After an hour-long Saturday morning drive from downtown Los Angeles I find myself following a white BMW – one of the new models with the eyebrow-like fluting over the glowing red taillights making an angry face of its backside – off the Ventura Freeway, over a horse crossing and into the wealthy rural city of Calabasas. Its name is generally thought to have come from the Spanish “calabaza” meaning “pumpkin” (and also, more colloquially, “idiot”) and according to one local tale this was because in 1824 a wagon accident led to a rancher spilling his whole shipment of pumpkins onto the road and leaving behind many pumpkin seeds that sprouted the following spring. Today, the area is still lush and bountiful, but Calabasas is not famous for its vegetables and fruits, great though they are, it’s famous because an unusually high proportion of the world’s most famous people live either here or, especially, in adjacent Hidden Hills, a completely gated community just across the freeway, where the Keeping Up with the Kardashians house is to be found. The Jenners and Kardashians, Drake, Justin Bieber, Britney, the Osbournes and the Smiths have all called these little-known enclaves home. Kim and Kanye are deep into the process of remodeling their dream Hidden Hills house right now, with its two swimming pools, two spas, many $20,000 faucets and one vineyard, likely some of the reasons why the rapper claims to be $53,000,000 in debt. If these are the celebrities whose lives so many of us would like to lead then these are the neighborhoods where we would, hypothetically, like to reside.
Calabasas and Hidden Hills are both incorporated cities within the County of Los Angeles, but they’re nothing like the traditional concept of a city, most notably because they’re located in the countryside and have tiny populations: at the time of the 2010 census there were 23,058 inhabitants in the former and 1,856 in the latter, which is only 1.689 miles square in size. Hidden Hills is a very unusual city in that it cannot be visited at all, with everything protected behind three closely guarded gates as if it was a medieval fortress town. Calabasas also contains gated communities, however, its shopping and leisure spaces are open to all, and that’s why I’ve come. The farmers market is held in Old Town Calabasas, an assortment of independent cafes, restaurants and shops lining the slow-moving main road running parallel to the freeway, but a little farther along is the real city-center: The Commons shopping mall, the bustling and lively part of town, where all the street life is, even though it’s not really a street at all.
The Commons is at the heart of Calabasas and a large open-air parking lot is at the heart of The Commons. The Commons is effectively a glorified strip mall — but a glittering, painstakingly glorified strip mall. One of its towers contains the world’s largest Rolex clock. Architecturally it has a deliberately Mediterranean feel with sun-faded pastel walls, slatted wooden shutters, terracotta-tiled roofs and protruding turret with green copper domes – or at least fairly convincing approximations thereof, but it’s hard to tell what the actual materials used to construct this illusion are. The developers, Caruso Affiliate, claim to have taken inspiration from the hill towns of Umbria (many of which were also walled and gated like the residential areas nearby) and because the shops and restaurants line only one side of the promenade like a backdrop facing onto the car park, the whole thing has the feel of an Italianate film set. People come to parade themselves as much as shop, and there really aren’t that many businesses compared to more traditional malls, only around 40 in total spread out over a sprawling area. Compared to the world’s most relentlessly consumerist metropolises, Los Angeles is more about bodies than clothes, about lifestyle than style, about being consumed rather than consuming, and attractive people are what’s really on display here. Just a couple days ago Kylie Jenner and Jaden Smith were photographed, many times, having lunch at Le Pain Quotidien at the Commons, the latter wearing a surgical mask.
Walking alongside this outdoors mall is a pleasant and theatrical experience. The sun is shining incredibly brightly, birds are singing in the trees above – wild songbirds – and at the same time jazzy love songs are playing from speakers half-hidden in the foliage. “You have the power to hypnotize me / let me live beneath your spell,” sings the shrubbery at regular intervals as it leads you towards beds of roses and a pond of terrapins. There’s some pretend antique statuary and classical architectural features such as arches and columns, and cornices and pediments, and water pouring into a fountain decorated with ornate tiled mosaics of birds and flowers; the adjoining civic center even has a small amphitheater. It’s all very civilized, like a Tuscan holiday. Some years ago, Kanye West brought himself to Paris for a few years, attempting to make it as a high fashion designer there and so embody the dream of continental sophistication, and similarly the designers of downtown Calabasas seem intent on cherry-picking their own vision of European culture and bringing it all the way over the oceans to Southern California.
