The Complicatedness of Los Angeles

Smart people demean Los Angeles in conversation more than any other big city in America. The pollution, the traffic, the anti-intellectual culture, the sprawl. And that's just the start. Most of the myths about L.A. circulate because locals don't feel a need to mount a vigorous defense. Talk bad about L.A. to an Angeleno and be ready for a shrug that says, "Don't like it? Great. Stay out. More room for us."

When I'm in these conversations, even as the San Francisco outsider that I am, I stress just one point: Los Angeles is the most complicated city in America. It's extremely hard to spend a week there and "get it." It's inaccessible. It's not friendly to just-stopping-in visitors. You don't have to love L.A. (though I do). Just withhold judgment until you've spent meaningful time there.

Here are a few reasons why I think Los Angeles deserves the honor of "most complicated":

* Decentralization. Los Angeles is a sprawling monstrosity of freeways. It's decentralized in every way. There is no one Los Angeles; there are many L.A.'s. There is not a "downtown" from which everything emanates. Other big cities are physically compact. Consider New York. It's easy to get around in New York. You can take the subway around Manhattan with no problem, the streets are straight and sequential, the tourist sights are concentrated, all the important companies are in one place, the five boroughs are well-defined, etc. San Francisco is the same way. NY and SF are dense in both geography and identity. Does the "metaphysical" mirror the physical?

* The scope and scale of the region's economic activity. The 22-million-strong Southern California basin means moviemaking and entertainment are just a piece of the economic activity. There are more manufacturing jobs in Los Angeles county, for example, than in the entire state of Michigan. The L.A./Long Beach ports comprise the fifth busiest in the world and the most important in the western hemisphere. Imports from China arrive first in Los Angeles. Understanding the economics of Hollywood does not mean you understand the economics of L.A.

* Los Angeles is the most ethnically diverse place in the world. It is "the most diverse human habitation in human history," says Robert Putnam. Many people forget this, since L.A.'s diversity is not as integrated as New York's or London's. You cannot walk around a Times Square equivalent and feel like you're in a melting pot. You have to work at it. But this doesn't mean immigrants are non-existent; quite the contrary. All these different people, all the different ways of thinking, the hundreds of different languages spoken: it complicates things, as the movie Crash depicts. (This is why, by the way, many foodies call Los Angeles the best ethnic food city in the world. Cultural omnivore Tyler Cowen calls L.A. his favorite American city.)

* The rich/poor contrasts; economic diversity. The Economist once called West Los Angeles the glitziest concentration of wealth on the planet. Then there's Southeast L.A., right around the corner. There's Skid Row. Then there's Beverly Hills. Even the Bronx/Manhattan or Hunter's Point/Pacific Heights contrasts don't rival what exists in Los Angeles.

* There is not one unifying civic identity. Los Angeles doesn't impose a civic identity on its people like New York or San Francisco. L.A. writers don't identify as an "L.A. writer" like New York writers do. You're more alone in L.A. You're more anonymous. (The positive spin: you can most easily be yourself in Los Angeles.) Los Angeles has some of the lowest levels of trust among its people — ie, neighbors trust each other less. I would guess that civic pride is lower there than in most other places.

In sum, to spend time in Los Angeles is to experience non-stop contrasts and contradictions. In a matter of minutes you can go from an idyllic view of palm trees, shifting effortlessly in the wind like in the movies, to observing a wrapped assortment of Botox-enhanced, intellectually vacuous women coughing on dirty air. You drive on a 10-lane freeway with a Caltech egghead to your left and Britney Spears to your right. It's bizarre, it's insane, it's confusing, it's complicated, it defies attempts to capture its essence. Perhaps it is essence-free.

A quick visit to Los Angeles clarifies nothing other than that the 405 freeway is to be avoided at all hours of the day.

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By the way, here is Jonah Goldberg and Peter Beinart on Bloggingheads.tv talking about why Washington D.C. has overtaken New York as the intellectual capital of the U.S.

12 Responses to The Complicatedness of Los Angeles

  1. Sean says:

    All of your main points could also be said of Houston. Furthermore, I think Houston may be the second-most demeaned big city in the U.S.

  2. Dave says:

    I love Los Angeles and I am a lifelong Manhattanite. Admittedly I don’t like driving, but I appreciate what LA has to offer other than its driving.

    That said, I think you are very wrong about the income disparity between Manhattan and the Bronx as compared to that between West Los Angeles and Skid Row. The level of disparity between the two sets of neighborhoods is much more similar than you claim.

