March 28, 2016
As counties go, Los Angeles County is huge. Its population, at well over ten million, is the largest of any county in the U.S., and exceeds that of all but seven states. In terms of area, it is more than three times the size of Rhode Island. Then again, a comparison of any place to Rhode Island is always a little weak, since it's really all about how ridiculously small Rhode Island is, not how large whatever you're comparing it to is. In this case, however, compared to the tiny Ocean State, Los Angeles isn't just three times larger, it's many times uglier. What makes it ugly is not any one particular thing, but rather a collection of aspects which, when put together, exceed the the sum of the individual parts of its ugliness.
New York City, like all densely-populated urban areas, has its ugly parts--the sprawls of soulless high rise housing projects, the decaying waterfront factories and warehouses, the ubiquitous pungent smell of garbage. But on the whole it has a vertical solidity that inspires the human spirit rather than crushing it. It speaks of dreams and inspiration and great attainment and reaching for the sky. Los Angeles County is supposed to be all that, and more. After all it's the home of the movie and television industries, those creators and purveyors of practically all the dreams and fantasies that fill the large and small screens, which in turn preoccupy us during most of our waking hours. It purports to be the bright nugget at the base the Golden State and the end of the sunny westward trail.
But still it's ugly. Part of the problem is simply a function of climate and geography. This area lies at the edge of the desert. At its prehistorical best and most pristine, it partook of the dry ruggedness of a semi-desert--scrub brush, tumbleweeds, cacti, dust, and streams that flow out of the mountains only sparingly, and only during the few comparatively damp periods of the year. We're in the midst of a drought now, but even in the best of times the annual rainfall in Los Angeles County is perhaps 15 inches. That's about how much rain falls in a typical April and May back in, well, Rhode Island. As a result of this paucity of moisture, the low rolling hills in the north part of the old city of LA (not including the vast expanses of the San Fernando Valley above it) are brown and grey most of the time. In a place like Arizona, or even in the Mojave and Sonoran Desert regions of eastern California, these hills would possess a certain sere beauty. But here in the overpopulated metropolis they are cut with trails and roads, crisscrossed with high voltage power lines and towers, and dotted randomly with a mishmash of ugly 20th century houses that cling to their steep sides like peeling scabs. The little vales between the irregular promontories are packed with a random crunch of cheap stucco-sided residences thrown up on top of concrete slabs. The riverbeds of the Los Angeles, Rio Hondo, San Gabriel, and a few other rivers are mostly dry concrete drainage ditches used for flood control, if any floods ever occur. Down in the central and southern parts of the city and county, and off to the east, the landscape is flat and colorless, with houses and other buildings jammed together as closely as possible. There is no such thing as a set-back from one lot to the other. Houses, huge and tiny, are mere feet from one another. Viewed from atop a mountain at night, aglitter with lights the way it is depicted in the movies, LA County may possess a certain bright beauty approximating a gigantic airport runway. But during the day it more closely resembles the endless suburbs and slums of a third-world capital, or the soul-sucking horizontal bedroom communities of a grimy rustbelt Midwestern U.S. city. And the whole place is tied together by a vast accumulation of Gordian knots of perpetually congested ten-to-fourteen lane freeways. Hanging over it all on most days is a layer of brown dust. These days it's less the industrial and auto-produced smog of decades past and more the natural byproduct of hordes of people and things stirring up the dirt in the desert. The air above the host of Israelites migrating across the Sinai from Egypt toward the Land of Canaan must have looked like like the air of LA County does most days. Only this is no midpoint in a migration; it is supposed to be the very promised land.
Hollywood is what most people think of when they imagine Los Angeles. Let's consider Hollywood. It's a comparatively small neighborhood near the center of the much larger City of Los Angeles, maybe four miles square. During the 19th century it was an unincorporated neighborhood before being subsumed into the growing metropolis. Its most iconic avenue, Hollywood Boulevard, runs east-west through its middle, and off to the north, on a hillside in Griffith Park, stand the letters of the famous Hollywood sign. Comparative oldtimers like to talk about how, back in the 60s and 70s, once-glamorous Hollywood was "much worse" than it is today--a cesspool of whores, dopers, drifters, grifters, and strip clubs, like New York's Times Square used to be before it became a cross between Disneyland and Las Vegas, sans gambling but avec neon. While it's possible to imagine, when in Hollywood, that it could be much worse that it is now. in truth it's still pretty gritty, replete with strip clubs, dirty lingerie shops, cheapo t-shirt and souvenir stores, no-tell motels, and yes, still plenty of whores, dopers, drifters, dumpster-diving bums, and crooks of all kinds. And lording it over all the smaller crooks, behind the scenes and in ways that most people don't realize, a good portion of Hollywood is now owned lock, stock, and barrel by the consummately crooked Church of Scientology, the way Delaware is owned by the Duponts and Providence is owned by the Mafia and Boston is owned by the Catholic Church. Whatever people are selling, be it flesh, dreams, or servitude to a cult, Hollywood is, above all, a nasty business proposition. It's where people who don't know any better go when they get to Los Angeles, partly because they think movies are still made there (true but to quite a limited extent), and partly because they know of few other really interesting places to visit within the city. And it's ideally suited to accommodate pedestrian out-of-towners who don't know better. Think about it: where do you want to go when you get to Los Angeles, if you're a German tourist or a starry-eyed youngster looking to break into show business, or someone who thinks they might have a celebrity sighting? You go to Hollywood.
