There are a pair of luxury apartment buildings in downtown LA, with more on the way, built to look like vaguely Italian-type buildings, except that they're massive castles. They're impenetrable from the outside except for the small openings for visitor parking (where visitors can't actually park, unless they're there to see a leasing agent). A couple of my friends live in such buildings. Let's call them The Medici and The Orsini, because those are the silly, pretentious names that they actually have.
I read a piece in CityBeat (a local free weekly where Stephanie interned for awhile) on the current boom in development in LA, the revitalization of downtown and how the Medici specifically is an example of how upscale, fortress-like new developments shut out the lower-class/immigrant neighborhoods surrounding them. It's true, and in fact one of my friends made a film about this exact subject, juxtaposing the homeless people blocking traffic outside with hot young fashion students sexing it up in the hot tub for the camera. Some classmates took him to task for pretentiousness. Yeah, poor people? Sometimes they exist close to rich people. Stop the presses. (Though the charges of his film somehow exploiting poor people by trying to draw attention to their plight is an overanalytical, meta-PC overreaction that is not worth discussing. This is a digression but merely meant to clarify my view in case he reads this.)
However, this treatment of these buildings, these bastions of the high life, suggests that these so-called rich people really are living it up within those imposing walls. What I find fascinating, though, is that the Medici/Orsini seem to me not so much luxury as the illusion of luxury--it may be a fortress to keep out poor people, but fortresses are not actually nice places to live. It's got fountains, tile, fancy countertops, all the trappings of luxury, but you're trapped in a neighborhood you wouldn't want to walk around in--sequestered from the world in a maze of carpeted hallways, with strategically placed palm trees in tiny open-air courtyards to give you the illusion of seeing outdoors.
The Orsini common areas actually feature oppressively piped-in muzak, as though you lived in a department store (resulting in one classmate choosing to delete the dialogue from her film rather than deal with shooting sound). The Medici has a park, accessed by a walkway symbolically suspended high above street level, blurring the line between exclusivity and volutary self-confinement. Outlandishly overpriced studio apartments--top dollar for a minimum of private living space, which may or may not be positioned mere feet from a roaring freeway. The strong stench of a gas leak hovers over half the Orsini pool. This is luxury? It's claustrophobic, lorded over by Orwellian leasing agents who remind you that even personal photographs taken on the premises may fall under their jurisdiction. But it's sort of Italian-looking, and it costs a fortune, so it must be nice.
What is this weird impulse to imagine we're living the lives of movie stars when in fact we're like small animals herded into ever smaller, ever denser quarters that would draw the ire of PETA were it not for our own self-awareness placing the blame in our own laps? What is this self-delusion that if we surround ourselves with pathetic, superficial markings of luxury it means that we are doing better than we are?
Maybe it isn't actually self-delusion. The people I know who live there seem to know better. None of them are over the moon about the place where they live; in fact they realize it's a sham, often readily admitting the irony of their pseudo-rich rip-off living quarters.
I live in a small, seven-unit apartment building in Westwood, south of Santa Monica, which means not in the student-dense area surrounding UCLA. It's a real neighborhood where I can go for a walk. My building doesn't have a pool or a gym with DVD players on every treadmill. It doesn't look like an Italian villa after a horrific Akira-style mutant growth spurt. It just looks like a small LA apartment building, and it's got character.
So is the point of all this just that my place (called "run-down" in a classmate's critique of a film I shot there) is better than supposedly fancy places? Yes. And okay, maybe my area has fewer poor people because everyone moved there to get away from them, and not everyone can afford to live there either. But I guess the point is, if you are going to pay a lot of rent to hide from poor people, it's better to live in a place that's actually kind of nice as opposed to dropping yourself in a place you hate and building a huge wall around you, even if it's a pretty wall.
Then again, there are too many people in this city and super-dense housing is the wave of the future. There's a pretty big apartment building right behind mine and in ten or twenty years I'm sure my building will be gone and a new horrible one will take its place. I know all that. I'm just not looking forward to it.