“I Love L. A.”
A Roof and Someone at Your Side
What does it mean to know a place? In the song Randy Newman identifies a number of locations familiar to anyone who has spent a significant amount of time in Los Angeles. Imperial Highway, The Valley, the East Side, and the West Side; if you have lived in Los Angeles you know these places and can picture not only the name of the street on the traffic sign, but the shops and sites that live there. Imperial Highway is a very long street that goes through well to do sections of town and some not so well to do sections. The West side has the mansions of Bel Aire and Pacific Palisades; but the East Side is where much of the poverty is found. If you live in L. A. you know these places and are familiar with them.
David Hockney is a painter born in Great Britain but he too has made Los Angeles his home. The painting captures the swimming pool and palm tree character of certain parts of L. A. When I was four years old my parents moved from Schenectady, New York to Arcadia, a suburb of Los Angeles, California. We soon moved to the San Fernando Valley, or The Valley. There were many houses in the neighborhoods I grew up in that resembled the painting by Hockney. Even though I never really felt at home in Los Angeles and always missed the snow I know most of the places in Newman’s song and the ethos captured in Hockney’s painting.
Still when I first moved to The Valley it was not developed. It consisted of a few rambling neighborhoods that were becoming the outskirts of a great city but it also consisted of small ranches and a great deal of open undeveloped land. I hiked, fished (after a fashion), swam in ponds within walking distance of my house. For most of the time that I lived there orange groves were always close, in our last house they were at the edge of our back yard. We would purloin the oranges and dodge the agricultural police. Fruit always tastes best fresh off the tree. But we finally left because the city finally overtook the wilderness, or what felt like a wilderness to a child of ten or so years old.
The point is that home is represented by many things. In part it is represented by memories. But it is more than the house in which you live it is the relationships, family and otherwise that are made. If growing up is a pleasant experience these memories and relationships can contribute to the success that is experienced later in life. But of course, like most things it depends on what we do with the experiences. They might just as easily form a kind of cocoon from which we cannot easily escape in order to shape our own unique existence. Though on the whole, a positive home environment is more likely to produce success than an unhappy one.
The house that Claude Monet called home when this painting was done appears to be a very pleasant space in which to grow up. The child seems happy and the woman at the door watching the child seems to be content. Of course as the woman is almost invisible and the child has her or his back to us it is difficult to know for certain. The house looks like the kind of house most would be happy to call home. A more traditional house than David Hockney’s but it has the same bright blue sky. The house was enchanting enough to Monet that he decided to live there and also decided to paint it. It is a public face and it is difficult to know if the private face would be less compelling. Often the home and family the world sees is different from the home and family we grow up in day to day, or grew up in in the days of our youth.
There was an article in the magazine section of this Sunday’s New York Times. It was called “What It Takes to Make a Student“. It concluded that to a large degree what makes a successful student is successful parents in a successful home environment. The article concerned itself with how well we educate those who come from less successful households with less successful parents, especially those households whose lack of success is largely due to social inequities, largely, but not entirely, of race. The article suggests that the conditions in which children are raised, the vocabulary they are exposed to as children, the positive reinforcement they receive when very young have a lot to do with the academic success these children have in school.
I do not know, but this street does not look affluent to me. It looks like an old street that has been allowed to fall into a bit of disrepair. The look of the brick and the shutters in the windows and the people all suggest poverty to me. This may be because I do not know that much about life in Holland in Vermeer’s lifetime, but poverty has a face that it wears and this painting seems to reflect that face. I wonder about the lives of the people in this painting. The two figures kneeling on the street look like children to me, but it is difficult to say. But if they are children what is their life like? What were their educational opportunities?
I think that present day America takes more seriously the education of its children than do many cultures past and present. The difference between Holland of the seventeenth century and America of today (at least the stereotype that I carry with me) is that we question the quality of education those in poverty receive and take steps, not always effective, to achieve parity between the schools of the rich and the schools of the poor. Often this is little more than lip service, but certainly not always. The strength of the private schools in America is that, for the most part, they only accept those students they can succeed in educating, but that is also their weakness. What does success mean when the possibility of failure is largely removed from the equation? It is often the fear of the consequences of failure that produces the most striking innovations. On the other hand America’s public schools attempt to educate everyone and that is their strength. This is also their weakness. How can schools give a quality education to all when there is such a broad mix of skills and academic needs, not to mention political forces?
I wonder about the article in the New York Times because on one level it suggests that poor families care less about their children than rich families. Parents on the whole want the best for their children, though they may not always know how to provide the best. Poverty is demoralizing and some are better than others at distancing their children from the consequences that being demoralized often produces. I grew up with stories about people who lived in poverty that successfully provided for their children’s needs and this included their educational needs. Mildred Taylor’s Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry comes most immediately to mind. Having educated parents is a real advantage for a child’s education. But having nurturing parents is at least as great an advantage.
Thornton Wilder in his play Our Town captures not only small town American life, but the essence of home and family, at least how it is imagined to have been, in small town America. Grover’s Corners is a nurturing place, a village that raises its children. But this monologue from the play suggests that not much of importance happens in life and family on this side of the grave; that there is a race to forget this side of the grave. There are good people and good families in the play and children that are raised to be happy and successful. The families of George and Emily are supportive and give their children the skills living well require, though there are also many missed opportunities and sacrifices made which produces a kind of quiet unhappiness in some.
I look back fondly on the music of The Beach Boys, the bright blue California sun and the bright blue waves of the Pacific, perhaps bluer in memory than in life. My parents made sacrifices for me and the parents of the children I grew up with were largely committed to seeing to it that their children had at least as a good a life but hopefully a better life than the one they were enjoying. And perhaps the key word is “enjoying”. It is easier to sacrifice if at the end of the day there is enough to make the day enjoyable. It was a neighborhood of fisherman and engineers, carpenters and doctors. It had a nice mix, though a rather homogenous one in certain respects; this was the 1960’s after all. I think over all we are judged as a culture by what we are willing to give up for our children more than by the things that we accumulate or the things we accomplish. And all children deserve a good family, a good education, and a community in harmony with itself where all children can say “I Love . . . .