For mobile visitors to LA County there are more options--Disneyland and Knot's Berry Farm in Orange County, and Universal Studios up in Burbank. And there's Griffith Park, from whose observatory on a clear day you can see forever, but on most days you can see for a mile or two, and which is home to a bachelor mountain lion that likes to dine on deer under the letters of the Hollywood sign, as well as the occasional hapless wanderer away from the LA Zoo. Other than that there are no really iconic places to be in in the county. Oh, okay, there are a few art museums worth visiting if you're already here, but not to make a special trip for. And there's the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, which is empty most of the time. And we have the nation's largest cemetery, Rose Hills, in Whittier, and Forest Lawn in LA and Glendale, and the Hollywood Forever cemetery on Santa Monica Boulevard, where some famous people are buried. And Irwindale, a city that comprises a huge gravel pit and industrial park, not far from which there's the factory that makes Sriracha sauce. And Beverly Hills, of course, and Venice beach with its sleazy muscle people pumping iron like aging inmates in a prison yard, and lots more cheapo t-shits shops and a bunch of marijuana dispensaries.
But to live here? There the attractions are less enticing. Exacerbating all the ugliness of the landscape and the haphazard buildings and infrastructure upon it is the fact that real estate prices are among the highest in the nation. The amount of money that would buy you a 2,500 square foot house and an acre of land in many other parts of the country might get you a garage here. And as for having an acre of land, well, forget it. Unless you're a jillionaire movie star you're not getting much more than a few thousand square feet.
So why on earth do people keep coming here to live? For two main reasons, as far as I can tell. One is that people they already know, including family members, live here. It's the "birds of a feather" idea. This applies especially to immigrants. They've come either to keep their wealth or to get richer, or in the case of most of the Latinos, to receive some respite from the brutality and poverty of their native lands, even at the price of being second-class citizens here. The other reason, which applies mainly to native-born Americans, is the climate. As ugly as this area is, for all the reasons I've mentioned and more, it is warm. As I write this today in late March, it is about 80 degrees under a cloudless sky. Snow and ice are things of the frightening world of imagination for Angelenos, or to which, if they can afford it, they may travel by going up to Big Bear or into the Rocky Mountains. While the weather is almost maddeningly the same, give or take ten or twenty degrees, it is pretty comfortable and easy to get used to if you're from a colder climate. Roses bloom almost year round and the citrus trees seem never to be without fruit.
So there's the weather. And there's the fact that no matter where we come from we sort of feel as if we know Los Angeles County because we've been seeing it on TV and in the movies all our lives. The place has imprinted itself on us from early childhood, from the large frame houses where Ozzie and Harriet and the Beaver lived, to the sagebrush-covered chaparral just outside the studios that has been the scene of thousands of westerns, to the mean palm tree lined streets of a hundred gritty cop shows and movies about this incredibly brutal and corrupt city and county.
Here I must ease away from my screed and say that I have been trying to wrap up this posting for about a month. I'd like to be able to end it with a few witticisms, but at this point I just want to give birth to it, so to speak, and send it on its way, bitter and imperfect and comparatively unfocused. I've said what I wanted to say, which was mainly to complain about how damned ugly it is here, physically speaking. We all have our reasons for being here, and my particular reason is a good one, but I can assure you it has nothing to do with any desire to settle in the Golden West or to partake of its climate, or to deal with the maddening jam-packed, dry, litter-strewn, semi-third world sameness of it all.
Recently I was talking to a colleague at work who grew up in Buffalo, New York. I've been to Buffalo many times, and I think of it as one of the least attractive urban areas of the eastern United States. Surely, I thought, that is a place from which someone would gladly escape. But she said she missed Buffalo and hoped to go back there some day. Wow, really? Then it hit me. LA County is a place you go to in order to remember, from a safe and warm distance, the place you left. Mexicans think fondly of Mexico, despite how poor, nasty, brutish and short life is there for all but the upper classes. Chinese think fondly of the pollution-choked, post-Stalinist land of lack of opportunities from which they departed. Buffalonians remember the heavy cloud cover and relentless snows of the Niagara River winters. LA County isn't so much a place of comfort as it is a place where the restless and uncomfortable have come to indulge those feelings, which, quite naturally, never leave them.