Los Angeles, like New York, was and is a “city of ambition,” the title of Alfred Stieglitz’s 1910 photo of a New York waterfront of towers and steam. But ambition takes a different form in California. West Coast ambition is not the upward thrust of a skyscraper, the drive to be the tallest in a small and crowded space. Californians like fame and money as much as anyone, of course. But (Hollywood agents aside) their dearest ambitions, like their architecture, are more horizontal, with room for everyone to erect an individual marker. This ambition may be less cutthroat, but it is, in its very openness, more universally demanding. Opting out of the quest for status or money is easy, even virtuous, compared with saying you don’t care whether your life leaves a mark. The things outsiders find absurd or threatening about California—the self-fashioned spiritual practices, the bodybuilder/action-star governor, the crazy diets, the junk bonds, the endless supply of new fictions, the UCLA- and Palo Alto–born Internet—do share a certain grandiosity, a ridiculous desire to change the world, or at least oneself. Better not to admit such ambitions, or so goes the fable easterners love to repeat: the story of the disillusioned California dreamer. (emphasis mine)
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