Sunday, December 31, 2006

It Takes a Village

In which we discuss the birth of a new town inside the old one

I received a mailer the other day from the PR department at Universal City, my theme park neighbor to the east. The mailer included a colorful, fold-out brochure that outlines a plan to build a new community, called Universal Village, on the southern slope of the hill that rises up from Barham Boulevard, now occupied by the Universal Studio back lot. According to the Brochure, the new development would "bring together the apartment dweller, the first-time buyer, the studio up-and-comer, the executive and the empty nester" in a village-like, pedestrian-oriented community of 2,900 units that's close to shopping, the MTA and studio offices. It is to include a "town center," parks, "a system of hiking trails" and a "Great Street" to connect it all together.

Universal's plan ties into the ongoing effort by City Hall to correct some of the many glaring errors in city planning, zoning and transportation that have made Los Angeles the noisome carbuncle that it is in many places—due mainly to the city's reliance on autos and freeways for transportation. This plan won't actually solve any of those woes. Rather, it's a plan for building a new bit of city the way the old city should have been built in the first place.

Although the folks currently living down slope from the proposed village site might disagree—they're the ones who will have to endure a year or two of pounding and dust during construction—on the surface it seems like a pretty good plan.

As an urban sophisticate with San Francisco in his background and Helsinki ice in his veins, I'm supposed to have nothing but contempt for things like planned communities and shopping malls. I don't. I have contempt for bad planned communities and ugly, indoor mega malls surrounded by a desert of searing parking lot. As Virginia Postrel pointed out in the L.A. Times a few weeks ago, new shopping malls like The Grove are "beginning to fulfill their inventor's dream: to re-create the human-scale European city 'filled, morning and evening, day and night, weekdays and Sundays, with urban dynamism.'" Shopping malls are not as 20th century nor as American as their critics would like to think. The German philosopher Walter Benjamin spent half a lifetime pondering the 19th century arcades of Paris, the equivalent of our modern day shopping malls, in his unfinished "The Arcades Project." In fact, I like a well-designed mall so much that I once proposed giving Broadway in Downtown L.A. to Rick Caruso, the genius behind The Grove, to redevelop. Needless to say, this post got considerable attention. The best new malls, along with the new housing experiments often built adjecent to them, fill a need that people feel for the urban experience—to interact with others while maintaining distance, even anonymity. It's an experience you can't get zipping in your car from one parking lot to another.

Universal CityWalk—the shopping and entertainment complex adjacent to the proposed village—doesn't live up to the dream. It's lively enough, but it's trashy. Most of its shops are low- and middle-brow chain stores that cater to a less than tony patronage, the kind of people who collect Hard Rock Café sweatshirts and think a birthday party at Bubba Gump's Shrimp Co. the height of chic. I'm hoping that the proximity of the new village and its upscale denizens will, you know, class up the joint. It's faint hope but a hope nevertheless.

But the funny part of all this is the reply card sent along in the packet with the Universal Village brochure. It includes the following check boxes:

YES, I support the… plan
YES, you may list me as a supporter…
YES, I am interested in living at Universal City…
YES, I want to learn more…

There's no simple "No, I don't support the plan…" much less a "No, I think this plan's a total schtinker..." Maybe they've taken a cue from the current occupant of White House and just don't allow dissenting opinions. It's just as well. It's not like a silly little thing like public opinion could ever stop a major Hollywood movie studio from doing just about anything it wants, anyway.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Au Revoir, Mr. S.

In which we say goodbye to an old friend

Last week Mr. S. -- my custom, two-tone, red-and-white, Bajaj-Argo Chetak 150cc motor scooter -- suffered a mishap that at the time seemed relatively minor. I had misjudged the entrance to a parking lot while tying to avoid an oncoming car at night, hit the curb and sheered off the bolt that holds the oil.

Unfortunately, the damage to the vehicle's undercarriage was more than met the eye, and to keep Mr. S. running would require a new engine. That would cost more than the scooter is worth.

So, sadly, Mr. S. is to be sold to the repair shop as scrap. Hopefully, like a good organ donor, his parts will continue to be of service to other scooterists around the Valley.

As I have determined to bicycle to the office each day from now on (for fitness reasons) this is not too much of a strain, although I will miss taking Mr. S. up for rides in the San Gabriels and the Santa Monicas on the weekends. It will limit my sphere of travel somewhat, at least until I buy some little puddle-jumper of a car next year with which to convey my carcass hither and yon, but a little more walking and a little less spending will do me some good. And for a while I'll be fossil-fuel free, and I like the thought of screwing the Middle Eastern tyrannies and Big Oil, even if it's just a little bit.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Just Who Do We Think We Are?

