Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Driving in Someone Else's Paradise

Tonight I decided to borrow my mom's car to attend a lecture on the need for a renewed commitment to public health in urban planning (revel with me in the pile of irony) at UC Irvine. It was about 6:30 pm as I made my way north on the 5 and then the 405 freeways. The first thing I noticed as I accelerated up to freeway speed was a giant SUV of domestic make hiked up on massive tires. The second thing I noticed was the sweat gathering between my palms and the steering wheel.
People kept jerking around in their cars, maybe distracted by cell phones? I could see a clear connection between bodies and machines as the cars veered across lines and then jerked back into place. Sadly it was a connection that further alienated those bodies from their environments, and I tried to remember that I've been driving this stretch of highway since I came of age. That didn't really make me feel safer.
On the way back from the lecture I saw a large, matte black SUV changing lanes willy nilly, and it made me think of fixie riders who dart between other road users like they're fixed objects. Here was a street, scaled up in size and speed, with similar dynamics enabled by our culture's belief in dominating rather than sharing roads.
I know South Orange County seems desirable to millions. Do they overlook the time spent dodging others on freeways, or is that part of what they love?

Saturday, January 15, 2011

If on a winter's night a traveler watches Portlandia...

I lived in Portland for six years, and now I live in LA. When I left Portland in 2007 I started to notice that when I told people I'd just left Portland they'd be like, oh man, my sister just moved up there, or oh man, I really want to move up there. I started to meet people who'd moved up there but had to leave cause the job market is bad news. I was terribly homesick for the place, especially as I started to confront the mass delusion that is transportation in Southern California, and dreamed fondly of the days when I could bike and feel safe at the same time.

So, because I wanted to live in a place I liked and not just suffer through LA as though it were a distasteful but necessary locale for my work (ahem Hollywood types who imagine New York to be the only real place in the universe), I got involved with bike activist projects and the LA Eco-Village. I've been riding a bike and using public transportation in LA for over three years now. I walk in LA everyday. I go to restaurants that serve organic food, and I hang out with interesting DIY types. In short, I've managed to find the same kinds of things I loved in Portland in LA because there are a lot of people here who also want to have a good quality of life and define "quality" in terms of sustainability, DIY, and enthusiastic commitment instead of ironic detachment.

There's this show on TV now called "Portlandia" that I heard about from a few friends who also hold Portland dear to their hearts. I was afraid to watch it, to be perfectly honest, because it raised my hackles to even know Hollywood had decided that Portland is trendy enough to try and make advertising dollars off of it. Le sigh. Anyway, I watched it and what's funny is that they don't even represent the same city I am familiar with.

Just a few quibbles about the first episode:
1. Real Portlanders go to Movie Madness.
2. Gilt is past its prime.
3. Where are the bikes?
4. Who's supposed to watch this show? And these are the best jokes they could come up with? What about street names like Glisan and Couch, folks?

Portland, through the eyes of these entertainment industry people, is Seattle; that is, full of gourmet food opportunities and alternative lifestyles, but without the minimalist aesthetic and excellent thrifted outfits. The Pacific Northwest has a regional character that is consistent across the two cities: you want Columbia fleece vests, you got em. You want Subarus and Priuses, feast your eyes. You want locally produced food, you're in the right place. But Portland has a character that I've not yet found in Seattle, which, granted, I'm just getting to know. Fortunately the show misses the point.

I'm about to get to know Seattle a whole lot better. My time living in Los Angeles ends in February. I'm moving to Seattle to start writing my dissertation about bikes, bodies, and public space in LA, so this blog's going to be about the adventures of Urban Adonia in Seattle pretty soon. A very nice friend already alerted me to a blog about public stairs in Seattle, so I'm all set.