A sense of place often requires characteristics that foster feelings of authentic human attachment and belonging. For example, we know we’re not at the North Pole when we visit Santa at the mall, even though the elves and the plastic snow and the candy cane sign reading “North Pole” all seem bent on convincing us otherwise.
In a somewhat similar manner, we know we’re not in Paris or New York when we’re in Las Vegas at the hotels bearing those names. And for the most part, I don’t think we care. But here’s what starts to matter: When the real New York allows Disney to remodel entire city blocks, does New York care if we have a sense of place in New York? If real New York embraces blocks of “CityWalk”-type façade fakery, where is actual New York? How do you know?
Of course, “a sense of authentic human attachment” can come from something as simple as a whiff of peppermint while standing near a Christmas tree. Here’s what it probably cannot come from: artificial grass and dull generic architecture.
Stand on the corner of Bicknell and Main Streets, looking north. Ask yourself, “Where am I?” Until you are able to view, say, the historic surf shop or the grocery on the east side of Main you’ll likely remain disoriented. You certainly won’t see the ocean, with the ocean being a defining characteristic of Santa Monica. And if the sky has something to do with our sense of place, well, now you won’t see much of that at Bicknell and Main, either.
When the delicatessen and bakery that occupied that location was first closed and then sitting there for years, the Santa Monica City Council did angst about “a canyon” on Main Street created by any new multistory construction at that site. And then time passes, and then you get that very canyon. But unfortunately, along with the blocking out of the sun, we are also getting yet another generic mixed-use monolith with what appears to be an established “look” architecturally: A large rectangle with glued-on cosmetic design elements rather than a building with any level of architectural interest or compelling design.
So who says “mixed-use” buildings have to be compelling or even interesting? Obviously very few people in, say, the Valley. Or cities all over America. I’m not upset because something new is occurring; I’m upset because Santa Monica seems unable to block this kind of depressing encroachment, and I don’t know how many of us are concerned about any level of authentic human attachment once we step outside our own homes.
Maybe the ocean is such an awesome delineator of place that we never get anxious about the possibility that, block by block, old building replaced by new building, Santa Monica is becoming Anytown, USA. The Promenade began as an effort to establish a sense of place. Now it’s simply another mall with the roof pulled off. And despite their super powers, the Bubble Man and the Psychic Cat have not been able to save it.
With this type of complaint essay, it’s traditional to insert some foreboding example of how bad things could get. Fortunately, I have just the item: The strip of plastic fake grass that runs alongside the Marine Street side of the new architecturally banal Sailhouse Loft Building on Main. Swing by and touch the humanity and caring that only plastic grass can communicate. Dwell for a moment on the kind of executive decision-making process that arrives at gluing down a few hundred bucks of Astroturf. One look, one touch…and you’ll fall in love with development all over again.