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Thinking 'bout My Generation

By Frank Gruber

June 8, 2009 --   Readers may remember that I wrote a column The Next Phase last September about taking my son Henry to the University of Chicago to begin his first year there. I'm now writing another column on a plane back from Chicago, this time after my 35th class reunion.

So there I was, celebrating my graduation from the university in 1974 as I hung out with Henry who was finishing his first year.  This created an odd feeling.

Call it the Gruber theory of relativity, but I couldn't figure out what went faster -- the 35 years since I graduated, or the nine months of the first one-quarter of Henry's college education.

The University of Chicago is located in Hyde Park, the neighborhood of about 45,000 people now known throughout the world as Barack Obama's neighborhood.  His history there was certainly part of the charm of my visit there, whether it was hearing from a professor at the law school at our class dinner, who gave us his personal impressions of the man he "used to call Barack," or eating breakfast at the Valois cafeteria, which posted a sign listing the president's favorites.

(Photo by Vera Aronow)

But I was reminded during the reunion about the president more for what he's not, than by where he lived.  The Class of 1969 was having its 40th reunion, and to mark that significant occasion some of its members put together a short film consisting in large part of footage from the '60s and early '70s.  Close your eyes and you can imagine much of it: radicals in Army surplus jackets talking about revolution and clashing with authority, most spectacularly at the 1968 Democratic Convention.

Since Henry has parents who went to the U of C he is what's called a "legacy," and maybe hearing that term -- from old classmates who were glad to hear that he was a student there -- made me think about the legacy of the '60s era and of "my generation."

Some of the legacy was apparent all over Hyde Park -- some students may have added piercings and tattoos, but the typical dress and appearance code for college students hasn't changed since 1968.  A costume designer and anyone casting the extras for a movie about the Democratic Convention wouldn't have much difficulty.  Students still wear jeans, T-shirts, sweatshirts, and (weather-permitting) sandals, and many of the guys still let their freak flags fly.

And the legacy is also apparent in the diversity of the student body, the casual equality of the sexes in social and academic affairs, and the tolerance for what were 40 years ago the "other" in so many forms.

But the election last year of Barack Obama only put in stark relief the failure of the Baby Boom generation when it came to politics.  We were a real bust.  We changed American politics, all right, but by eviscerating the Left and reviving the Right.  With the result that for nearly 40 years economic progress for the middle and working classes in this country came to a halt, and we're in hock to China and Japan.

Fortunately the two generations that came after us seem more prudent and less obsessed with their own goodness (this goes for Boomers of the left and right).  President Obama's race is, naturally, often remarked about.  But what may be more important is that after two Baby Boomer presidents who did not achieve much that was good, the torch has been passed again.

Good luck, kids!

* * *

After reading the Lookout's story "Council Should Deny_Landmark Designation" on the appeal of the Landmark Commission's 4-3 vote to landmark 301 Ocean Avenue because the building was "identified" with Clo Hoover, who lived there and who was in her time a local political figure in Santa Monica, and after reading the staff report staff report, which lays out why the City should not landmark the building, I was more convinced than ever that decisions in Santa Monica about landmarking properties reflect much more the views of the people making the decisions about future land uses than any coherent theory about what is historic or noteworthy.

Consider these questions: with the exception of the Pier and City Hall, what is the most historical human-built place in the city?  And with the exception of the three founders of the City (Robert S. Baker, Arcadia Bandini de Stearns Baker, and John P. Jones), who is the most important person in the history of Santa Monica?

While you are pondering your answers, I'll give you mine: the Santa Monica Airport and Donald Douglas.  The one is a historical place, par excellence, and the other is a historical figure of national if not global significance.  And the former was historically identified with the latter in a dramatically meaningful way.

Yet the chance that the Santa Monica Airport will be landmarked for its use -- much as the Horizons Surf Shop on Main Street was landmarked for its use -- is nil, because few people in Santa Monica want the Santa Monica Airport to continue in operation if it will be possible to close it.

Similarly, the City encouraged, without a peep of protest from the Landmarks Commission, the Rand Corporation (an organization, by the way, that exists in Santa Monica because of Donald Douglas) to tear down its old buildings, even though they were of magnitudes more historic importance than Clo Hoover's apartment building.

I have sympathy for anyone forced to move from an apartment because its owner seeks to redevelop it.  But landmarking is not how to deal with those issues.  The place to address them is in other parts of the City's codes -- with zoning, perhaps, or with policies on relocation -- and the City has enacted laws to address those issues.  Phony excuses for landmarking should not be used as end runs around those policies and laws.

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