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CONVENTION 2000 / THE DEMOCRATIC CONVENTION

L.A. Escapes With Just a Flesh Wound From Press

Most writers concentrate on events inside the convention, but those who did venture to sum up the city weren't able to level it with big-time artillery.

August 18, 2000|JAMES RICCI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Although few cities over the years have drawn more devastating prose than Los Angeles, the army of writers that occupied the place this week generally held its fire in assaying L.A. and its peculiarities.

Except in the cases of a few determined rhetoricians, city-leveling artillery of Chandlerian or Didionesque caliber wasn't even wheeled into position, although the rattle of small arms occasionally could be heard in some sectors of the national and international press.

A review of more than 70 newspapers during the Democratic National Convention this week showed that most writers from smaller papers kept their sights trained on their state delegations, save for obligatory forays to Rodeo Drive or Venice Beach. Writers from the bigger papers tended to focus on what news there was (and wasn't) inside Staples Center, at protest demonstrations and on the edges of political fund-raising bacchanals. Only a few intrepid word-summoners ventured to characterize the entire city.

Lars-Erik Nelson of the New York Daily News wrote that Los Angeles "is one of the richest places. . . . It is simultaneously a place of hideous squalor, with garbage lying uncollected in the downtown streets and desperately poor people camped in doorways."

Los Angeles, he continued, "is the most glaring example in America of the increasing gap between rich and poor," a "once solidly middle-class city" that has begun to look "like a post-colonial Third World outpost, with an upper crust of wealth sheltering inside guarded, gated communities and an economy seemingly based on valet parking."

Gene Collier of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette positioned himself in South-Central and emptied his magazine at the same dichotomy.

"South-Central L.A.," he wrote, "welcomes the sunset, but only for the aesthetics; it looks better with a softer focus. When the sun squats to dip itself in the Pacific, it sprays a blinding whiteness down the broad, baked avenues.

"It's mile after flat, trashy mile of liquor stores, crack houses, chicken joints, taco stands and low-end doughnut franchises. It's a long way from Spago, 17 miles to the northeast and 17 political light-years from the Democratic National Convention."

An unidentified writer for Italy's La Repubblica sweepingly depicted L.A. as "a city without memory, where the past is yesterday's film and the future is a special effect;" and "a tinsel town that has forgotten John Kennedy's convention victory 40 years ago, that no longer remembers his brother Bobby's murder here, where nobody has brought roses to Marilyn's tomb since Joe DiMaggio's death and where Ronald Reagan lives in the darkness of Alzheimer's. . . ."

Most of the writing focused on such specifics as its sprawl.

"The real fun of a political convention," wrote Michael Waldman of the online magazine Slate, "takes place in crowded hotel lobbies, where it should be possible to plant oneself next to a potted palm. . . . Here, you have to pick which party you will go to, drive 40 minutes to get there, stay sober for the drive back, etc."

Humorist Dave Barry of the Miami Herald reported, "Thousands of Democratic delegates have gathered here this week with one purpose in mind: to get to the convention center from their hotels, some of which are as far away as Oregon."

Downtown Los Angeles--devoid of more locals than usual because many who work there were advised by employers to remain at home for the duration--came in for its share of riddling.

"The pulse of downtown Los Angeles is weak and skittish," wrote Collier. "The sprawling freeway-stitched megalopolis encircling it hums to traditional chaotic rhythms, but not downtown, a sizzling concrete canyon. . . ."

Rob Morse of the San Francisco Examiner wrote that downtown L.A. was "the perfect urban setting for the Democratic convention. There's nothing there. This week there's an even bigger nothing there."

Writers also commonly remarked on the extraordinary security measures taken by the Los Angeles Police Department and other law enforcement agencies. Some were given pause by what they saw as a lack of welcoming on the part of the city.

William Bunch of the Philadelphia Daily News wrote that on entering Philadelphia's First Union Center during the Republican National Convention, "a volunteer handed me a scoop of Hershey Kisses," but "the first time I entered the Metro station outside the Staples Center . . . I came within an eyelash of getting arrested by an L.A. County sheriff's deputy. He seemed to mistake my out-of-towner's confusion over where to buy a ticket at the turnstile-less station with attempted fare-beating."

Mary Beth Schneider and George Stuteville of the Indianapolis Star were similarly impressed:

"The Democrats call it America 2000. It looks more like Convention Gulag 2000. Los Angeles . . . seems more like a city under siege than a city ready to celebrate democracy."

Predictably, some writers readily blurred Los Angeles the city with "Hollywood."

"Whoever decided that this year's Democratic convention should be held in Los Angeles cannot have been an Al Gore supporter," wrote Toby Harnden of London's Daily Telegraph. "The city of Hollywood and Beverly Hills is Bill Clinton's spiritual home and financial base. It is also the place where Monica Lewinsky grew up."

The president, Harnden wrote, "has been living it up in a city where sins of the flesh are seen as not really sins at all."

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