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Beating Boston at Its Own Games

Josh Stephens on
Aug 13, 2015

Are there any two American cities more different from each other than Boston and Los Angeles? History vs. modernity, compactness vs. sprawl, chowder vs. kale, sun vs. snow, modesty vs. flash, intellect vs. entertainment. 

Back in January, Boston beat out Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C., to become the United States Olympic Committee's official pick to bid for the 2024 Summer Olympics. Since then, civic leaders in Los Angles have been nearly salivating with every hint of disaffection on the part of the Beantown faithful. Concerns were legion: Boston doesn't have room; Boston's transit system can't handle the crowds; Boston doesn't have the facilities; Boston doesn't want to spend billions; Boston, to be characteristically blunt, has better things to do.

Even Boston's hometown newspaper, the Globe, called the bid "improbable."  

Boston bailed out July 27, with a Mayor Marty Walsh refusing to put taxpayer money at risk. Last week, all of two weeks after Boston's surrender, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti issued his first public statement about turning Boston's loss his city's gain, acknowledging  "very positive discussions with the United States Olympic Committee" and claiming, "the LA Olympics would inspire the world and are right for our city." Garcetti's attitude thus adds to the list of distinctions between the two cities. Whereas Boston wants nothing to do with the world's premiere global event, Los Angeles considers it its birthright.  According to one poll, an insane 81 percent of Angelenos support an Olympics bid. We are either supremely enthusiastic or supremely blasé. 

(The group that backed the San Francisco bid is mildly interested in a joint bid but seems otherwise content to let L.A. do its thing.) 

Los Angeles deservedly gets a lot of mileage out of its Olympic history. Both the 1932 games and 1984 games were rousing successes, the latter turning a small profit (as compared with billions, and tens of billions, spent in Beijing and Sochi). Of course, no one involved with the 1932 games is still around, but, amazingly, the most important venue is: the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Los Angeles takes the Olympics in stride because, as an urban behemoth dedicated to spectacle, it needs hardly lay a single brick.

Garcetti's message to the USOC: "Want to have an Olympics here? No problem, let's check the calendar..." 

By 2024, Los Angeles will have even more to offer the world, with miles of new light rail lines completed, more housing (we hope), more transportation options, and more vibrant neighborhoods. In fact, the development and planning efforts underway in Los Angeles constitute the best reasons not to seek the 2024 games. 

I lived two years in Boston that were among the most miserable of my life. So, as a native Angeleno, I never thought I'd say this, but Los Angeles could stand to be more like Boston.  

I don't mean that we should give up our pressed juice for Dunkin' Donuts or that we should start wearing boat shoes without socks. We could, however, stand to let some other city realize its Olympics dreams. As fun as the Olympics would be -- and there's no doubt that Los Angeles could pull it off well -- Los Angeles too has better things to do. In fact, we're already doing better things. Downtown and its surroundings are booming. Formerly anonymous neighborhoods, from Highland Park to Culver City, are on the rise. The City Council just adopted a revolutionary new mobility plan, and a revamp of the zoning code is underway. We have new museums and concert halls. We might have a river someday.  

If you think about it, Los Angeles' build environment is becoming ever so slightly more similar to that of -- wait for it -- Boston. 

Meanwhile, dire problems remain. We're short tens of thousands of housing units, with production only beginning to pick up. Gentrification is leading to displacement (anecdotally, at least). Traffic remains unbearable. LAUSD schools and others throughout the county remain shameful. Neighborhoods that were war zones in 1984 are more peaceful, but they're scarcely more healthy, with pollution and none of the Technicolor bounty of the farmers markets and Whole Foods that serve L.A.'s haves. 

These positive developments, and these dire problems, all deserve our full attention, not just this year, but for many years to come. 

I know the argument goes that an Olympics will be a catalytic event, bringing prosperity to the city. That's probably true for some Angelenos, but not for everyone. Ask residents of South Central, circa 1992, how much good the 1984 games did them. Ask the same of the aerospace workers whose plants closed and the generations of high school kids who have graduated hardly knowing how to write. 

The fact is, Los Angeles needs to keep doing what it's doing -- and not distract itself with a global mega-event. (Interestingly, a private group is promoting an odd sort of transit-oriented world's fair for the early 2020s.)

We've proven that we can be our own catalysts: 2008's Measure R sales tax measure is having a bigger impact on the city than any sporting event could. We don't need stadiums around those new transit stops. We need housing. We need mobility hubs and wayfinding. We need thriving small businesses, not huge stadiums and not ads for corporate sponsors.

And, let's face it, the reason why Los Angeles can hold an Olympics is the very reason why it doesn't need to hold an Olympics: Los Angeles already knows how to amuse itself. We have two of pretty much everything, including big-time football teams (the kind that don't pay their players). As I've written before, Los Angeles can thrive without the NFL. We can thrive without an Olympics too. And if we want to "beat" Boston at something, we can't rely on the Lakers anymore -- but we still have the Clippers. 

In even my darkest days living in Boston, I could never deny the city's charms. Crooked streets, red bricks, wrought iron, leafy blocks, neighborhood pubs, and handsome public spaces are what cities are supposed to be about. It's no accident that Bostonians are willing to endure those awful winters. Boston has places that many Southern Californians, trapped on freeways and consigned to strip malls, can't even imagine. And yet, Los Angeles could have its own versions of Boston's delights. It just has to keep its eye on the ball. 

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