The Americana at Brand rises from its 15.5-acre lot in downtown Glendale, Calif., like the setting for a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald. From my seat aboard the vintage-style trolley that makes a circuit around this $400 million outdoor shopping mall and residential community, I glide down what reminds me of Rodeo Drive to Rush Street in Chicago, skirt the dancing fountain in Vegas, turn onto Newbury Street in Boston and end up in New Orleans, each stop announced by the cheerful ringing of the conductor’s bell. The Americana, where I’m spending a weekend, is the newly minted brainchild of the California megadeveloper Rick Caruso, the force behind the Grove in Los Angeles and a family of other open-air retail developments that turn up the design volume on the dreary shopping mall experience, past theme-park kitsch, all the way to something sublime, say, a Diamond as Big as the Ritz.
At the Grove, at Third and Fairfax, Caruso and his in-house team perfected their formula....More than just a builder with a dramatic flair and a nostalgia for small-town America, Caruso is a producer of alternative realities--where Sinatra is still young, service employees all wear crisply tailored uniforms and the clock stops every 30 minutes, right in sync with a mesmerizing water-jet show at the fountain.
A carefully calibrated merger between community center and consumer fantasy, Americana at Brand exudes modern sensibilities (yoga on the lawn in front of Tiffany, above) while evoking historical roots (the landscaping includes more than 700 mature trees, to lend a sense of permanence). There, Caruso is aiming for nothing less than the gratification of the human spirit, and the accommodation of a fuller range of human experience. One wonders how "alternative" the reality is, if at all:
"The whole idea isn't just to shop or eat or go to a movie," Caruso explains. The appeal of his developments, he insists, has more to do with recovering that which is lost in Southern California's car culture--the sense of community that comes from street life. "There's a desperate desire to actually see people. We don't get that in L.A. When I'm in New York walking down Fifth Avenue or Madison Avenue, there's an energy to it. You feel like you're alive."
A wedding party at Americana, below.
Americana will have full-time residents, too: within the development are 238 rental units and 100 condominiums. Earlier this summer, a LA Times reporter stayed overnight in one of the units, and met some of the folks who live there. Notable in their comments is the sense of how thoroughly the resident experience has been considered:
"I didn't want to move in. I thought it would be too loud, too crazy. But I love it," says Levon Ketsoyan, who lives at the Americana with his wife, Marina, and 18-month-old daughter, Tatiana. The three of them are eating pizza and watching the Lakers collapse on a flat-screen TV in the common area of the Marc building, as other residents trickle in after work.
It's an eclectic group, eventually maybe 25 people in all. These are the pioneers, the folks willing to give this place a try when no one was certain it would work. So far, they rave about the friendliness of the place, the activities, the concierge service. "It feels like you're on vacation here," says one.
"They have Mommy and Me classes every Tuesday," says Tatiana's mom. "She has met lots of kids her age." There are plenty of activities. The gigantic Barnes & Noble offers a writers group. There is yoga in the park. Live music fills the quad all weekend.
The residents' enthusiasm contrasts sharply with the melodramatic tone of the NYTimes reporter, begging the question: what is authentic here? It's reminiscent of the motto of one well-known reality television show: at what point does a place cease being artificial and start "getting real"? Does it actually matter?
In the evening...it's easy to appreciate the extravagant dream behind the Americana at Brand....And when the fountain comes to life for Louis Armstrong's "What a Wonderful World," I think of Fitzgerald's observation that America is "a willingness of the heart." The Americana at Brand is not for everyone, and it may take an economic miracle to sustain its current level of surface polish. But there is no denying the power of Caruso's lavishly constructed fantasy of home, even if it never feels true to life.