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Irvine Promise Never Included Utopia : * Beneath the Sameness, City at 20 Has Done Well at Becoming What It Sought to Be

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Utopia has always been an elusive thing for Americans, whether pursued in the communes of 19th-Century visionaries or in the automobile-driven planned communities of modern times. Irvine, the consummate suburban tableau, approaches its 20th birthday celebration with modest toasts and reflections on whether the dream has been perfectly executed.

It has not been perfect, of course. But it is a conceit to think that any urban vision can realize fully the fondest dreams of its planners. Irvine has done very well at becoming the place it sought to be, even if smog now lines its horizons, and traffic queues up at the San Diego Freeway entrance on Culver Drive each morning.

Unsympathetic observers lament a certain sameness in the extended sea of terra-cotta roofs. Those with a somewhat more penetrating understanding of the city’s dynamics know that today the place is more complex, with some lively conflict. One big challenge is providing more affordable housing for the people now commuting long distances to the job center that Irvine has become. Some of the problems of other places that drove people to find refuge in Irvine now compete for a place on the agenda of public business. The city has buried its telephone lines, and paid a price for lacking cultural and ethnic diversity.

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But as much as Irvine has been planned, it has attracted people who are bright enough to care about shaping the life of their Promised Land. The genie is out of the bottle.

The early planners now get on cable TV during a referendum and talk about their decades-old vision. They pour big dollars into local politics, but they cannot again ever be quite sure what they have wrought.

The intention is order, but the game plan is now under a microscope of activism. Welcome to Irvine at 20; beneath its placid surface, it increasingly has similarities to older cities.

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