Tuesday, April 1, 2008

This Would Be Perfect If Only You'd Go Away

A few days ago, Althouse commenter Icepick wrote a rather harrowing tale of a home invasion.

I've been sitting on it for a while because there are a lot of horrible, personal things in there. It's not hard to imagine the white-hot rage one would have after having one's mom threatened in such a way, after being a victim of bigotry, after seeing a place one once loved go completely to hell. Especially when you consider the impotence factor: Someone you love is in a dangerous situation but completely refuses to change that situation.

What's more interesting to me, however, is the underlying sentiment.

I've always considered myself lucky to have grown up where I did, in the San Fernando Valley. It was almost rural here when I was a kid. Although I've lived in Los Angeles all my life, I'm not much of a city guy. I'm not a big fan of traffic, crowds, complicated parking rules (I hate valet parking), and as a lifelong earthquake surfer, I'm particularly suspicious of tall buildings and parking structures.

So the SFV in the '70s and '80s was perfect for me. You could get to downtown or the west side in 15-20 minutes, the Fairfax district in 30, and after seeing the play/movie/museum/whatever, you could leave it behind, grateful that you didn't have to live somewhere where every street is a major thoroughfare.

I spent a couple of years downtown in the '80s, during my college days, which really confirmed my personal biases. I would turn out onto Western Ave (near Olympic) at 5PM and see an unbroken sea of cars leading to the Freeway on-ramp, two miles away. Gridlock was the norm. It took about half-an-hour to drive that two miles.

(I have this general reaction to traffic: Why would anyone willingly suffer it on a daily basis? I've done it, of course, but only temporarily. I work odd hours and schedule things in such a way as to avoid traffic.)

Later, in the early '90s, we lived back in the Santa Monica Mountains. For those of you who don't know Los Angeles, the city has a massive mountain range running through the middle of it. (Colloquially referred to as "The Hill".) So we had this little shack that the original owner of the land had built tucked away in the hils, yet which was two miles away from Ventura Blvd and the freeway. (It took ten minutes to drive that two miles, not because of traffic, but because the roads were hilly and serpentine residential streets that called for caution.)

This was about 90% cool--because we were fairly isolated, we got to see bobcats and deer and owls on a regular basis, and we were still close to civilization--and about 10% lame. The 10% was partly that any trip you wanted to take had a 10 minute overhead (bopping off to the shop for a pint of ice cream was a half-hour journey). But most of the lameness was embodied by coming home to find eight fire trucks in our driveway once. Yes, those hills do tend to catch afire.

Anyway, while living there, I corresponded with the woman who had lived in the place and whose husband had built it. And I mentioned that it was nice, but really, only as long as they didn't keep developing around it.

And what she said struck me: She said she wasn't the sort of person who, once she was some place, said, "OK, now nobody else can come here!"


Interesting point.

She had lived there when there was no one else there. (I was friends with her son and remember driving up the dirt road to see him just ten years before.)

Now, I come from (at least partly) Nebraskan farm stock. If someone set up a homestead within visual range, the reaction was something like "There goes the neighborhood."

Though, I have to imagine the Nebraskan Indians who took potshots at the house as they rode by felt the same way.

And, of course, the original white people crazy and desperate enough to come here in the first place certainly felt Europe had been ruined.

I sympathize with Icepick because I've seen the SFV, over the past 10-15 years in particular, be vertically developed--i.e., to promote greater population density. It was never built for that and, of course, the infrastructure isn't being shored up to support it. If I crest Winnetka and Oxnard at 5PM these days, I see an unbroken sea of cars that reminds me a whole lot of Western and Wilshire in the '80s.

I can't say I like it. And unlike the neighborhoods that Icepick is talking about, this development has all been pretty upscale. I don't doubt that the Laemmle theater I regularly patronize offers the fare it does because the population density has gone up. And so on.

But it does give one pause. At what point do you say "Stop! Enough!"? On what basis do you do so? How much of this sort of thing is rapacious capitalism and how much is meddling government? And is any of it every-man-for-itself libertarianism?

At heart, I'm an open borders kind of guy. I think people should be able to live and work where they please. But during the last go 'rounds of amnesty, all I heard from my side was "Anyone who disagrees with us is RACIST!" On the other side, I heard good points about whether the socialist state we've evolved into could handle the influx (in some places it can't), why it was fair to depress the standard of living for the lowest economic rung, why we had to take everyone who snuck in, even over those who had filed legally, on what basis can we claim to have a country if we can't control who comes here, etc.

Those questions (writ small) are not much different on the local level. Some of the nicest counties in the state have very, very strict laws about expansion. But are those good?

Anyway, I don't want to detract from Icepick's cold fury over his very real situation with my abstract questioning. But it's just a good, fundamental question:

What right do the current residents of a location have to keep that location from turning into something that they don't like?


  1. That is a question I get every day in my neighborhood in Carroll Gardens. Once only Italian with a small leavening of Irish, a working class area bound up with the docks of the port of new york. We slowly began to gentrify starting in the '70s no less, but it has become supersonic speed the last few years. You see all of the old folks who owned the brownstones are dying off and the kids who live in Staten Island or Jersey or California for that matter are sitting on more than a million dollars. So they sell out right away to what you would call yuppies but what we call liberals. The tide has turned and it is getting to be a majority of newcomers. I happen to know all the old timers and a lot of the new people especially through my wifes store. They always ask if I am angy or upset with the changes. I always tell them this story:

    About 200 years ago an Indian was sitting outside a wigwam right on this spot smoking his peace pipe. He was saying to himself, man this is the best wigwam in the freaking world, I'm right near the water, whose better than me. Then some guy came along and offered him twenty dollars and he sold out and moved to Staten Island.

    Things change, get over it.

  2. Yeah, that's the reality of it.

    Things change.

    Get over it.

    But I'm reminded of computer guru Alan Kay and his saying, "The best way to predict the future is to invent it."

    I haven't figure out how to apply that to civic planning, tho'.

  3. Things get mixed up man. The best thing you can do is help every one you can if you can, not conciously hurt someone unless they deserve it and keep your family and friends safe. Civic planning follows the money. That's happening in New York now where Nanny Bloomberg has sold off great swatchs of the city to real estate developers. But a funny thing happened, the mortgage market collapsed and it won't be so easy to market condos. Hee Hee. Tough luck fat cats.

  4. Yeah, in a lot of ways, the mortgage thing is one of your better economic disasters.

    So seldom do you get so many trying to game the system get their comeuppance.

    Now, we just need the oil bubble to burst.

    That'll be a laff riot.


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