Chapter 8: Southern California – Community
"MY BROTHER PETER has a wife and three children and he lives in a group of identical houses and I used to think it was very eerie. But then I remember going over there on Halloween," says John Nielsen.
Nielsen, thirty-four, is talking about community and identity in the new American world built by developers like his father. The elder Nielsen, Tom, is a leading light behind a place in Southern California called Irvine. It is by far the largest Edge City landscape ever developed by a single company.
"Every place I've lived since I got out of college, Halloween is known as the nightmare movie. It's not known as a holiday. Except here. Here were all these people who had just moved into this suburb at the same time, brand new. And no one knew what was going to happen—whether there was going to be a tradition in this place.
"Here were my nieces Emily and Sara; one was dressed up as a crayon. They kind of poked their heads out the door. It was just at dusk and here comes a crayon looking out this door. They gathered in their cul-de-sac, this herd of kids, and they had a herd of parents behind them. It was the first time I realized that everybody was the same age and there was that kind of community, I guess. They came out not knowing what's going to happen and they turned the corner and there was this army of children. They all just went back and forth, door to door, and I thought, That's neat. That's a tradition that has died elsewhere that's being sustained here. I remember my mother following me with a staple gun because I was a mummy. I would unravel, she'd come up and snip me back together while I was collecting Sugar Babies. There is something historical about that. "Then Emily and Sara came home. I was helping one trade with her sister for the right kind of treats. You want the Milk Duds, and you want the red Life Savers. You don't want the green ones.
"I just felt I was passing on some sort of higher knowledge." John Nielsen grew up in a family where the food was put on the table by his father's converting thousands of acres of orange groves and pastureland into the Southern California that exists today. John wound up an environmental writer for National Public Radio. He is the kind of person who, no matter in what region he finds himself, lives in the most Dickensian neighborhood available. He has thus spent much of his life considering where his world intersects with that of his father's, and where both connect to personality and character.
"People ask me where I'm from and I don't know what to say. 'I'm from the suburbs,' is what I usually say. And they say, 'Oh, me t00.' It doesn't matter where they're from, we'll exchange some stories about Gilligan's Island and then we're friends." He pounded on his chest: "Tarzan of the 'Burbs. Raised by developers." He gave a soft, ironic version of a jungle yell: "Aiiieyaeyaeyaea."
Flashing back twenty years, he recalls, "Me and my brother, we had this Allan Sherman record: 'My Son the Nut.' Ever hear that record?" John sings:
Here's to the crabgrass
Here's to the mortgage,
And here's to sah-BURR-bee-yah.
Lay down your briefcase,
Far from the rat race,
For nothing can dis-TURB-bee yah.
"My brother and I had that memorized. They'd bring us out and we'd sing it."
Nielsen loves neighborhoods that "seethe." He loves places where you can walk to work and if you regularly stop at a little joint on the way to pick up a carton of coffee, soon everybody in the neighborhood knows you. He likes to talk to people in different strata of society. He likes urban areas that are full of surprises. He thinks the whole point of cities is to bring diverse people together.
That is why it troubles him that he feels personally excluded from Edge Cities like the one built by his father, vice chairman of the Irvine Company. His dilemma is sharpened because each such development emphasizes the idea of community. As in "master-planned community."
"I feel locked out in the financial sense," says Nielsen of the Irvine that has been such a market success that the median home prices in its region are the third highest in America.
"But I don't mean to imply that if I had enough money that is where I'd g0 The things I am interested in are not part of a place like Irvine. There's that whole notion: we're going to build this thing that is perfect for you. We haven't met you but we know what you're like and we know you're going to like it here. That is a repulsive idea, and I wouldn't trust the person who tried to tell me that. You're in the artist's conception. You wake up and you're one of those lanky people walking around evenly spaced. I can't see that. My experience has been that in places like that you have a lot of people who think they have it figured out. You just have the coffee-bean machine here and . . ." Nielsen's voice descends to a whisper. He is almost talking to himself. Then he hurtles back.
"That kind of ordered circumstance is scary to me. Maybe the world is divided into people who love to hum 'Is that all there is?' and take random walks and people who don't. It's a hard thing for me."
What Nielsen is struggling with is the extent to which Edge Cities weave or unravel the American social fabric. For this reason, his conflicts are historic. Ever since the rise of what used to be called "bedroom communities"—that is, classic residential suburbs—scholars have been trying to define where these places fit into a larger social scheme. Especially in the 1950s, when the floodtide of homes moved out past our old conception of city, the outpouring of journalism, fiction, and sociology on these issues was prodigious. It had a distinct tone. Herbert J. Gans, in his landmark 1967 work, The Levittowners, pungently described the shots that were taken. If you believed the critics, he wrote, the "myth of suburbia" would have you surmise:
"The suburbs were breeding a new set of Americans, as mass-produced as the houses they lived in . . . incapable of real friendships; they were bored and lonely, alienated, atomized, and depersonalized . . .
"In unison," Gans wrote of that time, "the authors chanted that individualism was dying, suburbanites were miserable, and the fault lay with the homogeneous suburban landscape and its population." Gans described John Keats, author of The Crack in the Picture window, as "perhaps the most hysterical of the mythmakers."
Keats's book began: "For literally nothing down . . . you too can find a box of your own in one of the fresh-air slums we're building around the edges of American cities . . . inhabited by people whose age, income, number of children, problems, habits, conversation, dress, possessions, and perhaps even blood type are also precisely like yours." They were, Keats claimed, "developments conceived in error, nurtured by greed, corroding everything they touch. They . . . actually drive mad myriads of housewives shut up in them."
Subsequently, Gans observed, "literary and social critics chimed in . . . Suburbia was intellectually debilitating, culturally oppressive, and politically dangerous, breeding bland mass men without respect for the arts or democracy."
Gans bought a house and lived in New Jersey's Levittown for two years to study what processes turned a group of strangers into a true community in the waning days of the Eisenhower era. Of course, the sociologist and city planner could uncover little evidence that there was much change in people when they moved to the suburbs, or that the change that took place could be traced to the new environment: "If suburban life was as undesirable and unhealthy as the critics charged, the suburbanites themselves were blissfully unaware of it. They were happy in their new homes and communities, much happier than they had been in the city."
This has not, however, prevented Edge City from giving people the creeps. When I first started reporting on these places, an art critic of my acquaintance pulled up a chair, pushed his face toward mine closer than was really comfortable, and proceeded to get agitated about my project. "Those are not cities!" he exploded.
When I systematically questioned him as to why he felt this way, given all the job numbers and market numbers and population numbers, what I found was intriguing. His real beef was that he refused to believe these places brought people together in any larger social sense. He was saying these were not "cities," but what he really meant was that he could not believe they were "communities." It was very specific. To him, Edge Cities were hollow because, among other things, there were not, as in the neighborhoods he loved, front stoops for people to sit on to watch the human drama.
Here we were, more than thirty years after David Riesman's The Lonely Crowd, William H. Whyte's The Organization Man, Sloan Wilson's The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, and the stories of john Cheever. And he was still proclaiming the landscape out past the old downtowns as having no ties that bind, no sense of identity, no way of making people believe they were part of something larger than themselves. He felt people had no personal stake in these places. Nobody cared about them. Therefore, these places could not be regarded as cities.
I had come to believe that it was not particularly useful to insist that a place was not urban merely because it contained few front stoops or political boundaries. But that didn't mean my friend the art critic had it all wrong. After all, for a place to have an identity, people really must feel they are stakeholders in it. They must feel that it is, at gut level, theirs; that they are willing to fight over it and for it. They must see it as having an importance relative to their personal interests. They must see it, at some level, as community.
Yet the forces that bring about Edge City pull strongly in different directions. Edge City arose as a result of individuals seeking out the best combinations of how and where to live, work, and play. Maybe Edge City isn't the puddle of atomization and anomie that 1950s critics of American society wished to believe. But it is less than clear where it connects with ideas like community—the hunger for human contact and the yearning to belong to a larger whole.
