Posts by Gary J. Lai

Summer has come to an end here in Los Angeles. Despite the unabated high temperatures, the days are becoming shorter. Gardeners are already planning the transition from the growing cycle of warm weather into the cooler autumn months in preparation to plant next year’s bounty. Vacation season has come to a close too, with students returning to school. In recognition of this seasonal transition, we’ll be focusing on a Back-to-School theme for September, specifically one from the perspective of the landscape architecture education and profession. We hope you’ll learn something from their lessons.

Infographic: Designxel.com

Design isn’t easy to teach.

Great design requires both an intuitive sense and a fierce dedication to research and knowledge. A great landscape designer listens to the client and distills their wants and needs with the requirements of the site to create a harmonious whole. A designer might only get one chance during his or her entire career when circumstances align to create a perfect amalgam of client, budget, team, and know-how for the possibility of designing a classic, timeless project. As an instructor of design at a small arts college, my mission is to try and get my students ready for their moment. But is that what I should be doing?

Real design jobs are hard to find, and few and far between. In the architectural design industry, a primary designer must have proven experience to be entrusted with the direction of a multi-million dollar project. Even then, projects are usually team-driven, with only a “Starchitect” given the freedom to enact a singular vision. Yet, the majority of architectural and landscape architectural programs around the country teach us to be just that: a singular, primary designer.

The reality is most architects and landscape architects are job captains and project managers. We turn dreams into real world built projects, on time and on budget.  It is not what we got into the profession to do but it is what we end up doing. Yet, despite this, almost all college architectural and landscape architectural curriculums do not have mandatory classes in project management and development or business. We learn imperfectly through trial and error on the job. This system might have worked through an apprenticeship paradigm of 100 years ago, but in today’s job market of high expectations, impossible deadlines, and low fees, there’s no patience for on-the-job training.

Infographic: Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture (ACSA)

Recent graduates are expected to hit the ground running and be able to manage systems and projects after only two to three years on the job.  Couple this with relatively low wages for the amount of schooling required to become a landscape architect and is it any wonder that the American Institute of Architects (AIA) and the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) are both predicting a shortfall of trained professionals in the next decade?

Look, I fully recognize the counter-argument: as educators, we must teach to a higher bar. How can we expect to produce qualified designers if we don’t try and teach them design to the highest standard? Also, with building projects becoming as complex as living entities, there simply is not enough time to teach everything the students need to know for their first job. If we teach project management, would we be sacrificing design for practicality?

I believe there is plenty of room for compromise. If we are not teaching our professionals the job they are expected to do over the course of their careers, we are not doing our jobs. Good design is important, but so is good construction document practices and project management, both which make up the bulk of our profession’s work.

Adding a mandatory professional practice and business track to a five year program will not impede the next Frank Lloyd Wright. However, without teaching our students the business of our business today, we might never might see the Lloyd Wright of tomorrow.

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When I went to my doctor last month, she was pleased about my weight loss, something I attribute to the walking during my commute (and also to the stress of preparing to sell the house). But my doctor also cautioned, “There’s an awful lot of places to eat around there.” Boy, was she right. My wife and I have tried to be good about cooking at home, but we’re surrounded with seemingly every type of cuisine imaginable. It’s been tough to stay strict.

Places like Chinatown or Little Tokyo were originally segregated slums that were eventually turned into working tourist attractions after many of the Jim Crow-era laws were overturned during the middle of the 20th Century. In an attempt to attract tourists, many restaurants catered to the relatively bland palates of middle-America whites, a trend that gave birth to common dishes like sweet and sour pork, chop suey, teriyaki chicken, and egg foo young.

Authentic ethnic cuisines eventually moved further away to neighborhoods like Gardena or San Gabriel, where communities established menus catering to the tastes of their distinct populations. As Americans of every color started to develop a more adventurous palate, “fusion” food emerged, relying upon a pastiche of flavors taking inspiration from a variety of ethnicities. Consequently – and somewhat ironically – the Japanese food available in Little Tokyo today is…um, just okay. The new wave of modern restaurants opening all across Downtown serve my favorite foods.

So, let’s move onto my recommendations. Across each point of the compass, good food can be had for every meal. I’ve picked my favorite in every direction:

North, Breakfast
Two blocks north of my apartment is Jist Cafe near 1st and Judge John Aiso Street. The family has owned a cafe in Little Tokyo for generations and this is their latest. The owner is like your Japanese Ba-chan (Grandmother), one that insists on serving the food and clearing the tables herself so she can chat with her guests. My sister-in-law actually found this place on Yelp when Cafe Aloha down the street was inexplicably closed.

