Given the number of emails I received, last week’s column about Santa Monica development or over-development, touched a nerve. Surprisingly, the emails were polite. You see I’ve experienced over the years of doing these columns that anger, often expressed rudely, is a great motivator. In this busy world, it takes energy to shoot off an email and being highly annoyed with me seems to be the ticket.
The current nerve being touched belongs to residents who feel our quality of life has been severely compromised in the name of tourism and business, causing considerable congestion and gridlock on our streets. The public’s reaction to the Hines Project passed by our City Council is obvious evidence of residents’ discontent. (An anti-development referendum has qualified for the November ballot so stay tuned.)
A few readers complained about the big red double-decker StarLine Tour busses that seem to be everywhere. They bring tourists staying at hotels in Hollywood and Downtown L.A. to the beach, the Promenade and Palisades Park and take visitors staying in Santa Monica hotels to famous landmarks in Hollywood and points east. Whenever I watch one of these giant busses lumber by, I suddenly feel like either I live in Disneyland or I’m a figure in the wax museum.
The busses, with their huge ads on the side, look like giant billboards on wheels. But, due to amazing technology, the tourists can see through the windows as if the ads weren’t there. (We should be so lucky.) To be fair, however, there are definite upsides to these busses, or so I’m told.
As embraced by the Chamber of Commerce, the theory of the double-deckers is the larger the bus the fewer the cars that pour in with tourists. Also, the busses are “hop on, hop off.” This means tourists can hop off to spend time shopping or exploring the sights, and then, at designated StarLine Bus Stops, get back on and visit other sights or return to their hotels.
Again due to technology, loud narration is a thing of the past as the StarLine busses are equipped with headsets that provide commentary available in 9 languages. (So essentially we can get their tourist dollars without even understanding their language or vice-versa.)
The headsets definitely beat a guy with a microphone, “And on your right is where mobster James ‘Whitey’ Bulger had $800,000 cash in his wall when he was arrested.” (Bugler update: Whitey received two consecutive life sentences plus five years and was ordered to pay restitution of $19.5 million, which sounds like a helluva lot of license plates.)
And yet I remember it fondly when the Loew’s Hotel first opened in Santa Monica in 1989. I was proud that a sophisticated hotel chain based in Manhattan thought so highly of our sleepy beach town. Only thereafter came Shutters, Casa Del Mar, Le Merigot, the Shore Hotel, the Viceroy and on and on. Soon my pride turned to, “Hey, enough already.”
My friend, Ron Accosta, an amateur Santa Monica historian having grown up in the Main Street neighborhood in the 1930’s and 40’s, is philosophical about all the changes, “You can’t fight the sunrise.” It somehow reminded me of Spencer Tracy, playing Clarence Darrow, in the classic movie “Inherit the Wind,” speaking about the tradeoffs of progress. “You can have a telephone but you lose privacy and the charm of distance.”
For example, I remember the outdoor mall in the 70’s and 80’s. To quote Bette Davis, “What a dump.” Then, also in 1989, came the Third Street Promenade and soon taxable sales in Santa Monica grew by 440%.
At first it was great. But now it’s often so mobbed you couldn’t pay me to go there. As Yogi Berra said of a restaurant that got too popular, “It’s so crowded nobody goes there anymore.”
So the battle lines seem drawn, quality of life vs. booming business. With rents skyrocketing along with property values, the middle class is being squeezed out. Children born and raised in Santa Monica can’t afford to live here. All the while tourists from every corner of the world flock here to enjoy our sun and surf, our shops, restaurants and nightlife.
They come to us on giant jet planes and travel our streets equipped with their credit cards, seated in giant busses wearing headsets that narrate the sights of our city in 9 languages. As I stand and watch I can only wonder what’s next. (Now that I think of it, I also wonder, with two consecutive life sentences, what was the point of giving Whitey the extra five years?)
To learn more about the StarLine double-decker bus tours go to Citysightseeingla.com. If he isn’t too busy “wondering” Jack can be reached at facebook.com/jackneworth, twitter.com/jackneworth or firstname.lastname@example.org.