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 talking about why Washington D.C. has overtaken New York as the intellectual capital of the U.S.

Best Paragraph I Read Today (on LA)

From Salman Rushdie in his novel Shalimar the Clown (review forthcoming). In poetic fashion it captures some essence of LA, and near the end of the graf speaks to why I think it’s a city better to live in than visit.

He praised the city, commended it precisely for the qualities that were commonly held to be its greatest faults. That the city had no focal point, he professed hugely to admire. The idea of the center was in his view outdated, oligarchic, an arrogant anachronism. To believe in such a thing was to consign most of life to the periphery, to marginalize and in doing so to devalue. The de-centered promiscuous sprawl of this giant invertebrate blog, this jellyfish of concrete and light, made it the true democratic city of the future. As India [name of daughter] navigated the hollow freeways her father lauded the city’s bizarre anatomy, which was fed and nourished by many such congealed and flowing arteries but needed no heart to drive its mighty flux. That it was a desert in disguise caused him to celebrate the genius of human beings, their ability to populate the earth with their imagings, to bring water to the wilderness and bustle to the void; that the desert had its revenge on the complexions of its conquerors, drying them, ingraining lines and furrows, provided these triumphant mortals with the salutary lesson that no victory was absolute, that the struggle between earthlings and the earth could never be decided in favor of either combatant, but swung back and forth through all eternity. That it was a hidden city, a city of strangers, appealed to him most of all. In the Forbidden City of the Chinese emperors, only royalty had the privilege of remaining occult. In this brilliant burg, however, secrecy was freely available to all comers. The modern obsession with intimacy, with the revelation of the self to the other, was not to Max’s taste. An open city was a naked whore, lying invitingly back and turning every trick; whereas this veiled and difficult place, this erotic capital of the obscure stratagem, knew precisely how to arouse and heighten our metropolitan desires.

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The World According to Americans

Hilarious map of the world. Click the image to blow it up.

Conflicted Identity as Commonality in America

Andrew Sullivan’s cover piece "The Case for Barack Obama" in the latest Atlantic contained these interesting sentences:

To be black and white, to have belonged to a nonreligious home and a Christian church, to have attended a majority-Muslim school in Indonesia and a black church in urban Chicago, to be more than one thing and sometimes not fully anything—this is an increasingly common experience for Americans, including many racial minorities. Obama expresses such a conflicted but resilient identity before he even utters a word. And this complexity, with its internal tensions, contradictions, and moods, may increasingly be the main thing all Americans have in common.

Could be. A "mongrel" sense of self as the predominant form of identity is a case G. Pascal Zachary makes forcefully in The Global Me: New Cosmopolitans and the Competitive Edge. I finished it yesterday and recommend the book to anyone interested in globalization, cosmopolitanism, and hybrid identities.

How to Improve America’s Image

Fred Kaplan of Slate solicited over a hundred suggestions from readers (mostly Americans living abroad) on how to improve America’s image in the world. The ideas are good and interesting but not terribly surprising. I second the thought American personnel in U.S. customs or embassies need to be much friendlier. Excerpt:

And so the most prominent suggestion on how to improve America’s face in the world—a suggestion made by well over half of those who wrote me—is to send the world more American faces and to bring more of the world’s faces into America.

In other words, these readers say, there should be a vast expansion in the Peace Corps, in Fulbright fellowships, and, above all, in student-exchange programs.

It’s LA. You Don’t Matter. You’re Free.


I’m San Francisco born and raised, but I don’t hate on LA. In fact, I like LA, and find the NorCal/SoCal rivalry kind of stupid.

I have yet to spend much time in the City of Los Angeles itself, but I plan on doing so. I’m fascinated by this place — by the driving, by the weather, the palm trees, the conservatives in Orange County, the boob jobs, Hollywood, the massive Spanish speaking population, etc.

Geoff Manaugh writes a blog about architecture and cities. He’s from LA, recently moved to San Francisco’s Cole Valley (where I’m from) for work, and was profiled in today’s LA Times. His post on why Los Angeles is the world’s greatest city is awesome (not because I necessarily agree, but for how he puts it) and I excerpt liberally below:

No matter what you do in L.A., your behavior is appropriate for the city. Los Angeles has no assumed correct mode of use. You can have fake breasts and drive a Ford Mustang – or you can grow a beard, weigh 300 pounds, and read Christian science fiction novels. Either way, you’re fine: that’s just how it works. You can watch Cops all day or you can be a porn star or you can be a Caltech physicist. You can listen to Carcass – or you can listen to Pat Robertson. Or both.

