A Man of the Street

David L. Ulin is book editor of The Times, and the author of "The Myth of Solid Ground: Earthquakes, Prediction and the Fault Line Between Reason and Faith."

Rick Caruso’s office is palatial--that’s the only way to describe it. Walk in and it stretches before you like a stage set: one vast room, subdivided into areas (a bar, a desk, spaces for conversation), with framed family photos on nearly every surface and a conference/dining room off to one side through a set of double doors. Outside Caruso’s third-floor windows, the Grove stretches like the boulevard he means for it to be; noise drifts up from the sidewalk, a low-grade conversational buzz. Across the street, Barnes & Noble and Victoria’s Secret feel so close they’re almost part of the decor here, making for an odd dichotomy. The Grove, after all, is planned, designed, controlled down to the smallest detail; it is a development with a motif.

“The premise has always been,” Caruso explains, “that we are building a great street.” To pull that off, not only is it essential to replicate, in some sense, the dynamic of an urban pedestrian environment--curbs and gutters, street lights, a variety of storefronts--but also to build on a distinctly human scale. “The dimension of that building across the way,” Caruso says, “was driven by King Street in Charleston. Charleston, I just felt, had a great sense of scale to it.”

At 48, Caruso may be the Donald Trump of Los Angeles, a developer who defines not just his city but his time. There’s a lot less glitz and bluster here, but the comparison seems apt. Like Trump, whose father was also a developer and gave him a leg up, Caruso has business in his bloodlines; his father founded Dollar Rent-a-Car in the 1960s and has influenced his career in many ways. In the late 1990s, when Caruso was seeking approval for the Grove, it was then-City Councilman John Ferarro, a longtime friend of his father, who came to the council chambers in a wheelchair and helped to push through the project. Like Trump, Caruso has surpassed his father, yet his presence continues to linger, a shadow he can’t quite get beyond.


Caruso and Trump do differ in terms of style. It’s hard to imagine Caruso having a TV show or engaging in public sniping with celebrities such as Rosie O’Donnell; that would be a waste of time. Confident, measured in his conversation, immaculately coiffed and dressed in silk ties and expensive suits, Caruso exudes a different kind of power, an air of focused grace. Perhaps the easiest way to explain it is that for Trump, it’s always about . . . well, Trump, while Caruso has a bigger vision in mind.

Part of that vision is civic. Caruso is certainly politically connected, with strong ties to Gov. Schwarzenegger and former Mayor James Hahn. This is not just window dressing--in 1984, at age 25, he was appointed a Department of Water and Power commissioner by then-Mayor Tom Bradley, a post he held for a decade and a half. In 2002, as president of the Police Commission, he led efforts to remove Chief Bernard Parks and was instrumental in bringing William Bratton to the job. It’s not the standard resume for a developer, but that, Caruso emphasizes, is precisely the point.

“I didn’t grow up in the real estate industry,” he says. “I didn’t grow up in the mall industry. So the greatest gift I had when I got into this business is that I had no clue what the rules were. I was building things I thought I would enjoy and that other people would enjoy. I love hanging out and people-watching and feeling like you’re in a mix of things going on. You go to New York and you feel like you’re in the right place. That’s what I was trying to tap into on these properties. I’m much more driven not by creating great retail space but by creating great civic space.”

The question, though, is how great civic space is created: Can it be invented whole or does it need to evolve? What happens when a shopping center becomes a magnet for the community? What does it say about Los Angeles if the town square is a mall? Such an issue may seem simple on the surface, but it becomes increasingly nuanced the more you turn it over in your mind.

The Grove, after all, is what CalArts professor Norman M. Klein calls, in his book “The Vatican to Vegas,” a “scripted space”: “a walk-through or click-through environment (a mall, a church, a casino, a theme park, a computer game) . . . designed to emphasize the viewer’s journey--the space between--rather than the gimmicks on the wall.” In a scripted space, Klein argues, “[t]he audience walks into the story”; in a scripted space, “gentle repression [poses] as free will.” Caruso might not use Klein’s terminology, but he proudly admits that the Grove, like all his properties, is a mediated environment.

“We go around the world,” he says. “We studied Michigan Avenue, the rhythm of the trees relative to the light poles, the planting areas, the width of the sidewalk. We went to Savannah, which has a great street system. We’ve been everywhere.” The idea is to borrow whatever elements are necessary to construct “a great street,” the kind that, Caruso suggests, might have been developed “in the ‘40s after the Farmers Market was built in the ‘30s. And if we’re going to build a great street, it needs to do everything a street would do, which means from a design standpoint, you have to have the right height curb and all of those things.”


