Derick Ariyam

14 December 2006


The New Urban Restructuring: L.A. Explored in Tropic of Orange, and Crash


Most scholars in the field of urban studies would argue that there have been three Urban Revolutions that have taken place since the dawn of man. The first instance takes place over ten millennia ago in Southwest Asia, with the urbanizing of full-scale agriculture. The second stems forth out of the Fertile Crescent, roughly 5,000 years, sparking the creation of city-states and empires, and class-based society. The third and last, is that of the Industrial Revolution starting in Western Europe, which brought us mills, industry, the high-rise, and other signs of the new urban-capitalism.  Yet, recently, within the last 40 years, there has been a new development taking place--an urban restructuring. Edward Soja, a postmodern political geographer has noticed, and in his preface to his book Postmetropolis: Studies of Cities and Regions, he writes that “nearly all the world’s major metropolitan regions have been experiencing dramatic changes, in some cases so intense that what existed [forty] years ago is almost unrecognizable today” (Soja XV) . Soja goes on to suggest that this we could very well be witnessing a “fourth” Urban Revolution. And, it’s most visible manifestations, can be best seen, in all its complex patterning and volatile social mosaic, within the very city-walls of the Southern California metropolis known as, Los Angeles.

            This city, Los Angeles, has become both the setting and the object of study in a broad array of mediums that address—either implicitly or explicitly--this emerging urban phenomenon. In this paper, I will explore the city of Los Angeles, and its new urban transformation from the vantage point of two works, the novel Tropic of Orange by Karen Yamashita, and the cinematic motion picture Crash, written and directed by Paul Haggis.

Both the novel, and the motion picture, foregrounds their respective stories under the complex backdrop of Los Angeles.  Los Angeles itself becomes more than an arbitrary setting, but rather, an organic character of its own-- omnipotent, omnipresent, and effectually becoming the underlying cause and effect of the conflicts in each of these two stories. In this essay, I will demonstrate how the characters of both of these works exemplify the type of social mosaic that is inherent in this unique city. Drawing mostly from the theoretical works of Edward Soja, I then aim to show how both these works demonstrate the tense, unsettled and fractious socioeconomic condition of a new Los Angeles. In doing this, I’ll also explore and view examples of the fortress-like social-structures that have become incendiaries of socio-economic tension--which Soja calls the “Carceral Archipelago”.  All of these ideas stem forth out of the broad notion termed by Edward Soja called “metropolarities”. He describes metropolarites as “[a] restructur[ing] social mosaic…[a] complex patterning…the multiple axes of differential power and status that produce and maintain socio-economic inequality”. To illuminate these theoretical notions, I will draw illustrations and examples from both the novel, Tropic of Orange and the cinematic production, Crash--two works that center around the urban complexities of Los Angeles.

To start, if we simply begin by looking at the underlying structure of both of these works, immediately there is something similar. The book and the novel do not follow a single story line, but instead, strand their narrative into interweaving parts, with each part focused on the point-of-view of just one character. As the novel and the movie progresses, the individual stories cross (or crash) into each other. The interlacing happens despite the varying ethnic and social structures that the characters are members of. Despite their many differences, all the characters come individually to form a single social mosaic. Instead of clear hierarchical or class/ethnic divider lines, everyone is trapped under the same jar, trapped in claustrophobic spatiality; as a result, tensions and attempts at restructuring develop.

When describing the socio-ethnic diversity in a city like LA, Soja uses the term “social mosaic”. The word mosaic is carefully chosen. In fact, the word “mosaic” as a metaphor to describe the cultural diversity is much more precise than the standard hackneyed metaphor, “The Melting Pot”. Not only is the “Melting Pot” grievously dated, but it also suggests homogeneity. In the book, Tropic of Orange, and the movie Crash, societal homogeneity do not exist. Instead, the characters in these works stand out with their unique—and very much their own--ethnicity and social status, and likewise, the heterogeneity of this makeup is the underlying thread of conflict in both of these works.

Conflict and tension invoked by socioeconomic disparities can be spotted in many different occasions--and from many different supposed slights--in either of these two works. In Tropic of Cancer, one poignant example involves the character Emi and her self-fomented harangue at a local Sushi Restaurant. Emi’s ethnicity is Asian American, and in this particular scene, she acknowledges the social mosaic that LA is encompassed in, and takes umbrage at the sight of a person trespassing into another culture—specifically, a white Caucasian woman wearing chopsticks in her hair. Emi shares her feelings at this restaurant with her boyfriend Gabriel, saying: “So here we all are, your multicultural mosaic. There’s you and me and the gays at the end of the bar and the guy with the turban. And how about those Caucasian Japanophiles who talk real Japanesese with the sushi man? Can we count them too? “(Yamashita 127). The sarcastic tension in her words, blossoms into a verbal affront against the “perpetrator”. Emi insultingly asks the woman if she thought forks in her hair, instead of chopsticks, were “unsanitary” (129). The tension in this situation occurs because Emi feels piqued by the woman violating the social mosaic, as this chopstick-in-the-hair is an attempt at homogenization.

            In the movie Crash, we also witness, on numerous occasions, conflict and tension caused by the clash of disparate ethnic and social cohorts under the same roof—with Los Angeles being the house.  One good example of this in the movie Crash occurs in a scene between Detective Graham Waters and his partner Ria. During this scene Ria and Waters are having an intimate moment, until Waters disrupts the ambiance by picking up his phone; it’s his mother on the other line. Ria, at first agitated by Graham’s impropriety, eventually becomes incensed by the contents of Graham’s conversation: “Mom, I can't talk to you right now, okay? I'm having sex with a white woman”. It is the labeling of Ria as “white” that irks her. However, he doesn’t stop there; he exacerbates an already angry Ria, by explaining himself (poorly): “I would've said you were Mexican, but I don't think it would've pissed her off as much”.  Ria, is not Mexican, although many unaware on the finer points of geography might assume she is. As she prepares to leave, she frustratingly clarifies her ethnicity saying, “My father's from Puerto Rico. My mother's from El Salvador. Neither one of those is Mexico.”

