My Urban Paradise

After living close to four years in a light-filled but noisy one-bedroom condo in Santa Monica, my wife Gailyn and I moved, in June 2000, to Village Green, a development that dates from the early 1940s — before the end of the Second World War and the beginning of the National Security State, which Gore Vidal marks as a threshold in a national turn toward hell. Village Green is a 68-acre development with several hundred condominiums and town homes, built under the aegis of a group that included the visionary Clarence S. Stein and which developed five other such projects across America. Designed by the architects Reginald Johnson and the 28-year-old Robert Alexander in collaboration with the landscape architect Fred Barlow, this bucolic island in the city, situated south of the 10 freeway between La Cienega and La Brea, comprises a kind of urban paradise. Alexander later commented that one of the central ideas was to “tame the automobile” — this 50 years before the SUV. The design keeps all cars at the peripheries in garages or parking slots and renders Village Green out of sight of passing motorists. The 68 acres encompass three large “greens,” beautifully planted with trees that are now 60 years old.

We’ve never lived anywhere so beautiful. During our first year here Gailyn said that when she left, she had a half-conscious notion that the place would disappear before she got back. During that first summer, when I habitually woke up before dawn, I used to step out our door for a walk around the green when it was just turning light. The summer air, still cool in the early morning, was like ambrosia, so laden with the fragrance of the trees — sycamores and eucalyptus and ficus and oak. I hadn’t smelled anything so good, it seemed to me, since deepest childhood when my senses were sharper. This in Central Los Angeles, not many blocks from South Central.

It’s a “mixed neighborhood,” as they say, at the foot of Baldwin Hills, which is now predominantly a settlement of African-American middle-class homeowners. Approximately half the residents of Village Green are white, 40 percent black, and the rest mostly Asian. Imagine living in a townhouse in Central Park, and then figure in that we have twice the space we had in Santa Monica and pay less for it, 10 minutes from the County Museum of Art.

The problem of the races at Village Green has been reduced to the point of extinction. In the early ’90s, around the time of the Rodney King verdict, I regularly attended PEN meetings downtown in the evening, and several times as I drove out of the neighborhood around 9 p.m., I saw young black teenagers, around the age of my son Armenak at that time, on their knees with their hands up against the side of a building with LAPD officers holding guns at their backs. Anyone who has ever raised a teenager knows that these are difficult years in the best of circumstances — it’s often the considered opinion of the teenager that he knows more than any adult possibly could — and I was in the midst of that struggle with my own son. Still, what one was witnessing was an undeclared war in plain view of any passersby.

As I grow older, the idea takes increasing hold in me that we’ve misunderstood our own delicacy and diversity as human beings. The British psychologist Donald Winnicott divided the population into two groups: those who had adequate parenting and those who didn’t, and said that it was the job of the former to look after the latter. That seems to me a good starting point, which might then be amplified with the African proverb that it takes a village to raise a child. The problem in America is that the village now seems hellbent on destroying the best that is in the child, and the actual parents are often in such a mad scramble to stay afloat that any mitigating measures they might take come too little or too late. After all, a child, as one sees repeatedly as a parent, is a delicate organism with infinite permeability — and the violence of our current system is numbing and burning out this wondrous resource as surely as we’re destroying the eco-system.

Yet it’s a simple matter, in the end — as simple as a nice place to live. Village Green and its coeval developments, on which a group that included Lewis Mumford — who lived for 12 years in the Queens, N.Y., development at Sunnyside — pondered long and hard, was built with private money with the idea that it would then serve as a prototype for affordable housing that would ultimately win approval and be given government support. The end of the war and the return of the soldiers created instead a real estate boom in which anybody who signed checks could build piecemeal, ragtag housing in the shortest possible time frame to turn a profit, and the care and planning of a humane environment got lost in the shuffle. Somebody made a buck. Somebody else inherited the mess. So it goes, as Kurt Vonnegut likes to say.

All of us who live in this community know we’re lucky, among the luckiest people in L.A. We step outside our front doors to walk under beautiful sheltering trees and are not obliged to listen to cars going by all day and night. Then too, these one- and two-bedroom condos and town homes — there are just a few three-bedroom units — are, even five years later, among the best real estate buys in the city, if that isn’t now an oxymoron. What is here has not, alas, become a paradigm for affordable housing.

The global free market is the messiah; laissez-faire capitalism, if it is simply allowed to roam the planet at large in search of profit, will bring peace and prosperity, eventually, to everybody. If we need to sacrifice a generation or two in the meantime, well, that’s the price that must be paid. Even William Jefferson Clinton, perhaps the most brilliant politician of my lifetime, seems half-possessed by this chimera.

What is really needed is what, by luck, Gailyn and I happened to discover in a mixed neighborhood of Los Angeles, a mixed neighborhood in which all of us feel grateful and lucky, lushly planted with trees. A kind of paradise on earth. Indeed, the long-seeded but just about forgotten American dream.

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