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A Los Angeles heritage that binds us all

September 08, 2007|Sandy Banks

It was a trip my daughter and I have made a dozen times, heading north out of the San Fernando Valley, up the I-5 past the orchards and cattle ranches of the San Joaquin Valley, west through the Pacheco Pass and up Highway 101 into the heart of the Silicon Valley.

But this time my daughter wasn't heading back to her messy, crowded dorm at college. She has graduated, found a job and is moving into her first apartment -- a sunny unit in a well-tended complex on a tree-lined street in Menlo Park. So why was she complaining the whole way up?

She doesn't want to give up Los Angeles.

No new driver's license, she insists. Never mind that a Northern California address could save her enough on car insurance to keep her in pedicures.

Four years away from home at school has taught her that an L.A. identity is a badge of honor.

Like most of us, my daughter has a love-hate relationship with this city. She loves the beach, but hates jostling for space among crowds on the sand. She loves her multiethnic collection of L.A. friends, but freeway gridlock makes it hard to visit them. She loves wearing flip-flops all year long, but moans all summer that it's too hot to go outside.

She doesn't always like being in L.A., but she knows that being from L.A. has its rewards.

When we visit relatives in Ohio, our Los Angeles address gilds everything we do with the patina of success.

People from L.A. are stylish and trendy, shopping, as we all do, on Rodeo Drive. Does my sister-in-law in Toledo really have to know that the purse she's raving about came from Target and cost me $25?

We have celebrity-sighting stories to tell. The rap legends Bone Thugs-n-Harmony played at my middle daughter's high school prom. But we don't tell our Toledo cousins the less-glamorous back story: The group played as a favor to the girl who baby-sits their kids, my daughter's classmate, who knows them from church.

Then there's the Rose Parade-fueled fantasy of our perfect weather. Never mind that 18 people in Los Angeles County died during last week's heat wave, because they were poor or old or isolated.

Thousands more sweltered for days without electricity because our local utilities haven't kept up with growing power needs.

I came here 30 years ago, a refugee driven by L.A. fantasies. Cleveland had just emerged from another harsh winter; I'd been stranded for days by snow-clogged streets. Why should I spend winters shoveling snow when I could be sunning on the beach?

I headed west with my husband and a plan to buy a modest house on the beach. It seems preposterous to me now. But I was 25 then, and my new Times job almost doubled my previous $14,000 salary. Surely, a Malibu lifestyle would be within reach.

We spent two years in a San Fernando Valley apartment, pinching pennies, reading real estate ads, reworking the math and downsizing our dreams. Finally we saved enough to make a down payment on a crumbling, two-bedroom Van Nuys fixer-upper that shared an alley entrance with an auto body shop.

We had a baby, moved to Northridge, had two more kids and stopped pretending we were headed for any beach address. We settled for weekend treks to Zuma, though we never stopped ogling the homes we passed and wondering how all those folks managed to live so large.

I'm still fascinated by this city's contradictions -- its grit and glamour, its grimy ghettos and gated estates, its relentlessly magnetic reach.

I've been lucky to spend 27 years here as a journalist, peering into hidden corners looking for stories to share. Here, Tuesdays and Saturdays, and on latimes.com I'll continue to tell those stories in this new column.

Over the years, I've learned that for all our differences, our Los Angeles heritage binds us in ways that have little to do with weather or glamour or celebrities.

I understand why my daughter does not want to give up her L.A. identity. Navigating Los Angeles requires stamina and ingenuity. In a city that can break the will of natives and newcomers alike, being from L.A. conveys survivor status.

I think a lot about how disconnected we are in this sprawling, swaggering metropolis -- split by geography, language, income and race -- with private lives that often bear little resemblance to the public perceptions of who we are.

Recently, I spent the day in Watts, roaming around the Jordan Downs public housing project -- one of those neighborhoods reporters don't write about without labeling it "gang-ridden" or "dangerous."

I watched teenage girls pushing baby strollers preen for trash-talking boys on the basketball courts; grandmothers hanging laundry on lines strung across small patios; a young man on his knees, surrounded by toddlers, trying to coax tomatoes from a tiny patch of rocky soil.

I didn't get nervous until it got dark, and I made my way back to my car in the parking lot. It was blocked in by an old Chevy bearing "spinner" rims. A bare-chested young man marked up with tattoos swaggered over to me.

"This your car?" he asked. I nodded, wondering if this was when the shooting would start. "Can I have your parking space when you leave?" he said.

He was stalking me for my parking stall, just like they do at the Northridge mall.

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sandy.banks@latimes.com

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