  3. As a fellow L.A.-lover, I agree with this post. I find that foreigners (let alone East Coasters expecting New York West) have an almost comically difficult time comprehending the city, because it’s not a city as “city” is normally understood. Like America in general, to love L.A., you must do it right. And there are a hell of a lot more ways to do it wrong.

  4. Don’t forget about the growing tech community.

  5. Jeff Kuo says:

    Glad you wrote this. The 405 is my favorite freeway, but it takes some time to figure out =)

  6. As a fellow Cole Valley San Franciscan, I like LA as well. When SFers dislike LA, it’s often from a sense of judgment and rivalry. My guess is that if LA wasn’t as close, more San Franciscans would love it.

    I like LA. But I hate the Dodgers.

  7. jrandom42 says:

    Actually, my unrelenting hate of Los Angeles is founded on good solid experience.

    1988-Laid off in the Great Aerospace Slaughter that followed the “peace dividend” and saw Southern California’s economy collapse. Lived out of my car for 10 months.

    1992-Saw 6 years of drought end in one month, causing me to understand why Sepulveda Park is a flood control basin. Saw fire engines washed off the roads.

    1992-Cruised through South Central LA 15 minutes before the Rodney King Riots.

    1992-Watched the fires coming over the Malibu Hills from Newbury Park

    1992-Watched the mudslides in the Malibu Hills resulting from the fires

    1994-Was renderd homeless by the Northridge quake

    1994-Moved to the safety of San Jose. Didn’t want to stick around to see what else happened after massive unemployment, riots, fires, floods, mudslides and earthquakes.

    Still hate LA, and will never go back there willingly.

  8. ElamBend says:

    It’s not specifically an LA thing, but I always marveled at the fact that there are more Tongans and Samoans in California than there are in Tonga or Samoa.

    How does this tie to LA, well LA is capital city to a lot of diasporas. Think of the Persians and the Armenians. There are more expat Brits in LA than any other city of the world. In a strange reversal of the goals of nations from the 19th century each looking for their own colonies, the US has become the colony for the world. So many groups have been able to come here, integrate with society, yet still maintain their original group cohesion enough to affect things back ‘home.’ New York and Chicago used to fulfill that role somewhat (and still do for some groups), but but LA has truly replaced NY in that aspect, plus some. Also, your point about the ports there is woefully under-rated.

    On a side note, I also agree with Sean. Few people realize that Houston is among our biggest, most diverse, and most economically strong cities. I think an East-West coast bias in the media and a mild anti-Texas bias keep people from realizing that.

  9. The best thing that ever happened to me in Los Angeles was Buddy Cage throwing a lit joint to me from the stage at the Hollywood Bowl.

    The worst was hoping my friend who’d been turned into a gibbering vegetable by the Clear Light acid we bought there wasn’t permanently brain-damaged.

    Speaking of expat Brits in LA, the English writer Aldous Huxley, author of Brave New World and descriptor of the delights of soma, spent the last twenty-six years of his life there.

    “Huxley was fascinated by Los Angeles. He loved the solitude of the Hollywood Hills and the mountains that rolled down to the ocean.

    The city’s architecture amused him. He never tired of telling Maria of some delight he had come across: a coffee shop or drive-in in the shape of a hamburger or doughnut.”

    The Burger That Ate L.A. was my favorite.

    The ports of Long Beach and LA are not only the primary conduit for Chinese goods to the US, but also the beachhead of Chinese investment in southern California.

    I like way the website for China Mart calls Los Angeles “The LA”.

    That’s how I think of it, too.

  10. Stevem Schreiber says:

    I’ve lived in Los Angeles for the last year and a half and it really is the best place to be yourself. Or anyone else you cared to be, for that matter.

  11. Correction: I should have said that Aldous Huxley spent most of that 26 years in southern California. He also lived in Taos, New Mexico for a while.

  12. Michelle says:

    When I first moved here after six glorious and fulfilling years in SF, I asked a friend (also a former San Franciscan) why he loved LA so much. His reply: “In LA, nobody gives a shit.”

    Now that I’ve been here for three years, I have to admit that he’s got a point. No one will scold me for not conforming to the their sense of what’s proper (farewell, well-meaning Berkeley nanny types who use to look down their noses at me for not composting/growing my own food/wearing all organic clothing!). And no one will tell me that I can’t chase my wild idea and turn it into a profitable business.

    I agree that it takes a long, long time for the benefits of this city to reveal themselves. And even now that I appreciate it more, I’m still not sure how much longer I’ll stick around. But hey: more room for the rest of you. :)

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