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Salvaging Suburbia

In Post-Suburbia, 'The Best Surprise Is No Surprise'--With a Twist.

November 15, 1998|Norman Klein | Norman Klein, a professor of critical studies at the California Institute of the Arts, is the author of "The History of Forgetting: Los Angeles and the Erasure of Memory."

VAN NUYS — Since the great railroad boom of 1885, Los Angeles has been promoted as the city of the "garden suburb." Now, more than 100 years later, it is time to take stock of what this has brought. A few myths should be dispelled. The suburb is no longer free of rush-hour traffic, pollution, urban density or mixed classes and races. Nor is it simply a bedroom community. The roots may be suburban. Many roads still follow the paths of former orchards. The industrial streets are not as scarred as in older cities. Less rust, more stucco.

But the changes are immense. The postwar threads of light industry have matured, moving far beyond warehouses along the freeways. Suburbs are now hubs for exports, film production, software, aerospace. This is a global trend toward the sprawling, digitized corporation. Across the San Fernando Valley are belts of high-rises with their own banking centers, and an industrial job base with slums for cheap labor nearby. In short, all the mess we associate with the downtown center they were designed to erase from memory.

The dream of the bucolic suburb has been distorted. It is now the era of the metropolitan suburb. The original green spaces are ravaged. The gulf between rich and poor widens. Suburban slums grow in Pacoima, Pomona, San Bernardino, Reseda, Van Nuys, Northridge, Santa Ana. At the same time, enclaved communities emerge close to poor neighborhoods. South Pasadena has literally walled away some of El Sereno. In the San Fernando Valley, Victory Boulevard has become, for many, the street below which they shall not pass; a Hadrian's Wall is being assembled through real-estate pricing, as well as myths and urban paranoia.

There are "Asian" cities in the San Gabriel Valley, now renamed "China Valley." Businesses centered in the city of Santa Clarita are spearheading an expansion toward Ventura County that could add up to 100,000 more people within a decade, turning what remains of old orchards and the battered, historic town of Fillmore into new urban sprawl.

The ethnic complexity of suburbs is dense. Along Ventura Boulevard, out in Tarzana, beyond what used to be walnut farms and movie-star ranches, are a Glatt Kosher restaurant, a sushi bar and an Iranian grill, one adjacent to the other, as if in Hollywood. Ventura Boulevard may be the most ethnically mixed business street in Southern California.

There are many such "post-suburban" ironies. But the one that stands out is that these problems have become globally important, essential for urban studies throughout the world. Terms such as "privatization," "themed spaces," "Disneyfication" and "enclaving" appear in European as well as U.S. journals. The new paradigm for urban life may indeed be a kind of dense suburb, with a lot of eye candy in the shopping mall, stadium seating in the multiplex, latte at the Starbucks, Barnes & Noble not far from Borders, near an Italian food chain, a nest for global franchise businesses.

Wherever tourism has expanded, whether in Vienna or Santa Monica, a fussy glow, both urban and suburban, has taken over the storefronts. The malls, like medieval cities, have broken out of their walls and spilled into the streets. Certainly, that is what happened in Burbank: The streets around Palm and San Fernando outpaced the Media City mall and literally surrounded it. Is Old Pasadena a mall without a roof? It contains essentially the same range of shops that fancy malls do. It is a "themed" space. Any stretch of buildings with historic continuity can be themed, i.e., given a suburban spin. That means Times Square in Manhattan, Piccadilly Circus in London and certainly downtown Los Angeles along Figueroa Boulevard, all have their share of advanced suburban amenities.

But what is the sum of the metropolitan suburb? Why is it so important today? What risks does it portend? With the shrinking of national governments, here and in Europe, services to cities have been underfinanced. In order to build a tax base, virtually every city is turning to themed spaces. The cost of leases jump. Older businesses cannot pay. Large franchise companies move in.

So, we live in a world in which we all become tourists in our neighborhoods. We relocate the same 10 shops, or facsimiles of places like Gap, Jamba Juice, Panda Express, Banana Republic, Blockbuster, Disney, Barnes & Noble, Burger King and Hard Rock Cafe. Many of the same names--or themes--reappear from one end of the country to another. Why? Public works cannot be funded easily, not parks, not even large symphony halls. Privatization means mall-like promotion of any historic street that can be found.

Calabasas apparently will model its new mall on the alpine town of Como in Italy and add some local touches by referring to the old ranching street nearby. So, we will have an Italian alpine, San Fernando Valley, semiarid ranchero mall with a Sundance movie complex, and the 10 franchises we can expect to find.

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