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Reflections of a car culture refugee

October 01, 2006|Amanda Podany | AMANDA PODANY is a professor of history at Cal Poly Pomona.

LONDON, WHEN I lived there, smelled of wet concrete, diesel fumes and fish and chips. My neighborhood now smells of cut grass, alyssum, jasmine and just the faintest whiff of creosote. Only walkers know this, of course. If you drive through in your car, you don't notice the smells. There's a lot you don't notice.

The flock of green feral parrots, for example, hooting as they loop from one palm tree to another. And there's the weather vane in the shape of a tall ship on top of a Spanish-style house behind some trees. It doesn't ever seem to swing in the direction of the wind, but it looks like a prop from "Mary Poppins." And what about the ghost house that seems unoccupied, three derelict cars in the driveway and on the lawn? The cars have never budged since I moved to the neighborhood almost nine years ago; all are now covered in dirt and their tires are flat. And yet the lawn is mowed from time to time and occasionally a single light shines in the kitchen.

Lately I've been walking these streets every morning. I started because I needed exercise, but it has made me a walker again, just like in London when I was in graduate school. I wonder about the stories behind these neighborhood scenes: Who released the first of those parrots from captivity, and how did it find a mate? What possessed the owners of the Spanish-style house to sail the metal Mayflower from their roof? Who lives in the ghost house and, because they obviously never drive, why do we never see them?

In London, drivers seemed to be in a different world from the rest of us. Everyone I knew walked and rode the buses and the Underground. My world was crammed with other people. They pushed against you as you hung from the handrails on the Underground, and you walked around them on the sidewalks if they were walking too slowly.

My husband and I felt ourselves to be part of London. We were in public spaces all day; feet to the pavement, hands on the handrails, coat collars up against the wind. Getting back to the apartment at night, we closed the door on that public London and curled up in a small piece of privacy.

Here in L.A., we are all in our cars most of the time. We live from one private space to another: house to car, car to office. We rarely encounter strangers. We find the places we need to go by looking them up on the Internet, and then we get driving directions from Mapquest. The spaces in between are almost invisible to us.

I have driven from my home to Pomona almost daily for 16 years, but I have never ventured off the freeway to visit the neighborhoods I pass through. El Monte, West Covina, Covina -- they are all unknown to me. Even La Brea Avenue, only blocks from my home, has always been just a strip of asphalt on the way to the supermarket. That is, until I walked it.

One evening I left my car to be serviced at La Brea and Santa Monica Boulevard and walked down La Brea to the corner of Oakwood Avenue, where I rented a car. I have driven those seven blocks hundreds, maybe thousands, of times. But I had never noticed most of the stores along the way, hopeful enterprises selling idiosyncratic shoes or wedding dresses. I had never taken a good look at the concrete factory near Santa Monica Boulevard, if that is what it is. It looks like an Erector set grown to massive size, or a scene from a documentary about Russia during the Soviet era. And yet there it is, in incongruous splendor, across the street from Target.

I'm sure many commuters pass my house daily and have never even glanced at it. So for whom do we plant roses along the wall or trim the hedges? Partly for ourselves, of course. And we do it partly for our neighbors across the street, who can see our house from their front windows.

But now that I'm a walker again, I realize that we do it for all the walkers too. They notice the subtle changes as the leaves come out on the trees and the creeper slowly covers the brick wall, just as I notice when the flowers come out in their yards. I'm sorry for the people in the cars and for all that they are missing. But because so few of us walk, walking in my neighborhood is a private act, nothing like walking in London. I may be out in the world, with the sky stretching above me, but I'm still alone except for a few dog walkers and fellow exercisers.

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