the circular runner

Why L.A. Haunts Me (a 1st attempt)

In life, observations, writing on March 17, 2012 at 7:22 am

What is it about LA?  Living in San Francisco, I like to make these supposedly happy positive people turn bitter by just mentioning my hometown.  I say this though in New York, where I lived before, I got a good dose of negativity, as well, whenever the topic came up .  I didn’t leave Los Angeles until my early twenties, so there were certain things I took for granted.  Like I never realized until many years later on the East Coast that the beach is considered to be part of nature.  For me, the beach is just an extension of the urban landscape.  It was like what downtowns are for other cities—a place for everyone to come together–the Vals, the cholos, the surfers and everyone else.  People think LA doesn’t have a center, but that’s not correct.  It’s just that the center doesn’t have buildings; it has sand.

Usually, when people bad-mouth LA, the best I can do is pump my chest and say it’s got its charms—faint praise indeed.  But recently, and this past weekend specifically, I started feeling differently about my hometown.  I’ve actually started becoming excited about what it holds within.  Similar to the way I feel when I go back to New York and cross one of the bridges and see that skyline, I got goosebumps driving around downtown LA.  Now, I said the experience was similar, but not the same.

Part of the reason I was excited was that I stayed away from the Westside this time out—which is where I grew up.  I focused on getting to know Downtown and the eastside.  To me, the really interesting stuff in LA, the stuff unique to the city is on the eastside of LA, which includes East LA, Los Feliz, Silver Lake, Echo and Highland Park.  These are the neighborhoods that have kept LA’s history as much of the rest of the town has become suburban and bland.  These neighborhoods have historically been less affluent, so the architecture has not changed.  If you’re poor, you can’t afford to gut your place when the spirit moves you.  A lot of times with neighborhoods like that, unless you grow up there, you don’t go there.  But the positive side of gentrification (meaning the early stages of it when poor artists and misfits of all kinds are moving in) has taken hold, and now, these neighborhoods are opening up.  Little hole-in-the-wall taquerias and pupuserias are everywhere, as are some artisan bakeries and coffee places.  It’s a good mix of flavors and of the people who create those flavors.  As a result, it should not come as a surprise that I was excited to explore this side of my hometown that I never explored growing up .

But as I write this and read it over, I’m not satisfied. For me, there’s something deeper going on.  It’s a feeling of excitement and dread that is specific to the city itself and not to my lack of experience of it.  There is, to put it bluntly, something unsettling about the place, which is not necessarily a bad thing.  Think about movies set in LA—not the average Hollywood film in which location is unimportant.  Think of those movies in which location is part of the story.  Think Chinatown.  Think Blade Runner.  In books, think Nathaniel West’s Day of the Locusts.  These are all negative examples, I know, and here’s another: The Salton Sea starring Val Kilmer.  The movie is about someone who, after the death of his wife, gets lost in a world of meth addicts and petty criminals.  The movie was fine, but what sticks with me is a scene inside a house.  It’s incredibly dark inside, and you assume it’s nighttime.  But at some point, a character opens a door and you realize that the darkness is an illusion created by incredibly thick curtains and masking tape applied to all the windows.  Outside, it is a bright, relentlessly bright, southern California day.   Inside is despair and desolation.

I think that severe a disconnect that could only occur in Los Angeles.  You can be in a dark and dank place back East—I’ve lived in a number of them over the years—and even in San Francisco, which is only 350 miles to the north, you could live in a sad place and just chalk it up to the fog.  But in LA, there’s this idea that the weather is not the only thing that is always bright and sunny.  People should be that way, too.  People, of course, are not always sunny.  And Angelinos are no different.  The difference is that the Angelino has to go to great lengths to make his home dreary and lifeless.  He has to put up thick curtains and apply rolls of tape to his windows to keep out that sun.  To lose himself in the shadows, he has to first construct those shadows.

