Herb Caen--50-Year Prophet of 'The City'

Reporters Thomas B. Rosenthiel and Dan Morain could have said correctly in their article that in addition to a nostalgic attitude and his alleged kickbacks from restaurants and stores, that columnist Herb Caen's grammar is often poor, that he can be pitifully trite (especially in describing the fog's arrival on a summer afternoon) and/or that Caen often invents or uses words or abbreviations that reek of trendiness: "slurbs" for "suburbs," which includes a negative connotation, comes to mind.

What the article neglected, however, is the point of it all, Caen in writing about "The City" (as he and they call San Francisco) constantly discusses urban problems and often suggests solutions. Because he is read by hundreds of thousands each day, Caen has been a major force behind Bay Area residents' attitudes and concern toward their environment.

Amid the social gossip and the citation of shops and restaurants, there are frequent discussions of urban issues, some about neighborhoods, some about the region. As a result, the "common person" has been exposed to sophisticated issues and concerned about them. In part because of Caen, voters approved a rapid transit system for three counties over 20 years ago; freeway construction was stopped for the first time in U.S. history because of urban design considerations; voters established an agency to improve the water quality in San Francisco Bay, and numerous local and regional land use and transportation plans were developed with greater sophistication and citizen participation.

While Caen is nostalgic for a city that probably never existed, it is also true that Los Angeles could have benefited from someone like Caen. In Los Angeles, urban problems are accepted as "givens" or "payments" for living here. No one believes that air pollution can be mitigated, that traffic congestion can be reduced.

Caen has benefited the Bay Area by increasing the awareness of its readers. It is sad that Los Angeles has not had a Herb Caen.


Beverly Hills

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