In my last post I wrote that it would take a lot of change in Santa Monica to change the city’s character. Since I wrote that I’ve been wondering what I meant.
I couldn’t have meant that Santa Monica wouldn’t change, because cities evolve and Santa Monica is no exception. Indeed, in the 140 years since its first developers, Messrs. Jones and Baker (enabled by Baker’s wife, the estimable Arcadia Bandini de Baker) subdivided the old rancho and sold their first lots, Santa Monica has changed over and over.
Santa Monica changed not only in actuality, but also in how people have imagined it. Often the reality and the image have had only a tenuous relationship, perhaps because the reality of the city emerged from an amalgam of two fundamentally different visions.
Jones and Baker wanted to make Santa Monica the region’s port, and they developed what became the north side of the city with business in mind. The original street grid between Colorado Avenue and Montana, with its large blocks, good-sized lots, and wide rights-of-way, was designed for development. Banks, office buildings, and stores were built continuously downtown until the crash in 1929. When Jones sold his Los Angeles and Independence Railroad to Collis Huntington, the line became the connection between the Southern Pacific’s Long Wharf and the nation. Along the railroad, industrialists built factories. Ultimately, Donald Douglas built one of the world’s largest industrial plants.
Meanwhile, a different kind of Santa Monica was developing south of downtown—a more sybaritic city. In the early years the magnificent Arcadia Hotel, located near today’s Tongva Park, was the big attraction. Then Abbott Kinney and his partners developed Ocean Park as a resort. The pleasure piers were built, arcades and baths, and little vacation homes.
Today when you hear competing narratives like “Silicon Beach” vs. “laidback beach town” you’re hearing a dialectic that has been fundamental to Santa Monica from the start. The descendants, actual or not, of old Santa Monica families who can’t understand why people are telling them they can’t develop their land, and those residents who can’t understand why anyone would consider desecrating Santa Monica by building anything over two stories, are all true, in their own fashions, to Santa Monica’s history.
When it comes to residential neighborhoods, Santa Monica also has two competing realities that engender different visions. It’s often mentioned that (unusual among well-off American towns) 70 percent of Santa Monica residents are renters. As a housing or neighborhood type, however, apartments don’t define Santa Monica because so much of the city is covered with single-family houses. Approximately 32 percent of all land in Santa Monica, and approximately 47 percent of land that is zoned residential, is zoned R1. Consequently many people conceptualize Santa Monica as a leafy suburb, an extension of Brentwood. You can see how they might believe that apartment buildings violate that suburban character, particularly if a developer proposes to build apartments on a boulevard near an R1 neighborhood.
People can visualize all they want, but the fact remains that 70 percent of Santa Monicans live in apartments, nearly all of which (along with quite a few condominiums) were built by developers. Given that reality, it’s at least incongruous to say that building more apartments and condos (within reason) would destroy the character of Santa Monica.
The flipside is also true—or, rather, untrue. Many residents celebrate the fact that because of its apartments Santa Monica is not a monolithic suburb and hosts a wide range of incomes. Some of these folks argue that allowing the building of luxury condominiums would alter the character of Santa Monica: make it too ritzy. But given the price of those houses in the 32 percent of Santa Monica zoned R1, it’s hard to say with a straight face that a few more rich people would turn Santa Monica into something it isn’t.
In fact, it’s hard to take any talk about the character of a city seriously. Character in this context is always a word that carries an agenda. There are so many characters to choose from, you can take your pick to support whatever point you want to make. Change is going to happen; to the extent we can control change, it’s better to make decisions based on what might be objectively determined to be good change, rather than base our decisions on something as subjective as a city’s character. It is possible to have progress, to improve things.
People don’t talk about a city’s character this way only in Santa Monica. Recently the New York Daily News ran an essay by Glynnis MacNicol about memory and a city—in that case the city being New York (“When I was young, so was New York”). MacNicol’s premise is that one’s view of what a city is depends on one’s first memories of it; as she puts it, “each of us mistakes the city we knew first with the city’s truest version of itself.”
We’d all be happier, I suspect, if whenever we started to talk about the city’s character, we would instead acknowledge that what we really wanted to talk about are our memories, especially the fond ones.
Thanks for reading.