Their speciality is the Cha-Hsu Hash, shown here with two poached eggs and side of rice. Cha-Hsu is a marinated pork popular with both the Chinese and Japanese American communities. I can imagine my doctor cringing, but if I got a heart attack leaving the restaurant after eating this dish, I would die a happy man. Yes, it’s that good. I know the rice and potatoes is kind of an unusual combination, but it doesn’t matter, because you’ll want to soak up every drop of the gravy. My wife’s blueberry pancakes in the background weren’t too shabby either.

South, Lunch
In the AVA apartment building just south of my apartment on Los Angeles Street is Seoul Sausage. The original “restaurant” was a very successful food truck, but the owners are trying their fortunes with a brick and mortar establishment. Come for the food, stay for the beer. It should be a busier place than it currently is, so hurry before people catch on.

I ordered the Bahn Mi Sausage Sandwich with a side of Tots; my wife ordered a fried chicken bowl. The sandwich isn’t a traditional bahn mi, but an approximation consisting of chicken-apple sausage, mortadella, jalapeños, and about twelve other ingredients I can’t remember. The sandwich was good and went especially well washed down with a beer.

West, Dinner
Just a block and a half up 2nd street is Badmaash – Indian Fusion.  I lived in Berkeley, CA, which has some of the best Indian restaurants in the state so I’m really spoiled. To date, Indian food in Southern California has been decidedly “meh” for me, so I stopped trying. If it wasn’t for the smell emitting from this restaurant as I walked past on my way home from work, I probably wouldn’t have tried Badmaash either. Silly me. Badmaash is equal to, and in some ways superior, to any Indian restaurant in Berkeley.

During out first visit to Badmaash we went with the tried and true menu items for comparison: Chicken Tiki Marsala and good ole Saag Paneer. Both dishes were so good we began eating before I was able to take a photo. Next time we will try some of the fusion dishes; if they are as good as the Cheese and Chili Naan pictured above, we should be happy diners.

East, Dessert
Two long blocks east, down 2nd, through Little Tokyo, and crossing Alameda into the Arts District at Traction and Hewitt is Pie Hole. With several other locations around SoCal, there are options, but I recommend this specific location if pie remotely interests you. Heck, this place is so good, it might convert you to pie despite its somewhat expensive prices. It’s worth it.


The Mexican Chocolate Pie is as close to a sure thing as anything in this world. If you only go here once, order this pie. If you return, order this pie again before trying something else during a third visit.

So there you have it, my favorite restaurants across Downtown Los Angeles. In case you’re wondering, we’ve tried all of these restaurants in just three months since moving to DTLA. And, yes, my doctor is pissed. I’ll let you know how it goes next month.

Imagine if you could call for your car to drop you off at work and then come pick you back up later.  While in the car you could do work, watch the news on the way home, or perhaps jump onto one last conference call without having to worry about driving at the same time.  The car could pick up the kids along the way, then drop you off at the grocery store before continuing on its way home to drop them off, then return to pick you up.  The car would be able to do this automatically, without a driver.

Autonomous vehicles are coming sooner than you think, as noted by Patrick Sisson’s fantastic article over at Curbed summarizing the state of the autonomous vehicles – a must read.

A couple of years ago, I had a heated discussion at a sustainability networking meeting about the California High Speed Rail and whether it would be obsolete as soon as it opened with the eventual rise of driverless cars. At the time the promise of driver-less technologies seemed too far-fetched  – well beyond the norm of what an average person would tolerate. Besides, Southern California is the ultimate symbol of car culture, something anyone sitting in an outdoor cafe in Hollywood, Beverly Hills, or even Brand Boulevard in Glendale can attest.

Shiny, modified cars with real estate-worthy price tags roar past onlookers, each a symbol of success and power.  But after reading the Curbed post, I have to admit, the promise and ease of autonomous vehicles may actually convince Angelenos to give up driving.

Self-driving cars would be a revolution for Los Angeles. Driverless vehicles would not only change in the way Angelenos think about transportation – it would change the way we live.  Here’s how:

Reduced traffic:  I’ve said it before – we have the worst traffic in the country. Autonomous vehicles would be able to drive much closer together at a steady speed, reducing stop-and-go traffic.  Automated cars would essentially become a single entity moving throughout the city, picking the best routes and lining up orderly to get to each of their destinations.