This is why Irvine is interesting. It is part of the Los Angeles Basin, the birthplace of the American landscapes and life styles that are the models for Edge Cities worldwide. Moreover, Irvine, thirty-five miles southeast of downtown Los Angeles, is at the center of a development of staggering proportions. Originally a Spanish land-grant ranch, the hundred-square-mile holdings of the Irvine Company span Orange County, that vast jurisdiction between San Diego and Los Angeles that in the 1980s was the fastest-growing part of Southern California. The Irvine Company controls sixty-four thousand acres of land, much of which stretches past the incorporated city of Irvine. Some of those acres sell for $ 1 million apiece. Irvine is not just another Levittown, a suburb from which people can find work only by commuting somewhere else. The stages of Edge City growth that took two generations elsewhere was collapsed into a third of a lifetime here. The Irvine area is now so big that it can be described as encompassing all or part of three job-rich Edge Cities.
The two middle-sized ones are known as Irvine Spectrum and Newport Center-Fashion Island. But the third, the size of downtown Seattle, is named after—it had to happen—John Wayne. Actually, the area's continental-connection airport is named after John Wayne. And the Edge City, which includes the Costa Mesa-South Coast Plaza complex, has become known after the name of the airport. But it was only a matter of time before it came to something like this. Orange County, the birthplace of Richard Nixon, has such a reputation for conservatism that a politician once only half kidded about joining the John Birch Society in order to capture the middle-of-the-road vote. The Irvine area's rapidly growing population, meanwhile, already approaches 200,000, with a high-technology job base of 150,000. The Irvine Company's spread is so big—stretching from the Pacific Ocean to as much as twenty miles inland—that its tentacles ensnare an entire University of California campus and two Marine bases.
Irvine, moreover, is the latest version of the Southern California dream. This makes it a prototype of great importance. Irvine is only ten miles from Disneyland in Anaheim. Disney produced such resonant dreams that people carry them around in their heads all over the globe. His Main Street is a more real crystallization of idealized community for more people than any actual nineteenth-century small American town. And Irvine is deep kin to this ideal. It is full of newcomers who are still reaching out to find why they came, what they lost, and who they are.
In fact, a travel guide called The Californias, published by the California Office of Tourism, describes Orange County this way:
It's a theme park—a seven hundred and eighty-six square mile theme park—and the theme is "you can have anything you want."
It's the most California-looking of all the Californias: the most like the movies, the most like the stories, the most like the dream.
Orange County is Tomorrowland and Frontierland, merged and inseparable . . .
The temperature today will be in the low 80s. There is a slight offshore breeze. Another just-like-yesterday day in paradise.
Come to Orange County. It's no place like home. The danger of a dream, however, is that a place that reminds people of Eden can also taunt them. People's fears and anxieties may be heightened when the dream does not turn out to be as boundless as it first seems; when it quickly hits limits. In fact, Irvine has been compared with the Stepford Wives—perfect, in a horrifying sort of way. The development's newest residential section, Westpark, is an unbroken field of identical Mediterranean red-clay roof tile, covering homes of indistinguishable earth-tone stucco. Homes in Irvine are far more repetitive than those in the old Levittowns. The old Levittowns are now interesting to look at; people have made additions to their houses and planted their grounds with variety and imagination. Unlike these older subdivisions, Irvine has deed restrictions that forbid people from customizing their places with so much as a skylight. This is a place that is enforced, not just planned. Owners of expensive homes in Irvine commonly volunteer stories of not realizing that they had pulled into the driveway of the wrong house until their garage-door opener failed to work. Driving around, what one mainly sees is high blank walls. The shopping center near the University of California at Irvine struggled for years, unsuccessfully, to support a bookstore. And this is the place that bills itself as America's premiere master-planned community. It underlines the "community" symbolism with a ten-minute sound-and-light show called Roots and Wings.
Roots and Wings is a singular production. It is a twenty-thousand-slide, sixteen-projector extravaganza housed in its own little theater, and it culminates with the rotation of a hydraulically controlled model of some 150 square miles of the area. The model weighs half a ton. It is so exactly detailed, with 385,000 separate structures, that people living in Irvine can identify their own houses. This show is so lavish that the Irvine Company refuses to divulge its cost.
Intriguingly, this hymn to community is not used to sell homes. People who are in the market merely for quarter-million-dollar residences never get the red-carpet treatment that includes Roots and Wings. The people who see this pageant are those thinking of moving their companies to Irvine. Roots and Wings is reserved for customers looking for massive amounts of Edge City research-and-development or office space. Yet in this pitch, the customers never hear a word about dollars per square foot. The Irvine Company believes that the following approach is what sells commercial real estate in their Edge City.
The lights go down, the sea gulls start flashing on the screens, the music comes up, and the deep male voiceover booms from multiple concealed speakers:
"How long since you watched the new day lean down upon the shore? No one about but you and your thoughts. And time, sliding by on its spiral glide.
"Here, along the sea, far from the crowds, one can see how perfectly Nature casts her characters and places them upon her stage. Each living thing is drawn to that habitat most ideally suited to the development of its full potential. It is a law of Nature. Instinct, we are told.
"But, we wonder, what of that wandering species called man? Called woman? Called child? Are we not also embraced by Nature's laws? Shaped by our habitat, just as the sea bird's flight is shaped by the wind for that special place on earth to hold and nourish our lives?
"It is said there are only two lasting things we can give our children; one is roots, the other is wings. This then is the dream. To find a place where we can put down roots; to find a place where our lives can take wing."
The Irvine show proceeds to extol the development's "beauty," "work style," "life style," and its "critical mass of finance, knowledge, and resource to rival any major city in America." But then it swings right back and starts hammering at that community theme some more:
"If the human community is to work, there must be a lively interplay between the commerce and the arts, between nature and technology, between work and leisure, between private interest and the public good. In a sense it's like planning and creating a living mosaic . . . The design of this living mosaic is especially refreshing because of the rare relationship between where one works and where one lives, in communities where planning brings the workplace closer. It is a gift of time. More time to enjoy another gift. The gift of family . . ."
Then the wind-up:
"Here is a place where life is lived with a grand and glorious sense of quality and style. Here is a place providing opportunities for the full range of human experience . . . Here is a place where individuals are free to shape their own future, as a sculptor shapes clay."
A daddy is shown lifting his child. Freeze frame. He lifts the child higher. Freeze frame. The child is lifted all the way up. Freeze frame.
Then the pitch:
"We have the dream. We have the plan. We have the people. We have the patterns of a vision firmly in our minds and in our hearts."
The child's image melds into that of a sea gull, which, in multiple-image long-lens slow-mo, explodes into flight. "We have the place where we can put down roots. "And our lives can take wing."
Music swells, image fades, screen lifts, gauze curtain rises, dramatic lights flare, and the half-ton model of Irvine, turning on its gimbles, rotates into view, beckoning.
One is left in awe, speechless.
Heavy freight being loaded here. Loaded on ideas and values that are elemental: Roots. Wings. Community. This is the place that Tom Nielsen built, that John Nielsen can't handle. Irvine thus demands that these words—and what they mean to us in the late twentieth century—be probed.
The meaning to developers of the word "community" has evolved over the last half century. In the case of the New Jersey Levittown in the 1950s, for example, it was not enough that there were three basic house types costing from $11,500 to $14,500. A collection of such houses would have been merely a "subdivision." What made it a "community" was that for each cluster of twelve hundred units or so, there was an elementary school, a playground, and a swimming pool. Not only that, but a complex of ten or twelve such "neighborhoods" was complemented by a large shopping center, some smaller ones, high schools, a library, and parks, some of which were provided by the builder himself. This was considered real breakthrough stuff. It was no less than an attempt to create from scratch what the builder honestly and open-mindedly thought was the entire range of local institutions and facilities found in the old communities people were enthusiastically leaving.
