Towers of Concentration, Lines of Growth

Lecture delivered at the Center for Land Use Interpretation, Los Angeles, 29 August, 2002 and slightly revised for reading purposes thereafter.

Center For Land Use Interpretation, One Wilshire Exhibit

In this lecture I propose a tentative introduction to some of aspects of what Lewis Mumford called the “invisible city,” the largely unseen, underground world of cables, wires, and connections that has shaped, and continues to shape, our landscapes.[1] As our public obsession with the visual continues at a breakneck pace – witness the mad rush to create visible evidence of Los Angeles’s appearance as a global city through architectural monuments such as the new Cathedral or Disney Concert Hall – it is the invisible that increasingly determines urban structure. We stand at the dawn of the regime of the invisible. To come to an understanding of the invisible city not only at present but in the longue durée of the modern metropolis, this talk begins with a brief historical overview of the role of the telegraph and telephone in land use, then turns to a discussion of the changes in networking—in telephones and in the Internet—over the last forty years and their impact on urban life, concluding with a brief examination of the role of One Wilshire and fiber optic technology in Los Angeles.

For millennia, messages could travel only as quickly as a messenger on a horse. Beginning in the late sixteenth century, rumors arose in Europe that magical devices – using “sympathetic” needles allowed people to communicate over long distances. Cardinal Richelieu, the first minister of France was thought to be in the possession of such a device because he seemed so well-informed about events in distant places.

On March 2, 1791, French scientist Claude Chappe invented the first working system for transmitting information over distance. Chappe’s system was composed by two perfectly synchronized clocks set some ten miles apart, the face of each divided into ten parts, each part designated with a different number. When the pointer of one clock passed over the number the sender wished to indicate, a sound would be produced and the correspondent would record the number. The first message was “Si Vous reussissez, vous serez bientot couvert de gloire.” The device would be named télégraphe or “distant writer.” Chappe quickly refined his telegraph, developing a more specialized optical device that did away with both clock face and sounds to communicate through semaphores. By the 1830s, a thousand optical telegraph towers formed a network across Europe, allowing messages to be transmitted from Paris to Amsterdam, from Brest to Venice. In 1850, at its peak, the French system alone included some 29 cities, 556 stations, and covered some 4800 km. The need for visibility limited the usefulness of optical telegraphs, however, preventing their function during the night or when fog and mist interfered.[2]

Research into electrical means of transmission was widely undertaken – Chappe’s optical telegraph was something of a response to his own inability to make an electric device – but largely unsuccessful until 1837 when Samuel Morse succeeded in transmitting a message over a single, ten mile long wire using a simple system of dashes, dots, and silences that would eventually be known as Morse code. Even after Morse set up a forty mile-long line between Washington and Baltimore in 1846, however, his invention was received with skepticism, viewed as a novelty rather than as a new form of communication. Unlike Europeans, Americans seemed less convinced of the usefulness of long distance communication. Only with the completion of a new line between New York and Philadelphia did the telegraph began to succeed.[3]

Succeed it did. By 1850, the United States was home to 12,000 miles of telegraph operated by twenty different companies. By 1861, a transcontinental line was completed, anticipating the first transcontinental railroad by eight years and effectively shuttering the Pony Express with its ten day coast-to-coast message relay system. In 1866 a working transatlantic cable was completed. Europe’s optical telegraph decline swiftly, leaving a scattering of “telegraph hills” as traces on the landscape. As might be imagined, the invention of the telephone by Alexander Graham Bell in 1876 was a quantum leap forward. By June 1877, 230 telephones were in use with the first telephone exchange or switchboard installed in New Haven in January 1879. By 1880, 30,000 and by the end of the century some 2 million phones were connected worldwide, one in every ten American homes.[4]

Beginning in the 1880s, the telephone and telegraph teamed with the railroad, in both its long distance and commuter forms, to reshape the American urban landscape. Making possible the request for the delivery of goods over large distances via rail, telecommunications led to a burst of sales and productivity nationwide. At the same time, the complexities of shipping material over long distances led to a huge growth in paperwork and the need to provide means of keeping track of it. To oversee this system, a new, scientifically oriented manager emerged beginning in the 1880s. Often trained as civil and mechanical engineers, these individuals focused on “systematic management,” careful tracking of a corporation’s functions based on numerical information. [5]

