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Trip the Light Fantastic

By Frank Gruber

"Learn from me, if not by my precepts, at least by my example, how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge and how much happier that man is who believes his native town to be the world, than he who aspires to become greater than his nature will allow." -- Victor Frankenstein, from Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley.

I think the world of Santa Monica, but I like to travel, and I take the "travel broadens the mind" view over "a little knowledge is a dangerous thing."

Especially when I travel with my son, who just turned eleven.

Last week Henry and I kicked around New York like a couple of sailors on liberty while my wife attended a convention at a big midtown hotel.

What did we do? You name it. The Museum of Natural History, including the new Rose Planetarium. The Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. The aircraft carrier Intrepid and the destroyer Edson. The Met (but only the arms and armor and the Temple of Dendur). Central Park and the Central Park Zoo -- in the snow (the sea lions and the polar bears were happy). And a Broadway show, "Annie Get Your Gun."

We took taxis, buses, subways, ferries. I had to reload my MetroCard twice. We walked miles.

We visited friends and relatives on the east side, the west side, and in Greenwich Village.

We ate everything, and in large quantities.

It was cold, in the 20's. Then it snowed. The blizzard was timed perfectly to cancel our return flight on December 31, and we spent New Year's Eve -- which happens to be Henry's birthday -- in New York. We skipped Times Square, but watched the fireworks over Central Park. A friend baked Henry a cake.

What a week.

I was lucky to have Henry in tow. Alone, I might have skipped the Statue of Liberty and the Ellis Island Museum. I certainly would not have toured the Intrepid and the Edson on what must have been the coldest day of the year.

New York is a monument to human achievement, but I know what Dr. Frankenstein meant. All that achievement causes us mortals to resent our chains.

At the Museum of Natural History I wondered why I wasn't smarter.

Looking in the shop windows on Fifth Avenue, I wondered why my life wasn't more glamorous.

At "Annie Get Your Gun," I wondered why I couldn't sing and dance -- even just a little.

At the Statue of Liberty, and in the aircraft carrier, I wondered why I hadn't accomplished something noble or important.

At Ellis Island, I wondered why I hadn't spent more time with my grandmother.

Oh well. I will not aspire to be greater than my nature will allow. But what now, now that I have returned to the world -- I mean, to Santa Monica?

Ever since Jane Jacobs wrote about them so well, New York's streets have been holy ground to urbanists. Since long before that New York itself has been the bete noire of suburbanists.

Both views are unhelpful. New York is unique.

No matter how much density urbanists dream about, no American city will ever see so many people commute by transit as in New York.

No matter how much density the suburbanists fear, no American city will ever have so many apartments in so many tall buildings on so little land.

In that sense, this "acquirement of knowledge" about New York by both urbanists and suburbanists has been dangerous in just the way Mary Shelley predicted. Like Frankenstein, both kinds of planners have used this knowledge to construct monsters: "urban-renewed" wastelands of apartment towers with no urban context, on one hand, and suburban sprawl on the other.

Oh well.

Did I acquire any knowledge in New York? Any knowledge relevant to my world?

Yes. I learned:

That people like people. The crowds were immense, but the people in the crowds were happy and unexpectedly courteous. I thought of a photograph of a Santa Monica park that recently appeared in one of our local papers under the caption, "Perfection." But the park was empty -- not a soul appeared in the picture. The people in Central Park enhanced its perfection.

That the value of good design and quality construction is impossible to quantify. Whenever I admired a well-proportioned facade of brownstone or brick, limestone or granite, I wondered how our stucco-on-sticks construction, "faux this and faux that," will stand the decades.

That numerous small streets can move traffic as well as a few big ones, but sometimes it's better to walk. I wish our planners had broken up the super-blocks of Colorado Place, the Arboretum, and the Water Garden, so that people would have streets to walk on and traffic would flow through those developments, rather than clog the boulevards that surround them.

That an eleven-year-old will happily walk forty blocks if he can throw snowballs along the way. How that applies to Santa Monica I will leave to you.

* * *

While I was enjoying myself in New York, young people were shooting each other again in Santa Monica.

None of us yet know all the facts, so it is too early to say much. But with the budget process beginning again, we need to take a look at our priorities.

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