Saturday, April 15, 2006

In praise of dystopia

Some time back, the OG was waxing nostalgic about the glories of New York City’s F train to a Los Angeles native. I was explaining that the F train was clearly the best train in the system because (a) its official color was orange, and (b) it goes to all the best places (e.g., Carroll Street, Bergen Street, Delancey Street, Second Avenue, West 4th Street, Queensbridge, Avenue X, etc.). The Los Angelena said something to the effect of “Yeah, sure, but isn’t that just the problem with New York?” The OG was not sure what she meant. She explained that everything was too pre-set, too pre-planned in New York: you always went to all the usual best places, on the track that had been set out for you.

So now we understand. Don’t get the OG wrong: the OG continues to hold the NYC subway system close to his sea-creature heart. The OG actually hates driving and cars generally. But the observation about New York was true. You almost always ended up spending most of your life near or around the stops on the the subway line closest to your apartment; your life took on a very repetitive feel. Riding the F train back and forth, I realize now, felt a bit like taking the Pirates of the Caribbean ride, again and again. There’s Katz’s. There’s the Sunshine Theater. There’s the West Village, once again. There was a period of time when I was living in New York when I seriously felt like I was at 9th Street and Avenue A every single night.



In L.A., sloppily gridded blob that it is, you’re always ending up in some new place, along a new path. There’s no one set track, but many possible tracks from which to assemble your route to some undiscovered portion of the city. Choose your own L.A. adventure.

Salman Rushdie’s latest book, Shalimar the Clown, begins in Los Angeles. The book is not blowing my socks off just yet, but here’s Rushdie’s take on the form of L.A., much of which will sound tired, but is interesting to me, coming from such an unlikely observer of L.A.:
So now he praised the city, commended it precisely for the qualities that were held to be its greatest faults. That the city had no focal point, he professed hugely to admire. The idea of the center was in his view outdated, oligarchic, an arrogant anachronism. To believe in such a thing was to consign most of life to the periphery, to marginalize and in doing so to devalue. The decentered promiscuous sprawl of this giant invertebrate blob, this jellyfish of concrete and light, made it the true democratic city of the future. As India navigated the hollow freeways her father lauded the city’s bizarre anatomy, which was fed and nourished by many such congealed and flowing arteries but needed no heart to drive its mighty flux.
From Shalimar the Clown, p. 21

Jane Jacobs is rolling her eyes on a pedestrian-friendly, mixed-use neighborhood street somewhere. The OG is certainly not hoping that more cities around the world follow L.A.’s pattern of development. We’re most definitely not going to be able to zoom around cloverleafs and off-ramps and idle in traffic between Santa Monica and downtown forever. L.A. will likely one day (soon?) have to Balkanize and segment, its various neighborhoods becoming more self-enclosed and self-sufficient. But in the meantime, in the beautiful dirty sunsets, L.A. is quite marvelous, in its depressing, sloppy unsustainability. It is not the “democratic city of the future,” I think, but a city of the past, one whose current form cannot last and which will inevitably be forced to shrink and divide itself to survive. (Mostly we’re excited for the Mad Max stage of L.A. development, when we get to start wearing heavy metal chains across our chests and accentuating our cheekbones with daubs of motor oil.)

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

I'd have to disagree with that. Wherever I lived in NY, I never only followed one subway line. Besides, if you live in Ft. Greene you have all imaginable subway lines within a three block radius. You can literally get anywhere within 30 minutes.

MK

chanchow said...

Chanchow agrees. The last six months of chanchow's time in NY were centered around a four mile radius, the center being downtown Manhattan. My life revolved around the F train. Taking it to work, taking it home, taking it on the weekends to the pre-set stops in the LES, East Village and sometimes the West Village (although that often felt like too far, absurdly enough). There are great things about NY, no doubt, but my life there eventually became narrow and limited, in large part because I was tired of the neighborhoods off the F train. So, by the end of my stay there, I led sort of a provincial life, if that's possible. Not provincial in the way that it was unsophisticated, but rather because I rarely ventured farther than a few miles from my home...

Octopus Grigori said...

You both have, like, totally valid points. I celebrate both of your perspectives. (I live in California now.)

Anonymous said...

csw, an F-train regular, disagrees with your [anti-]nostalgic view of your former home; that view could be said of anyone living anywhere who has any semblance of a routine. But in any event, though perhaps in retrospect it seems to you now that you largely confined yourself to F-train stops, csw suspects that you got around more than you presently recall. And like MK, there was nothing stopping you from venturing forth elsewhere. csw doesn't see the NY/LA commuting scene as being terribly different in this regard.

--csw

Anonymous said...

Exactly! What's the point of living in NY if you just stick to one subway line?

MK

chanchow said...

Well, I was exaggerating. Of course, I didn't just take the F line. My point is that it's easier to explore when you have a car. You can take different routes and stop and go as you wish. For example, last year I wanted to explore more of Brooklyn, but (not having a car) I didn't want to get out at a random stop, walk a half hour to see what was around there, get back on the train, go another couple stops, and walk around there. I could've done it, nobody was stopping me except me, but exploring NYC (other than Manhattan and the NW part of Brooklyn) by subway can be tiring and time-consuming. If I had a car, on the other hand, I would've driven aimlessly and seen a lot more...