New machines aided them: the mid-1870s saw the development of the typewriter and, soon after, carbon paper; the cash register, developed in 1882 to prevent theft, could collect data on sales by 1884, modern adding machines and calculators emerged in the later half of the decade and in the 1890s, the mimeograph machine would allow the production of copies by the hundred. Keeping track of this explosion of paper required a new infrastructure, both human and physical. Both vertical file and vertical office building emerged and quickly proliferated as sites of storage and production of the vast new quantities of information. Along with them came explosive growth in clerks who would handle paperwork.[6] In 1860, the US census listed some 750,000 people in various professional service positions. By 1890, the number grew to 2.1 million and by 1910 it had ballooned to 4.4 million. In 1919, Upton Sinclair dubbed these people “white collar” workers.[7]

The result was a physical change in the cityscape. Commuter rail made it possible for white collar workers to live in comfortable quarters outside the downtown city core and, as industry came to rely more and more on rail for transportation, production left the increasingly congested core for the periphery where they would inhabit buildings that, for fireproofing purposes would be physically separate from each other. Management, together with commercial sales, remained in the core, fueling the real estate market and producing the office building. Understanding that the phone was reshaping the city, phone companies and cities worked closely together, the former coming to rely on zoning for their network expansion plans. The result was an unprecedented boom in downtown business cores but, as historian Robert Fogelson has demonstrated, the rapid growth of these central business districts, so identified with the American city, also proved their undoing. As congestion in city cores rose and as suburbs grew further and further away, downtowns came to be challenged by secondary business districts and an inevitable decline began.[8]

Returning to the history of the telephone, however, we find that in 1879, fearing inroads from telegraph company Western Union, which had begun producing telephones based on designs by Thomas Edison and Elisha Gray, Bell had filed a lawsuit claiming patent infringement. An out of court settlement early the next year left Bell in possession of a national telephone monopoly that lasted until his patents expired in 1893 and 1894. This gave rise to thousands of “independent” phone companies, often serving the rural hinterlands where Bell did not want to go. By refusing to connect its lines to the independents, however, Bell insured that long distance service, still an expensive and rarely used service, was available to his subscribers only. Nevertheless, Bell’s desire to eliminate competitors was not universally appreciated. The 1910 purchase of Western Union by Bell, now known as AT&T, had instilled rising anti-corporate sentiment from the Progressive movement and the threat of government antitrust action became real. In late 1913, AT&T issued a pre-emptive strike against litigation in the form of a document called the Kingsbury Commitment, agreeing to sell Western Union and to permit the independents access to its lines. Over the next decade a partnership evolved between AT&T and the government, with an understanding that in exchange for near-monopoly status, the company would extend a certain degree of benevolence to the public, delivering universal access by building a network in the hinterlands and lowering the price of service to the home. AT&T thus wound up completely in control of the long-distance lines and through its twenty-two regional Bell operating companies, controlled virtually all significant urban areas in the country. AT&T’s monopoly was remarkable: the company owned both the wiring and equipment in subscriber’s homes. This arrangement was not dissimilar to that in other countries where the telephone network was typically owned by the government as a public utility.[9] This system of monopoly control dominated by voice for local calls and, at least initially, by telegraph for official, business and long-distance calls, is commonly known as the Plain Old Telephone System or POTS. During the POTS era, the telephone transformed from an élite service to a service for the majority. Universal access was guaranteed, but so was monopoly status and a relative lack of innovation. Still, in June 1968, the FCC mandated that Bell legally allow non-Bell equipment to be connected to its lines. The next year, Microwave Communications International, later MCI, would begin to offer a private network between St. Louis and Chicago. Similarly, the independent Brown Telephone Company of Kansas, later United Utilities, then United Telecommunications, and now known as Sprint, sought to compete in the long distance market. Potential competitors to AT&T in the long distance market remained hamstrung by Ma Bell’s control of the lines between their facilities and the local telco’s central offices.

Complaints to the Justice Department against AT&T mounted until action was initiated against the corporation. In 1984 AT&T was divested of its 22 local phone companies which were transferred to seven Regional Bell Operating Companies or Baby Bells. These retained the right to sell local and toll calling in local areas and the white and yellow pages. They were, however, denied the right to manufacture or lease equipment. AT&T retained that along with its research arm of Bell Labs and the long-distance market. There has been further consolidation among the Baby Bells with SBC purchasing Pacific Telesis and Ameritech.[10]

