The things about Southern California that first repelled me are those that now attract me mercilessly: the heat, the sun, and the feeling that it's frozen in time sometime between 1940 and 1965. I think after my first visit to LA, naive about mid-century modern architecture, I declared, "It's new, but it's old."
This, of course, was coming from a girl who'd only lived in Syracuse (industrial wasteland vs. Revolutionary and Civil War sacred grounds), London (medieval vs. WWI), and New York City (18th century vs. 21st century). I didn't understand the appeal of crusty, flaking, fading buildings that had been built less than a century ago, whose neon showed signs of life with an occasional zzt-zzt and a flicker.
And now I sit in Palm Springs, the Mecca of mid-century modern architecture and the birthplace of desert modern (mostly thanks to Albert Frey who also largely contributed to the architectural landscape of the Salton Sea). I relish in leisure by the pool of a former Howard Johnson's, drinking and eating from a former space-age Denny's, surrounded by that which is old-yet-new, and loving it. This morning's breeze was too cool for me so I travelled down desert for some real heat. And although I sit in the shade as I write, I peek out into the sun now and then to take a swim and to deepen the color which has arisen out of my skin, leaving a stark white watch line as only evidence of my former self.
So what changed from my first impression of LA's dirty, derelict streets?
The body has an incredible ability to adjust to heat and light and metabolize at whatever rate you give it food. It can heal itself, sneeze out allergens, fend off antigens, and clean itself out. When you burn it, it sheds a few layers of skin to reveal a new beingunderneath. I think simply exposing my body to California's spoils has made me love it. The brain, on the other hand, takes far more nuturing. I'm not sure if the mind ever really recovers from a trauma, working out its details through dreams and night terrors and daydreams and drunken encounters that make you wonder, "Did that really happen? Or did I just dream it?"
California depresses me but I think I like being depressed. I am comforted by others' failures. I am minimalized by tragedy which has struck others. At my lowest point, I will probably never be as low as Death Valley Borax workers or Joshua Tree miners and ranchers.
But still, in modern architecture, there's a whimsey missing that's ever-present in mid-century modern architecture. If dreams can take on the form of the building, Palm Springs is where you can see your dreams come true.
As I get older, I'm glad to see some history. I prefer the crumbling remains of a Palm Springs lush life to the glassy towers being built on the Williamsburg and Long Island City waterfronts. I'm glad to see an old abandoned Denny's turned into a hip little restaurant that serves white bean dip with pita and chilaquiles and fish tacos. I'll gladly walk among the ruins until someone finds a better use for them. Just don't tear them down. Our scars tell more about us than the makeup we plaster over them.