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L.A. Again Leads the World--This Time in Party Meekness

YEAR 2000

New Year's Eve: Low turnout at city's bashes is blamed on rain, fears of unrest and lack of a central gathering place.

January 02, 2000|ANNE-MARIE O'CONNOR and DAVID FERRELL | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

There was something missing at Los Angeles' millennium festivities: people.

Paris sizzled. Rio went wild. But in Los Angeles--a city that redefined Babylonian revelry--the type of street festivals that drew millions around the world fizzled under the fabled Hollywood sign.

People bypassed glitzy balls for intimate parties and dinners. Freeways were dark and empty.

And after watching most of the world noisily cheer the new year on television, many found Los Angeles' millennial moment anticlimactic, defined most by what did not happen: Planes did not drop out of the sky. Apocalyptic terrorists did not spread mayhem. Wild partyers did not fill the streets.

In fact, more than a few greeted the dawn of the new era with a shrug of Y2K ennui.

"It was so hyped that I was sick of the whole millennium thing way before it even happened," said Gina Nahai, a critically acclaimed novelist and Beverly Hills resident who passed over galas for a close friend's dance party. "Most of my friends had dinner with their families and didn't even go out."

Officials mainly blamed the rain for the feeble crowds at California millennium fetes. Ventura County blamed a flu outbreak. Officials in Long Beach gave up and canceled one street festival altogether--and so didn't have to blame anybody. San Francisco's 20,000-strong crowd was declared a crushing disappointment by a city that proudly upholds the ecstasy of occasional excess--until more than 200,000 additional revelers surged in just before midnight.

People were hardly surprised that cities like San Diego were sedate. But the failure to ostentatiously flex the Los Angeles party muscle seemed like a serious lapse of spirit in the place that invented the languid hedonism of the endless summer and turned substance-abuse rehab into a hot singles scene.

Even on the Sunset Strip--known for club-crawling flash and trash and bumper-to-bumper conga lines of weekend cruisers--there was such a pathetic lack of traffic that it might have been an ordinary Monday night.

Hardly an impressive showing for the first turn of the millennium since the Dark Ages--at a time when unprecedented national prosperity has elevated American materialism to levels unmatched since the Gilded Age.

Many in Los Angeles blamed the lack of a central civic mecca, such as Paris' Eiffel Tower.

"Where in L.A. would one assemble?" asked Thomas Hines, a UCLA history and architecture professor. "There's no Times Square. There's no one single place that is close enough to enough people."

And in a city where freeways and shopping malls are sometimes pressed into duty as public space, many thought the scattered urban venues where Los Angeles held its official parties were poorly chosen.

Science fiction author Ray Bradbury would not have gone to watch Mayor Richard Riordan light up the Hollywood sign unless aliens had stolen his memory banks.

"Have you been to Hollywood lately?" he asked disdainfully. "There's no one on Hollywood Boulevard anymore. You can hold a celebration with the homeless, the druggers, the prostitutes and the mindless. We can't hold celebrations except inside malls--which is ridiculous."

And there's another thing, the curmudgeonly literary institution quibbled: The new millennium does not really begin until 2001.

"The 20th century is not over yet," he said. "Doesn't anyone realize that?"

City officials say they went to great efforts to overcome the challenges of getting people together in a place that often seems Balkanized by geography, ethnicity, language, socioeconomic status and real estate. That is why they planned separate celebrations in different neighborhoods that represent the many heartbeats of Los Angeles.

Some found that approach appropriate.

"L.A. is sprawling and disconnected. We're a huge mosaic," said Lisa Miller, the editor of a legal supplement to the Daily Journal. "It is quintessentially Los Angeles to have a lot of smaller celebrations that are very different, as opposed to this forced unity that you'd see in some other big cities."

Others were not happy with the strategy.

"I felt like it was segregation," said 27-year-old Rafael Rodriguez, who attended the celebration at Olvera Street, the site of Los Angeles' original Spanish mission settlement. "It defeats the whole purpose of diversity in Los Angeles."

Attempts to weave the various celebrations together seemed canned and artificial to some people at Olvera Street, where a paltry several thousand showed up--though that was enough to make it one of the best attended celebrations in the city.

There, people partied to the sounds of quintessential Los Angeles band Los Lobos. As the clock struck midnight, couples kissed, and cries of "Feliz ano nuevo" mingled with strains of "Auld Lang Syne" from a telecast of the celebration miles across town at the Hollywood sign. Mayor Riordan kissed his wife.

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