April 17, 2016

DANBERG BIGGS | Building ‘Respectable’

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The main strip in Old Pasadena, California, shines like a laminated poster of a glazed donut. It’s a wide, newly paved road, lined with solar powered garbage cans and evenly spaced palm trees that softly whisper, yes, here is always warmer than where you’re from. The high-end chains stretching down both sides of the drag sell the sorts of specialty products that one might find advertised on a digital billboard in Times Square, or in the middle pages of a Sky Mall magazine. Traipsing down the manicured sidewalks with my local guide, I marveled at the lifestyle it implied. The Dog Bakery, on Colorado Boulevard, “offers fresh-baked all natural treats for your furry friend.”

At the epicenterof  Old Pasadena is a barista named Keith who sells wine. He has a neatly trimmed beard, and the swooping cursive lettering of his name fits perfectly onto his Starbucks nametag. And in addition to stringing together long series of nonsense coffee lingo, Keith can also talk you through the Starbucks Evenings wine list that is available to the patrons of Starbucks Old Pasadena. It is the town at peak form.

Old Pasadena isn’t ostentatious or noisy. You won’t read about its disaffected sons and daughters in a tabloid, or see its purchases in a money-spotting magazine. It doesn’t have much interesting money either; instead of actors or musicians, you’re more likely to find a dentist with a six-figure salary and a pool. And sitting in the shadow of Beverly Hills and Bel Air, it is exactly the kind of place that goes overlooked. This certain corner of the world, full of neighborhood watches and 40minute commutes to the city, experiences a quiet, secluded existence. For those within, it is simply the way things are — accustomed, expected comfort. And for those outsiders who may wander inside, it is a bizarre peak at the image of a curated world.

There is nothing about this world that is particularly interesting. In fact, that’s just the point. From top to bottom, communities like this one are designed to not stand out. Old Pasadena looks, by design, as if it came from a box labeled ‘bustling shopping district,’ and, apart from a few local peculiarities, it could be sitting just outside any other major metropolitan area in the United States. The outdoor mall in Irvine and the mega mall in Westchester could have come from the same box. This is not a criticism of this type of area. On the contrary, I quite enjoy all of the cities I’ve mentioned. But the creature comforts and pleasant atmosphere do not obscure the feeling that it is all highly contrived.

This is a community that tightly controls its space, but it does so for reasons more than just efficiency. Everything about this neighborhood, from its neatly written signage to its clean-cut baristas, is meant to convey a certain set of messages to the people who frequent it. On a calm spring evening, I was meant to see normalcy in the faces of storefronts and security in the well-scrubbed gutters. Comfort and, more importantly, respectability have a particular look. The character and values of this community are stenciled on its cover, free for anyone who visits to see and understand.

Broadly speaking, none of this is unique — nearly every neighborhood will attempt to tell you who it is through its look. The difference, though, is how widespread and ubiquitous this singular image of safety and respectability has become. If every town that has the option chooses to look like Old Pasadena, it is no longer an individual choice being made by one neighborhood; rather it is a widespread norm. And problematically, it is a norm that is inaccessible to the vast majority of communities. The reality is that, in order to maintain this sort of image, a region needs a lot of dollars. Not only does the populace need to have the disposable income to generate revenue for these businesses, but the tax base has to be large enough to support organizations, like the Old Pasadena Management District, crafted specifically to maintain the image of the area.

Where this simply isn’t an option, the superficial image of the community is bound to be different. It will have dirty gutters, because gutters are dirty, and one of the streetlights will flicker when it goes on. One house on the street will have a porch that is only suitable for cats, because it won’t take the weight of a pair of feet. There will be a Starbucks and Panera Bread, and there will also be a small store that only sells old records, VHS tapes and small Christmas ornaments — a good place to buy a gift for $3. This community will be the accidental process of people bumping into one another until they decided to call it a place. It will not have the hallmarks of careful planning and precise curating, but it will have the feel of a place that people live, and it will have just as much warmth as anywhere else.

And we will call this neighborhood ‘sketchy.’

The disastrous consequence of a narrow idea of what a nice neighborhood looks like is that the rest become lesser by default. Every time a passerby, unfamiliar with an area, looks at the superficial imperfection and declares it ‘sketchy,’ they take aim at the character of its people. An offhand comment about unsafe and sketchy streets leveled, not at places that look less safe, but at places that simply look less wealthy, does damage to the way in which one sees the people who live there. The residents are more dangerous, the community less respectable and the streets less secure. It is a subtle and constant assault on dignity and image, simply for living outside the realm of a vente pinot grigio.

Rubin Danberg Biggs is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at red243@cornell.edu. The Common Table appears alternate Mondays this semester. 

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