Friday, February 17, 2012

Landscapes

I was on an early flight to Los Angeles last Tuesday. Entering the air space of the LA Basin, the sun had just risen over the eastern desert giving the crisp winter air a warm glow. No smog on this day. Light and shadows were crisp and clear past Newport Beach to the south, Avalon to the west, Claremont, Pomona, and Chino Hills State Park to the East, and the Angeles National Forest to the north. Glorious. We descended down the southern flank of the Santa Monica Mountains, over Hollywood, the comfortably spaced skyscrapers of downtown Los Angeles, made a leisurely semicircle over the great expanse of Vernon warehouses, and turned back west over miles and miles of flat residential blocks that cover the expanse of this coastal plain on the approach to LAX.

LAX on the ocean’s edge looms like a landing strip for space aliens in the film Chariots of the Gods, pointing to Japan. I had time in hand and decided to stay off the freeways and drove directly north from the airport through the maze of middle class suburban streets of Westchester: parents walking kids to elementary and middle school, tree lined suburbia. Pepperdine, nestled near the I-405, and Loyola Marymount on the bluff overlooking Marina Del Rey, have supplanted defense industries.

Public spaces of L.A. are focused on its beaches: Venice, Ocean Park, and cosmopolitan Santa Monica. But inland across the basin the public commons are highly commercialized and unnatural. There is the spider web of freeways, golf courses and cemeteries; there is Dodger stadium, Staples Center, the Angels baseball stadium, and Disneyland; there is the Getty museum and Disney Concert Hall; USC and UCLA. But no river runs through it, and no Bois de Vincennes, Bois du Boulogne, or Golden Gate Park provide respite and balance. It’s cars, and motorcycles, speedways, and sports stadiums, tall buildings, all in filled with suburbia. It’s what gives LA it’s hard libertarian, motorized edge, and distinguishes it from San Francisco, a much more European city.

San Francisco is dominated by its parks: Crissy Field, Fort Mason, the Presidio, Golden Gate Park, Buena Vista Park, Duboce Park, Tank Hill, Kite Hill, Alamo Square, Dolores Park, Glen Park Canyon, Twin Peaks, and lots of small neighborhood parks in between. San Francisco, a city of renters, lives in its parks. There are dog parks, skateboarding parks, kite flying parks, hang-gliding parks, and hiking parks. There are parks for drum circles and parks for Tai Chi. There are public stairs up and down the hills of San Francisco, up to Telegraph Hill, through Chinatown, to Nob Hill, and down to the Castro. People walk, they run, they play tennis, they drum, they sleep. Citizens walk through the city to the museums, to the theater, to restaurants near and far. San Francisco has its Ocean Beach, and Baker Beach, but these are much colder and more rugged, almost Northwest. On sunny warm days we migrate to the ocean, but more commonly, public life in San Francisco is focused on the green public spaces woven into the fabric of the city. San Francisco’s private golf courses are shoved to the extreme southwest, almost out of the city into the ocean. Our football stadium is near an old naval yard on the opposite, southeast side of the city, and it will soon go away altogether. We have a baseball stadium, but it is urban. People go there by BART, by Muni, by walking. There is more parking for boats in Covey Cove than parking spaces for cars. It’s what gives San Francisco it’s collective, Bohemian edge. It makes us elect Nancy Pelosi.