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City of Angels

Fri, Jul 13, 2001 07:58AM -0800

Sometimes I feel
Like I don't have a partner
Sometimes I feel
Like my only friend
Is the city I live in
The city of angels
Lonely as I am
Together we cry

I drive on her streets
'Cause she's my companion
I walk though her hills
'Cause she knows who I am
She sees my good deeds
And she kisses me windy
I never worry
Now that is a lie

What can I say about L.A. that hasn't been said before? The true embodiment of T.S. Eliot's Unreal City in its Hollywood glamour, glitz, and broken dreams, its Disneyesque constructed reality. Born upon the barren desert, where no one and no thing can be considered native. A world class city that is simultaneously overhyped and underrated. The city that has no center and no shape.

Needless to say, I have finally fallen in love with the city of my birth. I used to say that I only cared about it because this is where my family is, emulating the disdain of Northern Californians, but now I'm not so sure. Perhaps I have grown to love the skyline and the San Gabriel mountains behind it, the Sunset Strip, the blue-and-white street signs, the subway system that doesn't really go anywhere, yes, even the Westside, for their own sakes. It's not just the people (or maybe, despite the people, in some cases), it's the place itself.

I spent the first six years of my life on the interface of Silver Lake and Echo Park (I'm not entirely sure where the borders go), maybe six or seven blocks north of the infamous Rampart police station. Then I moved out to Glassell Park (although I tell everyone I'm from Eagle Rock, as if somehow that weren't as obscure), near L.A.'s border with the city of Glendale (L.A. has all sorts of weird borders, where you can drive down one street, leave L.A., go through some other SoCal city, then re-enter L.A., without changing direction) You can see Downtown from my parents' house, and, even though Eagle Rock has this provincial little town feel to it, I've always felt like I've grown up in the city.

But I've only really known the eastern end of it. Downtown L.A. Echo Park Lake. Silver Lake. Griffith Park. Westlake/MacArthur Park. The Shatto Towers. The four level interchange. The East L.A. interchange. Chinatown. Little Tokyo. Koreatown. The barrio, east of the L.A. River: Boyle Heights, Lincoln Heights, Highland Park. It wasn't until my cousin moved out to the fabled, whitewashed, bourgie, too-L.A.-for-even-an-Angeleno Westside that I started exploring the length and the breadth of the City. Not to say that I had never been to Venice Beach, the Miracle Mile, Museum Row, or Century City before then. I just had never really accepted that the Westside too was L.A., that this really was one big city with a downtown, a midtown (The Wilshire District), and an uptown (The Westside), and even a big borough (The Valley) if you wanted to stretch the analogy as far as it could go. New York City lying on its side, if you somehow dried up the East River and the Hudson River and if you pretended that the L.A. River was an actual body of water. And if you multiplied the dimensions of each block. (This is the reason that nobody walks in L.A.)

It was when I started visiting New York, and then started living in Chicago, that I realized it's true. L.A. really is a city, just like the other two. The first world class city that wasn't L.A. that I had really gotten to know was San Francisco, and I couldn't find anything really similar between the two besides how the 101 ends in both their civic centers and how the Vincent Thomas Bridge in San Pedro can be seen as a miniature replica of the suspension segment of the Bay Bridge. It was among Northern Californians that I began to see L.A. as some sort of aberration, some Hollywood movie set gone awry, a cancer gone metastatic. And L.A. is strange, no doubt. I really think most American cities try to mimic New York: orderly grids, Manhattanesque-style central business districts. Look at Chicago and San Francisco, for example. But L.A. seems to be a different animal entirely: roads that wind and wend through the canyons and passes, where the distinction between east-west and north-south are meaningless ; mismatched intersections where it's obvious that independent developments had run into each other before finally being annexed by the city; entire independent cities floating in the middle of the all-encompassing City. And the topology is nothing compared to the people--everything they say about Angelenos is true--especially about those Westsiders.

But then I began to see what a real city is like. I don't intend too much disrespect, but S.F. is more like the movie set they claim L.A. is. The skyline, however pretty and dramatic, was created to mimic Manhattan, though in miniature (thanks to the San Andreas Fault). And because of geographic constraints, S.F. is relatively small. Not even a million people live there, despite the houses that are built an inch apart from one another. And there is no sort of geopolitical unity. S.F. is it's own city and county, contending with its sibling cities such as Oakland and San Jose for some sort of order and primacy, and it takes years for things to get done. They're still recovering from the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.

(Not that centralized power is all that great. Rudy Giuliani is the de facto dictator of his own little city-state. And little Jimmy Hahn's daddy once wielded unconditional and almost unaccountable power over one-fifth of a county with more population and more wealth than some states and even some countries. But enough about politics.)

But you can see the evolution of the American city if you trace the trajectory from New York City, to Chicago, then to L.A. As scary as it sounds, maybe L.A. is the prototype for the future of big cities. If New York is the Rome of today, the veritable center of Western Civilization, then L.A. is Byzantium, with its labyrinthine freeways, a city that is in the center of the periphery (like how Downtown L.A. is actually at the edge of the city), where rapid change is the norm.

But now it gets harder to leave every time. It doesn't help that I now live in the middle of nowhere, where the buses only run every hour, and not even on the weekends. Where it takes 15 minutes to reach any sort of civilization (and you know I'm desperate when I start considering a Mobil gas station civilization.) 15 minutes is the amount of time it takes to get from downtown L.A. to the Westside when there's no traffic.

But we shall see. Maybe in three, or seven, or ten years, I will finally decide, will finally live in this city as an adult on my own. But I also realize all roads lead to Rome, and I'll have to spend some time there before I go back to Constantinople. We'll see.

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