Drive-By Critics Should Stop and Look

Henry Garfield is a free-lance writer who lives in San Diego

In Carlsbad there is a sculpture, which many residents revile. It sits on a small park overlooking the ocean, on the seaward side of the Pacific Highway.

It's a piece of interactive artwork, consisting of upright parallel metal bars, rectangular reflecting pools and low, geometric-shaped concrete benches. It is interactive because it is used, by strollers along the seawall, skateboarders looking for an off-the-level challenge and those who take the time to get out of their cars to simply sit and watch the ocean. The park used to be a parking lot, and the sculpture is certainly an improvement.

But a lot of people in Carlsbad hate it. A "Remove the Bars" campaign is in high gear, gathering signatures to pass along to the Carlsbad City Council. They have a table set up outside a restaurant next to the park, and, after admiring the sculpture one recent Sunday afternoon, I passed by and struck up a conversation.

"It looks like a prison," one woman said.

I ventured that I kind of liked it.

"We have 12,000 signatures of people who don't," she said.

"How would you like to work at this restaurant," a man beside her put in, "and instead of a great ocean view, spend all day looking at that?"

I said that I thought the problem was one of perspective. From the highway, all one can see is the bars. (One can, to be sure, see the ocean through them.) To fully appreciate the park, one must get out of the car and walk through. Standing between the bars and the shoreline, the artwork functions as it should--it complements, even augments, the beauty of its surroundings. People hang out there, when they could just as easily watch the ocean from anywhere along the seawall, which stretches for more than a mile.

"Do you think," the man asked me, "that the few people who have the time to get out and walk should take precedence over all the people who drive by and see this thing?"

Well, yes, I do. You see, with that question, he had his finger on the crux of the problem. The issue is not public approval of public art, or even accountability of public officials consigning art projects on public lands. The issue is the tyranny of the automobile.

In San Diego's Mid-City, CalTrans is getting ready to extend Interstate 15 from Adams Avenue to meet up with Interstate 805. For the past two years, the City Council has been debating the so-called "Visions" project, which called for several blocks of cover over the new freeway, atop which parks, walkways and public buildings were to be constructed. Opponents contended that the project would be expensive and delay completion of the freeway, and the City Council recently voted to abandon the bulk of the cover.

No one seems to have seriously considered the other obvious option, which is not to build the freeway at all.

The automobile is killing America. On San Diego's North County Coast, you can see Santa Catalina Island, 60 miles away, fewer than 20 days a year. The automobile is responsible for this. The automobile is responsible for the "Los Angelization" of San Diego, on which mayoral candidate Peter Navarro, who commutes from Del Mar to Irvine, has based his campaign. It is responsible for the oil spill in Alaska and the war in the Persian Gulf. It is responsible for the soullessness of suburbia.

We need to de-emphasize the automobile in our daily lives. We need to build more trolley lines, including the proposed line to San Diego State University, despite the objections of opponents who say it will take away parking spaces on Montezuma Road. That is the point.

We need to encourage people to get out of their cars and to use bicycles, buses and other forms of transportation. Employers need to encourage car-pooling and flexible schedules; employees need to live closer to their jobs. We certainly don't need another freeway, now or anytime soon, and we don't need to consign public art on the basis of how it looks from behind the wheel of a moving car.

The best way to get people out of their cars is through benign neglect of the highway system. Suspend all construction projects except for major repairs. When the automotive jungle becomes impenetrable, people will seek alternatives of their own free will.

Vote against any initiative calling for highway construction funds. And, when in Carlsbad, pull to the side and take time to walk around the bars.

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