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Yo, San Francisco, You're No L.A.

October 25, 1998|Joe Queenan | Joe Queenan's latest book, "Red Lobster, White Trash, and the Blue Lagoon," was published in the summer by Hyperion

Last summer I found myself sweltering in downtown Houston in the middle of a 16-city book tour, with Dallas next up on the schedule. Because the city of Dallas was responsible not only for John F. Kennedy's death but also for all that bunkum about America's Team, I pleaded with my publisher to ditch the stop and let me go directly to the West Coast for the weekend. I said I wanted to clamber aboard the next plane to L.A. and spend each morning lazing by the hotel pool ordering room service, one of the truly archetypal experiences in American civilization. My publisher graciously complied with my request.

When I returned to New York at the end of my tour, some of my friends expressed surprise that I would choose Los Angeles over San Francisco. San Francisco, as everyone knows, is America's Athens, neatly paired with Boston, its Alexandrian counterpart on the East Coast. It is a city of charm and culture and sophistication and understated elegance, as it never tires of telling everyone. Los Angeles, on the other hand, is a rude, crude, vulgar belly of the beast where everyone spends all their time on car phones. So why on earth, with my publisher springing for the bill, would I voluntarily choose the City of Angels over the wee, dainty, elfin town where little cable cars run halfway to the stars?

This was not the first time I'd been asked such questions. Four years earlier, I had written a story for Spy magazine challenging San Francisco's claim to cultural suzerainty of the West Coast. If San Francisco was such a rigorously cerebral locality, why then was it serviced by the dim San Francisco Chronicle and the inanimate San Francisco Examiner, newspapers that are never mentioned in the same breath as the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, nor for that matter the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Globe and Mail in Toronto or the newspaper that brings you this magazine. If San Francisco had, in fact, inherited the scepter dropped by Constantinople lo these many centuries, and its neighbor to the south was nothing more than Marina del Gaza, why then did Los Angeles have it so seriously outgunned vis-a-vis orchestras and museums? And while it was true then, as it is now, that San Francisco was brimming with trendy movie houses showing classic films such as "Citizen Kane" and "Sullivan's Travels," it's worth remembering that those films were made in Los Angeles, not San Francisco.

Since that article appeared, my case has only been strengthened. While San Francisco has added its Museum of Modern Art, a snazzy building with a so-so collection, Los Angeles has built the Getty Center, a cultural theme park so beguiling that no one can get in to see it. I have always taken it as a basic rule of thumb that for a city to attain true greatness, it must have museums, clubs and restaurants that no one can get into, and it must have lots of them. Once again, the tote board favors L.A.

Although I am prepared to argue till hell freezes over that the cultural resources of Los Angeles far outstrip those of its neighbor to the north, this is not the reason I prefer Los Angeles to San Francisco. The reason I prefer L.A. is because I have never been able to stomach San Francisco's daunting phalanxes of unpaid civic boosters. Not unlike the denizens of Montreal, Toronto, Boston and even Dublin, all of whom have convinced themselves that they are locked in some sort of cultural death match with great cities such as New York, Paris, London and Los Angeles--a struggle of which the inhabitants of those cities are utterly oblivious--people in San Francisco are always pushing the merchandise.

"Isn't this the most beautiful city you have ever visited?" they demand, conscious that you hail from New York by way of Philly.

"No," I reply. "There's a little hamlet on the Seine that can kick its ass any day of the week, and I'd think twice before putting San Francisco in the ring with Sydney, Australia, either."

"Don't you adore our fabulous weather?" they wonder, condescendingly.

"Sure, but in L.A. you can go to the beach and actually go into the ocean. And you can do it in January."

"Wouldn't you agree that the quality of life here is higher than in places like New York and Los Angeles?"

"No, because when I measure the quality of life, I tend to calibrate how much my fellow citizens annoy me, and no one is more annoying than the residents of San Francisco."

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