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L.A. no longer the wastrel West; we've graduated

May 13, 2003|MARY MCNAMARA

We all knew there had been a shift in the cosmos last year when Harvey Weinstein "wondered aloud" if it wouldn't be good for New York, for the country in general, if the 2003 Academy Awards were held in Manhattan. Or when the New York Times began running weirdly sanctimonious articles deriding the cultural wasteland that is the movie industry while claiming ascendancy in it. Because New York-based Miramax's "Gangs of New York" was so much deeper than, say, "Spider-Man."

And then a wee tome crossed my desk and it was all made clear. The University of Chicago Press has just published a book called "New York and Los Angeles: Politics, Society, and Culture -- A Comparative View."

Compiled by UCLA sociology professor David Halle, it is just as informative and difficult to read as it sounds because it deals with all manner of significant and quantifiable things -- crime rates and school systems, migration and immigration patterns, the state of art and movies and mayoral politics.

The two cities, as it turns out, are very different and much the same. Which will probably surprise no one, except perhaps Woody Allen.

The important thing is that this particular book exists and that it came out of Chicago. For so many years the only people with the audacity to compare Los Angeles with New York were Angelenos. And then usually with the querulous defensiveness of husbands dissing Hugh Grant. Arrogant swine, what on earth do women see in him?

Indeed, for many years, Los Angeles was so overlooked by the American cultural elite (read: New York), it didn't even warrant a proper name. Like a character from the last half of a cast list -- "second police officer" or "girl with cat" -- Los Angeles was referred to in vaguely descriptive terms. Pre-World War II, we were "the West" then we became "California," sometimes Southern, sometimes not. And for the latter part of the last century, we were "the West Coast" or, for Chardonnay-swigging hipsters, just "the Coast."

East's playground

Ah, the Coast years. Remember?

The Coast, to which important New Yorkers in their Peter Bogdanovich phase always seemed to be flying "for a couple of weeks" to snort coke off someone's breasts and shout into big white phones about money and points, babe. "Maybe I'll see you on the Coast," Paul Simon's mellow music mogul says to Annie Hall before sliding away with his erotically beautiful entourage.

Serial killers and lunatics haunted the Coast, but everyone seemed to have access to a beach house in Malibu so it was cool. The canyons were still full of hippies, though the tycoons had begun work on their wonderlands, and their rezoning issues. The Coast was where good novelists went to write bad screenplays and die of drink, where Rowan and Martin turned poor old Burbank into a national joke and women compared face-lifts in the elevator on the way to getting breast implants.

"And the three men I admire most," lamented Don McLean in his homage to the end of civilization, "the father, son and holy ghost, they caught the last train for the coast. The day the music died."

The Coast wasn't a city, it wasn't even really a place. It was, in that newly coined phrase, a lifestyle -- a set of aberrant behaviors that frightened and mesmerized the rest of the country, especially New York.

The terminology, though part of swinger vernacular, was telling. A coast is often a place full of hostels and resorts and saltwater taffy, where life is not quite real, not quite permanent. As a verb, "to coast" is a mild pejorative, often used to admonish a Bright Young Person who is Not Applying Herself, the implication being that this sort of thing cannot go on forever and will certainly not end well.

The Coast years were punctuated with a few La-La Land moments and, for a brief pre-post-ironic time, we became the Left Coast. But then, somewhere between "Annie Hall" and Disney Hall, a miracle occurred. We became Los Angeles.

It might have been the riots or the earthquake or even the O.J. trial or maybe it was a combination of all three -- out-of-town journalists were forced to experience the city at a more intense level than their previously preferred two nights at the Chateau Marmont interviewing John Belushi. Or the people who saw him last.

On the map

Whatever the reason, suddenly we were being addressed, ("Oh yes sir, thank you sir") by our real name. Not even L.A. (familiar) so much as Los Angeles (formal), a real city with real scandals and real businesses and real unemployment and real people, many of whom don't own Jacuzzis or even get to the beach all that much.

We had art, as it turns out, and literature, crime and buildings of note that were not shaped like a giant doughnut or a stack of records.

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