(Swans - October 18, 2010) The closest thing to Montmartre in America is Carmel, a small esthetic hideaway on the Monterey Peninsula, one of the few picturesque towns that has remained unspoiled since it was created by missionaries in the l8th century. Like Montmartre, it is teeming with visual artists. Strolling down its main street is like being exposed to a ubiquitous art gallery.
A lot of its present character was formed after the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 when the village was inundated by musicians, writers, painters, and sculptors who were looking for more solid ground. The result was an artistically homogeneous community with a profound inclination towards the visual and performing arts.
One's sense of being immersed in a kind of esthetic wonderland extends even to the town's transient accommodations. I was steered to the Tradewinds hotel by a deeply entrenched native who swore an elongated stay there had cleared up his diabetes. The atmosphere is heavily scented with Japanese touches. The courtyard contains delicate bamboo structures amidst leafy fronds. In the rooms one finds magical fireplaces that suddenly flare up and, when a certain temperature is reached, just as suddenly extinguish themselves. In the interior one finds antique furniture from China and Bali. The hotel projects an atmosphere that induces satori and a sudden opening of the Third Eye.
There is a calm about the place that makes it feel like a refuge from the hurly-burly of metropolitan life; the kind of bustling buzz you usually cannot escape in Holiday Inns, Hyatts, or Marriotts where busyness is the order of every day and cleaning ladies are continually coaxing you out of your room so sheets can be replaced. The Oriental flavor of the place was established in l959 by the parents of its current director, Susan Stilwell, inspired by the many years they spent in the Orient. A recent four million dollar renovation has reincarnated the Eastern spirit of the place and somehow it harmonizes with the calm that pervades the city of Carmel itself.
What is it about a town feverishly devoted to painting and sculpture that encourages such tranquility? It appears to be constantly pledging itself to quiet contemplation and small-town values. You can walk the main street of Carmel and forget the conflicts that beset us in our metropolises. It soothes the nerves and calms the psyche in a way that is impossible to find in cities like New York or Chicago. Surrounded by voluminous art work from myriad galleries, it makes one feel like a pastoral retreat. It reminds us of what "small towns" used to before they became overcrowded commercial monoliths. The population of Carmel is a little over 4,000 and perhaps it is because it is such a miniscule community that it seems set apart from the bustle of a Frisco or a Chicago. It propels us back to a time when neighborhoods were clearly delineated "living spaces" and malls were not the criminal meeting grounds they have become in some nerve-wracked, crime-ridden American cities.
There is also something quaint about the place. For instance, new buildings must be built around existing trees and new trees are required on lots that are deemed to have an inadequate number. Billboards have been banned in the town-proper. Not too long ago, selling and eating ice cream on public streets were forbidden -- although that regulation has recently been overturned as being too restrictive.
As Hillary Clinton suggests, it "takes a village" -- that is, a harmonic community -- to bring up healthy children and we can see that village mentalities are prone to corruption when the habitats are in the streets, the malls, the squares where rebellions seethe and random violence is widespread. After a twirl through cacophonic milieux wracked in dissent and demonstrations, it makes for a pleasurable contrast to idle through a lazy main street.
Carmel was the home, or, more often, the "second home" for a variety of actors and writers, most notably Jean Arthur, Doris Day, Joan Fontaine, Robinson Jeffers, Kim Novak, Robert Louis Stevenson and, perhaps most incongruously, Clint Eastwood who was its mayor for one term and still resides there. (It obviously "made his day.")
One can readily understand why people who pursue business lives in the big cities would repair to the rustic charm of a docile little town surrounded by artwork with breathtaking coastal vistas only a couple of miles away -- as anyone who has ever made that journey by car would readily attest.
Ultimately, the nature of one's town or city inescapably influences people's character. There are no titans in Carmel -- no astounding edifices or neon-lit boulevards. When Main Street shuts down, you can hear a pin drop. It's a little like being inside of a womb and coming out every twelve hours to catch the scenery.
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