fake bad taste–IN PRINT!??!

August 20, 2010

While I can’t be as foul or angry as I am in this here blog, Fake Bad Taste now has a temporary residency in the printed form thanks to the Daily Trojan student newspaper. Behold, the inaugural column which I wish would have been titled “Space is the Place” (but I’m saving that for the first issue of my magazine).

While the dust is settling on USC’s latest overhauls — University Gateway apartments and the Commons-turned-Ronald Tutor Campus Center — Los Angeles is going through a long overdue remodel.

Just as the stale square building in the center of campus has been replaced with a lofty community center flanked by an expansive plaza, neighborhoods across the city are realizing the negative impacts of our infamous urban sprawl. They are tearing down out-of-date structures, creating activist groups and hosting open-air programs that finally experiment with a term that has long eluded the City of Angels: public space.

In older cities, such as New York and San Francisco, the urban experience includes vibrant street life. But while small-sized blocks filled with mixed-use structures continue to make these Downtown areas culturally alive, Los Angeles as a whole is still suffering from its post-World War II growth, which leaves residents isolated in cars and on tree-lined residential streets.

However, Los Angeles wasn’t always this way.

Once upon the turn of the 20th century, Los Angeles was a burgeoning urban space with a historic cultural center (Olvera Street), a connective streetcar system (the Pacific Electric Railway) and an open-air marketplace (Grand Central Market).

By the 1920s, towns such as San Pedro, Chatsworth and San Bernardino had become destinations for new residents, but Downtown remained a bustling city center with apartment buildings, offices, department stores and its own flourishing theater district. Even as late as the 1940s, the city pulsated with urban potential.

But then the car rolled into town and changed everything.

In the years after World War II, major streets were replaced with freeways and Downtown’s lively population slowly abandoned its diverse, density-driven roots, migrating instead to newly built suburbs oozing with uniformity. Historic buildings were demolished to build street-level parking lots, tract-homes took over former wheat empires and enclosed, cave-like, inward-facing shopping malls became de facto town squares.

At the turn of the new millennium, street life for many Angelenos consisted of sitting on the sidewalk patio at Coffee Bean (after driving there, of course).

While these new urban-planning faux pas have forced residents to live in the infamously community-deprived, detached locale of Bret Easton Ellis novels, the smog-clogged metropolis has been working to redeem itself by physically rebuilding the city it once threw away.

Areas such as Culver City, Long Beach and Pasadena have gone through Clueless-worthy makeovers complete with mixed-use structures, artist spaces, outdoor shopping areas and bicycle lanes — all of which aim to breathe life back into the city’s street culture.

Shopping centers, including The Grove, Santa Monica Place and the Americana at Brand, have reinvented their plots, creating open-air promenades that embrace the Southern California weather instead of hiding from it. And Downtown’s historic core, all but abandoned until a few years ago, is now full of young creatives who flocked to its restored apartment buildings and renewed urban nightlife.

With or without new structures, however, Los Angeles’ disparate neighborhoods are beaming with newfound local confidence. Community gardens and farmers markets are sprouting up from Woodland Hills to Watts and monthly art walks have transformed unlikely places like Claremont and Hermosa Beach into artistic hubs. New community-oriented events such as cultural and food fairs draw people from all areas of the city and the sense of isolation begins to disintegrate.

By engaging in more frequent natural contact with those that live near them, an entire generation of Angelenos is un-learning social distance and finally finding a sense of place in a city of built-in disconnection.

This citywide shift towards public life can be seen in action with the recent attention on the Los Angeles River. Various groups have been trying to get the city to do something productive with its 51-mile-long, mostly concrete flood-control channel for years — asserting that, despite its unpredictable flow, it deserves to be developed as a recreational space and habitat — but victories until now were minor.

Last month’s Environmental Protection Agency designation of the river as “traditional navigable waters,” however, gave it a much-needed new identity. Now protected under the Clean Water Act, the forgotten waterway is a hot topic among environmentalists who want to get rid of its surrounding fences, uproot the miles of concrete banks and create Los Angeles’s first urban river ecology.

The idea might sound far-fetched for those who have only seen the river while stuck in traffic on the 5 or 710 freeways, but cities such as Portland and St. Louis have fashioned downtown riverfronts full of public parks, walkways and mixed-use developments that thrive despite the constant flood risks.

In the end, it’s all about civic pride. New lofts and shopping centers can catalyze neighborhood renewal, but it is up to the residents to infuse it with their own cultural flavor. Ronald Tutor can donate a campus center with a spacious European-inspired plaza, but until students fill it with daily activity, it’s just a mass of eco-friendly construction material.

USC — like many other parts of Los Angeles — is a community in transition. In altering the stifling nature of on-campus social spaces, places such as University Gateway and the new campus center — to be followed by a University Village renovation — are redefining what it means to be part of an on-campus community by ensuring no one has to wander through a dingy basement in search of their next La Salsa fix.

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One Response to “fake bad taste–IN PRINT!??!”

  1. everyone has a lot to say…

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