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A Los Angeles Primer: Torrance

"This section, to a greater extent than any other, is dependent on the automobile," wrote novelist James M. Cain in "Paradise," his 1933 essay on Southern California. "The distances are so vast, the waste of time so cruel if you go by bus or street car, that you must have your own transportation." Many still believe this about the Los Angeles of eighty years later, sometimes wrongly, but sometimes rightly — or rather, in some places wrongly, and in other places rightly. Questions asked in and around Los Angeles, to continue Cain's line of thinking, depend to a greater extent than anywhere else on where in particular you've come from and where you intend to go. When asking directions, you never hear the classic old New Englander's response that "you can't get there from here," but you do hear quite often the equally frustrating response that "you can't get there that way from here," or in any case, that you certainly wouldn't want to try.

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So it has gone with my visits to Torrance, a town of just under 150,000 in the middle of the peninsular region known as the South Bay. Try as they will, the transit agencies involved have so far proven simply unable to get the trip from downtown to Torrance under eighty minutes or do it with fewer than three buses. The twenty-mile distance surely has something to do with this, although I can't help but notice that you can quickly and easily hop a train in the developed swaths of Europe and Asia to make a similar trip. This holds especially true of one particularly developed bit of Asia: Japan. I have a more convenient transit experience going from Los Angeles to that country's actual 47 prefectures than I'd have going from there to Torrance, which people used to jokingly call its 48th. The presence there of a number of branches of Japanese corporations has brought about a Japanese population of not quite ten percent (which, an unimpressive figure though it may seem, ranks second-highest in America), which in turn fosters in this quiet little city a surprising concentration of Japanese culture.

Seeing as the best-known names in Japanese business that Torrance hosts include both Honda and Toyota, it seemed further appropriate to borrow a car in order to get there. I drove straight down the Harbor Freeway and made a beeline for Eastgate Plaza, a collection of strip-mall buildings around a large central parking lot that, it its way, rivals downtown's Little Tokyo. It may even, at least among the most dedicated enthusiasts of Japanese cuisine, come out the victor, with offerings both more authentically traditional and more daringly new hidden behind its assembly of near-featureless storefronts. This plays straight into the common passion of the Los Angeles diner to do their best eating in the homeliest possible built environment. Adventurous eating in other American cities tends to entail visits to run-down, dangerous, or otherwise obscure and neglected neighborhoods — places, in other words, just on the other side of gentrification. Much of the adventurous eating in Los Angeles, by contrast, demands a ride out of Los Angeles proper and into some recently (and often hastily) built part of an outwardly blank-looking suburb, where the very term "gentrification" carries no meaning.

Still, it would take a dismissive observer indeed to see Torrance as wholly uninteresting aside from its Japanese dining opportunities. The stimulating if fortress-like Marukai Marketplace offers a range of other Japanese consumables, from confections to cosmetics, magazines to mobile phones, and a walk from there through Torrance's downtown reveals fascinating contrasts in the city's look and feel. The still-gleaming Miyako Hybrid Hotel — a name that sounds straight out of "Blade Runner" — stands across the street from countless aging tract homes, the likes of which Pete Seeger might once have sung about. The izakaya does its business right next to the Foster's Freeze. Vast, silent office parks give way quickly to the small shops of the smaller-scaled core, now bannered "Old Torrance," originally designed by famed east coast landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., better known for his work in America's National Parks and such Washington D.C. landmarks as the National Mall and the grounds of the White House. (Old Torrance's coffee house, incidentally, merits more than one visit). Even from the windows of businesses that don't seem overtly Japanese, the maneki-neko, that ceramic feline bringer of commercial luck, beckons with an upraised paw.

Residents of Los Angeles, especially those not employed by Honda or Toyota — or the King's Hawaiian bread plant, another, sweeter-smelling bastion of transpacific consciousness — may have less occasion than once they did to go to Torrance, but they still have plenty to enjoy when it now and again arises. Can we say the same about many other cities and the communities that lie outside them? Visiting Portland, I once asked a friend based there what he recommended I do in its suburbs. Given the existence there of a relatively far-reaching light rail system — the envy of certain visiting transit-minded Angelenos — I figured I could take advantage of the riches of, shall we say, greater Portland. According to my Portlander friend, however, few such riches exist; I'd only want to schlep all the way to the likes of Gresham or Hillsboro, he insisted, if I lived out there. And in that moment, I received a kind of enlightenment about the unusual relationship between Los Angeles and its own suburbs: even those who never moved out to them have long had legitimate reasons to go to them, ranging from food to jobs to even cultural experiences unlike those available in the city itself.

These places fall under the category of bedroom communities, albeit ones outfitted like the bedroom of that kid down the block we all knew in childhood, the one with all those interesting books, toys, and projects in there, not to mention the neat stuff his parents would routinely bring back from the old country. This gets the aforementioned transit-minded Angeleno imagining a glorious future ahead for greater Los Angeles, "once we get it all connected," where, instead of a population glumly milling from all directions to work in a central business district every morning and out again every evening, everyone will go everywhere for every reason all the time. Torrance, if all develops according to plan (see Eric Brightwell's post "Exploring the South Bay Metro Green Line Extension"), should receive such a connection, sooner rather than later, in the form of a station on the Green Line, the much-ridiculed train originally designed, but opened much too late, to serve the South Bay's Cold War-era aerospace industry. But a ride from downtown to Redondo Beach, the Green Line's current terminus, already takes nearly an hour, a thought that makes this glorious future recede slightly further into the distance — as, I suppose, glorious futures have a way of doing.

Photos by Colin Marshall.

About the Author

Colin Marshall hosts and produces the podcast Notebook on Cities and Culture. These columns present essays adapted from his book-in-progress, "A Los Angeles Primer: Mastering the Stateless City."
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