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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • FOR SALE
    Yellowstone Llamas Successful Yellowstone NP concession Flexible packages
  • DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT & MARKETING
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners is seeking a full-time Director of Development & Marketing. This is a senior position responsible for the development of all marketing...
  • LEGAL DIRECTOR
    The Legal Director will work closely with the Executive Director in cultivating a renewed vision at NMELC that integrates diversity, equity, and justice. Black, Indigenous,...
  • VICE PRESIDENT, LANDSCAPE CONSERVATION
    The Vice President for Landscape Conservation leads Defenders' work to promote landscape-scale wildlife conservation, focusing on four program areas: federal public lands management; private lands...
  • NOVA SCOTIA OCEAN FRONT
    Camp or Build on 2+ acres in Guysborough. FSBO. $36,000 US firm. Laurie's phone: 585-226-2993 EST.
  • COMMUNITY FORESTER
    The Clearwater Resource Council located in Seeley Lake, Montana is seeking a full-time community forester with experience in both fuels mitigation and landscape restoration. Resumes...
  • GUNNISON BASIN ROUNDTABLE
    The Gunnison Basin Roundtable is currently accepting letters of interest for ten elected seats. Five of the elected members must have relevant experience in the...
  • PCTA TRAIL CREW TECHNICAL ADVISORS IN WASHINGTON'S NORTH CASCADES
    Seasonal Positions: June 17th to September 16th (14 weeks) - 3 positions to be filled The mission of the Pacific Crest Trail Association is to...
  • WE'RE LOOKING FOR LEADERS!
    As we celebrate 50 years of great Western journalism, High Country News is looking for a few new board members to help set a course...
  • MEMBERSHIP DIRECTOR
    Job Announcement Job Title: Membership Director Supervisor: Executive Director Salary: Up to $65,000/year DOE Benefits: Generous benefits package — health insurance, Simple IRA and unlimited...
  • UTAH PUBLIC LANDS MANAGER
    Who we are: Since 1985, the Grand Canyon Trust has been a leading voice in regional conservation on the Colorado Plateau. From protecting the Grand...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Executive Director Walker Basin Conservancy Reno & Yerington, NV Background The Walker Basin Conservancy (Conservancy) leads the effort to restore and maintain Walker Lake while...
  • WIND RIVER WRITERS AND PHOTOGRAPHERS RETREAT BY THE NATIONAL BIGHORN SHEEP CENTER
    Enhance your writing or photography skills with world-class instructors in the beautiful Wind River Mountains. All skill levels welcome. Continuing education credits available.
  • EARTH CRUISER FX FOR SALE
    Overland Vehicle for travel on or off road. Fully self contained. Less than 41,000 miles. Recently fully serviced Located in Redmond, OR $215'000.
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    identifies suspect buried trash, tanks, drums &/or utilities and conducts custom-designed subsurface investigations that support post-damage litigation.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    They [Northern Plains] confound the common view that ordinary people are powerless in the face of industry. - Billings Gazette editorial The venerable Northern Plains...
  • SMALL FARM AT BASE OF MOUNT SHASTA, CALIF.
    Certified organic fruit/berry/veggie/flower farm. Small home, 2 barns (one has an apartment), and more. Approx. two acres just in the City limits. Famously pure air...
  • TAOS HORNO ADVENTURES
    A Multicultural Culinary Memoir Informed by History and Horticulture. Richard and Annette Rubin. At nighthawkpress.com/titles and Amazon.
  • LAND & CABIN ON CO/ UT LINE
    18 ac w/small solar ready cabin. Off grid, no well. Great RV location. Surrounded by state wildlife area and nat'l parks.
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Field seminars for adults in natural and human history of the Colorado Plateau with lodge, river trip and base camp options. Small groups, guest experts.