A Los Angeles I Can Get Behind

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Less than 24 hours after I wrapped up one of the great conversations of my life on a plane with a rabbi whose college acapella group had gone viral and landed them on every national morning show five 5ams in a row, my eyes once again validated Los Angeles’ ugliness. It happened on Saturday morning during a two-hour run through the slopes of Westlake and Koreatown and Little Armenia, its homeliness glaring at me as I panted on Sunset Boulevard. Spat out onto the pavement, I observed gum the color of soot, probably the consequence of the daily condensation of smog. I found little charm in the pastel ranch homes or Graystone parking garages or sad palm trees. In its best moments, the plethora of Spanish-speaking voices propelled my nostalgic self back to a South American metropolis. But I remained unmoved.

I have little love for Los Angeles and I have little qualms telling others about it. This aggravation starts with the Giants’ arch rival Dodgers but is not limited to the baseball team.  Much of it found its way into a screed I published against California, or rather, the idea of California. It still holds up:

California is a myth. It’s an asphalt and parking lot-ridden landscape with four-lane freeways from which you can look up at the arid, tan hills as they blend into the arid, tan skyline.

No one’s condemned to live there. Indeed, most folks profess a surge of pride recognized only by New Yorkers as the satisfaction of sticking out an extraordinarily pricy place. (In this case, the residence in question is likely a McMansion in a hackneyed development, not a park side condo/co-up.) But it’s lonely and vacuous and everyone wants space and togetherness, fresh air and short commutes, culinary variety and cheap food.

Hey if you don’t hate me, read the rest.

Anyway.

It began an amicable musician that Donald and I predictably chatted up in line for brats in Little Tokyo that same Saturday. “I love Los Angeles,” our new friend declared. He might have repeated that sentiment six or seven times as he evoked the climate, the hiking, the intangibles. We—a party which also included his two sisters and Ashley—all bobbed our heads to the set emanating from the imagination of tweed-jacketed DJ studying his phone. The dim lighting bolstered the faux tension. The musican’s So. Cal conviction nearly too earnest for a dinner of French fries, a conversation about EDM. It is hard to cultivate desire to verbally crush sincerity, especially when radiating from someone you wish to be friends with. So I slightly pushed back, before realizing that I had made my home in Chicago.

But the musician’s California convictions only found further ideological allies as the week progressed. The conference—replete with dozens of Christians who had chosen to love their communities, no matter their disinvestment, blight, or violence—made my conscience sit less easy in my contempt for LA. While my hatred for So. Cal stemmed partially for ascetic reasons some of it also came from the area’s perceived passion for air-dirtying cars and four-lane freeways. It found justification in the (intentionally, at this point?) brown-tinged skyline. Yet, in a panel of Hollywood community leaders, while none of the speakers mentioned my gripes, all of them attested to the area’s sicknesses: its drugs, its homelessness, its gang violence. And then they professed their love.

One assumption from my 2014 diatribe: all those infatuated with California refused to look around, both at their state, but also at their country. So much bravado about Lake Tahoe and Highway One and Big Bear Lake and Yosemite and yet the locales the majority of Californians resembled paved paradise. If they could see the United States of America, they might find meadows and the milky way and backyards without fences. But so few did. The myth—it threatened to become a bubble.

Still, immersed in a community of Angelinos far more integrated than Chicago and New York and surging with gratitude for their home, I casually sipped the Kool-Aid. During my eight days, I did not invent reasons to further the So. Cal eye roll. I tried out its bike share. I limited my car rides to five. I took the light rail to Santa Monica—twice. I laughed with fellow straphangers when the train got stuck at a station and the announcer provided a dubious explanation. I walked down Chavez Ravine, I trained for marathon on Hollywood Boulevard and Skid Row. I checked email at a #DTLA public plaza. I tapped my Tap card like a regular. I managed three swings on the beach circus rings.

I will never live in a city that contains all my people. But if I ever move to Southern California, some of them will reside there. I have found a Los Angeles I can get behind. If the Dodgers leave, it may become an LA I can love.

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