Last week in New York, I saw a Japanese tourist on the corner of 5th Avenue and 79th Street wearing a T-shirt satirizing the "I heart NY" marketing meme. His version read, "Heart Your Own City."
That's great advice. As the home of the film industry along with huge chunks of the music and television industries, Los Angeles is always going to be a player among U.S. cities. But recent trends in politics and media have increasingly made Washington and New York the locus of much of our national culture. And as that has happened, the influence of other cities — including our own — has declined. The sight of that tourist's T-shirt jolted me into thinking it's time to fight that trend.
As the seat of the federal government, Washington has always had influence disproportionate to its size. But in recent years, with two wars, an economic crisis and a president with an ambitious agenda, Americans are even more focused on the capital. As Joel Kotkin wrote in 2009, "the great protean tradition of American urbanism — with scores of competing economic centers — is giving way to a new Romanism, in which all power and decisions devolve down to the imperial core."
Likewise, New York, long the intellectual capital of the U.S., has seen its stature strengthened by the decline of regional newspapers and media outlets. While critics had hoped (or feared) that the digital age would decentralize information media, the opposite has happened. Manhattan's so-called Media Corridor between 8th Avenue and Avenue of the Americas, and roughly from Columbus Circle south to 40th Street, is both more concentrated and farther reaching than ever. Over the past two decades, The New York Times has joined the Wall Street Journal as a truly national newspaper.
Oh yeah, and all that hype about the blogosphere democratizing information? Well, it was just that: hype. Now that the reading public is realizing that most blogs are self-serving claptrap, the value of the well-considered written word is rising again, but it is rising at the same time that regional periodicals are suffering. In other words, while the digital revolution walloped mid-level publications nationally, it has left elite New York publishing — newspapers, books, magazines — with more power (if not more revenues) than they have ever had.
Los Angeles still has national clout, of course. But by many measures, its influence is waning. A couple of decades ago, L.A. seemed headed toward becoming the dominant American city. Scholars predicted we were heading into "the Pacific Century," and Los Angeles seemed poised to be the hub of the Pacific Rim.
But that promise was never fully realized. Today, as the state and city struggle against a sea of red ink, the city's cultural elite has largely gone missing, and too many of the city's intellectuals seem to take their cultural cues from the Northeast. I know way too many well-educated Angelenos who read the New York — rather than the Los Angeles — Times and who have little or no knowledge of what goes on in this city. It is notoriously hard to engage affluent Angelenos in local and state politics, and they are often more interested in discussing what happens on the streets of Manhattan or Washington than what is happening here at home.
Los Angeles is hardly the provinces, but we might do better to think a little more provincially.
Way back in 1962, the late art critic Kenneth Clark published an essay on what he called "the problem of provincialism." He was talking about art and how dominant styles generally radiate out from a metropolitan center. He pondered what provincials were to do. Should they merely emulate the received wisdom from the center? Or perhaps isolate themselves and burrow into their localism? He concluded that in order to best harness their creativity, provincials had first to "come to terms with this monster."
Back in the day, Californians did a better job of that. They were more aware that their distance from the East Coast power centers gave them the freedom to improvise and innovate, challenge and reform. Think Hollywood and the Silicon Valley. Today, we are floundering. We are less engaged in local civic life, and we are less focused on embracing the ways we are different from the rest of the country. That deprives the region — and the world, frankly — of the fantastic visions that an upstart Los Angeles once produced.
That T-shirt on 5th Avenue had it right. It's time to heart our own city.