Thanksgiving traffic on the 405 that went viral.

A reduction in pollution: Moving vehicles produce less air pollution. Coupled with electric (you could send your car to a charger when you don’t need it!) or hybrid technology, emissions due to vehicles could become virtually non-existent.

Economic relief: The Federal poverty-level income for a family of four is $24,600/year.  An average car costs about $8,000 to own, including repairs, insurance, and fuel. This means a family at the poverty level might be paying as much as 1/3 of their income for their car. Los Angeles is designed to necessitate at least one car for nearly every household of its citizenry.  Autonomous vehicles can be easily shared and rented, vastly reducing the ownership cost for low income households.

Reduce fatalities: There were 32,675 car-related deaths in the United States in 2015. This is about the same as the entire student body at the University of California, Davis, my alma mater. Driverless cars have the possibility of being much safer by taking control of the vehicle away from flawed human decision making.

Promote urban renewal: Think about how much space we allocate for our cars.  We have the 2 car garage at home, plus the parking space for where we work.  We have parking spaces at every store, school, and business we frequent. Our streets and freeways are wide. If we sent our car home after it dropped us off at work, we would not need the parking space at work.  We would not need as many lanes on our streets because the cars would take up space more efficiently. Suddenly, high density housing wouldn’t seem so bad. Pedestrians and bikes would have more room. Parking garages in our economic centers could be torn down for living spaces, new businesses, or for communal open spaces. Think about how different our cities would look and feel freed from the shackles of car parking.

Reduce the Heat Island Effect: Less road and more open space means a cooler city. All of the asphalt and concrete we dedicate to driving and parking our cars is responsible for our cities heating up.

Provides safe transportation for an aging population: In 2050, the population aged 65 and over is projected to reach 83.7 million – almost double its estimated population of 43.1 million in 2012.  I don’t know about you, but my mom really should have stopped driving at 70 instead of 82.  However, with a desire to remain active, what choice did she really have? Maybe my wife and I will have a choice of buying or using an autonomous vehicle in the twilight of our lives.

As we densify here in Los Angeles, every argument in every community meeting about development will begin and end with conversations about parking and traffic. We will spend our time and money debating, voting, and pointing fingers at each other over car transportation. However, I believe eventually we’ll need to admit to an addiction to the automobile. We spend too much money on cars and the infrastructure supporting its use.

The promise of an autonomous vehicle society will shift the paradigm away from this addiction and move us toward a more sustainable future.  I say we try it.

Last month I promised to give an update about my foray into Downtown Los Angeles living. This is my first report.

One of the great benefits to living Downtown is that I also work here.  Even though my former neighborhood of Silver Lake is only about 5 miles away, LA traffic sometimes stretches the distance into an hour long commute.  Now I can just walk up to the Red/Purple Line Civic Center Station, or I can walk the mile and a half to work.  Either way, it takes about 20 minutes from door-to-desk.

Downtown Los Angeles is what we urban design types like to call a “neighborhood in transition” – meaning, development is happening at a breakneck pace, but much of the existing stuff, good and bad, is still very much evident. I snapped the following photos on my morning walk to work, documenting this neighborhood – my neighborhood – in transition.

All photos by Gary Lai

From my new apartment, I walk up a couple of blocks to 2nd and Main.  Our wonderfully funky historic City Hall is framed by the LAPD Headquarters to the left and Caltrans to the right. In many ways, this is the ideal of what new urbanists may view as a modern city: a mixture of new and old, clean streets with bike lanes, residents living in high-density housing.


LA County’s streets are home to 58,000 people homeless. I now live two blocks from the border of Skid Row where the highest concentration of homeless live.  Reminders of this tragedy is everywhere across Downtown.


I’ve never actually seen the Paraiso Restaurant at 3rd and Main open, but I hope at one time it was a happening place. Older, discount-type businesses and restaurants are still the predominant retail-type in DTLA, but it’s changing fast due to skyrocketing rents and development.


On my walking commute I like to cut through the historic Grand Center Market at Broadway and through to Hill street, passing the ridiculous line at the Eggslut booth.


The historical funicular train, Angel’s Flight, is being worked on again. I hope it opens some time before the California High Speed Rail in 2035.


My walk takes me along a diagonal shortcut through Pershing Square Park. The main water feature is now dry – victim of our historic drought and a post-modernism backlash.


One of the major issues afflicting pedestrians in DTLA is the poor conditions of our sidewalks. Cracked, dirty and falling apart, business owners have taken to washing their own sidewalk frontage.  The smell of bleach is common and pervasive as I walk down 6th toward Grand.


