Posted by: Brad Nixon | November 18, 2009

LA, My City, For Good & Bad

On Thursday, the 19th, I complete 16 years of living in Los Angeles. While everywhere on earth is probably fascinating, and complex, and impossible to understand without living there for a significant amount of time, LA is one place that evokes strong reactions from people who have visited here for only a brief time or who have not even been here at all. When I tell someone I live in Los Angeles, they might respond, “Cool, all those movie stars and the ocean and the nice weather!” or they might just as likely say, “Dang, how can you stand it: traffic, smog, murders, Tom Cruise, fires, earthquakes?”

Like every big city, LA is far too multidimensional to be summed up in any short string of descriptors. There is, as an unending progression of writers have and will continue to point out, the simple question of where LA begins and ends. When I say I live in LA, that’s pretty darned vague, when you consider that the metropolitan area stretches for nearly a hundred miles north to south, from the northern part of the San Fernando Valley (that’s “The Valley”) down into the far wastelands of Orange County, and from the ocean back eastward toward Riverside and San Bernardino: an area that’s home to maybe 8 or 10 million people. In fact, only a portion of those people live in a city named Los Angeles, while millions of others — including me — are residents of some untold number of other towns and cities that range from big cities in their own right — Santa Monica, Long Beach, Irvine — down to flyspecks like the City of Industry, which has about 12 full-time residents among its thousands of industrial buildings. But, not to split hairs, we’re all rolled up in the gestalt of the big morass that the world regards as Los Angeles, no matter how seldom we attend a movie premiere or go to the actual downtown or attend a game at Dodger Stadium.

Therefore, I’m listing 5 good and 5 bad things about Los Angeles from the perspective of the archetypal “transplanted midwesterner” who’s had a few years of driving around and breathing the air, meeting people and reading the local paper to form an idea of the place. I’m going to ignore the obvious things like good weather and an ocean and food because you don’t need to hear about THOSE again, as well as things like traffic and taxes and an incredibly corrupt set of municipal, county and state governments (well, the state government may not be corrupt: that presumes some fundamental level of functionality) because plenty of other cities and locations have all of those, too. I’ll stick to things I’ve learned that might not’ve occurred to you, whether you’re unfamiliar with the place, or perhaps even if you’ve been here so long that haven’t considered them lately.

5 Bad Things About Los Angeles

1. Water – As in wasting it. For a place that has spent billions of dollars to engineer one of the world’s most awesome hydrological systems to bring water across deserts and mountains, the inhabitants here are shockingly, alarmingly profligate in the way they use water. Nothing can convince you more completely of the inherent selfishness and cluelessness of your fellow man than to watch some bozo using a garden hose instead of sweeping his driveway or to retrieve your newspaper from a gutter running with water streaming from all the lawn sprinklers up the street.

2. Building Codes – As in none. An infinite number of building inspectors must have loaded an uncountable number of bottles of Johnny Walker Black into the trunks of their cars for endless years to account for the thousands of shopping centers built with only three-fourths the number of appropriate parking spaces, the single-unit properties occupied by two or even three dwellings, and the driveway cut-outs that enter streets just yards from busy intersections. The core fabric of Los Angeles is as dysfunctional a place as I have found on earth.

3. LAX – As in the nation’s 3rd-busiest and possibly least pleasant airport. I don’t want to get going on airports that have not kept pace with the current state of air travel since I did that in yesterday’s post, but only the advent of all the post-9/11 headaches associated with flying out of every airport have saved LAX from meriting an asterisk on any travel agent’s listing saying *try not to fly through here.

4. The sheer messiness of the place – LA, as I mentioned, is not a single place, but an immense amalgamation of cities, towns, manufacturing districts, harbors, refineries and our notorious “unincorporated areas” lapping over one another in a profusion of profound ugliness. The mild climate allows millions of people to live in poorly-built and even more poorly-maintained shacks, and hundreds of miles of streets are lined with a mind-numbing array of the least-appealing retail operations in the U.S. If you’re a visitor, and focusing on the beaches or the mountains or the museums, you might not notice it. If you have to drive to West Covina or Cucamonga, just keep your eyes on the road and don’t look left or right.

5. Highway signs – Lots of places have poor highway signage, but in Los Angeles and California in general, it’s apparently written into the state constitution. Heaven help the visitor who gets on the highway and has to figure out if Long Beach is north or south of them in order to know which way to turn.

Honorable Mention – The Los Angeles Times. Don’t get me started.

And 5 Good (possibly even great) Things

1. Clay Tracks – As in running tracks. When I grew up after the Civil War in the rust belt, running tracks were composed of black cinders because a) we had to do something with all those cinders from the blast furnaces and b) they held up during all the rain and absorbed heat so snow would melt off faster. For those schools not yet well-endowed enough to have artificial surfaces, the surface of choice is hard-packed clay. Man, running on tracks like that is just too good to believe.

2. The Hollywood Bowl – If you have a chance to visit here during the long summer season, go to the Bowl some evening. Sitting in the California night listening to music (and they have all kinds of music) is one of the great LA experiences.

3. The Getty Museum – If you had UNLIMITED WEALTH, what would you do? J. Paul G. endowed a fund to offer free museums to the public. And he had several trainloads of Renaissance art, Roman and Greek and Asian antiquities (not all of which, we hope, was looted), and a bunch o’ paintings and photographs and other stuff that he built, first, a mock Roman villa and then, later, a mammoth modern hilltop enclave to house them. Coming to LA? Go to the Getty. Either one. Will give you great ideas on what to do with your own unlimited wealth when it arrives. The settings are just as magnificent as the collections, and even if you don’t think you’ll like anything they have to see, go there anyway.

4. Farmer’s Markets – There are a plethora of weekly farmers’ markets that operate in towns and cities all across Los Angeles. While all the supermarkets have the same bananas and grapes and oranges and other stuff picked 2 weeks before and shipped in from Chile and New Zealand, these are the real places to get actual food, sold to you, usually, by the people who grew them up in Tehachapi or out in Saugus or lots of other places. It’s not cheaper than the supermarkets, but you get what you pay for, for once.

5. Architecture, in general – One of the beneficial outcomes of the amazing crazy-quilt growth of Los Angeles over a couple of hundred years is the endless variety of the architecture. Whether you admire old Spanish adobe or art deco or extreme modernism or cozy little bungalows, Bel-Aire mansions, meant-to-impress public works, roadside kitsch (see Motel sidebar to the right) or craftsman-era woodworking, it is here in inexhaustible supply. Landmark works by Richard Neutra and Frank Lloyd Wright and Quincy Jones and Frank Gehry or the already-mentioned New Getty by Richard Meier . This is an architectural showcase it would take most of a lifetime to see, even if you made a concerted effort.

© Brad Nixon 2012, 2017

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