Defending Los Angeles

planet_hollywoodOur glorious blog leader, Lucinda Michelle, recently provided readers here with an amusing tongue-in-cheek List of Things Not To Complain About Ever Again. Apart from the particular items on her list, the aggregation reminded me of the LA-specific novelty of this whole concept of “haters.” I think there is something culturally interesting in the concept.

In my own experience, I had never actually heard of this category of person until shortly before arriving in our fair city, and do not think I have encountered anyone who quite occupies the categories while here. But boy is there ever lots of talk about necessary defenses against such disparagers. Somehow I suspect a connection to the LA Weltanschauung of circularity and self-reference. Y’know, that Baudrillardian moment we all feel on LA streets and in its cafes.

My first notice of these nefarious LA-haters came in 2006, when I was being pitched on a job in Beverly Hills, while at a conference in Portland, Oregon. I had flown in from that Massachusetts realm of East Coast liberal elites (or really, from 100 miles west of the nattering nabobs of negativism, but it all blurs together with distance). Grabbed by the shirt collar by a recruiter from this BH company, with several similarly to-be-pitched colleagues also in tow, I was given an expected spiel on the virtues of the company and of working there. Far less expected, but making up much more of the conversation, was a set of disclaimers about why “LA really isn’t so bad.” It was curious to me, since I lacked any of the numerous negative stereotypes of whose error we were being informed (nor, I will say, did I imagine the symmetrical mythologized glamor sometimes claimed of LA, although I had at least heard of that aspect). But my recruiter quite thoroughly corrected the presumed misapprehensions, largely enumerating the same items brought up by Lucinda Michelle.

As readers will have figured out, I accepted the offer, and moved to LA for this BH job. That particular gig and I have parted ways, but Los Angeles remains with me, and me in it. While here, I have continued to come across this trope about the unfoundedness of gripes about Los Angeles, from both its natives and those who have “gone native” since arriving. The lengths to which some defenders go in disclaiming perceived criticisms of our city is well nigh absurd. It is not just that they feel it unseemly to criticize our city in too cavalier a fashion, but rather that any comparison with elsewhere violates the deeply held faith that Los Angeles is singular and ne plus ultra in all regards. No! They exclaim: New England has not more seasonal foliage; Philadelphia not more communal public spaces; San Francisco not more techno-hipsters. LA is–and must be–all things more than all other places… to doubt it would be to engage in venal LA-hating.

One must admit that LA is certainly not unique in prompting civic pride, nor even a measure of geographic chauvinism. Every large city has its own sports team and local music scene, which are better than those of other cities–or at least deserving to be so. Almost every large American city has some focal industry, about which locals cloyingly drop the adjective describing just which “Industry” is in question (it is noteworthy, I think, that both food processing and shipping are larger Los Angeles County industries than is its production of culture/media; at least Insurance really is objectively dominant in Hartford). However, there feels like something different in quality about LA’s peculiar egocentrism. It is so much more deeply wrapped in defensiveness than the pride of other American cities (except, perhaps, that of oft berated Cleveland or Newark, maybe Detroit). My cab driver during a recent NYC visit may, indeed, have invoked an insult on his visit to Boston by wearing a Yankees cap, but the Bostonians he spoke with lacked any self-doubt that the Red Socks are morally the better team. Angelenos, the more indignant is their response to a status threat, seem proportionally lacking in confidence in their city.

I think a measure of the defensiveness of Los Angeles comes from the fact that its criticism is largely–primarily even–made by the nativized locals, and in particular by those locals who work in the production of culture.  The enumeration of complaints one should not make of Los Angeles is primarily drawn from a set of mostly comedic mass culture references in which such criticisms are mockingly presented.  This ties in, I think, to the Los-Angelesization-of-everywhere that I have written of in other posts: while LA landmarks become the faux icons of most everywhere else, when Los Angeles itself is the nominal subject of representation in film, television, etc. the creators of those works feel a particular compulsion to distance themselves from the actuality of location with an ironic tone.

6 Replies to “Defending Los Angeles”

  1. Interesting & well-written. I have to say, though, that most folks here don’t consider LA as “ne plus ultra”–no, we’re pretty well aware of the voluminous ways in which LA-LA Land sucks. I–and I can only speak for myself–am just sick of people being astounded by our shortcomings. They’ve known about this shit for decades. If you’re gonna move here, suck it up. You signed up for this. Yes, it has some really crappy elements. Deal with it.

    That’s all I’m saying. I also want to to say I LOVE your P.O.V. here, as an outsider who’s not yet fully comfortable in LA, and who can see our shortcomings with a little less baggage under your belt.

  2. It is true that the “ne plus ultra” camp is only a certain faction of Angelenos whom I have encountered. And my LA-worldview is admittedly narrow, encompassing just those places I am blown among, like a leaf on a wind (the same goes for all other places, for that matter).

