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Jack Smith

Hard-nosed reader sniffs at theory of cities then--la belle epoque--and now

August 20, 1987|JACK SMITH

To my theory that all great cities prosper and decline, and that most of our great cities today have passed their peak, reader Fred Koch of Rancho Palos Verdes offers a one-word rebuttal.

Horsemanure.

Or is that two words?

He specifically challenges my description of European cities in la belle epoque --the 15 years or so before World War I: "In Paris, artists painted on the sidewalks and music was in the air, unamplified; ladies were grandly costumed; the can-can was danced nightly at the Moulin Rouge; elegant carriages still rolled along the Champs Elysees. . . ."

Mr. Koch responds:

"What a lovely image. Paris. The Champs Elysees. The elegant carriages, the measured pace of the processions. The 30 pounds a day of manure. So odiferous. . . ."

That's the trouble with our visions of the past. Everything unpleasant is washed out. When we see "Gone With the Wind," we don't feel the mosquitoes bite. When Gary Cooper and Doris Davenport build their dream house on the range in "The Westerner," we don't notice the lack of indoor plumbing and air conditioning, much less the absence of a microwave.

How could they possibly have been happy?

When I recall that Los Angeles perhaps reached its peak in the 1930s, when Art Deco architecture was in flower, traffic was light, the air was relatively clear and the Big Red Cars ran all around, I forget that we had to sit on the front porch evenings or go to the Wiltern or the Carthay Circle to see a movie, because we had no television; and $25 a week was good pay.

Also, we had no major league baseball team. A really bush town.

I can't think of any way, however, in which modern appliances have improved life in Honolulu. Houses there are air-conditioned by nature. In 1941 we lived in one that didn't even have windows--just screens. It rained now and then, but we called it liquid sunshine. We had refrigeration, plumbing and a telephone. We listened to Hawaiian music on the radio, breathing in the pervasive scent of plumeria. Television would have been intrusive. We never had a car. We got around on the silver trolley coaches, which emitted no exhaust. I can't believe that life there is better now.

Going back to Paris of la belle epoque, we may find more grievous disadvantages than horse manure. Venereal disease was probably epidemic along the sidewalks frequented by those artists. Life in the garrets and under the slate rooftops was miserably cold in winter and sweltering in summer. Young women like Camille and Mimi developed coughs and were carried off by consumption.

But the kind of pollution caused by horses was probably not, at that time, as disagreeable as we might imagine. Street sweepers were kept busy, no doubt, but that occupation doubtless gave employment to a good many individuals who might otherwise have been wards of the state, or street hustlers in the Montmartre. I don't recall that any artists who painted the urban scene of the period ever rendered horse droppings on their canvases. That fact of life seems not to have pervaded the art and literature of that day, as smog does ours.

It seems probable that if it had not been for the automobile, cities would have remained limited in size by the conveyances at hand, and we would not have today's sprawling metropolises of 10 million and more.

If we had had to saddle up or hitch up a team every time we wanted to run down to the supermarket, or visit our Aunt Millicent in Covina, the mega-city would never have evolved.

The litter of horses, is not, however, entirely disagreeable. It emanates a rather sweet aroma that is familiar and pleasant to the nostrils of cowboys, jockeys, trainers, horse marines, equestriennes, stableboys and others who enjoy the company of horses. It is certainly more pleasing than the noxious exhaust of the internal combustion engine.

All things considered, I still think the Paris of la belle epoque was a more agreeable city to live in or visit than the traffic-thronged city of today.

For big cities, the decade before World War I was one of transition. The automobile was appearing in large numbers, though it still resembled a carriage, and it was still a plaything of the rich; but the horse and carriage were vanishing fast. When the war ended, the transformation was soon complete. A photograph made in 1910 of Hill Street looking north from 3rd Street shows nothing but horses and carriages; one taken on Broadway only eight years later shows nothing but automobiles.

I have quoted landscape architect Jere Stuart's list of cities that may not be in decline--Tucson, Seattle, San Diego, Phoenix and San Antonio.

Paul Sterling Hoag of Pacific Palisades writes to praise Seattle:

"I also knew Seattle in the '30s and later again at Boeing during the war. Seattle then was surrounded by a painful countryside of stump land made almost unbearable by saddening rain and mist. But you should see it today!

"Fifty years have restored the stump land to almost enveloping forests backdropping a city of vital architecture and surging business and art and theater that fills even rainy days with excitement and delight. It has even sparked a new cuisine they call 'Northwest.'

"But I suspect Seattle people aren't any more aware of being in a city that is 'peaking' than I was in Los Angeles and San Francisco in the '30s. What a pity!"

Let us all enjoy what we have.

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