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I trained as a journalist, then as an urban planner, then I worked as a writer and editor then as a planner. I learned to teach yoga, make quilts, do Photoshop, design websites and use MailChimp.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Every few weeks or so I drive from one end to the other of the giant “megalopolis” of Los Angeles/Orange County that is north of here.  I am defining it as the solid urban sprawl and grid that starts at the north end of Camp Pendleton and ends where the I-5 separates from the 14 north of L.A.  One could extend that another 15 miles or so along 14 until you reach the northern end of Santa Clarita and it finally becomes real country again up the mountain into Palmdale. It is from 80 to 95 miles solid depending on how you count it.
Last time I did it the other day I came back around the other way.   I skirted the back of the mountains on 138 and came out on 15 and headed back through San Bernardino and Riverside Counties.  That trip is solid grid and sprawl from the time the 138 hits the 15 until a little bit of open around rainbow and into Bonsall.  Then back to Oceanside.  Probably about 90 miles of solid stuff that way too.
(The trip is to see family in Palmdale.  There’s Diana Hezel, my daughter, her daughters, Desiree Weidner and Danielle Bridgeford.  Jack, my grandson.  Des’s husband Dale, Danielle’s husband, Michael.   No great grandchildren yet, keep your fingers crossed. )
So it’s a giant megalopolis.  Built from a combination of historical events and financing mechanisms; not much planning visible except that imposed by the Interstate system with its ever-expanding rivers of cars. Regional planning seems good at that, but our reliance and tradition of  “home rule” and the need for sales tax for municipalities seems to have overcome any other considerations.  Having studied and been involved in the field since 1976 I am more and more convinced that you get what someone can borrow money for and what will give your local city council some bucks. 
Back to the experience.  The trip is almost exactly the same in mileage either way.  But it is most amazing!  Millions of people, thousands of cars, homes, shopping centers, industrial developments, airports, solid cities from end to end, here to there and not much keeping us safe here in comparatively pristine North County.
I can’t help but think about how it all happened.  Nothing was really contemplated even up to 20 years ago.  Planning?  What difference does it make?  We need the money.  Keep it from the neighbors.  The market research people say it will do well there.  (Whatever it is.) 
Coming back the “inland route” I got off the 15 in Rancho Cucamonga because I thought my tires were making a funny noise.  At the foot of the beautiful mountain range, there is a sandy desert with strange, isolated islands of “master planned” housing with the homes crammed together with tiny green lawns and advertising flags.  Where do those people go?  Why are they there?  What does master planned mean in this context?  Is Cucamonga any nicer because it is new?   There are some areas like Norco that have tried to keep a quaint old downtown.  And then there is huge big box shopping center after huge big box shopping center all with Best Buy, Kohls etc. that make our local projects look tiny and intimate by comparison.  
(The funny noise ironically was from the freeway surface being worn down by all those trucks.)  It’s a huge freeway.  Maybe even six or eight or even ten lanes out there, streaming down from the mountain not unlike the way the old floods would stream out of the canyons.  A perfect example of why more lanes and more wideness bring more people and more houses and congestion on a bigger scale.
These shopping centers no longer have any gaps between them from 15 coming down from the mountain to Corona to Elsinore to Temecula – 60 miles (?).  Then there is a brief area of mountains and I was back in San Diego County again.
It was different, less  “mature” maybe, but no less congested, than what I call the “straight up the slot” route, I-5 to the 14, right through the middle of everything that is Los Angeles.  That way is visually older once you get past Red Hill.   (Starbucks.)  It gets really congested then, and unless you go at 4:30 a.m. or on Saturday it will be a traffic mess.  I got off at Lakewood Blvd (my second choice of Starbucks on the trip) and when I got back on I realized that that entire portion of Orange County is within a short distance of downtown L.A. – 10 miles or less.   You can see the tall buildings on the skyline. Then you skirt by the old Sears Building, the General Hospital, Main Street, Korea Town and into Eagle Rock and Glendale.  Then through Burbank and into the Valley.
The freeway is too narrow, the off ramps were designed a long time ago, the bridges are deteriorating, but there is a certain gritty charm and feeling of closeness and intimacy with the city.   I tried to define it to myself.  Why is it easier to take than all those huge wide freeways and islands of big box developments?  Is it familiarity?  I literally learned to drive on the I-5 when it was fairly new and a thrill! I visited wholesale electrical parts houses with my gramps in downtown L.A.
I think for me it is the scale somehow.  I can jump off the freeway and be in a real neighborhood.  Boyle Heights for example, or Sylmar.  Or visit one of “my colleges” Cal State or L.A. Valley.  I can find a good place to eat in Burbank or San Fernando.   The ramps aren’t all that intimidating. 
What is the point of this ramble?  I guess that we are all in this together.  That money and sales tax and banks influence our urban fabric.  And freeways and traffic engineers.  And that someday maybe we will reach the edge of the desert and  not be able to go up the mountain that much.  And maybe change all of those big boxes into apartment complexes.
(And that you can’t take a planner anywhere without some philosophical detour!)

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