The venerable Gans—who was one hopping sociologist in the late 1950s—came to his Levittown project still whirling from having spent two years living in that part of Boston outsiders regarded as your basic Italian slum. In his book The Urban Villagers, he established that the West End was not a slum at all. What it was, he found, was an archetype of the even-then rapidly disappearing working-class ethnic "traditional" community. Marked by exotic shops and fragrant restaurants and narrow streets and high densities, it was exactly the kind of place that developers are now using as models when they try to breathe life into their new places today.
To be sure, the West End did not look like any architect's rendering of community. It had garbage in the alleys, rubble in the vacant lots, tenements with poorly maintained exteriors and rudimentary heating arrangements. So, soon after Gans studied the place, the West End was bulldozed. In the name of progress and on the order of the best and the brightest planners of the day, urban renewal rolled through. The population of the community was scattered.
The West End's influence lives on, though. The very phrase "urban village" is now used as it is in Phoenix, a hopeful synonym for Edge City. Developers still strive to create places that also "have it all." In Irvine, that includes not only executive-level housing and stupendously high-end malls, but transcontinental airport connections and, most important, the high-flying white-collar jobs that lift this place out of bedroom suburbia and into Edge City.
But. some things do not change. Edge City is similar to what Gans found to be community in the West End three decades ago. Sociologists in the 1950s were still working with the classic definition of "community": "an aggregate of people who occupy a common and bounded territory within which they establish and participate in common institutions."
What Gans found, however, was that community and neighborhood were not the same thing. "The West End as a neighborhood was not important to West Enders," he discovered. "I expected emotional statements about their attachment to the area. I was always surprised when they talked merely about its convenience to work and to downtown shopping. After I had lived in the area a few weeks, one of my neighbors remarked that I knew a lot more about the West End than they did."
Gans discovered that "life for the West Ender was defined in terms of his relationship to the group," not geography. What West Enders meant by the "group" was divided into three levels: the peer group, those local institutions which supported the peer group, and "the outside world." The "outside world" covered all other aspects of Boston, New England, and America that "impinge on life—often unhappily, to the West Ender's way of thinking."
An awful lot of people in Edge City organize their lives the same way today. In America the main idea behind community now is voluntary association, not geography. And the people of Southern California have sophisticated technology to cast wide their search for that bond with others we call community.
Take Evan and Ann Maxwell of Laguna Niguel. They moved to the hills just above the Pacific Coast past Irvine in 1970. The place was then mostly rural. They paid $39,000, with a $212-a-month mortgage and a less-than-$600-a-year tax burden. The location was considered breathtaking for two reasons: its natural beauty and its long commute to downtown Los Angeles.
Times changed, and so did the Maxwels. They are co-authors of the Fiddler series of mysteries set in Orange County. These and other books they produced were so successful that the Maxwells ended up relying less and less on Evan's Los Angeles paycheck. It was the half-yearly royalty statements from their publishers in New York that would shape their lives—and loosen their ties to the area.
In 1984, the Maxwells "cut the umbilical cord to corporate socialism," as Evan puts it. His final assignment for the L.A. Times was one he views as the ultimate for a "cops-and-robbers reporter." He covered security for the Olympics. "I figured, it doesn't get better than this. I'd done as much as I could in daily journalism. So I left." He does not regret it. He and his wife "have elements of freedom you cannot purchase, my friend," he said.
But, he observes keenly, the price was giving up an aching amount of community. "The newsroom fills up your life. Twelve or fourteen hours of your day. It is just as consuming and controlling as the small town in Minnesota where I'm from. When I left, I found myself absolutely liberated—and adrift. The paper gives you a sense of who you are. The first time I tried to sneak into a courtroom past a guard and I didn't have a press card of the L.A. Times, it was like I didn't have a last name."
Like any small, close community, "the social setting of the newsroom is supporting and constipating. I never realized how much my mindset would change. I have a close friend with whom I can't talk about the newspaper anymore. He takes it absolutely seriously. We can't kid about it the way we did when I worked there. I am an outsider now."
Soon, the Maxwells began to note that they had lost more than the community where Evan worked. They'd lost any sense of community where they lived.
"The last five years, all hell has broken loose. The last two years especially, there has been astonishing development. Run-away growth with remarkable similarity. The Alpha Beta, the Lucky supermarkets, all surrounded by video outlets, and an Italian or Japanese restaurant with carry-out, and a bagel and doughnut shop."
Evan does not believe that he is reflexively against this growth. He has noticed, for example, the seeds of civilization being planted first in the dry-cleaning establishments. "That is where diversity begins. Places that were first run by former USG athletes and then by South Americans were replaced. In came the Asian families, and they remember your name. The others couldn't remember your name after ten years. The new people are eager to do business, and the stuff is always there when they say they'll have it. You can't fault that."
He expects this pattern to expand. "It takes time to do diversity. The Chinese restaurant must fail and be replaced by an aggressive soft-taco place that is part of a local chain of three or four." There is now a secondhand bookstore called Mr. Good-books, in Mission Viejo, onto which, Evan reports, he has just unloaded a portion of his library. He views this retail development as a hopeful sign.
Nevertheless, the Maxwells are leaving Orange County. Leaving the place that has been their roots for twenty years, the place where their two kids were raised, the place that was the inspiration for the books that have given them the independence to take wing.
"We are no longer comfortable here physically. There is too much traffic. Our community is not our neighbors here. We don't interact with Roz across the street except once a year, when her dog gets loose. Our community is really much broader."
They put their four-bedroom Laguna Niguel home on the market because they believe that, for them, community is voluntary and hence portable. They hoped to get $370,000 for their place on an eighty-by-hundred-foot lot. That would pay for a "fifth-wheel "—a big, articulated pickup truck-mobile home combination—plus a large home on 260 acres of southwestern Colorado. The Maxwells would spend part of their year on the road, visiting friends. The rest would be spent in their Colorado retreat four or five hours over the mountains from the nearest interstate, seven to nine hours from an international airport. "We can live out there in Colorado without being a part of the local economy," Evan figures. "Money to us is the basis of our freedom."
Their community includes writers in Seattle and Indiana, agents and editors in New York, a computer junk man in the Silicon Valley who buys and sells overstock equipment, and a refugee from the Massachusetts Route 128 computer realm who now reconditions covered wagons. "We're in touch with them on a weekly basis by telephone, by fax, by UPS.
"Our daughter, Heather, loves to travel. Her role model is a friend of ours who works in the Canadian embassy in London. She met her husband here when he was working for the Border Patrol and she was working with Asian refugees. We speak to them regularly and visit [in England] once a year. The world is now a place where it is possible to achieve a sense of community that would have seemed idealistic or idiotic only ten years ago."
In fact, a semiretired Seattle physician who raises big draft Paso Fino horses is the friend who brought to their attention the Four Corners region of Colorado, where they are planning to move. There, Evan says, "the West still lives. Real Louis L'Amour country. We like open landscape, an outdoor life. Looking at the San Juan and La Plata Mountains."
In the old days in Laguna Niguel, "the hills were absolutely glowing. They were green in spring, turning to gold in summer. The prettiest landscape in the coastal west. There were red-tail hawks and golden eagles. We became particularly fond of raptors. This was the best place in the world to watch raptors conduct their daily lives. They are now living off the freeway margins, but it's not the same." The Maxwells expect soon that their neighborhood will hold 150,000 to 200,000 humans, instead.
There are considerable ironies to all this. The Maxwells are thinking about moving to that part of Colorado where old ideas of connections between humans and community still live. The reason they can do so is that their personal sense of community is dependent on microchip connections.
They recognize the incongruity. In fact, they plan to use it as material in their next book. They will be looking at the West as a two-tiered place with the old-line landowners and ranchers and café owners on one level and Third Wave people like them—semiretired doctors from Seattle and writers from California—on another.
To be sure, the Maxwells' portable definition of "community" is more advanced than most. And it is not without its flaws. Evan acknowledges that his son harbors some anger that the place he has always thought of as home is somewhere he will not be able to return. But the Maxwells illuminate a key aspect of any discussion of "community" in Edge City.