The legal changes in telecommunications have been accompanied by innovations in networking technology. AT&T relied on copper cable: twisted pair copper for lower capacity and, by the late 1930s, coaxial cable capable of multiplexy – the transmission of multiple simultaneous messages – for long distance lines, but the pressure of new technologies and the needs of competing networking systems soon transformed this scene. Rising demand for bandwidth and fear of the havoc nuclear war would wreak on continuous wire connections led telecommunications engineers to develop microwave transmission for long distances. The first microwave line was deployed between the headquarters of AT&T’s Long Lines Department at 32 Avenue of the Americas in 1947 and the Bowdoin Square building of the New England Telephone and Telegraph with seven intermediately spaced relay stations facilitating the connection. In 1960, AT&T began developing Telstar, the world’s first communications satellite, which they hoped would allow them to give 99.9% connection between any two points on the earth at any time. Other engineers began working on the successor to both microwaves and satellite links: fiber optics, long and flexible rods of glass or plastic allowing the transmittal of light.

As hardware advanced so did networking concepts. The development of ARPANET, which in turn gave rise to the Internet has had a major impact on thinking about networking. ARPANET was the product of an unpleasant political problem: in the 1960s, the three branches of the military would often submit conflicting body counts. When the reports seemed to contradict each other, public crisis would result. The White House asked a Cold War think tank, the Advanced Research Projects Agency, ARPA for short, to fix the problem. ARPA’s solution was to link up the military computers through a long-distance network. Initially, the focus was on data-sharing – the ability to share and exchange data over a spatially dispersed area – and on load sharing – the ability to allow processing to take place on idle computers at off-site locations. The latter would be facilitated by the range of time zones in the U.S.: as one computer operator slept, an operator in another time zone would take advantage of the otherwise idle equipment. Few experts thought that communication could become a significant use of the data network and email was introduced only as a means of coordinating seemingly more important tasks. Soon, however, advocates of data-sharing and load-sharing were surprised by how much communication took place. By 1972, it would be possible to send email over the ARPAnet.

It is in this milieu that American computer scientist Paul Baran promoted the idea of the distributed network and of packet switching. Working at another Cold War think tank, the Rand Corporation, Baran had become concerned about the degree of centralization common to all American communications networks, military or civilian. [A] With the loss of the center, all communications would be destroyed. Decentralized networks, with many nodes, were slightly better, but they were still vulnerable particularly once MIRV warheads (Multiple Independently-targeted Reentry Vehicles) were developed by the Soviets. [B] Instead, Baran proposed a distributed network in which each point functioned as a node and central functions were dispersed equally [C]. Data would flow over a distributed network through “packet switching.” A long block of data would be divided into smaller pieces called packets, which would make their way through the network until they got to their destination where they would be reassembled. This system had the advantage of allowing individual sections of messages to be rerouted or even retransmitted when necessary and, as computers tend to communicate to each other in short bursts, this system would take advantage of slowdowns and gaps in communication to optimize the load on the lines. Baran’s paper has had a curious impact on thinking about networks. Written as a defense measure against the Cold War, it has attracted Futuristic thinkers, Left-wing and Libertarian alike. The idea of any point having an equal opportunity to connect to the network and the lack of centralized control has led to the utopian dream of universal accessibility to data anytime anywhere.

But this ideal of distributed networking was not to be. During the early 1970s, networks like Arpanet began to proliferate and were tied together by a single system called the Internet. The heart of the Internet was NSFNet, run by the National Science Foundation. The rapid growth of NSFNet together led the NSF to implement a model in which regional networks would communicate with each other through a “backbone.” The result was a relatively dispersed model locally but a decentralized model nationally. Even though NSFnet moved away from the distributed model to a decentralized model topologically, geographically it was still highly dispersed. Universities and other non-profit institutions were its primary users and were given similar levels of service. Thus, university driven computing super-centers such as Ithaca, New York and Urbana-Champaign, Illinois were as wired as any big city. With the exponential growth of the Internet and its privatization in 1994, however, the geographically distributed model began to be reshaped as well. Driven by profit, the commercial Internet backbone system goes where the money is. Internet corporations turn to metropolitan areas, reinforcing the existing system of networking. This re-affirmation of centralization was abetted by changes in networking. By 1990, fiber optic technology surpassed satellite technology as a means of transcontinental communication and was on its way to undoing the dominance of microwave towers. But fiber is expensive and the longer its lines, the more costly they become. Interconnections are between major nodes—almost always cities. Within cities, fiber optics can be laid down more inexpensively and higher capacity, short-distance networks can be built relatively easily. Both within cities and in-between cities, obtaining right-of-way easements can consume a significant portion of the construction budget so fiber generally occupies pre-existing easements, tracing already existing infrastructural routes such as gas lines and rail lines rather than creating new ones.

