I am lying on the daybed in the sunroom in a house in Urban Village, a street in Pasadena that has been half taken over by Mennonites forming an “intentional community.” Some friends from PMC are graciously hosting me this week while I figure out what to do with my life.
A group of bloggers recently launched a site called The Front Porch Republic, explaining the social significance of the front porch as, “where we can both see our neighbors and be seen by them, speak and listen to one another, and, above all, be in a place between (the public and private worlds), but firmly in place.” I think I like this sunroom so much because it’s sort of a front porch for introverts. It juts out of the front of the house with windows on three sides, where I can see the sky, the grand shade trees on the sidewalk, and pedestrians going by, many of whom I know. If only life in SoCal were always like this, I’d be back in a heartbeat.
Mostly, though, being back here has brought home to me just how much I dislike the built environment of L.A. I already knew I disliked it, but the force of it has surprised me a little. Ten years ago when I was getting my journalism degree at Stanford, we students test-drove our reporting skills by covering local Palo Alto issues, and one of the biggest issues of the time was dot-com millionaires building McMansions. We were visited by both a neighborhood association member extolling the benefits of preserving front porches (among other things) and also by a young property owner advocating the right of homeowners to build what they liked. As I remember it, we students were more sympathetic to him, probably because as nascent careerists ourselves we identified more with young dot-com millionaires than with middle-age folks sitting on wildly appreciated properties and closing the door behind them. In fact, when I moved to L.A. shortly thereafter, I was so sick of those quarrels — some folks tried to declare a freaking Lucky store a historic landmark! — that L.A.’s flagrant disinterest in quaint beauty was sort of refreshing.
But living in the radically different built environment of Washington, and then coming back to L.A., makes me a bit more sympathetic to the neighborhood associations. When I lived here, I used to try to make myself walk places rather than drive, but somehow, despite the mild climate, walking in L.A. was never as pleasant as walking in Washington. I’m not sure why that is, but I wonder if it’s a sort of herd instinct. In Washington there are usually lots of other pedestrians on the sidewalks, so even though there are a zillion cars, there’s a sort of feeling that they coexist as equals, like zebra and wildebeest grazing on the same plain. In L.A. the cars are so dominant that you feel more like you’re walking along the edge of a hostile alien environment, like the rim of a volcano.
The fact that my employer is housed in an office park on the edge of nowhere means that this week I have one of the worst commutes known to man: from one side of L.A. through the middle of downtown and out the other side. I rented a car for the purpose, and man, it sure reminds me of how I don’t miss driving. Most Americans seem to be in denial about how dangerous cars are, but I can feel how dangerous they are; when I reach my destination, my jaw aches and this evening my hands were even shaking. I think I had sort of accepted the stress as part of life, but now I am less inclined to put up with it.
On a completely different note, staying here is also reviving my reciprocity issues. I’ve somewhat belatedly realized that this business of coming back here to test the waters has again made me a potential ingrate: if I go back to Washington, I would seem to be rejecting people who have extended yet more hospitality to me. At my mother’s urging, I offered payment to anyone who would put me up for the week, but one party that offered explicitly rejected payment while the one that I wound up staying with hasn’t brought it up. My mother is telling me to push the issue, but my experience with Mennonites makes me wonder if that is itself a faux pas — after all, hospitality is part of their ethic. I don’t know, what do you all think? I don’t really trust my instincts on these matters.