"Community" today is different from "government," "shadow government," or "neighborhood." It is entirely voluntary and thus fragile. If you don't like the ties that bind you to others—for even the most ephemeral or transitory or stupid reasons—you can and may leave. You are no longer forced to proclaim your identity as part of any inexorable membership in a larger whole. You must find in yourself the reason to create a bond with other humans. In America, the most highly mobile society in history, people reach out in a myriad of directions for work and play—and now they search in varied directions for society and friendship, even family. It is rare to the point of being bizarre to have the bulk of one's peers living in one neighborhood today. Even if you are "in the neighborhood," you do not just "drop in." You call first.
Peer groups—community—are defined by job, avocation, church, or some other institution, far more than by location. Oddly, government bureaucrats for once have used a word accurately. It may seem silly to see Washington news stories with references to "the intelligence community," or "the arms control community," or even "the journalism community." But these turn out to be real bands of brothers. All the people within them know each other. Often, they went to school together. When they were young and single, they dated the same people, many of whom are now spouses of somebody else in the group. They turn to their tribe for jobs when they're fired. Even when they toil for rival countries, when the chips are down they can be counted on to respond to their community. That's more than you can say for many neighborhood blocks.
This haphazard connection between neighborhood and community reflects how legendary in America are the stifling, deformed, busybody tyrannies of small towns. There's Sinclair Lewis' Main Street and Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio, and the works of William Faulkner, and Peter Bogdanovich's film The Last Picture Show. Not for nothing have young people fled the rigid burg for the big city every chance they've had. The city is kinder to the stranger and the free-thinker than the tight-knit community. Stadtluft macht frei is a proverb the Germans invented in the Middle Ages; "City air makes men free." It does not choke them with community.
To this day, it is not hard for humans to create physical community. Any peasant in the world knows how it works. Just compromise your liberty. Stay in one house in one village for several generations. The rest follows.
The way we have built our Edge Cities, however, demonstrates once again that we have put an overwhelming value on individual freedom. Richard Louv, author of Childhood's Future, points out that the goal of the liberation movements of the last three decades has been to unfetter the individual. Traditionally, the nuclear family was both the fundamental social unit and the fundamental economic unit. No longer. If parents wish to "do their own thing," they may. A couple rarely has to stay together or face starvation.
This loosening of ties has had positive effects. But there has been a price to pay. Louv notes the increased sales in homes marketed as "family-oriented." That means a development with afterschool recreational facilities or day-care services. Parents feel guilty about not giving their kids enough time, so they pay tens of thousands more for a home in a subdivision that seems willing to share their childrearing burdens.
Homes have become financial commodities more than emotional entities. This may change in the 1 ggos. But with the appreciation of the 1970s and 1980s, homes became people's prime savings repository: their retirement nest eggs, kids' inheritance, college savings plan, ticket to a European vacation. Christmas memories in the living room were no longer vital. Nor could doorjambs be treasured for recording the height of children as they grew. Nor could these homes be secure havens for succeeding generations. For what was important was how easily and efficiently these places—these financial instruments—could be turned over when the time came to cash in and move on. Any feelings of community they represented were held hostage to the ever-present need to trade up.
Americans think nothing of moving. Families get larger, they move. Families get smaller, they move. Go to college, get a job, get married, get divorced, get remarried, get promoted, retire—each time, they move. Americans will leave behind houses that were the most emotion-filled places of their lives to move to a "retirement community." When asked why, they tell interviewers it was because they got tired of mowing the lawn.
No wonder Irvine looks the way it does, with the similar layouts and stucco facades that come only in colors that are variations on Caucasian skin tones from sand to tan, rarely broken even by a pastel.
This is real estate that moves.
When new, this real estate moves because it is the cheapest way to create new homes, given the way the market is now organized. Even if you use first-class materials, if you build two hundred of the same thing at a crack, there are considerable economies of scale. The alternative, says Raymond L. Watson, the Irvine Company's vice chairman and first chief planner, is not the beautiful old Victorian house on ten acres near the Condor Refuge. It is the concrete apartment block. Those traditional urban forms, he maintains, with their empty lobbies and door-lined corridors, are even more sterile and dehumanizing than the dwellings he pioneered. Forget factory-built homes. The cheapest and most successful way to build homes under existing rules is to move the assembly line out to the subdivision with prebuilt trusses and prehung doorframes and nail guns, the way it is done now.
Real estate built in such a fashion also moves when Americans do, which is, on average, once every six years. (In hot markets like Phoenix in the mid-1980s, the average turnover was every three years.) In a revealing handbook by Barbara Jane Hall, entitled zor Easy Ways to Make Your Home Sell Faster, one of the first tips is: "Avoid eccentricities: Your chances of selling quickly will be greatly improved if you can make your home appeal to a broad spectrum of buyers. It may be tempting to say of your home, 'But this is me!' but this is not necessarily a wise home-selling policy . . . In the game of selling, you have to play the odds."
What a wonderful irony! In order to improve your individual choices, the best bet is to have a home with no individuality. It is in this context that forbidding walls around subdivisions make a kind of sense. In this analysis, it may not be important if those walls don't deter crime. They are social boundaries. They define "community" and give it an entry point, financially and socially: only certain people can get in. The argument is as follows: when you move to a new place, you still want people like you around. You feel more secure knowing the neighbors must have incomes above $100,000 or whatever to live inside these walls. In a world that is in flux, that standard offers certainties about people's values and education. Your fellow homeowners will have kids like yours—kids you could imagine yours marrying, if it came to that. The walls thus become a definer of social strata, a community recognizer.
This analysis pushes back several notches the question: what do we mean by the word "community"? Okay. "Neighborhood" is not the same thing as "community." It has not been for at least half a century. "Mobility," however, is important; we want to be able to join communities as we choose. "Voluntary" is also important; we want to be able to leave. Community should not be stultifying nor should it interfere with our freedoms. It should be a social grouping that is readily available. So where does that leave the relationship between Edge City and community?
Richard Sennett, a culture critic, offers this approach. "A community is more than a set of customs, behaviors, or attitudes about other people. A community is also a collective identity; it is a way of saying who 'We' are."
A city, to Sennett, is "a human settlement in which strangers are likely to meet." It is a "milieu of strangers whose lives touch."
Therefore, he reasons, Edge City must create community in the sense of being a place where strangers—people who used to be "them"—are transformed. They join "us." For Edge City to be a community, it must be a place that creates "us-ness" out of our separate and anonymous lives.
Mark Pisano worries about whether this is in fact happening in Edge City. Pisano is executive director of the Southern California Association of Governments—SCAG, as it is known. SCAG is the nation's largest regional-planning agency.
At one level, it seems astonishing that Pisano has any worries at all. After all, more strangers have been thrown together in the Los Angeles area in the last few decades with more manifest success than anywhere else in the world.
The future of greater Los Angeles would appear radiant. If you were to draw a circle with a sixty-mile radius around Los Angeles, and declare the domain an independent nation, it would be the eleventh richest realm on earth. That Sixty-Mile Circle would be the third richest country in the Western hemisphere, after Canada. It would be the third richest in the Pacific Rim, after China. It would be richer than most of the twelve members of the European Economic Community. It would have the second highest gross national product per person in the world—ahead of Japan, ahead of all Europe, ahead of the United States, trailing only the United Arab Emirates. In fact, if the Sixty-Mile Circle were a state of the Union, it would be the fourth largest in population and total personal income—behind only Texas, New York, and California itself.
As the great-granddaddy of twentieth-century-style urban areas, the Los Angeles Basin sports twenty-six full-blown or rapidly growing Edge Cities in five counties—the largest number of any urban area in the world.* If we count only those trips made by workers to their jobs, its transportation network mover the equivalent of the entire population of Massachusetts daily. Downtown has prospered, having undergone sparkling change in the 198os, including even a subway. Of course, it still is not the center of very much, accounting for no more than 4 percent of the region's jobs.
