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Feature Stories

'Ordinary is Extraordinary' in Planning for SoCal's Future

From Issue: Volume XXI - Number 13
6/28/2013


By Julia Higgins

“If you don’t know where you are, you don’t know who you are.” This phrase summarizes the overarching theme of the first installment in Rancho Los Alamitos’ Conversations in Place series entitled Values in Place: The Ordinary is Extraordinary.

The event, held at the Rancho on Palo Verde Ave. on Sunday, June 23, addressed the succession of change in Southern California’s architecture and urban planning, the future of Los Angeles, Long Beach and other cities in terms of their culture and ecology and asked whether or not we can reclaim a common sense of place in the 21st century.

The conversation began with an opening statement from Claudia Jurmain, Director of Special Projects and Publications at the Rancho, who moderated the event. Claudia’s contribution emphasized the dichotomy of the timeless perspective and time-locked history of sites like Rancho Los Alamitos and how a place can simultaneously be ever changing, yet always the same. Ultimately, Claudia provided an eloquent introduction and posed the following question: how do we make our home here?

The first individual to tackle this brief but evocative question was nationally praised author, essayist and public radio commentator DJ Waldie. Waldie is a lifelong Lakewood resident who has a strong grasp on what it means to have a sense of place.

When describing the post WWII track houses that make up Lakewood’s residential community, Waldie remarked, “There is a persistent belief that places like this must be awful places” and implied that outsiders often equate the repetition of the architecture to monotony and homogeneity in Lakewood suburban life.

In order to provide a counter argument to the preconceived notions of onlookers, Waldie applauded Lakewood for being a working-class neighborhood with the ability to be immensely loyal, as well as being free of the pretentions and superficiality of “gated enclaves and McMansion wastelands” (these descriptions, ironically enough, fit the layout of Bixby Hill, the gated community that houses Rancho Los Alamitos). DJ closed his contribution to the conversation with the following remark: “Finding home means falling in love-falling in love with the place that you are.”

The next conversationalist was none other than Christopher Hawthorne, the Bay Area native and acclaimed architectural critic for the Los Angeles times. Christopher focused on the intersection of place, history and architecture.

Hawthorne encouraged the audience to think of this conversation against the backdrop of current events; he referenced protests occurring around the world in Brazil and Istanbul and even used Edward Snowden as a metaphor for how globalization is playing out in the geo-political sphere.

After establishing his emphasis on this worldly perspective, Christopher addressed the “dangers of exceptionalism” (like the development of the stereotype that Angelinos don’t like to gather in public places) and the difficulty of expressing the Southern California aesthetic in the post-all age we live in (for example, having limited options when it comes to airport architecture due to post-9/11 security constraints).

In his closing remarks, Christopher articulated that Los Angeles is struggling with the challenge of redefining itself, which makes it, for him, the most interesting city in America to write about.

After the conclusion of Hawthorne’s contribution, the event changed structure and transitioned to a panel comprised of the two speakers and three additional panelists: Alan Pullman and Michael Bohn, founder and design director of the acclaimed architecture firm Studio One Eleven, and Greg Goldin, architectural critic at Los Angeles Magazine.

The topics ranged from transit in Southern California (Measure R and its consequences, the local metro line and the omnipresent option of installing a subway system in LA) to the discrepancy between the number of retail and residential development projects currently occurring in LA County and beyond.

Although all these topics were quite intriguing, the question which I felt summarized the experience of Conversations in Place is as follows: Describe what defines place in the place that you come from.

DJ Waldie responded about Lakewood, saying “The place enters the lives of the people who live there” and that relationships are facilitated by Lakewood’s design. Greg Goldin, an LA native, summarized his definition of place in the following way: “If you don’t know where you’re coming from, you won’t know where you’re headed.” Alan Pullman grew up in New York and admitted that most of what he knew about LA he got from The Partridge Family, and that ultimately, the variety, diversity and authenticity of the city defines place in Los Angeles. Lastly, Michael Bohn, originally from Long Beach, attributed the “calming and relieving effect of the city’s distinct neighborhoods” as a major part of the definition of place in Long Beach.

The word place is defined as a particular position or point in space, but, as Conversations in Place revealed to its attendees, it means so much more in our ultimate goal of making a home for ourselves in the location we happen to inhabit.

The Conversations in Place series continues with its next installment entitled Shadow Landscapes: Hidden in Plain Site on Sept. 22. Visit www.rancholosalamitos.org to reserve tickets.

julia@longbeachcomber.com