Allyson Johnson

Pieces of my Mind

Archive for the month “July, 2014”

The Hollow Towns (LATC July 2014)

 
 
The Great WAll of Los Altos
 
My husband and I recently took a backroads trip across the country. We avoided the interstates with their urban bypasses as much as possible, choosing instead the old US highways which usually pass right down the main streets of whatever population centers are strung along their path.  Sadly, business goes where people are, and if there are more travelers on the interstate than on the highway, that’s where the services go.  And the downtown businesses which comprised the community core then wither, and their buildings rot, and there is no there there.
 
Often, very often, the city governments have misdiagnosed the problem.  In the 50’s and 60’s it was imagined to be all about parking.  People went to the suburban strip malls because it was easy to park, they thought.  So the city managers gutted the city center,tearing down the historic structures which gave it personality, and replaced those structures with parking lots. 
 
Hotel Blemerhasset, Parkersburg WVI’m talking about Parkersburg, West Virginia. In its heyday, the center of town was a fantasy of Romanesque architecture in red brick or gray stone, each structure striving to reach the heights via a spire (if it was a church) or a clock tower (if it was a civic building),  The history book in our hotel showed picture after picture of these wonderful buildings, but most were captioned “… abandoned in the 50’s.” “…gutted by fire of unknown origin after standing empty for some time.” “…razed unceremoniously in the 70’s despite citizen and local historian’s outraged protest.”  I noted the locations where these buildings had stood and checked them out.  Parking lots, all. And all empty.  Only three buildings remained of the many pictured. There is no there there.
 
I’m talking about Sunnyvale, California. In the 1950’s Murphy Avenue was the main street of Sunnyvale, and boasted a department store and a number of other retail shops.  Adjacent to Murphy Avenue was a  Town and Country Village shopping center, with wide overhanging eaves and benches to encourage lingering in the shade.  But in the 60’s competition from the new Stanford Mall was extreme.  So the city fathers decided to create the Sunnyvale Town Center enclosed mall, and in doing so they cut off Murphy Avenue and converted it to a parking lot for the new mall.  Fifty years later the Town and Country Village has been razed and replaced with apartments, and the Town Centre struggles on its third set of anchor stores, which are almost impossible to find behind their multistory parking garages.  Against all odds, the three block vestige of Murphy Avenue is pulsing with lively restaurants and shops.  There is little else there.Murphy Avenue
 
I’m not talking about my own hometown of Los Altos… yet.  But when I approach Main Street on the expressway which replaced the railroad tracks along First Street,  I worry.  Formerly drivers on the expressway could glance over and look down Main Street and along First Street, and if they were intrigued by the small-town look of the many 1920’s era buildings, they could take the next exit and follow their urge to explore.  But that’s not going to happen any more.  There is a four story Great Wall which barricades the town against any casual glance.  The Great Wall of Los Altos includes two huge new apartment complexes and “one of only two podium-style Safeway markets in the state.” (Podium – style means parking on the first floor, shopping  in a high-ceilinged market at the tope of an escalator, and storage on the floors above.)
 No matter how much ivy and bougainvillea is trained up the Great Wall to soften it, there is no way to see through the Wall to the charming streets behind it.  If fewer people shop in Los Altos in the next months and years, it’s not because of the lack of parking.  It’s because they will have no way to know what is there.
The Great Wall - Section 2

 

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Northern California – NOT Silicon Valley (LATC June 2014)

View from the resting place on the HillI visited friends in Northern California. Not “Northern California = San Francisco as opposed to Los Angeles” but “Northern California = North of Santa Rosa as opposed to San Francisco” . It was a revelation.

North of Santa Rosa the hills are covered with vineyards or redwood forests, not housing developments.

North of Santa Rosa US 101 winds along the rivers whenever possible, because that is the way one could travel between the forbidding mountains of the coast range and the desert area of the Central Valley (yes, desert before irrigation)

North of Santa Rosa wealth comes from agriculture, whether that be dairy, winery, timber forest, orchard, or illegal pot farm.

North of Santa Rose the largest “city” is Redding, named for a land agent of the Central Pacific railroad when the railroad decided to route its north-south route through the town formerly known as Poverty Flats. Today it is best known for a beautiful pedestrian bridge.

It’s easy to make fun of farming communities. I couldn’t help but giggle at the front page article in the Humboldt Beacon lauding the selection of a local girl as California Beef Ambassador, with the quote that she will “be the face of California beef.” And I broke into a laugh as the article noted that the girl’s great-grandmother had been “Cowbelle of the Year” in Humboldt County some years back, while her mother had been Cattle Woman of the Year in 2005.

Then I thought again. It’s a lucky family that can trace four generations in the same community, and that has carried on a common interest, whether it be agriculture, education, or industry, across the same number of generations. There’s a lot to be said for continuity, a lot to be said for roots.

Porcelain tributesI thought more about roots and continuity when I visited the small cemetery in the town. It was nothing like the carefully manicured death theme parks in metro areas, with their restrictions on size, shape and structure of grave markers and memorial tributes. The graves were mostly marked with tombstones, but also with wooden crosses, hand-carved slabs of redwood,   or mosaic tile and colored beads set in concrete to spell out the names of the dead. Some family names stretched back to gold rush times when the village was founded.

Most, but not all, of the graves were carefully tended. Many were festooned with fresh or artificial flowers. One grave was covered with porcelain figurines ranging from the Madonna to Mickey Mouse, all meticulously clean.

My favorite was the grave of “beloved mother” Ruth Miner. Her simple black marble plaque was carved with her name, birth, and death dates. Just below was a second carved marble plaque announcing “I AM AN ATHEIST ALL DRESSED UP NO PLACE TO GO”.Aheist's Lament

From her gravesite on the hill planted with blooming rhododendrons, I looked over the village with its church spires and beyond to the verdant valley dotted with grazing cows. I thought to myself “Ruth, where would you want to go from here?”

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