L.A. is the apocalypse: it’s you and a bunch of parking lots. No one’s going to save you; no one’s looking out for you. It’s the only city I know where that’s the explicit premise of living there – that’s the deal you make when you move to L.A.
The city, ironically, is emotionally authentic.
It says: no one loves you; you’re the least important person in the room; get over it….

If you can’t handle a huge landscape made entirely from concrete, interspersed with 24-hour drugstores stocked with medications you don’t need, then don’t move there.
It’s you and a bunch of parking lots.

You’ll see Al Pacino in a traffic jam, wearing a stocking cap; you’ll see Cameron Diaz in the check-out line at Whole Foods, giggling through a mask of reptilian skin; you’ll see Harry Shearer buying bulk shrimp.

The whole thing is ridiculous. It’s the most ridiculous city in the world – but everyone who lives there knows that. No one thinks that L.A. "works," or that it’s well-designed, or that it’s perfectly functional, or even that it makes sense to have put it there in the first place; they just think it’s interesting. And they have fun there.

And the huge irony is that Southern California is where you can actually do what you want to do; you can just relax and be ridiculous. In L.A. you don’t have to be embarrassed by yourself. You’re not driven into a state of endless, vaguely militarized self-justification by your xenophobic neighbors.

You’ve got a surgically pinched, thin Michael Jackson nose? You’ve got a goatee and a trucker hat? You’ve got a million-dollar job and a Bentley? You’ve got to be at work at the local doughnut shop before 6am? Or maybe you’ve got 16 kids and an addiction to Yoo-Hoo – who cares?

It doesn’t matter.

Los Angeles is where you confront the objective fact that you mean nothing; the desert, the ocean, the tectonic plates, the clear skies, the sun itself, the Hollywood Walk of Fame – even the parking lots: everything there somehow precedes you, even new construction sites, and it’s bigger than you and more abstract than you and indifferent to you. You don’t matter. You’re free.

Questionable Quote of the Day

From The Atlantic‘s 150th Anniversary issue on "The American Idea," novelist and journalist Tom Wolfe writes:

Even today, in the 21st century, an era of political democracies throughout the West, the great mass of ordinary citizens in Europe remain resigned to their ordinariness because they still feel the presence of “that certain class,” that indefinable but nevertheless eternal status stratum forever destined to be their superiors. In England, France, Italy, Germany, rare are the parents who urge their children to live out their dreams and rise as far above their station as they possibly can. As a result, such dreams, if any, don’t last long. Only in America do visitors to other people’s homes routinely ask their hosts’ children, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” In every other country on Earth the question would seem fatuous, since it implies that the child might have a world of choices.


Book Review: Who Are We? by Sam Huntington

From time to time I write longer book reviews on books I find particularly interesting. Some previous formal book reviews have been on national security, the CIA and Afghanistan, the prodigious mind of David Foster Wallace, 21st century college life according to Tom Wolfe, the 4 Hour Workweek, and Urban Tribes: Are Friends the New Family?. This review is about Huntington’s latest book on American identity and immigration.

Samuel Huntington, in Who Are We?, offers the following argument. America historically has defined itself through race, ethnicity, ideology, and culture. As we are now a multiethnic and multicultural society, our two remaining pillars of unity are our Anglo-Protestant culture and our ideology (or creed). Our Anglo-Protestant culture is being fractured by the proliferation of the Spanish language and Latino culture, and by cosmopolitan elites who subordinate their American identity to a global variation. Without a common culture, our sole unifying factor is the American Creed, something not strong enough to maintain a national identity. American identity, then, will evolve in one of a few directions: a purely creedal America; a bifurcated America with two languages and cultures; an exclusivist America once again defined by race; or, Huntington’s clear (and ambiguous) preference, “a revitalized America reaffirming its historic Anglo-Protestant culture, religious commitments, and values and bolstered by confrontations with an unfriendly world.”

