Los Angeles Stories: Gas-guzzlers out of the suburbs? Don't bank on it

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The Independent US

The profusion of monster four-wheel drives on America's streets is an affront to rational vehicle design and road safety. Everyone - even the people who buy them - knows they are petrol-guzzling behemoths that block the view of other drivers and have an alarming propensity to roll over. But here's a sneaky little secret unearthed by a colleague at the online magazine Slate: on many residential streets, they are technically illegal.

The profusion of monster four-wheel drives on America's streets is an affront to rational vehicle design and road safety. Everyone - even the people who buy them - knows they are petrol-guzzling behemoths that block the view of other drivers and have an alarming propensity to roll over. But here's a sneaky little secret unearthed by a colleague at the online magazine Slate: on many residential streets, they are technically illegal.

Outside of its famed web of freeways, Los Angeles is covered in signs outlawing trucks and vans that weigh more than 6,000lbs. In Santa Monica, where I live, as well as in Beverly Hills and Pasadena, the ban applies to all residential streets. It so happens that 6,000lbs is the minimum weight for certain categories of truck that are eligible for tax breaks - breaks that have spurred the sales of many of the larger four-wheel drives, or sports utility vehicles as they are known in the United States.

That means all those Chevy Suburbans, Toyota Land Cruisers and Arnold Schwarzenegger's beloved Hummers have no business being parked on my street, and should be ticketed out of existence. In theory, anyway. In practice, officialdom has as much of a blind spot about SUVs as consumers and industry regulators do.

Does an SUV-free future beckon? Don't count on it. Oil prices pushing $50 a barrel are no deterrent, so why should a few pesky street signs bother anyone?

Gunther von Hagen's notorious human anatomy show, Body Worlds, has come to Los Angeles with barely a peep of the opprobrium that greeted it in London a couple of years ago. It's hard to know if this is because Angelenos feel jaded by anatomical grotesquerie - this is the town that gave birth to murder mystery noir - or if the idea of plastinated body parts fits right in with the fad for nips, tucks, Botox and other artificial interventions into ageing and decay.

The visitor's book, perhaps, offers some clues. The comments range from the mildly disturbed ("kinda freaky deaky!") to the deliciously tickled ("people are ghouls!") to the plain sick ("made me hungry"). Some commentators paid interesting homage to the age-old mind-body dichotomy: "My stomach is queasy but my mind is sparkling with understanding!" Others, meanwhile, pushed their admiration of the show perhaps a touch too far. Jason from Tujunga wrote: "I can't wait to be plastinated in your museum."

A legendary figure in Los Angeles's black community is about to step down. Chip Murray, pastor of the First African Methodist Episcopal Church, which has played host to everyone from Bill Clinton to Michael Jackson, is retiring later this month after 27 years on the job. A man of charm, intelligence and rare eloquence, Murray has turned his church into a political powerhouse championing the poor and oppressed. He worked furiously to broker a peace in the 1992 LA riots, preached forgiveness for his friend the President during the 1998 Monica Lewinsky scandal, and has been a fervent advocate of civil rights and social justice.

Not that Murray will go quietly. Having become an obligatory pointman for all national politicians visiting Los Angeles, he intends to participate fully in November's presidential election. "We're making certain that blacks vote," he said last week. "If you're a church and you're not doing that, you ain't doing nothing."

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