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Reflections of a Car Culture Refugee

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  • Dennis Crowley
    http://www.latimes.com/news/opinion/la-oe-podany1oct01,0,2620358.story?coll=la-opinion-rightrail Reflections of a Car Culture Refugee You can t stop and smell
    Message 1 of 1 , Oct 1, 2006

      Reflections of a Car Culture Refugee

      You can't stop and smell the roses when you're sitting in traffic.

      By Amanda Podany, AMANDA PODANY is a professor of history at Cal Poly Pomona.
      October 1, 2006

      LONDON, WHEN I lived there, smelled of wet concrete, diesel fumes and
      fish and chips. My neighborhood now smells of cut grass, alyssum,
      jasmine and just the faintest whiff of creosote. Only walkers know
      this, of course. If you drive through in your car, you don't notice
      the smells. There's a lot you don't notice.

      The flock of green feral parrots, for example, hooting as they loop
      from one palm tree to another. And there's the weather vane in the
      shape of a tall ship on top of a Spanish-style house behind some
      trees. It doesn't ever seem to swing in the direction of the wind,
      but it looks like a prop from "Mary Poppins." And what about the
      ghost house that seems unoccupied, three derelict cars in the
      driveway and on the lawn? The cars have never budged since I moved to
      the neighborhood almost nine years ago; all are now covered in dirt
      and their tires are flat. And yet the lawn is mowed from time to time
      and occasionally a single light shines in the kitchen.

      Lately I've been walking these streets every morning. I started
      because I needed exercise, but it has made me a walker again, just
      like in London when I was in graduate school. I wonder about the
      stories behind these neighborhood scenes: Who released the first of
      those parrots from captivity, and how did it find a mate? What
      possessed the owners of the Spanish-style house to sail the metal
      Mayflower from their roof? Who lives in the ghost house and, because
      they obviously never drive, why do we never see them?

      In London, drivers seemed to be in a different world from the rest of
      us. Everyone I knew walked and rode the buses and the Underground. My
      world was crammed with other people. They pushed against you as you
      hung from the handrails on the Underground, and you walked around
      them on the sidewalks if they were walking too slowly.

      My husband and I felt ourselves to be part of London. We were in
      public spaces all day; feet to the pavement, hands on the handrails,
      coat collars up against the wind. Getting back to the apartment at
      night, we closed the door on that public London and curled up in a
      small piece of privacy.

      Here in L.A., we are all in our cars most of the time. We live from
      one private space to another: house to car, car to office. We rarely
      encounter strangers. We find the places we need to go by looking them
      up on the Internet, and then we get driving directions from Mapquest.
      The spaces in between are almost invisible to us.

      I have driven from my home to Pomona almost daily for 16 years, but I
      have never ventured off the freeway to visit the neighborhoods I pass
      through. El Monte, West Covina, Covina - they are all unknown to me.
      Even La Brea Avenue, only blocks from my home, has always been just a
      strip of asphalt on the way to the supermarket. That is, until I
      walked it.

      One evening I left my car to be serviced at La Brea and Santa Monica
      Boulevard and walked down La Brea to the corner of Oakwood Avenue,
      where I rented a car. I have driven those seven blocks hundreds,
      maybe thousands, of times. But I had never noticed most of the stores
      along the way, hopeful enterprises selling idiosyncratic shoes or
      wedding dresses. I had never taken a good look at the concrete
      factory near Santa Monica Boulevard, if that is what it is. It looks
      like an Erector set grown to massive size, or a scene from a
      documentary about Russia during the Soviet era. And yet there it is,
      in incongruous splendor, across the street from Target.

      I'm sure many commuters pass my house daily and have never even
      glanced at it. So for whom do we plant roses along the wall or trim
      the hedges? Partly for ourselves, of course. And we do it partly for
      our neighbors across the street, who can see our house from their
      front windows.

      But now that I'm a walker again, I realize that we do it for all the
      walkers too. They notice the subtle changes as the leaves come out on
      the trees and the creeper slowly covers the brick wall, just as I
      notice when the flowers come out in their yards. I'm sorry for the
      people in the cars and for all that they are missing. But because so
      few of us walk, walking in my neighborhood is a private act, nothing
      like walking in London. I may be out in the world, with the sky
      stretching above me, but I'm still alone except for a few dog walkers
      and fellow exercisers

      [Non-text portions of this message have been removed]
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