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Welcome to the new LA—whatever that means

Photograph: Michael Juliano

There was a period in September where living in Los Angeles was intoxicating—even more so than usual. The art world and Infinity Mirrored Room-ready Instagrammers flocked to the Broad as the free museum opened its doors. The historic Clifton’s Cafeteria was ready to reinvigorate Broadway with a multimillion-dollar makeover. Los Angeles officially took over the US bid to host the 2024 Olympics, on top of its ongoing courtship of an NFL team. Frank Gehry’s name was attached to a re-envisioning of the LA River, which he dropped hints about during the opening of his retrospective at LACMA.

It felt like a moment in time we would look back on as the beginning of LA’s ascension to… something. The broad-but-uplifting Olympic bid video hinted at it with its vague tagline: Welcome to the new LA. Business owners and city leaders, too, peppered their construction photo ops and ribbon cuttings with mentions of “the new LA.” But other than sounding like a slogan for a possibly dystopian sci-fi setting—New Los Angeles: Building a better tomorrow today—what did that name mean? Did it symbolize the rise of a public transit-connected city? World-class institutions? Reclaimed urban green space? A trendsetting culinary scene? A beachfront tech sector? A revived, hospitality-driven Downtown? Or was it nothing more than a sales pitch to money-grabbing developers?

We were too drunk on Los Angeles optimism to worry about it at the time, which made the hangover hit that much harder. As outsiders eyed Los Angeles as a cheaper-than-New-York, artisan-made Shangri-La, everyday Angelenos faced an uphill battle to make ends meet. The City Council declared homelessness a “state of emergency” in late September. It was one more complication in a year marked by a surge in crime, a widening income gap, increasingly unaffordable rents and a historic drought with the only chance of slight relief wrapped up in a “Godzilla” El Niño. And, dammit, Clifton’s opened late and to a lukewarm reception.

So here we are, ready to greet a new year, and we’re still left wondering: What exactly is “the new LA,” if it even exists at all? Earlier in 2015, architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne led the 3rd Los Angeles Project, a series of six lectures about a new era in LA history. If the first era was marked by a population explosion backed by transit networks and civic architecture, and the second was fueled by car-dominated suburbia, then the third—well that's exactly what was up for discussion.

That uncertainty is maybe the surest sign that “the new LA” is more than just an advertising spiel. Los Angeles has plenty of inherent problems, but so much of its rocky reputation has been vindictively controlled by outsiders—we’re looking at you, New Yorkers. “The new LA,” whatever form it takes, feels like an opportunity for everyday Angelenos to define this city. Though we don’t ever expect bike lanes and CicLAvia to supplant red carpets and the Oscars in the public consciousness, there's this sense that we're approaching a point where taxpayers, activists, creative leaders and dreamers have a stake in shaping Los Angeles into something more meaningful than Hollywood and palm tree-lined beaches. At the very least, it’s an opportunity to turn “el ay,” a passive aggressive diminutive, into “LA,” a warm term of endearment for a city brought together by retired space shuttles and 340-ton boulders paraded through its streets.

“The new LA” could be a public transit-connected, civically-engaged, multicultural society brought together by big projects and bigger ideas. That all sounds exciting, but the big deal is that we can shape it into that—or something completely different. That uncertain outcome, for both better and worse, is bound to make 2016 compelling.