In 2009, Los Angeles magazine put a picture of Antonio Villaraigosa, newly elected to a second term as mayor, on its cover beneath a blaring single-word headline: “Failure.”
His successor, Eric Garcetti, who has now earned his own second term, has never faced that kind of hostility from the media. Yet neither has he whipped up a great deal of excitement. Widely but not wildly popular, Garcetti, 46, has largely packaged himself as a back-to-basics mayor, a persona that tends (by design, presumably) to keep his political instincts and sizable ambition tucked away from public view.
That’s not to say that Garcetti doesn’t have an opportunity to put a major imprint on the city. This is especially true when it comes to the subjects central to this column, including civic architecture, urban planning and the design of public and green space across Los Angeles.
In fact, the confluence of two factors means that Garcetti has a chance to shape the public character of Los Angeles more profoundly than any mayor since Tom Bradley, who served five terms between 1973 and 1993.
The first is that because of L.A.’s decision to shift its elections from March of odd years to November of even ones, to sync with state and federal voting, Garcetti’s second term will stretch for five and a half years. If he serves the term in full — a fairly big if, and one we’ll come back to — he’ll occupy the mayor’s chair for essentially a full decade, nearly two years longer than anyone else in the term-limits era, which began after Bradley left office.
The second factor is that Garcetti is presiding over an L.A. that is reinventing itself in some fundamental and controversial ways. My term for this emerging city is the Third Los Angeles, following the streetcar-filled and civic-minded First L.A. of the late 19th and early 20th centuries and the car-dominated, innovative and deeply privatized Second L.A. of the postwar decades.
This nascent Third Los Angeles is a post-suburban city. It has given up on the infinite expansion that Los Angeles once took for granted — the notion that growth itself is among our chief industries — and is turning inward, adding denser development to its central core. It is investing heavily in mass transit and trying to repair its public spaces while facing the specter of climate change.
It is his capacity to shape that rising city, to give it a stronger sense of coherence and equity than it’s had so far, that gives Garcetti a chance to be one of the most consequential mayors in modern L.A. history. (It helps that he is genuinely engaged by and knowledgeable about subjects like architecture and planning.) He’ll attempt to do so while beating back opposition from homeowners groups and others who are keen to defend what we might think of as their Second L.A. privileges: high housing prices, which protect their equity; low property taxes under California’s Proposition 13; and an approach to urban design that sees taming congestion as L.A.’s most important civic responsibility.