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L.a.'s Sense Of Promise Endures

March 07, 1985|CHARLES CHAMPLIN | Times Arts Editor

Say what you will about television, it knows the value of time, and charges accordingly. That's why nothing on commercial television ever seems truly spacious and leisurely: Always at your back you hear winged chariots hurrying near, bearing commercials.

The medium invented the shrunken attention span, the pared news item, the staccato talk show. Part of the appeal of "The Jewel in the Crown" on non-commercial television--felt, more than consciously thought about--is that it has the time, measured in weeks as well as hours, to develop its characters and to tell its stories and let them web together and ensnare us all.

If it's a soap, as its few detractors say it is, it is a very superior soap, with much on its mind and no sense that it has had to be diluted to make it last longer. Never since "Forsyte Saga" has television time gone so fast.

The other morning, ABC's "Good Morning America" asked me to do a mini-essay defending Los Angeles (Southern California, actually, and the state if possible) from its calumniators. Take whatever time I needed . . . up to 90 seconds.

Nothing simple, like explaining molecular biology or analyzing the present makeup of the Politburo.

What sprang to mind, as in the moment of drowning, are all the aspects that are attackable, naturally including smog, the occasional Sigalerts, the perennial stalling on mass transit, the cult of casualness that can spill over into a kind of all-purpose indifference, which is at the heart of what could be called the Woody Allen Anti-California Syndrome.

But the defense can be mounted, even in a minute and a half, although it may well be found offensive by those living elsewhere, suffering from sunshine envy and trying to devise a philosophy of joy through chilblains and frostbite.

It continues to be true that the cordial climate is still central to Southern California living; it is the umbrella under which all else becomes possible. But the recentness, historically speaking, has also been a favoring factor. There are worse things, it can now be seen, than coming of age in a time of cars and planes rather than horses and trains. Los Angeles has been a long time arriving at the thickened and elevated rigidity of traditional cities, and even now it seems able to meld its center city high-risings with its lateral spaciousness.

What is still principally characteristic of Southern California, although it may not be immediately apparent to first-time tourists or five-day refugees from Manhattan huddled together in the Chateau Marmont, is its sense of promise and mobility, a linked lure.

As I tried to tell the morning watchers, there is the feeling that on a clear day you can aspire forever, that if you have energy and ambition and some measure of talent, you have as good a shot at success here as anyplace in the country, probably better.

The mobility is both literal and symbolic. You can get around, if you have a car and steady nerves, and you can aspire to upward mobility. The image is of displaced Midwesterners taking our ease in Lotus Land, but the reality is of hard work, and white knuckles on the steering wheels in the morning rush.

If this is an area with a rich and interesting past, as it is, the past is uniquely untethering. What you achieve is what you are--a truth that can be unnerving to new arrivals who have had comfort in family traditions and familiar surroundings, but that is liberating to those who are willing to take their chances in a meritocracy.

The inmigrations from Latin America and Asia are more than accidents of geography. The lure of promise here is no different from the broader American promise of the 19th Century, and Los Angeles is already being called the new Ellis Island.

Someone, in fact, recently proposed a second Statue of Liberty off the Southern California shore, looking west to greet the new tides of hopeful humanity.

The new Los Angeles suspense story is, of course, the question of how easily those new tides of arrivals can be absorbed into the area and the culture.

Already there are times when we sound like replays of New York and other Eastern cities in the late 19th and early 20th centuries: the ethnic enclaves, the emerging commercial aspirations and, too, the violence, the gangs and the exploitations within the enclaves for want of more vulnerable targets in the larger society.

History suggests that there may well be more stresses before the migrations slow; but the lesson of American history is also that the net result is ultimately the enrichment of the society, a transfusion of vigor and variety.

What seems reasonable to expect is that while the composition of Southern California will change--is changing fast--the early and abiding sense of promise and mobility in this kingdom by the sea will survive and prosper.

Not all of that made the 90 seconds, of course. If only I'd had 120.

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