Guy de Maupassant, the 19th century’s great ironist, was often seen lunching at the restaurant atop the Eiffel Tower. When asked if he liked the food there he said not really, but it was the only place in Paris where he could dine without having to look at the Eiffel Tower.
That same over-refined, unintentionally ironic objection is regularly raised against new developments in Santa Cruz. Under the otherwise benign catch-all of “visual impact,” a new ride at the Boardwalk, student housing on campus, an apartment building downtown or an events space on the wharf is branded inappropriate. And then we are bullied into believing that if we can see something, it’s probably bad for us. But both the Acropolis and El Capitan have plenty of visual impact; it’s the actual goal of all “visual” art, including dance.
There is no room for art in local politics today, nor in its administration. The joy and beauty of a once-vibrant city have been steadily and willfully diminished, falsely ascribed to the past and reserved exclusively for whatever is already here. All change — anything new — is judged an “impact” and all impacts are necessarily negative. The future has been profiled as ugly simply because it is the future. That’s a hard prejudice to swallow, particularly if you’re young, creative or generous.
Nationally, we’ve just been painfully reminded that the future is capable of more ugliness and pain even than the past. I know. But I’ve recently held a small child in my arms, so I also know that there’s no end to the beauty still possible in this world, and no telling where it will be found.
Take the cooling tower at the old cement plant in Davenport — probably the tallest structure in the county. That landmark is a welcome sight for one journeying home from San Francisco, especially at night. It’s a beacon letting us know that we’ll probably make it home. If, as Edmund Burke and Stendhal both claimed, beauty is the promise of happiness, then that tower is beautiful to me. You wouldn’t be doing me a favor by erasing it from my view.
But no, everything is not beautiful, or worth saving, just because it’s already here. It’s a sure bet that every building I ever designed will sooner than later find its way onto the city’s official listing of significant historical buildings, but I take no pride in that, and not just because of the faintness of the praise. Clinging to an inflated, idealized past has become more of a local pathology than a passion. A healthy city grows, adapts and changes, but civic health is precarious, especially when beauty, history and community are systemically cheapened and delegitimized, weakened by this prejudice against the future. Even environmentalism has become corrupted in the cause of exclusion. How else to explain fire victims in Bonny Doon being subjected to the transparently political constraints of a “coastal zone,” and forced to navigate yet another irrelevant layer of gratuitous bureaucracy on their odyssey to rebuild their homes. Even in crisis, we can’t help but criminalize housing. It’s fully ingrained in the system. One can blame that on our being a college town, or a bedroom community. But tourism has played its part as well.
The term “tourist town” rolls off our tongues, but tourism, with its hotels, vacation rentals, service jobs, doesn’t make civics easier, even though it finances city payrolls. Instead it makes it easy to forget that hospitality is – in the real world – not an industry, but the only true measure of any community. In our steadfast and righteous fear of change, we’ve become the least hospitable of communities.
When progressives become dilettantes like de Maupassant, insufferable in both senses of the word, the whole world becomes one relentless visual impact, and “historic preservation,” “heritage trees,” “environmental protection” and even “affordable housing” become thin excuses, distractions waged against progress of any kind. And we who grant status to political theater and thereby legitimize it, are accessories to a rapidly advancing and woefully inhospitable future.
Mark Primack would like to hear from you at [email protected] Contributions to the Elizabeth Butler Home/Studio, which is now under construction, can be made at County Bank.