The Dream of Open Space, Part II
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A person should not look at old photos of the Los Angeles basin—not really old photos. I mean, once you could stand on Sunset and gaze down at a grassy plain cut by a shifting river, rolling hills, and vast groves of citrus. Me, I've been prepping for L.A.'s first open space summit, a public event coming up this Friday, October 26, so I had to look—and I admit the experience has brought on a foolish kind of nostalgia.
At this point, I should be happy to hold onto my little square of backyard. And I should listen to radio conservatives who tell me that each man pursuing his own interest will eventually create the greatest good for the greatest number.
Surely, they're right. I mean, just look at this town.
Still, as I thumb through the old photos, I can't help wishing it had gone just a tad differently. You know, just one of the master plans followed. Politicians a stitch less corrupt. Suppose ten acres of park had been created for every hundred of asphalt. Suppose each man had not pursued his own interest quite so diligently. As it is, despite where we started, we now have the lowest per capita acreage of urban park of any metropolis in America.
The other day I got so taken by nostalgia for the land that I drove out to Elephant Hill, the largest chunk of open space left in East L.A.— 110 acres of grass and oak that sort of defines the neighborhood. Nearby you find rentals crowded with two or three families…but yes, you can climb this hill to escape. You can still run in the grass.
Do I even need to mention that Elephant hill is owned by a developer who wants to cut 15 feet off the top and build McMansions?
Local residents have been fighting him for years. But recently, he pre-empted the process by bulldozing a road…and of course, odds are he'll win. We're talking about private property, after all. And yes, we know that all private gain will eventually be for everyone's good.
As I stroll the hill, a local activist bends my ear about EIR's and council support. She's organized and focused, but I admit I'm not paying much attention.
Instead, I imagine finding the developer and knocking on his door. Apparently he lives in Newport Beach. I have no idea what he looks like—probably buff and tanned from other land battles he's won over the years.
"Excuse me, sir," I'd say, "I was wondering if you had a few minutes to discuss the tragedy of the commons."
"Sorry?" he'd say.
"It's classic economic theory," I'd continue. "Suppose there's open pasture that's shared by a number of different shepherds. Now, it's in the specific interest of each shepherd to ever increase the number of his flock, right? Use as much grass as possible—even though doing so degrades the pasture for everyone, including himself. This theory says his personal gain will always outweigh his own incremental loss. Which means that, over time, the pasture gets ruined. They call it the tragedy of the commons."
"Who did you say you were?" he'd ask.
"Just an Urban Man," I'd reply. "I only wanted to know if you'd heard that theory."
At this, he'd rightly slam the door in my face. I mean, who am I to ask? Neither of us lives in East L.A., but surely, when this hill is gone, both he and I will be diminished, just a little.
The October 26 event is called Public Space LA!, yes, with an exclamation point. You can learn about it at publicspacela.com.
For KCRW, I'm Marc Porter Zasada.
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