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Reality Intrudes Upon a Polite Urban Escape : Planning: Despite ultra-correct code of conduct, fistfight brings the outside world into CityWalk’s sparkling streetscape.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The sign is discreet, its wording polite, but its message clear. All the things your mother taught you are spelled out literally in black and white. Don’t stare. Don’t yell. Don’t make fun of the way others speak, act or even pray.

Except this is not your mother’s house. The rules adorn the sparkling gateway to Universal CityWalk, the privately owned urban streetscape in Universal City that is part theme park, part shopping mall, part town square.

CityWalk’s code of conduct and its dutiful enforcement have helped the promenade earn a reputation--whether deserved or not--as a place to sample the pleasures of the city without the aftertaste of urban decay.

But last weekend reality intervened and the order of this shining city on the hill was disrupted by a group of kids who got into a fistfight outside the movie theater.

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The tussle lasted about four minutes. No one was seriously hurt. Most pedestrians along the neon-accented walk saw nothing. It was the kind of thing that happens almost every day in almost every neighborhood, the kind of thing no one notices.

This time, though, it happened on CityWalk.

And folks noticed.

To some, it was a sign that no place is safe. Others smugly noted that the ersatz city of glitz cannot ignore the real city around it. People will be people no matter how many rules, no matter how many shiny badges. Perhaps, say urban planning gurus, it was all of the above.

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Even before it opened last year, CityWalk inspired the laurels and the venom of urbanists, planners and architects. It was vilified as a surrogate for urban life, an Orwellian vision for the city. It was praised as the salvation of public space.

But really, its creators say, it was never intended as anything beyond a place to spend a few bucks and have a good time watching the parade that is Southern California.

Those sorts of places are rare in Los Angeles anymore.

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“To me, Los Angeles is not a real city,” said Irish tourist Dominic Cogan as he watched 2-year-old son Eanna dart in and out of the water jets in CityWalk’s center court fountain.

“This,” he said, turning to look down CityWalk’s gently curving promenade, “is more like a town. It’s what Los Angeles should have been years ago.”

It is, in fact, a jumble of what Los Angeles actually was years ago. A bit of Hollywood here. A piece of Westwood there. A splash of Broadway here. It is, in a way, the Los Angeles of television--recorded and dismembered and then edited back together into a fantasy world where Koreatown is next to Van Nuys and Griffith Park somewhere between Torrance and Santa Monica.

It is the sort of vibrant, active landscape Angelenos have refused to let happen in their real world. If we build public places, the public might actually come. And they might bring their problems with them. And then, well, there goes the neighborhood.

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MCA Inc., the company that owns Universal Studios and CityWalk, built it anyway and people came. Apparently, the fake city seemed more real than the real city because they came in numbers no one expected: 10 million walked through the quarter-mile street in its first year, according to company estimates.

Of those, roughly 9,999,900 parked their cars, followed the rules and went home a few dollars poorer.

There is little about CityWalk’s restaurants or trinket shops that is inherently unique. The glowing fixtures and flashy buildings stay the same time after time, but the ever-changing ebb and flow of people is as fluid as a lava lamp.

On a recent afternoon and evening, the street was bustling with an odd mix of tourists and locals, an even odder mix of young and old. Outdoor cafes brimmed with laughter and conversation. Never mind that a turkey sandwich and a Diet Pepsi cost $8.06.

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A ring of empty strollers surrounded the center fountain, their pint-sized occupants frolicking in the water under the constant gaze of a uniformed security officer.

A glass of milk spilled in the center court was cleaned up within three minutes. People said “excuse me” and they smiled with real smiles. Most had not even heard about last weekend’s fistfight.

Those who had shrugged it off for what it was--kids acting like punks. That kids will do that does not surprise the people who run CityWalk. There have been other fistfights at CityWalk and there will no doubt be more.

“You can’t guarantee any place to be safe and secure,” said Larry Spungin, head of MCA Development Co.

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“I think it’s a ghastly thing from a design point of view,” said architect and urban designer Rex Lotery. “It has nothing to do with the city. It doesn’t have anywhere near the richness of mix of what you’d find in a real city. It has the most obvious kind of commercialism, things that are really absolutely money related.”

Right on the money, said Spungin. Although CityWalk has become a cause celebre in design and architecture circles, it was never intended as a model of modern urban living. It was to be just another way to separate people from their cash.

A mall that doesn’t look like a mall.

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Urban designer Doug Suisman tried to hate it for that. “All of my training and instincts led me to oppose CityWalk’s basic premise,” Suisman said. “Then when I got there I was surprised at how much I enjoyed. People were having a genuinely good time. They didn’t seem like media-bombarded zombies.”

Last weekend, the media bombarded viewers and readers with reports of the CityWalk fight--something that genuinely surprised Spungin and his colleagues. As he said, anytime you get people together, they will act like people.

Perhaps, because it happened in this “bastion of artificiality,” one architect mused, the fight somehow seemed more significant--more real, if you will.


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