I Used to Live in the Future

I used to live in the future. In fact, I still live in a city whose original motto is Tomorrow's City Today.

Tomorrow didn't exactly bypass my town. But like Disney's Tomorrowland, keeping up with the future was an impossible demand. Disney and my neighbors found out quickly that it's hard to live in a tomorrow that's always out of reach.

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All of Los Angeles was marketed as a future city even as it incorporated pre-Disney theme park attractions from a sunny Spanish and Mexican past. That amalgam is beautifully summed up in the Pacific Palisades in a house now called Villa Aurora. In 1928, when thousands of curious visitors walked through its uninhabited rooms, Villa Aurora was the Los Angeles Times Demonstration Home.

Stories in the Times promised that visitors would see "the latest developments in domestic technology and home planning." In fact, the house was a sales gimmick to lure prospective buyers to the distant slopes of the palisades. But the Demonstration Home did include a kitchen with laborsaving appliances, including an electric dishwasher. And the house had other futuristic amenities like an electric garage door opener. That the house was elaborately designed in the Spanish Colonial Revival style did not seem incongruous. The Demonstration Home's loggias, Arabesque tile work, and built-in pipe organ did not enclose any real history; it was thoroughly new.

Just as the modest tract houses of my neighborhood were. These "undecorated sheds" alluded to an American past only lightly. Inside, stainless steel counter tops, garbage disposers, and the option to buy on credit the latest gas range and a Bendix Economat washing machine assured new homeowners that their future would at least gleam with white enamel.

"Visit this dramatic new city being built," said advertisements for another Los Angele tract house development in 1949. "See how well Kaiser engineers and architects have interpreted the desires of 'Mr. and Mrs. Modern'."

When I was a boy, my modern desires were figured out for me. Tomorrow would be sleek, enclosing like the cockpit of a jet fighter, edged in shinning chrome, powerful, and fast. It would be armed mentally, spiritually, and materially against the Communist threat. But that future - full of material promises and thermonuclear threats -- became blurry over time. Somehow, speed and space and the promises of being modern in a dangerous world became entangled with questions and unsettling perspectives.

To be modern had been easier once -- just find the avant-garde and follow it. But that route was suddenly problematic. The avant-garde itself was a mess of contending "isms," each with its own solution to the problem of being new. Some utopias were still in fashion, but hardly anyone actually wanted to live in one.

In a home pretty much like mine is where tens of thousands of Angeleños wanted to live, where the future might be acquired in the form of Better Things for Better Living, just as the slogan from DuPont chemicals put it.

But which new things? In what kind of home? Who would define "better" and "new?" And would any of it actually improve our lives?

With or without answers, the past's unachieved tomorrows got old. The early seasons of "Star Trek" and "Dr. Who" are "paleofutures" that today seem antique. The clash of ideologies I was trained for turned out to be something else. The material remains of the future -- like the theme building at LAX -- have needed serious restoration.

Preservationists are worried that tomorrow is deteriorating too quickly to conserve.

I'm not nostalgic about the future. I don't lament over lost tomorrows. I sometimes do feel stranded in modernity.

I was made for its sleek brightness and machined perfections. I understand its "isms," and they are fading into history books. I see myself in the clarity of their arguments, although the point of them is often missing.

I used to live in tomorrow, always out of reach, and I sometimes feel its pull.

About the Author

D. J. Waldie is the author of "Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir" and "Where We Are Now: Notes from Los Angeles." He is a contributing editor for the Los Angeles Times.
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