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MAN BITES TOWN

Bright Lights, Little City : On the Streets of Los Angeles, We Don't Want Too Much of a Good Thing

September 30, 1990|HARRY SHEARER

WEEKENDS, WE KNOW from television, are for drinking copious amounts of premium-quality beer. But in real life, weekends are for more than just oversampling the hops. Here, in the land where leisure as a lifestyle was invented--where the word lifestyle was probably invented--a recent weekend offered two very different angles on our view of public life.

In Westwood, the city of Los Angeles had ordered a clampdown on vehicular traffic. Responding to complaints about congestion and, even more ominously, to outbreaks of gang violence, Los Angeles declared the streets of the nostalgically named "village" off-limits to cars for most of Friday and Saturday nights. Merchants groused, parking-lot operators despaired and the cruising gangbangers had to find another place to go and dislike each other.

Meanwhile, in Santa Monica, that city's efforts to lift the Third Street Mall from the yawning abyss of commercial torpor into which it had tumbled two decades ago were crowned with a daylong music festival on the revivified street. People wandered from outdoor cafe to musical stage, perhaps ducked into an air-conditioned movie hundredplex and back out again, investigating the espresso bars that just opened and the little bookstores that had stuck it out through the lean years. It felt, more than one person said, like a city.

We like that feeling. And yet we're not sure. After all, no city blessed with this benign a climate has done so much for so long to wipe the quintessentially urban institution of sidewalk cafes off our sidewalks. Los Angeles is still outlawing street vendors, mainly because they are believed to attract--ugh!--crowds.

For decades, the conventional wisdom about our part of the world held that we had enriched our private spaces at the expense of our public ones. People socialized and congregated on the great piazzas that surrounded their swimming pools. If you couldn't afford that, you could always cultivate rich friends.

Now it has occurred to us that, aside from democratic values, something else is missing from this scheme: the opportunity to socialize with people you haven't invited. City experiences, the ones people rhapsodize about, include a large serving of the unexpected. Unless you chatted up the parking valet, or the host's home was being robbed, human contact in our private spaces followed predictable, safe patterns.

We like safe. And yet we're not sure. Aside from imagineered rides, a large part of Disneyland's appeal has been a spurious Main Street, whose diversity has been pre-limited by management policy. But nobody except Michael Eisner confuses Main Street with a real street.

We're not the only ones so divided about the city-ness of city life. During my most recent search for the remnants of civilization in New York City, a friend marveled at the richness of life teeming and pushing its way down Sixth Avenue. Then moments later, she did a 180. She recalled how very splendid the Fourth of July had been this year. Nobody was in town, she explained. The streets were so wonderfully deserted.

Well, we've earned an international reputation for the wonderful desertedness on our streets. Everyone knows that in Beverly Hills you can do two things: buy fancy stuff and get arrested for being a pedestrian. And we're still building suburbs with walls and gates and cul de sacs. When it comes to the science of lifeless streets, we're the Einsteins.

But to go the other way, to attract urban activity to an area, is an art, and we are still learning which end of the brush to use. This art involves maintaining a delicate balance. On one side is the peril of invasion by dangerous outsiders: cruising, gang activity, the shooting of innocent shoppers. On the other is the charge, dangling over Santa Monica's efforts, that what's being created is merely another place for upper-middle-class white people to gather and spend too much money.

What we want is diversity, but not too much diversity. We seek the unpredictable, but just unpredictable enough.

In Westwood, Los Angeles is revising an old act, previously played out on Van Nuys, Hollywood and Whittier boulevards: putting a lid on the wrong kind of spontaneity. Santa Monica is trying something much trickier: planning an attractive mix of spontaneous human interactions.

Our best gathering places--Melrose, Broadway, the beach--seem to have developed without benefit of plan, to have grown as a response to interesting people and interesting stuff. Festivals, from Santa Monica to the African Marketplace, are reminding us that we can plan to attract interesting mixes of people to a gathering place for an afternoon. Can it last longer? Must it turn nasty at night?

We'd like a city, but we came here for paradise.

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