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By Frank Gruber

February 7, 2011 -- fe-tish 1 a an object believed among a primitive people to have magical power to protect or aid its owner; broadly: a material object regarded with superstitious or extravagant trust or reverence b: an object of irrational reverence or obsessive devotion.

fe-tish-ism 1: belief in magical fetishes 2: extravagant irrational devotion.

-- Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary

By these definitions -- without even getting into the sexual aspects -- one can classify cars as American fetishes. Last week auto-fetishism played a big role in local news. I’m not saying that one can or should ignore the car, that’s impossible, but isn’t it a little bit “primitive” the extent to which normally rational people make their cars objects of “irrational reverence or obsessive devotion?”

We all know how people who are polite citizens when they are on foot turn into jerks when they take the wheel, but at least one might categorize that as a mere emotional response to having power and control over something. What is evidence of fetishism are the irrational ideas -- call them superstitious -- that people have about their cars.

Take the latest controversy on adding (or in certain cases adding back) bus-only lanes to Wilshire Boulevard during rush hours. Los Angeles City Council Member Bill Rosendahl, responding to the fears of car-driving wealthy constituents, is trying to eliminate the lanes that would run through the Westside. (See story: Rosendahl_Bus_Lanes, February 3,_2011)

Mr. Rosendahl claims that he doesn’t want the bus lanes on the Westside until Santa Monica and Beverly Hills agree to include them in their (relatively small) portions of Wilshire Boulevard. But that’s a dodge; he’s really trying to please car-driving constituents who believe that they will be victimized if buses have mor-e access to road surface than they do.

It’s the irrational sense of victimhood that gets me. Think about that: a motorist considers himself a victim if he’s stuck in traffic. But he’s only a victim because thousands of people just like him want to do the same thing at the same time.

The fetishism comes in because none of these motorists imagine traveling without their cars. Their cars are sacred talismans: no profane bus should have more privileges, even if it’s full of people. This is irrational devotion. Already more human beings use public transit to travel on Wilshire than use cars; doesn’t it make sense to make Wilshire work better for them? In which case, even fewer people might drive their own cars, which would make traffic better for the most devout car-worshippers.

By the way, and I know this will be suspect coming from a Santa Monican, but is there a bigger blowhard in local politics than Bill Rosendahl? Does he believe it when he says “The City of Santa Monica creates all my gridlock”?

Council Member Rosendahl, look around: do you see Century City? Do you see Westwood? Do you see the Sepulveda corridor? The Olympic corridor? Do you see Wilshire Boulevard and all those towers looming over that artistic wave Santa Monica installed over Wilshire at the border, just to remind motorists they had now entered a different place?

More to the point, do you see the 405? The ultimate cause of gridlock on the Westside is the impacted colon running through it.

True, Santa Monica and Beverly Hills have not decided on adding the bus lanes. But why should they even study the issue if Los Angeles isn’t going to add them to its much longer stretch of Wilshire?

* * *

There was also auto-fetishism on display in Santa Monica last week, too. This time the focus of the irrational reverence was on parking.

Quite a number of capital projects, both public and private, are scheduled to be built in downtown Santa Monica and in the Civic Center over the next five years, and last Tuesday the City Council held a study session about plans for dealing with the impacts these projects will create.

The projects include the rebuilding of the California incline and the Pier bridge, rebuilding and expanding Parking Structure 6 and removing Parking Structure 3 (to allow the building of new movie theaters), the building of new parks in the Civic Center and the Expo Line terminal at Fourth and Colorado, turning Colorado into an esplanade from Fourth to the Pier, building the “Village” residential project, and extending Olympic Drive to Ocean Avenue.

These are big projects, but then -- what's new about that? Has Santa Monica, city of change, ever not been “under construction?” City staff are concerned about keeping traffic flowing and business going, but -- and the staff report commendably notes this -- we’ve been through this before.

As for parking, there are issues. Downtown merchants are concerned that if structure 3 (on Fourth north of Santa Monica Boulevard) is closed before structure 6 (on Second north of Broadway) is reopened after it has been rebuilt and expanded, there will be a dire, if short-term, shortage of parking. City staff appeared confident that if this situation arises, they will be able to deal with it by means of temporary surface lots on city-owned land and by other means. Surely something can and should be worked out.

Real parking fetishism manifested itself, at the hearing, however, with pleas from Pier merchants that the City should build parking beneath the new Palisades Garden Walk park. This would be enormously expensive (according to staff it would add $10 million to the cost of the park) and would seriously affect what kind of park could be built. But the Pier merchants complained that on “warm weekends,” and when there were big events, there wasn’t enough parking near the Pier.

The merchants implicitly acknowledge that for most of the time, there won’t be a market for these spaces, but they want the public to assume a large expense so that they can make marginally more money on those “warm weekends.” The reason I call this auto-fetishism is that the notion of even asking for this subsidy is based on “extravagant irrational devotion” to the idea that whenever and wherever a person chooses to drive, he should be able to find a parking space when he gets there.

Economically, this thinking puts parking at the level of clean drinking water, but then cars already get parking more reliably than people get medical care.

More evidence that we’re dealing with belief in magical things is that the same people who complain the most about traffic drive the demand for more and more parking. But don’t they see the illogic of this: more parking means more cars; more cars means more traffic?

Based on the staff report, and on past comments of city council members, this is a fetish that no longer excites anyone in City Hall. The call for parking under the park received no support from staff or from the five council members who were present at the meeting. Next month, however, staff will release a report on long-term parking needs in the area, and so we’ll find out then what the fetishism level is.

* * *

I hope Vidiots survives (at least long enough for me to use the seven vouchers I have left on my current pre-buy), but they have a tough road against new technology. (See story: Vidiots on the Brink, February 4, 2011.)

Saturday night I wanted to buy a CD of a recording I didn’t want to download from iTunes; I went to Barnes & Noble. As I was checking out, I said to the cashier that I guessed that Barnes & Noble was the only place left on the Promenade that sold records. He looked at me and said, “Try the whole Westside.”

Maybe Vidiots can be saved by the fact that their big market is renting, not selling. You can’t beat Vidiots as a place to browse when you don’t know what you want to watch. Give them your business.


One event I’d like to plug is a poetry reading that Marissa Rubin, wife of local tree-hugger Jerry Rubin, will be giving of works from her new book, “Word Honey”. Here are the details:

Valentine's Day, Monday, February 14
Time - 7:00PM
Location - Ken Edwards Center
1527 Fourth Street, Santa Monica

Frank J. Gruber is the author of Urban Worrier: Making Politics Personal, available at Hennessey + Ingalls and Angel City books in Santa Monica, at City Image Press, and on

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If readers want to write Frank Gruber, email The views expressed in this column are those of Frank Gruber and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of
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