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Rachel Visits Laguna

By Ann Christoph

Inspired by Jim Nordstrom’s photo, “Edward Hopper goes to the Legion Laundromat,” I wondered what might have resulted if commentator Rachel Maddow had come to Laguna Beach last week. Here goes…

“Wow, this has been a week! Lagunans don’t need Mueller and Barr to keep their interest in the news—they’ve got their own dueling factions right there in town. I came on a vacation and I ended up covering day after day of emerging intrigue. Got into town over the weekend—Montage is a fabulous hotel—but there I was, trying to get away—and there were all these LGBTQ activists milling around putting on a major event promoting diversity and the creative economy. Just when I wanted to sleep in on Monday morning—8 a.m. there I was standing in line to hear what the organizers and their guest speaker, economist Richard Florida, had to say about solving our most pressing problems—income inequality, discrimination and bullying, affordable housing, etc.

Florida was introduced by a video clip of his interview with Steven Colbert, but he explained that he was not always on the national interview circuit. Before he wrote about the creative economy, he said had written several boring books that only his parents purchased. The principles that he and other economists had espoused and had traditionally applied to woo companies and revitalize ailing cities’ economies, seemed not to be working. Why? In his national bestseller, “The Rise of the Creative Class,” he observed that the talented employees that today’s companies need want to work in communities where they feel accepted, communities that are culturally stimulating and innovative.

Communities like Laguna Beach, which is in the middle of Southern California, one of the regions Florida identifies as a center of the creative economy. But, he said, (and we know) there are problems—greater income inequality than ever. The demand for housing has pushed costs beyond the reach of many. This is changing the community mix. Artists, creative people in many fields, young families, longtime residents who’ve volunteered and contributed for years, are all finding it difficult to stay or move here. Yes, he got it.

Jim Nordstrom’s, “Edward Hopper goes to the Legion Laundromat.”

We were all revved up and poised in our chairs, waiting to hear his magic answer to the problems experienced in Laguna and by in-demand towns all over the country.

Stay with us, let’s hear his solution.

More development. We should quash anti-development movements, and “scale up.”

Part of the room clapped, and part of the room sat back in their chairs, deflated. The messiah of urbanism had disappointed some in attendance. No new answers, only a prospect of continuing conflict. And what about the LGBTQ issues of discrimination and bullying? Had they just been set aside to concentrate on promotion of up-coming development projects?

The next day I decided to experience Laguna—its winding streets, cottages, beaches and downtown. I tried to envision “scaling up.” Where and how would that fit?

Not well, I found out later Tuesday at a community meeting at a local church hall. A standing-room-only crowd poured in—concerned about over-development. What existing buildings would be torn down to accommodate denser mixed-use projects? How would changes promoting more tourism impact residents? Would Laguna end up losing its unique character?

Not ready to be quashed, these residents were mobilizing to protect their town. They had done this before, I was told. Thirty years ago, they had a march of thousands in Laguna Canyon, passed a bond issue, and managed to save 22,000 acres of beautiful mountainous open space surrounding their town. This history is significant. The National Park Service cited the town of Laguna Beach and its Greenbelt as a Historic American Landscape.

With at least five development projects proposed within the old part of the city, they are now faced with saving the town itself.

How will they do it? Will they find creative ways to address those pressing concerns of affordability and still save the town?

Will Laguna Beach again be a model city or continue a battle between extreme views, like the national conflicts I report on night after night? I came for an escape from all that, and found it’s right here, too. Do you have solutions? Good evening, Lawrence.”

Ann Christoph is a landscape architect and former mayor and member of the City Council.

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