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Time to stop the cliches – in defense of L.A.

Posted in Style & Travel, and Uncategorized

Downtown LA
A Sunday afternoon downtown

This morning I stopped for gas at my local 76. I was running late and the pump of that particular station seems to have a problem with my tank: it automatically shuts off every few seconds. I am used to it and learnt to jiggle it this way and that – my standard approach to anything that malfunctions – but this morning a voice behind me said “Let me help you. It does that sometimes”. For a moment I thought it was the station attendant – although rare they still exist – until I noticed it was a Latino guy filling his truck next to me. “If you hold it like this, it won’t shut off”.

At that moment, we were interrupted by the local beggar, a skinny and toothless African American man who is often standing at the corner, begging for food. The Latino man seemed to know him and, while we were both waiting for our tanks to be filled, found out the beggar used to work at a fast food joint a block away – we chatted for a few minutes about this and that and then we all went off our separate ways, wishing each other a good day. Three disparate people coming together to chat. This is LA and this is not uncommon.

Even the New York Times, my holy grail of American journalism, gets IT wrong. LA, I mean. It does a fair amount of reporting from the City of Angels, for which I am grateful, but often it can’t let go of the cliches that have come to define this metropolis, as if 10 million people could be reduced to surgical procedures, Hollywood personalities, image obsession and sweat pants. I haven’t written a letter to Jill Abramson yet but it’s in the works.

Watts Towers
Watts Towers – where there were riots, there are now tourists

I l-o-v-e Los Angeles. It wasn’t love at first sight but it has proven to be the longest lasting relationship of my life. And still going strong. She and I will be celebrating our 20th anniversary in less than two years. I always thought places give back as much as you are prepared to put in – and LA is no different. Don’t believe the story of the bright eyed bushy tail youngster moving to Tinsel Town only to be spewed back to where she came from. Every business is hard and competitive – no exception – and room at the top is limited: not everybody gets there. Here or anywhere. But Hollywood does not rule this city. Race relations do. Every ethnicity under the sun is represented here, with Latinos the majority. With all our differences, we manage to live side by side in relative peace – in over 18 years I have seen neighbourhoods becoming more integrated, gangs losing  their power and an Asian and Latino middle class rise by leap and bounds.  Rodney King and the ensuing riots taught us a lesson we haven’t forgotten: still an imperfect system by no means, still fraught with too much poverty and unemployment in certain areas, but one that has blurred the cultural barriers, with everyone pinching from everyone else.

Yes, the weather is fundamentally lovely and I have quite forgotten what a harsh winter feels like but, at the top of the list of why I love this city, the sun doesn’t figure prominently: having learnt about and come in contact with various Latin cultures, Korean, Chinese, Japanese, Islander, African American, Russian, Ethiopian in my daily interactions takes the cake.

And because every ethnicity has taken root in the greater Los Angeles area, what would in most parts of the world be obscure cuisines, here they have become mainstream. In the words of Karen Hatfield, chef and owner of Hatfield “LA is one of the most diverse and expansive cities in the world. I don’t know of any other city that has so many of the world’s cuisines so strongly represented in one place.”

Sunset in L.A.
An average (undoctored) L.A. sunset

The artistic community is more vibrant, inclusive and self-effacing than New York could ever hope for. Newer and more open-minded ideas sprout here, and not in the city where galleries are set in their stodgier ways. And I could have never predicted that fashion houses would set up shop in Los Angeles : Saint Laurent, Rodarte, Rick Owens (who now shows in Paris) to name a few, are all here. There is an openness, both in space and mind, that fosters creativity.

In a city where driving is a daily necessity, it’s not true we live a life of isolation in mind-boggling freeway traffic. Well, the traffic part is true – the isolation is not. There might not be a center around which the city thrives, but that has translated into each neighbourhood becoming a self-sufficient enclave, like Venice before it was connected by bridges.

Above all, mostly everybody here is from somewhere else and mostly everybody had to fight to get to where they are: the busboy at the restaurant, the ICM agent, the farmer at the market, so the field is rather levelled by each personal struggle. Not that I can equate my  white-middle class-chick struggle to a single mother in the barrio but we are quick to recognize in each other a fighting spirit, a desire for better things, a hunger that has always been the very nature of the emigration towards the West. And this, I believe, makes us more accepting.

Venice Beach CA
Venice Beach on low tide

Or maybe the biggest equalizer is the sense of impermanence that this city bestows by its very nature. We live and work and love and struggle amid shapeless buildings but also incredible beauty – no American city has wild parks as vast as Los Angeles does. The sunset bathes the coastline in a light that could make grown men weep. Yet, we are acutely aware, even if we seem like we don’t care, it could all be gone tomorrow. Literally. A bigger shake and, at best, we would have to start rebuilding; at worst, we would be floating in the Pacific like in a second rate disaster movie.

So, what’s the point? we wonder. We live and let live; we stop and marvel at the bounty that still feels within easy reach; and, all 10 million of us, try not to let everyone else in on the secret.

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13 Comments

  1. LOVE LOVE LOVE this post! As a New York expat living in LA, I can totally relate. Well done, as always!

    October 23, 2013
    |Reply
    • A transplanted New Yorker and a converted one too! I am impressed!

      October 23, 2013
      |Reply
  2. silvia
    silvia

    For a couple of minutes I thought that LA could become my home but it wasn’t meant to be, at least not in this life.
    What was outstanding to me was its intrinsic sense of wilderness

    October 19, 2013
    |Reply
  3. I moved to LA from Italy 2 months ago and everything si so difficult that many Times I wonder if I’m not crazy… Yet every day I feel the positive feelings that you tell so well. Your post could not have come at a better Time for me.

    October 17, 2013
    |Reply
    • When I first moved to LA, I didn’t know a single soul other than my boss, who hired me. My week-ends were very solitary, with a lot of getting acquainted with the city and solo movies. Six months later I woke up thinking “what the heck have I done?”. But slowly my life started to come together, friendships were formed, rituals established and my life flourished. I hope it happens to you too. And you can always e-mail me here if there is anything you think I can answer.

      October 17, 2013
      |Reply
  4. alan
    alan

    great piece!

    October 16, 2013
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  5. Well said and wonderfully written!

    October 16, 2013
    |Reply
  6. I am not familiar with all of the LA clichés, not living in the US but the first story, about the nice guy at the gas station, happened to me too during my short week there, last Easter. Actually, I have found more humanity in LA than in the rest of the US and certainly than in many parts of Europe. There was a sense of belonging permeating everyone and everything. Belonging to the city, of course, but also to the human race. People would always offer help and exchange a quick word, everybody smiling and less in a hurry than on the East Coast for sure. Also, I admired their indomitable patience in traffic! I have already told you I didn’t want to leave and now I really hope to come back, for good. 😉

    October 16, 2013
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    • Get yourself here and I will treat you to a sunset and a Campari from the top of the Erwin Hotel in Venice!

      October 16, 2013
      |Reply
  7. I like this, I feel like LA does have a lot of cliches and stereotypes attached to it, and for someone who has never been there (or to any place with such strong stereotypes) it’s hard to look past them sometimes. Great post 🙂

    October 16, 2013
    |Reply
    • Hope you make it here, after resolving your Mexican resident status (hilarious post, by the way). The sprawl of Mexico City reminds me a bit of LA (and plenty of tamales, tacos and all the rest here too)

      October 16, 2013
      |Reply

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