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Shedding City's Facade to Shape New Truths

April 18, 1993|LYNELL GEORGE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Heading home from San Francisco, with the "real" city not yet a mere smudge in the distance, I listened to the wild talk a couple hundred miles away, a few thousand miles in the sky. Of late you hear it just about everywhere.

What began as polite seatmate chatter just before takeoff by comfortable cruising altitude unfolded into an exercise in one-upmanship.

"What on earth takes you th e re ? " "Any word on what might happen there ?" "Pretty soon I'm getting out of there . . ." So went the recent spate of forbidding choruses.

These words, I knew, rendered a skewed and largely uninformed portrait of Los Angeles, colored with broad strokes of fear and shaded heavy with doom. Yet more troubling than this was my own struggle to reconstruct a familiar or cherished image, an L. A. before and beyond all the grand talk, the buzzing rumor and myth of the last few years. A striking, definitive L. A. to remember and pass on as my own.

"There" has become the new shorthand for Los Angeles. Angelenos--native or transplant--have for years attempted to whittle it down, to try and make it more manageable, palpable to those on the outside. (Look at the fancy handiwork performed on the name alone: from the regal and poetic El Pueblo de Nuestra Senora la Reina de Los Angeles de Porciuncula to the streamlined, quick-trip-off-the-tongue L. A.)

Problem is, the city has become increasingly inexplicable. You can't make a thumbnail sketch. "There" is large and vague enough to accommodate all that can't be verbalized, analyzed or understood. "There" further blurs the borders of a city, now even too huge and grand for its proper name; its identity steadily grows ever clouded and diffused.

But "There" keeps us trapped in the mythology; it smothers any hope of rigorous self-examination--which is long overdue.

*

Ironically, the same thing that brought the curious cross-country in the beginning--grand-scale legend spiked with a jigger of fact--is the same thing that now inspires them to run.

L. A. is a dangerous city. Crowded. Complex. Difficult. Impersonal. On the wane. News and numbers prove it. They have for years.

But what major metropolitan city in this country is not any or all of those things?

It has been Los Angeles' formidable charge, and thus its downfall in the public's eye, to unceasingly shine--at least until recently. It had too many expectations to live up to. Los Angeles lived and wilted in the chill of its own broad shadow.

For generations, wide-eyed relatives and family friends persistently pressed for the insider scoop: about the stars, about the weather, about the life of ease on the Coast. We were here to make the image sharper, to fill in what couldn't be discerned in the farthest corners of the frame.

L. A. was regarded as apogee, a glittering goal. It was something to save and stretch toward--the golden destination at the edge of the sea, the elaborate punctuation mark at the end of Route 66.

Los Angeles looked vibrant and otherworldly on screen, in its brilliant Technicolor cast, larger and bolder than life in Cinemascope. Who could turn this fetching beauty down? At the time, not many.

But that was when the myths were innocent--easy to laugh at, to discredit. They rolled off the back: "Those Angelenos, you know, they wear white shoes all year round . . ." "They don't know how to dress for the theater . . ." "They don't know how to find, let alone make, a good pizza."

Back then, we could answer them with a subtle yet loaded we-know-better nod. Proving otherwise was largely unnecessary. As the country's comedic relief, it was all part of the game.

But the current dope on us is not so playful. It isn't so easy to refute or to silence with a smug, laid-back retort. The tenor of the talk has slowly yet inexorably changed--from chatty gossip centering around a sea of vapid car-obsessed cultists to the front line drama of a horrific fever dream.

How did things get to be so bad? Clearly because they weren't quite so perfect from the start. For some time, we did a good job of ducking behind a facade created by tricks of light, shadow and glass. We found ourselves lost along the rail of myth and grand legend. We lost sight of how we appear to the world outside, but more critically we lost sight of ourselves.

Self-examination has been long overdue. Angelenos now proceed with the knowledge of two public images (of two vastly different eras), burned into our consciousness. They don't quite square. We've been captivated by those cerulean days, projected large and lavishly on the curved screen of the Cinerama Dome. As well, we watched what flickered by on the small screen, equally if not more mesmerized from the folds of our living room easy chairs last spring.

Like any attention-grabbing, over-celebrated sibling, L. A. has garnered its share of enemies and detractors. And like any haunting chiseled visage that has gained so much with its looks alone, there comes the day of reckoning.

Bulldozing through the veneer, urban theorist and author Mike Davis, subtitled his 1990 journey to the center of the city of quartz "Excavating the future of L.A." In debunking myths, in search of this city's elusive core, one must consider the past and present as well. For too long we've coasted on the length of our legend, too busy or lazy to let our own eloquent voices ask the questions and articulate what we find. There's no guarantee we'll understand it once we find it, but at least we can see it more clearly--beyond rumor and hyperbole.

As we shed the image of the vast void in the desert, and the misnomer of the placid melting pot finally drifts away, we can face the challenges and finally fix something of this city within our consciousness--a truer, more textured portrait: A tableau of carefully designed, but most important, fashioned with our own hands.

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