The region's jobs, however, belie the image of Tinseltown or La-La Land. Los Angeles is the world capital of nonprint media, from movies to television to music. But it is also one of the most dynamic and diverse manufacturing centers in the world. The Sixty-Mile Circle produces more than 10 percent of the American total of everything from nuts, bolts, rivets, and washers, to pens, games, toys, women's fashions, welding equipment, radio and TV communication equipment, aircraft, space vehicles, and rockets. It rivals Northern California's Silicon Valley in its computer industry. It created 1.5 million jobs in the 1980s alone—double that of the New York area. The world capitals of Pacific Rim import-export and finance are Tokyo, Hong Kong, and the Sixty-Mile Circle. Greater Los Angeles is served by five major commercial airports.
At the same time, within the Sixty-Mile Circle one can find a stunning diversity of environments—ocean surf, rolling hills, canyons, mountains, lakes, deserts, and some of the most productive farmland on earth, as well as rag colleges and universities and so many wealthy museums and lavishly endowed arts centers as to challenge the primacy of those in the East. The Edge Cities of the Los Angeles Basin contain a vibrant ethnic mix. America is going through the greatest wave of immigration since the turn of the century. It is absorbing more legal immigrants than the rest of the world combined. Los Angeles is its premiere entrepot. The Sixty-Mile Circle is the second largest urban economy in the Western hemisphere, after the New York area. It is the second largest Mexican city in the world, the second largest Guatemalan city, the second largest Salvadoran city, the second largest Cambodian city, the second largest Laotian city . . . the list seems endless. It has the largest concentration of Koreans in North America, the most Filipinos, the most Vietnamese, the most Iranians, the most Thais . . .
Marc Wilder, an urban planner and former Long Beach City Council member, sees this exotic mix as a geography of hope—a unique opportunity to build a bracing, multiracial, multicultural urban civilization. "We are going to be different from any-where," he says, "and we are going to do things differently because a Cambodian, a Hispanic, and a Jew share the same space . . . We will see new kinds of institutions made by new kinds of people."
But Mark Pisano of SCAG is worried. "We're grasping for a new community," he says, "and we don't know yet what that new community is. The individual, I feel, is very disenchanted and distanced from his sovereignty, whether that's a country, a state, or a city. It is the most significant challenge facing the United States without exception; after all, there is no more international hydrogen bomb. The historical example is the Tower of Babel. We all have our single interests, and you can't talk to one another, relate to one another. There's no way to develop commonality."
What Pisano dares to worry about is a Blade Runner future. He doesn't mean that in the Dallas architectural sense. He means armed insurrection. That image is raised even in LA 2000: The Final Report of the Los Angeles 2000 Committee. The report is a sweeping survey of the area's possible destinies sponsored by some of its most prestigious elders. In its conclusions, it asks:
"Where will Los Angeles 2000 find its community, its city in common, its civic unity? There is, of course, the Blade Runner scenario: the fusion of individual cultures into a demotic polyglottism ominous with unresolved hostilities. There is also the possible continuation of armed camps occasionally sortieing out in attack or negotiated truce."
The LA 2000 report proceeds from there to end on an upbeat note, seeing the future as bright—but wait a minute. Wait a minute, I say to Pisano. "Continuation of armed camps"? I know about the southcentral and eastern flatlands of the basin. That is an industrial landscape away from the upper-middle-class "nice" areas near the beaches to the south and west and the mountains to the north and east. That East L.A. and southcentral area is full of people who are struggling. Many of them are black and Mexican. I know they have more than their share of drive-by assault-rifle shootings perpetrated by the Crips and Bloods gangs. But I mean, seriously, how bad can this get?
Says Pisano: "Lebanon."
He means it.
"I don't think we know what the limit is. when things that are important for the whole aren't tended to, then you start having deterioration in a society. I think that's where we are. Southern California has just one luxury now. This deterioration is masked by incredible wealth-creating capacity. If that wealth-creating capacity starts deteriorating, I think we're in for one hell of a lulu. The gangs, for all practical purposes, are organizing units for the underworld economy. Hazing grounds for the labor force for the drug industry. That's a pretty well-known fact."
Pisano is not panicked by traditional Edge City problems. Traffic and air quality, he points out, have been a concern for decades. There are solutions, if we have the will. He is not. even alarmed about crime as such; that too has been around for a long time. What he is specifically worried about is a breakdown in political stability. He is worried about a rupture in what everyone feels they are a part of; what everyone feels they belong to He is worried about a breakdown in community between those who have achieved the Southern California dream and those who have not. He is worried about "those who've been disenfranchised; they may just go outside the political process. You have real anger, and you can have real terrorism. Now, I don't want to paint a bleak picture. But you asked me, If you were to push this line of reasoning, where does it go? It could be pretty grim."
When I talked to Pisano, the air was still heavy with the smoke from brushfires that had just destroyed more than six hundred luxurious homes and killed at least one person.
"A good percentage of the fires that we had in the last couple of days were arson," Pisano noted. "In the morning paper, the caption read, 'Angry and Alienated Individuals Characteristic of the Arsonist.' Well, isn't that Lebanon?
"That's why I think there's a real yearning for something—that individuals can no longer be every man for himself. They have to be responsible individuals. Until we find a way that special interests can exist with commonality, we'll build some nice individual communities but won't be able to deal with the needs of the full or the broader community."
Pisano's definition of "community" is one of the broadest. When he worries about a lack of community, he's talking about a perceived absence of civic virtue. Pundits have repeatedly measured it in the declining number of people who vote, the declining number of nonprofessional politicians who run for office, the declining number of people who are even willing to answer a Census questionnaire. And Pisano has a right to worry about privilege without responsibility. In Los Angeles, white Anglos are down to 12 percent of the population of the public schools, and Orange County is becoming a bastion of the affluent. The middle class is being pushed out to the inland desert realms of Riverside and San Bernardino counties in search of affordable homes.
But this idea of "community," and the perception of its decline, is intertwined with Pisano's belief in conventional government—especially a regional one.
What Pisano is really worried about, thus, is a loss of the sense of citizenship, what he refers to by the Latin word civitas. He yearns for a mayor and a city council. This is precisely the kind of ruling structure Edge Cities rarely have.
The distinction between community and citizenship is not a small one. After all, one of the things Pisano hates is the power of the special-interest groups. Yet who are these groups that so frequently block projects of large social worth? In many cases they are real communities that feel threatened by change. This is why destruction of a wetland or the building of a dump can spark so astoundingly loud a battle. The argument is not about asphalt and concrete; it is about endangered community. You can see it in Irvine when strangers band together to fight the developer's plan for new growth in a beloved canyon or along a special shore.
Developers are first and foremost agents of change. In Edge City, change is a constant that people can get mighty sick of. Voluntary community takes time; instability is its enemy. Change causes people to feel like strangers in their own place. Community and identity then retaliate. They become the enemy of change—and the growth of Edge City.
And this is true not just in the Anglo sense of community. There is, in addition—especially in a place as diversified as Los Angeles—the vastly powerful ethnic sense. For many first-generation Vietnamese, Afghans, Bolivians, or Ethiopians, the knowledge that they are part of a clan, a band of blood brothers, is still their strongest identity. It is the primary way that they describe who they think they are.
So, exactly to the extent that community brings people together as "us," it also separates people. It creates "them," too. If "them" is Pisano's regional government imposing decisions from above, then the community may easily find itself in opposition to citizenship in his sense. In fact, in a highly pluralistic society, it may be dangerous to bring disparate groups together too closely. A certain distance might be healthy.
The lack of allegiance to civitas—the lack of conviction that most conventional government really is of, by, and for the people—is of no small concern. New York City in 1990, for example, was coming so unglued that the majority of residents told pollsters they would rather be someplace else.
But this sense of "us" and "them" is not peculiar to the twentieth century. History's keenest observer of American culture, Alexis de Tocqueville, pointed out in 1840, in Democracy in America, that when the common good was faced with narrow but intensely felt interests, there was much to worry about:
"Individualism" is a word recently coined. Our fathers only knew about egoism. Egoism is a passionate and exaggerated love of self which leads a man to think of all things in terms of himself and to prefer himself to all.