            What we see in this situation is a common impetus for ethnic perturbation--a mislabeling of identity. And in Ria’s case, the tone in which she clarifies her non-affiliation with Mexico, suggests it’s not the first time she has been called “Mexican”. Such widespread mislabeling aids in the furthering of an identity crisis, that is no doubt rampant in a city with such a large spectrum of diversity. And this condition suffered by so many individuals is one of the many contributing cogs to the big machine of urban restructuring and revolution occurring in cities such like Los Angeles.

A similar cog, in this same machine, is a social structure, that Soja calls the “Carceral Archipelago”. The notion of the Carceral Archipelago, as the name implies, refers to island-like structures created by the privileged classes and ethnicities to keep everyone else out. Such structures take on various forms, like: the “white neighborhood”, or the “looming ritzy Shopping Center”, “Beverly Hills”, or anything contrived that suggests needing “membership” by a particular social or ethnic group. These Archipelagos, and their isolating intent, further intensify the tensions between class and ethnicity. Again, we see examples of these structures in both the book and the movie as they relate to Los Angeles.

            In the book, we see a few instances of Carceral Archipelagos, and the friction and tenseness that go with it. For example, in Tropic of Orange, one of the major scenes in this book takes place on an abandoned freeway, populated densely by abandoned cars. The reason these vehicles were abandoned was due to a drug-laced orange that had caused the driver of a red Porsche to lose control, causing multi-car accidents, involving some trucks filled with highly inflammable material. Consequently, a fire ensues, which forces the evacuation of the roadway, leaving a veritable parking lot of abandoned, mostly luxury, cars.  These luxury cars could themselves be considered individual Carceral Archipelagos. The Limousines, the Mercedes, the BMWs, are distinctive markers of wealth and social superiority for the privileged higher class, and as such, they define a class distinction with a sense of isolation. What we then see taking place in Tropic of Orange, is the usurping of these luxury cars by the homeless, and others of that lower class distinction—those without membership. We hear of folks lining up to use the car phone of a Mercedes, like it’s a phone booth, the limousine has become its own new street “Limousine Way”, and various other lower class groups are taking over the once-fortresses of the wealthy. And then, as expected, we see tension arise. The upper class will eventually come back home to their islands. The scene turns into a bloody shootout, as these predictable contentions arise.

This conflagration between the classes on the freeway, resemble the apocalyptic consequence of Carceral Archipelagos we read about in the writings of the urban scholar, Mike Davis. David identifies this inevitable outcome in his work City of Quartz. He writes:

“We live in ‘fortress cities’ brutally divided between ‘fortified cells’ of affluent society and ‘places of terror’ where the police battle the criminalized poor. The ‘Second Civil War’… has been institutionalized into the very structure of urban space” (Davis 223-6).

This idea of a ‘Second Civil War’ that Davis mentions, can be seen taking place in the aforementioned scene in Tropic of Orange. In fact, the description of the battle is described, in almost every detail, as a “civil war”. Even the sparking moment of the “war”, is redolent to the American Civil War of 1861, with the “shot heard round the world”. We read in the novel that, “…it had started with a single shot—the one that had penetrated the soft body of a young woman sunning herself on that news van” (239).

            In Crash, there are also instances of what could be considered Carceral Archipelagos. One good example comes early on in the story, with out first introduction to the character of the District Attorney, played by Brendan Fraser, and the D.A.’s wife, played by Sandra Bullock. In this scene, the D.A. and his wife are walking down a “white neighborhood”, and heading towards their car, when all of a sudden, they are accosted by two black men with guns, who proceed to hijack their vehicle. The neighborhood itself is an island on its own, designed to segreagate, by keeping those on the lower end of the class structure, out. The dialogue between the two black men, prior to the hijacking, show the anxiety they feel being inside this particular “island”, to the point that they even fear it. The character played by Chris “Ludicrous” Bridges speaks to his friend saying:

“…If anybody should be scared around here, it's us! We're the only two black faces surrounded by a sea of over-caffeinated white people patrolled by the trigger-happy L.A.P.D.”

The mention of the L.A.P.D. speaks on the protection of this isolated fortress—to keep those “unwelcome” out, and by force if necessary.  Again, we see hostility and violence emerging from the vicinity of these social structures.

The Los Angeles we see in Tropic of Orange and Crash, is a city of intrigue and complex social patterning. Yet also, this same city, Los Angeles, depicted in these two works of fiction is not merely a setting--not merely a backdrop. In fact, Los Angeles is the conflict, the evolving plot, the protagonist, the antagonist, the interesting situation—Los Angeles is the story. We can see socio-economic tensions abounding, complex social patterning, social mosaics, and Carceral Archipelago--all towards the purpose of furthering unrest and inequality. What these two works bring to focus is perhaps a new iteration of urban restructuring, and what maybe, what Edward Soja suggests, a “fourth” Urban Revolution.
Works Citied


Crash. Dir. Paul Haggis. Perf. Don Cheadle, Sandra Bullock, Brendan Fraser. Lions Gate Entertainment, 2004.

Soja, Edward W. Postmetropolis: Critical Studies of Cities and Regions. Maiden, MA. Blackwell, 2000,

Yamashita, Karen T. Tropic of Orange. New York: Coffee House P, 1997.