by Luis Ortega Govela

Nic Seago, Palmeras De Coubertin, 2022; AI-generated image. Courtesy of the artist.

Six years from now, Los Angeles will host the summer Olympic Games for the third time — after the tenth Olympiad, in 1932, and the 23rd, in 1984. Outside the Coliseum, the stadium where the city’s first Olympics were held, stands L.A.’s oldest palm tree, which is just like all the other 70,000 palms for which the city is famous, except for a little plaque that recounts local hearsay: when first planted, the tree stood in front of the Arcade Depot, terminus of the Southern Pacific Railroad from 1888 until 1914, and was the first thing new arrivals to L.A. saw once out of the station, a symbol of having made it to the end of the Western frontier. The first week I arrived in L.A., a climber who lived in a van told me that palms are closer to a grass than a tree, their fibrous root trunk akin to prehistoric greenery. If people can call a grass a tree, then L.A., an endless suburb, can be called a city.

The edge of the West has always been dishonest, and cities preparing to host the Olympics always avoid their truths — no accidents, no catastrophes, no terrorism, no traffic jams, no panic. In short, they project an ideal image — the perfect catfish. Today, as L.A. puts its best foot forward for the cameras ahead of the 34th Olympiad, it has turned to architecture to define an emergent urbanism, with infrastructure, retail space, and cultural centers pushing the city toward an uncertain, pedestrian future. This new L.A. is a reversal of the car-centric sprawl portrayed by Reyner Banham in his celebrated 1971 book Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies, which posits the city as the fulfillment of the American Dream. Every time the city hosts the games, it becomes an entirely new frontier rooted in a history of reinvention.

El Pueblo Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles de Porciúncula, as L.A. was first known, has always sketched itself anew for the Olympics. Take its palm tree-lined streets, a 1930s ploy to beautify the city in time for its first games, as well as to get 400 unemployed men at least temporarily back to work in the midst of the Great Depression. Also begun in the 1930s — after the widening of Tenth Street, first introduced in 1925 and finally completed in the early 1930s, which was renamed Olympic Boulevard for the tenth summer games — were L.A.’s first ever freeways, which led the way to the car-centrism that came to define the city in the second half of the 20th century: parking lots, smog, and disconnected public transport.

Heading the organizing committee for the 1932 L.A. Olympics was William May Garland, a real-estate agent. Who else could sketch out the illusion of a new Los Angeles better than a salesman? Up until then, the games had been of little tangible value to the cities that hosted them, but when Los Angeles won the bid, in 1924, it saw the potential to capitalize on the global spotlight. Those dreams were nearly dashed by the 1929 crash and the Dust Bowl that followed it, which prompted a giant migration toward the orange groves of California. Families were evicted, the numbers of unhoused kept growing, and unemployment reached 28 percent. L.A.’s population protested — “Groceries not games!” — but the Olympic plans plowed on, offering spectacle and entertainment to take people’s minds off their needs.

Since the world’s precarious financial state threatened the games’ viability, the Olympic Village was invented to reduce accommodation costs for nations sending athletes on the long and expensive trip halfway round the world. Four months before the tenth Olympiad opened, construction of 550 cottages began in Baldwin Hills, each to be shared by four male athletes (the women were given a hotel) with a blurring of class distinctions — nobles would sleep alongside bricklayers and farmers, a mix that was strikingly absent in the rest of the city. When the male athletes arrived at their accommodations, President Herbert Hoover had just burned the unhoused veteran camps outside the White House, and Japan had invaded Manchuria. Yet the romanticism of all classes and nations inside one village endured. Designed by Wilbur Bettis and Stanley Gould, the cottages could afterwards have been redeployed to house the homeless, but instead were sold as memorabilia. Germany and Japan bought theirs as souvenirs, while most were dismantled and merchandised as parts.

In the aftermath of the first L.A. games, the franchise grew more and more successful. Cities fought for the opportunity to host, until the highly politicized 1968 Mexico City and 1972 Munich Games both took deadly turns. In 1976, the Montreal Games became the most debt-ridden in Olympic history. By 1984, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) desperately needed to rebrand the event, and Los Angeles was the only place willing to take the risk. Eighties L.A. was the city of Eve Babitz, of strip malls, of Reaganite corporate interest over government regulation, of cocaine and after-hours club Power Tools, of basketball star Michael Jordan and the cult of the athlete, of cable TV and the ESPN channel. The 1984 games were designed for the televised eye. But just three weeks after the bid had been awarded, L.A. voted to reduce local taxes, which impeded local government from creating debt not backed by existing revenues and prevented the city from contracting any financial obligation to the IOC.

L.A. was forced to create a new independent Olympic administration headed by Peter Ueberroth, soon to be TIME’s man of the year. Under Ueberroth, an Illinois entrepreneur who ran the games as a startup, the first entirely privately financed Olympiad resulted in a surplus of nearly 250 million dollars, money that was then siphoned back into the community for youth sports programs. A lot of ink has been spilled on how the ’84 Olympics relied on existing infrastructure as a strategy for financial liquidity, but very little has been said about how the Coliseum was not purpose-built for the 1932 Olympics — back then, Garland found a way to become part of the IOC and pay for the 1923 stadium’s enlargement with an association of private developers, discovering the antidote to the Olympic curse: adaptive reuse.

Since there was no actual building being done for the 1984 Olympics, the task was to create an “architectural image” by decorating at a city scale, similar to the palm strategy of the 1930s — sports entertainment with an architectural backdrop. This was accomplished through the temporary structures designed by architect Jon Jerde, famed for his colorful malls, and the brilliant graphic designer Deborah Sussman — think Buren stripes, bright colors, furnishings, and finishings for the urb, provisional structures, signage, and replanting the palms that had greened the 1932 games. Intended as apolitical, Jerde and Sussman’s approach was an energetic montage of color and form that they dubbed “festive federalism.”

Today, many of the palm trees planted in the 1930s are nearing the end of their natural lives. The recent arrival of the red palm weevil, which has devastated palm populations the world over, augurs poorly for the fate of younger trees. The L.A. Department of Water and Power has indicated that, as the city’s palms die, most will not be replanted but instead replaced with trees more adapted to the region’s semi-arid climate, species that require less water and offer more shade. As the palms die out, the city has been building new monuments to entertainment: SoFi Stadium, the crypto.com Arena, the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art (set to open in 2025), the Sixth Street Viaduct replacement, Peter Zumthor’s LACMA (due 2024), and the Academy Museum. There is a nexus between the Olympics, gentrification, the housing crisis, local bureaucrats, and the number of unhoused people in Los Angeles. Alongside the spectacle of new monuments, prices soar. The tourism-driven speculation pushes out anyone who is not chained to work.

The palm grows and builds from the carcass of its dead leaves, just like the city that builds upon its forgotten histories. These imported palms became the image of a city that is now disappearing, a reminder that stolen things and stolen land is what came to define this nation. Every year the Santa Ana winds blow through the palms’ skirts, pushing the fronds down to the streets. And just like all those who have been displaced, such as the Gabrieleño and other tribes pushed out by the arrival of the Spanish, they in turn will be swept away into the oblivion of history.