Individualism is a calm and considered feeling which disposes each citizen to isolate himself from the mass of his fellows and withdraw into the circle of family and friends; with this little society formed to his taste, he gladly leaves the greater society to look after itself . . Individualism is of democratic origin.
De Tocqueville, however, did not see this as a fatal problem:
It is difficult to force a man to take an interest in the affairs of the whole state. But if it is a question of taking a road past his property, he sees at once that this small public matter has a bearing on his greatest private interests . . .
What's more, I have often seen Americans make really great sacrifices for the common good. When help was needed, they hardly ever failed to give each other trusty support.
De Tocqueville specifically noted, with his uncanny prescience, that community was rarely the same thing as formal government here.
Americans are forever forming associations. There are not only commercial and industrial associations . . . but religious, moral, serious, futile, very general and very limited, immensely large and very minute. Americans combine to give fetes, found seminaries, build churches, distribute books, and send missionaries to the Antipodes. Hospitals, prisons, and schools take shape in that way. In every case, where in France you would find the government or in England some territorial magnate, in the United States you are sure to find an association.
I have come across several types of association in America of which, I confess, I had not previously the slightest conception . . . The first time that I heard in America that one hundred thousand men had publicly promised never to drink alcoholic liquor, I thought it more of a joke than a serious matter and for the moment did not see why these very abstemious citizens could not content themselves with drinking water by their own firesides.
In the end I came to understand that these hundred thousand Americans, frightened by the progress of drunkenness around them, wanted to support sobriety by their patronage . . .
Nothing, in my view, more deserves attention than the intellectual and moral associations in America . . . Even if we do notice them, we tend to misunderstand them, hardly ever having seen anything similar before . . . The most democratic country in the world now is that in which men have . . . carried to the highest perfection the art of pursuing in common the objects of common desires.
That is why, to this day, Edge Cities are the places where we invent new institutions to create community, new ways to connect with each other. Community in Edge City is disparate people voluntarily seeking connectedness in a single whole.
Many of these communities are as familiar as the Girl Scouts, the Sierra Club, and the Rotary. But as de Tocqueville predicted, the variety and scope are astounding. Not surprisingly, associations designed quickly to build community in Edge Cities are often created the way Edge Cities themselves are—ad hoc, innovatively, sometimes strangely, and usually starting from nothing.
Bob Kelley is the chief executive officer of an outfit called SO/CAL/TEN, short for the Southern California Technology Executives Network. Orange County has been a magnet for high-tech firms. It attracted a horde of hard-driving, proud entrepreneurs, who started up their own companies and flourished. But when these individuals had difficulties, they found themselves isolated. It was, indeed, lonely at the top, not least because so many of these aggressive, action-oriented people were worried about exposing weakness. Further, many of these honchos had moved to Southern California from someplace else; they knew nobody.
SO/CAL/TEN became a kind of shelter for them. It is headquartered in Newport Beach, where 180 of these techie executives come together, in groups of eight to twelve, to be, in effect, constructively vulnerable. They acknowledge and describe the problems they have run into with their companies, and find out whether anybody else has dealt with a similar conflict. It is, essentially, safe ground.
The business of comparing notes on the pains of growing companies, meetings with venture capitalists, and other commercial activities at first went well enough. But soon it became more than that. People who worked together started playing sports together. Some who had come together for business reasons stayed together to work on the Orange County Philharmonic, Opera Pacifica, and the Boy Scouts. Members found themselves being invited to one another's weddings.
Then there was the day, Kelley remembered, that a chief executive officer walked in and announced that he had just been diagnosed as having inoperable cancer. Help me, he asked the group. What am I going to do?
That was the day this group really became more than a technical support structure; it became a community. It inspired trust and caring. The man came to the group to get his head together before goig to his wife. Since then, Kelley said, other personal problems have surfaced, with executives reaching out for help with everything from an extramarital affair to a child on drugs. This is not an easy country to feel alone in. Singles know that. It is why Irvine has a branch of an outfit called Great Expectations.
Great Expectations was originally created by Jeffrey Ullman in the Los Angeles Edge City of Century City. It may be the ultimate high-technology matchmaker. More than a dating service, Great Expectations finds its main market, Ullman explained, among people in their thirties who are professionally secure, earn a decent income, are comfortable with their lives, but single—and not happy with that. The object of the game for this market, Ullman explains, is to stop dating. They are sick of people fixing them up with "jerks, airheads, and flakes"; sick of the bar scene's fake sincerity; beyond the kicks of the one-night stand. They are in the market to find somebody with whom to get serious. That means quickly meeting, in a safe and non-threatening environment, people who are reliably (I) single, (2) in the right geographic area, (3) looking for a relationship, (4) Of like interests, and (5) reasonably solid professionals. It is not easy in Edge City for these singles to find each other, says Ullman. They work fifty, sixty, and seventy hours a week. In a large urban area, it's risky to approach somebody whose looks you like. "We don't smile at strangers as much. If we make eye contact, we look away, as in 'Oh, I've been caught.' " Many of the time-honored ways to meet other young people are not available. People in the Great Expectations market have already been through school. The church choir isn't doing it for them. Neither is hanging out near the chips and dips at the supermarket, waiting for a party.
"So these people end up very dissatisfied, and for a long time they stay at home. They figure, better you should read a book, or do some work, or go out with same-sex friends, than go through all that," Ullman says.
Or, for a hefty $2000 a year, these singles can avail themselves of Great Expectations. Its routine is complex, involving three levels of screening on each side, which makes everybody feel less vulnerable. Great Expectations leaves medical testing up to the individuals. Nonetheless—and most important—the system saves time. "You should be able to find ten good people in an hour, using Great Expectations. How long would it take you to meet that many people on the outside?" asks Ullman.
As a result, Great Expectations is now the largest dating service in the world. It grosses $45 million a year, has made the Inc. 500 as one of the nation's fastest-growing companies, and has been written up in everything from Ms. to The New Republic. Its forty-five North American branches are overwhelming in Edge City locations from Nassau-Suffolk, Long Island, to King of Prussia, to Orlando to Houston to Mountain View, in the heart of the Silicon Valley, to Bellevue, near Seattle, and to Edina, outside Minneapolis. The network has thrived by producing serious and stable relationships in brand-new places in the absence of the webs that used to be formed by family and society.
Leaps to create other senses of the word "community" have been made across even more astonishing divides. One of the more mind-bending TV spots for any local political race in the 198os in America had to be Michael Woo's cable effort. Woo is of Chinese descent, and looks it. He was running for the Los Angeles City Council. The council at the time remained one of the West's more white-bread political institutions. But in the Thirteenth District, where Woo was running, forty languages and dialects were in common use. So to become the first Asian-American elected to this bastion of Anglo power, Woo made an entire commercial in Armenian. He read it phonetically, from cue cards. His message? It was about ties that bind. He explained how some very different ethnic communities—there's that word again—can strongly share important values: a sense of identity, a belief in family and church, a respect for elders.
It worked. In 1985, he was elected.
By far one of the largest new definitions of community in Southern California was created in Irvine by Tim Timmons. Timmons, forty-five, came to Irvine in 1975 as a professional motivational speaker, doing the corporate circuit, pumping up salesmen, renewing their flagging enthusiasm. After five years of that, Timmons realized that Irvine was a place with a far larger market than the one he had tapped. (Timmons is the kind of person who to this day refers to the Irvine area as his "market.")
So he started a church. The South Coast Community Church. Timmons acknowledges up front that he has never been ordained. "I didn't think it was critical. I wanted to be able to deal with people eyeball to eyeball and just read ahead a little bit in the Bible. I wasn't interested in acting like I had it together. It was more critical to be one of them."
It worked. Timmons now has a flock of ten thousand. More than six thousand show up to be ministered to on any given weekend at one of four major services, the first of which is on Saturday night. Most churches in America have fewer than 350 souls.
Timmons has a staff of sixty-eight, including twelve pastors. "I realized we would have phenomenal growth and impact, because I saw the church as the vehicle to create community here, where there is a lack of it," he said.
