Dispatches from the Road 2: The Juxtaposition of beauty and box stores

I travel a lot, and one of the experiences that I relish when I travel is the feeling of juxtaposition. The contrast between the place that I’ve left and the place that I’ve just arrived at is invariably heightened by the rapidity by which I experience both. In one day, because of the miracle of air travel, you can experience New York and California, Europe and the United States, South America and North America, and by nature, one is drawn to some comparisons.

For example, I was in Japan several years ago, where the trains famously run on time to the second. As I was transferring back home at the Jamaica air train, the conductor proudly announced that the 3:12 train was running on time at 3:26. That was quite a juxtaposition. Juxtapositions are like swimmers who go from the hot pool to the cold pool, whereby increasing tension between the two sensations and experiences.

So, what contrast, what experience do I find from Southern California? Well, prior to that week, I had the opportunity to be in France. Now, France is a very ancient place, a place that is keenly aware of itself as a nation-state, its people, and its land. Its land is of primary importance for the generation of flour and wheat, which can feed its people. Most French revolutions over the last 200 years have occurred because people did not have enough bread. When you fly over France, you see the limitations of the city very clearly. There’s a church, often times a square in the middle, around. That is an old Ville, an old village, and then a little bit further out from there are some modern developments, normally postwar era to house people, and then it stops. The road continues, but the people and their dwellings are very clearly demarcated between the village and the fields.

Southern California depresses me. It always depresses me. Maybe it’s because of this juxtaposition between the sun and the sea and the actuality of life there, which is mostly sitting in traffic. Maybe it’s because the possibilities of running into anyone at all on the street, a happenstance circumstance, a chance meeting, is practically zero. Everyone leaves their home, goes into a car, and then arrives at the meeting spot, whether it be the movie theater, the restaurant, the bar, or the library, and engages with the person they originally set out to meet. So, the spontaneity, the chance, the circumstance doesn’t happen, and so much of that is the excitement of life. I think of the possibility of being in an afterlife, surrounded by people, only people that I’ve ever met, and how boring that would be to not ever have a chance of meeting someone new. And that, to me, is Los Angeles.

Los Angeles also depresses me because of how beautiful it is. It might be one of the most beautiful pieces of land in the entire world. The mountains rise behind the sea sloping down the valley, but every time I’m there, I’m reminded of the Patty Smith song, “They paved paradise and put up a parking lot” in Southern California. There is a real distinct lack of imagination, and the urban planners in the postwar era had such arrogance that precluded the possibility for any future truths. The density with which they built single-family homes is egregious. Along the highway, driving east out of Los Angeles into the central valley, Chino, in those areas, you see nothing more than commercial development. Those types that have a Best Buy, a Ross store, a TJ Maxx, Chipotle, Jamba Juice, Whataburger, these little fake villages that are worse than even Disney World, popping up every 5 miles.

Community gardens are more important than ever because they offer an alternative to the monotonous and unsustainable way of living that dominates Southern California. They allow people to come together and work towards a common goal of growing food, creating a sense of community and connection to the land. They provide a space for people to interact, to learn from one another, and to share resources.

In many ways, community gardens represent a rejection of the dominant ideology of Southern California, one that values individualism and consumerism over community and sustainability. They offer a way for people to imagine and create a different kind of future, one that is rooted in a deeper sense of connection to each other and to the natural world.

In conclusion, the feeling of juxtaposition that the author experiences while traveling is a powerful one that highlights the contrasts between different places and ways of life. While Southern California may be a beautiful place in many ways, it is also a place that is defined by its lack of imagination and sustainability. Community gardens offer an alternative to this dominant ideology, one that values community, connection, and sustainability over individualism and consumerism.