Most of Ray Bradbury’s fans think of him first as a science-fiction writer, but I think of him as a fellow Angeleno. Though born in Waukegan, Illinois, the man who would write The Martian Chronicles and Fahrenheit 451 moved with his family to Los Angeles as a teenager in 1934. Just as he used his imagination to envision the futures in which he set many of his stories, he also used it to envision the future of his adopted hometown.
“Gathering and staring is one of the great pastimes in the countries of the world,” Bradbury wrote in a 1970 article called “The Small-Town Plaza: What Life Is All About.” “But not in Los Angeles. We have forgotten how to gather. So we have forgotten how to stare. And we forgot not because we wanted to, but because, by fluke or plan, we were pushed off the familiar sidewalks or banned from the old places. Change crept up on us as we slept. We are lemmings in slow motion now, with nowhere to go.”
He lamented the fact that Los Angeles, along with most other American cities, had sacrificed its most vital gathering spaces — especially “the theater, the sweet shop, the drugstore fountain” of his childhood, and of his nostalgic novel Dandelion Wine — on the altar of the automobile. “We climb in our cars. We drive… and drive… and drive… and come home blind with exhaustion. We have seen nothing, nor have we been seen.”
Bradbury approached this grand urban planning problem, which hit its nadir in the 70s, from his then-unusual perspective of the non-driving Angeleno. Having thus never forgotten the value of the old ways, he proposes a return in the form of “a vast, dramatically planned city block” offering “a gathering place for each population nucleus” where “people would be tempted to linger, loiter, stay, rather than fly off in their chairs to already overcrowded places.”
The block would feature “a round bandstand or stage,” “a huge conversation pit [ … ] so that four hundred people can sit out under the stars drinking coffee or Cokes,” “a huge plaza walk where more hundreds might stroll at their leisure to see and be seen,” an “immense quadrangle of three dozen shops and stores,” theaters for films new and old as well as live drama and lectures, and “a coffee house for rock-folk groups.”
He described this tantalizing urban space as a proof of concept, “one to start with. Later on, one or more for each of the 80 towns in L.A.” But how to get between them? Bradbury had something of a side career advocating for a monorail system, which he summed up in a 2006 Los Angeles Times essay:
More than 40 years ago, in 1963, I attended a meeting of the L.A. County Board of Supervisors at which the Alweg Monorail company outlined a plan to construct one or more monorails crossing L.A. north, south, east and west. The company said that if it were allowed to build the system, it would give the monorails to us for free — absolutely gratis. The company would operate the system and collect the fare revenues.
It seemed a reasonable bargain to me. But at the end of a long day of discussion, the Board of Supervisors rejected Alweg Monorail.
I was stunned. I dimly saw, even at that time, the future of freeways, which would, in the end, go nowhere.
While not a single monorail line ever appeared Bradbury’s city, one did appear, three years after that faithful Board of Supervisors meeting, in François Truffaut’s adaptation of Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. You can see it in the clip at the top of the post. Notice that it seems to drop Oskar Werner and Julie Christie off in the middle of nowhere; hardly an ideal placement for a rapid-transit station, but then, the monorail itself was just a prototype, running on a test track put up at Châteauneuf-sur-Loire by its developer, the consortium SAFEGE (French Limited Company for the Study of Management and Business).
General Electric licensed SAFEGE’s monorail technology in the United States, and to promote it produced this delightfully midcentury (and no doubt Bradbury-approved) 1967 film just above. Alas, it didn’t take anywhere in the country, but you can find two still futuristic-looking SAFEGE monorails still operating in — where else? — that futuristic land known as Japan, specifically in Chiba and Fujisawa.
Los Angeles may have rejected the monorail, and it certainly has a long way to go before it matches the development of any major city in Japan, but this town has, in many ways and in many places, realized the writer’s vision of an ideal urban life. America’s 21st-century revival of city centers has begun to make theater- and coffee shop-goers, gatherers and starers, and transit-riders of us again. And not owning a car has, in Los Angeles, become almost fashionable — an idea even an imagination as capacious as Ray Bradbury’s may once have never dared to contemplate.
Ray Bradbury: “I Am Not Afraid of Robots. I Am Afraid of People” (1974)
Ray Bradbury: “The Things That You Love Should Be Things That You Do.” “Books Teach Us That”
Ray Bradbury: Story of a Writer 1963 Film Captures the Paradoxical Late Sci-Fi Author
Ray Bradbury: Literature is the Safety Valve of Civilization
The Secret of Life and Love, According to Ray Bradbury (1968)
Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture as well as the video series The City in Cinema and writes essays on cities, language, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.