If all this makes the city — where, incidentally The Cheesecake Factory has its worldwide headquarters — sound like a saccharine, make-believe kind of place, it is nonetheless a city and, just like anywhere else, has a dark side. Elliot Rodger, the 22-year-old “Virgin Killer” behind the 2014 Isla Vista killings, grew up in Calabasas and describes childhood and teenage visits to the Commons many times in his autobiographical manifesto, My Twisted World. At one point the large and centrally located Barnes & Noble bookstore became a sanctuary of sorts for him, and he would spend entire days in there from opening until closing reading books about history, self-help, philosophy and psychology whilst hoping that somebody might come and befriend him, which of course they never did. In an earlier scene he writes of his growing alienation: “It all came to a climax on one of the days that I walked to the Calabasas Commons. I treaded through the area with my head down, all alone, in a state of complete despair about my life. I looked around me and saw lots of young couples holding hands and groups of good-looking teenage boys and girls walking together and having fun on their Saturday night out. I saw all of those teenagers enjoying their pleasurable lives together, while I was all alone. They were enjoying everything I couldn’t have. I was filled with intense anguish, and I quickly ran all the way back to father’s house with tears pouring down my cheeks. Once I got home I had a breakdown and cried for hours and hours into the night.”
Rodger was of course a troubled and unusual case, but he was not the only affluent and now notorious young criminal to have come of age in Calabasas and found himself desiring its surfaces and lifestyle: so did most of the teenage and young adult burglars of the so-called “Bling Ring” that was formed in the old Indian Hills High School in Calabasas (now relocated to Agoura Hills) and went on to rob the Los Angeles houses of celebrities including Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan between 2008 and 2009 (later inspiring a movie by Sofia Coppola). He was tormented by lust and ego and misogynistic delusion, and they were obsessed with fame and its material trappings. Rachel Lee, the leader of the Bling Ring, was, according to one of her co-conspirators, obsessed by reality TV and what its stars were wearing, and so cultivated an extreme desire not just to dress like the stars of the small screen, but to dress exactly like them, in their actual clothes and live out their fabulous, fantastical lifestyle. It makes plenty of sense that a gang which became famous for targeting celebrities should emerge from the city most associated with celebrities – because much of the culture of 21st-century fame was made, if not on these streets, then inside its closed-off mansions with camera crews following every move.
Passing through the mall and down the stairs of the civic center brings me to Calabasas’s annual Fine Arts Festival, an outdoors art fair showcasing the work of painters, woodworkers, glassblowers, jewelers and the like. At one activity table young children sit around under a parasol coloring in printed outlines of Picasso’s 1921 painting Three Musicians, as if to remind us of how often a city captures the world’s attention because of how it exists in representation, of how early 20th-century Paris and its denizens were popularized and immortalized in the paintings of the likes of Renoir, Toulouse-Lautrec and, yes, Picasso. In the same manner, Calabasas and Hidden Hills have become so known and so desirable not because of what they’re actually like but because of how they appear on reality TV – because of Keeping Up with the Kardashians and the various other television series, social media accounts, apps, video games, fashion shows, albums that orbit around it, which have made their stars the most famous family in the entire world and etched Hidden Hills and Calabasas into contemporary pop culture.
But what if we look at it from the other way round, from the town-planning perspective rather than the pop-cultural perspective: the Commons, which opened in 1998 before reality TV was really a thing, seems to foreshadow some of its ideas. Its structure, of a one-sided row of shops and restaurants, forms a theatrical space for the elevation of banal leisure activities into a grand performance, which is exactly what happens on those shows too. It’s an architecturally jarring and dissonant space because, in the same way that the interior and exterior shots of the house in Keeping up with The Kardashians are of two completely different houses, the faux-Umbrian façades of the Commons’ shops don’t match up at all with their interiors or what they sell – spatial and stylistic integrity are no longer considered important, and surfaces are as misleading as the contouring in Kim-inspired make-up tutorials. The shallow strip mall is made grandiose and dramatic. Together Calabasas and Hidden Hills perfectly reflect the luxury lifestyle of contemporary pop stars with their giant mansions far removed from the everyday, and gated off from the rest of the world in a place where almost nobody actually lives. Just as reality TV is not actually real, the hidden areas of these cities might as well not even exist – they are spaces of fiction for us to project ourselves into.