    Moreover, I want to emphasize that LuMi is incomparably more fabulous than her namesake (in case my post failed to make that clear). Chairman Mao was a positively terrible blog captain (despite his fine title), and the Cultural Revolution showed really poor editorial direction. Let a thousand flowers bloom!

  3. The local “over-reaction” to criticism about L.A. is only a reflection of the over-criticism itself. L.A.-bashing is considered fashionable. So many people are content to perpetuate the urban myths, legends and clichés they have read in Mike Davies, L.A. Noir, or the NYT (to name a few.) Or seen in Bladerunner and other L.A-doom flicks. Yet so few have bothered to venture out of the LAX-freeway-hotel route and actually learn about the city — or simply to set foot here.

    As a French transplant in L.A., I cringe every time French intellectual Bernard-Henri Lévy is cited as a pundit on America or L.A. since he wrote American Vertigo (a supposed “road trip in the footsteps of Tocqueville” he took at bracing speed in a chauffeur-driven car.) His “expertise” on L.A.? A limo trip from LAX to Sharon Stone’s estate in Beverly Hills and back. Yet he is a reference in Europe, and a darling of “references” such as The Atlantic, Adam Gopnick, or Charlie Rose. Whence the perpetuating of myths.

    Since Lulu mentioned Baudrillard, here is a beautiful ode to L.A. from his book America:

    “There is nothing to match flying over Los Angeles by night. A sort of luminous, geometric, incandescent immensity, stretching as far as the eye can see, bursting out from the cracks in the clouds. Only Hieronymus Bosch’s hell can match this inferno effect. The muted fluorescence of all the diagonals: Wilshire, Lincoln, Sunset, Santa Monica. Already, flying over San Fernando Valley, you come upon the horizontal infinite in every direction. But, once you are beyond the mountain, a city ten times larger hits you. You will have never encountered anything that stretches as far as this before. Even the sea cannot match it, since it is not divided up geometrically. The irregular, scattered flickering of European cities does not produce the same parallel lines, the same vanishing points, the same aerial perspective either. They are medieval cities. This one condenses by night the entire future geometry of the networks of human relations, gleaning in their abstraction, luminous in their extension, astral in their reproduction of infinity.”

    Thanks for the post.

  4. I encountered a terrific read a couple months after moving to LA. It’s by Will Beall, he is an author/cop here.

    The entire piece is really pretty great but this passage rang especially true for me… “Living in L.A., being a cop and a writer here, is something like being with a dominatrix. She calls you names, walks on your fingers with spike heels and you think, what part of this was supposed to be fun again? Then she kisses you.” So although I’m neither a cop or a writer by trade that really stuck with me as I was first encountering the push and pull of the city.

    Here’s the link.

    http://www.latimes.com/news/opinion/commentary/la-oe-beall20aug20,1,5174147.story?ctrack=1&cset=true

  5. I agree with Lulu that there is a curious dose of defensiveness on the part of Angelenos in reaction to the criticism he and LuMi have mentioned. I’m neither fazed nor defensive about these criticisms. Consider: Los Angeles is one of the world’s largest metropolitan areas. It also produces a large percentage of the films, television, and other media that are distributed not just around the U.S., but around the world. Add to that our lovely Mediterranean climate. And throw in our high percentage of thin, gorgeous people for good measure. Given all that, of course we’re going to have a target painted on our small, shapely asses.

    If someone from somewhere else criticizes L.A. to me, I will laugh and say to them, “please, please, do not move here. You will only add to some of the very problems you mention, including traffic and cynicism.”

  6. Usually whenever I am confronted by some kind of unoriginal and mindless criticism of LA my response is to criticize that person’s lack of sophistication and ability to think for themselves. In most cases, these criticisms are based in some fundamental prejudice that they obtained from someone else, and is rarely a result of some deep insight into this city. Or if it comes from their experience, it is usually an experience that involves driving from LAX to Santa Monica at rush hour and never stopping in LA itself.

    I am currently exhibiting a New York artist in my downtown LA gallery and she agreed to come here for the opening. Before she arrived, she spouted all the usual nonsense about having to have someone drive here everywhere, that everyone is plastic, etc. I assured here that she could easily take the subway and/or bus, and that she could walk just about everywhere she needed to go on this trip. She ended up staying with a friend in Hollywood, who does not even have a car, and by the time she left she was raving about the ethnic diversity, how easy it was to get around (she preferred the bus to the subway because she was amazed at the diversity on the street), all the great art she saw, and what a fantastic city this was. It blew her away that LA was not the postcard image of Beverly Hills, or the cynical suburban stereotype of West LA and Century City. In many ways it is more real on the ground than parts of New York, which have become so gentrified that they are losing authenticity, becoming “museumified.”

    Ultimately, however, it really does not matter what people say and think, what matters is the reality, which is that Los Angeles is in a fascinating state of development socially and culturally. Those whose minds are closed to this will have to read about it in the history books. That’s their loss.

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