Thursday, June 30, 2005

Apples and oranges

James Jean LA sketchbook leaves

The automobile has always figured prominently in the cultural understanding of Los Angeles, and our ossified thinking has changed little, as if we are trapped by the La Brea tar pits: folks have long privileged the urban pedestrian, the flâneur, the Situationist city, the Big Apple, at the expense of smog, sprawl, and lost environmental virtue.

Although it will never be entirely devoid of spectacle, what hath capitalization wrought in Manhattan? Is wonder as active in our experience of NYC as it once was? (Don’t get me wrong: those moments are ever available in the city, or any city—scroll down to “PLACES,” on the sidebar, for my favorites…) Increasingly, a case can be made for New York as the ultimate cyber-city, in that it can be reduced to information alone: a matrix of tips, locations, and coordinates, easily traversed physically—by subway or foot or taxi—or electronically, wireless-ly. This information—the menus, the wine list, the inventory, the exhibition, the connection—is the city; consumption is the governing principle, be it commercial, intellectual, or gastronomical.


In the City of Angels, though, the information is more diffuse, and the flâneur becomes conducteur: when I am there, I want to get in the car, to look around.
(Photo by the author.)
There is still a great deal of American vernacular in the signs and buildings and infrastructure—it is not uncommon to see old googie coffee shops, rusting neon martini glasses, vintage automobiles, folk art yards, graffito tributes to fallen compañeras, on and on. Just south and parallel to Sunset Boulevard is Fountain Avenue, a narrow street that begins in the area designated by blue street signs as “Little Armenia” (and just across the Hollywood Freeway from “Thai Town”—more blue signs plus Thai Elvis!). I followed it one afternoon for a change-of-pace: the only visible sign of the Caucasus was an under-renovation Holy Transfiguration Russian Orthodox Church [inset].
Holy Transfiguration Russian Orthodox Church
(Photo via
But numerous Sunset drive-bys and waits at the L. Ron Hubbard Way stoplight hadn’t prepared me for the rear of the Scientology complex facing Fountain, where the old blue-washed Cedars Sinai hospital sits. “Big Blue” now houses the church’s American Saint Hill Organization (the religion’s indoctrination arm), but, lo, the building wouldn’t look out of place in Miami Beach.


LA’s urban fabric is far more heterogeneous than in a traditional city—a spin through South Central might surprise rust-belters for whom single-family homes with yards don’t look like dwellings to be found in the ghetto. On the way to Simon Rodia’s visionary Watts Towers, for instance, an old man sits on a crate alongside the railroad tracks; high-tension towers overlook a neighborhood that suggests Alabama and not the setting for the storied 1965 riots. Beyond this fabric, of course, it’s just damn big and weird—LA can be said to be dozens of cities rather than a single one. And yet, in defiance of the a clichéd “city of neighborhoods,” the Big Orange is of a piece due to its shared mythology and, importantly, the land (which feeds back into the mythology, of course). The stuff of LA can be found in the climate, the hills and the mountains, the bleached, squinty sunshine, the brush fires and earthquakes and mudslides, and, of course, the ocean itself. A big, visual “autopia” is different from NY, and, I’d argue, more compelling.


And so, a few weeks back, I was standing in back of the Stauffer Chapel at Pepperdine University in Malibu, atop a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean on a still spring day. I know my idyllic beach campuses, having attended graduate school at the University of California, Santa Barbara (another southern California school located within easy reach of a surfboard) but the physical environment at Pepperdine is in another class altogether: quiet and peaceful, one’s mind turns towards a tenured chair and a nice little flat in the tiled-roof village visible just to the north.

A few hours earlier Goff and I had climbed Mt. Hollywood from the construction fences outside the Griffith Observatory (satellite image here) in Griffith Park, a short drive from Hollywood Boulevard and what feels like dozens of miles away in a state park somewhere, taking in a hazy view of the city basin (and looking up at the Hollywood sign, too). The next day, after a fish taco lunch at a roadside stand in Silver Lake, we found ourselves just across the Los Angeles River from Glendale’s Forest Lawn cemetery (and its famous gates), just to the other side of Mt. Hollywood, on the back side of Griffith Park. While Glendale is literally just around the foot of the park and across the Golden State Parkway from Los Feliz, it seems leagues away (and decidedly rural): the quiet sunset, agricultural workers on foot or on bicycle, and the sparse weekend traffic suggested, say, Paso Robles rather than the nation’s second-largest metropolis.
Forest Lawn gates
Gates at Forst Lawn, Glendale
(Forest Lawn is a decidedly peculiar place, rooted in its builder’s campaign to deliver happiness unto death’s survivors, its piped-in music and art collections has the look and feel of a suburban park rather than a private cemetery: from the quiet heights above Glendale, though, one can see for miles around, including local landmarks such as the Southern Pacific railway depot.)


Even lacking the calming influence of the Pacific, one still feels the real power of the climate and the land: the first population boom in Los Angeles was fed by the region’s reputation as a mecca for the afflicted, a place where sufferers with lung disease would find a cure in the warm, dry Southland air. (Kevin Starr suggests in the first volume of his wonderful history of southern California that broken dreams and disappointment were present in the city’s genetic material from its Edenic beginning; when new immigrants discovered that their tuberculosis failed to improve, hope yielded to bitterness.) I remember living in east Santa Barbara in the early 1980s, being in a work rut and cycling home late at night down Haley Street past the Old Town Inn [an SRO hotel], the open-doored Mexican pool halls draped with Christmas lights, and folks playing mariachi music on their front porches, to collapse into bed, only to get up in the morning and start all over again. On my way to the bus depot I’d stop off and have coffee at a sidewalk café on lower State Street, drinking in the sun and the sight of the Santa Ynez mountains along with my caffeine. I could do it for at least another day, I’d decide, as long as I could sit under this sky.


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