Public Art and Private Automobiles Compete for a Disappearing View

 

Catalina

Much of my attitude toward cars was formed and solidified during the 16 years I lived in southern California.

For a time I lived in Oceanside, thirty miles north of San Diego and adjacent to the Camp Pendleton U.S. Marine base. I lived in a duplex three blocks from the beach, and worked at a newspaper office that I could walk to. It was 1991, the year of the first Gulf War and a riveting World Series that wasn’t decided until the tenth inning of Game 7. (The Twins beat the Braves, 1-0.)

I went to the beach every day, often in the morning before work. On exceptionally clear days, I could see Santa Catalina Island, far off to the northwest. The island was 50 miles away, and only visible because of its altitude. I could see it from the top of the steps, but when I got down to the beach itself, the island disappeared.

One day a friend asked me, as we stood above the beach, how much of the island we were seeing above the “hump” of the Earth’s curvature. Channeling my inner math geek, I estimated the distance to the island and the height of our vantage point, drew a crude diagram that incorporated the radius of the Earth and a tangent line to the Earth’s surface, did a little algebra, and came up with a reasonable answer. We were seeing the island from about 1,400 feet up. Since Catalina tops out at 2,097 feet, we could see the peaks of its hills. Everything else was “hull down,” as they used to say of sailboats.

I’ve been there twice. The island is 22 miles long, and home to roughly 4,000 people, the bulk of whom live in the island’s only town, Avalon, which encompasses one square mile of land and a famously photogenic harbor with a big casino at one end. The author Zane Grey lived and wrote there, and Phillip Wrigley’s Chicago Cubs baseball teams trained there for 30 years. A hundred or so bison roam the hills, descendants of 24 brought over in the 1920s by a Hollywood film crew. Catalina has an airport, at the top of the island, but I took the ferry out from San Pedro.

Most of the island is off-limits to cars, and the town regulates the number of vehicles. There’s a 14-year waiting list. Transportation is by golf cart, moped, or bicycle (plus tourist buses to the island’s interior). It’s a pedestrian town of pint-sized apartments and small shops, a slice of urbanity twenty miles offshore.

But Catalina is visible from Oceanside fewer than 20 days of the year. On the other 345, the emissions of all the vehicles plying the coast between Mexico and Malibu, where the number of cars is not regulated, conceal it from view. The sky is cloudless and clear, save for a scrum of yellow gray around the horizon. You’d never know there was an island out there.

Immediately south of Oceanside is the city of Carlsbad. The Pacific Highway runs right next to the beach, with an unbroken view of the ocean and the smudged horizon. In 1990, a public art installation went up along the highway. Called “Split Pavilion,” and created by New York artist Andrea Blum, it featured sections of metal bars taller than the people invited to walk through them, rectangular reflecting pools of differing sizes, triangular and trapezoidal benches and pedestals.

Many locals hated it. They gathered signatures on a “Remove the Bars” petition. I wrote about it in a piece for the Los Angeles Times:

From the highway, all one can see is the bars. (One can, to be sure, see the ocean through them.) To fully appreciate the park, one must get out of the car and walk through. When you stand between the bars and the shoreline, the artwork functions as it should – it complements, even augments, its surroundings.

“Do you think,” the man asked me,” that the few people who have the time to get out and walk should take precedence over all the people who drive by and see this thing?

Well, yes I do. You see, with that question, he had put his finger on the crux of the problem.

Unfortunately, this story does not have a happy ending. The anti-art forces won, and “Split Pavilion” was destroyed in 1999, the year I left California. Drivers can once again enjoy an unobstructed ocean view, but on most days the haze lingers offshore, like a bad aftertaste.

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