and regional allegiances. Just run that prediction by any New Yorker.

Still, geographical squabbling aside, it's a point worth considering -- good for a lively discussion most any time, especially with a cross-country mix of friends. It is a prophecy particularly germane this year as perennially youthful L.A. tumbles onto the dignified age of 200.

There has been, for many years, an aura of the future about this city, where residents waste precious little time reflecting on the past. If America is the land of opportunity, California, it might be said -- and more specifically, Los Angeles -- is the pulse of that promise. Over the past decades, Americans have come westward by the thousands, lured by a sun-drenched vision of a better life. Today, new thousands of immigrants, from Latin America and the Far East, come with the same hope.

To be sure, those who have knocked the city might argue that if this is the future, who wants it? Los Angeles, after all, has been looked down upon by critics with the most elite of urban noses -- from London and New York to its intrastate rival, San Francisco. To them, it is a culture-barren land of sun-worshipers whose only communal tie is a scrabble of freeways and palm trees.

One English writer called Los Angeles "the noisiest, the smelliest, the most uncomfortable and most uncivilized city in the United States." Even more to the point is mystery novelist Raymond Chandler, who once wrote that this "is a big hard-boiled city with no more personality than a paper cup."

The City of Angels can seem like this at times, even to a longtime resident -- particularly during endless cross-town drives past block after faceless block of low-density sprawl, or in the snarl of freeway traffic when one's only thoughts of the future are not of urban greatness, but of the exasperating hour it will take to make what should be a 15-minute drive home.

And, indeed, this unwieldy behemoth can seem particularly frustrating to the passing visitor or cynical chronicler who judges Los Angeles by standards of urban pleasantry that might apply elsewhere, but which this petulant city has never pretended -- or even bothered -- to live up to.

By climate, geography, demographics, history, and culture, L.A. is unique among the cities of the world. To be understood it must be accepted within its own frame of reference. "Go with the flow," it might be summed up contemptuously by those who mock California jargon.

But go with the flow it is, if one hopes to understand, even marginally, this city. "Here the American people were erupting, like lava for a volcano," wrote Carey McWilliams, former editor of The Nation; "here, indeed, was the place for me -- a ringside seat at the circus."

Los Angeles today is no longer the urban upstart of the post-World War II era. While surrounding areas like Orange and San Diego Counties leap at growth rates of more than 30 percent, L.A. -- with 3 million residents -- has slowed its gangly teen-age growth to a more modest population increase of 5.5 percent in the last decade.

On Sept. 4, this former Mexican village -- founded by 11 families numbering 44 persons -- turns a very young 200. For although it has grown out, Los Angeles, in some ways, has never grown up. Today, with its eye (as always) on the future, the city appears to be trying to cope with young adulthood, fleshing out the identity that it somehow never quite established during its head-over-heels years of adolescence.

Interestingly, although it has spent a good deal of time and energy in capturing a world's fancy and scorn, Los Angeles hasn't given much attention to developing its own focus. To outsiders, the city is many things -- land of hype , hot tubs, horrendous earthquakes, and Hollywood, among them -- but of those many images there are few, if any, that an Angeleno might call his own.

Such a lack of focus is not surprising in a 70-mile-wide city, which could fit all of Chicago in its suburban San Fernando Valley alone. Even before automobiles and freeways became the hallmarks of the life style here, the city had a taste for spread-out living. Under Mexican and Spanish rule, ranchos -- which stretched over hundreds of rolling acres -- were the primary living unit. In the 1880s, as Los Angeles began its urban growth, downtown residents were lured to "suburbs" with far-flung trolley lines and real estate ads that beckoned them, even then, with the promise of "Pure Air -- No Fogs."

This sprawling and mostly unplanned growth, with its emphasis on individual life styles, has exacted a price from the city: There is no single public area that draws Angelenos together, or gives the city focus. New York has its Times Square and Central Park; Boston has its Common; but in Los Angeles, laments an urban planner with a prominent architectural firm, "our only public space is Disneyland."

It is a concern that has drawn considerable comment, and may have been best articulated 15 years ago in an article in the environmental journal Cry California, which read:

". . . Southern California represents a deeply disturbing phase in urban history. Never before has so far-flung a pattern of random, low-density settlement erupted so swiftly, ruthlessly, and senselessly. . . . Individual man has found his basic need for social intercourse thwarted by excessive diffusion of cultural resources.

"Over hundreds of square miles," wrote author Allan Temko, "there are few places to walk, few occasions for the civilized surprise, the beautiful chance meetings, almost birth- rights for citizens of richly venerable cities such as London and Rome. The only discernible urban structure, on the scale that the super-city requires, is the freeway network. To make this a truly great city, rather than a simply mammoth one, all sorts of new structures must be interwoven logically in a strengthened urban tissue."

There are those who argue that creating a public sense of identity is a virtual impossibility in this hopelessly huge city. Urban life here -- in terms of geography, culture, and economics -- is inextricably woven into the metropolitan cloak of surrounding Los Angeles County, as well as the six or seven counties that spread in all directions beyond it.

Despite present appearances to the contrary, however, Los Angeles is thinking twice about future planning and future identity. City planners today are resculpturing L.A., trying to instill a semblance of outline in a city that barreled its way to the present with no real plan.

The blueprint they are using is a 50-year master plan, adopted by the city in 1974. It is the first such plan ever adopted here, approved only after 10 years of endless consultation with some 60,000 private citizens.

