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Big Apple Doesn't Get L.A.'s Appeal

January 21, 1994|JOSH GETLIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — It's just another Big Apple disaster.

After a bone-chilling subway ride, I've put my nephew on a train to Philadelphia at Pennsylvania Station. Suddenly, clouds of smoke fill the huge waiting room. Hundreds of people begin coughing and racing for the exits.

As I push and shove my way to the door, I'm wedged up against a man in a black coat from Pakistan who holds a transistor radio to his ear. He's listening to the latest news from Los Angeles, and it isn't good.

"Very bad quake," he mutters. "I have family there. No phone now."

With a final heave, the crowd bursts through the doors and we make it out to the sidewalk, where snow is falling and the wind chill is a spine-cracking 10 below. Someone shouts that a train tunnel caught fire and people shrug their shoulders, forgetting it instantly. The man from Pakistan disappears in the confusion, his tiny radio blurting out reports from the San Fernando Valley.

Once again, Gotham has been upstaged.

When I was a kid growing up in Los Angeles, New York was the Big Bad City. The kind of place that scared you but also had a dark allure. Maybe it was because I played my recording of "West Side Story" too many times. Or because I was born in Manhattan and had heard so many stories about the glory days. Long before fright, blight and middle-class flight gave the town a bad name.

By contrast, Los Angeles was paradise. Nobody liked smog, but nobody died from it, either. If you wanted apocalypse, you looked east to New York: Home of mad bombers, subway disasters, mind-boggling blackouts and the Kitty Genovese killing. New York was the media--and disaster--center of the nation.

No more. These days, Los Angeles and its biblical plagues take top billing. Indeed, those New Yorkers who pride themselves on their toughness and willingness to put up with anything have grudgingly yielded the crown.

Forget the La-La jokes. People here who used to diss the coast aren't laughing now, because bad news from L.A. has been breaking into their TV broadcasts with alarming frequency. They've seen more live news about California disasters than they ever dreamed possible, and it's got them shaking their heads.

"I've had people threaten me, people who want to steal my money, and this rotten winter is no bargain," says Morris Spector, a longtime Brooklyn resident and New York cabby for more than 40 years. "But you can have L.A., pal. I've seen it all on TV. People gotta be nuts to live there."

*

Spector is not alone. Take Alex Almedina, the doorman at an Upper West Side apartment building. He's bundled up against the cold as a merciless wind whistles down the icy street. It's the worst winter in 10 years. Is he miserable? Next question. Would he trade places with an Angeleno? Get real.

"You got floods. You got fires. You got quakes," Almedina says, stamping his feet to keep warm. "Am I forgetting something? Oh yeah. You got riots. That's all we ever see these days. Crazy stuff on TV from L.A."

It began with the verdicts in the first Rodney King beating trial.

Hours after the L.A. riots broke out in 1992, New York went on alert. Not because racial tensions were boiling over, but because the social fabric had unraveled 3,000 miles away and people here were convinced that their city was next. It was all they could see on television.

Then-Mayor David Dinkins implored New Yorkers to stay cool, and thousands responded by fleeing work early, anxious to avoid a riot that never happened. Using logic that only politicians understand, Dinkins claimed credit for this non-event, proudly telling voters that New York wasn't Los Angeles.

They bounced him out of office last November, but even that story had to compete for attention with a California calamity. On Election Night, supporters of Rudy Giuliani jammed into a hotel ballroom for a victory party. Their eyes were glued to TV sets . . . all showing the Malibu fires.

Jaws dropped in disbelief. Even the most jaded reporters stopped what they were doing and clustered around TVs to watch the smoldering devastation as Los Angeles once again hijacked the news. New York voters had just unseated their first African American mayor after only one term--the first time this had happened in a U.S. city--yet the really big headlines were a continent away.

All night, local news anchors were yanked off the air in mid-sentence and replaced by KTLA's Stan Chambers, who brought the latest fire news to millions of startled viewers. As if Pacific Coast Highway were just down the road.

"You think I'd ever visit that cockamamie state again?" asked my mother-in-law, who lives in New Jersey. "Thank goodness you kids left California."

*

That was three months ago.

On Monday, she was more pragmatic: "Call your folks," she ordered, alerting me to the quake with an early morning call. "That is, if you can."

It's become a familiar drill: Turn on the TV. Watch L.A. burn. Call home.

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