Down and Out at the Americana

Click here for main feature, Rick Caruso's Aria: L.A.'s Mall King Mulls a Mayoral Run, by Matthew Fleischer.

View photographs of Fleischer's undercover mission in this slideshow, by Erin Broadley.

I’m lying in the grass at the park in the center of the Americana mall, and I smell. Bad. I’ve been wearing the same clothes for at least five days, and I haven’t showered in even longer. My face is caked with dirt that I slapped on moments before I arrived. My unwashed hair is wild and knotted, and it casts a particularly unpleasant, sour tang.

Children are playing all around me, but they really don’t have much choice. It’s a 100-degree day and I’ve deposited myself on the only shady patch of grass in the mall’s 2-acre park. Anyone who wants to stay cool needs to share.

Resting next to me is a small plastic bag of bottles and cans I’ve collected from nearby trash bins. Some of the cans still have liquid in them, which is starting to leak out onto my already filthy pants.

It’s a Saturday afternoon, and hundreds, if not thousands, of shoppers surround me on all sides. Roughly 10 yards away, diners on the outdoor patio of the wildly expensive sushi restaurant Katsuya look on as the Americana’s signature “dancing fountain” erupts, shooting elaborate columns of crystalline water high into the air.

The spectacle is interesting enough if you’ve never seen it before, but several of the restaurant’s patrons do their best to look away. I suspect it’s because my reeking, filthy carcass is directly in their line of sight — an unavoidable blip on their radar screen.

I close my eyes and attempt to drift off to sleep, but the unceasing Americana soundtrack of Frank Sinatra and other classic crooners prevents me from relaxing.

That and the constant supervision.

A walkie-talkie crackles behind me. I can’t hear what’s being said, but I have a good idea. Footsteps approach. I open my eyes to see a man with a badge and a crisp, clean uniform standing over me.

“Excuse me, sir ...”

In his landmark 1965 essay, “You Have to Pay for the Public Life,” architect and public-space theorist Charles W. Moore launched a fascinating defense of Disneyland, arguing that the amusement park “is enormously successful because it re-creates all the chances to respond to a public environment which Los Angeles particularly no longer has.”

Beautiful public space capable of fostering advanced community interaction is something that needs to be cultivated, and often comes at significant expense. “Versailles cost someone a great deal of money,” Moore noted. Since Los Angeles wasn’t willing to develop that sort of space, Disneyland stepped in to fill a vital social vacuum.

“Single-handed, it is engaged in replacing many of those elements of the public realm which have vanished in the featureless private floating world of Southern California.”

Despite its artificiality, Disney nonetheless provided a unique medium to meet and interact with strangers — to see and be seen, to flirt, to play, to adopt a public persona. The space was artificial but the interactions were not. Little has changed since Moore’s piece was published. Los Angeles still lacks adequate public communal-gathering space, and the trend of private developers capitalizing on the woeful state of the Southland’s public sphere has only been exacerbated.

The Grove, the Americana’s spiritual antecedent, is the most prominent, and successful, 21st-century attempt of the private sector to fill the void of public life in Los Angeles. Its critics, like those of Disney before it, dismiss the Grove as a manufactured universe free of the gruff realities of urban life. Yet the Grove attracts more people than even Disneyland, while the withered Pan Pacific Park, right next door, offering all the opportunities one could want for “real” public interaction, is barely used.

The Grove is safe and clean because, as a private development, it has control over who and what to allow. Unlike a public park, the Grove can legally toss the overtly political, the intoxicated or the indigent out — eliminating the fringe and ensuring a beigist medium for safe social and commercial interaction among the majority.

Though critics continue to spew impotent rage at the Grove, the space is what it is — a fancy outdoor mall. The Americana, however, while aesthetically and conceptually similar to the Grove, is a much, much different story. It is a strange and uncertain hybrid.

When Rick Caruso agreed to develop the 15.5-acre plot of city land in Glendale that would become the Americana, he assented to creating a new town center — replete with housing, retail and public space. The selling point of the project was the development of a new, 2-acre park at its center, which would be open for public use. Glendale agreed to provide the land for the entire development, free of charge, with the condition that the city would retain ownership of the park. Caruso Affiliated would be responsible for its design and maintenance.

The result is what L.A. Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne describes as “a public space masquerading as private space that is masquerading as public.”

Or, as Hemingway might have said, the park is a park is a park is an onion.

This scenario raises a number of interesting questions. Caruso Affiliated designed, crafted and continues to care for the park, but who creates the rules that govern it? The heart of the Caruso brand is cleanliness and safety. Does spending $400 million to create the Americana earn Caruso Affiliated the right to preserve that brand by dictating the terms of who can use it and how? Or should the park’s rules be subject to community oversight? After all, it is public land.

And what entity enforces those rules once they’re established? The Glendale Police Department? Mall cops? Anarchic self-rule?

This commingling of the public and private sectors potentially creates a series of fascinating and troubling precedents. Most importantly, are we witnessing the origins of a time when fringe elements no longer have the right to exist on public land? Can poverty and political speech be cleansed from public view?

In a world that hinges upon cleanliness and safety, what happens when a little dirt gets in?

When I first arrive at the Americana at midday on Saturday, the park is closed, surrounded by velvet ropes. Between the summer heat and the foot traffic, Caruso Affiliated has struggled to keep the grass alive. They’ve already resodded the entire park three times since it opened last May, at considerable expense. They apparently don’t want to do it again, because the grass section of the park is now only open on weekend afternoons.

Killing time, waiting for the park to open, I fish through more than a dozen trash bins for bottles and cans. No one stops me. I sit by the dancing fountain and look forlorn. No tap on the shoulder. Although I do overhear a few whispers behind me: “They’ve got homeless in the Americana now?”

That’s not to say I’m left alone. Security spots me the moment I walk in, and I have a tail practically the entire time — but no one bothers me.

That is until now.

Back on the grass in front of Katsuya, the Americana’s lead mall cop is hovering over me.

“Excuse me, sir,” he says, unfailingly polite, “I’m going to have to ask you to sit up. There’s no lying down in the park.” Before walking away, he adds, with unmistakable sincerity, “I’m really sorry about this.” He doesn’t come back. Though I’m relieved that the exchange was cordial, I find myself more than a little pissed. No lying down in a public park? Deciding to push the envelope a little further, I head over to the dancing fountain and dip my hands in the cool water. The dirt from my hands runs into the pool, and I continue to clean myself, splashing water onto my filthy face and into my hair.

I stay at it for about five minutes. I’m left alone.

When I stand up, I have a huge water splotch on the front of my pants. It looks like I had an accident.

With my piss pants on prominent display, I head back to the trash bins to do some more scavenging. Now I’m getting some serious stares from the mall crowd. Security, though, stay away. After I rifle through every bin on the property, it becomes apparent that I am not going to be rousted by the Americana cops.

Having spent more than an hour in the Americana, I leave with 65 cents’ worth of deposit money and a profound sense of relief. Although it’s absolutely ridiculous that a person should be prevented from lying down and resting in a public park, at least the rule seems to be applied uniformly. The security were fair and pleasant, and though I was constantly aware of their presence, I can’t complain about the way I was treated.

Thus far, the Southland’s first free private/public park appears to maintain a simulacrum of normal public governance. For now, at least, a fly still has a place in the Americana’s ointment.


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