I believe his book succeeds in raising the important issue of immigration and the many challenges it poses for America. Yet it fails on four fronts. First, he exaggerates the isolation and lack of assimilation of Mexican culture in America. Second, he incorrectly juxtaposes “cosmopolitanism” and “nationalism” as mutually exclusive. Third, he undervalues the integration power of just an American Creed. Finally, he fails the test of realism: he describes many problems but offers no solutions. When the issue is immigration, the train has already left the station, and pragmatism should reign.

The crux of Huntington’s argument concerns recent Mexican immigrants’ lack of assimilation. Whereas past immigrants learned the English language, adopted American customs, and identified themselves foremost as “Americans,” Huntington thinks today’s Mexican immigrants are doing none of these things. This is highly arguable. Kwame Anthony Appiah, in discussing his book Ethics of Identity, says, “New immigrants, like the old, learn English…Not only do Spanish-speaking immigrants in the United States learn English de facto, they believe in learning English. 97% of Spanish-speaking immigrants say it is very important for their children to learn English.”  Philippe Legrain, author of Immigrants: Your Country Needs Them, devotes a chapter of his book refuting Huntington’s charges. He tells the American Enterprise Institute: “While only one in three foreign-born Latinos describe themselves as American, this rises to 85 percent among their US-born children–and 97 percent among the US-born kids of US-born Latino parents.”  So, Huntington overstates Mexican-Americans’ lack of assimilation.

Huntington’s second failure is opposing “nationalism” with “cosmopolitanism”. He repeatedly bashes the elites who hold cosmopolitan views. These elites consider themselves citizens of the world and consider their multi-national corporations as global entities rather than strictly American ones. So what? I consider myself cosmopolitan. I have traveled widely, sampled diverse cultures, and project an identity that is a synthetic of many tastes, products, personalities, and beliefs. I also consider myself American. Contrary to what Huntington says, it is the very essence of Americanism – its porous nature – that allows someone to have one foot in his national culture and one foot out in the world. Appiah has argued: “I defend a cosmopolitanism that recognizes that we have collective human identity and also the crucial importance of many more local forms of identity, and that many forms of identity crosscut national identities.”  I would concede that my commitment to national interests has diminished as a result of my more global attitudes, but it has not disappeared. Nationalism and national identity has its place, but Huntington does not explain why it has to exist alone rather than alongside of a cosmopolitan worldview.

Huntington posits that American identity can not sustain on the Creed – or political principles – alone. It must, in other words, maintain the Anglo-Protestant culture. I disagree. First, it is not clear what Anglo-Protestant culture actually entails. As Alan Wolfe points out in his Foreign Affairs review, “Protestants have disagreed vehemently with each other over what that culture is.”  Second, even if there were consensus, I don’t think it needs to be the common thread. We should welcome diverse cultures for the excitement and indeed economic advantages such diversity confers, so long as all immigrants adopt a few core ideas. The most important of which, according to Appiah, is the celebration of individuality and the “individual conscience as sovereign” a la John Stuart Mill. This is a value that influenced the Founding Fathers and as such they placed an individual’s liberty and related skepticism of government at the center of their concerns. This is the American creed. It is unique. It is accessible to anyone who chooses to believe in it. If you do, and you live in America and pay your taxes, you are American.

Finally, Huntington fails the realism test. Sure, we should be grateful he tackles these important issues with focused passion. The impact of immigration is important and worthy of debate more serious than the politically charged back-and-forth that occurs in Washington. But serious passion is not enough. Solutions are better. Huntington, in his advanced age, will not experience the impact of all the immigration he details. We young bucks will. How, exactly, should we screen and integrate immigrants? How should dual-nationality work? How do we continue doing a better job than Europe at assimilating Muslims? Like it or hate it, immigrants will continue flooding over the border; regular people (not just elites) will gain exposure to more and more global cultures and probably become more cosmopolitan thanks to cheaper travel options; and America will continue to accommodate these changes by changing itself. Huntington’s last paragraph begins: “America becomes the world. The world becomes America. America remains America. Cosmopolitan? Imperial? National?” This is a false choice, una pregunta falsa. The answer is all of the above. The better question is, What are we going to do about it?

