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Do You See What I See?

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I was talking with Randy the other day. He and I have lived most of our lives on the "great flat" of the Los Angeles plain and its Jeffersonian grid of right-angle streets between the Los Angeles and San Gabriel rivers.

We both were born in 1948 and under the sign of smog.

Having breathed the polluted stuff of Los Angeles for all these years (although Randy spent three of them in the Peace Corps in central Africa), he and I might be described as smog survivors (or merely lucky in the genetic dice roll).

However, I hesitate to inquire too closely what damage we've taken - what wounds we bear - by being from here. (A good idea can be gathered from the Smogtown website, whose authors are up on both the science and politics of air quality. A quick survey of recent reporting emphasizes just how bad things are.)

As we drove, Randy remarked (apropos of nothing in the conversation) how present the mountains were in the successive vistas created by each north/south suburban highway. And in fact, on most of the days through the holidays, the southern face of the San Gabriel Mountains had stood out in startling clarity, the dry air transparent and still enough that the San Gabriels seemed only a few miles away.

Because of smog, Randy and I grew up not seeing the mountains that ring the basin except on exceptional days when, after rain and strong winds, for a day (or only a few hours) you could stand at the end of the Belmont Pier in Long Beach and see Catalina to the southwest, Saddleback Mountain in the Santa Ana range to the east, San Gorgonio to the northeast, the San Gabriels to the north, and the headlands of Palos Verdes to the west.

And now and with increasing frequency and on the least exceptional days, some or most of this gigantic panorama can be seen from the streets that I walk each morning.

Something has changed. It isn't enough - not even very much much, really. Still, you can see the mountains, purple, moss green, and lunar gray. And I suppose that means something.

D. J. Waldie, author, historian, and as the New York Times said in 2007, "a gorgeous distiller of architectural and social history," writes about Los Angeles on KCET's SoCal Focus blog.

The images on this page were taken by flickr users Skinnylawyer, Benjamin 1970, Slices of Light, and Jennifer Gaillard. They are used under a Creative Commons License.

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