Not that there's anything wrong with a giant, blow-up Godzilla. A giant, blow-up Godzilla, well-displayed, can be an asset to any rooftop decor. Many, many people would thrill at the sight of a giant, blow-up Godzilla astride, say, the local supermarket or auto showroom. There will always be a place for a giant, blow-up Godzilla. Just not in Los Angeles. Or not for long.
This bulletin--part of a bigger, more interesting story--came out of the Los Angeles City Council on Tuesday in decidedly un-Godzilla-like fashion. With little fanfare, the council asked the city attorney to draft a ban on "rooftop inflatables" as part of a new sign ordinance. Wanna know how many blimps, balloons and mega-critters that wipes out? Herds of 'em, neighbor. There are blow-up dinosaurs and Santas and King Kongs and hippos and what-have-you reigning over the city's sprawl from South-Central to the Valley to the Westside. ("Visual blight," in the fed-up words of the city's Building and Safety Department head.)
This is where things get arguably amusing. Think what you will about, say, the 30-foot inflatable lion ("Roaring Discounts!") floating over Toyota of Hollywood even as you read this. But it's not overstating to note that eradicating "visual blight" has not historically been a Southern California priority. This is the place that gave the world the house-sized La Puente doughnut, the "Golf Giant" of Carson, Angelyne billboards and that clown-ballerina in Venice. Big architectural what-nots R us.
Or were us. Because over the past decade or so, in slow, slow motion, a kind of struggle has materialized over how Southern California imagines itself. In one corner: the time-honored '50s car culture, and its need for eye-grabbing commerce. In the other: decorum.
In Los Angeles.
If you can imagine that.
"There is," Ken Bernstein is agreeing, "a yearning for good taste."
Bernstein is with the Los Angeles Conservancy, which makes him a kind of expert here. True, he says, a lot of what gets enshrined here was viewed in its heyday as schlock. But he also sees Southern California moving toward a classier vision, a more human scale.
You can see the connection. There's value in scarcity, and in this most isolating of times and cities, intimacy is the new luxury. Out with the impersonal Gallerias, in with the old downtown resurrections. Car-averse projects like the Getty Center, where the masses get winnowed down to manageable clusters, are L.A.'s new centers of prestige.
The "City of the Auto," as Life magazine famously called this metropolis in the early '50s, is now riddled with walking neighborhoods. The best-known are probably Santa Monica's Third Street Promenade and Pasadena's Old Town, but you could reel off similar districts all over the place: West Hollywood, Melrose, La Brea. Chunks of Burbank and Studio City. Little India in Artesia. Koreatown. The old downtowns of Monrovia and Whittier and Huntington Park and Fullerton. The sunny cafe districts in Hermosa and Manhattan Beach.
What these places have in common is the opposite of car culture--crowds of humans, on foot, taking the world in at less than 65 mph, hanging out en masse in the open air. And what inspires us in those settings is a far cry from the big, whopping statements you used to need to bring customers down from the freeways. Laura Chick, the city councilwoman behind the proposed sign law, puts it this way: "People are leaning toward a cleaner, purer world."
Naturally, them's fightin' words in certain quarters. Not everyone is doing business in a clean, pure walking district, thank you very much. Don Bishop, sales manager of Toyota of Hollywood, off the Hollywood Freeway, says rooftop inflatables have helped crank up sales by 1,000% in the last couple of years. Plus, they're fun. "For cryin' out loud," he yelps, "this is Hollywood Boulevard!"
And he has a point too. There's something vaguely un-Angeleno about passing a law that denies our inner cheese-ball, that banishes the Godzillas and discount lions from the California sky. In my own Gap-buying, latte-drinking, Restoration Hardware-browsing, yuppie heart, I'm rooting against the sign clutter, but it's hard to imagine a city beating back its very nature. Fish gotta swim. Giant blow-up Godzillas gotta fly.
Shawn Hubler's column appears Mondays and Thursdays. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.