How to Save a City? (Ray Bradbury Responds)
In a stupendous article, Bradbury little by little redesigns the city of LA to save it from its automobile obsession.
If we read his short stories, science fiction novels, his affectionate articles, or even if we see him in interviews on video, Ray Bradbury is pure generosity. And part of his charm was having dedicated his talent to trying to improve the lives of his compatriots. He managed to attract millions of novice readers, and used his imagination not only to conceive the future of all stories, but also to conceive the future of his adoptive city: Los Angeles.
In a little-known article published in 1970 entitled “The Small Town Plaza: What Life Is All About,” Bradbury puts it simply:
Gathering and staring is one of the great pastimes in the countries of the world. But not in Los Angeles. We have forgotten how to gather. So we have forgotten how to stare.
And we forgot not because we wanted to, but because, by fluke or plan, we were pushed off the familiar sidewalks or banned from the old places. Change crept up on us as we slept. We are lemmings in slow motion now, with nowhere to go.
Bradbury lived in Los Angeles from adolescence and in his article laments the fact that the city has sacrificed its gathering places (its squares, candy stores, malt shops and bookstores) in favor of the cult of the automobile. So we climb in our cars. We drive … and drive … and drive … and come home blind with exhaustion. We have seen nothing, nor have we been seen. And he asks, how did we lose it all? How can we bring it back?
He goes on to describe, step by step, what he would do to restore life to the Californian city that has lost itself in its highways. His model is based on a huge urban block, in the form of a square, that offers a gathering place for each nucleus of the population, where people can loiter, stroll, hang out or simply sit and stare. A plaza for the 80 or 90 towns that conform L.A
At the exact center: a round bandstand or stage.
Surrounding this, a huge conversation pit. Enough tables and chairs so that four hundred people can sit out under the stars drinking coffee or Cokes.
At the four corners of the block, four theaters. One for new films. A second for classic old pictures. A third to house live drama, one-act plays, or, on occasion, lectures. The fourth theater would be a coffee house for rock-folk groups. Each theater would hold between three hundred and five hundred people.
The stores on the square, he says, would be:
A pizza parlor. Malt shop. Delicatessen. Hamburger joint. Candy shop. Spaghetti cafe….
Bradbury also suggests a huge stationers, an ironmonger’s, an art materials store, a gallery, a record shop, a tobacconist and three bookstores.
One for hardcovers, one for paperbacks and the third to be an old and rare bookseller’s crypt, properly floundered in dust and half-light. This last should have a real fire-hearth at its center where, on cool nights, six easy chairs could be drawn about for idling bookmen/students in séance with Byron’s ghost, bricked in by thousands of ancient and honorable tomes.
In the same way that he always used the hypothetical future as the source for his brilliance, here he uses the idyllic past, the simple past, to project the values that should be rescued before they disappear to the detriment of us all. One where simply eating an ice-cream or sitting on a bench and watching people pass by are the best ways of socializing and being emotionally healthy. His enthusiasm is so gentile that it makes him see everything so simply and it also reveals the implicit simplicity in a love for life, and that creativity only requires us to make lists.
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