Tuesday, March 20, 2012

California Dreaming


I was raised in Orange County, California. In the 1980's, it was still a place where a child could run through acres of orange groves, throw rocks into large quarries from the edge of a neighbor's backyard, and at night, hear the not-so-distant howl of coyotes in the brush-covered hills. In the 1980's I was young and so was Orange County--sparsely dotted hills with large houses comprising neighborhoods where children in a mile radius played with one another.

Beyond those couple blocks were miles and miles to be driven. And by the time I reached my teenage years, normal destinations such as school, movie theaters, and malls, required transport by car, in my case, an old hand-me-down that my conservative immigrant parents did not allow me to drive until I was 18 years old. Though less than 50 miles northbound, Los Angeles seemed a world away, and even on occasional big-girl visits to the city with friends for punk rock shows or shopping trips, the massive expanse seemed so unapproachable, so wealthy, and so lonely. And, by the time I left the area to go to college a universe away, less than 400 miles northward to Berkeley, the orange groves and brushy hills I grew up with were dotted with thousands of over-priced tract homes in various shades of pale earth tones, surrounded by secured gates. The skies of all of Southern California were cursed with low-hanging clouds of brown brought on by industrial productivity and wealth-induced car culture. Southern California was chock full of either wealthy families, or middle class folk aspiring to break the seal, exchanging good credit records for shiny cars and overpriced clothes.

And, though I was fortunate enough to be from a family of two professionals with at least one luxury car in the garage, by 18 I had already smelled something afoul in Orange County-land. Maybe it was the sinister rash of sex scandals throughout the areas' private Catholic high schools involving teachers and students. Maybe it was being called a "bleeding heart liberal" at the age of 17 in a classroom social studies group exercise. Or maybe it was the loneliness brought on by miles and miles of separation from one part of the city to the next. By the time I left, Southern California just seemed like a massive sprawl of land filled with small-minded people aspiring only for personal wealth. Big, dumb, shallow. And Los Angeles seemed just as much a part of that sprawl and isolation as Orange County.

But Southern California was not always a place of stranded people. As early as 1872 the City of Los Angeles began exploring a municipal transit system involving horse drawn cars. Not too much later, while in the process of connecting all of California to itself and the rest of the country by train, members of the railway baron Huntington family explored the development of a municipal light rail system within Los Angeles. It eventually comprised of 316 miles of lines within the city, and 1164 miles throughout Central and Southern California. This newfound transportation became integral in the development of various communities throughout the southland, and at 1500 miles total at its peak, was the most extensive network in the country. By 1924 the system served 109 million passengers annually, and maintained in excess of 54 million even after the development of the automobile. Then beginning in 1940, the system was systematically bought out and dismantled by General Motors, Firestone Tires, and Standard Oil in a concerted effort to decimate the competition to the personal automobile. (The three companies were later held liable in Federal Court for doing so in L.A. and numerous other cities; but the systems remained inoperative.) By the 1950's, the stage in Southern California was set for an era of cars and car culture.

This had not changed much when I left in the 1990's.

I wandered through many places after I left the Southland, eventually ending up even further south in New Orleans. In the Big Easy I found a lifestyle I have come to adore, characterized by strong cultural tradition, a living culture of live local music, neighborhoods filled with people proud to be neighbors, and a joie de vivre unlike any in the country. I also found an intriguing and fulfilling new profession in urban development, filled with both bountiful federal funds and new developments, but also entrenched systems of local government characterized by caste-like nepotism and backwards mentalities, with what often seems to be lip service to forward-thinking development and no real commitment on the financial level.

So I was happy to accept the opportunity to travel back to Southern California recently for an urban development training conference, to see how others do it--to get a little break from the sometimes stuffy swamp life.

Though I have spent a handful of weeks each year returning to California for family visits, my exposure to the changes of the time were limited as I quarantined myself to the houses of my parents and sisters; I've had no interest in the place I grew up and committed what little time I spent there with my half-dozen nieces and nephews since I left in the mid-1990's.

So I had not guessed what I would see. The conference was held in Downtown L.A., a formerly under-developed area which, when I was growing up, at night would tranform into a breeding ground for scores of homeless who slept in doorways of office buildings shut down for the evening. Since then, oversized buildings of defunct banks have been converted into sleek architecture offices, and the former Superior Oil Company high-rise is a major glam stop in its boutique hotel-bar formation. At night, the homeless have for the most part gone elsewhere, and the streets are now flanked with skinny rich girls with fluffy dogs going for a brief walk just outside their high-priced loft apartments.

But the changes haven't all been for the just the rich. In the '90's, not too long before I left the area, L.A. County and municipal governments began reinvesting into its once awesome transportation system. Line by line the system was expanded and today five different metro lines cover over 70 stops throughout the county, serving a ridership of approximately 35o,000 per weekday. From Rodeo Drive, to Crenshaw, from Long Beach to Chinatown, a limitless, all day pass costs $5.00.

Since my Southern California exodus, the trend of re-thinking urban development transferred to housing policy as well. Individual cities throughout L.A. County began designating certain areas as "inclusionary zones," regions where developers are forced by local government to dedicate between 10-30% of their development to benefit low- and medium-income households. Scores of mixed-income developments sprouted about the newly reinvigorated transportation system, resulting in pods of transportation-oriented multi-family developments for mixed income households.

On our various training field trips during the conference, my New Orleanian co-workers and I wander the streets of Pasadena, looking at the inclusionary development flanking the the metro station which has been rehabbed to its charmingly historic facade.

We ride the metro through Downtown L.A., Chinatown, Pasadena, through the hills of California.

We walk through the recently-rehabilitated Union Station in all its historic glory, its tall ceilings and tiled floors, the former virtual gift from the City to the Southern Pacific, Union Pacific, and Santa Fe Railways, three robber baron railway companies that once held a stronghold on state industry and development. We walk around Downtown, around the gobbly-shaped, Gehry-designed Disney Music Hall.


We see mixed-income housing that blows out of the water New Orleanian efforts to do the same.

Throughout the week I am finding it ironic that it is here in the very placed I was raised--and eagerly fled from--do I find the cutting edge work being done in the field to which I have just recently devoted all my professional efforts. Even now, in a period of draconian budget cuts, L.A. outpaces New Orleans in urban development more than ten-fold.

The California trip has left me feeling a little bit like the protagonist in Paulo Coelho's The Alchemist, who travels the world in search of an unknown treasure only to find it buried not so far from the village in which he grew up. I wonder if I would have ever left had I seen California for the potential it has rendered into a place I never could have even dreamed of during my upbringing in Orange County. I am confused; in a way I am liking L.A., and at the same time, its cutting-edge glamour, its largeness, its vastness, has made me feel strange; I feel a little left behind, a little amazed, and a little lonely.

At the end of the week I return home to New Orleans. I ride my bike to one of my favorite burger shops to meet up with friends, then later to a bar with my favorite local jazz band playing their standing gig. I am happy to be home to be comforted with the liveliness of the New Orleans neighborhoods, away from the confusion and loneliness of big old California. I get ready to return to work, for the frustrating tasks at hand involving dealing and working with various local government entities per norm. There are times when the oldness that makes this city so great can also frustrate me. It is a place that is entrenched in its own history, its own nepotism, its own tradition, even at the cost of its own development. But I love it. Geographically it is in fact a little big city, and already I know it fairly well. It is a sweet little place with both dark corners and big, happy celebrations, lovable despite its backwardness. But it is, in many ways against its own good, backwards.

And then I remember that it is possible for a place to change its most unlikable traits. California of today reminds me that those dreams can come true.

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