I’m in, or was in sunny Southern California for a week, getting a chance to study the place and the lifestyles of it’s denizens. It’s very different than the east coast that I’m used to. For one thing a lot of the houses are built backwards.
A great deal of southern California is planned communities. Laid out on spacious maps and plans, blueprinted and thought out to the last yard before the first shovel is filled. That’s the first contrast to “back east” where each yard of land has been fought over for hundreds of years, the winners crushing the once fine domains of the losers under bulldozer or recking ball. In the east, towns and buildings are stacked on the bones of their forebears. Any semblance of order or planning was tossed long ago.
The Californian planned communities are massive in scope as well as acreage. College campuses and shopping malls go on the paper as well in a kind of super-community master plan. What this seems to have caused is an inward turn of the actual houses and homes that make up these communities. Instead of neighborhoods that bleed into each other, forming only fuzzy lines of demarkation, these communities are broken into “gated” villages, each with it’s own services, residents and esprit de corps.
Here individual houses face the street with their garages, rare is an obvious front door. The “front” entrance is often hidden down a long dark walkway somewhere on the side of the house. In reality most of the people I’ve seen use their garages as the main entrance. The active face of these houses is actually in the rear, looking away from the street making the focus of the home it’s own back yard. This gives these collections of houses a feeling of a line of closely packed individual fortresses facing the world with their armored garage doors, something like an eastern city alley. The forbidding feeling is reinforced by the plethora of locked gates, doors and alarmed windows. My guess is that there is no stoop sitting in this part of California, no “my street” feel to these communities. Maybe it’s something of a frontier leftover, a preparation for Native American or Mexican Bandito attack? Maybe the garage doors have hidden rifle slits to create a deadly crossfire?
However, the first place to lose transport in event of a fuel shortage will no doubt be southern California. Here in the dessert of public transportation the individual ride is king. If there are any trains or busses, they have probably been bronzed and put on a pedestal in one of the 10,000 little green ares planned into each community. The one I’m in features little lighthouses marking the public areas, with community trash bins hidden inside. No doubt the community of Vista Transportia has miniature city busses with the same hide-away receptacles.
Even with an extreme lack of public transportation people don’t walk here, I have tried it and after suffering severe “stare” burns have learned better. Besides, crosswalks and sidewalks appear only infrequently. Here pedestrians must take their chances in a savage land. The custom is to either ride a bike, in official biking gear, run, in appropriately stylish attire (lest you be suspected of a crime), or drive. Dog walking is permissible, but the dogs(s) must be always in plain sight. There are no permits or allowances for walking a concealed dog.
It’s also suspiciously cleaner here than back east, so much so that it has a “furniture store” look to it. You know the ones where the tables and chairs are all beautifully laid out, but the antiseptic feeling makes us sure no one actually lives there. I’m pretty sure people live in the community I’m visiting, I’ve even seen some behind the tinted windows of passing cars and peeking out between the blinds of second floor windows. However, it’s not like they spend much or anytime outside even on the best of days.
All in all southern California, at least the little of it I saw, seems a sunny, warm but sterile place. It is new, to a great extent. From previous visits I know Los Angeles has some more colorful parts. Places and areas where the grass grows between the sidewalk concrete, people do sit out in the sun and watch the world go by. The streets are alive with people and sights. But even there, the imperious organization and sheer expanse drains away some of the vibrance of life.
While flying out I got my favorite, a window seat and a clear day. It seemed to me that this dessert of organization begins right after the last of the eastern hills and mountains. Beyond Pennsylvania a strange, other-worldly symmetry begins. Ruler straight roads and grid-laid towns clot the landscape. Renegade rivers and rogue hills seem almost to spoil the draftsman like precision of the plains. Nasty, dirty nature only intrudes on the perfection of each laser straight town or city. Somewhere around Nevada, rocky hills become mountains and for a time only a few scraggly roads and towns persist. Nature’s last line of defense against the oncoming earth movers of smooth perfection. But then comes southern California, eschewing the grid for communities built in half circles or twisted “U”s, seen as all too obviously turned in upon themselves from the air.
The houses match perfectly in these village-like congregations. Roofs align magically to the lines of the road and accentuate the convolutions of the designed communities primal form. All confusion and creativity has been carefully thought out in obeisance to the master plan. Each home a castle, only 4 feet from it’s neighbors, ready to be moved to Lego Land at a moment’s notice. It’s a stark contrast to see the snow capped mountains in the distance, it almost makes me wonder if they’re just good stage craft. It’s all beautiful, bright and clear but still stark in some subliminal way.
On the way back we flew through one big dense storm and felt a little like peanuts in a can, bounced around and clanging into the sides of the cabin. It was a relief to unclamp my hands from the armrests and not have to constantly steady everything on the tray table. But it’s hardest to describe the sense of released tension I felt when the lights of Newark revealed the snarl of highways and byways below, twisted lanes of totally unsymmetric housing and the continuous smelly, confused all-night bustle of my coast. Delicious in it’s eccentricity, a raggedy peacock carpet of unaligned streetlights and traffic low beams flew up to greet me.
Bang, bang, bang the wheels came down hard and we coasted into the gorgeous rat’s nest of Newark International. I heard one fellow passenger who obviously wasn’t riding the tiny jet on to Tel Aviv, “Fucking home man, fuck, fuck, fucking home!” he cried out jubilantly.
“Abso-fucking-lutely” I though to myself, and consigned myself once again to the turbulent ways of the east coast.
Copyright Prentiss Gray 2011