Sports Diplomacy and Understanding Athletic Culture

From the USC Public Diplomacy blog, an excellent resource to track  American diplomacy efforts:

U.S. sports diplomacy is enjoying a comeback of its own. With strong support from Under Secretary Karen Hughes, the Department of State’s budget for sports grants and sports programming has climbed from a lowly $600,000 to roughly $5 million in just five years….

Those who contribute to State’s athletic initiatives attribute their success to the universal nature of sport. Only certain cultures or segments of society show strong interest in speaking English, traveling to the United States, attending a classical music event, or participating in a discussion on human rights. "On the other hand" they note,"virtually all cultures and all citizens have an interest in and appreciation for sport. This makes it one of the best methods for exchange" — especially for diplomats operating in an age when the opinions of foreign publics are so crucial for success.

Interestingly, the United States is one of only a few countries that does not have an official Minister of Sport — but this is also what makes our sports industry such a great resource. We do not publicly fund or run our National Olympic Committee; our professional sports leagues do not report to the government; and we do not provide money for the training of U.S. athletes. In other words, sports in the United States are formed from the bottom up and thus represent a microcosm of our country as a whole, both good and bad.

Interesting — I love thinking about what works and what doesn’t when it comes to projecting soft power. The fiasco in Iraq has taught us that we should be focused much more on these kinds of diplomatic efforts to affect change in troubled countries.


While we’re on the topic of sports, I want to make a separate point: I’m surprised when pundits and intellectuals claim to understand the world we live in while also pleading happy ignorance when it comes to all things sports. I would argue that whether or not you’re a fan, whether or not you were thrilled when Barry Bonds broke the home run record (congrats, Barry!), understanding athletics’ impact on a society is fundamental to understanding the society in general. Sports are just too central to too many people’s lives, even if they’re not central to your own.

So while I don’t think you need to track scores or go to games, I do think that if you’re to call yourself an informed citizen you should have basic literacy in the amateur and professional sports of the day: what they are, how they work, what the trends or scandals are, the magnitude of the industries that surround them, and the values propagated by the most influential living athletes.

I find it interesting that some of the most well-respected journalists today — Malcolm Gladwell, George Will, others — are huge sports fans. I wonder if their understanding of sports and its role in society positively contributes to their work as professional commentators on culture and politics?

July 4th: Running, Burgers, Ping-Pong, Fireworks


I had a great July 4th holiday. It started at 7:30 AM with a one hour call with some students at a summer session at the University of Notre Dame. After Q&A about entrepreneurship, their teacher pulled off a genuine Oprah moment and announced that they each were receiving a free copy of My Start-Up Life. Enjoy, guys!

Then I went for a run in Golden Gate Park. It was spectacularly beautiful. As someone who works out every day in a gym, it’s nice to mix it up with an outdoor setting. And I don’t hold back when it comes to doing my push-ups and crunches on a grass field in public. (I’m reminded of my post on push-ups in public from Dresden, Germany.)

In the early evening I went over the bridge to Marin County where I enjoyed a lazy BBQ dinner at my friend Andy’s house. The weather was amazing. The burgers, hot dogs, potato salad, watermelon, apple pie, and homemade ice cream even more so. As our paper-plate dinner drew to a close, I saw Andy’s foot start tapping erratically. He was nervous. For good reason. We were going to publicly duel in ping-pong afterwards, and he had the jitters. (Kind of reminded me of David Cohen back in March — speaking of which, if you live in Boulder, don’t miss the First Annual Ping Pong Classic on July 19th at 3 PM at the TechStars Office in Colorado.) Our friend Jeremy, who dominated the matches, had the line of the day: "Don’t punch the ball, love it."

And what would a July 4th be without the famous hot dog eating contest? I was pumped to see that for the first time in 10 years an American knocked off his Japanese competitor in downing 66 hot dogs in 12 minutes. After his victory, he hoisted the Mustard international Yellow Belt and wrapped himself in an American flag to chants of "USA! USA!". His adversary wrapped himself afterwards in a silver-colored blanket normally used by marathon runners. The absurdity.

On my way home I stopped by Peter Thiel‘s house and witnessed a fantastic fireworks display from the roof. This woman on Flickr captured the photo above (her other photos of San Francisco are equally impressive).

Thanks to Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin, John Adams, George Washington, and the rest of those fine men for making this holiday (and country) possible!