Reflections of a Car Culture Refugee
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
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
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
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