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.

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