200 Years Further On
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By Marc Porter Zasada
Sometimes, when I'm faced by some especially intimidating example of modern life -- a tangle of freeway ramps, a bleak line of glass towers, or a massive shopping mall--I think about a famous oil painting made 200 years ago, right at the beginning of the industrial revolution.
It's called "Coalbrookdale by Night" and it shows a Shropshire valley at early evening. On the left, a woman and boy in peasant garb stand outside a little cottage, staring in astonishment at a gigantic ironworks which has appeared at the center of their village. Huge clouds of soot are lit with hellish fires, pipes litter the landscape, and we see the enormous age dawning.
We know whatever's left of their pretty valley will soon pass away. We know the stupefied woman and boy will soon be working long hours so they can shop in large discount stores.
Still, like the painter -- or the investor -- we can't help searching for beauty in the scene: The soot billows magnificently. A line of hills glows in the artificial light. There's something awesome, even compelling about the size of the coming ugliness.
This afternoon, the Urban Man finds himself walking across a large, sun-baked parking lot outside a retail complex somewhere in the uncharted sprawl of greater Los Angeles. Here a Target, a T.J. Max, and a Toys R Us have been built at the intersection of endless boulevards. My wife has gone inside looking for bargains, but I have a new digital camera, and I stay outside to fool with it.
At once I recall that old painting of Coalbrookdale, and I think: Maybe I should try to record this overwhelming scene for future generations. Maybe I could find a strange beauty right here, in the very size of this grim landscape and the relentless energy of modern commerce.
First, I examine the dark sea of asphalt stretching toward the long cliffs of beige stucco. Next, I frame a line of halogen streetlights, leaping from island to island of dusty hedges. To the south, a rectangular office tower rises against a pale sky fretted with puffy clouds. To the west, I scrutinize a Jack in the Box, a Blockbuster, and a long series of minimalls, stretching off to infinity.
A woman and boy exit their SUV for some holiday shopping and yes, they look astonished, even stupefied.
But it's no use. I'm no painter to capture the dismal splendor of this place. Instead, I just shake my head at the way wealth and unattractiveness remain so closely married in the modern world. After all, each of these major stores represent tens of millions in investment. The real estate within my viewfinder must exceed the value of several Sub-Saharan nations.
So why does it have to be so ugly?
But the Urban Man never gives up hope, even in the parking lot of a T.J. Max. You see, I happen to know what happened to Coalbrookdale in the 200 years since that famous painting was made. The ugly Ironworks did its job and then... passed away. The people who lived in Shropshire rebuilt the charming village, and made their valley pretty again. In fact, I once bought a postcard there.
And so I think, "Even here in L.A., we may someday tire of large ugly things." In time, Target may redesign its fa-ade or even crumble into small and charming pieces. Eventually, the people who install streetlights may rediscover balance and proportion.
Surely, stranger things have happened.
But now my wife exits from the gaudy doors of Toys R Us carrying a plastic shopping bag, and I lift my camera to watch her head across the parking lot. She waves from a sea of glittering automobiles, and I snap her picture for someone to examine, 200 years from now.
Copyright - 2005 Marc Porter Zasada. All rights reserved. See www.TheUrbanMan.com for more essays.
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