The irony, of course, is that great streets are rarely scripted. Rather, they develop, changing and adapting over time. Their architecture is less a matter of affect than of intention; they are built, building by building, to serve a variety of uses--commercial, residential, aesthetic--instead of a developer’s master plan. They have history, which the Grove almost entirely lacks. In that regard, it is a reflection of Los Angeles’ own tenuous relationship with history, the city’s sense of itself as a place that exists in an eternal present tense.

Here we start to see the influence of Hollywood, and even more important, of Disneyland, whose Main Street is an obvious precursor to the Grove. (Caruso considers Walt Disney a hero and has called him “one of the true geniuses in the world.”) With its dancing waters and its manicured lawn, its vaguely Italianate side streets and its movie multiplex designed to resemble a classic motion picture palace, the Grove exists at the intersection of the town square and the movie set, a vision of a past that never was.

“The Grove’s success,” suggests Diego Cardoso, an MTA official who sits on the L.A. Planning Commission, “has to do with the value of creating place as an element in getting people to go and stay. It looks like a street, but it isn’t public. You go to shop and to be entertained.”

Even the Farmers Market, which in the late 1990s became a rallying point for anti-Grove activists when it was announced that the new development would impinge on its territory and force the relocation of its iconic clock tower, was itself a scripted landscape from a prior generation. “It’s an amusement park version of a farmer’s market,” Klein says, “and it always was.”

Imagine the Grove on an early Wednesday morning, before the stores open. Maybe it’s overcast, the marine layer thick above the Fairfax District, the morning cool--damp almost--and as gray as a city street. The Grove is empty but not silent; there are people here. Early-morning joggers, a woman walking her dog. In repose, the place resembles not so much a shopping center as part of a neighborhood.

Now imagine the Grove at the height of the weekend: a Saturday or a Sunday afternoon. It is packed (according to Caruso Affiliated properties, 17 million people visit annually, more than come to Disneyland, and they spend an average of $126 per visit), dense with shoppers and sidewalk strollers, diners filling the outdoor tables of restaurants. In front of the movie theater, patrons gather, while others flow in and out of the Apple Store, Victoria’s Secret, Barnes & Noble, American Girl Place.


There are all kinds of people--black, white, Latino, Asian, young and old--and although most have come to shop, there’s something else going on as well. By the large central fountain, parents and kids hang out to watch the dancing waters, or sprawl across the self-styled village green to listen to a rock ‘n’ roll band. If you squint a little, there’s almost the impression of a city center, a quasi-public space that’s commercial, yes, but also communal. This, of course, is the point.

“People come to the Grove,” says Caruso, “and they’re spending half the day. They may not buy a thing--most of them do, thank God--but they’re coming to hang out, run into friends, grab a cup of coffee and that, I think, is more in line with the way people live. It feels natural.”

To call the Grove natural may seem a bit of an overstatement. This is, after all, a theme park for shoppers, a commercial fantasy writ large and developed out of whole cloth. “The Grove’s popular success,” wrote Alan A. Loomis of the Los Angeles Forum for Architecture and Urban Design in 2002, “reinforces entertainment retail (retail-tainment) as the only legitimate activity for creating urban places.” Still, there’s little doubt that its popularity has a lot to do with just such an illusion, the idea that what it offers is a taste of something that resembles the neighborhood pedestrian experience.

Neighborhoods, once a key aspect of Los Angeles real estate development--Westwood, Beverly Hills, Leimert Park, Miracle Mile--are becoming so again. It’s a paradox to frame the sprawling city in terms of such traditional components, but appropriate in many ways. As L.A. continues to densify (last year its population passed 4 million, with a metropolitan area 2 1/2 times that), it becomes more difficult to navigate, which means that we must increasingly remain in a single part of town. As traffic grows more unmanageable, we must rethink our relationship to the city and return to a pedestrian way of life. A development like the Grove, with its mix of consumer elements and communal landscape, blurs the line between mall and community.

This, too, is a paradox, or more accurately a conflation, a conundrum, a funhouse mirror through which the city refracts back on itself. The Grove, after all, is controlled by a company whose goals may not be consistent with those of the community. Is it then a public space? “We’re pulling 78 ZIP Codes to the Grove on a consistent basis,” says Caruso. “This tells us that there is so much pent-up demand around this city for a place to go that is comfortable and safe and fun to be at.”

