Comment: Hollywood helped build the cult of the green lawn


My lawn spoke to me the other day. At least, I think so. I was sitting on the porch having my morning coffee when I heard a low moan coming from the ground in front of me.

“Thirsty grass,” he whispered with a hoarse hiss.

The lawn looked like it needed a drink. We’re in the middle of the worst western drought in nearly 1,200 years, so I haven’t turned on the sprinklers in a few weeks. I suddenly felt bad for the uneven brown lawn – the only sad yard in the whole majestically fruitful block. I picked up the hose and gave it a squirt of cool water.

“Here it is. Take it,” I said, quoting industry titan William Mulholland, who uttered those same words more than a century ago at the unveiling of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, which funneled water from Owens Valley to the parched city so it could transform into a modern monster.

His actions marked the start of an Icarus-style flight for water use that now results in a stunning fall into a very dry Lake Mead. In less mythical terms, perhaps more appropriate for this notoriously saucy metropolis, Los Angeles has been living a wet dream for 110 years, and it’s time to wake up.

Our city is in deep trouble as we face water restrictions and a summer of searing misery marked by the threat of an absolutely explosive wildfire season.

Yet, as I stroll through various parts of the city, I encounter a sea of ​​lush green lawns. Sprinklers come to life – watering the grass, sidewalk, trash cans, small dogs and anything they come within reach. Runoff floods storm sewers. The soundtrack to my journey is the ubiquitous hum of a thousand weeders, cutting all that greenery into submission.

These same lawns are now studies in baroque excess. Landscape irrigation is estimated to account for 35% of the city’s water use, which has increased, not decreased, during California’s current mega-drought.

There is a striking disconnect between the perils of climate change and Angelenos’ behavior in the face of it. Why?

A green lawn is fundamental to the basis of the California dream – largely because lush green lawns are baked into the DNA of the idealized Hollywood image.

LA’s iconic lawns are living through the worst western mega-drought in nearly 1,200 years.

(Jessica Gelt/Los Angeles Times)

Hollywood didn’t create this country’s desire for green lawns – that desire arose when wealthy Americans tried to replicate the resplendent gardens of French and English nobility of centuries past. Then Hollywood did what it does best: propagate the myth through relentless, pervasive imagery. In this case, lovely lawns. They are an artifact of the city’s early 20th century cinematic renaissance of the century, a time when industrial settlers imposed their will on the land, turning it into postcard perfection to be broadcast via celluloid to the sore masses.

Masses who then sowed their own patches of green paradise in the flowery suburbs of booming post-World War II cities. These grassy oases have become more accessible to Americans of a myriad of socioeconomic backgrounds, not just the 1%.

Vintage Los Angeles commercials and films abound with Mediterranean-style imagery of emerald-hued grass, electric-colored flowers, and magnificent waving palm trees. Going west meant dreaming of grabbing a bungalow with a green lawn like a postage stamp, a ranch house in the valley with a modest yard, a mansion in Beverly Hills with a sprawling garden, a villa in Pasadena with acres of soft green grass.

The Mamas & the Papas sang of it in 1965 when they lamented that “all the leaves are brown and the sky is gray”, but that they would be safe and warm if they were in Los Angeles. In this case, the California dream is definitely blue skies, the Pacific Ocean, and waving palm trees. What’s overlooked, but inherent to this powerful imagery, is what you’ll find at the base of nearly every iconic palm tree in the city – a bouncy bed of vibrant grass.

A green lawn defines how many Los Angeles residents see themselves and their city. Without an abundance of lawns, we would have — as a publicist would say — an image problem. We’d be Pink’s hot dog without a bun. Hollywood without the Hollywood sign. Santa Monica without a pier.

It is perhaps fitting that much is said about the impending death of the Hollywood empire at the same time that one of its most enduring legacies – the archetypal image of the perfectly manicured lawn – is also in the process of die.

If green lawns remain a national aspiration, which they undoubtedly do, then Hollywood has nurtured that urge by reflecting the country back to itself as only Hollywood can. Lawns in the Hollywood tradition are often romantic – a symbol of wealth and abundance. But darkness lurks beneath all that maniacal perfection.

As a symbol of pop culture, Hollywood is unbeatable. One of the film’s most apt portrayals of the dangers of Hollywood-style excess is found in John Schlesinger’s 1975 film “The Day of the Locust,” which opens with a shot of a sleepy spinning sprinkler on the trimmed lawn of the San Bernardino Arms. bungalows while a blonde bottle paints her nails under the honeyed light of the sun.

In this case, what seems idyllic at first glance quickly turns into a nightmare. Upon closer examination, this blonde is deeply troubled, these bungalows are crumbling, the sprinkler is cheap, and the lawn is in tatters. At the end of the film, the city is in chaos.

Nathanael West knew when he wrote the original book in 1939 that LA’s manicured charm is an artifice masking a pathologically indulgent core with apocalyptic instincts. What are green lawns in the face of a mega-drought if not the ultimate complacency?

Old postcard:

The classic Craftsman style can be seen everywhere in Pasadena.

(Patt Morrison/Los Angeles Times)

Verdant decadence persists in the face of an inescapable reality: we are literally running out of water. Yet many residents cannot bring themselves to xeriscape, to replace their grass with sustainable vegetation. To do so would be to change the very character of this city. Admit that we are not Eden. To embrace our fiery, ash-choked, arid and drought-ridden present. Many Angelenos water their lawns until the hills burn around us. This is very ancient Rome.

It’s also very Hollywood. This has never been a city to age gracefully. We’re notorious for tearing down our historic buildings without fanfare, replacing them with soulless parking lots or big-box stores. We Botox ourselves beyond recognition rather than embracing the inevitable wrinkles that time brings. We cling to – and propagate – images of perfection in magazines and on screens, even when they are in direct conflict with our emotional and physical health.

But the climate is changing, whether we like it or not, and our city must change with it. We can create CGI lawns in post-production if we need expansive lawns for period films, but we have to start replacing our own lawns with buckwheat, sage, coyotes, toyons, and succulents. The city will actually pay you to do just that through the Metropolitan Water District Turf Replacement Program, which pays $2 per square foot for up to 5,000 square feet of lawn converted to approved “water” uses in residential courtyards.

I admit it’s strange to imagine LA without all the green. And the artificial turf doesn’t look quite right – I walked past a plastic turf the other day, and it looked as cheap and garish as the site of a beer pong competition. It may also seem strange not to have the comforting appeal of a leaf of grass, which Walt Whitman described as “the travel work of the stars.”

But the more we replace lawns with sustainable agriculture – and the more we put those images on film – the more we will get used to the necessary new normal. A new normal that was the only normal for centuries of Indigenous people who treated this land with the dignity and respect it deserves long before Hollywood moved here.

For inspiration, look to Huntington Gardens in San Marino – one of the city’s most filmed landscapes, appearing in countless movies and TV shows. Viewers typically see its vast expanses of green, but it also has a thriving California garden that reflects the needs of the local climate. The Huntington opened its doors in 1928, this garden was built in 2015. A sign of the times, if ever there was one.

These native plants will not only be infinitely better for our ecosystem. They will look far superior to the cracked earth and patchy yellow grass that will remain when we push the limits of our habitat and are no longer allowed to irrigate our yards at all.

And take note, Hollywood – they’ll shoot much better too.

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