“Some who are fortunate enough to have communities still do fight to keep them, but they have seldom prevailed. While people possess a community, they usually understand that they can’t afford to lose it; but after it is lost, gradually even the memory of what was lost is lost.”
– Jane Jacobs, Dark Age Ahead
As Editor of a magazine specializing in educational design in the 1950’s, I was fortunate to know Jane Jacobs, the wise pathfinder who was to model for us who love cities – who love our city – that a higher wisdom on our shared community’s welfare can prevail, even in the face of seemingly unalterable opposition. I left New York later, before she took on Robert Moses, the all powerful city director under whose aegis vital neighborhood, with diverse inhabitants, vanished in the path of highways to serve the automobile. In the early 1960’s, I read in the NY Times, from my small house in Antelope Valley, how she organized neighbors and won colleagues throughout the city to stop Moses’ plan to build an expressway through her history-rich, vital community of Greenwich Village. As the Mojave spring winds roared outside and a baby daughter crawled on the carpet, I watched later on television as she celebrated with supporters the defeat of the plan – a remarkable feat.
Unfortunately, this example, which inspired neighborhood insurgents everywhere in fighting for their communities, had come too late to save my own, where Moses and his team earlier had destroyed whole neighborhoods, uprooted thousands of persons from thriving communities in the Bronx, to build the Cross-Bronx Expressway. Visiting my parents the year before, I watched a staggering red fox make his way hesitantly down the sidewalk alongside the busy boulevard, his family blasted by dynamite out of their homes a few miles away, in nearby, formerly pristine Van Courtland Park, clearing the way for the Expressway. Gone forever were the springs bubbling from the ground, where you could cup your hands and drink the ice-cold water, as well as the pond they fed, where my friends and I went ice skating in the winter. Destroying the heart, the center, of the Bronx left a legacy, leading in part to the desolation we see in Ken Burns’ documentary about New York, of urban blight with crime-filled streets.
I see the development proposal before you, on city-owned land on Arizona, between 4th and 5th Streets as harbinger of a potentially threatening, irreversible future for what I, and many like me throughout Santa Monica have come to love as the town where the arc of the sky is almost always visible. The location is central to the downtown of our city, and placing formidable structures comparable to monolithic pancakes. Stacked unevenly on top of each other in the center of mostly one- to three-story buildings would create a new paradigm for this Pacific beach city. Gone would be the wide sweep of vision possible, even today, for those of us who love to walk the city. From my home on 9th Street, near Michigan and Lincoln, I often walk downtown, and recently I walked in the direction of the proposed location. Here and there, there was the projection skyward of a lone building, maybe two or three stories higher, but when I imagined the 12 stories of the proposed project, I saw a large bulk of structure, obscuring the sunset, homing in at that location during that time of year.
This is an architecturally-exciting design. I can see it invigorating the downtown of other, older cities with much greater population and a legacy of tall buildings and/or skyscrapers. But not in the gentle vibe of a Pacific coast beach city with a walkable, sky-friendly downtown. That’s what attracted many of us not born here to settle down and raise our children here. Yes, affordable housing is much needed, and I say that as one who can no longer afford to move within the city or buy a home or condo. But one need not sacrifice one important value for another. Let’s be creative and find other designs and ways to secure affordable housing. I’ve heard some provocative ideas at recent hearings/retreats of our Housing Commission. But let’s not lose the easy-going, sky-friendly ambiance of our present downtown by damaging its heart forever. Go back to the top height of 84-feet – for some of us still too high but livable as a compromise – look at all options, such as one I read about by SMart in the last year and the adaptive reuse options available but not used enough. Forsake the Robert Moses model of damaging something vital to achieve something else. And learn from Jane Jacobs and her neighbors who knew that “While people possess a community, they usually understand that they can’t afford to lose it.”
Build a great plaza there, in the model of Santa Fe, whose centuries-old plaza has attracted shoppers, folks on lunch hours, musicians, artists, fiestas; a place to meet your friends, to sit and rest between errands, to dance on summer nights to local bands – for poetry festivals in the center and antique car displays on the perimeter – something for everyone, not something for selected beneficiaries.
With warm good wishes to all of us for the higher wisdom to prevail,
Dolores Sloan is a Santa Monica resident