When he was first thinking about starting the church, Timmons recalls, a lawyer friend happened to say, "In the old days in Santa Ana, we had community."
"I said, 'Keep talking.'
"And he said, 'I see my neighbors and talk to 'em. But we don't have community.'
"I told him about what I wanted to do he said, 'That may be one of the few things that could pull off a major community in this area.'
"All of a sudden, that clicked for me. So we started the Bible study in May 1980, and started the church in a gymnasium in Corona del Mar in August of 1980 we've gone from four hundred in that summer to a little over ten thousand in ten years."
Timmons probably will never go down in history as a theological scholar. "Christianity is so filled with man-made garbage and man-made deviations and rules," he says. "I was growing up, I was given ten things I couldn't do if I wanted to get my ticket to Heaven. Well shoot, I looked at these and saw about eight of 'em were my goals in life."
He goes to great lengths to dissociate himself from any whiff of culthood. His brand of Christianity is very laid back; he prefers to think of it as "pragmatic." He likes to keep appointments not in his office, but in the homey confines of the Village Pantry, a nearby coffee shop, where he shows up wearing shorts and a gym shirt and Converse sneakers. He goes way out of his way to avoid being judgmental. His catalogue of $3.00 inspirational tapes runs toward such selections as "Game Plan for Living: A Strategy for Personal Success." He's very observant about money. He reveals his salary to anybody who asks. It's $120,000. Not chickenfeed, but not out of proportion to the mortgages in these parts. He drives a Jeep with no vanity plates.
In short, Timmons has been careful. As a result, an informal survey of cynical Southern California journalists voted him the big-time local pastor they figured least likely to wind up in front of a grand jury on their watch.
No one, of course, can judge Timmons' relationship to his God. But on a secular plane, he seems to have come up with a pretty good recipe for creating community in a place that desperately wanted some. Sixty percent of his flock did not have a previous connection to roups to help people in Romania and China. "Who knows if it does the Chinese any good," he says. "Does our people a lot of good."
A competing evangelical nondenominational church that he refers to as "obnoxious Christians" spent the previous election trying to run homosexuals out of Irvine. "We did not do that," Timmons stresses, firmly. His stand on abortion boils down to community social work. "We're saying, look. If you have an unintended pregnancy, if you are considering abortion, please call us. If it's a financial situation, we will pay for the baby, we will pay for your counseling, for your medical care and for the delivery, and we will help you get the baby adopted or whatever you need to do. There's 20 percent of the people who are anti-abortion and 20 percent pro-abortion, okay? I'm going for the 60 percent in the middle who are basically lost. They'll always gravitate to the normal. What I want to show them is that the person of Christ is very, very normal and that that will make you normal as well. And that's the real issue here. We're all abnormal. Our M.O. here is "I'm not okay, you're not okay. But that's okay. See?"
In fact, Timmons is running something of a spiritual shopping mall. You can see it in his physical plant. The anchor is the fan-shaped twenty-five-hundred-seat auditorium with no kneelers but marvelous acoustics; a strong whisper at the focus of the stage echoes easily off the far back wall. Most of the surrounding structures look like low-rise corporate offices but function as spiritual boutiques. They contain meeting rooms of various sizes to which demographically targeted groups go to have their specific needs met. Some Sundays, he has to use satellite parking with shuttle buses. Timmons describes himself as "audience-analysis oriented," but says he's never found a need to advertise. In the basement there is a day-care center. Of the four hundred families enrolled in it, he says, 70 percent are not even part of his church.
What does community mean to him? "I think community is where people feel safe. I think it's where they feel that they're not going through this thing alone. There's something about that ache of loneliness that everybody's got. You've got to make contact somehow.
"We have a time in our service where everybody stands and they greet one another and I usually give 'em something to do If the Lakers are playing I'll say whisper a prayer for the Lakers. It's the kind of thing where you've got to get people to touch people. I sense that's what they need. All these transplants need a safe environment where they can trust and depend on somebody. They need to know that they're not alone."
Perhaps it is in such fashion that roots are put down in an Edge City the size of Minneapolis that was nothing but a cattle ranch twenty-five years ago.
Tom Nielsen, vice chairman of the multibillion-dollar Irvine Company, is a calm, solid man. The face of his son, John, got a lot of its best chiseled features from him. Of course, the two look more clearly alike if you discount the senior Nielsen's buttoned-down corporate garb and adjust for windage with John, who has been known to show up for an appointment with long blond hair, peach fuzz on his face, glasses with thin gold rims, and a shirt marked with the logo of a pizzeria.
Tom Nielsen is a thoughtful man. He says ruefully, of the early years of Irvine, "I don't think we thought of ourselves as building cities. There was no vision that we were building a city for tomorrow. We were doing a better job of suburbanizing Southern California and trying to take the conflicts out of traffic patterns." It is he who, unbidden, volunteers that he has a son who is critical of all the works of Irvine. It is he who urges me to speak to John.
Tom Nielsen grew up in Orange County, in Fullerton. He remembers when "it seemed that the three miles from Fullerton to Anaheim was a long distance. You'd actually leave one place and go through some orange groves and arrive at the other one. Yes, I played in the orange groves. Well, now you don't know where Fullerton and Anaheim or any place stops and ends."
That's not the only thing that's changed since he was growing up, he acknowledges. "The way we've built houses—there's nothing that encourages you to get to know anybody next to you. You never see anybody in the back yard. I've lived in houses where all around me I didn't know any of the neighbors. It didn't bother me because I was so busy. We moved from place to place. Maybe I don't have the same need—the sense of this community that they're complaining isn't here. It doesn't resonate to me personally."
When we first spoke, he mentioned, "I've talked about that at length to my son who is a writer. My son? He grew up in a lot of different places. Never really lived in Irvine. I don't think he'd like to live in Irvine. Why? For all the reasons you've cited. We argue about this all the time.
"Have we created a place where you can have roots? I think you can. I admit my dad did stay in the same house for forty-five years. I don't know how my children would feel. We didn't stay in any house more than five years; I don't know where their roots are. I know where John thinks they are. He thinks they're at a place called Piru, where we lived in a huge old Victorian mansion and he was in the midst of a community that was a very special place for him."
Piru is just below the Sespe National Condor Sanctuary in a valley in Ventura County. It is beyond the San Fernando Valley, as far north of Los Angeles as Orange County is south. The Nielsen family was living there because the mansion belonged to scions of the Newhall Land and Farming Company, another legendary and ancient California landholding family, for which the elder Nielsen was working at the time, developing a place called Valencia.
"We moved because of another job. I'm sure my son would be happy to chat with you, because he has more than a passing interest in this subject. He reminds me that when we built this, we destroyed all the places for the nesting owl. That's why there's an owl on Tower Two. That's right. He keeps telling me you've got to worry about the raptors in this part of the country and you can't develop it all. He wrote a story on the condor that appeared in Sports Illustrated. "
Wings. The condor, which has a greater wingspan than any creature in North America, is so threatened it no longer exists in the wild. John, who his father acknowledges has a thing about roots, writes about endangered wings.
This was how John ended up in Virginia one balmy spring afternoon; he had come to work in Washington. Sitting over a platter of cold cuts, he talked of the intense conflicts he had had over such communities as Irvine, at the same time that he was going out of his way to be fair. His particular desires and aspirations, he understood, hardly—reflected the American statistical norm. He mentioned his brother Peter to make the case. "My brother lives in Irvine, you know, and he just loves it. He works for the National Bank of Canada. He's younger than me. My role in the family—I'm one of those early rockets they launched right after Sputnik; in the old films they blew up. I'm the one that went with the monkey in it."
The first time I talked to John Nielsen, he made an effort to give Irvine an even break.
"I'm trying to be real rational about it, because I have a great amount of respect for my father, if not for everybody in his business. Building a community from scratch is not that old a science.
