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Commentary | JOHN BALZAR

Driven by New Dreams, Southland's Livability Rebounds

We've turned the corner, forging working villages from the sprawl.

January 22, 2003|JOHN BALZAR

The bougainvillea is flowering in lipstick colors, and the berry tree on my patio is dropping its leaves while simultaneously sprout- ing a fuzz of fresh blossoms. Hereabouts there is no consensus on the best day to do yardwork, so we hear the whir-zzz of lawnmowers all week long. It's mid-January in Southern California, no time to rest the charcoal kettle.

Shorts or jackets? We keep both at the ready, and it's often a choice determined by mood instead of necessity. Mountains or beach? I've never surfed in the morning and then gone snow skiing in the afternoon, but I can point you to friends who have.

We heard possums walking on the roof last night, and I'm careful not to surprise the local skunk family when I retrieve my newspapers in the morning. On the way back, I grab an orange from the tree to keep the edge on my hunter-gatherer skills.

The light assumes a softer slant this time of year. Sometimes in the evenings, I look up and the faces of my wife and daughter glow in the carrot-and-pink diffusion of sunset. The man who designed my tract understood that the separation between living room and outdoors is best accomplished here with walls of glass.

Why live in Greater Los Angeles? If asked, I'm ready with an answer. I seldom hear the question anymore, though. When I travel or correspond with distant friends, I detect only a presumption. Surely we live here only because we have to, a pity. Why else would anyone endure what writer Ed Abbey called life in the ant-heap?

I'll tell them why: Some years back, Southern California turned the corner. There was no fanfare and no ribbon-cutting. It began at different times in different communities, and sometimes we still forget to notice. But inexorably, the sprawl -- the wellspring of our despair, the mother of our cliches -- began to assume its own unexpected coherence. Visionaries among us voice a new set of dreams to propel us into the future.

Except on our outer borders, most of the old development battles have been fought and lost. It's easy to forget the hollow feeling that comes when you watch what you love about a place being bulldozed away, year after year.

It's simplistic to say, but Southern California cannot be spoiled that way anymore. I have friends scattered among the supposedly more desirable locales in the West. They are watching it happen afresh now in Durango, Ketchum, Bozeman, Jackson. I don't think I could bear it again.

Southern California? Surprise, it's getting better.

I'm not talking point-by-point comparisons -- their air versus ours. I mean only the civic mood and energy. Here, the tide is rising.

As I've said before, one crucial determinate of "livability" is the shared belief by neighbors that they can shape their future. Southern California was built out of that conviction. Then we lost hold of it. Now the idea doesn't seem implausible again.

My Times colleague Patt Morrison nicely summed up the spirit in her 2001 book "Rio L.A.," a celebration of the Los Angeles River. Long ago, this meandering stream was channeled into a concrete ditch and ignored. Now it is reemerging in our urban imagination as open space that we can reshape and enjoy. Writes Morrison: "The river can never be whole again, can never be the real, sometimes too-real, river it once was.... But it can be something better." Indeed.

Visitors, in particular visiting writers, continue to perpetuate Southern California as unfathomable, inexplicable, out of place. This is a strange kind of nonsense. Southern California is easy to comprehend.

Out of sprawl, working villages have coalesced and still are coming together, sometimes organically and sometimes by planned development. The loft village of downtown, the artsy village of San Pedro, the arcades of Pasadena and Santa Monica and Hollywood, the quaint village of Balboa, the string-bean village of Ventura Boulevard, my own village of Belmont Shore, the villages of Little Saigon, Little Delhi, Little Phnom Penh -- lively nodes of a central nervous system for our community. What appears to be a vast carpet of humanity turns out to be a quilt.

My daughter is 2 years old, and she has eaten more of the world's cuisine than I had when I was 20. Most of it within a hop of our house.

Yes, congestion remains crushing, with no remedy in sight. Our politics remain narrow while our challenges are broad. Housing is scarce, prejudice abundant, the economy shaky, our tax system confused. But in these things, Southern California is not unique.

Our air is getting cleaner, or at least has been. Our public spaces are as grand as any region's. My friends in the remote wilderness tell me they cannot imagine living apart from nature. Me neither. But I share the view of Jennifer Price, author of the imaginative meditation on the subject, "Flight Maps": Nature abounds at hand. And if urban dwellers don't bother seeing, respecting or understanding what is close, we'll never succeed in preserving what's afar.

I know of no other place except Los Angeles where a wild mountain range thrusts into the heart of a megalopolis. In the 1980s, some ibexes escaped from the Griffith Park zoo. Recently one was sighted, still homesteading in the feral terrain between the San Fernando Valley and downtown. I haven't seen a wild Southern California ibex. But just offshore, I've put eyes on the largest animal ever to live, the blue whale, swimming free through the greatest wilderness left on the planet.

Southern California? Everything you can say about it is true, including the best you can say.

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