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A Space Odyssey: Redefining Privacy

Population growth and other trends are altering our views on how much elbow room is enough.


Call it the Latinization of L.A.'s private space. No wait, better make that the Japanization. Or would you even believe the Hollandization?

Actually, no sociological shorthand can easily sum up the dramatic revisions in the way Southern Californians today are creating and experiencing privacy in their homes. In this region of explosive population growth, shrinking residential lots, multiplying nonnuclear families, rising home-based employment and, above all, a housing boom driven by a red-hot economy, many traditional assumptions about privacy and private space are going the way of Ozzie and Harriet.

And not just in our own backyard. As America begins to fill in and fill up and "sprawl" becomes a political issue, the traditional two-story saltbox or ranch house set on an acre-sized lot with a picket fence is yielding to some very different paradigms of domestic seclusion. Many American homes now hide their treasures behind fortress-like walls such as you'd see in Madrid or Mexico City. Urbanites seem willing to live stacked like Tokyo commuters just to obtain a partial waterfront view. Family life has turned inward, focusing its energies on cavernous "great rooms" and "media rooms" that are to the old-fashioned Victorian parlor what a DVD is to a Victrola. Perhaps not since the Holland's 17th century golden age has a middle-class been so obsessed with the twin passions of home design and scientific advancement.

Domestic privacy is being redefined even in suburbia, once touted as a haven from cities' teeming humanity but now itself convulsed by NIMBY feuds and traffic jams. Small wonder the so-called "new urbanists" are trying to revive turn-of-the-century spatial values in an increasingly claustrophobic nation. "You can see that a lot of people are trying to grab the tree of nostalgia in the winds of change," says Santa Barbara architect Barry Berkus.

In Southern California, whose population is projected to swell 43% over the next 20 years, the clash between past ideals of private space and present-day realities may be sharper than ever. From the gentrifying bohemian enclave of the Venice Beach area to Pacoima garages serving as makeshift immigrant living quarters, from Orange County's low-income-housing crisis to a budding culture war between horse-fanciers and helicopters in Glendale's Rancho neighborhood, Southern Californians are struggling to make do with less space than their forbears enjoyed.

Former residential frontiers like Mission Viejo and Rancho Santa Margarita in Orange County have seen their average lot sizes drop 50% in the last 30 years. "I'm showing homes in the $400,000, $500,000 range, and you walk into that backyard, you can't take 10 paces," says real estate agent Jerry Moloughney.

Lacking the Manhattanites' "don't tread on me" stare, Angelenos have always relied on wide-open spaces to soothe their psyches and keep peace among a changing population. But the region's shift from a loose constellation of small cities and tract-house archipelagoes to a high-density metropolis is proving awkward in what cultural analyst William Alexander McClung calls "the world capital of the detached private house."

"People feel the only direction for improvement in their lives is to increase their amount of private space, but there's got to be a natural limit to that," says McClung, an English professor at Mississippi State University and author of the recently published "Landscapes of Desire: Anglo Mythologies of Los Angeles" (University of California Press). "Huge as L.A. is, there isn't enough space for everybody to have that kind of space. And now people are rubbing against that, and they're not sure how to deal with it."

The rift between the idealized SoCal landscape of Crusoe-esque seclusion and the densely built, smoggy desert we actually inhabit, says McClung, is rooted in a historic fissure between two mythical ideals: Southern California as a boundless, unspoiled natural Eden and Southern California as the dynamic, futuristic uber-town that its boosters like to tout as "the city of the 21st century." Caught between competing visions--one Arcadian, the other utopian--"the mentality of Los Angeles is trapped in anxious aspirations simultaneously striving to go forward and to turn back," McClung writes.


In few parts of L.A. is this conflict more pronounced than Venice Beach. While still a hangout for bodybuilders and incense peddlers, the once funky but increasingly fashionable community is feuding over public access to its precious sand and surf. Megan, who works in the film industry and asked that her real name not be used in this story, has watched tensions mount over the issue since she and her husband built their 6,500-square-foot contemporaryhome three years ago.

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