I think the crummy shape of California’s symbols is the clearest sign of its strength. This may seem like a contradiction, but over time I’ve come to think of it as the greatest possible flex.
It’s a phenomenon that I believe is best exemplified by two places: the old Apple campus, and the Hollywood Walk Of Fame. These places represent the projections of California’s power from the north and south. They are (or were) perhaps the two most significant symbols of what California represents to the world. And both places are absolutely, completely, and overwhelmingly… crummy. But so – I contend – all the more powerful.
I wasn’t born in California. I grew up in the south on the opposite side of America, but as a teenager with an interest in computers, I had of course heard mention of that mythical place – silicon valley. I imagined it to be like something from a William Gibson novel, or a scene from Blade Runner. In my mind, this was where the future was being created, and so it seemed obvious that its physical form would also resemble the future.
When I first headed west, I was very confused. I had imagined a lot of things, but at no point did I imagine that Silicon Valley would be highways, suburban sprawl, strip malls, office parks, and parking lots that extended to the horizon. I was incredibly, unbelievably, shocked. Back then, the silicon valley billboards were advertising websites while the billboards in the rest of the country were still advertising things, but otherwise, it was just… america! The sky above the port was indeed the color of television, tuned to a dead channel – I just didn’t imagine it to be that particular flavor of grim.
But the first time I had to go to the old Apple campus in Cupertino, I suddenly understood. Imagine the scene: you travel through hours of suburban sprawl, only to arrive at a nondescript office building of no architectural significance that is surrounded by a parking lot for as far as you can see. The first time I stood in that parking lot and looked around, it was impossible to ignore that I was standing in a physical setting which no human person could rationally desire to be in. It was Office Space incarnate. A square labeled “commercial district” stamped out and forgotten by a bored Sim City player at 3 o’clock in the morning. A neighborhood prominently named for the thing that was bulldozed and covered with asphalt. A physical manifestation of alienation.
Amidst those thoughts, I unexpectedly watched as a tour bus pulled up. A tour bus full of people who had traveled across oceans. A tour bus full of people who had traveled across oceans pulled into this unremarkable parking lot, got out, stood in that parking lot, and were… excited. There is zero doubt in my mind about it. I scrutinized their faces as they got off, and never once saw even a flicker of disappointment or regret. They were stoked. They took photos of the parking lot. They took selfies in the parking lot. They smiled excitedly… in the parking lot! And this was all pre-Instagram. It was in this moment that I really, truly, for the first time, understood the raw power of Apple.
In that sense I think of Apple’s new campus as a huge mistake. It’s architecturally remarkable, and beautiful in many ways. Of course people are compelled to visit that – so what? But if you have a brand that can compel people, day after day, to travel across the world and stand in an otherwise depressing asphalt parking lot? Now that’s something.
Hollywood, however, is keeping it real. This is California’s other nexus of power, and second to the Hollywood sign, the Hollywood Walk Of Fame is perhaps its most prominent physical manifestation. Just like with silicon valley, it is easy to imagine that Hollywood resembles something other than what it is. After all, just the word Hollywood conjures images of glitz and glam, red carpets and gowns, champagne flutes and tuxedos. In reality, the Hollywood Walk Of Fame is a dirty sidewalk covered with trash and cigarette butts, hemmed in by a loud four lane high traffic boulevard, and serving as the primary pathway to an outdoor mall. It is the perfect image of a mediocre american sidewalk.
The first time I encountered it was by chance, and with vague recognition assumed that it must have been some cheap gimmicky imitation of the “real” walk of fame, hastily put together by the aforementioned strip mall. But then I saw a familiar scene: people who had traveled across oceans getting off busses to stand… on this dirty sidewalk. And once again, they were excited. I watched as person after person gleefully traversed the cigarette butts and trash extending from the liquor store to the 7-Eleven, and once again, they were not disappointed. They were excited to stand there, amongst the stars, as loud traffic whizzed by.
This is the power of California. California’s biggest export is culture, and there is no clearer picture of how powerful that is than the crumminess of its most celebrated broadcast points. Some Californians talk about the infrastructure of places like Singapore with envy. Sure, people will travel to see the Marina Bay Sands or the Gardens By The Bay. That’s Singapore’s flex. But would anyone travel to Singapore to excitedly stand in an asphalt parking lot or gleefully soak in the cracks of a dirty sidewalk? I don’t think they would. And that, I believe, is a much bigger flex.