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What 'Back to the Future' didn't predict: Neighborhoods off-limits to the middle class

What 'Back to the Future' didn't predict: Neighborhoods off-limits to the middle class
Wednesday's so-called "Back to the Future" Day marks the date -- Oct. 21, 2015 -- that characters Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox, right) and Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd) journeyed to the future in the 1985 film. (Associated Press)

Today is "Back to the Future" Day, the day in the movie trilogy's second installment in which Marty McFly arrived in "future" Hill Valley and nearly destroyed 1985.

By now, you've probably read enough listicles to know the myriad ways civilization has failed to achieve what "Back to the Future Part II" predicted we'd have today: Our cars and skateboards are hopelessly earthbound, we still burn gas instead of fuse atoms for transport and worst of all, newspapers aren't printed on the spacious broadsheet of the USA Today depicted in the film.

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As comically disappointing as it may be to not live in a gadget-porn utopia, there's one important aspect of our 2015 lives that the first two "Back to the Future" movies highlighted unintentionally: the increasingly mythical idea of clean, affordable middle-class communities.

Proximity, in large part, informs this sad conclusion. You see, Marty's parents, George and Lorraine McFly, are my neighbors. So is the bully Biff Tannen.

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Back in the 1980s, Hollywood used one street in South Pasadena as a backdrop for Hill Valley. The homes that portrayed the 1955 family residences of Biff, George and Lorraine are on Bushnell Avenue in South Pasadena, a leafy, Mayberryesque block consisting largely of century-old Craftsman properties about a three-minute walk from my house in the neighboring city of Alhambra.

I walk past Bushnell and all those photogenic homes several times a week, and each time I do, the catchy "Back to the Future" theme plays on a loop in my head, often manifesting itself audibly in the form of a whistle or an embarrassing hum no one else is supposed to hear.

Remarkably, little has changed aesthetically between fictional 1955 in Hill Valley and present-day Bushnell. The oak trees large enough for George McFly to climb still buckle the sidewalks and provide a picturesque canopy over the street, and the homeowners (for the most part) keep their properties in postcard-perfect shape.

Bushnell Avenue in South Pasadena was no doubt picked to play a fictional Hill Valley block from 1955 because it evokes so much about the "ideal" American experience of that period. In the Hill Valley of 1955, your average (white) middle class public school kid like George or Lorraine could live comfortably in a safe, clean neighborhood.

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I concede this might be accepting some Hollywood whitewashing at face value, but there's a reason the "Back to the Future" filmmakers selected a neighborhood of attractive but modest Craftsman homes in South Pasadena instead of, say, the more exclusive environs of Beverly Hills or Bel-Air: Many of us with middle-class backgrounds who also happen to watch movies can relate to the former and not the latter.

South Pasadena has always been considered nice — as much in 1955 and 1985 as it is in 2015. But "nice" has seldom been so set aside for the exclusive use of the wealthy as it is today. I say this as someone who grew up in the nearby city of Glendale and watched the first two movies of the trilogy from the small Spanish bungalow bought by my immigrant grandfather who worked as a furniture mover. To me, those old Craftsman homes looked charming, but not out of reach. They were nice in a way our working-class Glendale neighborhood wasn't, but "nice" didn't mean "you can't ever have this."

Now, in real-life 2015, even that old Glendale neighborhood has achieved the classification of "pricey," certainly enough for anyone familiar with the area to dismiss any attempt by a filmmaker to have it stand in for middle-class America. (For example, Zillow puts the current value of my childhood home, so often the butt of jokes in my family, at about $900,000). You can imagine what it's like for South Pasadena.

It's hard not to wonder how much longer Hollywood can re-purpose photogenic neighborhoods ... as the quintessential, relatable American town and have audiences believe them.


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Those cute homes on Bushnell today? They might still give the illusion of attainability, but in reality, they are anything but. According to Zillow, each of the three homes (even Biff's somewhat unkempt, small bungalow) would fetch at least $1 million on the market today; one would go for greater than $2 million.

Far away from South Pasadena, the single-story, dime-a-dozen house in Arleta that portrayed the McFly family's 1985 home is estimated to be worth more than $400,000, a sum considered "affordable" in today's warped real-estate market but should sound outrageous to anyone with roots in the San Fernando Valley.

Watching the movies today, it's hard not to wonder how much longer Hollywood can re-purpose photogenic neighborhoods in affluent cities like South Pasadena as the quintessential, relatable American town and have audiences believe them. We may not have hoverboards, flying cars and pint-sized fusion reactors in 2015, but we have achieved something the "Back to the Future" prognosticators couldn't foresee but unintentionally showcased: neighborhoods that are hopelessly off-limits to almost everyone.

Give America some credit, however, for being close to attaining at least one "Back to the Future Part II" reality: a culture awash in guns controlled by a blond-haired bully with a few hotels and lots of money.

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