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CULTURE | 125 Years | WHAT LOS ANGELES GAVE THE WORLD
| THE PUNCHING BAG

Oh, go ahead and insult us

What is it about Los Angeles that annoys people so much? Let's face it -- everyone needs some place to despise. And we're it.

December 03, 2006|Amy Wilentz | Special to The Times

ONE morning not long after I came to Los Angeles, I was sitting in rush-hour traffic having just carpooled six children to school, talking on the cellphone to New York. My friend on the other end of the line was in Manhattan, on the Upper West Side. I told her that I was trying desperately to get to a yoga class.

"It's happening to you too," she said, after a dark, fraught silence. "I knew it would."

"What's happening to me?" I asked.

"You're becoming an empty-headed Californian," she said. "Soon," she predicted direly, "you'll be happy."

I often wonder how a place where Alfred Hitchcock and John Huston flourished, where F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote and Raymond Chandler found his great material has managed to maintain its status as cultural whipping boy to the world. How come everywhere, everyone is so glad to accept the idea of Los Angeles as a bland place full of stupid people with no cultural interests? Can it be that they are jealous of the weather? They think it never rains here.

L.A. has been hated and disrespected for a long time, publicly and privately, by people who live here, by people who visit, by newcomers and old-timers, by writers and commentators and immigrants and transients. For a city that has produced so much art -- in film, painting and literature -- it remains the place, as Woody Allen famously noted, whose "only cultural advantage is that you can make a right turn on a red light."

This is our gift to the world: Everyone needs someone to despise, and as a city we are always available. After all, Los Angeles -- though self-conscious -- is not shy. Over the years, it has offered itself up almost shamelessly to be examined, and then rejected. Nathanael West was perhaps the greatest of the Los Angeles haters, and his vituperative "The Day of the Locust" is still the classic apocalyptic indictment of the city. (Los Angeles hated him back and meted out his fate in classic fashion: He died in a car crash with his wife after running a stop sign in El Centro.)

Even Carey McWilliams, the great chronicler of Southern California who eventually came to love the region, admits to having undergone a long bout with the illness I call anti-Angelenism before his attitude about the place turned around. "When I first arrived in Los Angeles," he wrote in 1946, "I hated, as so many other people have hated, the big, sprawling, deformed character of the place. I loathed the crowds of dull and stupid people that milled around downtown sections dawdling and staring, poking and pointing, like villagers visiting a city for the first time. I found nothing about Los Angeles to like and a great many things to detest."

L.A. has long been viewed as an embarrassment by America. Because it is the city at the end of the continent, it is commonly regarded as the newest, freshest, best thing the country has to offer, so its every flaw is interpreted as a sign of our collective national failure. As McWilliams writes, "What America is, California is, with accents, in italics." Europeans -- among them De Tocqueville, Trollope and, more recently, Bernard Henri-Levi -- look to the West and see Americans as uncultured, loutish, self-indulgent materialists. And Americans do the same: In Los Angeles, they see what they take to be a more babyish, dumber version of themselves and they shudder.

Because of its early history, L.A. has had to live up to some very high expectations. From the start, the town was touted as a paradise, and people came in droves. Much of the boosterism was true, or based on truth. Los Angeles was set in an exquisite landscape -- warm, breezy, tucked between an ocean and purple mountains. (Even now, having lived here for four years, I can't believe it when I look up from traffic on a clear day and see not just the lovely Hollywood Hills but the San Gabriel range in the distance, behind the shopping malls and billboards.) The climate was healthful, dry and pleasant. Fruits and vegetables, although not of the Brobdingnagian size advertised by pamphlets and brochures, did have a longer growing season.

Still, once the crowds settled in, they noticed that Los Angeles was not paradise. Hardly anyone was a native, and hardly anyone who came here had time, before the next wave of humans landed, to establish a mark that could endure. There were too many people, and the new arrivals were always searching for Los Angeles, for some kind of meaning or significance or heart, and not finding it. They wanted to know where they had washed up, but in truth, there was no there where they were.

In a very real sense, Los Angeles has always been occupied territory. It was occupied by the Americans while it was still part of Mexico. Today, many occupiers come from the East Coast (though in the late 1800s and early 1900s, the deluge was from Iowa). Often, they are Hollywood people.

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