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
  • GENERAL MANAGER
    The Board of UYWCD seeks a new GM to manage operations & to implement our robust strategic plan. Details at www.upperyampawater.com. EOE
  • IN TUCSON, FOR SALE: A BEAUTIFUL, CLASSIC MID-CENTURY MODERN HOME
    designed by architect David Swanson in 1966. Located a block from Saguaro National Forest, yet minutes to Downtown and the UofA campus, 3706 sqft, 6...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Friends of the San Juans is seeking a new leader guide our efforts to protect and restore the San Juan Islands and the Salish...
  • 80 ACRES
    straddles North Platte Fishery, Wyoming. Legal access 2 miles off 1-80. Call 720-440-7633.
  • DIRECTOR OF PRODUCT AND MARKETING
    High Country News seeks a Director of Product and Marketing to join our senior team during an exciting chapter of innovation and growth. This individual...
  • OWN A THRIVING MOUNTAIN GUIDE SERVICE.
    Eastern Sierra guide service for sale to person with vision & expertise to take it onwards. Since 1995 with USFS & NPS permits. Ideal for...
  • IMPROVED LOT
    Private road, hillside, views. Well, pad, septic, 99 sq.ft. hut. Dryland permaculture orchard. Wildlife. San Diego--long growing season
  • UNIQUE INVESTMENT OPPORTUNITY
    Profitable off-the-grid business located 2 miles from Glacier National Park. Owner has 6 years operating experience. Seeking investor or partner for business expansion and enhancement....
  • REMOTE SITKA ALASKA FLOAT HOUSE VACATION RENTAL
    Vacation rental located in calm protected waters 8 miles from Sitka, AK via boat with opportunities to fish and view wildlife. Skiff rental also available.
  • EXPERT LAND STEWART
    Available for site conservator, property manager. View resume at http://skills.ojadigital.net.
  • CONSERVATIONIST? IRRIGABLE LAND?
    Stellar seed-saving NGO is available to serious partner. Package must include financial support. Details: http://seeds.ojaidigital.net.
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Colorado Plateau Natural & Human History Field Seminars. Lodge, river, hiking options. Small groups, guest experts.
  • WESTERN NATIVE SEED
    Specializing in native seeds and seed mixes for western states.
  • CHUCK BURR'S CULTUREQUAKE.COM BLOG
    Change will happen when we see a new way of living. Thinking to save the world.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • OJO CALIENTE COMMERCIAL VENTURE
    Outstanding location near the world famous Ojo Caliente Mineral Spring Resort. Classic adobe Mercantile complete w/living quarters, separate 6 unit B&B, metal building and spacious...