This day, he notes, "My father's really proud of all these things, you know. He's the kind of person who would not feel uncool saying, 'Every day in every way I'm getting better and better.' He's a very intensely mainstream person. That's why my father's in the business. He likes to shake hands, and his idea of a good time is either let's go to a zoning hearing or let's drive around and see the new project."
He acknowledges that he and his father have had a continuing dialogue about the soul of such places as Irvine.
"'Ale don't have big long talks. It's not like we sit down and have an exchange and debate. It's like, 'John, we bought this house in Palm Springs and want you to come out any time. We want to give you the membership in the tennis club.'
" `I don't want it.' " `Why not?'
" `I don't know.'
" 'Why don't you want to come out to Palm Springs and golf?'
" `I don't like to golf.'
" 'What do you mean, you don't like to golf?'
"That kind of conversation. I said, Dad, let's go listen to the blues. Let's paint each other and run naked down the street.
"He's a Horatio Alger. He really believes in that, and I think many more people agree with him than agree with me—BUT THEY'RE WRONG! I notice the principle of exclusion—extreme separations of wealth and a class system. They're not what was taught these places would be, which is mixed places, attempting to re-create the city environment. These are places that people go to so they don't have to be around whatever they deem undesirable.
"There's something that gnaws at you. I don't know whose fault this is. But I think the idea of killing the birds that land in your lake because they foul the grass—you know, poison—I think there's something bizarre about that. And they say, 'Well What do you mean? Birds are a problem.' "
John is intensely interested in his family's roots. "Hans Peter Nielsen and his brothers came from Denmark and settled in Lexington, Nebraska, and most of 'em moved as a group to Orange County in the late 192os. H.P. came with his kids Harold and Arthur and Carl and everybody but Einar and Olga. And Harold is my grandfather. He opened Nielsen's Menswear in Fullerton, which was this little island in a sea of orange trees. The clothing store stayed open till the early 1960s, when they introduced credit cards and he thought that was the end of society. My father and his brother lived in the same house essentially their whole life. They had a giant train set in the back, in a second house my grandfather had built. It was a re-creation of Fullerton. It was very exact.
"I guess you can see it coming. My grandfather always seemed in a daze when I would drive home. His wife died in 1969. He lived in this house and he wasn't leaving it. They would gradually widen the road and cut back the front yard. It was one of those L.A. homes that look terrific now. It was low, with a big patio and a shuffleboard court in the back and you have that weird green plastic stuff but it's all been bleached white from a zillion years in the sun. You'd sit out there with a dart board. My grandfather drove me to work once and he hadn't been to downtown Los Angeles for thirty years and he was just shocked. There were so many people everywhere.
"My father comes from that old Orange County world. He feels very much that he's a local boy. He's trusted. Although he has said to me, you know, 'Sometimes I go to these Rotary meetings and I'll talk to 'em—the older guys—and sometimes I feel like they look at me as if to ask, What happened? What happened to our world?' "
John's world was one in which "we were always moving into brand-new houses." The elder Nielsen was correct about where his son's roots lay. "I lived in all these suburbs and for two years of my life I lived in a Victorian mansion surrounded by orange orchards. It is just so radically different. When I come back, I go there. I took a girlfriend out to see it. I go back to Piru and walk into Sanchez Liquor. He says, 'Hey! That's Nielsen!' I haven't been there in twenty years. He says, 'It's Nielsen! Yeah, I caught you shoplifting!' He did! I stole a little red squirt gun. He told me to go tell my mother."
"I remember the place. I remember the sign that says 'If you ask for your beer in Spanish, you'll get your change in pesos.' It is the only part of Southern California that I know that has not changed."
"I think everybody has a little treasured place and if that goes then they're not coming back."
"My father would always bring my grandfather over, put him in the room, turn on the football game, and go in the computer room and work on the computer. I'd sit there with my grandfather.
"My grandfather would turn to me and say, 'There he goes. Going to play with that machine again.'
"I'd say, 'Well, that's the way he is.'
"He'd say, 'He was always like that, too.'
"So I'd sit there and talk to old Harold."
The Nielsens, father and son, readily talked into my tape recorder separately for more than two years about the differences in their perspectives. More of a challenge was getting them together. Finally they agreed. They chose the locale: California. Then they chose the place: the dappled pastels of the coffee shop at the Irvine Hilton.
They chose to sit side by side. Sure enough, the conversation soon came around to the subject of that Victorian house in Piru. What is it that that Victorian has? What does it have that Irvine doesn't? I asked.
JOHN: This house was built to be a Utopia. The guy planted the yard with biblical fruits. It had square nails. It had curved windows. It was ridiculous.
That's not a legitimate alternative to anything—to live in a Victorian mansion in an orange orchard in an abandoned part of a country. I'm not saying I disliked it, either.
I've always thought that that would be profoundly sad, more sad than anything else, when I drive out there and all that stuff's gone. I don't care if they change the onion fields or the walnut trees—which they've done. But when I come and all of a sudden the Newhall Land and Farming Company has converted that whole thing to "Orchardsville"—that will be profoundly depressing. What for? I can't tell you. If you don't know, I can't. tell you.
TOM: I see it as almost irrelevant to what we're trying to talk about. I wouldn't feel that way at all if I went out there. If the Newhall Land and Farming Company had found a way to convert the land and provide a place for people to live, I mean that wouldn't bother me. Yes, I'd view it as an improvement, if it ended up being a nice area that people were living in and enjoying and all that. They could even do parts of the San Fernando Valley there, as far as I'm concerned.
JOHN: Oh, Dad. [He looks up at his father in an almost pleading way.] You and Mom lived in the same house your whole lives, and I don't know how many times I've moved. You feel that I've missed out on something that you had. What is it?
TOM: I had the continuity or the association with a group of people over sixteen or seventeen years. What did I get from that? I'm not sure. I mean, I don't know.
JOHN: Well, there you go.
TOM: I know where my roots are. "They're right here in Fullerton. Absolutely it has changed. But I don't go up there and say, "Oh isn't it too bad there are no more orange trees." I mean, I don't think we regret that there are no more orange trees left, no. Happy to see a new university and happy to see lots of things that have happened. I'm accepting the fact that we're going to have more people in this part of the world than we do today. If that involves the conversion of land in the Simi Valley to handle 'em adequately, that's okay with me.
Is that okay with you? I ask John.
JOHN: No. It might have been ten or twenty years ago. But now the thing that heightens it is, you know, the Simi Valley's all that's left. I mean, that might not be literally true, but look at Orange County. It's just plastered.
TOM: There's land in Ventura County. There's all kinds of land all over. All I'm saying is if we could come to some agreement I'm perfectly willing to say, "Okay, let's preserve the area out along that river." Maybe that's important. But we want to develop this part. Now, John wouldn't even let us do that. John says no to everything.
Is there anything like sacred ground in the late twentieth century? I ask.
TOM: Sure there is. There is lots of sacred ground and it's being protected in lots of places by lots of people.
JOHN: You talk and talk and I think you're right, you make it sound all so overwhelming, and this is the way it should be. But still it leaves me cold. You know much more than me and you've got it all figured out. And I still don't want to live there.
The coffee shop of the Irvine Hilton is called Le Café, and it is a pleasant place. The flooring and the glass walls have been calculated so as to blur the distinction between indoors and outdoors, making it air-conditioned cool but vivid. The table at which the Nielsens sit has taupe benches, with accents of yellow, aqua, and pink. On the walls there is a sixteen-unit enamel-on-aluminum piece of modern art. It shows palms, water, high-rises. Next to it there is a little plaque. Irvine Landscape 1985, it is called.
The conversation with the Nielsens goes on through most of the afternoon. But it doesn't go much of anywhere else. Both are calm. Both are rational. Each is polite to the other. Neither changes the other's mind.
That outcome is probably telegraphed in the early part of their conversation. Maybe it is when I ask the elder Nielsen the same question I've asked so many other people in Orange County by then: What does community mean to you, as in "master-planned community"?
What he seems mostly is a little perplexed by the question. Says Tom Nielsen, "It doesn't mean—anything more than a marketing term."