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loved it, left it : Sure, He Moved to New York, but It Wasn't Because L.A. Is a Hellhole (We Know You Were Thinking That). One Guy's Love Letter to the City of Angels

March 19, 1995|Colman Andrews | Colman Andrews, a former editor of Traveling in Style and resident of Santa Monica, now lives in Old Greenwich, Conn., and is the executive editor of Saveur

One day early last year, with what I suppose might be described as sentimental prescience, I started thinking about why I loved Los Angeles.

Curiously enough, this may well have been the first time in my life that I'd ever examined my feelings for my native city in any deliberate way. I say curiously because I've lived here for about nine-tenths of the past half-century. I have written about L.A. and helped edit magazines at least partially devoted to it. I am devoted to it myself. As much as I've traveled and as many attachments as I have formed with (and in) other cities, I've always considered this one, finally and definitively, to be my home. I'd just never stopped before to wonder why.

Shortly after I did begin to ponder this matter--here's where the prescience comes in--I decided to leave L.A. This had nothing to do, I hasten to add, with the city's perceived "troubles"--with, what? the economy?, the Northridge quake? the Rodney King thing? the plague of locusts? I was leaving for that most conventional of reasons: a good job on the far coast. But I was leaving nonetheless. If Los Angeles was my home, I was about to become homeless. This realization gave me all the more reason to consider the nature of my feelings for the city--and about the first thing I figured out was that my failure to have examined those feelings earlier probably wasn't so curious after all.

Communal introspection is not something we're particularly good at in Los Angeles, I realized. Aside from occasional bouts of public soul-searching (usually corporate-sponsored) following some local cataclysm, we lead pretty much an unexamined civic life. We look into the mirror plenty, but it's more likely for purposes of cosmetic adjustment than to peer into our collective soul.

The rest of the country probes and pokes at us with indefatigable enthusiasm, cracks wise about us, "explains" us to itself. We, meanwhile, just keep getting up in the morning and getting on with our lives. We do not, most of us, read a daily dose of Raymond Chandler or Joan Didion with our coffee just to get our bearings, or spend our drive-time musing about the fabled mythic heft of our surroundings. Like the T-shirt vendor at Disneyland or the jaded bartender in the topless joint, we hardly notice the show--and are certainly not taken in by it. But we probably don't mind it either. We work here.

I think it's instructive that, whenever someone compares us with another city--New York and San Francisco are the usual opposite numbers--it is almost invariably a representative of the other city who does the comparing. It simply never occurs to a true Angeleno (whether born or adoptive) to stack his city up against some other place. What's the point? It's not necessarily that we think we're better than anywhere else; it's that we like it here just fine and won't like it any more or less if we score higher or lower than City X or City Y on somebody's scale of supposed urban advantages.

I suppose that's why it always surprises me when people start babbling on about how terrible things have become in L.A., about how this once-easygoing paradise has turned into some kind of sunburned hellhole, abused by nature and its own citizenry alike. I don't believe it. I don't believe that Los Angeles has "gotten worse" (or no worse, anyway, than any other place), or has become unlivable--or that it is, Lord help us, somehow suffering for its supposed hubris. The only thing wrong with L.A. is that it doesn't always live up to the image non-Angelenos have of it--or is it that it lives up to that image all too well?

*

Most of the myths abroad today about L.A.--some of them so pervasive that even lifelong residents of the city parrot them--were invented by people who came here from someplace else and desperately needed to make sense of us. The children of more structured societies in the Midwest, on the East Coast or in England, they were fairly awestruck by L.A. It was a place more like--hell, I don't know--ancient Rome or maybe Babylon or something than like Omaha or Manhattan or London. They were expected to take their ties off, put on some sandals, show some skin--to loosen up and lighten up. That scared them.

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