Empty pods and pleasant graveyards

  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?"

"How about Theme?"

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 "Orenco Station."

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.

By now, 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.

"But 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 we.

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?

Suburbia is 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!

David Oates walked all 260 miles of the Portland, Oregon, "urban growth boundary" for a book about nature, city, and community called City Limits: Walking Portland’s Boundary.