December 5, 2006

So, why isn't Van Nuys "vibrant"?

Van Nuys es very nice,
But it´s not paradise

En Van Nuys court celebrities can plead no contest or guilty,
A student steals his teacher´s car for prom but didn´t get too far,
A strip mall fire rages on Valerio, while Letty bumps la raza on the stereo,
"20 pegaditas, no corridos!"

Los Abandoned

The screening for Mel Gibson's "Apocalypto" that Disney invited me to wasn't until four days after the film goes into the theatres on Friday, so I tracked down the Latino marketing firm that Gibson hired to promote his film to Hispanics. They kindly sent me an invitation to a screening last Thursday at a small multiplex in a Hispanic section of South Central LA.

Driving around South Central, I started mulling over again why Mexican-American neighborhoods in Southern California are so dreary. Why aren't they fun? Sure, there's lots of private drama, like the song lyrics above depict. One reason journalists call Mexican-American neighborhoods vibrant is because they often have warm memories of Spring Breaks in Mexico, and assume that Mexican-American parts of town must be like that. Granted, Cancun isn't exactly representative of Mexico, but Mexico isn't an unfun place. So, what's wrong with the vast Mexican-American swatches of SoCal?

Suddenly, traffic slowed, pedestrians were everywhere, cops were directing traffic, people were waving signs trying to entice me to park in their yards for only $10, there were beautiful girls on every corner, and a brass band was playing an exciting fanfare. "Hey, now this is pretty doggone vibrant!" I thought.

Then I figured out what was going on: I was at the University of Spoiled Children and it was the night of USC's annual "Beat UCLA" pep rally in preparation for the #2 ranked Trojans polishing off the Bruins on their way to the national championship game.

Well, that didn't work out for the Trojans any better than the "Apocalypto" screening did for me, which was postponed a week due to a defective print.

But I did figure out one reason why Mexican-American neighborhoods are so dull: Mexican culture and Anglo town planning just don't jibe at all. Social life in Mexico traditionally revolves around the plaza, the town square, the zocalo, or whatever you want to call it, with a bandstand, places to walk around, and cafes under the arcades of the encompassing buildings.

In contrast, as Gertrude Stein said about Oakland, the problem with Los Angeles from a Mexican point of view is that there's no there there. There's no focal point. Downtown LA has a pleasant little plaza next to the Olde California touristy Olvera Street. But, the scale is miniscule -- it's the same plaza that has been there since the mid-19th Century. There's nothing like Times Square in the rest of LA, and the San Fernando Valley is worse, with zero focus.

In many Mexican villages, the big weekly social event is where the boys line up around the edge of the plaza and walk around clockwise, while the girls walk around counter-clockwise (or vice-versa), and everybody gives everybody the eye. Back in the 1970s, this was reproduced in cars on Cruise Night every Wednesday on Van Nuys Blvd. and was popular among both Hispanic and white teenagers, just like in George Lucas's Modesto, as depicted in "American Graffiti." (This is another bit of evidence that whites and Hispanics were less culturally separate in the past in LA than at present.) But the Van Nuys merchants complained and the cops shut it down.

My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer

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