CityDig: The Future of Los Angeles According to the ’80s

This 1981 map made some accurate predictions. ‘Floating airport’ wasn’t one of them


“In this bright future you can’t forget your past.” – Bob Marley

To celebrate the birthday of the City of the Angels this week, we look into the future—as imagined back in the bicentennial year of 1981. This map is part of a trio drawn by Cathy Pavia, with one map illustrating Los Angeles’ first hundred years, another for its second century, and this one depicting the city between 1981 to 2081. Some of the past’s wild visions of the present are now reality, but many are still fanciful dreams. In 1981, the energy of downtown L.A. was rising, and projects were sprouting from Bunker Hill to the Civic Center to Century City to Hollywood. The doldrums were clearing and the Community Reinvestment Act was flexing big economic muscles to move mountains of concrete and send up skyscrapers. It’s amusing how the future appears in this cartographic crystal ball. The mappers could not have foreseen the cell-phone gazing, Internet-driven, tattooed reality of the 2000s but they tossed a few darts that did hit the bullseye.

We have seen “centers replace megalopolis sprawl” as well as the development of rapid transit centers along the Metrolink system—not in San Pedro, though. You could say the DASH routes count as “intraurban lines that move people inside centers,” but the elevated pedways have not taken hold outside the minds of high-end developers who wish to raise residents above the streets of downtown. Unfortunately, the piers have yet to teem with life, but places like Santa Monica and Venice have managed a cool vibe without trying too hard. The La Ballona Wetlands are now filled with the “creative planning” called Playa Vista; it might not be the perfect dream, but it keeps the space intact.

While it would be a stretch to imagine “L.A. reservoirs zoned for leisure,” places like the meadow at Silver Lake and the delightful Echo Park Lake are a great improvement over the old amenity-deficient asphalt craters. Pocket parks and DTLA’s open spaces are a great improvement over the 1981 version. Cal Plaza, Grand Hope Park, L.A. State Historic Park (aka the Cornfield), Blue Ribbon Garden at the Disney Concert Hall, Maguire Gardens, and Vista Hermosa are examples of the greater greening of the old city. Maybe we don’t have revised roads for scenic driving, a sunset coast line transportation plan, a horse trail through the Civic Center, or an oceanic airport floating off Long Beach, but we do have the revitalization of Union Station and the rediscovery of the L.A. River’s potential to be a “ribbon of activity,” which is the work of excellent groups like FOLAR. People actually kayak and have picnics on the river now—too wild a hallucination to realize in 1981. Angels Flight was reconstructed (though it has stalled once again), and Bunker Hill has been reworked with a vitality that draws people from all over the basin and is part of the reason so many young people actually live in the big city.

Even fortune tellers could not have conceived of the great successes like the Cathedral of Our Lady of Angels, Staples Center, the Walt Disney Concert Hall, L.A. Live, MOCA, Grand Central Market, and the great cultural center that is Central Library. The spirit of the city has been reinvigorated by community building events like CicLAvia, the Big Parade, the Archives Bazaar, Grand Performances, Los Angeles Walks, Esotouric and the ongoing struggle to create bike lanes and pedestrian byways around the region. We may still be a city of stagnant freeway snarls and unremarkable buildings, but we’re also getting greener and more connected as Angelenos. That’s a future 1980s L.A. would be more than proud to aspire to.

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Los Angeles Public Library map librarian Glen Creason shares a map from the Central Library’s collection at CityThink each week.