My colleague, D.A. Ridgely, recently wrote of L.A.;
Los Angeles’ freeways immediately remind me that the only possible rational reason to live there is because one is a movie star. As I am not a movie star, I am always happy to leave L.A., and the sooner the better.
I don’t begrudge him his view, and as an outsider to L.A., I actually understand it fully, intuitively. And yet I love L.A. As I write this, I’m sitting in my in-laws’ house in an L.A. suburb, where I lived for 2 1/2 years back in the ’90s. A few years ago, Money magazine rated this town in the top 20 of its top places to live.
Keep in mind, I grew up in a Midwestern town with no stop lights, and whose tallest buildings were the grain elevators, and I now live in a Midwestern town that, with 20,000 people, is too big for me. And yet I love L.A.
Of course I’m not technically in L.A. L.A. County, yes, but not Los Angeles proper. But rightly understood, the suburbs are as much L.A. as L.A. is. Put differently, L.A. absent its suburbs is not the L.A. of our understanding and mythology. Without the suburbs, L.A. doesn’t push so hard against the mountains, resulting in cougars in people’s backyards and ferocious mudslides sending million dollar homes crashing downhill when the winter rains follow summer wildfires. Without the suburbs, L.A. doesn’t have the same type of freeway culture.
In fact, in L.A., some of the suburbs actually are part of L.A. proper. When Los Angeles pushed across the Santa Monica Mountains into the San Fernando Valley (home of the formerly infamous wretches called Valley Girls), the Valley turned from farmland into suburbia, but as a part of the municipality of Los Angeles. Indeed, properly speaking, L.A. proper is just the part of L.A. within the Basin (see USGS image below). The Valley is home to named quasi-cities, recognized by the USPS for address purposes, yet not actually cities in and of themselves at all, but just neighborhoods of L.A. For example, Northridge, the not-quite epicenter of a deadly 1994 earthquake, home to California State University, Northridge (the epicenter of the Northridge Quake was actually Reseda), and as can be seen here, a name usable as a city address for USPS services. Politically, however, no such place as Northridge exists. But I have known people who lived in these pseudo-cities who didn’t believe they lived in L.A. “No, I don’t live in L.A., I live in Chatsworth,” on co-worker told me with total sincerity. He was stumped for an answer when I asked how it was, then, that he had been able to cast a vote in the Los Angeles mayoral election. He wasn’t dumb, either. He was a Chemistry major at UCLA with an A average. It’s just how L.A. is.
I can’t properly begin to describe L.A. It’s too varied, too disparate. Conceptually it’s just as sprawling as it is geographically. I’d like to write a book about L.A. someday, but I don’t know how one would begin to actually make sense of it in a single book. A book needs a theme, and no single theme can capture L.A. Unless, perhaps, the theme is “complexity.”
L.A. is the only place I’ve ever been where the next person I speak to is more than likely to have an accent that is different not just from my own but from the last person I spoke to. L.A. is a place with vicious conflict between ethnically-based gangs, where people of all conceivable ethnicities sit side-by-side chatting comfortably while their kids swim in the public pool.
L.A. is a dense urban environment that has a mountain range running through the middle of it, and where coyotes, skunks, and other wildlife are common sights.
L.A. is known for movie stars and those who try to emulate movie stars; where image is everything. L.A. is a place where, as my Midwestern-raised daughter said after spending a summer here, “people are pretty much like any other place.”
L.A. is home to the Universal CityWalk, the epitome of all that is insane about contemporary American culture, from the standpoint of purists. It’s a “street” of restaurants (in L.A., mind you) with no cars. You must walk this street, but you cannot walk to this street. You can’t take the bus to this street. You can’t even park “down the street” from this street. You can only access this street from the parking garage where you paid $15 just for the privilege of accessing this street. It’s as inauthentic as anything mankind has ever created, for those who care about authenticity. But apparently many thousands of people daily demonstrate their lack of concern about authenticity, as they come to CityWalk to eat, drink, stroll, and listen to live music. Perhaps Los Angelenos just recognize that inauthenticity is no barrier to the authenticity of having a good time with friends over food and drinks.
L.A. is ungovernable, but an on-going attempt to govern it must be made. And the governance, or attempted governance, of the city–or even more, the various governance efforts of all the various municipalities that collectively make up the comprehensive L.A.–is the most fascinating process in the U.S. A good State and Local Government course could spend two weeks reviewing state and local government in general, then spend the rest of the term focusing solely on attempting to make sense of L.A. Unfortunately, students who’ve never been there tend not to get it–it’s too foreign to their experience, like having an entire course about the governance of Picon.
L.A. is about the weather. It’s warm, unlike San Francisco, but unlike Phoenix, not too hot. It’s a relatively dry heat, but because of the ocean, not–again like Phoenix–dessicatingly dry. But beyond the weather, there is the quality of the light. I always forget about it, and can’t envision it when I’m not there, but when I return I am always amazed and awed by the brilliance of the light, different from anywhere else I’ve been. It’s a quality of light that has inspired not just painters and photographers, but writers and musicians.
L.A. is an American myth, but an amazingly concrete reality.
As I noted above, I can’t properly begin to describe L.A. It’s worthy of all the pejoratives and dislike thrown its way. And yet it rises above all that and manages to be far more than the sum of its horrors. It is indeed a great big bastard Frankenstein of a city. And yet it is both a beautiful and a hopeful monster. I love L.A.