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First Impressions From the Air and on the Ground

Grady Clay, a Louisville, Ky., landscape architect and writer, is fascinated by the approaches that various cities present to their visitors.

It was axiomatic, in the days when travel was by train, that most American cities were entered through their most unslightly districts--slums, warehouses and industrial plants.

Today, when entry is by jetliner, cities are seen in all their sprawl; altitude softens the blight; parks and football fields stand out, and a cluster of skyscrapers mark the city’s center.

To anyone arriving in Los Angeles by air, the City Hall tower stands out like the city’s true symbol, visible in a way that it never was to those arriving by train or automobile.

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Once on the ground, however, the traveler is immediately swallowed up in the horizontal city, enmeshed in traffic and wondering where Los Angeles is. He is inclined to believe the myth that it is one vast wasteland.

Writing in Planning, a publication of the American Planning Assn., Clay calls these up-front visions arrival zones, and he suggests that far-sighted planners can make them more dramatic and exciting, and that they might offer rest stops and information centers.

Candidates for dramatic arrival zones, he says, include “the great panorama of center-city San Francisco seen from the last coastal hill near Candlestick Park.”

He also nominates “Albuquerque from the airport’s main exit; Denver’s skyline silhouetted against the Rockies; Billings, Mont., from Logan Airport on the mesa 500 feet above the city; Manhattan from the New Jersey palisades.”

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Clay does not mention Los Angeles, but despite its reputation as the Nowhere City, it does have possibilities. As the motorist driving north on the Santa Ana Freeway nears the East Los Angeles interchange, the downtown skyline is suddenly revealed, giving Los Angeles a stature it does not have in myth.

San Diego also offers the traveler an amiable entrance. One drives south on Interstate 5 past beautiful Mission Bay and the city’s pretty little skyline looms straight ahead.

Freeways have bypassed the business and civic centers of most of our small towns along the coast, so all we see of them are tracts of look-alike houses, though the ocean appears to the west in its various moods.

Clay writes of cities in the continental United States, but of course many of the world’s older cities have approach zones that are never to be forgotten. I’ll never forget when I first saw the Eiffel Tower; it is visible for great distances in Paris, and it says to every traveler, “Welcome to Paree!” (Although sometimes I have a feeling that the French don’t mean it.)

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I will never forget my first view of Honolulu. I was a scullion in the Merchant Marine, on my first voyage. Our ship rounded Diamond Head early in the morning, and there the city lay beyond the lacy shore of Waikiki Beach and a fringe of palm trees, houses and rooftops engulfed in flowering vegetation against the purple mountains with their crowns of cloud. Only two large buildings were visible--the Moana Hotel and the pink Royal Hawaiian. No city in ancient poetry or myth ever presented a more seductive vision to the traveler.

Today, of course, an excrescence of concrete towers chokes the Waikiki area. The Moana and the Royal Hawaiian are lost against the wall of new and taller hotels. The scene is still beautiful, but it has long since gone beyond the point where it made the heart leap.

I will also never forget my arrival in Athens, or more precisely, its port, Piraeus. I was doing a story on the 6th Fleet in the Mediterranean and the aircraft carrier I was berthed on put into Piraeus in a storm. In the morning we were put ashore in a small boat, and as we looked up into the dark sky over Athens there was a break in the clouds and the Parthenon came into view on top of the Acropolis, its marble columns gleaming white in a chimney of sunlight. I felt that I could never ask more of civilization than that sight.

I cannot end this essay without mentioning Bakersfield. Today, like every other California city, it is surrounded by suburbs, shopping malls, fast-food joints and motels. But I remember when one used to come down off the Ridge Route and cross that 30 miles of flat valley floor, through fields of cotton and potatoes, and leave Highway 99 to strike into the heart of the city, down Chester Avenue, until one came to that handsome old stone clock tower in mid-city. For decades it gave Bakersfield its identity.

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Alas, years ago the city fathers decided to dismantle it, stone by stone, and re-erect it just south of the Kern River, where few travelers ever see it.

I expect that to happen to the Parthenon any day.


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