Akamai Corporation’s business model gives an example of the dominance of intra-urban lines over inter-urban lines. The expense and low speed of inter-urban connections leads corporations with big web presences to upload data to servers maintained by Akamai in major metropolitan markets. Thus when you access a website such as or, you don’t pull data from Atlanta or Cupertino but rather from a server near your metropolitan area’s telco exchange. As the Internet has privatized, congestion at its major hubs and switches has increased. Responding to this, networking companies have established private peer-to-peer connections. Thus, a message passing from one Internet Service Provider, or ISP, to another, may travel directly from ISP to ISP, essentially bypassing the Internet itself. Naturally, this centralizes the network, privileges the bigger players, and increases the divide between urban digital hub and ex-urban digital desert.

So where does One Wilshire come in? AT&T’s breakup, together with subsequent legislation further deregulating the telecommunications industry triggered competition at every level. As before, the key for long distance carriers was the interface with the local system at the central office, in Los Angeles’s case, the SBC/Pacbell switching station at 400 S. Grand downtown. In order to bring their competing long distance lines in close proximity, carrier MCI mounted a rooftop microwave station on the modernist tower at One Wilshire, only three thousand feet from the central switching station and at the time one of the tallest buildings downtown. With One Wilshire providing a competitor-friendly environment close to the central switching station, long-distance carriers, ISPs, and other networking companies began to lay fiber to the structure. While the microwave towers on top have dwindled in importance – they are now used by Verizon for connection to its cell phone network – the vast amount of fiber running out of One Wilshire below ground level allows companies many possibilities to interconnect.

As fiber technology grew in capacity, One Wilshire became not only a staging ground for connecting to the local system, it became a peer-to-peer connection point. In the fourth floor Meet Me Room, telcos are allowed to run interconnects directly between each other without charge. The result is a dramatic cost savings for the companies that results in the highest per-square-foot rents on the North American continent.

Because space in the meet-me-room is at such a premium, telcos run conduit either to other floors of One Wilshire or to adjacent structures known as telecom hotels or telco hotels. Over a dozen nearby buildings now act as telco hotels, providing space to telephone and Internet companies seeking to be near the fountain of data at One Wilshire. Tenant-owned cooling units on the roof indicate the presence of telecoms: nobody trusts the building’s owner to cool their equipment.

The result, in Los Angeles, has been a local revival of the formerly moribund downtown real estate market. In the space of two years recently, one such building’s occupancy rose from 30% to 91%. This has been somewhat controversial as a highly-publicized down side of these teleco hotels is that circuitry and equipment do not demand a substantial employee presence. Nevertheless, there may be a benefit to this stealth occupation of the city. While they add to property values and hence tax rolls in the area, thereby allowing needed repairs to the hard infrastructure, telco hotels do not increase congestion on the streets. Moreover, Jack Kyser, the chief economist for the Los Angeles Economic Development Corporation suggests that access to this massive infrastructure will lead companies – especially multimedia entertainment companies – reliant on high-capacity digital networks to move in.[11]

