Our Own Private Iowa
Listen to/Watch entire show:
When a European arrives in L.A., he's often baffled. Where, he asks, is the Mediterranean city he expected? Here are the light and the palms, but no boulevards to stroll, few sidewalk cafés to lounge, no great sun-drenched plazas to cross at mid-day.
Instead he finds a place not just spread and confused, but obsessed with privacy—each man hidden in his own backyard, each beautiful woman protected behind the steel and glass of her car.
Why has the weather not made us into Nice or Seville…or, by now, Guadalajara? And why are we so obsessed with our own living rooms?
Last Friday, I was happy to learn that I could blame…Iowa. Yes, Iowa. You know: corn, pigs, prairie.
In the course of a talk by Richard Weinstein, Vice-Chair of Architecture and Urban Planning at UCLA, he mentioned how the first really big influx into our region came from the Midwest.
He explained how local developers gave Midwesteners what they were accustomed to: small, discrete towns, their own little far-flung homesteads. These folks had no interest in creating or maintaining the elements of a great city. They focused on personal virtues and private pleasures--just as I suppose they did in isolated farmhouses.
Ultimately, we were not influenced by Seville, but Iowa.
We became the Midwest on steroids.
Forgive me, but I got excited by this metaphor and started doing some fearful research of my own. For example, I discovered that our biggest social event in the Nineteen Twenties and Thirties was not the Oscars, but the Iowa Day Picnic. At the peak, some 150,000 people would attend …all former Iowans eager to maintain their culture.
Terrifying, but true.
Soon, I began to see all of L.A. as a kind of transplanted prairie, and yes, the city started to make more sense: Our obsession with gossip. Our suspicion of intellectuals. Our small-thinking politicians. Our Oz-like blend of the fabulous and the Kansas. The odd mix of licentious behavior and tongue-clicking morality you find here….despite, you know, our hip sophistication.
It even explained the L.A. fixation on retail: I mean, in old-time Iowa, it was a big whoop to leap in your wagon and head for the general store—and surely, we repeat that pattern every day, earnestly stuffing our houses with supplies for those tough prairie winters. Maybe that explains how each fall, local stores manage to sell Angelenos so many warm clothes.
Surely it's why, even though we're supposedly a multi-cultural, multi-valent city, Angelenos keep their distance in a very un-urban way. Why we don't build public squares, embrace mass transit, or run to rub shoulders. Like flinty Iowa farmers, doing it ourselves on our little eighth-acre, Angelenos seem awkward in public places unless we have a concert, a ball game, or a festival for an excuse. We require tents, banners, music…a spring chicken pluck.
By now, I'm taking the metaphor a little far, but come Sunday morning, I do find myself leaving my Beverlywood-adjacent homestead and taking my wagon to the farmer's market in Santa Monica. Okay, the 'chokes are $3.50 a piece. The roasted corn 3 bucks an ear. The band plays new-age fusion. But yes, I see Angelenos relaxing in public as they seem to relax nowhere else. They laugh, they speak to actual strangers, and I realize it's not a Mediterranean, but a happy Iowan scene. Behind our sunglasses, we're not really coastal types at all.
Me, I try to get with the program. I sit in the grass. I chat up other hardworking citizens of this vast and mysterious land. Here, at this imaginary harvest, it seems that we have finally permission to become, in a strange and Midwestern way, urban men and women.
Copyright © 2007 Marc Porter Zasada. All Rights Reserved.
Click the Full Details link to view the complete transcript. Tapes are not available.
Engage & Discuss
BROUGHT TO YOU BY