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Big City, Small Towns

October 28, 1990|GORDON DILLOW | Dillow is a La Canada-based free-lance writer.

No one lives in L.A.

That statement might be disputed by the U.S. Bureau of the Census, which estimates that, in fact, about 8.6 million people live in Los Angeles County--3.4 million of them in the city of Los Angeles, 4.2 million in other incorporated cities and 1 million in unincorporated areas.

But the Census Bureau's figures are examples of facts that can be accurate without necessarily being true.

To reiterate, no one lives in L.A.

Who would want to, really, considering the images the name L.A. conjures up?

L.A means smog and traffic. It means gangs and drive-by shootings, and freeway shootings. L.A. means hustlers and weirdos and cult murders in the canyons. Used in adjective form--as in, "That's so-o-o-o-o L.A.!"--L.A. means superficially trendy, devoid of substance, heat without light.

And it's so big.

It sprawls over mountains, down valleys, across concrete-lined rivers. It bridges climatic zones. It has more than 45,000 different streets. You can drive more than 30 miles through the city without ever leaving Sepulveda Boulevard, and pass through almost every conceivable ethnic, cultural and economic strata along the way. It's a metropolis so vast, so jam-packed with bustling humanity that it requires two, and soon three, telephone area codes.

How could anyone live in such a large and confusing--and thus potentially threatening--place?

The answer is, we don't.

Instead, we secede psychologically.

We mentally move ourselves out of L.A. and into smaller, safer, more manageable places--places like Silver Lake or Lomita or Echo Park or Burbank or Granada Hills or Brentwood or Baldwin Hills or almost any other of the 86 incorporated cities and 188 unofficial communities in Los Angeles County.

And we tell ourselves that, while we may be forced by ambition or circumstance to work in The Big City, we actually live in Small Town, U.S.A.

It's a phenomenon familiar to psychologists, urban planners and readers of the "At Home" community profiles in the Real Estate section.

Again and again in interviews about their communities--even communities that lie within the boundaries of the city of Los Angeles--residents describe the communities in terms that make them sound as if they were situated in North Dakota instead of in the second largest metropolis in America.

Examples:

--"It seems like a little country town," a Studio City resident told a Times writer in describing her San Fernando Valley community.

--"It's almost small townish here," said a Northridge resident.

--"It's like living in a small town," said a Woodland Hills resident.

--"Highland Park has a small-town atmosphere," said a resident of that community situated just a few miles north of downtown L.A.

--"Warner Center has a small-town atmosphere," said a resident of that San Fernando Valley community.

--"It's still Small Town, U.S.A.," said a resident of Westdale, in West Los Angeles.

To hear the locals tell it, everyone in L.A. lives, not in a city, but in a village, a hamlet, a burg.

Even people who might otherwise see themselves as cosmopolites seem to share that yearning to live in Small Town, U.S.A. For example, even the entertainment industry maintains the fiction that it is centered, not in L.A., but in a disproportionately star-studded but nevertheless small town called "Hollywood."

Some L.A. residents go to great lengths to reinforce that small-town feeling, and will bitterly fight any perceived attempt to diminish it.

For example, a few years ago, residents of Atwater, a small L.A. district adjacent to Glendale, were incensed when the city put up signs identifying the district as simply "Atwater." They insisted that the proper name was "Atwater Village."

A small matter, you think? Nothing to get excited about? Maybe not to you.

But according to Eric Ludwig, president of the community residents' association, Atwater residents "erupted in cheers" when it was announced at a meeting that the city had agreed, after months of negotiations, to put up new signs designating the district not as plain old Atwater, but as "Atwater Village."

"That really solidified the notion of togetherness" among Atwater residents--pardon, Atwater Village residents--Ludwig said. "If I say I'm from Atwater Village, it gives me a certain identity."

Besides, he said, the community really does have "a village environment."

But it's not just Los Angeles residents who practice psychological secession from The Big City. Those of us who live in incorporated cities or unincorporated areas within Los Angeles County do it, too. Our Town may be distinguishable from the surrounding megalopolis only by a few lines on a map, but we also tell ourselves that we live in Small Town, U.S.A.

"It still has that small town atmosphere," said a man who lives in Culver City, which is almost completely surrounded by the city of L.A.

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