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The Idea of Los Angeles, Part One

In Los Angeles, Travel on June 17, 2010 at 9:49 am

I’ve been to Northern California several times, and regard San Francisco as a sort of far-flung cousin of the Northwest. The same sort of ineffable Ecotopian vibe that I appreciate in Portland, Eugene, and Seattle pervades SF. The city is walkable and criss-crossed with mass transit, an air of palpable liberalness pervades the atmosphere. And (just like Portland) it’s filled with weirdos, hobos, and people on impractical fixed-gear bicycles.

My mental image of “California” is of the mostly-empty North- the Sierra Nevada and I-5, the vast area between Eugene, OR and San Francisco, CA. This image of California was unthreatening, boring, and filled with cows. San Francisco seems unjustly separated by its Northwestern brethren by these vast tracts of bovine-munched emptiness. “California,” to me, was equivalent to empty driving.
I had never been South. I’d never trekked below the Bay Area’s latitudes (at least not in California) and had never seen what went on in the tract of land known as “SoCal.” I had never seen so much of what feeds into the popular mindset of what is called “California.” In my head, however, there was an idea of Los Angeles:
A vast and undifferentiated city that can only be barely called a city. It is only a city in that many people are there. However, it has no center. A city must have a hub and axis, a point of communal recognition. There must be a beating heart within some ever-lively downtown area where something is always happening. I did not imagine this. I did not imagine a center to L.A., or things happening in L.A., or even the idea of walking through L.A.
My idea of L.A. was that despite the presence of millions of humans in a given area, a real metropolis had failed to take hold. The thing was massive but uncomplex- as if single-celled organisms had kept dividing and multiplying, but had never bothered to evolve. Sitting there would be an immense amount of undifferentiated biomass- heaps of cells but not a single organ.
That was my idea of Los Angeles. I’d gone down there to help Seph move from SoCal to Seattle. He’d been telling me to visit the city for some time. Finally, I did.
My first impressions of the place were poor. My rideshare from the Bay to L.A. was a woman who had what I found out was an Orange County accent. This surprised me. I think of regional accents as something that are just naturally going extinct, especially west of the Mississippi. When I imagine future English, I imagine it as neutral and unaccented. She and I had some confusion about directions, and immediately we got lost while I was on the phone with Seph, trying to find a spot to meet up with him.
Eventually we did, and he dragged me to his soccer game, which was held in a venue that was not at all apocalyptic, smog-choked, or otherwise despondent. One of his teammates informed me that people do, indeed, have real lives in L.A.
Seph, being a good host, was determined to show me the sights, such as they were. One site was Wilshire Drive which, he said, “kind of looks like a real city.” He was right. It did. There were skyskrapers and everything. Wilshire clashed with my view of L.A. as a spread-out unbuilt place. I was amazed. “Keep in mind,” he said, “this is really just the downtown area.”
The next few days would confirm some of my suspicions about L.A., though. It is extremely spread out, and there seem to be precious few options for public transportation. This boggles my mind. I do not understand how a city can be of appreciable size and no demand for competent public transit emerges. I know that I have been spoiled by Portland and Japan, but I think of public transit as something fundamental about cities. You have plumbing, electricity, and public transit. Otherwise, you’re just wallowing in barbarism.
Anyway, Seph took me to the Getty, which is nice. Very, very nice- if it wasn’t free you’d probably imagine that you couldn’t afford admission. The building itself is almost more interesting than the art inside- most of what I saw were some oils and impressionistic works that I didn’t really care for. (I think impressionism is boring. That’s right! I said it!) The view was more visually stimulating than any of the Monets, though. I found out that L.A. smog is very real, and various sub-skylines seemed to dominate the sprawl. Below the Getty, the vast city stretched out and various pockets of tall building occasionally poked out of the landscape.

Strolling through the structure seemed to hammer home the idea to me that, yes, L.A. actually is capable of containing some rather nice stuff. For my whole trip there, I was trying to revise my idea of L.A. upward. I wanted to find redeeming things about it, and the Getty was certainly that. If you’re in L.A., go there. It’s a beautifully made building filled with green lawns and fountains, and it has some fairly neato art as well.

As were the palm trees, the hacienda architecture, and the various art deco buildings. After we went to the Getty, we strolled on Venice Beach and through Santa Monica. Venice Beach was surprisingly enjoyable. The place is sleazy, dirty, and weird. In a good way. It’s immensely touristy, but it seemed to be focused pretty well on a certain demographic. Pedestrians were redolent of tattoos, and it seemed as if every third storefront was selling, if not actual marijuana, something related to cannabis.
Or, you know, botox.
The stores selling bongs, pipes, and sophomoric weed-themed t-shirts did not really surprise me. What did surprise me, though, were the amount of medical marijuana dispensiaries along the way. Most of them had barkers outside, petite women holding signs shouting that “the doctor [was] in” and that you could “get yourself legal.” This, by the way, only bolstered my belief that medical marijuana as a cause is sort of silly, and we should stop kidding ourselves and just legalize it for recreational use. I sort of appreciated how blatantly the law was being bent. It made me feel like real change is going on.
In Santa Monica itself, I found myself revising my opinions of L.A. I enjoyed the smell of the ocean, the temperate climate, and the palms shifting in the wind. “The palm trees aren’t native, you know,” said Seph. “They were brought here in the forties as a publicity stunt.” I didn’t care. They were just… neat!
I experiencing something that could best be described as “fun.” Between the high-falutin’ Getty and nicely nasty Venice, I was beginning to get this idea that L.A. was a pretty alright place. Sure, the lack of public transport still seemed sort of fucked up, but my idea of Los Angeles and of California was spiraling upward nicely.

Until I got to the misery-inducing belt of disappointment known as Hollywood Boulevard.
Fuck Hollywood.
  1. People don't motivate for public transit because, by and large, driving is almost always faster. Public transit is nice for high traffic times (especially subways, who get to ignore traffic), and they're nice for avoiding parking. But other than that, driving will usually be a significantly faster way of doing your everyday commute. You get to drive on your own schedule, you never have to make stops, you never have to transfer.

    I noticed this when I was in New York last week. Going from L's sister's place to Central Park took around 45 minutes or so by subway. Going that same distance in LA (not in rush hour, of course), would be about a 15 minute drive. Sure, there's parking, but for the vast majority of the commuting that everyone does in their life (back and forth to work), that's never an issue.

    I'm a fan of public transport, sure, and I'd rather commute by bus than car (I'm doing it this summer, even though driving would be faster) — it's nice not having to be in charge of the vehicle and it's good for the environment. But if I didn't want to spend as much time on the commute, I would drive.

    Other than that, glad you found some things in LA you liked. 🙂

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