The Urban Man
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Civilization Threatens Los Angeles

Civilization Threatens Los Angeles
By Marc Porter Zasada

If you want to explain the soul of L.A. to out-of-town guests, I suggest this simple strategy. Take them up the hill to the Getty Center on an evening when it opens late. Then surprise them by heading directly for the quiet rooms of European decorative art. Muse for a time over the Canalettos, gilded clocks, and finely-wrought tapestries. Inspect the exquisitely-turned legs of French chairs until your guests grow bored.

Now, drop this comment: "Gosh, it's hard to believe people once tried to bring such order and civilization into such an uncouth world."

Afterwards, just at sunset, walk toward the large horizontal opening in the south fa-ade that looks out over the city -- surely the finest framed portrait on the hill. At first you will see nothing but light and sky. Then, suddenly, L.A. will open out vast and glittering and unmannered at your feet.

Say to your guests: "Naturally, we barbarians triumphed in the end."

If civilization has always had its discontents, then L.A. surely leads the rebel forces. Not only does our city spread off-ramps and mini-malls across the land in the same way Mongol hordes once spread across Asia -- but we pride ourselves on celebrating barbarity in all its most wonderful forms.

We make movies about people who toss aside law and custom to strap on ammunition belts and settle scores. Or about city dwellers who crash land in jungles and have to survive on pure testosterone. We prefer artists who offend us, architects who brutalize us, celebrities who throw punches, CEO's who battle like warlords, shopping malls that destroy neighborhoods, and musicians who sing anthems to mysogyny and frank violence.

In short, we are happy barbarians And if civilization means the slow working out of ideas over generations, if it means preserving wisdom, shepherding resources, working toward a common goal, or perfecting the rules of human behavior -- then we really have no patience for it.

Out in the old civilized places, we know people envy and fear us. But that just means we're doing our job. It means we're still the top bull in the china shop.

Which brings me back to the Getty Center, this beautiful and mannered place, where just now the late sun ricochets off the Greek surfaces and impossibly tall columns of the lower pavilion - and where the Urban Man strolls in the same way gods once strolled the Acropolis, safe above the strife and chaos of Athens.

I know the Getty is not actually a part of L.A., but an outpost of the civilized world, a kind of fifth column, here to change our ways. And be warned, fellow citizens, civilization is patient. If, after a scant seven years, we Angelenos are still more interested in the Getty's minimalist gardens than its French furniture, the folks in charge may be prepared to wait us out.

In fact, as I look across the grid this afternoon, I'm aware that a disturbingly large number of museums and concert halls have arrived in recent decades. It's troubling to realize that L.A. now has a respected symphony; even a world-class opera. Here and there, tiny signs of an almost old-world order have appeared in the midst of our joyous sprawl: The beginnings of a subway. A couple of pedestrian boulevards.

For a moment, the Urban Man wonders if civilization may someday regain the upper hand, after all.

And then I look out again at the metropolis. I watch the way it pushes against the mountains and elbows the sea. And I think, no -- the smart money goes with the barbarians, every time.

Copyright - 2005 Marc Porter Zasada. All Rights Reserved.

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