I’m still not sure this gets at what I mean.  I’m not dark-tempered—not meth-junkie dark at least.  But driving east of downtown—looking at the skyline and the City Hall that’s been in so many movies, I can’t help but think there’s madness there.  Is it the sun?  That famous southern California sun is not always happy or pleasing, but a place like Phoenix is a heck of a lot hotter and the sun certainly is stronger there, and I don’t feel madness there.  I just feel bored.  Is it the fact that Hollywood has set a number of apocalyptic plotlines filmed in and around that skyline?  Maybe.  But why did those filmmakers do that?  I think they sensed something.

I don’t think LA was built on a native burial ground or on the site where virgins were massacred to some blood-thirsty God, but it’s almost as if that kind of energy lingers around the city.  New York is a city of a million dreams.  LA is like the place of a million Borges stories, which are dreams, of a sort.  I know some people say that dreams in LA shrivel up in the sun, but I think that’s a silly.  Something said by someone who lives in New York or San Francisco or Atlanta, someone who is looking for the cues of a city—the downtown, a center.  I know I dismissed LA for a long time.  But I’m not so sure anymore.  LA is a big city.  There is no denying that.  It is great city in the old sense of the word.  It is awesome, also in the original sense, but what I can’t figure out is why I am filled with an awe and fear when driving around.  What is it about LA?

  1. The smog is messing with your head.

  2. Wish I could experience it from your p.o.v. In your eyes, it sounds quite intriguing. Maybe you have to know the right people to take you the right places. (I felt something like this when I drove back across the country after grad school– I smelled the hot yellow grass and saw the bay, with Mt. Tam there, and I just felt like I was home again. Nice to have that feeling about a place.)

    • you know your description of what ou felt coming back to the Bay Area is the more normal response to home. I am excited by the town, but I’m also…unnerved by the city’s odd energy–which makes me sound very Bay Area. I don’t know why I feel that way–though there is a pretty big gang problem and part of my lack of ease while I was there might have stemmed from my getting lost in some pretty mean streets with my pregnant wife–Hmm…food for thought?

  3. “The difference is that the Angelino has to go to great lengths to make his home dreary and lifeless. He has to put up thick curtains and apply rolls of tape to his windows to keep out that sun. To lose himself in the shadows, he has to first construct those shadows.”
    I think this hits it on the head. I’d agree that the center of LA are the beaches where there’s an ‘equal opportunity’ to enjoy something iconic to LA. In LA you go in and out of worlds, culture, food, language within a few minutes.
    This would make a great ‘travel’ article.

  4. This is a great read. Thanks.

  5. You also described here, Tampa… Sun everywhere, sunny places, sunny people, parts of town Old Cubano..
    While this is not my hometown, it has been for quite a few but am heading to New Orleans in the next year..
    Wonder if it’s sunny there?

    Enjoyed this write!!

  6. Born in L.A., grown up in SF Bay area, and lived five years in NYC I have to agree with your post. There really is something there (in L.A.). But fundamentally, I think it’s a West Coast thing – shared with San Francisco, and maybe even Seattle, although I don’t have personal experience of that city. Re-invention of the self. People come to SF to for it, and they come to L.A. for it.
    The underlying drive is the same, but the execution is quite different.

    Hollywood is the sticky web that pulls many to L.A. and the city is so permeated with it’s culture.

    I think the re invention is more eclectic in San Francisco. The legacy of the Hippie counterculture, mixed in with Silicon Valley entrepreneurship, and a wistful dash of Barbary Coast gold rush, makes for some interesting personal mythmaking.

    One of the things I like about L.A. is that it’s not just for wealthy people, unlike San Francisco. In spite of gentrification, the East Side can still be affordable. A working class stiff can walk into a neighborhood artisanal bakery and overpay for a buttery croissant, or go into a local panaderia and get something a little more affordable made from Crisco oil and white sugar.

    That option is fast becoming scarce in San Francisco.

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