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And Livable Is?

By Frank J. Gruber

By the standards of many Santa Monicans, the motorist who ran her BMW at high speed into a Department of Water and Power truck last month was experiencing a high quality of life until just before the crash. (see story)

I mean she obviously wasn't caught in gridlock. She wasn't wasting her life at an intersection rated "F." Those Santa Monicans who judge "livability" by how fast they can get through intersections must have been envious -- she was cruisin' just like they say your could back in the good old days (when traffic was so bad the City turned downtown streets one-way and the freeway was built to solve the traffic problem).

A week after the BMW driver's moment of traffic heaven almost sent her to real heaven, one driver's livability turned out to be Jeanette Hicks' rather total "lack of livability." Ms. Hicks was the pedestrian who died from the injuries she sustained September 21 when a motorist in a car making a left turn struck her in a crosswalk. (see story)

Details on the accident are sparse at the moment, but can you run down a pedestrian while you are making a left if you've slowed down or stopped first?

Ocean Park Boulevard is usually a good traffic street, notwithstanding the nearly 20,000 cars that use it every weekday. Except during those late afternoons when eastbound traffic on all east-west routes is backed up to the 405, traffic flows well on Ocean Park, probably because (i) it has long, non-commercial stretches without parking or other activities that slow down traffic, (ii) it doesn't connect directly to a freeway, and (iii) given the lack of left turn lanes, long-distance motorists tend to avoid it.

Yet in a city consumed with traffic angst, residents who live near Ocean Park Boulevard are trying to slow traffic down on the boulevard, not speed it up. Evidently the livability those drivers experience going 45 or more miles per hour has had a negative impact on the livability of the people who live nearby, and the children at John Adams Middle School, who cross the street to get to and from the bus stop and Bob's Market.

But that's what's funny about traffic. Half the time residents are telling the City they want to slow traffic down, half the time they are complaining it doesn't move fast enough. Sometimes it's the same residents. Some residents want traffic slow in their neighborhoods, but want to drive fast through someone else's.

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Around the same time last month those accidents were occurring on Ocean Park Boulevard, California's giant agricultural industry went into crisis mode when two hundred customers got sick from eating packaged spinach; three have died. Government officials, agribusinesses and grocery stores acted fast and shut off the supply of possibly tainted spinach as soon as they realized there was a problem.

Yet there's an industry that distributes products out that kill more than 40,000 Americans each year -- and about 5,000 people who aren't even using the product when it kills them. The latter are called pedestrians and the product is called the automobile.

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Question: What do last year's Samohi football coach, the cantor at my synagogue (Beth Shir Sholom in mid-Wilshire), and Kathryn Dodson, the President and CEO of the Santa Monica Chamber of Commerce, have in common?

Answer: They all quit their jobs in Santa Monica because they couldn't find housing here, or within reasonable commuting range, for their young families. The football coach moved to Virginia, the cantor moved to the Valley, and Ms. Dodson is about to move to El Paso, Texas. They all said that they would have preferred to stay.

Rhetorical question: How livable will Santa Monica be if middle-class families can't afford to live here?

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I have previously written about "grocery store urbanism," but having lots of choice in the purchase of anchovies is not the only advantage of living in a city. One element that cities have that makes them livable is music. The variety and quality of live music available is directly proportional to the population of any given place.

I still listen to cheesy oldies on the radio, but as I age, I have become addicted to listening to serious music, whether "classical" or jazz, performed live. Fortunately, Santa Monica is becoming a much more convenient place than it was to hear concerts.

It's not that I know much about music. I don't. In fact, one result of having a child in his sixth year of studying music in the Santa Monica public schools is that I've learned just how much I don't know about music.

But knowledge isn't everything. Visceral, gut-wrenching emotional responses count, too, and watching human beings collaborate to perform at high levels of artistry is a thrill. You realize how pale an imitation a recording is when you focus every sense on the soloist playing the slightest pianissimo, as if you're watching a humming bird and trying not to scare it away, and then you let the fortissimo roll over you like a wave that spits you up on the sand, exhausted.

Serious music is a city thing. It takes a large pool of people -- musicians, audience, even philanthropists -- to make it happen. I go to the opera and the L.A. Phil at the Music Center and the Disney Hall as much as possible, but let's face it -- traffic is a bear. One can easily spend as much time driving to downtown L.A. and back as one spends in the concert hall.

The reason I'm going on about music is that I want to plug a concert series that is about to begin its fourth annual season in Santa Monica. The series is called Jacaranda: Music on the Edge of Santa Monica, and for three years it has presented chamber music of the highest level at the First Presbyterian Church, on Second Street between Wilshire and Arizona. There is no way in a few words that I can summarize Jacaranda's programming; go to their website to get the whole story.

This year because of renovations in process at First Pres., Jacaranda will be moving around. Their first concert -- actually, a marathon of three -- will be presented at Barnum Hall at Santa Monica High School on Nov. 4. Tickets for each concert are a reasonable $25 ($10 for students). Then Jacaranda will present concerts in the Valley and at LACMA, before returning to First Pres. and Santa Monica in the spring.

The disadvantage of dense urban living is congestion; the advantage is convenience. Jacaranda is making great music more convenient in Santa Monica. Check it out.

Live a little.

If you would like to write to me, I can be contacted through The Lookout at, or through my website at
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