In which we get a fix on our place and people
Last week the Federal Government released the first U.S. Census data for the San Fernando Valley as an entity unto itself. According to the figures, a whopping 42 percent of the Valley's 1.74 million denizens are foreign born, and Spanish is spoken in 62 percent of the households. Viva Valle!
And yes, I said 1.74 million people live in the Valley. The only metro areas bigger, population-wise than the Valley are L.A. itself (which occupies a large portion of the valley), NY, Chicago and Houston. Funny, it doesn't feel all that crowded. The data also show that it takes 29 minutes average for people to commute to work -- a few minutes higher than the national average. That's spot on for me, but then I ride a bicycle to work, so I can weave in and out of gridlocked traffic on the 5.

Of course, what I want to know the most is what the census doesn’t cover. It counts folks in the broadest strokes. I already knew that lots of people here can speak Spanish. I'd also like to know how many people can speak, say, Armenian or Russian or French or Hindi. For that matter, what I'd really like to know is where, besides Bollywood Cafe, can I find a really good meat somosa?
That's government for you.


Monday, December 11, 2006


In which we lament the woeful state of the Empire

Weapons of mass destruction, bringing to heel an evil dictator, "finishing the job" begun in 1991, the liberation of the "Iraqi people," the protection of the Kurds, building a peaceful, prosperous and stable democracy in the Middle East that would be a beacon to its neighbors, a bulwark against Chinese and maybe even Indian economic expansion, outflanking Iran… All of these and more have been cited as reasons for the invasion of Iraq. And they probably all had a little to do with the decision to go to war there. But in the background there is always that other dark matter… Black Gold, Bubbling Crude, Texas Tea, Saudi Soda, Kuwait Cool-Aid… Oil.

Osama bin Laden himself has complained that he thought the West wasn't paying enough for the stuff, the prime mover of our industrial economy; it is one of his cited reasons for waging war against us. "No Blood for Oil" has been the mantra of the anti-war left for more than a decade and a half. Christopher Hitchens once infamously asked, "Since when is oil not worth fighting over?"

In case you missed it, the recently released Iraq Study Group report says that Iraq contains the world's second largest known oil reserves, with some 80 known oil fields, only 17 of which have been developed. The report recommends (Recommendation 63) that the U.S. should "assist Iraqi leaders to reorganize the national oil industry as a commercial enterprise" and to "encourage investment in Iraq's oil sector by the international community and by international energy companies." Recommendation 63 also calls on the U.S. to: "provide technical assistance to the Iraqi government to prepare a draft oil law"--requiring an change to Iraq's fledgling constitution. In short, the Iraq Study Group calls for the privatization and internationalization of Iraq's currently nationalized oil industry. Presumably this will lead to greater efficiencies in exploration, development and production for the benefit of all. At least that's the key selling point here. But given the way that foreign, and mostly American, companies have exploited what is already the most out-sourced war in history, it seems damned likely to this observer at least that the primary beneficiaries of privatization would not be the Iraqi people, but Exxon-Mobil, British Petroleum, Royal Dutch Shell et al.

What has largely been played by the media as a strategy for withdrawal is in fact a plan for staying in for the long haul. As Niall Ferguson pointed out in the L.A. Times today, "anyone who bothers to read the report carefully — as opposed to skimming the executive summary — can see that it neither proposes "quitting" Iraq nor pins serious hope on Iranian or Syrian assistance… Rather, the report's aim is to convince legislators that withdrawal from Iraq — no matter how much their constituents may yearn for it — is not an option." Ferguson goes on to outline five of the central-most points of the report's 79 recommendations:

  • The number of U.S. military personnel "embedded" in Iraqi army battalions and brigades should be increased from 3,000 or 4,000 to between 10,000 to 20,000.
  • The number of U.S. police trainers should be expanded.
  • The U.S. Department of Justice should lead the work of organizational transformation in the Interior Ministry.
  • A senior advisor for economic reconstruction in Iraq is required.
  • The U.S. State Department should train personnel to carry out civilian tasks associated with a complex stability operation; it should establish a Foreign Service Reserve Corps.
  • Federal Service Reserve Corps? Whoa! Sounds just a bit like a Colonial Office, no?
In essence, the report calls for maintaining just enough of an American footprint to safeguard and expand Iraq's oil production and keep civil/sectarian violence in check just enough to give the impression that the Iraqis are "stepping up and doing it themselves." It's a very "realist"— perhaps even realpolitik— strategy, the kind that we should have expected from uber-realist James Baker. It is last nail driven into the coffin of world-changing, neo-conservative idealism.

