Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Toxic Nostalgia

I had to take my wife's car in for repair today. Not an infrequent occurrence, unfortunately. It's a '94 Acura, and it's just getting old. And women are hard on cars. I had hoped a new battery would take care of the starting problem. It didn't. Cars have made me feel stupid since the early seventies. Actually, the early eighties. I was driving a '68 Ford Falcon in the early eighties. I understood that car, and I could fix it most of the time it broke. Not so with the newer machines. I don't even change the oil anymore. It's too tight of a squeeze to get under the car.

Fortunately we have an excellent car repair, Pole Position, not far from the house. So I left the Acura off, and walked the three miles or so home. I walked past Citrus Drive, where the old house used to be, and that got me musing again about the suicide run down Sierra Vista. I continued down the boulevard, and try as I would I couldn't help but enumerate the changes I've seen here in the last forty five years.

This is never a good thing to do. Never.

Because it is next to impossible to look at things the way they are now without comparing them to how they were then. The Heights, rising above the town of La Habra, was once a dark, shady, sparsely populated, and mostly undeveloped portion of the Puente Hills. Small houses nestled in the middle of five and ten acre parcels, and if there was any landscaping other than the native sage and sumac, it was family owned avocado or citrus groves. The narrow twisty streets were roads to nowhere unless you knew exactly where the houses were.

The Heights incorporated into its own city some years back, and the lot restrictions shrunk from five acres to one, and now I believe it's smaller than that, but I'm not sure, and I don't care to look it up. What you see when you look up to the heights now are big ass mansions: narcotecture in its most ostentatious, and obtrusive manifestation. (The two in the picture are by no means among the more serious offenders) There seems to be a battle going on up there to see who can build the largest possible edifice most violently in conflict with the land that surrounds it. And there are hundreds of heavyweight contenders in the brawl, with dozens more being built every year.
Below the Heights, the small, and not particularly well-to-do town of La Habra had the distinction of being the place where three major Boulevards ended. One was the fabled Whittier Boulevard: immortalized in song, main drag of East Los Angeles, and famous cruising ground in several of the towns along it length. Another was Harbour Boulevard, the street along which Walt Disney decided to build an amusement park. The other was Beach Boulevard which was the road to Knott's Berry Farm, and (take a guess) The Beach. Once you crossed Imperial Highway the first five or six miles of Beach rolled through the Coyote hills and entered the well built up coastal plane in Buena Park, home of the aforementioned Knott's. But the better perspective was gained on the return trip from Huntington Beach. After you finally got out of the stop and go traffic, and drab flatland towns you had that last five or six miles of empty road to stomp on the gas before you got home. The Coyote Hills are now smothered under thousand of houses, and there are two or three stoplights per mile along that formerly empty stretch of Beach Boulevard. All three of these legendary California roads ran their busy courses, then settled down and rested quietly in La Habra. They're now choked with traffic, and travel along any of these thoroughfares is done in increments of two or three hundred yards on a good day. So it is throughout Southern California.

And my point would be?

Like I said, it's never a good idea to start cruising memory lane. Nine times out of ten you're really searching vainly for a glimpse of your own misspent youth. And it's the cheapest of shots to sit around bemoaning the present, while longing for the good old days. I can get all kinds of wistful remembering the lost beauty of La Habra Heights, but the truth of it is that that little chunk of the Southland is now, and was always expensive land accessible only to those who had the ambition and drive to earn the kind of money it took to live there. It was, and is private property. And people can do what they damn well please with what they own. No one hired me to be an aesthetic consultant for the development of that, or any other municipality. I never had what it takes to achieve the Heights. Still don't. Nor was it ever up to me to declare Southern California officially full, and begin turning people back at the state line. After all, we too came here for the same reason that drew everyone before us, and after us. So it's crowded. There's no law against leaving. The past is just that: passed. It isn't the days that were better then; it was the eyes that saw them. It's not the traffic on memory lane that gets you down, but the reflection you see in the storefront windows.


walt said...

