Los Angeles, gondola talk, and Sophronia

Ok, this is going to be one of those somewhat contrarian posts that whiners attribute to trolling, but I assure you, I am sincere.

I suppose the gondola idea has gotten sufficiently mocked that I probably shouldn’t bring it up again, but I want to talk about fun transit and Los Angeles. For those of you blessed enough to not be in Los Angeles’ urban political soup, the idea came from former Dodgers owners to create a airborne gondola from Union Station to Dodgers stadium. It’s a bad idea for mobility: Gondolas, funiculars, sky rides–all these things are pretty low capacity, and stadia events all have terrible peaking problems where lots of people leaving at the same time clog up systems around the stadium. A gondola would be a mess. Anybody who has ever been on BART after an A’s game cheek-by-jowl can attest to the problem.

Andy and I are going to see the Dodgers tonight, and we’re driving…in our convertible Beetle. That car is so fun to ride in, it’s not even funny.

And that’s what I want to talk about. Los Angeles has the tendency to be…no fun…except for cars. And transit riders deserve some fun, too.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve bus surfed, sliding down the center aisle of a bus, when I was young. I still sit in the bendy bit of the extended buses so I can slide around with the little kids also enjoying the bumps and slides. Walking is often fun, and biking is terribly fun, but both are more fun when one doesn’t have to fear getting squished by a car.

A gondola going *somewhere* in LA could be a gorgeous experience. It’s impossible to take in all of LA from any view, but I’d hazard the very best view of LA is on Mulholland Drive. So to see the city from anything other then ground level, you have to drive, or take an airplane. Again, don’t get me wrong: there are some great views of LA from the Getty, from the Griffith Observatory, from Baldwin Hills, from Mt. Lee, etc. But those require you to be able-bodied, save for the Getty and Griffith, and except for Baldwin Hills, all those show you one part of LA–mostly the north and west sides.

East LA is really, really lovely, especially in the morning light, and the only place I can think of to see it is from the top of the City Hall (did you know there is an observation deck there?) And you won’t see it at dawn. Are there other East and South LA vistas I’ve missed? Let me know.

My point is that streetcars and gondolas are often treats more than workhorse systems, and expensive treats, I grant. My students are much harder on all these things than I am, and I think part of that is a somewhat Puritanical approach to planning for transit in LA. I suppose they are right: the “thou shan’t have any gondolas until you have completed a world-class commuter rail system” approach, ie “No desert until you have eaten your broccoli.” (yech) People can be so serious and scolding about cities, especially about whimsical things or cute things, when we face so many real problems, like traffic deaths and homelessness, that need to be solved.

But I guess I think that smiling and fun in cities are terribly important; what’s the point of saving lives if those lives are meant to be lived at work, in uniforms, the everyday? Why can’t the everyday be delightful? (Again, I often find delight on bus, but … it’s not inherent to the experience.)

Which brings me to one of the most insightful (to me) parts of Calvino’s Invisible Cities: Sophronia. All of Calvino’s cities are named after women (that’s interesting in and of itself), and Sophronia is no different. Dictionary.com reports that Sophronia as a name”:

fem. proper name, from Greek sophronia, from sophron (genitive sophronos) “discreet, prudent, sensible, having control over sensual desires, moderate, chaste,” literally “of sound mind,” from sos “safe, sound, whole” + phren “midriff, heart, mind”

Discreet, prudent, sensible. Calvino’s Sophronia is made up of two halves. One half is a carnival, with a circus, rides, and delights. The other half is full of banks, clocks, and regimentation. Calvino’s narrator, Marco Polo, tell us:

One of the half-cities is permanent, the other is temporary, and when the period of its sojourn is over, they uproot it, dismantle it, and take it off, transplanting it to the vacant lots of another half-city.

But Calvino always make you think, and the city that stays is the carnival, not the workaday city. Instead, the later is pulled up, concrete and all, and goes off to travel, only to return a year later.

What a city that would be. It reminds me of Gordon Lightfoot and his Pony Man, whose ponies live on candy apples instead of oats and hay.