Hitchens was, of course, quite right. As long as energy is the fundamental engine of our economy, and as long as that energy comes almost exclusively from oil, then oil will remain worth fighting over. And this is exactly why we as a nation need a Manhattan Project for energy diversity—to make oil less worth fighting over, at least from our perspective.

Friday, December 08, 2006

A Walt Disney Christmas

In which we visit the Happiest Place on Earth for a little Nativity Cheer

A couple of weeks ago a friend of mine, Vebs, talked me into to going to Disneyland. I don't exactly remember the moment that this happened. I suspect I was in my cups just a tad was and caught off guard. As a former inmate behind the barbed wire at Mauschwitz, I generally have little desire to experience the Magic again, if you know what I mean. In fact, when Vebs later mentioned going to Disneyland for the Disneyland Christmas Candlelight Ceremony, I had no recollection of agreeing to go. But I figured that I had said what had said, and a man's word is his bond, and all that, so I pretended to remember this commitment, and went along for the ride.

Besides, I wanted to see the updated, Johnny Depp-ized, Pirates of the Caribbean.

I could not have been more impressed by it all. The day started grandly, with Vebs and his lovely wife, Vivi, picking me up on Sunday morning and driving down quickly, via Vebs's secret back roads, to the Happiest Place on Earth. Under a perfectly crisp, blue sky, we parked valet and headed into Downtown Disney for a little light shopping and a bloody Mary (or two).

At about noon-time we headed into the park, taking a bee-line for Small World. At ordinary times, this is not my favorite attraction. But at Christmas time it comes alive with a complete holiday make-over. Plus, the line is usually short, the attraction being a classic but not a thriller.

Then we hit Pirates. One word: Wow! Without spoiling anything I can say that of the most improvements are subtle—more and shinier gold and treasure, larger and louder explosions and splashes in the pirate ship-fort battle, etc. But there are two rather major animatronic additions having to do with the recent films and their protagonist that are, simply put, astounding. And there is one knock-your-socks-off illusion. 'Nuff said.

After Pirates, Vivi and I went on to the Haunted Mansion, while Vebs went to stake out our place on Main Street, USA, for the Christmas Candlelight Ceremony—almost three hours in advance. Now, even though I'd worked for Disney, I had never heard of this event. Indeed, it is not even advertised, being mainly, I found out later, for in-the-know, local Disneyphiles. It occurs on two consecutive days before Christmas, usually on an otherwise lack-luster weekend between the Thanksgiving and Christmas/New Year's mob scenes and involves choruses from schools and churches from around Orange County and the Southland. A celebrity usually narrates the story of the Nativity and provides color commentary.

I'm not exactly what you'd call a good Christian. I am an agnostic on a good day. But, like most people with deep roots in Western Culture, I consider myself a cultural Christian. That is to say that while I am not a believer per se, I recognize that these stories are a vital part of my cultural myth system. It's unavoidable; part of my wiring.

Latent Christian or not, once we joined Vebs at the spot he'd staked out, amid the thousands of others who had come to see the spectacle, I couldn't help thinking to myself, "Damn, I wish the Rapture would come right now and get some of these assholes out of my way." Actually the crowd was very polite and the hour and a half that we stood waiting was really quite pleasant.

The show began with an overture -- a Christmas carol medley—by the orchestra, followed by the Candlelight entrance of the choir. This was unbelievable. They came shuffling down Main Street, USA, in robes and carrying candles… and kept coming… and coming… and coming… It must have taken a good fifteen minutes for them to all climb to their places in and on and around the Town Square Train Station and on the giant human Christmas tree. There were at least a thousand of them. And they sang as they came. I admit I was moved.

The evening's celebrity narrator was Andy Garcia, who lent the ceremony a bit of, shall we say, gangster cache. The show lasted about an hour. It was extraordinary, beautiful, glorious—and unabashedly Christian. That was refreshing, more so than I would have thought. It's rare to see such an unabashed celebration of what the holiday is supposed to be about, at least outside of a church. And slave-to-Mammon Disneyland is the last place you would expect it. A have to say that the boys down at ol' Imagineering* did a helluva job on this, creating a show at once spectacular and tasteful, reverent and delightful.

And while it may have not restored my faith in God, it certainly restored some of my faith in Walt Disney and his legacy.

*Makes you wonder where the Jewish imagineers were the day they came up with this. Maybe the thing was planned by a secret cabal of Christian imagineers during Rosh Hashanah.