Well, I did what I could to help the population density situation in California, but it may not have helped much. Some folks handle the congestion better than others; some claim to thrive on it.

I don't personally think there's much question that the SoCal of 40 years ago was more spacious and gracious. When they were able to get the necessary water, it was non-stop growth in the name of "progress" after that. But like you, I see it with eyes that saw it all "back when," and that colors everything.

Not as intense, but the same happened in NorCal, and is still on-going (well, maybe less of late). Folks in the SF area have 7-8 million neighbors.

By contrast, after moving north, one winter morning I had to make a run down to my old digs in the Bay Area, a 9 hour trip. It was a Sunday, tough weather, pouring-down rain, and I left at 5 AM, going down the coast on 101. It takes 2 hours to get to Brookings, which is on the Cal/Or border. Between my place and Brookings I saw 12 vehicles. Very different up here!

will said...

Wonderful piece.

I spend half my time in my new, still being assembled digs and the other half in Chicago where expansion is mostly up. Years ago I was having lunch with my father in a restaurant on the 90-something floor of the Hancock blg and I remarked to him that I could dimly recall a time when the tallest building in Chicago was the Prudential blg. Ah, he said grimly, I can recall when the Merchandise Mart was the tallest blg in the city. Quaint, I thought.

Now, of course, the tallest building in the city is the Sears monolith. Meanwhile, the once minimalist downtown lakefront looks like a vast science fiction amusement park. It's not mine anymore, I feel like an interloper whenever I go downtown. All those swarms of hustling 20 and 30-somethings, slaves to the Moloch that is Chicago, all thinking that they own the world . . . and they do in a way. Me, I'm out of time, out of the parade, which I discovered is a good and necessary thing. But somewhere in the city there's a brick named after me. And there's one named after my dad, too.

Ricky Raccoon said...

Great post, John. I like these very much, like yesterday’s about the bike ride.
Will, that was beautiful. Beautiful ending.
I was going to say that I hope the kids in the new houses will some day feel the way I do when I look back in my mind’s eye at the old place I grew up. I think so. It seems Will’s Dad does, and I just know my Dad does, so chances are the kids will.
And for some other reason I remember what the immortal Chief Brodie once said, “It’s only an island if you look at it from the ocean.”
What does that mean? Heck if I know. But my middle brother, he still lives in 1970-something and the family just doesn’t get together like we used to. My uncles and aunts and cousins – we all lived in the same neighborhood way back when. The summers were great, lots of short-commute-reunions on the weekends. Both of my uncles lived across the street. I don’t know how they managed to do this but they did. Growing up I thought everybody’s family was across the street.
Well, the kids got married, the parents got older and some passed away of course. We didn’t have those big summer feasts like we used to have. We do occasionally. But they’re not the same. And my brother brings up often how he misses that – even though we still get together - how things used to be. I tell him, those were real. They were real and they can’t ever be taken away. Which is the same as saying they can’t be replaced, or relived. And that’s what’s truly good about them. That’s what our parents did for us.

Ricky Raccoon said...

Oh…and no kidding…my wife’s car has been having serious starting problems. Got that fixed last Friday. It’s a 99 VW Golf so the sync ends there – unless you count that it still has 4 wheels...I think...what time is it? Anyway, the prob was the catalytic converter. Only $5 less expensive to fix than the car is worth. So really, I saved 5 bucks, I think.

Robin Starfish said...

Takes me back, way back, revisiting two years spent in La Mirada, and hitchhiking up and down Beach Blvd to Huntington Beach on weekends. Coming from a town of 50,000 people, LA was a maze to me, but insanely fun.

I left before it became real. No way would I recognize it now.

mushroom said...

It's good to remember.

Like Rick I mainly remember the family getting together especially after church on Sundays, playing football with my nephews in the yard, and eating like we were at a buffet.

I miss the people I knew back in the hills. The ones that are there now I mostly don't know. The old houses are gone and their characters with them. There are others in their places, but like Rick said, they can't be replaced. They are set in the amber of memory and treasured forever.

walt said...

The Decline of Los Angeles

julie said...

Beautiful post, John.