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Book Review: Frank Gruber’s Urban Worrier:

Frank Gruber, longtime Santa Monica resident and former Planning Commission member, has published a collection of his columns from the online Lookout News. Urban Worrier provides a glimpse into Gruber’s assessment of Santa Monica’s politics, urban planning, social problems, and the city’s relationship to America at large.

The subtitle “Making Politics Personal” is also the book’s disclaimer. Pulling no punches in his writing, Gruber is proud to state his opinions. He has the knowledge to back up his views, via experience with Santa Monica’s often wild ride through urban issues, and from reading, traveling, and just plain living. While one may not always agree with him, one has to acknowledge Gruber’s knack for pinpointing the excuses made by politicians and the manipulations that sometimes stand in for honest decisions.

Basically a liberal, especially on national issues, Gruber takes the middle ground on local issues, understanding the dangers of unlimited urban growth as well as the error of banning all growth. His style is pungent with ironic humor and a willingness to “name names.” “The opposition to Santa Monicans for Renters Rights must either seek professional counseling or open a branch of the Hemlock Society,” he writes in regard to an anti-SMRR group’s support of a flawed proposition. In describing the Santa Monica City Council’s voting against a proposal for a Target store downtown, he compares the late Herb Katz’s reasoning to Yogi Berra’s famous remark “Nobody goes there anymore-it’s too crowded,” and then compares another, still current Council member to Yogi Bear.

All kidding aside, Gruber constantly crusades for logical solutions to Santa Monica’s problems. His pointed comments about the activities of commissioners, Council members, and community activists, try to make sense of what have often seemed like senseless actions. He analyzes the pros and cons of various civic developments, the need for reform on issues like the living wage and school funding, and the machinations behind local elections that often mar good intentions.

He defends the need for new construction as a way to bring a fresh approach to Santa Monica. “Santa Monica has its charms but they aren’t architectural,” he writes, listing various structural landmarks that he regards as “awful public architecture.” To Gruber, there are times when the defense of the old is not preservation but rather represents what he calls “SMFCs” (Santa Monicans Fearful of Change).

Some installments deal with personal events-Gruber’s family and travels, while a few columns also take on events that rocked the nation and the world-9/11, the Farmers’ Market car tragedy. Just for fun, Gruber also wonders (during the perennially cloudy month of June) what can be done about Santa Monica’s marine layer. “Perhaps we can have a moratorium on overcast days or at least require clearing between eleven and four.”

Urban Worrier is a lively and thought-provoking guide to where Santa Monica has been during the first decade of the 2000s. It should be required reading for anyone who plans to get involved in local politics.

Urban Worrier by Frank Gruber, The City Image Press, 2009, cityimagepress.com.

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