Back in the 1960s, when I was a Los Angeles kid, LAX airport planned a big remodel. Regional bigwigs envisioned a futuristic structure of some kind, so the architects went on a Jetsons jag and suspended a gleaming streamlined pod on two sweeping steel parabolas. It would be the theme building for the whole airport, with a theme restaurant.
So what did they
name it? "The Theme Building." Apparently none of the leadership
geniuses understood that "theme building" was a category, not a
name. So it stuck. I see it every time I go back. It contains, of
course, "The Theme Restaurant."
"So, what do you feel
like eating tonight? Mexican? Chinese?"
Real-estaters seem gifted with this special form
of cluelessness. They are, I think, the prophets of our time.
Greater Portland, where I live now, is the mecca of New
Urbanism, that planner’s utopia of a compact downtown ringed
by a growth boundary and outlying town centers of mid-rise shopping
and housing. Today, Portland wears around its shoulders a necklace
of these bustling civic neighborhoods, named "Tanasbourne" or
Out in east-county Gresham, though, the
civic neighborhood has been named ... "The Civic Neighborhood."
Article included: The. For distinction. Am I the only one who
thinks this is funny?
Poverty of imagination should never
surprise us. Excellence is rare, I always remind myself —
mediocrity (by definition) the norm. But there’s a particular
form of babbittry in real-estate-world that seems, well,
exceptionally mediocre. Gresham should be proud.
I ought to be inured to the PR mentality that produces this kind of
thing, that mind divorced from any reality except the commercial
one: Money out, money in — what else exists, really? I
remember well those treeless, waterless miles of bulldozed Los
Angeles suburb baking under the semitropical sun, named "Lake
Forest" or "WillowDale" or some such emptiness. No one notices the
actual blazing desiccation, apparently. People buy, builders get
rich. Such vacuous pseudo-named pseudo-places are everywhere now.
Words divorced from meaning. Places divorced from locale.
Isn’t this the modern condition? Erasure of history and
topography and (therefore) meaning. All of us afloat in strange
denatured space: TV. Mall. Air-conditioned car. Suburb. Each of us
in a sealed pod, separated, advertised-to, amused.
what’s it mean? What’s it for?" Language is how we
navigate such questions, finding or making the meanings we live by.
What will be left us if Forest comes to mean cul-de-sac, Clean (as
in "Clean Air Act") a measurement of profitable dirtiness, God a
political lever someone else pulls? If the words go empty, so do
Our response to this diet of nullity ought to be, not
those vacant talk-show emotions of anger and blame, but hunger.
Hunger. "O taste and see," say the scriptures: We ought to be
ravenous for real Forest, thirsty for a River not channellized or
poisoned, crystal clear about what’s Clean or unClean, and
famished for a God at least as big as the night sky ... or the
human heart. We need to eat, touch, taste this natural and
invisible world — and never be satisfied with less. Certainly
not with additional helpings of Theme.
I know of
Gresham-adjacent housing available for purchase in a place called
Pleasant Valley. Or, for aspirations that run higher, in Happy
Valley. The houses are huge, identical, crammed-in, horrifying.
What’s your problem, writer?
an irony-free zone. So, apparently, is America. We do not notice or
question the mismatch between word and reality. We smile and we
buy. Reality is whatever the slogan says it is. Candidates are sold
this way. Houses are. Wars are.
I know a graveyard right
next door to Happy Valley called — believe it —
Pleasant Valley Cemetery.
Sounds great! Let’s go!