“people would be tempted to linger, loiter, stay, rather than fly off in their chairs to already overcrowded places.”
[Think it should read cars rather than chairs.]
“While not a single monorail line ever appeared Bradbury’s city, one did appear, three years after that faithful Board of Supervisors meeting, in François Truffaut’s adaptation of Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.”
[think it should read fateful instead of faithful]
Proofreading aside for the sake of meaning,
cogency and beauty there is no finer website I have found on the internet than Open Culture.
And no finer writer than Ray Bradbury. In light of his love for his art, for his readers, and his cities, both real and imagined it is sorrowful than the home where he resided for over fifty years was torn down by a prize-winning architect and that nothing and no one seemed capable of stopping this.
There are literary museums all over this country. Can no one seize the day and create one for Ray Bradbury? No earthquake, war, apocolypse struck the dandelion house. Just mendacity and something incomprehensible I cannot even name.
To people who say that the neighborhood couldn’t have countenanced a museum, so what. The house could have been moved. Thomas Edison’s house was.
Los Angeles has lost more than the possibilities of monorails though this article is lovely. It has lost credence throughout the world by countenancing this crime and not lifting a finger.
But it is still not too late to do something.
And there is certainly money enough in L.A. to do it. Where is Stephen Spielberg and others on this? Or Disney?
Build Ray a house where children can come to remember the great imaganeer of familiar homes on distant planets. For God’s sake and the children’s.
Rebuild the yellow house. And when the Waukeegan home of his grandparents comes up for sale buy it and let there be two museums.
Or three or four. Or have we just become bulldozers.
What’s sad is how quickly and easily any potentially benevolent public space can be taken over by just a few bad apples.
those who stand around and watch while it all goes down are, by their inaction, also, alas, bad apples
I also meant to say “benevolent” as a beautiful word to use for anything relative to Ray Bradbury or those who love/loved him and his stories. But there is wicked murk surrounding this story of the famed architect who didn’t by his dubious and oft quoted words even know that it was owned by Ray Bradbury and then, that, after all, the house was banal.
And how about the City of Los Angeles WHO SIGNED OFF ON THE HOME’S DEMOLISHMENT FULL WELL KNOWING THAT IT WAS WRONG.
And where was the mobilization of his fans who if they couldn’t have saved the house at least could have surrounded it in full force in its moment of death. Where was the much loved and visionary Stephen Spielberg who at one time proclaimed Ray Bradbury was his muse. There were people with the money, with the power, with the authority to save it. Were they all under a wicked spell. We cannot let these people win who are remaking the whole of American towns and cities (for years now) in the image of merely their own bank accounts and noteriety. The trees would have cried out if they could. The very clouds and small animals. Humans who had the power of speech and action were silent in the instant that it counted. I am horrifed. But still hopeful as they cannot kill the soul of things of what Bradbury stood and stands for.
I don’t understand any of this. We should build a whole nation of dandelion coloured houses housing everything we love. And then stand guard. This is not a moment for passivity.
ON RAY BRADBURY’S YELLOW HOUSE DEMOLISHED IN LOS ANGELES, STRANGE WINTER, 2015
The Props assist the House
Until the House is built
And then the Props withdraw
And adequate, erect,
The House support itself
And cease to recollect
The Augur and the Carpenter –
Just such a retrospect
Hath the perfected Life –
A Past of Plank and Nail
And slowness – then the scaffolds drop
Affirming it a Soul –
“the stone that the builders rejected
has become the Cornerstone”
for Sam Weller with gratitude hopefully
from us all…and to Ray Bradbury with sorrow
for beauty for possibility lost
(the children’s vivid field trips to the old magician’s haunts)
can houses go to Heaven?
I wondered, stunned at the news:
Ray Bradbury’s yellow house demolished…
by an architect.
an architect who won prizes.
prizes for what?
demolishing the immortal?
at least, where they lived.
I won’t be bitter I sang to the lemon sun.
houses can go to Heaven, well
this one could.
a house where stories spun
the color of midnight and the honied noonday
hived and the violet rains swept through;
a carnival whine of train whistles.
where will their ghosts go now?
they’ll linger somehow
near the new swimming pool.
where the new lodgers view
(the ones with second sight, it they’re lucky)
pearl dredged, the vast
and Christmas migrations of his words;
no more the house where the fantastic figured.
a man padding in bare feet to the midnight fridge
devoured cheese sandwiches, picked pickled books off a
shelf or two
luxuriating in his own stores…
and dreamed his readers knew him.
but history shifts when the wrecking crews show up.
on any dazzling day in 1962,
on Blake, the Norton Anthology read
(it reads no longer, trending beyond the old neighborhoods):
When a child, William Blake saw God peering through the window.
