As I mentioned before, my local community Christmas tree is located in a privately-owned open-air mall and last week I was appalled to discover that the tree is really a tree trunk fitted with imported branches attached with pegs. Branches that are made of real tree matter but odorless, oddly life-less and dispatched to replace the actual branches that once grew out of this very real tree’s trunk. Since my last posting the entire tree has also been painted a bright, unnatural shade of green.
The last time I went to see the progress on the tree operation, a man and woman came up behind me and asked if the large, bright green thing in front of them was real. (With it’s new coat of paint, the tree looks odd, to say the least, and fake to say the worst.) I replied with what I knew, that it was all technically real tree parts but none from the same tree. To this, the woman exclaimed, “It’s the perfect metaphor for LA.” She was right, though she was also telepathically copying my idea, which is rude.
The Grove is just one of several malls in Los Angeles based on the bizarre conceit that mall shopping should emulate the experience of going to a Disney-owned Italian village’s adorable downtown. The buildings have a surprising amount of classic detail (although in cheap plaster instead of marble), the layout places the parking structure outside the mall core so that cars are not visible from the cobblestone main street, and a totally unnecessary retro-style trolley passes every few minutes, travelling a distance that is certainly faster and easier to walk.
There are, of course, some ways in which the Grove distinguishes itself from Italy. Most real villages don’t pump schmaltzy red-sauce restaurant music from every potted plant, for example. But in mindset of the Grove, that type of overdone atmosphere is part of the charm.
I have recently been reading a book entitled “Naked City: The Death and Life of Authentic Urban Places” by Sharon Zukin, in which our present-day notions of urban authenticity are challenged using New York City, and specifically the Jane Jacobs proving ground of Hudson Street, as an example. The book makes the very arcane but salient argument that “authentic” urban spaces, once we begin to value them for their authenticity, end up eroding into a mass-produced version of authenticity that is, well, not authentic anymore (except using academic words). Apparently, even Jacob’s beloved Hudson Street was never quite as charmingly authentic she claimed it was, it was in the process of becoming gentrified as she wrote about it, with most of it’s authenticity aesthetic rather than functional by the time it came to our attention.
Places like the Grove in cities like Los Angeles really take this thesis one step further. What is so radical and yet hilarious about Los Angeles is that a local or unique authenticity is not even the aim of city developers here (potentially because the only “authentic” part of LA is its parking lots). Everything is created to emulate a highly generalized authenticity that copies things we have no reason to think relate to life here. Things like village life.
In truth, the Grove is not intended to be a replica of a real, functioning downtown. After all, it does not sell a single practical every-day item and is populated entirely by strangers whose only connection is their joint desire to give each other judgmental once-overs. The mall’s design is more a replica of the downtown of an Italian village movie set than anything else and that’s what makes it so genuinely appropriate for Los Angeles.
Our civic life in LA does not involve running errands in quaint downtown corridors or running into people we know anyway, it involves getting groceries in our cars and then going to the mall and checking out strangers. Since we are lacking in well-used public spaces, we rely on a sort of contrived civic life in which the signal to gather in our symbolic (privately-owned) “downtown” is that the environment look like the kind of place that people in movies hang out. And of course we’re always happy to do some unnecessary shopping in between trolley-rides.
In essence, the Grove is a copy of a fake thing that is based on a copy of an original thing that idealizes something that doesn’t actually exist. It’s a simulacra, like the Grove’s composite Christmas tree, clearly modeled on the tree at Rockefeller Center which itself does not look like any actual tree in nature. We deal in illusion here anyway, so all the fake stuff doesn’t really bother us. In fact we feel at home with it. It is, really, the only authentically “LA” part of our physical environment.