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Jack Smith

Putting the rap on smaller cities might leave New York unscathed . . . but not entirely

August 28, 1986|JACK SMITH

Every American city is made fun of by some larger and supposedly more sophisticated city, and in turn lays off its frustrations by making fun of some smaller city.

Thus, New York makes fun of Los Angeles (and every other city from Cleveland to Seattle), and Los Angeles makes fun of Bakersfield and Fresno.

New York has no larger city to make fun of it, so it stands alone as the undisputed center of civilization--vain, snobbish and blind to its own decay.

At least the smaller cities, which are used to being made fun of, have a refreshing ability to laugh at themselves.

A recent Fresno mayor, for example, referred to his city with surpassing irony as "The Gateway to Bakersfield," and Eli Setencich, Fresno Bee columnist, refers to his fellow citizens as "Fresnerds."

He used this word, with the prefix ex , in reference to Sol R. Shein, consultant, now of Van Nuys.

"I'm the 'ex-Fresnerd' he's talking about," confesses Shein in a letter to me. "I remember when people who lived in Fresno were known as Fresnans. Then, Fresno became a household word as far south as Selma, and Fresnans became Fresnoids. But I've never heard of 'Fresnerds' before. Which makes me wonder. Is a Fresnerd any Fresnoid who emigrates, in which case I shouldn't be called an ex-Fresnerd, or are all Fresnoids now Fresnerds?"

That is a question that only a Fresnan can answer, and I leave it to Setencich to explain himself.

As Shein points out, "Come to think of it, Mr. Smith, doesn't that make you a Fresnerd also, or are you an ex-Fresnerd as Mr. Setencich claims I am?"

I do confess that I am an ex-Fresnerd, having spent a year or so of my checkered childhood in that town. All I remember of it is a visit to a raisin farm (farm? orchard? vineyard? ranch?) where I saw tons of raisins drying in the sun on trays, and a day at the oval race track, where I saw one of the early generations of racing Armenians snarling round the slanted wooden track in their little cars.

Meanwhile, James S. Bull of Claremont has sent me an excerpt from a book in which the author aims a gimlet eye at the New Yorker:

"A New Yorker," he says, "inefficient except in his own business . . . overridden by a semi-barbarous foreign population; troubled with incapable servants, private as well as public; subject to daily rudeness from car-drivers and others who ought to be civil; rolled helplessly and tediously downtown to his business in a lumbering omnibus; exposed to inconveniences, to dirty streets, bad gas, beggars, loss of time through improper conveyances; to high taxes, theft, and all kinds of public wrong, year in and year out--this New Yorker fondly imagines himself to be living at the center of civilization, and pities the unlucky friend who is 'going to California.' "

Doesn't that ring true?

That was written in 1873--more than a century ago--by Charles Nordhoff, a New York journalist and grandfather of Charles Bernard Nordhoff, author of "Mutiny on the Bounty."

The same Nordhoff rode the railroad west to California and wrote with unrestrained wonder of what he found here:

"Certainly in no part of the continent is pleasure-traveling so exquisite and unalloyed a pleasure as in California. Not only are the sights grand, wonderful, and surprising in the highest degree, but the climate is exhilarating and favorable to an active life; the weather is so certain that you need not lose a day. . . . The roads are surprisingly good, the country inns are clean, the beds good, the food abundant and almost always well cooked, and the charges moderate. . . . There are no dangers to travelers on the beaten track in California; there are no inconveniences which a child or a tenderly reared woman would not laugh at; they dine in San Francisco rather better, and with quite as much form and a more elegant and perfect service, than in New York; the San Francisco hotels are the best and cheapest in the world; the noble art of cooking is better understood in California than anywhere else where I have eaten; the bread is far better, the variety of food is greater; the persons with whom a tourist comes in contact, and upon whom his comfort and pleasures so greatly depend, are more uniformly civil, obliging, honest, and intelligent than they are anywhere in this country, or, so far as I know, in Europe. . . ."

Of course Nordhoff wasn't talking about Los Angeles.

Like many another Eastern traveler in the early 1870s he evidently never ventured to this city. It was then a rough, rowdy cow town in which, only two years before Nordhoff's trip, the local yahoos massacred 19 Chinese in a Chinatown orgy.

It was not until 1876 that the San Francisco-Los Angeles railroad was joined at Newhall, and Los Angeles entered the American mainstream.

The other evening my wife and I parked our car at the new Crocker Center, dined at Stepps on the plaza, caught the Center's neat little shuttle bus to the Music Center, enjoyed the play at the Mark Taper Forum, found our minibus waiting and were shuttled back to our car.

Two young couples rode with us. One of the young women was exuberant. "Oh, I love this!" she cried. "It doesn't seem like Los Angeles at all! It feels like we're in another city! I want to come downtown some night and stay in a hotel!"

Civilization has come to us at last.

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