Did William Blake change what he saw? Did God cease peering?
so that editors revised in later editions?
the constructors deconstructed?
can you alter a vision once it’s envisioned?
even without the window,
God still sees
do we do we-
some things, you can’t excise
the stucco fading to tangerine in the sunrise,
who comes now to displace, being wiser than
music, past the clock of hearing.
we’re not buying it!
someone removes a phrase, a shelf, perhaps a roof
when no one’s looking but the clouds
and then it’s gone. at least, the shell of it.
it rained the day they took the roof off
the newspaper read.
as if the skies were weeping…
small goldenrod things crept near
keening in the debris:
and readers throughout the world.
these dreams can come and go no matter what
the planners plan.and they don’t really understand
that censored visions, buildings reappear to children
in the after years
beyond all earthly zoning.
and in the neighborhoods with curbed appeals
old monuments resurface in the magma..or
start bobbing up
in a summer lake with the wounded dinosaurs.
oh it’s so searing this has come to pass. alas
the house cried out in vain, while everyone was at work
at the book store, ice cream parlour
and then, whirled off (and All Souls with it)
like the house in Oz…remaining in a far kingdom
the grass could grow as tall as it wanted there or
you can’t kill a yellow house the colour of myriad suns
all marigold and gold finch bright
disconsolate the green trees sigh all the way from Waukeegan, ah
amber preserves but not Los Angeles
I can’t stop crying to any passersby on the sidewalk
where eggs could have been fried…
July rockets launched:
uproot the century plant and plant it somewhere else!
or gather the movie moguls here to stop this!
but once dismantled there’s no going back.
alack alack unless
invisibly the house transformed itself
well out of view enacting its own Bradbury tale of
little by little and much by much
all shadows tucked in to the very touch of the curtains
at the windows
dreaming itself apart from Time, letting go into
a better berried clime and
plank by plank chimney brick by brick
little garden in the back with wildflowers strewn
and birds that flew and chirped around the eaves
missing the writer scratching in his den
clickety clack on the typewritten track
his golden lore no more no more
oh no was not torn down but like an old shoe
that missed the wearer, mystically removed from here
(its inner self)
and by Whose hand? lifted gently from the land.
and only babies knew;though
children hoped, as they wondered, cherry bright again.
oh do not fear sighed sunflower angels mending
this scarred landscape
despite the worst laid plans and blueprints
made of sand should be denied but
whenever it looks like, on this side
where you need stories to get by
as if the undertakers had won! wheeling their barrows
of the stripped down walls
carted off to charities…
where’s charity in this? I sorrowed
in a nightmare land:
our pilgrammage forever.
or it had wings to fly, that buttercream house
reading over his shoulder, (all butter pecan and dreamy)
for 50 odd years as the notion slowly formed though it
grew paler than pumpkins toward the end
at what it had to do…and railed at
losing its butterscotch perch or porch?
it dimly reasoned,
“out of all Seasons now!”
through tears I see
what it saw
right down to the sawdust floor
of the Circus really leaving town
on a day perhaps of cotton candy clouds…
to the coffee grounds of a well made story
you won’t perk again (it thought,
more than a little overwrought);
it huddled closer to the Sun.
but what’s done is done
the story book house is overcome by the
bulldozers no longer dozing by the raspberry shrubs.
then it arose
like a wondrous yellow cake
about to be crowned with frosting oh my friends
while it chimed it chimed like a carillon:
there is- there is- no End!
a buttercup house in new-fangled Glory shines
where Ray eternally presides,
near gold foiled volumes, rainbowed ice-box pies
and he’ll look up with a glad surmise
(a booming I told you so)
when we’ll drop by someday to see the house spiffed up.
the haloed cream drenched apple fritters fried
and pour with him the dandelion wine-
fine toasts to the yellow house!
when it’s our Time, when it’s our Time
mary angela douglas 23-25 february 2015
P.S. I am not making this up. an incredible synchronicity… On feb 25 at 8:58 a.m. as I was revising this poem again and lingering on the phrase “I told you so” wondering what I meant by it exactly
the local radio station (wsjs) announcer said just before the newsbreak: “You might get a chance to go to Mars…forever. more in a minute…”
so that’s how I knew the poem was finally done, fork-tested.