Just a half block away from work at 7th and Grand is the new Whole Foods, below the 8th and Grand luxury apartment complex.  I don’t think much needs to be said about DTLA after that sentence.

One thing I find ironic about moving to DTLA is that people originally moved away from Downtown because they thought the suburbs would be a healthier environment. After a month living in Downtown, I agree the downtown environment is not necessarily healthy, but my lifestyle is healthier. Instead of sitting in a car or bus for hours commuting, I now have time to walk and go to the gym despite a heavy workload – this resident as much in transition as the city surrounding him.

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Corpses of Chinese immigrants who were murdered during the Chinese massacre of 1871 in Los Angeles, California. Photo: Los Angeles Public Library, Security Pacific National Bank Collection

On a chilly October night in 1871, in a western part of Los Angeles home to about 5,000 souls, two rival Tong clans in Chinatown found themselves in the middle of a dispute over a prostitute. During the quarrel, a shot rang out. In the middle of the street, Robert Thompson, a local rancher lay dead with a single gunshot wound to the chest.

By morning, 17 to 20 Chinese men and boys would join Thompson, after they were tortured and hanged by mob of over 500 men angered by the rancher’s accidental death.

This notorious event would come to be known as the Los Angeles Chinese Massacre of 1871, the largest mass lynching in American history. In its aftermath, ten men would be charged with manslaughter, and eight would be convicted. All eight would be acquitted on a technicality, released without spending a single minute within San Quentin prison.

A commemoration marking the day of this day of infamy in Los Angeles is planned at Father Serra Park across from Union Station. The Chinese suffered badly in California from 1857 to 1943 under the Chinese Exclusion Act. But in spite of their long and difficult past, many Chinese American decedents of these first immigrants have gone onto achieve a measure of success as both Californians and Americans. So, I’ve been asking myself the question: What exactly would this memorial be memorializing?

As an ancestor of a Chinese American immigrant myself, I realized I needed to investigate my own family story.

My maternal great grandfather immigrated to Northern California in 1892 at the peak of the anti-Chinese hysteria. He worked on the inter-continental railroad, then later opened a laundry near Stockton, California. Due to the Chinese Exclusion Act’s moratorium on the immigration of Chinese women to the United States, he had two choices: 1. go back to China to find a wife and try and immigrate back into the US later (thereby renouncing his ability to become an American citizen), or 2. stay in this new country as a bachelor.

The call to start a family was too great. He left the United States to return to China in the early 1910’s to marry my great-grandmother. He would return to California in the early 1920’s with his teenage son, my grandfather.

My grandfather would have six sons and a single daughter – my mother. Because Chinese were not able to own land in California, any business my grandfather would establish would be dependent upon white landowners, who would raise their rents to take all of his profits. In desperation, he would move the family away from Stockton and into San Francisco’s Chinatown. The Great Depression would leave deep scars as my grandfather struggled to support his family in the slum. My mother would suffer from malnutrition as a child and would be taken away from the family for months on end.

In World War II, my grandfather’s nephew would die of his injuries fighting for the US Army in France. My uncles would fight in both Korea and Vietnam on the front lines. They would return home to be become shopkeepers, butchers, a career military officer, and a laborer. Their children would go onto college to later become engineers, workers in the technology field, real estates agents, teachers, entrepreneurs, lawyers, and one landscape architect. My cousins and I would live our lives as Californians, contributing to the economy, helping to build the state into what it is today. Their children continue to follow these footsteps.

Ultimately, I am grateful that my great-great-grandfather did not decide to immigrate to Los Angeles 20 years earlier only to be dragged out from his home, beaten, stabbed, and finally hanged in Chinatown’s Calle de los Negros back in 1871 (razed and rebuilt into what is now known as Los Angeles St.).

So, I found the answer to my question: A memorial at Father Serra Park is not only to commemorate the dead, but to acknowledge the accomplishments of the four generations that followed their undeserved deaths. We’d later become lawyers, doctors, teachers, shop keepers…even a landscape architect or two. The memorial acts as a reminder to all immigrants that the country they see as a beacon of freedom and equality is not always so

In many ways, the United States’ record in immigrant relations is a broken record playing the same sorrowful song, over and over again with different singers: the Irish, Chinese, Japanese, Hispanics, and Muslims. It is up to us – the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of these immigrants – to remind our country that we are here working and fighting for the United States. We are – and always have been – the engine that makes America great.