3. Reasonable Qualifications

So far, a morning’s and evening’s walk across my bit of Thomas Jefferson’s national grid. From township (thirty-six squares, each exactly one mile on each side) to section (each a square exactly 640 acres) to quarter-section (160 acres) to a “forty” (forty acres... but never a mule) to the subdivision of house lots in Los Angeles (mostly but not universally a 5,000-square-foot rectangle). Each step down toward your front yard is a fractal of Jefferson’s imperial imagination at play on the empty white space of a continent-sized map. His grid’s the same at every scale. Own a Los Angeles house lot; acquire a Jeffersonian dream of the West. And possess, some will tell you, suburbia. Capitalized, the word first appears in the 1890s as the proper name - Suburbia - for an imaginary place on the outskirts of London (but with real toads, as Marianne Moore would later say of poetry). Suburbs (a much older word) are on the edge of someplace else. (Here, suburbs are the edges of suburbs.) Suburbia is, however, a loaded word. It houses low-key contempt. Suburbia isn’t about geography; it’s about the limits of the imagination. It’s not a word that I use. The word I use is home.

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I write about suburban places. I write about Los Angeles. And the two have been roughly equivalent since the city’s absurdly small central core became irrelevant to the city’s self-definition in the late 1920s. (Arguments... really good arguments... are being made by really good historians and geographers about the validity of this view. That interests me. Both the point of the arguments, and if there is a point in having the argument at all.) Where we are interests me, and the back-and-forth conversation of a past and a present. (Neither of which Los Angeles has had much use for. We’re always longing for the city that’s yet to be.) But my mood has darkened lately. Given a choice of pasts, we’re reluctant to choose (maybe because we’ve chosen so badly before). Arguably (more arguments), no past offers any service to what we’ve become. Arguably, the back-and-forth conversation is ending. (It had gone on, even though we had been deliberately absent. Sometimes two instances of domestic architecture across from each other on a residential street have had a more serious dialog about where we’ve been than all the city’s newspapers.) Pessimistic - bracingly pessimistic - Henry Adams (those Adamses) wondered almost exactly one hundred years ago what service history could perform. Or should perform.

I’m not a historian. I don’t live in the City of Los Angeles. I don’t drive. Reasonable qualifications.

Photo credit: The photo at the top of this post was taken by Flickr user ATIS547. It was used under Creative Commons license.

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