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Reflections & Observations: Everything Can’t Be Everything

Our first look at Santa Monica’s new Main Library confirms our belief that one of City Hall’s primary goals is to turn everything into everything. It’s the mixed use concept carried to a lunatic extreme.

Making a good library is hard. Making a great library is very hard. Santa Monica deserves a great library, and we hoped – foolishly perhaps, but fervently – that when the City decided not to expand the old Main Library but to build a new library, it was planning to make a great library. Over time, as we saw preliminary plans and were subjected to nearly endless and often pointless discussions between the architects, City staff and City Council members, our hopes for a great library turned to dust.

They talked about landscaping, paseos, courtyards, facades, a café, parking – and who could use it – but there was virtually no talk about books or other things vital to libraries. It was clear that City officials were not planning to erect a great library or even a good one on the bones of the old library, but were going to replace it with another multi-purpose facility, in which there would, incidentally, be some books.

We mourned the lost opportunity, and raged, in print, at the patchwork project that the architects, City staff and Council had concocted.

Given the direction City Hall had mandated, it wasn’t surprising that nobody who worked in the old library was invited to take part in the Council’s extended discussions of the new library. And much as the librarians might have enjoyed working in a fine new library, they’ll never have that chance as they will be charged with operating “the living room of the city.”

That, as it turns out, was one of the architects’ operating assumptions. Idiotic as it is, it fits ever so neatly into the City Hall’s abiding belief that everything can be everything.

We didn’t want or need a $52-plus million “living room.” We wanted, and could have had, a $52-plus million great library. Now, we’ll simply continue to use our cards the very good Beverly Hills library and the great L.A. and UCLA Research libraries.

As a passionate reader and a writer, of books as well as newspapers, we love libraries, especially great libraries. Epiphanies happen in great libraries, and discoveries, and serendipity is always at work in them. Nice things undoubtedly happen from time to time in community centers, but very few, if any epiphanies occur there.

Not only can everything not be everything, it shouldn’t be, because quite often everything turns out to be nothing, and, as often, one thing – such as a great library – is far more valuable than a gathering of many things.

Still, City Hall persists in making everything everything. New apartment buildings have shops and cafes on their ground floors, so do parking structures. Though we have too few parks, the ones we do have less open, serene, green space, and more and more buildings. The City’s misbegot Civic Center Plan has a little bit of everything in it.

In fact, City Hall’s drive to make everything into everything is a manifestation of its continuing effort to remake this wonderfully idiosyncratic beach town into an endlessly malleable money mill, as the following passage from an old staff report on the goals of City Hall’s rehab of the beach front dismally demonstrates; “Create a new visitor-serving concentration in the Oceanfront area, enhance the Promenade and Pier, visually extend Palisades Park to Crescent Bay Park, and retain the existing residential mix, in order to capture the potential of this opportunity area both as a revenue generator and an amenity for Santa Monica residents.”

And so our beach, the primary fact of Santa Monica, its glory, its soul, is reduced to an “opportunity area,” “revenue generator” and “an amenity for Santa Monica residents.”

And now these people who turned our library into “the living room of the city” and see the beach as an “opportunity area,” “revenue generator” and “an amenity” have set out to “shape the future.”

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