It's no easy task. For starters, a city once expected to swell to 10.5 million is now designed for no more than 4.1 million residents. Zoning must be painstakingly -- and sometimes controversially -- redrawn to reflect those limits, as well as to keep the low-density life style that citizens said they wanted.

"We have to reshape practically every public policy because they reflect the intensity of what the city had been designed for before. . . . Just spread it all out was the idea," says Calvin Hamilton, the city's director of planning and overseer of the plan since its beginnings in 1964.

Under the plan, the city will be redirected to gain the focus residents long ago said they wanted, although it will be a far cry from the relatively compact identity of older cities like Boston and New York. Instead, the plan calls for some 37 "centers" spread throughout the city.Each center is expected to be a balanced "mini-city," with its own outlying area or suburbs; a range of blue-collar to white-collar jobs; and a mix of housing from apartments to single-family dwellings available at a range of prices.

However, at least 20 to 30 years will pass before these pieces pull L.A. together. In the meantime, zoning is not the only issue before Los Angeles, as it presses on to the year 2000.There are a number of other stumbling blocks to urban greatness.

Smog, for example, still shrouds the city. It has plagued L.A. ever since "Black Wednesday," Sept. 8, 1943, when the first major smog attack struck. Despite arduous cleanup attempts, the air Angelenos breathe violates federal air-quality standards for an estimated 200 days a year.

And there's housing, which has become such a problem that some companies are hard pressed to recruit new talent because prospective employees find they are priced out of the market. According to the most recent statistics, the median price for a home in the Los Angeles area is $114,495. In addition, L.A. has one of the lowest rental vacancy rates in the nation, just under 1 percent. Anything under 5 percent is considered a crisis by urban experts.

Water -- specifically, how to get enough of it -- sparks many a local and regional controversy, as it has ever since 1810, when the city's first water dispute arose between L.A. residents and the padres of the San Fernando Mission. Mass transportation, too, is a longstanding thorn in the city's side.

Most planners agree mass transit is a must. But current subway plans have been dealt a lethal fiscal blow by the Reagan administration, and the legality of a recent voter-approved initiative aimed at raising new funds for mass transit is now being tested in the courts.

All of these battles are being played out within the context of a city rapidly changing in population -- from a white majority of about 57 percent just 10 years ago to 48 percent today. Hispanics now make up 28 percent of the total population, and, if present trends continue, they are expected to be largest ethnic group in the city by 1984. Asians, who make up 6 percent of the city's total, are the fastest-growing sector of the population -- a boom that has created some interracial frictions.

Although Los Angeles has a reputation for being remarkably tolerant, the city has not been without its share of racial turmoil -- from the "zoot-suit riots" of the early 1940s, which involved the beatings of young Mexican-Americans by white sailors, to its role in the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II and the Watts riots of 1965.

Today, some observers wonder how residents, particularly whites, will cope with a future of changing majorities and shifting cultures.

"Los Angeles will either become a minority city, with each ethnic faction fighting for its own share of the pie, or it will become a truly international city," predicts Harvey Perloff, dean of the School of Architecture and Urban Planning at the University of California, Los Angeles.

It is worth noting that one of the most unifying occurrences in this city in recent memory has been the overnight emergence of Dodger pitching star Fernando Valenzuela -- a Spanish-speaking youngster whose phenomenal string of victories early in the spring prior to the players strike quickly became the topic of conversation across the city, from Mexican barrios to Beverly Hills cafes.

But perhaps the most important thing in facing the future of the City of the Angels -- and its potential for greatness -- is the fundamental need for a change of heart on the part of its residents. For the problems that lie ahead for this city are of a scope and nature that demand collective action and communitywide consciousness -- an attitude of public commitment that is glaringly lacking even to the most casual observer.

It is perhaps the most commented on -- either admiringly or disparagingly -- facet of Los Angeles that the life style here may be the epitome of laissez faire living. L.A. it has been said, is a city of private pleasures -- although those pleasures are certainly not all the self-seeking, sense-gratifying evils that critics make them out to be.

Although that life style can have its hedonistic extremes, there is, in fact, a certain innocence about life here. It seems natural to accept -- and to enjoy , without puritanical guilt -- the fruits of a tremendously benign region. Again, history can be found to set a precedent for what is commonplace today. As far back as the days of the ranchos, living centered on "the grand and primary business of the enjoyment of life," as Robert Glass Cleland notes in "The Cattle on a Thousand Hills," a history of early southern California.

It is important, too, to realize that Angelenos do not have to fight for survival the way many Americans do. In los Angeles, for example, one never has to dig oneself or one's neighbor out of a 10-foot-high snowdrift. Nor has there been much of a need to storm City Hall, at least not for the average resident. Generally speaking, Angelenos have not had to band together for much of anything -- unlike many citizens in older, decaying cities where community activism is a way of life.

This sense of the good life, so to speak, has created an open-minded city, where change and mobility are not hampered by the historically held turf and ethnic prejudices which color life in many American cities.

But there is a flip side to such an "I'm OK, you're OK," attitude: Tolerance can breed indifference. And those with an eye to the city's future worry that without an increased sense of community responsibility on the part of most Angelenos, L.A. may have a rough course to navigate in the years ahead.

"We've not had much experience with this," Mr. Perloff says. "You have to appreciate the fact that we're groping our way to it. . . . We're so used to letting things evolve, particularly in Los Angeles, because life styles are so private.

"We have to become more social, more outward-thinking. We have to develop a higher morality," he warns. "It means moving from the glorification of the individual to care of others."

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