Monday, July 25, 2011

Red Cars and bookstores

I have a dim childhood memory of riding the Red Car with my mother. We boarded in San Pedro, I in a frilly dress and she in hat and gloves, to go shopping Downtown at the big department stores on 7th Street. I'm guessing it was about 1956, not long before the opening of the Harbor Freeway.

There's a second dim memory from around the same time, of gliding up the new freeway in my dad's used Mercury, on our way to visit my grandmother in Hollywood. The Four-Level Interchange was so beautifully landscaped that I remember thinking it must have been some kind of temple.

The received wisdom in Los Angeles is that the Pacific Electric Railway and its Red Cars were a marvelous public transit system that would be here today, were it not for greedy automakers, oil barons, tire manufacturers and their tame politicians in the 1950s. Insidious blight in the form of cars, freeways and gas stations put an end to enlightened mass transit from which we're still suffering.

What brought all this to mind the other day was the closing of the big Borders in Sherman Oaks, just a few months after the demise of Barnes & Noble in my Valley neighborhood. Unbelievably, there are no longer any mainstream bookstores in mine or the nearby zip codes. Corporate mismanagement, greedy landowners and savvy technology companies get the blame this time for replacing real books with Kindles and Nooks and iPads.

People aren't being forced into newer, better, cooler ways to read books. They're doing it willingly, in big numbers, just the way people flocked to cars and freeways in the 1950s. For two generations, Mount students could hop a shuttle to Westwood and the nearest Red Car stop. But when you can drive, why would you put up with the discomfort and noise of the railway or inconvenience of a shuttle schedule? And who thought about pollution?

I love books. I'm surrounded by them in the Mount library. I also love my iPad. Say, weren't bookstores great? But I wonder... were free wireless and a coffee bar next door a such a hot idea? It seems the same as handing out coupons for free tires and gasoline to people boarding the Red Car.

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