All this seems particularly relevant at the moment, with another Caruso development, the Americana at Brand, scheduled to open next year in Glendale, and a third, The Shops at Santa Anita, being challenged in court by anti-development groups. What’s important is what shopping centers tell us about the city, and how we adapt to the spaces that surround us and redefine them as our own. This is the nature of urban living, which is itself a fluid interplay of human and commercial concerns.


So what does it mean when neighborhoods get scripted? People hang out at the Grove because it’s safe and insulated, which explains the parents with their children. But then there are those who use it in more idiosyncratic ways. Why jog through a shopping center or walk your dog on a fake street when there’s a real one only a few hundred feet away?

The answer has to do with the nature of those real streets, which all too often in Los Angeles have been constructed for the car. Unlike the Grove’s pedestrian dimensions, Third Street east of Fairfax sprawls and stretches, fronted by a gated housing development--Park La Brea--and a shopping complex set back off the street behind an enormous parking lot. There’s little street life, almost nothing to look at, none of the direct interaction upon which neighborhoods depend.

What we need to think about, suggests Greg Hise, a professor of urban history at USC’s School of Policy Planning and Development, “is how we use the city, the interactions it inspires.” This brings us back to the issue of scale, of building to pedestrian dimensions, a quality that most observers suggest is a major factor in the Grove’s success. “It’s the element of human scale,” says Cardoso. “Absolutely, that creates the comfort level--that, and the fact that it is safe and well-controlled.”

The scale, in other words, is the scale of the neighborhood, a scale with which we intuitively feel comfortable and at home. Is this manipulative? Of course, it is. But as Hise points out, even the most “authentic” neighborhoods have been packaged and sold. “We need to get away from this kind of binary thinking,” he says, “and consider where people feel free, where they feel part of the public. The neighborhood is an essential factor in how people think of cities, and we should look critically at what it means.”

Indeed, notes Rebecca Solnit, a San Francisco social critic and author of “Wanderlust: A History of Walking,” “Maybe these places are incubators, teaching people how to re-enter public space. Urbanism is a learned behavior, not an infrastructure design. And a development like the Grove might offer an education in the uses and pleasure of outdoor space, which people have to have.”

Solnit’s got a point, for despite the Grove’s air of construction, organic things do happen there. If nothing else, you get a taste of the serendipity of street life, no matter how measured or controlled. “People have made the argument that it’s not real,” Caruso says. “Well, it is real. It’s this real perfect little place. A place that people hope for in their own backyards.”


If that’s more than a little hyperbolic (a touch of Disney, perhaps?), it also suggests a curious authenticity. By invoking the backyard, Caruso is touching on a cornerstone of Southern California living: the one-family home, which is itself an expression of the desire for control. In such a culture, how do we begin to move to more traditional urban models, to think in terms of public, as opposed to private, life?

“The importance of public space,” says Cardoso, “is as a place we go without knowing each other to enhance our relationships as citizens and public beings.” Los Angeles has never been good at this, eschewing such spaces for the insulation of the freeway and the car. This is the land of the indoor mall, the underground parking lot, a place where you can leave your house and drive to work, to dinner, to the movies without actually stepping outside.

And yet, as the city continues to expand, to urbanize, these dynamics start to change. We long for areas where we can mingle and come together; we long for places we can walk in. “Back to the future,” Cardoso describes it, and indeed, the Grove’s earliest precursors--Larchmont Boulevard, Old Pasadena, Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade--were developed on existing public streets. But if this makes the Grove an elaborate contrivance, it is also a contrivance that speaks to fundamental aspirations and desires.

Imagine the Grove a decade from now--even two decades--when its moment as the ur-shopping development of Los Angeles has faded and it has settled into the long second act of urban life. Perhaps it will be surpassed by one of Caruso’s new developments, by the residential/commercial model of the Americana at Brand. Perhaps the neighborhood will change and change the project with it, in much the same way that the Farmers Market has been continually transformed in the 73 years since it opened. Whatever happens, here’s what we can count on: that the lives of cities are open-ended, a matter of framing and re-framing that is hard to anticipate.

Caruso, it is said, got the idea for the Grove from Rome’s Via Veneto, where he saw buildings that were centuries old redeveloped for contemporary commercial use. That’s a striking image, suggesting that not only are Caruso’s intentions more complex than he’s commonly given credit for, but also that our cities may ultimately supersede us as independent entities in which we play only a part.

“Ten years from now,” says Klein, “we won’t remember what we worried about. People adapt.”

For more photos of the people who enjoy the Grove, go to