Friday, May 18, 2007

Throwaway City: A Report on Thousand Oaks in 2007

I was driving around TO today, first along the Boulevard and then in the Los Feliz neighborhood (the strip bounded by TO Blvd, Hillcrest, Duesenberg, & Erbes), and I was struck by how little the city had taken with regards to what was built, where it was bullt, and what it looked like. For the main street of a relatively wealthy city, large tracts along Thousand Oaks Blvd. seemed straight out of a rundown truck stop 30 miles past Omaha.

The Los Feliz intersection is undoubtedly the worst kept in the city, with a bizarrely undersized car rental 2-story anchoring the south end and a boxy, setback mess (anchored by a Chef Burger) along the north side. Then, as you head north and west on Los Feliz Dr., you encounter a complete lack of sidewalks or streetlights, as if no one had informed the city that the area was no longer a horse community bordering the Conejo wilderness. Most of the homes in the neighborhood are nondescript and solidly middle-class (though in most other cities in this country similar homes would have housed working poor), but at some point along the street appears a partially gated block of squeezed-in mini-mansions. Most of the houses on Los Feliz are relatively colorless, but these newer homes are downright tasteless! They have absolutely no relationship to their surroundings, and add absolutely nothing to the neighborhood. Why does Thousand Oaks (and much of the rest of American suburbia) have such trouble understanding the concept of building things that go together?

In a more general context, Thousand Oaks is a perfect example of the poor job modern American cities do in providing for their citizens. If you look at the well-kept, attractive areas of Thousand Oaks, they are almost exclusively well-kept as a result of private money. Compare the walkways of Lakes or the Janss Mall to the potholes and sidewalk-less streets of Los Feliz or North Thousand Oaks. Now, I'd like to clarify, when I label a neighborhood as "nice", or "attractive", I don't mean to say "wealthy". In my mind, nice denotes an area where buildings are at a human scale, where people can walk around without being afraid of either speeding cars or crime. Some of the few examples of neighborhoods that come close to this would be Forest Cove in Agoura Hills or Oakview in Thousand Oaks (south of TO, west of Conejo School Rd), though in a perfect example the neighborhood would include local commercial elements, a factor lacking in both of those two examples. But at the end of the day, the city of Thousand Oaks, despite its tremendous wealth, is failing its citizens. And its citizens don't seem to mind.

Recently I was driving along the 23 north of Moorpark (the road that leads to Fillmore), and what struck me was the sudden transition from relatively small, working class housing to miniMansions just past High Street. Out of nowhere, three partially gated, setback communities with (large towers announcing their distinction from the rest of Old Town Moorpark) erupted out of the hills, forever marring North Moorpark's natural beauty. I wondered, don't these people have any shame? I understand that the housing crisis forces people to live in places they might not love, but anyone living in this community would have money, and the power of choice, andf it surprises me how people don't care how tasteless or gaudy their communities are. At the end of the day, most people just don't care if they have to drive through rundown backwaters to get to their homes, as long as their homes are walled off from the backwater. People have no civic pride, no sense of place or pride in where they live, and it shows, all over the Conejo Valley. Look at most of the region's commercial buildings- apart from complexes like the Lakes or the Promenade, most of the city looks like a modified version of the Kanan Rd./ TO Blvd. Strip Malls (the subject of a previous post). These are complexes of ugly buildings, of throwaway architecture. If Thousand Oaks was destroyed in an earthquake tomorrow, would anyone mind if we rebuilt things completely differently? Whereas in towns in the MidWest levelled by tornadoes we see a struggle to rebuild civic buildings and streets that defined the city as distinct, in most of the Conejo Valley there are very few places that really define the region. The Civic Arts Plaza is an example of a distinct building (though the architecture doesn't inspire much civic pride in my heart...), but most of the CV looks like any other colorless patch of suburbia. One of the few things that distinguish the area in this sense, the natural beauty, is being degraded more and more everday. Traffic is reaching crisis levels on the 23 (and is pretty bad on the 101 too), and housing is so unaffordable that in the Janss-Gainsborough neighborhood of Thousand Oaks bungalows meant for 4-5 people (a "single family") today often hold up to 10 people (multiple families), with people sleeping in converted garages for exorbitant amounts (at a clinic that I worked in that neighborhood, I came into contact with patients that would pay around $700 a month for the privilege to live with their families in non-air conditioned, 2-car garages). The Conejo Valley is rapidly becoming another San Fernando Valley, a nameless, colorless, tasteless expanse that no one loves.

Today I was in a camera store in north Los Feliz and I saw, tacked on the wall, a piece of paper that read: "But we'll LET ALL THINGS BE EXACTLY AS THEY ARE and it will all work out the way it is supposed to." This attitude seems to be the mantra of the Thousand Oaks City Government, and unless it changes sometime soon, expect an evermore degraded quality of life in this region.

It appears that the Agoura Hills City Council has caved in and demanded a revised EIR for the Agoura Village specific plan. I'll comment on that when I have time.

1 comment:

Andrea said...

As a resident of Agoura (right next to Thousand Oaks, which makes TO as much my community as if my actual address was there) I don't want the kind of urbanization and upscale phoniness of sidewalks everywhere and gleaming new buildings.
Granted, I have never actually eaten at the burger stand mentioned, or rented a car from that shop, but thank goodness there is still real life in my area, not all traffic lights, cement walkways, and new "designer look" strip mall buildings to house these same retail outlets.
In fact the street where I live has no sidewalks. It is one of the things I like about my street and undoubtedly influenced me to buy it.
If you want urban looks and phony displays of wealth (since you don't actually know how much money the owner of that burger stand makes to know if it a wealthy establishment or not) take them with you, to where you live. But don't put down where I live because it is still real and isn't all pretense and show. That is why I live here, and not next to your house.