Of urban sprawl and Chinese dumplingsPosted: April 25, 2012
I am currently working on a long-past-deadline dissertation chapter dealing with the potential for positive activation of urban sprawl. ‘Sprawl’ is a shudder-inducing term for most, and frequently cited as cause for Middle-American, New English or New Yorker hatred of my sweet, sweet city, Los Angeles. We are sprawl, perhaps par excellence. But I’m gonna just jump the gun to my head that is said chapter here and tell you, dear readers, that sprawl can rule. Yep. I will defend that disastrous result of population explosions and epic infrastructural development and say that sprawl can be outright lovely.
Now, in my ongoing (its a Sisyphean endeavor) project I am interested in artists and activists who use new technologies (particularly autonomous networks) in an effort to provide alternative communication routes for city-dwellers via sprawl, but for the purposes of this little post I’ll set that aside and talk about something else. Lucky you, that something else is the dumpling.
If you want to argue that urban sprawl is not only existentially but socially disastrous, I ask you to calmly and reasonably consider the fact of Arcadia. This enormous suburb (why we still use this term in L.A. is beyond me–no visible marker exists between an ‘us’ as city-proper and a ‘them’ as external to city-proper) is home to the most ridiculously delicious steamed and fried dumplings in the universe.*
‘Proper’ Angelenos and suburbanites alike flock to the always-packed dumpling houses of Arcadia because, well, that’s where the best of Chinese dumplings are to be had. Whether you’re rocking soup dumplings or dim sum, in perfectly pillowy form, the best are to be had well outside the manufactured Chinatown of central L.A. Din Tai Fung is perhaps the most obvious go-to, and given their long lines it’s a good thing they have two locations in the same block. If you don’t believe the authenticity of such a place, may I point out that they’ve got locations in Tai Pei (and Japan and Singapore, etc. etc.). They don’t fuck around. The corporate nature of the endeavor is noticeable in the friendly but impressively efficient way the servers move you through the menu and deliver those aesthetically pleasing silver pots of impeccably built steamed pork and seafood pockets.
Other favorites include Dumpling House, the new and highly lauded Wang Xing Ji, and any number of spots folks who can’t read in ideographic languages rarely visit. If it weren’t for Jonathan Gold we foodie types with a penchant for decent Chinese would probably be doomed. And perhaps it is for the best that even he can’t get into the far reaches of the Arcadian culinary scene.
The point (excuse my meandering lazily towards it) is that this enclave of amazing Chinese cooking is a fact of the weird way sprawl works. Communities pop up, having chosen to move to cheaper outskirts or being forced out of city centers by any number of cultural or economic forces. The requirement of a little bit of travel to get to the glorious things somewhere in the outer reaches only makes such stuff more fascinating. You can, in your journeys to such places, learn entirely new things about the city’s cultural and material geography.
(Sub)Urban enclaves are magical city spaces. They invite city-dwellers (and all sorts of other adventurers) to navigate their way into the dynamic pseudo-external urban landscape. And such ventures always offer rewards. Contemporary sociality works, indeed, via such movement. It can be abominable, no doubt, in the way it sometimes bulldozes natural and social landscapes which pre-exist city expansion, but it is how we all, now globally, seem to be moving. Nostalgia will save no trees on this one. And, worse, such false narratives can’t be eaten with chopsticks.
I have no interest in defending the often insidious aesthetic and cultural phenomenon that come along with expanding urbanity. But I also have no problem enjoying, in an ever-increasingly urbanizing and sprawling world, what the so-called ‘outside’ spaces have to offer. It is the only real choice we have, I think. And if such a choice is offered with steamed, folded, gooey little bits of epicurean goodness, I’m gonna go ahead and say, o.k. Let’s go. Sprawl, why don’t you. I’m in.
*Obviously this is hyperbolic. I have not eaten dumplings everywhere in the universe.