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Visions of Santa Monica:


In 1510, in an otherwise preposterous romance, The Adventures of Esplandian, Garcia Ordonez de Montalvo, a provincial Spanish novelist, wrote, “Know that on the right hand of the Indies, there is an island called California, very near to the Terrestial Paradise, which is peopled with black women, without any man among them, because they are accustomed to live after the fashion of Amazons. They are of strong and hardened bodies, of ardent courage and great force. Their island is the strongest in the world, from its steep rocks and great cliffs. Their arms are all of gold, and so are the caparisons of the wild beasts which they ride, after having tamed them, for in all the island there is no other metal.”


On July 15, 1875, auctioneer Tom Fitch opened the bidding on the first lots in this fledgling town with these words: “At one o’clock, we will sell at public outcry to the highest bidder, the Pacific Ocean, draped with a western sky of scarlet and gold; we will sell a bay filled with white-winged ships; we will sell a southern horizon rimmed with a choice collection of purple mountains, carved in castles and turrets and domes; we will sell a frostless, bracing, warm, yet languid air, braided in and out with sunshine and odored with the breath of flowers. The purchaser of this job lot of climate and scenery will be presented with a deed of land 50 by 150 feet. The title to the land will be guaranteed by the owner. The title to the ocean and the sunset, the hills and the clouds, the breath of the life-giving ozone and the song of the birds is guaranteed by the beneficent God who bestowed them in all their beauty.”


In 1946, Carey McWilliams wrote in Southern California An Island on the Land, “The region is a paradox: a desert that faces an ocean. Los Angeles is half-wind, half-water…the real richness of the land is…in the combination of sky and air and ocean breezes…Its one great natural asset is its climate. The climate of Southern California is palpable…the climate is the region…It has given the region its rare beauty. For the charm of Southern California is largely to be found in the air and the light. Light and air are really one element: indivisible, mutually interacting, thoroughly interpenetrated…the color of the land is in the light…it has no counterpart in the world…it is the sky that is solid and real and the land that seems to float.”


Earlier this year, the Santa Monica Planning and Community Development Department sent a booklet entitled “What Is Your Vision of Santa Monica? Shape the Future 2025” to every household in Santa Monica.

One of several devices produced by City staff to elicit residents’ ideas and proposals for the first revision of the land use and circulation elements in the city’s General Plan in 20 years, the booklet contains a preamble by recently departed City of Santa Monica Planning Director Suzanne Frick that notes, among other things, that the General Plan is our “Constitution,” a lot of terribly cute graphics and three lists: “Things to Consider,” “5 Steps to Discover Santa Monica” and “Planning Terms.”

The “things to consider” are “Getting Around,” “Quality of Experience,” “Neighborhood Activities” and “Neighborhood Character.”

The “5 Steps” are “Pick your area,” “Think about the best time to walk,” “Get your hat and camera,” “What do you notice,” and “Tell us about it.”

The “Tell us about it” section is a questionnaire. The questions are: “Do you live in the City? Do you work in the City? Are you a City visitor/tourist? Day and Time of My Walk? How did you get to your starting position (walked, drove, biked, took a bus)? What were your impressions? 1. Tell us what you liked/disliked about walking in this area? 2. What has been your impression of driving and parking in this area? Quality of Experience. 1.What did you like or dislike about your experience? 2. What were people doing in this area and how did it impact your experience? Neighborhood Activities. 1. Do you like the activities available in the neighborhood? 2. Are there other activities or services that you would like to see in the neighborhood? Neighborhood Character. 1. What is your impression of the buildings in the area? 2. What was unique about this neighborhood? 3. What did you like or dislike about this area? Visioning! Tell us how you imagine this area to be in 20 years.”

The list of “Planning Terms’” definitions begins with an explanation: “As you become involved in this process, you may hear some new terms. Below are some you may want to familiarize yourself with along the way.”

The terms are “Active Living,” “Circulation,” “Density,” “Land Use,” Mixed Use,” “Mobility,” “Pedestrian-Orientation,” “Right of Way,” “Setback,” “Sustainability,” “Transit-Oriented,” and “Walkability.”

There’s probably nobody who knows how to read who doesn’t understand these words and their meanings.

And there’s probably no one who doesn’t wonder at the absence of other “planning terms,” such as “beauty,” “scale,” “mass,” “open space,” and that old favorite, “over-development.”

Residents are asked to mail completed questionnaires to the City, which will incorporate them in a “community collage.”

Clearly, the authors of the booklet are graduates of the Condescension, Obfuscation and Trivialization School of Planning.

If we were going to distribute questionnaires to every household in Santa Monica in an effort to know what residents think about their town, we would ask only three questions: 1) How would you describe Santa Monica? 2) What do you like about it? 3) What do you dislike about it?


Our answers to the three questions.

1. How would you describe Santa Monica?

The primary fact of Santa Monica is its location on the ocean. This legendary and thoroughly idiosyncratic beach town is as integral to what Hamlin Garland called “the fortunate coast” as the surf. It resides on the line where the L.A. alluvial plain and the Pacific Ocean converge. Ocean haze infiltrates the soil and sweetens the air and light, and it’s the opalescent light and moist air, not the flimsy soil, that make Santa Monica gardens so prodigal. Here bougainvillea riots, spilling over back fences and down into alleys, and palm trees outgrow the ground they are set in. Santa Monica is the real thing, an altogether earthly paradise.

2. What do you like about it?

The primary maker of Santa Monica is the ocean and the holy bounce of light off the water that illuminates it. That light and the air it rides on determine everything else. Just as talented people have always been drawn to Santa Monica, and have responded to the unique demands of the place by doing brilliant and original work, in this endless light, frauds and fakes tend to whither.

Novelist William Faulkner said, “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.” This beach town’s long and complex history informs everything. The simplicity, rigor and purity of its anchors – the Santa Monica Pier, the elegant Streamline Moderne City Hall and Barnum Hall at Santa Monica High School and the other proud, simple school buildings, Palisades Park, the Crocker Bank building, the numerous courtyard apartments, John Byers’ Spanish colonial offices on 26th Street and the houses he designed, the Craftsman houses, the Aero theater – set the bar very high.

Santa Monica is inclusive rather than exclusive. Its population is diverse and its residents are as idiosyncratic as the town, and smart, and committed to the preservation and refinement of what is here.

3. What don’t you like about it?

What happens next can only emerge from what has already happened, but too much that has happened in the last 20 years is an affront to what happened before and it must be undone before we can proceed.

These affronts are the manifestations of City Hall’s unilateral decision to elevate its needs and priorities over the needs and priorities of the city and its residents, which triggered its campaign to remake the city along more profitable lines. This has inevitably led to the corruption of downtown Santa Monica, and the negation of residents’ wishes.

Santa Monica residents cherish talent of all sorts – from the painter Stanton McDonald Wright to aviation pioneer Donald Douglas to the great lady tennis players to several generations of first rate painters, writers, actors and film-makers to the Z boys and architects Frank Gehry and Thom Mayne. These people and countless others have all played shaping roles in Santa Monica, but here and now power and money outweigh talent and integrity on the City Hall scales.Like legions of other residents, we don’t like the ever-increasing traffic and congestion, the diminution of downtown Santa Monica into a tourist ride, the oversized and pretentious developments, City Hall’s monuments to itself – the Public Safety building and the new Main library, but, most of all, we don’t like City Hall’s elevation from public servant to absolute boss. Nothing good has come of it. Nothing good will come of it.

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