This centralization of information defies predictions that the Internet and new technologies will undo cities. On the contrary, the reliance of contemporary communications on fiber creates a new centrality, a concentration of strategic resources in giant metropolitan areas, or Megacities, acting as command points in the organization of the world economy. The internal telecommunications structures in these metropolitan areas itself mirrors that of country-wide territories. Megacities will frequently bypass large areas of disconnected local populations —hinterlands that lie within. In telecom terms, a fiber-bereft desert can easily lie just a mile from One Wilshire. Uneven development will be the rule as the invisible city below determines construction above.[12] An example of this is the re-densification and re-development is currently taking place along a stretch of Wilshire Boulevard in Koreatown, west of downtown. Extending from Alvarado to Wilton boulevards, the area known as Wilshire Center was initially zoned for multi-story residential units and developed large and elegant apartment buildings as a result. By the 1920s, however, motorists had discovered that the width of Wilshire and its lack of a trolley line made it the quickest route to reach downtown from points west. The resulting traffic made the street unattractive for residential purposes while encouraging its commercial development. The speculative apartment buildings lost value and began a slow decline. Continued congestion of downtown in the 1950s led to a revival of Wilshire Center as a business center, with back offices for banks, insurance company offices, law offices, county agencies, and other large bureaucratic organizations moving in. Even if located within the texture of Los Angeles, Wilshire Center essentially functioned as a prototype edge city and over twenty office buildings were built in the area between 1966 and 1976.[13] By the 1970s, however, decline began again as tenants drifted westward to newer, more attractive office space in west Los Angeles. Mexican and El Salvadoran immigrants moved into the increasingly dilapidated residences and Koreans took over retail functions in the area. As poverty increased, the area became less well-maintained and crime rose culminating in heavy damage during the Rodney King riots in 1992. Remaining businesses took flight. With offices empty and streets deserted, recovery seemed so improbable Mike Davis called it “the modern high-rise ghost town.”[14] Defying Davis’s conclusion, however, the area has revived dramatically in the last few years due to the presence of an invisible factor: the existing telecommunications infrastructure.[15] In the late 1980s, mistakenly expecting that the offices in the area would continue to be viable, Pacific Bell laid down a fiber optic trunk line in the area, creating a three-mile loop from Norton Avenue to Coronado Street and equipping some thirty buildings with fiber optic links. Following the mass exodus of the offices, however, the fiber lay virtually untouched. In addition to inexpensive office rents, the low cost, high bandwidth pipes lured in telecommunications and new media companies. The latter found the location of the area, not far from Hollywood an added boon.[16] Office vacancy rates plummeted from 35% in 1994 to 14% in 2000.[17] Dominated by fiber, the city isn’t going away anytime soon. Concentration appears more important than ever. But rather than putting our faith solely in the visible – structures like the new Cathedral or the Disney Concert Hall – we need to look to Mumford’s invisible city. For the hidden world of fiber holds within it the shape of the future city. Architects, urban planners, and telecoms need to work together, not in isolation, to shape the city of tomorrow.

[1] Lewis Mumford, The City in History, (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1961), 563-567.

[2] Tom Standage. The Victorian Internet. (New York: Walker and Company, 1998), 1-21.

[3] Standage, 22-56.

[4] Standage, 196-200.Claude S. Fischer, America Calling. A Social History of the Telephone to 1940, 33-37.

[5] On systematic management see JoAnne Yates, “Business Use of Information and Technology During the Information Age,” A Nation Transformed. How Information Has Shaped The United States from Colonial Times to the Present, ed. Alfred D. Chandler, Jr. and James W. Cortada. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 107-135.

[6] Alfred D. Chandler, Jr. “The Information Age in Historical Perspective: An Introduction,” A Nation Transformed. How Information Has Shaped The United States from Colonial Times to the Present, ed. Alfred D. Chandler, Jr. and James W. Cortada. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 18.

[7] Donald Albrecht, Chrysanthe B. Broikos and National Building Museum, On The Job : Design And The American Office, (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2000). 18.

[8] See John Stilgoe, Metropolitan Corridor (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985) and Robert Fogelson, Downtown. Its Rise and Fall, 1880-1950 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001).

[9] Fischer, 37-59.

[10] Annabel Z. Dodd, The Essential Guide to Telecommunications, (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall PTR, 2002), 94-107.

[11] Stephen Gregory, “Telecom Boom Revives Declining Neighborhood; Growing Industry Concentrates Local Network Operations in Downtown L. A. Hub. But Few Workers Accompany the Facilities,” The Los Angeles Times, November 17, 1998.

[12] On the role of telecommunications in the rise of the Megacity, as a start see Manuel Castells, The Rise of the Network Society, (London: Blackwell, 2000), second edition, Stephen Graham and Simon Marvin, Telecommunications and the City (London: Routledge, 1996), and Saskia Sassen, The Global City: New York, London, Tokyo (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991).

[13] On edge cities, see Joel Garreau, Edge City: Life On The New Frontier, (New York: Doubleday, 1991).

[14] Mike Davis, Ecology Of Fear: Los Angeles And The Imagination Of Disaster, (New York: Vintage Books, 1999), 375-377.

[15] On the adaptation and reuse of existing infrastructures for new purposes and on the role of city centers in development of telematics-rich areas, see Graham and Marvin, 290, 323-324.

[16] Nola L. Sarkisian, “Mid-Wilshire Making a Comeback; Fiber-Optic Cable Line Lures Internet Companies to Area,” Los Angeles Business Journal, vol. 21, no. 39, September 1999, 1.

[17] Laura B. Benko, “Low Rents, Cable Lines are Luring Many Tenants,” Los Angeles Business Journal, vol. 21, no. 43, October 1999, 53. Margot Carmichael Lester, “Market Emerging as Popular Alternative for Telco Deals,” Los Angeles Business Journal, vol. 23, no. 5, January 29, 2001, 41.

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